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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Threadgold

The Rise of Female Composers

We are seeing more and more women being credited in films for the role of composer. However, when you Google ‘film composers', a wall of male composers still jumps up. Despite strides, women remain underrepresented.

At Cactus City, we love celebrating women’s successes, so we wanted to showcase some of our favourite female composers.

Shirley Walker

Molly's pick: Batman Theme Song

Added Bonus: Shirley Walker talking about her process:

Shirley Walker is one of Hollywood's unsung idols of cinematic music. Being the first woman to receive a solo film credit on a major studio film, we thought we would start with the woman who deserves greater recognition for her work.

You know those top search results for ‘Best Film composer”, Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman? Well, Shirley Walker either mentored them or collaborated with them. Shirley developed an attachment to DC Comics early on, after working on Tim Burton’s Batman. She scored both the TV series The Flash and Batman between 1990 and 1995 as well as the animated feature Batman: The Mask Of The Phantasm. Shirley’s versatility and fantastic sense of humour is clear in her epic scoring, but to work as a composer, conductor and orchestrator in a male-dominated industry is nothing short of incredible.

Her ambition in the 1960s was radical and without her, the music industry would not be the same as it is today. At her death in 2006, she had scored more major motion pictures than any other American female. Now THAT is someone to be remembered.

“Shirley Walker is still an unsung, overlooked creative giant who should receive more public recognition as a champion for diversity in the film industry as well as for her music”

Wendy Carlos

Molly's pick: TRON (1982)

Wendy Carlos never followed a conventional music course, but is arguably the most important living figure in the history of electronic music.

Carlos hit platinum sales status with her 1968 recording Switched-On Bach. This propelled the Moog synthesizer into the public consciousness. Yeah, that Moog, the brand that has a permanent place in the studio. We owe her for the user-friendly design changes Moog made, and the era of development in electronic music that followed.

After winning three Grammy awards, she created several albums, including further synthesized classical music adaptations and experimental music. She composed the score to two Stanley Kubrick films –A Clockwork Orange (1971) and the most iconic horror film of film history, The Shining (1980) – and Tron (1982) for Walt Disney Productions.

Carlos’s use of vocoders for synthesized singing in her score for Stanley Kubrick's film, A Clockwork Orange, was way ahead of the curve and long before synthetic voices became the common sound for the soundtrack. We may be familiar with the strange musical sound now, but back then it was literally unheard of.

Wendy Carlos is a truly groundbreaking creative mind and was presented the SEAMUS 2005 Life Achievement Award in recognition of her work in the electro-acoustic world.

The modern electro-acoustic world would simply not be the same without her.

"A nice blend of prediction and surprise seems to be at the heart of the best art." - Wendy Carlos

Rachel Portman

Molly's pick: Chocolat (2000)

Rachel Portman was the first female composer to win an Academy award in 1997, a Primetime Emmy Award and an Oscar for best original score and has received two further Academy nominations and a Golden Globe Nomination.

Known for her ethereal orchestral scores with diverse musical influences and tones, Portman hones in on creating a word of music for one character rather than a theme that can be used to wash over the whole movie, creating incredibly intimate musical moments. With an incredibly distinctive style, Portman’s work doesn't receive enough credit, but she has time and time again shown people that there is so much more to her than what Hollywood pigeonholed her as.

Her accomplishments are endless and her music never fails to transport me to a different place and her music has a truly special place in my heart.

"I'm a big advocate for less is more and unfortunately there is a tendency more and more to rely on the music" - Rachel Portman

Lisa Gerrard

Molly's pick: The Mirror Pool

Lisa Gerrard is one of Australia's most ground-breaking and in-demand artists. Being both a singer and a composer, Lisa brings a vision that is both precise and all-embracing to everything she does.

With a vocal range of three octaves, Lisa Gerrard is known for her unique singing techniques and style influenced by her multicultural childhood in Melbourne.

Lisa has received Golden Globe nominations for Insider and Ali and Oscar Nominations for Gladiator and 4 International awards for Whale Rider.

Overall, she has won 11 awards receiving 23 nominations. Gerrard has been nominated for a Grammy Award twice.

Gerrard’s music is just gorgeous, a strange adjective to use when describing music but as soon as you listen to it, I think you will agree with my description. She has paved such a unique way into the music industry and, with her exceptionally diverse musical talent, has pushed the boundaries of sound used in film.

"Music is a place to take refuge. It's a sanctuary from mediocrity and boredom. It's innocent and it's a place where you can lose yourself in thoughts, memories and intricacies."

Pinar Toprak

Molly's pick: Fortnite

Pinar Toprak is one of the most refreshing and futuristic voices in the music world today.

She is the winner of three IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association) Awards for her work on The Wind Gods and The Lightkeepers which was on the Academy Award shortlist for “Best Original Score” in 2011 and more recently the 2019 IFMCA Award for “Best Original Score for a Documentary Film” for her score to The Tides of Fate.

Pinar Toprak is also the recipient of the 2019 ASCAP Shirley Walker Award. Toprak is the first EVER female composer to solo score a superhero movie. Let that sink in.

Her unique sound and ability to capture the exact mood and tone in any genre is astounding.

She is showing the Film Industry that women are fully capable of writing powerful action themes and paving the way for equality, inspiring the next wave of musical creativity in film.

“I’d rather fail at something that I love doing rather than succeeding by attempting something that really does not make me happy.”

Hildur Guðnadóttir

Molly's pick: Joker (2019)

Added bonus: Behind the Scenes of Joker

An Icelandic composer, cello player, and singer who defies classification and disregards generic musical boundaries with her fantastic contemporary musical style. Not only is she the first female composer to ever win the Academy Award, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards in the same season but Hildur Guðnadóttir has also consequently set a new record for the highest number of awards ever received in a single season by a female composer!

Hildur Guðnadóttir is the fresh new wave of creative minds that are inspiring an entire generation of young creative people.

She is definitely one to watch because we’ve only just seen the beginning of what she is capable of.

“To the girls, to the women, to the mothers, to the daughters who hear the music bubbling within, please speak up. We need to hear your voices.” - Hildur Guðnadóttir

Kathryn Bostic

Molly's pick: Clemency (2019)

Kathryn Bostic is one of the newer women to the music scene but she caught my ear when I watched Clemency and I had to do my own research. A prolific composer, songwriter, accomplished pianist and vocalist, Kathryn Bostic is known for her original work on film, TV, theater and symphonic music.

Bostic has been Emmy nominated for her score in “Amy Tan:Unintended Memoir” and “Toni Morrison- The Pieces I am,” and is the recipient of many fellowships and awards.

On top of all her success she is the first female African American score composer in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The key to Bostics unique style is the (self-described) ‘less is more’ approach to her work. In a world where it is so easy to step out of balance andt take away from the visuals you are trying to enhance, Kathryn Bostic never fails to capture the emotion perfectly while also leaving space for the visuals to breathe.

“I try not to get too far ahead about how the score is going to work on its own because I’m really trying to craft the story of the film.”

Nainita Desai

Molly's pick: For Sama (2019)

Added bonus: Nainita Desai Interview

Royal Television Society award winning composer Nainita Desai is a BIFA, Cinema Eye Honors, and Ivor Novello 2020 nominee, a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit and the IFMCA Breakthrough Composer of 2020.

The key thing that struck me was that Nainita Desai worked as a Sound Designer before moving to musical scores, giving her music an interesting edge.

Desai’s use of custom made instruments and electronics fused with inspirations from music around the world, creates a colourful, rich and versatile score and her truly unique sound is one to listen out for.

“Being a composer is like being a psychologist. You have to be perceptive and have insight into the human condition. Composing is a bit like being a method character”

Natalie Ann Holt

Molly's pick: Loki (2021)

Added Bonus:

My favourite composer discovery in Lockdown. Multi award winning British composer Natalie Anna Holt has taken the composer's world by storm.

She won the prestigious Ivor Novello award in 2015, was made an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music in 2017, was nominated for an Emmy award in 2017 and won the Best International Score at the Beijing International Film Festival in 2018 for her score on Journey’s End with Hildur Guðnadóttir.

Being the second female composer on an MCU project after Captain Marvel, Natalie Ann Holt is part of the new wave of creatives taking over the media scene.

Her bigger, bolder, crazier approach to creating the perfect score, drawing influence from all over the world, always succeeds in carrying the narrative momentum.

Most of the time I was watching Loki...I was just away in a dream, listening to the score.

There you have it! We would love to hear who your favourite composer are

Have we missed anyone? Let us know in the comments below


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