Musical glass ceiling

By Li Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/23 19:18:39

Pulitzer music award winner Du Yun talks about gender equality in classical music


Du Yun Photo: Courtesy of Du Yun



When it was announced on April 10 that female composer Du Yun won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her work on Angel's Bone, the news was all classical music circles in the US could talk about.

The clamor over the announcement did not happen without reason. As a woman and a Chinese, Du is a minority within a minority when it comes to the classical music field.

Gender equality has been a long debated topic in classical music circles in the West, where there are far fewer women working in the field of contemporary composition than men.

"I think the problem is even worse over in China," Du told the Global Times in a telephone interview on April 19.

Gender equality

Born in Shanghai in 1977, Du graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. She later earned her bachelor's degree at Oberlin College in the US and her Master's degree and PhD from Harvard University. 

She was later named the artistic director of the New York-based contemporary classical music MATA Festival and is currently based in New York where she teaches at Purchase College.

Du recalled that while at the conservatory elementary school and high school, there were many more female students than male, sometimes even at a ratio of 10:1. Yet, during college and after she began her career, she noticed that most of the professors and composers were male.

Du explained that she feels there are many reasons for this imbalance, an obvious one being society's general requirement for women to focus on the home and raise children at an early age.

In the US, women are expected to have a family between 25-40, Du explained. Yet in China, this window is much shorter, around 25-30. Yet, Du pointed out that this period is the most crucial time for a composer to develop her skills and figure out what direction she wants to take her career.

"Sometimes it's not that you don't want to continue, but you are encouraged by others to not continue," Du said.

Additional pressure comes from the fact women require support from society to work and raise children at the same time without worrying about losing out economically.

The problem seems universal.

In an article "Classical music has a sexism problem" published on the official website of the Goethe Institute, the German cultural association, says that while 3,187 men declared themselves as freelance composers, only 383 women declared the same. Meanwhile, "female composers earn 35 percent less on average than their male counterparts."

It's the same in the US, a country that for a long time barred women from entering the profession.

In an article titled "What Du Yun's Pulitzer Win Means for Women in Classical Music," the New Yorker explains that in the past it was believed that "women lack compositional ability."

Inspiration from China

Although she has lived for a long time in New York, Chinese culture still has a big influence on Du's music.

She explained that the "When a Tiger Meets a Rosa Rugosa" she composed for violinist Hilary Hahn's album In 27 Pieces: Hilary Hahn Encores was inspired by Chinese traditional music.

That album won Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance at the Grammy Awards in 2015.

Chinese influence doesn't end there. Currently, Du is researching local Chinese operas from different parts of China, such as Kunqu opera.

"I recently began to feel like these local operas are gradually turning into something that will be exhibited in a museum," Du said.

"I think local opera needs to encourage new creation, encourage people to listen and explore new operas," she said, noting that she feels that the only way to help preserve traditional culture is through constant creation.

Du's Pulitzer winning opera Angel's Bone, for which she cooperated with librettist Royce Vavrek, takes on the subject of human trafficking through the use of religious imagery. In the opera, two hurt angels are rescued by a human couple, but then are forced into spiritual and sexual slavery by their rescuers.

The opera received positive reviews from the New York Times, Time Out New York and the Financial Times, not just for the story, but also the variety and creativity of the music.

While researching human trafficking, Du realized "it is not far from our lives at all, but happening around us," even in cities like New York.

She hopes the opera will not just bring attention to human trafficking, but also lead the public realize that classical music is not some art removed from everyday life.

Posted in: MUSIC

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