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  • Writer's pictureAurore Sibley

Are We There Yet?

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

I can answer that question pretty quickly. No, we’re not, but maybe we’re getting closer. If you happen to have a chance to catch the PBS documentary Fanny: The Right to Rock, which recently aired on PBS on May 22nd and is currently available to stream, you might feel some elation that the women of Fanny, (which include women of color and queer women), are finally being recognized for their contribution to rock and roll as we know it. Or maybe you’ve never heard of Fanny. And maybe at the same time that it is awe-inspiring to see and learn about their accomplishments and contributions to popular music, it is also disheartening to learn that it took decades for them to be acknowledged.

At the age of nineteen, I spent a couple of months as an intern at The Institute for the Musical Arts in Bodega, California, living with and working for June Millington of Fanny and her partner Anne as part of a work cooperative through Antioch College. At the time, I was an aspiring musician with a background in classical piano and a yearning for an expanded musical experience, but with little direction. And no, I had never heard of Fanny.

There had been few women instrumentalist role models in my experience growing up. Most women musicians that I had been exposed or introduced to were either strictly vocalists or played classical music. In fact, many of the most accomplished and better-known vocalists in nearly any genre, such as Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Lucinda Williams, or Joan Jett were or are also incredibly talented instrumentalists and composers or songwriters, yet they have been more widely acknowledged and celebrated as singers, while their instrumental prowess has taken a backseat due to the ways in which the music world wished to market them.

Recently, while reading the biography of the nineteenth century composer and celebrated classical concert pianist Clara Schumann, I discovered the name of Pauline Viardot, also a remarkably accomplished and prolific composer and performer, who during her lifetime was celebrated as a genius. I was amazed that I had never been introduced to her music before and soon read everything I could find about her, which considering the fact that Brahms said of her that she was “…the greatest artist of the (19th) century” and Berlioz wrote that she was “One of the greatest artists who comes to mind in the past and present history of music,” was not much.

How could I have never heard of this woman when I had grown up playing and adoring the music of Chopin, Brahms, Schumann, and all of her celebrated male contemporaries? In fact, until I took an interest in Clara Schumann a few years ago, I had never played a classical music composition by any female composer. I am now discovering that there are scores of them throughout history who despite often being recognized during their lifetimes, have fallen into oblivion, and quite literally been left out of the history of music, no matter how great their influence or contribution.

For me it’s a personal experience. As a woman musician and instrumentalist, I have been met with surprise and often skepticism by the male musicians that I have played with in different settings and genres. The ever familiar, “You wrote this?” with raised eyebrows is not unusual, the necessity to be twice as accomplished and proficient an instrumentalist in order to be accepted into a group, (particularly in the jazz world), and the awareness that most of the members of the band, (at least when I was younger), were more interested in me physically than musically, was always present. I was often the only woman in the room or on the stage and yearned to connect with other female musical artists, but they were few and far between.

Back in the late 90’s at The Institute for the Musical Arts, a few walls were knocked down and a few doors opened. Women musicians existed! I had been a strictly classically trained pianist but wanted to play other types of music, and during my time there was given a first introduction to improvising on the piano, a simple lesson by one of the visiting artists on how to approach playing the blues. It blew my mind and I soon transferred from Antioch to New College of California in order to be able to study jazz with the late jazz bassist Herbie Lewis.

From there I picked up the guitar, the mandolin, explored folk music, bluegrass, salsa and bossa nova. But it was still rare to encounter other women instrumentalists or composers, and also still a challenge to have the confidence to share my own musical compositions with anyone. Now in my forties, to learn that there were incredibly accomplished composers whose music has rarely been shared or celebrated throughout history has been a surprisingly harrowing discovery, fraught with elation, amazement, disbelief, and grief.

But then the documentary about Fanny, and my own, as well as others, determination to share the stories of some of these women with the world by creating biographical stories, podcasts, music performances and concerts; any medium that would allow their music to be heard, is fueling creative projects that have recently surfaced around the world, or are in the works.

The record label La Boite a Pepites, founded in 2020, specializes in recording the works of women composers. It is a fantastic place to start if your interest is piqued in these artists. Many of the compositions recorded by this label have never been performed or recorded before, as in the case of the composer Charlotte Sohy, whose compositions, until recently, lay in a box in her grandson’s attic, or Louise Farrenc, another nineteenth century composer who was recognized by her contemporary male colleagues as a musical genius, but whose works have rarely, until now, been heard.

What I’ve learned by reading their biographies and listening to their compositions is that not only during decades past but also centuries past, it isn’t that women composers, instrumentalists, and remarkable performing artists haven’t existed, it’s that their stories are not told, their music is not shared, their accomplishments are not celebrated and acknowledged throughout history in the same way in which their male contemporaries have been. It has always been acceptable for a woman to be a singer, but many people, even today and whether aware of it or not, are still slightly uncomfortable with or unaccepting of a woman producer, composer, or master instrumentalist, and consider her an anomaly. It turns out we’re not as uncommon as you might think.

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