• Penrose Marcos Allphin

Creating a Nonbinary Space in Classical Music

Classical music, and more specifically, the composition thereof, is a space that is traditionally – and still – largely dominated by cisgender white men. Because of this, there are many competitions and grants that exist for the purpose of promoting and providing opportunities to composers who have experiences of a minority gender. Some of these present themselves as just for women, some as for women and nonbinary people, and others include all trans and/or nonbinary people in addition to women. Is the movement to premiere women composers enough of a step towards gender inclusivity in concert halls? For example, this season, Springfield Symphony Orchestra is programming the works of 5 women composers in an effort to move the spotlight over from an exclusive focus on the work of men. All of these women are cisgender and white, all are over the age of 50, and one of them is deceased. Where are the young women of color, where are the trans and/or nonbinary composers? They’re not being programmed as much by mainstream classical ensembles, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there!

Several ensembles are taking 50/50% pledges, wherein they aim for an even gender split for their programmed composers. While these do elevate the voices of (usually white and cis) women, they continue to silence nonbinary (and often trans) composers. How often are trans women composers featured in classical programming?

Is the push to premiere women composers enough of a step towards gender inclusivity in concert halls? Of course white cisgender women (as those featured are overwhelmingly) deserve to be programmed, but concert halls need to strive to better reflect the diversity of the people who are creating music today (and always have been, for that matter).

Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy is an organization that offers grants to orchestras who are programming women composers. For these grants, the organization encourages orchestras to program two compositions by women, one of which should be a “historic” woman. The Many Many Women Index, an online composer directory, is inclusive of everyone but cisgender men, and includes composers who are both living and deceased. In a more contemporarily-focused effort, the Hildegard Competition labels itself as “National Sawdust’s premiere competition for emerging female, trans, and nonbinary composers.” In this case, even the title is explicit about their message of inclusion for all marginalized genders!

The people of a certain marginalized identity are often seemingly only commissioned for concerts that relate - explicitly or tangentially - to their identity. For many trans composers, they may mostly be getting programmed by gay men’s choirs, other LGBT ensembles, or concerts with these themes. These are really important for ensuring that composers with marginalized identities are programmed – in fact, I’m doing a concert like this for my senior recital! However, these are not enough – mainstages need to start programming trans and nonbinary composers.

The Composer Diversity Database is a searchable index of composers from underrepresented groups. The user can restrict searches by gender, demographic criteria, and genre. There are currently 12 nonbinary composers on this (obviously inexhaustive) database. Are there so few openly nonbinary composers and musicians in classical music because the room simply isn’t being made in the genre? There is seemingly more room in the musical theatre world. I follow many artists who are very active in the NYC trans musical theatre community on social media, and it appears as if there are more explicit spaces being carved out for this community. For instance, at the 2018 New York Musical Festival, 3 of 22 productions and readings feature transgender themes. At least two of these works had largely transgender composition and production teams. There is a recurrent Trans Voices Cabaret, as well as a monthly workspace for women and trans composers to share musical theatre works in progress and exchange constructive criticism.

When nonbinary and trans artists are lumped in with women as an afterthought, the decision of whether to apply to something bearing the description “for women (and trans people),” often manifests as a decision for the composer on whether to claim womanhood or not. For instance, when I, as a nonbinary composer, look at competition guidelines, sometimes I wonder if I am I performing my gender “nonbinarily enough” to “count.” What does that even mean? I certainly don’t know. When opportunities are tailored towards “female and nonbinary” or “female and trans” composers, this implies a body-centered essentialism to the thought process surrounding gender that can be exclusionary and limiting.

At the end of the day, why does it matter if trans composers are being programmed? As Jeanine Tesori, part of the first all-female composing team to win a Tony for Best Musical said during her acceptance speech for Fun Home’s Tony in 2015, “You have to see it to be it.” Ironically and unfortunately, her speech was not broadcast in its entirety. In Tesori’s statement, she was referring to the importance of representation for girls, but this sentiment rings true for all.

As a child, I thought I would grow up to be the first woman to ever be an orchestral conductor because I had only seen men in these roles. In the end, I have grown up to be neither a woman nor an orchestral conductor, but the point is that it is difficult to imagine becoming what one cannot see. I would like to believe that there is space in classical music’s future to do what new musical theatre is slowly moving towards; creating explicit room for trans and nonbinary composers and performers to share and grow in their craft. People may decry the modern demise of classical music, but I believe the only way to preserve the parts of these traditions that deserve preserving is to let them grow by making the playbill reflect the present.

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