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Inspiring a New Generation of Women Composers In Philadelphia and Beyond: This Is Erin Busch's Story

Matt Genders Photography
Composer and educator Erin Busch

About 100 years ago, composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger was among the most influential, newsworthy figures in the world of classical music, leaving an indelible mark on countless composers of the 20th century and the craft itself.

Composer Ned Rorem famously said in The New York Times in 1982, “Myth credits every American town with two things: a 10-cent store and a Boulanger student." Yet, the Institute for Composer Diversity’s 2019-20 season analysis of 120 U.S. orchestras’ programming shows a mere 8% of performances are of works by women composers. What’s going on? How did a 20th-century world of Nadia Boulanger-shaped promise lead us to such persistent inequity in the 21st?

WRTI’s Classical Music Director Heather McDougall recently sat down with Erin Busch, Philadelphia-based founder of the Young Women Composers Camp at Temple University, to discuss questions around cultivating young women composers, representation, and equity.

HEATHER: Erin tell me about the work you're doing and how you've gotten there.

ERIN: I'm a composer, cellist and educator residing here in Philadelphia. I went to Temple for many years — did my undergrad and masters there in composition and cello performance and then I taught there for a few years. Currently, I'm pursuing a PhD in composition at Penn. Composing and playing music have been a part of my life since I was very, very young. Started taking piano lessons when I was five, started composing a few years later, took cello lessons in elementary school and so on and so forth.

When I would go to a [composing] competition in high school, I was usually the only girl. -Erin Busch

And things just kept expanding from there and started to get a little more serious in high school when I was thinking about college. It was at that point that I started to pay more attention to the pieces I was playing and the other people who were writing music, whereas before I was really just in my own bubble thinking it was just a hobby for me. And when I started to do that, I realized...number one, I don't know any other girls my age who are composing — the only other people I knew doing it, and there were only a few of them, to be fair, they were all other boys.

And when I would go to a competition in high school, I was usually the only girl. Also, all the pieces I was playing were written by men. So that started to really plant a lot of seeds of doubt for me as far as  should I really consider pursuing this? Doesn't really seem like there's a place for women in this field. You know, maybe I should consider music education instead. After all, I would still be in music. I know a lot of female music teachers. That seems like a quote/unquote, “safer option”, especially for a woman. I was encouraged to just apply as a composer and I was accepted at Temple and so then a lot of those doubts were alleviated just by being accepted.

And I thought, right, this is great, they must know what they're doing. I got to Temple and was the only girl in the entire undergraduate composition program. Of course, I was very distressed to learn that all of my peers would be male and I remember talking to my teacher about it at the time who said we would love to accept more women, but really we barely receive applications from women.

You know, the application pool when it gets to us is already very heavily skewed towards male.  And from then I started thinking more and more about why. Why is that? And representation, of course, is a huge part of it. But also I think that it's not enough just to solve the representation issue. I think we need to be actively recruiting and letting young women and non-binary people know that we are interested in hearing what your creative output is and we are interested in giving you that training.

HEATHER: So, it sounds like pretty early on in life, you spotted the pipeline problem, which is a problem that is not unique to classical music. That certainly exists in so many disciplines — the sciences and so forth — we could go on and on. But unlike most people who have this realization, you decided to do something about it. Tell us a little bit about the steps that you then took to put something very real and tangible into place — to do something about that pipeline.

ERIN: I thought how great would it be to bring together a lot of teenagers, young women and non-binary musicians, who are interested in composition to give them a peer network and also a mentorship network and the opportunity to compose something together and get a recording. The original way that I had conceived of the Young Women Composers Camp was just for a week — a Monday through Friday kind of day camp for people in Philly. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that's really not enough time. So, it expanded to two weeks. Then when we opened it up for applications, and we got applicants from all over the country. And then I thought, well, I guess we'll have to provide some housing, too.

HEATHER: It sounds like it's taken a lot of strides in a pretty short time, because this all happened in, what, two years?

Young Women Composers Camp at WRTI in 2019.

ERIN: Yes, our first camp ran in 2018 and I started planning it a little over a year before. I was very fortunate to have Temple's Boyer College of Music and Dance on board right away with the idea. For them, this was a completely new kind of program. They have a lot of summer programs, but none really to this scale. So, it was new territory for everybody and there were a lot of logistics that we kind of figured out as we were going through the process. And, even now, in 2020, there's still new things that we're discovering all the time.

HEATHER: Yeah. Then there's always a wrinkle or two... or five.

ERIN: Yes.

HEATHER: I suppose that's part of the joy of it!

ERIN: Yeah, definitely.

HEATHER: One thing that I'd like to zero in on is this idea that you are not that far from having made those first pipeline observations. I'm going to go out on a limb here - you know, the cat's out of the bag already because you were named one of Temple's 30 under 30 last year — my point is, you're not yet 30. And so those earlier years you were thinking back to — those formative times in college — that's not that long ago. We're not talking about looking back to the '80s or '90s. This is very, very recent.

And you're now in a position of leadership working with younger women. What is your observation about THEIR observations? And do you feel like your observations were very much the same as theirs are now? Or do you notice something different about what they're presenting with or in what you're witnessing in them as they come through the camp?

ERIN: One of the major things I mean, you're right, it's only 10 years ago was when I first started at Temple. I'm 28 now. So, it's really not been that long. But already I do sense a generational difference. Of course, since I was in high school, the internet has kind of exploded in the way that people are using it. Of course, it was around when I was in high school, very much so, but I never would've thought to use it in the way that some of our students are in that they are actively seeking these connections.

So, I think, you know, the Gen Z folks that are coming in are just more informed from the get-go. Which is kind of amazing to see. But the biggest thing…you know, you spend so much time working on a program like this and figuring out the logistics of it. And you know, who's gonna go where and this person's arriving at this time and then they all get there and you see how happy they are to be with one another. It's kind of magical to see them interact. It's also amazing to follow them afterwards on Instagram. They send me emails and they're meeting up in New York and they're doing these projects together now. That's pretty beautiful.

HEATHER: That's great. Yeah, that's a huge benefit of working with a population that is so integrated into online social networks. That must be one of the best rewards, I would think.

ERIN: Yeah, it's wonderful. A few students, I emailed them to see if they would send me a video just talking about their experiences that we can use to advertise for next year. And every single one…I cried watching them!

HEATHER: Ah! Amazing.

ERIN: It's right from the students themselves. How impactful the experience was for them and how they're still writing or how even if they're not still writing, how this has changed the way that they're thinking about music and how it affects them. That's really our goal.

HEATHER: The intensive nature of a residency-based program, especially when you're gathering a small group with so much shared interest and common experience, has got to be a really transformational.  An intensity comes quite naturally, I think, in those spaces. And one of the reasons we wanted you to have this conversation about representation of women composers is this powerful work you've been doing with the Young Women Composers Camp at Temple.

It's an interesting topic for the month we're in, with March being Women's History Month. And one of the things that seems to come up in times like this, when we have commemorative months of this type, is this idea of whether it's appropriate to use those moments in time or moments in the calendar as vehicles for spotlighting something special like women composers. There is a fair amount of buzz and momentum around that kind of practice. It rallies attention and marketing budgets. 

And then there are some detractors as well, because some people feel that that is an approach that is silo-ing and othering — and that it's taken on as a way or excuse to avoid the bigger, everyday effort of normalizing the presence of women composers in a much broader way outside of the confines of a month like that. It would be interesting to hear from you as someone who is so deeply immersed in cultivating this kind of community... What are your thoughts on those two approaches? And perhaps issues of navigating the tension between them.

ERIN: So I don't I don't think that I'm in really either camp. I feel like I'm someplace in the middle as far as a special month like Women's History Month and using that as a reason to include more women in your programming. I generally think that's great. And I have no problem with advertising a program for being celebratory of women in all respects. You know, whether that's through the composers or through the performers or the conductor or whatever, whatever it may be.

The issue that can arise with that is this question  is that your only celebration of women throughout the year? Is that the only time you're trying to spotlight women composers or presenting a concert of all women? The point is — it's important to be using concerts like this as one way to integrate that kind of work into a year-round practice. This is what I think can be very meaningful. But if it is, you know, just that one month where the women are slotted in and they aren't visible in the other eleven months of programming — that's what can become a problem.

HEATHER: I sometimes think about these issues in terms of a pendulum. The idea that up until up until now, we've certainly been living in a very patriarchal musical culture, especially when it comes to creation, the composition of music. And so therefore the pendulum was very much swung in that one direction, for a very, very long time. And we are starting to see a movement of that pendulum in another direction. We’ve got to ask ourselves — how far can it be moved? Will there be a period in which it's suspended in the other direction — to compensate for those centuries of overlooked voices? And will it then swing into a position of balance, having found a corrected course? And who gets to decide how this works? And when? These are tricky questions, because we're in a musical community with a lot of moving parts and varied perspectives.

ERIN: Right. I think that what you brought up is actually why I think that opportunities like programing specifically for Women's History Month are so important. Just to make sure that we are doing them in addition to year-round programing. Because women's voices have been suppressed for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. That's not going to be undone within, the span of, you know, the last few years or the last 20 years. And it's not going to be something we're going to solve very easily in the future. But we need to make sure that we are constantly affirming and recognizing that disparity. And maybe someday it won't be necessary to make a big deal out of it anymore. I hope that day, you know, comes in our lifetime. But we're still far from that.

HEATHER: Yeah, there's kind of a journey to go on. And it's not even just about securing the visibility of all these women that we already know — those around us who are living composers. This journey is also about creating spaces and having resources and will — especially within our institutions — to go back and uncover a lot of the women composers who were forgotten because perhaps nobody's yet pursued a certain line of research or nobody's yet followed up on some manuscript with no attribution, gathering dust in someone's attic.

I think Florence Price emerged into mainstream consciousness as a more well-known name after an attic discovery and it hit The New York Times. I feel like there's going to be more examples like that if there are greater resources and greater collective will to see that kind of work get done. And if it's pursued, in the right hands, with the right intention, we will start to discover a lot more voices that have been unheard or forgotten for generations.

ERIN: I think it's more the second point you said too, about like whose hands is it falling into? Yeah, because I think the research is being done and I think the pieces are being uncovered and people are looking into these, you know, quote/unquote, “forgotten female composers”. But the information is not centralized. There's not a lot of ways, you know, for people who maybe want to include more music by women and their music theory, curriculum or program them for their orchestra are not able to easily find, you know, what piece might suit their particular situation. And that's what makes it difficult.

For example, I'm teaching at Penn this semester and I was teaching last semester from a textbook that I will not name but that has zero examples by women. It's kind of insane to think about now. But if you want to include women in a curriculum like that, generally you have to go and do the analysis yourself. So, it's, of course, more work for the teacher, which they may not have the time to do. So, it's complicated.

HEATHER: It seems to me that it's a different kind of pipeline problem maybe where there may be specific academics out there illuminating these stories, these composers and their works. But perhaps it doesn't necessarily move fary enough beyond the dissertation or that classroom...or Twitter. How do we get that into a mainstream space where people are getting, say, a deal to record or a manuscript published, etc.? It's a gigantic pipeline issue. I imagine it might take generations to redress.

ERIN: Yeah, right. Interesting. I think that's something that is interesting also in the sense that we see some kind of local examples of, I suppose, trying to play with the canon and invite new voices into it.

HEATHER: And you had mentioned to me outside of this conversation that one of the things you are excited about is The Philadelphia Orchestra's BeethovenNOW project. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how that works and why it's interesting for you.

ERIN: Well, the BeethovenNOW project, overall, is just playing a lot of Beethoven works within the year to celebrate his 250th anniversary. But this particular portion of the project that is exciting me is their composer-in-residence, Gabriela Lena Frank, who is in her first of three years with the Orchestra, was asked to write several response pieces to Beethoven's symphonies that are being paired for performances.

And when she said that she didn't have time to do all of them, she was invited to have three of her students from her Creative Academy compose some of them. 

There are three response pieces that are still to be performed this spring. And I think it's a really great idea, number one, to have pieces that people love and know being paired with new pieces that can make you hear them and view them in a new way, but also to include composers whose names are not well known. This is probably, you know, potentially their first major orchestra commission.

And The Philadelphia Orchestra is behind that. And I think it's a really amazing role to play as an orchestra...to understand that you have a lot of power in your commissioning and in your programing choices and the choices that you make. The people who you choose to include in that process sends a very clear message. And so I was excited to see the inclusion of these three younger composers on the recommendation of Gabriela in this project.

HEATHER: Fantastic — those three response pieces can be heard in March and April and the last of them is Gabriela Lena Frank’s, who is going to continue to be a presence felt here in Philadelphia for quite some time, as the orchestra’s composer-in-residence, which is exciting.

I also wanted to ask you about a matter beyond representation itself. The layer beyond that – that is, who gets to do the representing? You might have initiatives that speak to profiling or celebrating women. But who gets to tell that story — who's the mouthpiece? I don't think historically there was a lot of intention around that.

ERIN: Sure. On the one hand, you don't want to say, well, if you're organizing a concert celebrating women that means everyone who's involved has to be female, because, of course, that is a little absurd and may not be realistic for most people. But on the other hand, yes, there is the idea of a mouthpiece for the movement. This reminds me of a concert that was part of a women-centered series, but did not actually have any pieces by women. It's pieces that men wrote about women, which to me kind of feels like, you know, missing the mark a little bit. I think that that's further elevating these patriarchal figures and how they viewed women rather than just going to the women and being like "what are you thinking"? Rather than like, "how are you being viewed"? And again, none of these things mean that that music should never be played. But it seems like a like a strange way to program a concert.

HEATHER: Yes. Framing, the treatment of the thing is as important as the thing. Which is kind of obvious, but easy to overlook. Even those well informed can have blind spots.

ERIN: I think that it's inevitable. And I think that we as programmers or musicians or just like audience members will always have blind spots. And the best thing that we can do is try to really be open to criticism from other people and always try to be thinking about different ways that we can be better in those decisions. Even every year that I've run my program, I've realized, "oh, I'd never thought about this issue" or I didn't think about how this would be received by this population of people or students. And so every year the camp gets a little bit better. And in part, that's because we also have the students write several evaluations that are anonymous. So, we're getting direct feedback from them. Great. So, I mean, that's like a small example of trying to really receptive to that.

HEATHER: Is if there's anything out on the horizon that’s inspiring you, really getting you out of bed in the morning?

ERIN: There are a lot of different things that are exciting me. I mean, over the last two years or so since the MeToo movement kind of exploded, I've seen change everywhere in every aspect of our lives. And I think most people have would agree with that.

But one thing that has really gotten me excited is that there are other programs that are having similar aims to what to what we are doing at the Young Women Composers Camp or other programs that exist for young people that are making conscious efforts to be more inclusive. You know, maybe recognizing that an application fee might be discouraging people from applying even before they put together a portfolio. You know, thinking about how are we accessing these populations. Are we only taking people who already have privilege, who already would know about these things?

And how do we get to people who may not even have access to anything like this? And so, I've seen these conversations just start to really happen in a bigger way and that's been exciting for me. And then there's the Luna Lab program that Missy Mazzoli runs in in New York. I think that's an amazing program. Gabriela Lena Frank's program, the Creative Academy of Music. And there’s a lot more out there. You know, the more the merrier. I think you should fill the space with opportunity.

HEATHER: I want to rewind back to the moment when you talked about trying to remove barriers. Tell us a little bit more about what that looks like in practice when you're taking in camp applications and receiving all this information and submissions from your applicants.

ERIN: So there's a couple different barriers that we're talking about, the more obvious ones to be financial. So, first, the camp does not have an application fee. It is completely free to apply. Tuition is relatively low - seven hundred dollars for the two weeks and we've been able to fundraise to offer tuition and housing scholarships based on financial need. So, students are welcome to apply for that if they qualify. Last year we were able to award at least some scholarship money to 100 percent of the people eligible. So, we hope to do that again this year. That's one thing.

ERIN: And then there's also the accessibility before they get to the camp. As far as what kind of resources do they have, musical or nonmusical, that will enable them to get accepted into a program like ours. And there are a lot of programs out there that are similar in scope that require you to submit a score or to have a recommendation from a composition teacher. That already is excluding many, many people who even if they've started composing, maybe they just don't have the software or maybe they're more of an improviser and don't notate.

And so if you're excluding a big chunk of the population and also if you were a young person who's interested in composing, how the heck are you supposed to get that kind of training if that doesn't exist where you are? So, we are accepting students with no composition training. The only requirement really is that they have to be able to read music. They can send in a sketch of a piece they were working on or a recording. And if they have scores — great. But they can also send in no compositional materials if they don't have any. And instead just submit something that shows us that what they are like as a musician. So maybe it's just a video of them playing something on the violin or singing and playing the piano. Just so we have an idea of what they are like as a musician and what their interests are. but we do not require them to send any compositional materials if they don't have any.

HEATHER: So it's really for young composers AND the compositionally-curious.  Which is, you know, those sitting on the edge peering into this world — hopeful and maybe a little wary.

ERIN: Right. Yeah, definitely.

HEATHER: That's exciting for them. A big step.

ERIN: But that means that you also each summer have this mix of students, some of whom submitted orchestra pieces and some of whom only, you know, submitted that video of them playing the violin. And it's amazing that they all create such wonderful pieces and they get along well together and they help each other along the way. You know, kind of filling in gaps where one student might be able to help them out. And it's pretty wonderful to witness.

HEATHER: Do you find that there's a lot of peer-to-peer learning in that sense?

ERIN: Oh, definitely. And that's pretty eye opening for some of them, maybe. I mean, there are some students coming in who are more classically trained or maybe they do have access to a composition program or teacher year-round. Then we also have some students who maybe they only they take private lessons — they play an instrument. And that's pretty much it. So, they come in with just instrumental knowledge where someone else might be coming in asking "how should I orchestrate this passage"? And of course, we are there as the faculty to help them with those things. But especially for the students who are staying in the dorms, who are just together all the time for two weeks, they really bond and they are always doing that kind of peer-to-peer mentorship.

HEATHER: And then, of course, they have those bonds to take with them. What a lovely, hopeful note to end on. Thank you, Erin, it was a pleasure.

ERIN: Thank you.


More about the Young Women Composers Camp

More about women composers:
Boulanger Initiative
Creative Academy of Music (Gabriela Lena Frank)
The Daffodil Perspective
Donne: Women in Music
Institute for Composer Diversity
Luna Composition Lab (Missy Mazzoli)
Minerva Festival
A Modern Reveal
Music Theory Examples by Women
Scordatura –Women’s Music Collective
Women’s Philharmonic