On February 23, Albion’s Symphonic Wind Ensemble will put on one of their annual performances — with a twist. All the pieces they will performing were composed by women.
Dr. Sam McIlhagga, Albion’s Director of Bands, says this is because there is a distinct lack of female composer recognition. At the recent College Band Directors National Association’s conference, he noticed that while there were concerts by big college bands which commissioned composers to share their work, there were no women composers featured.
“All of these composers are in attendance, and they do a panel session about their music. It was very evident there were no female composers present,” said McIlhagga. “The association’s directors talked about the issue in a patronizing way, only encouraging women to write more music.”
After talking with his wife, Kristin McIlhagga, an Assistant English Professor at Oakland University and an advocate for diversity in children’s literature, about the lack of representation, McIlhagga decided to do something about it.
“I decided that if they’re not going to do something seriously about it, at least I can do something in my own little world at Albion College to demonstrate that there’s more music out there than the traditional white male composers we’ve been doing forever,” said McIlhagga.
McIlhagga said that he did research on female composers he could feature in the concert because he didn’t know enough about the subject himself. McIlhagga contacted female composers in the music world working to get their music recognized in order to put his list together.
McIlhagga chose six pieces from five female composers to play at the concert, the sole theme being highlighting women composers.
One of these composers is Amy Riske, who graduated from Albion in 2006.
“It’s rare that you get the opportunity to have the composer right next to you while you’re preparing the piece, so she could look at it and say ‘Oh, that’s not what I meant there,’” said McIlhagga. “If you look at the music, there’s tons of notes all over it, reminding me to do different things because of conversations she and I had.”
Albion’s Symphonic Wind Ensemble performed Mortalis Oriens while Riske still attended Albion, but this will be the first time they have performed it since. McIlhagga wants to highlight that Albion College has a few women composers of its own.
While she was a student, Riske wrote the piece for her Honors thesis. The piece, “Mortalis Oriens,” translates from Latin to “mortal” or “living sunrise.”
“The music is meant to evoke the images of a peaceful yet brilliant sunrise, and is dedicated to my parents, Martin and Theresa Riske,” said Riske.
Riske will be attending the concert, and McIlhagga hopes that she will share a few words about the piece to the audience and the importance of having a voice as a female composer.
Riske went on to attend Bowling Green State University after graduating from Albion and earned a Master of Music in music composition. She now lives in Chicago where she works as the Piano, Early Childhood and General Music Program Director at the Merit School of Music. The school provides opportunities to learn about music to 5,000 students a year.
Riske believes that the lack of gender equality in the composition world is beginning to change, but the public perception of the male-centric field has yet to catch up.
“The musical world was almost entirely male-dominated for centuries,” said Riske. “Since the music from those eras still generally dominates the classical landscape, it is easy to see how audiences feel that the field is still male-centric today. In reality, I’ve seen that women composers stand on equal footing in the contemporary music community, evidenced by the quality and quantity of music available to conductors who program all-female composer concerts.”
Riske believes that once the landscape of classic music starts to reflect contemporary music, the lack of gender equality in classic composition will change.
The concert will also host the High School Honor Band, an group of 50 to 60 high school students who come from around the state to experience rehearsing and performing with a college band for a few pieces at the end of the concert.
The high school students rehearse all of the concert’s music in one day and perform that night. Between one and seven students are sent, depending on how far away their school is.
Photo by Kellie Brown