Playlist: 10 Contemporary Composers You Should Know (…Who Also Happen to Be Women)

By Lisa Flynn |

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During March, Women’s History Month, we draw special attention to the music of women composers past and present on WFMT. Here are 10 living composers who are changing music today, along with 10 albums featuring their music you might want to add to your library.

1. Lera Auerbach

A talented performer, Lera Auerbach continues the great tradition of pianist-composers of the 19th and 20th centuries, but she composes for more than just the keyboard. She has written ballets, operas, symphonies, concertos, and numerous chamber and solo music works.

Auerbach’s 24 Preludes for cello and piano explore a form that harkens back to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The music demands extreme virtuosity and a range of colors from the performers.

Hear one of her 24 Preludes from her album Celloquy below.

2. Unsuk Chin

Unsuk Chin initially studied in her native South Korea and then went to Germany where she worked in electronic music studios. Her music is a compelling blend of modern techniques and non-European influences, often with a playful sense of humor.

Chin has composed several concertos throughout career. Her album Three Concertos features works for violin, cello and piano, and shows how she uses changing textures to explore the relationship between a solo instrument and orchestra. Hear excerpts from the album on Deutsche Grammophon’s website. Hear an excerpt from her Cello Concerto performed by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra,

Hear one of her 24 Preludes from her album Celloquy below.

3. Anna Clyne

London-born Anna Clyne is a composer of acoustic and electro-acoustic music. She says she is often inspired by visual images and physical movement and her intention is to create music that complements and interacts with other art forms.

Clyne's most recent project, The Violin, a suite she composed for multi-tracked violins. Hear its closing movement, "Lavender Rain," below.

4. Sofia Gubaidulina

Sofia Gubaidulina says she dreamed of becoming a composer when she was a child. She struggled to realize that dream under the repressive Soviet government, which rejected spiritual themes in her work. Now, she is considered one of the most important voices in contemporary music.

On the album Works for Piano, Andreas Haefliger plays a range of works for piano by Gubaidulina – from Musical Toys, written for her daughter, to Introitus, a concerto that combines and contrasts the piano with chamber orchestra. Enjoy one of her Musical Toys below.

5. Jennifer Higdon

Jennifer Higdon came late to music. She taught herself to play flute at age 15 and started composing at 21. Despite the delayed beginning, she has since gone on to win a Pulitzer Prize and has become one of America’s most acclaimed and frequently performed composers.

Chamber Music of Jennifer Higdon was released in 2013 and showcases her chamber music compositions, including her dynamic and expressive "Sonata for Alto Sax and Piano." Listen below.

6. Tania León

Tania León left her native Cuba for the United States in 1967. She quickly became a vital figure in New York’s arts scene, taking on the directorship of the Dance Theater of Harlem. Her music reflects the many aspects of her life, from the cultural traditions of Cuba to the avant-garde.

More than 35 years separate the two works by León on her album In Motion. Haiku reimagines Japanese haiku poems. Inura is inspired by Candomblé, a religion based on African beliefs which is particularly popular in Brazil. Hear “The Lust” from Inura below.

7. Augusta Read Thomas

Augusta Read Thomas is an artistic force to be reckoned with. Championed by Pierre Boulez in her early years and later named composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Thomas rose early to the top of her profession and has remained there ever since.

Nimbus Records has been surveying the incredible variety of compositions by Thomas. Her album Selected Works for Orchestra includes some of the works which came out of her fruitful collaboration with the CSO. Below, hear a track from In My Sky at Twilight.

8. Kaija Saariaho

The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho studied at the Sibelius Academy, but it was her move to Paris and her work at IRCAM’s electronic music studios that opened up new worlds of sound. She is recognized for creating unusual colors with stunning vocal and instrumental techniques.

First performed in 2000, Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin is based on the medieval narrative of the life of 12th-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel. The story addresses issues of love from afar, ideal love, and relations between East and West. Hear an excerpt from the opera below.

9. Joan Tower

 Joan Tower’s influence as a composer grows out of her experience as a pianist and her collaborations with other musicians. She often writes music with specific performers in mind. Her works are powerful, communicative and vividly scored.

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra recorded the three works by Tower that span almost 20 years. Her Violin Concerto, which you can hear below, is both a virtuoso showcase and a lyrical vehicle for the soloist. “Stroke” and “Chamber Dance” are given world-premiere recordings.

10. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich was the first female composer to receive the Pulitzer Prize and the first (male or female) to hold the Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall. A tireless creative force in American music, Zwilich continues to engage audiences with her rich array of compositions.

Zwilich has always been inspired by musicians. She has written five works for the legendary Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio over the years. Joined by guest artists, the trio has recorded three of those works on Passionate Diversions. Below, hear a movement from her Septet for Piano Trio & String Quartet.

What contemporary composers would you add to the list? Tell us in the comments below.