Reflections of a female, Japanese-American classical guitarist

A search for musical identity, community and representation

Original article published on Sharps & Flatirons here.

Izzy Fincher. Photo by Anna Haynes.

As a young classical guitarist, I am still searching for a distinctive musical identity—a nebulous and daunting task.

I often ask myself, “How is my interpretation unique? Whose story am I telling? How can I embody the composer’s experiences when we are separated by lifetimes, thousands of miles, race, nationality and gender?”

As a mixed-race, Japanese-American woman in classical guitar, I struggle to see myself reflected in the community and repertoire. Like most of the classical music world, I find myself within the white-male frame, telling musical stories by white men.

I began playing guitar at age six. Since then, 83% of my primary teachers have been white men. One hundred percent of my studio at CU-Boulder is white men. Before college, 100% of the guitar repertoire I had played or heard during concerts was written by white men.

These statistics are not offered to criticize my mentors and colleagues, who did their best to support me as a female guitarist. Their advice and guidance has become an integral, guiding force in my musical development, and for that I am grateful.

However, I cannot ignore the impact of existing in less diverse spaces, of seeing the musical world as beautiful and profound, yet also incomplete.

Growing up, I never saw myself as a feminist or an activist. Like many women, I am naturally conflict-averse and a people pleaser. Being an advocate for diversity in my musical community felt too risky. 

But now, as I continue to struggle with defining my own musical identity, I feel I can no longer ignore or deny the lack of representation, and I see how choosing silence can be another way of reinforcing the white-male frame.

So, I raise my pen and share the beginning of my journey of telling women’s stories on the classical guitar.

My first experience telling women’s stories came in March of 2020, when I performed Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Serenade” at “Persevering Legacy,” a concert featuring only female composers hosted by the Diverse Musicians Alliance at CU-Boulder. For four minutes, under the hot stage lights of Grusin Hall, I felt the thrill of telling one woman’s story, a moment filled with empowerment and excitement.

While researching repertoire for the concert in 2019, I stumbled across a Spotify playlist entitled “Women classical guitar composers” by Heike Matthiesen, featuring over 600 works for solo guitar by female composers, nearly 30 hours of music. For Matthiesen, this playlist is a form of musical activism, a way to increase awareness and accessibility of female composers’ works for solo guitar. 

The playlist stems from her work as a touring classical guitarist and director of “The Archive of Women in Music” in the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (Germany). The archive includes 25,000 media by more than 1800 women from 52 countries, from the 9th century to the present day. The classical guitar part of the archive includes over 800 female composers who have written for solo guitar, 600 of which were discovered by Matthiesen. The scores are available for research and personal use only, so Matthiesen’s main focus is connecting classical guitarists with information and then directly with composers, a process she believes could be key to “opening up the canon,” she says. 

“I want to be the connection between the archives and the players and audience,” Matthiesen says. “The music is there. Discover it. From the 19th century on to the present, if you are looking for a certain type of repertoire, you can always find a solution with a woman’s name on it. This is something the world needs to know.”

Her work as a musical activist began to garner attention only in the last few years, after the release of her album “Guitar Ladies,” which features works by notable female composers, including Madame Sidney Pratten, María Luisa Anido, Ida Presti, Sofia Gubaidulina, Carmen Guzman, Sylvie Bodorova, Annette Kruisbrink, Tatiana Stachak and Maria Linnemann.

“In 2015, no one was playing (repertoire by) women composers,” Matthiesen says. “I did it for karma points. I was being idealistic. I thought, ‘Nobody will be interested or buy the CD.’ But I had no idea that I was at the right moment in the right place with it. Now suddenly I am the expert for the repertoire.”

Another powerful voice in this movement is Candice Mowbray, a classical guitarist and educator, who leads the guitar program at Shepherd University in West Virginia. Her doctoral thesis from Shenandoah University, which was published in 2012, focused on “Ida Presti as a Solo Performer and Composer of Works for Solo Guitar.”

Ida Presti

Presti (1924-1967), a French classical guitarist and part of the Presti-Lagoya duo with her husband, was one of the most influential female guitarists and composers of the 20th century. Before Mowbray, no one had researched her solo and compositional career in-depth. Besides Presti, Mowbray has collected information about many other female guitarist-composers, which she shares on Facebook and her personal blog.

Presenting lectures at universities and music events is also an important part of Mowbray’s musical activism. In 2020, she gave a lecture “Women in the History of the Classical Guitar” at the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) festival, the largest and most prestigious competition in the United States, where I first learned about her work.

Candice Mowbray

With her musical activism, Mowbray’s main goal is to share knowledge, which she hopes will inspire classical guitarists to integrate female composers into their teaching and performance careers. She believes raising awareness is the key to creating a more inclusive space in the classical guitar community.

“Women existed this whole time,” Mowbray says. “But when you open a book with 1000 years of music history, there are no women. The history we are studying is a great one, but it is really incomplete.

“My goal was to put these women in the same conversation. When I teach, I say the great guitarists of the 20th century, Andrès Segovia, John Williams, Ida Presti and David Russell. Let’s just change the conversation to include (women).”

Though Mowbray, Matthiesen and other activists have been working for years, the classical guitar community, like the rest of the classical music world, has been particularly receptive to messages about women in 2020.

In 2020, the GFA created a mentorship program “to support and develop talent among classical guitarists of color through instruction, engagement, and career development.” Exaequo, a non-profit run by successful younger classical guitarists, has created a new initiative called “Changing the Canon,” to commission new classical guitar works by nine Black American composers, including several women. Ben Verdery, the head of Yale University’s classical guitar program, updated the graduate student audition requirements to recommend several female composers, including Francesca Caccini, Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre, Emilia Giuliani-Guglielmi, Joan Tower and Hannah Lash.

And this is just the beginning. According to Matthiesen, the heightened awareness around diversity and equity in 2020 is the “perfect time” to advocate for change, a chance for “a golden era for female composers” in the classical guitar community.

“Before, the canon was played by men, dictated by men, and composed by men,” Matthiesen says. “There was no chance to change that. It took more women in the (classical guitar world) to open up the repertoire.”

Though these new opportunities are unprecedented and exciting, the importance of activism has not diminished at all. Our community must actively ride this tidal wave of equality, rather than let it crash suddenly over us and leave us stranded in the sea of under-representation.

Information is power. However, information has to be accessible and spread widely for the power to be transformative. Female composers can’t be relegated to dusty reference books, out-of-print scores or forgotten CDs. They have to exist in our daily conversations, on our music stands and in our concert halls, if we want profound, long-lasting change.

Representation matters. Representation gives diverse musicians the chance to hear and play reflections of themselves and their lives. Representation gives us the space to dream beyond the boundaries of the canon and to imagine with fewer limits.

Though the search for a distinctive musical identity still remains far from easy, an inclusive, representative musical world makes my journey less daunting and more universal. As I walk the path, I know many diverse women have been, are and will be in my shoes, and that we are all united by our love of the classical guitar.

Leave a Reply