Asta PAKARKLYTĖ | Lithuanian Women Composers: From Minorities to Leaders in 30 Years


2019 was an impressive year for Lithuanian women in musical culture: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was listed as the world’s greatest living female conductor by Classic FM, Asmik Grigorian was chosen as Female Singer of the year in the International Opera Awards, the composer Lina Lapelytė, the writer Vaiva Grainytė and the director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė were awarded the Golden Lion, the main Venice Art Biennale prize, for their collaborative opera-performance Sun & Sea (Marina).

Generally speaking, Lithuanian women composers are doing great. From the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, a strong critical mass has emerged, and a chain nuclear reaction has been in progress for some time. They receive important commissions for their work both from inside and outside Lithuania, their music can be heard on international stages, they get positive reviews and various awards both at home and abroad, they live and breathe their music and make a living from it. Lately, Lithuanian women composers have been more active and more visible on the international musical scene than their male colleagues.

Women in Lithuanian music culture are leaders without quotas

Onutė Narbutaitė was the only composer from the Baltic countries invited to participate in the Kronos Quartet’s project 50 for the Future together with 49 other composers from around the world, from different artistic backgrounds and styles, including stars such as Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. Justė Janulytė received a commission from MaerzMusik, one of the most important European contemporary music festivals, and the post-drama theatre visionary Heiner Goebbels, who attended the premiere of her composition in the spring of 2019 at the Konzerthaus Berlin, said afterwards that he had heard ‘real 21st music’ in her piece. Raminta Šerkšnytė’s music album was released by Deutsche Grammophon, with the compositions recorded by the conductors Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and Giedrė Šlekytė together with Kremerata Baltica, the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra and prominent Lithuanian soloists. A work by the composition student Monika Zenkevičiūtė was placed in the TOP 10 at The International Rostrum of Composers organised by the International Music Council.

And that’s far from being everything. Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, Egidija Medekšaitė, Rūta Vitkauskaitė, Justina Repečkaitė are several more Lithuanian women composers who are working actively and successfully on the international scene and creating their own unique musical brands. Besides that, their music can be heard being played live in London, Paris, San Francisco, Beijing or Vilnius, attracting the attention of local and foreign audiences through other forms as well. For example, in the spring of 2019 the independent US experimental music publisher Starkland Records released Žibuoklė Martinaitytė’s album of new music which was widely presented on American new music radio shows, amongst which were influential programmes like New Sounds with John Schaefer and Classical Discoveries with Marvin Rosen. At the same time, Egidija Medekšaitė’s work received a comprehensive article by Christopher Fox in the academic journal Tempo that specialises in contemporary music and is published by Cambridge University Press.

Many of the women composers mentioned here are living or have previously lived abroad, so does that perhaps mean that they are only successful outside of Lithuania? Far from it! The largest cultural institution in Lithuania – the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre – presented Rita Mačiliūnaitė’s dance opera Eternity and a Day this year (probably every composer dreams about getting a commission of this scale). The composer regularly writes music for both theatre and dance performances, working in an environment still with a heavy concentration of male composers where she is very successful (as is evidenced by more than one major Lithuanian theatre award for her music for various stage productions). Zita Bružaitė is also very productive, seemingly able to write anything: a symphonic score, masses or songs for children. Whatever she does, it seems to be written with the ‘light’ hand of a master with her work regularly attracting the interest of Lithuanian musicians. Bružaitė is bursting with ideas, energy and projects; not by chance she used to be called ‘atomic’ during her time chairing the Lithuanian Composers’ Union.

The challenges of old democracies

Recently, the democratic world has become increasingly anxious about quotas, mostly gender quotas and equal opportunities for women in politics, science, business, culture, the arts, and elsewhere. A couple of years ago, the international film industry campaign 50/50 by 2020 was started in Hollywood, the aim of which is equal opportunities for women, the LGBTIQA+ communities, the disabled and ethnic minorities in the film industry by 2020 with a 50/50 balance across the various levels: from strategic decision-making on boards to the creation of content, performance, and management.

Almost at the same time, a similar initiative emerged in Europe with the aim of gender equality by 2022 in the music sector and entertainment industry both onstage and behind the scenes. The international movement was initiated by the United Kingdom’s PRS Foundation for New Music in various genres with the initiative supported by the European Union and the movement joined by more than 150 music festivals around the world from Poland and Estonia to Australia, Canada and South Korea, committed to achieving gender balance in the commission of new creative work, in concert programmes, performers’ line-ups, royalties, and in other instances.

Various international projects, such as Women in Music or think tanks such as the University of California’s The Annenberg inclusion initiative, have become a part of various statistics involving women in music according to diverse parameters. All the statistics reveal the uneven, sometimes even overwhelmingly unfair situation of women in different aspects. Generally speaking, there are only about 30% of women in total in the global musical sector.

Meanwhile, about 37% of the composers active in Lithuania are women, but, in spite of that, they work very effectively. The chance of them getting a commission or an award, receiving attention or being presented abroad is now greater than for men. On the whole, women account for 49% of all professional composers when counting the number of active Lithuanian composers up to the age of 50 and this breakthrough occurred over the last 30 years of Lithuanian independence – at the same time, women also vigorously organise and successfully implement different projects, lead cultural organisations of various levels, and take board-level decisions. More than 60% of the people working in all of the Lithuanian cultural sector are women. In other words, if one wanted to consider gender quotas in the context of Lithuanian music composition, then it is for men that one would have to introduce them.

Opportunities in the new post-communist democracies

There are, of course, a multitude of various problematic aspects of gender equality in Lithuania. For example, women are paid less for the same job and for that reason will get a smaller pension later in life. The ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon is still prevalent in the job market, creating invisible artificial career barriers for women, with few women having leadership positions in politics and private business. They very rarely become members of the Government, while the calls this year by the woman leader of the European Commission for Lithuania to delegate a woman was not even considered by those in power here. Generally, the European Gender Equality Institute’s gender equality index reveals that in this regard Lithuania is at the bottom of the list of European Union countries. The situation is even worse as to the equal opportunities of the LGBTIQA+ communities and the disabled. These are challenges that still have to be overcome.

In spite of that, it is women composers who are doing as good as never before, even though generally speaking there were just a few of them creating music thirty years ago. The woman composer is now the norm in Lithuania, and no one even discusses that fact today, even though music professionals abroad view that situation with great surprise and firmly state that Lithuanian women in music is the new brand of the country’s culture. And that happened without any special gender quotas, without a safe environment for women to express themselves, without any artificial means introduced to encourage them, and without any feminist movements or protest actions. The opportunity was presented by the turbulent changes in the Lithuanian political, economic and social system with women in Lithuania not allowing this opportunity to pass them by.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the status, prestige, privileges and royalties of composers were severely diminished, a large part of the music distribution infrastructure collapsed, and the system of supporting culture financially was disrupted. The profession of a composer, up to that point an important part of the Soviet propaganda apparatus, became simply an ‘unimportant’ job, which at a time of crucial changes in the system was of little interest. At the same time, with the transition to a market economy, a host of alternatives emerged, with ‘active and ambitious’ men beginning to leave impractical and unprofitable professions for private business, finance, technology, real estate, construction and transport, and also commercial music, simply leaving behind huge areas for women to express themselves in. The state financing of these ‘areas’ was again largely determined by men, and for this reason the expenditure for these ‘female’ sectors (education, culture, health, social security) was financed on a residual basis.

Later, other mechanisms began to emerge: the critical mass of women composers began to grow, there were more and more examples of successful women composers, their work received attention and appreciation, stereotypes began to change, women’s confidence in their creativity grew, and, generally speaking, discrimination against women entering composition classes, getting commissions, taking part in various competitions, and getting awards disappeared. When the state of the country and later that of culture stabilised, women composers had by then become a natural part of the ecosystem. And what is more: they began to take the lead in the field of composition.

Another aspect is connected to the waves of emigration: after Lithuania re-established its independence in 1990 and after it joined the European Union in 2004, borders opened up and there were no restrictions on women composers to travel, study, collaborate, improve their skills, work and live abroad. The creative activities and success stories of women composers abroad, highlighted by the local media, served as an inspiration for the young generation of Lithuanian women composers.

Gender quotas: a problem or a solution?

The situation in the other Baltic countries is similar and therefore we can joke with our colleagues from Latvia and Estonia that in this region we should reserve special seats for men since now it is hardest for men from the middle generation in the musical sector (they no longer have the opportunities the younger generation has, but have not yet secured for themselves what the older generation has). Seriously speaking, both abroad and in Lithuania there is no shortage of discussions as to whether the policy of gender quotas is the most appropriate tool in aiming to achieve equal opportunities. Besides that, gender quotas are negatively regarded in Lithuania also because of the measures taken during the Soviet period according to which the stated aim was to increase the number of women in politics. The quotas did not give women greater political power (the latter still remaining in men’s hands), and this practice reminded people of an artificially supported duty.

Gender quotas can be regarded as a discriminatory, undemocratic, even humiliating measure which seem to proclaim that people would not otherwise have achieved what they did, would not have got to where they got and were not deserving of the recognition accorded to them. In the case of quotas, the choice seems to be based on biological sex and not the individual quality of creative work. Quotas mean that a particular gender is unable to compete on equal terms and that is why a ‘state of emergency’ had been introduced. Thank you, but no thank you!

This all seems almost as unacceptable as ‘a concert of women’s music’ or as ‘a festival of women’s creative work’ – as if some kind of exception or minority were being presented, something that needed to be specially singled out and focused on in order for it to be visible. It beggars belief that it was into this kind of format that the premiere of Justė Janulytė’s work was sandwiched and mentioned at the beginning of the MaerzMusik festival which is regarded as a progressive music event. In the discussion which took place before the concert the women composers themselves (Justė Janulytė and the American composer Ashley Fure) expressed their surprise as to how they came to find themselves included in this format. However, later, when the festival curator Berno Odo Polzer was interviewed he commented on the situation more or less in this manner: if there is no such problem in Lithuania, that doesn’t mean it does not exist elsewhere.

But there is also a lot of gender imbalance, characteristic of the old democracies, in the Lithuanian music sector. Jazz and electronic music are still especially male-dominated territories of expression, there is also a large concentration of men in pop music with a woman often appearing in the role of a sexy singer or performing some ‘unimportant’ work behind the scenes. Even with the exceptional gender balance in music composition practices, one can still come across cases like the one in the Composition Department of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in which officially there are 2 female composers as faculty members and 11 male ones.

In fact, the aforementioned gender balance movements in the music sector are taking place for a reason. Concerned music professionals abroad constantly talk about insurmountable inertia, entrenched gender stereotypes, male-dominated spaces, prejudice against women and a destructive undermining of the confidence and motivation of women at every higher level. Perhaps the use of artificial gender quotas is not the most appropriate solution, but it can really shake up thinking, introduce a fresh gust of wind and expand creative diversity, opening up the opportunity for new natural processes.

Translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka

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