In this edition of Subito’s “Composer’s Corner” series, we’re talking with Judith Lang Zaimont, composer, performer, educator, scholar and advocate for contemporary music and women composers. She shares her thoughts about working during the Covid pandemic, about why she still composes pen-to-paper, how she adapts to technologies to share her music, and her best advice to all composers who enter the field — “Go for it!”
S: How has Covid-19 impacted your work? Have you been able to collaborate with other composers/artists during the lockdown?
Zaimont: Several performances were rescheduled, and one was cancelled. But the London Symphony Orchestra and National Philharmonic concerts were performed in the second half of 2020, and one of these was circulated online.
Collaborating goes on long-distance. (Commissions and requests for pieces. Class visits and rehearsals via Zoom.) In February, I was the virtual Guest Composer for the New Music Consortium at the University of South Florida which included a local radio interview, classes and a concert that featured three premieres. I’ve continued to compose, and I wrote three short pieces for smaller forces in 2020. I’m finishing up a piece for 23 winds, brass and percussion that will be called “In Praise of HEROES.” It’s a tribute-processional honoring front-line professionals in all fields who held fast during the darkest pandemic times.
S: What technology have you used to continue working in a virtual world?
Zaimont: I had to learn Zoom, Skype, and Zencastr for various interviews. But since I compose with pen on paper (and have engravers around the country who input the music into Sibelius), I’m not that affected in my own work.
S: Has it been a challenge for you, as a woman, working in a trade that has been dominated by men?
Zaimont: In every university where I taught, I was the only woman in the Theory & Composition Department. Did it bother me? Not one whit! I came in with solid accomplishments and real credentials, and I valued both what I, and what my colleagues, brought to the institution. If others had any kind of issue, it didn’t percolate back to my ears.
S: What advice would you give young, female composers about entering this industry?
Zaimont: Advice to all composers…regardless of gender: if composing is central to your life, “Go for it!”
S: You began composing at 11 years old, so it’s clear that you are doing what you were born to do. What were your challenges as a young composer?
Zaimont: Just about none. I had the good fortune to be recognized both for my original music and my performance starting from a young age. I won my first national composition prize at age 12, and this has continued over the years. There was almost no one-on-one study in composition, so luckily I didn’t have a time where I needed to jettison anyone else’s misguided teaching.
S: As a composer, you get to see many of your works in performance. Has there been a moment in your career that surprised or inspired you while watching your music being performed? Do you have a favorite composition?
Zaimont: The only “surprise” was having a conductor bow out of a performance at the second-to-last rehearsal, and I foolishly said I’d step in to conduct. Luckily, the players were on my side — but it was hard! As a result, I decided no more 11/8 bars! Concerning specific pieces, I’d prefer to pinpoint representative pieces like A Strange Magic and Serenade. These works reveal an aspect of my personality in full: direct, interruptive, bold, sensitive, quieter, reflective, and very craft-conscious.
S: You are the creator and editor-in-chief of “The Musical Woman: An International Perspective,” a critically acclaimed three-volume book series. Why did you think this was an important project and why are these books still relevant?
Zaimont: Since the early ’70s, I’ve thought many times about embracing an adjective before the word “composer” — and there are any number of adjectives from which to choose. Ultimately I decided that for me, the only thing that counts is the noun. But there was a period of about 20 years in which being described as a “woman composer” didn’t concern me. Why? Because I needed to revise the historical record to include all the women of great musical talent who had been left out!
For many, we “teach as we were taught.” If you learn the history of music without encountering the compositions of Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, Fanny Hensel, Rebecca Clarke, Lili Boulanger, or Ruth Crawford Seeger, then you don’t really know the true history. Each of these creators was applauded and honored in her own time, and the music has almost entirely now fallen out of repertoire. I was appalled. Also, music critics of our own day were not really dealing with the music written by living composers who were women. Critics seemed to get stalled trying to deal only with the adjective. So the music was not being fully appraised and critiqued.
Talent knows no gender. I wanted to halt these two incomprehensible “injustices,” so I took on the design and editor-ship of a new multi-volume series meant to survey accomplishments of all types by women music-professionals around the world. It would give a current snapshot of activities — conductors, composers, musicologists, administrators, coaches, critics, etc. — and then delve into particular arenas. I could design the essay topics to scratch all my own bumps of curiosity and bring on music critics to deal with the music of a particular composer. I possess many bumps of curiosity, and scratching this particular one about “re-balancing” the situation through these books was quite satisfying. (I eventually received grateful letters from a number of prominent composers to say thanks for their first printed substantive creative critique.)
S: For more than three decades, you’ve had a distinguished career as a professor in higher education. What is it about teaching that kept you in the classroom for 36 years?
Zaimont: 1) Individual lessons — assisting the development of a younger composer to create music of substance, validity and originality. Watching the evolution of their skill and imagination over time is wonderfully involving. 2) In classes, matters of craft and career (i.e. orchestration). At the University of Minnesota, I was able to realize a graduate composers project in collaboration with a team of producers at Minnesota Public Radio. MPR’s chief producer came to the class to present the production team’s response to the project and the entire process. MPR enjoyed it so much, that over the years, we were able to do the project over and over with different composers and brand-new music each time.
S: What would you say to other artists/musicians who are craving ensemble work and want to continue performing as part of their mental health during this pandemic?
Zaimont: “Go for it,” by any or all means. (Soundjack, Jamulus, AudioMovers, etc.) As a performer (and co-founder) with the local chamber orchestra where I live, we’ve had to become pretty creative just to continue making music together. Right now we’re planning an online concert for April, and rehearsals are sometimes by phone, by Zoom, by pre-recording of certain parts, and sometimes in person!