Why are there so few female film composers?

We list six great composers who aren’t one of the small pool of men who seem to get all the big composing gigs in Hollywood.

Natasha Jagger

Music is a vital ingredient when it comes to the production of a film. It can sometimes be hard to fully appreciate the effort that goes into creating instrumental tracks that help to heighten the emotions of what you’r seeing. If you think about superhero films, or some hard-stricken drama, the intensity of the score is always used to enhance what we see.

When we think of the great movie composers, these are the names that come to mind: Hans Zimmer; John Williams; Nino Rota; Danny Elfman; John Barry; James Horner and Alan Silvestri. All men. Most people can name one female film composer, but can you name two?

Zimmer, known for his work on blockbusters such as The Dark Knight Trilogy and Interstellar, has recently been hired for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984. This isn’t just a missed opportunity for a female oriented film to also employs a female for the soundtrack, but it’s also the latest example of women being largely unheard in the world of film composing. A study by the University of Southern California in 2018 found that, of the top 100 fiction films at the box office every year from 2007 to 2017, only 16 female composers were hired, in comparison to 1,218 men.

Additionally, a supporting report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film revealed that 94 per cent of the top 250 films at the domestic box office in 2018 used male composers. In an era of Time’s Up, an organisation set up in support for equal pay and opportunities, female composers are still lingering in the shadows behind the men who hold domination in this industry. In celebration of women in film and music, here are a few composers we think you should know about:

1. Mica Levi

The British-born singer isn’t the first musician to take on the world of cinema. However, Mica Levi is certainly one of the first to disrupt orthodox film music traditions. Having first unsettled audiences with her trippy, idiosyncratic score for Jonathan Glazer’s 2014 unearthly sci-fi parable, Under the Skin, Levi then went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Pablo Larrain’s Jackie. For the Jackie soundtrack she employed a small flute ensemble to emotive effect. Her style often leans on dramatic glissandos (the eerie slide upward or downward between note) and she rarely generates soundtracks act as a companion to a film but almost as a character within the narrative.

2. Hildur Guðnadóttir

Known for her collaborations with the late, very grate Jóhann Jóhannsson, Hildur Guðnadóttir has quite the back catalogue when it comes to contributing to films. An example is her solo cello work can be heard in Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival. Guonadottir also went on to co-compose the score for Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene with Johannsson. “People approach me looking for a specific type of sound, or feeling,” she told The New York Times. “They don’t come knocking on my door for, like, a John Williams score. So that also puts me in a really good position, because I’m normally allowed to be myself.” The Icelandic musician is set to be pushed towards mainstream fame as she recently used her modernist style of combining acoustic instruments with an electro edge for the mini-series Chernobyl, and her score for Todd Phillips’ Joker is soon to be heard across the globe.

3. Pinar Toprak

Pinar Toprak came to America from Istanbul at the age of 17 and she new little English. She had one goal: to compose music for film. She cemented that dream and became the first woman in history to write and compose a score in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. More specifically, she created the music for Captain Marvel, the film studio’s first female led film. To make sure Marvel producers could see her full potential, Toprak hired a 70-piece orchestra just to audition for the job. “I made my intentions clear, and when the opportunity to demo came, I wanted to mark sure that I made the best impression,” she told Vulture. Before the gig, the Turkish-born scorer worked with The Simpson’s composer Danny Elfman on the score for Justice League, and was the lead composer for Pixar’s short film Purl.

4. Lesley Barber

The Hollywood Reporter’s famous composer Roundtable which occurs around award season has always been pretty male dominated over the years, but back in 2016 Lesley Barber broke that tradition by being the first female composer to join the fray, in celebration of her mournful score to Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. The Canadian multi-instrumentalist is known for her contemporary classical scores having previously worked on the music for films such as Mansfield Park, Irreplaceable You and also composed music for the animated television series Little Bear. Her intimate talent lies in a traditional style of mixing piano with strings, but you’ll also find that her scores include a dash of modern colour thanks to subtle electronics used to draw out the emotional themes. Her most recent work can be heard in Mindy Kaling’s comedy-drama Late-Night, breaking out from her classic traits for something a little more jazzy.

5. Anne Dudley

Known for her pop roots, and being a member of the band Art of Noise, Anne Dudley is no stranger to the film music world. Her discography in film is impressive, having scored for movies such as American History X and Paul Verhoeven’s bizarre anti-revenge film, Elle. One of Dudley’s composing highlights is her work on The Full Monty, in which she received the Academy Award for Best Original Musical or Comedy score. She is someone who is able to alter her style to connect to the material, but she mainly sits in a firmly traditional camp. “I’m also a piano player, so I like to compose at the piano, and the piano becomes my orchestra,” Dudley told Artsmania. Her most recent work includes working on BBC’s popular period drama Poldark.

6. Tamar-Kali

Working with writer and director Dee Rees was one of those right-place-right-time moments for Tamar-Kali. She was a singer-songwriter, who harboured no intention of getting into film composition until meeting Rees. Having previously worked on a few songs for the director’s excellent debut film, Pariah, she was commissioned to take on the music for Netflix’s hit Mudbound. “She (Rees) already had an aesthetic that she was married to, and that was strings,” Kali told Score It. “My work with strings is what made her choose me for the job because she wanted something that was intimate, maybe a bit ominous and melancholic in sections, and that’s definitely in my wheelhouse.” The direction given by her third collaboration helped the musician to create an arguably unconventional score that subverts traditional southern music to meet the radical themes of the film. She has since scored for films such as Come Sunday and Veena Sud’s The Lie. And we imagine there’s lots more to come from this talented musician.

Published 19 Sep 2019

Tags: Film composer Film music Hans Zimmer John Williams Mica Levi

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