Composing a Fighting Instinct: Tamzin Elliott on her “Daughters Concerto”

Note: This event occurred on April 23 & 24, 2016.

This weekend, The Orchestra Now will present world premieres by Bard College Conservatory of Music composers Daniel Zlatkin and Tamzin Elliott at our Fisher Center season finale (Saturday, April 23rd at 8 PM and Sunday, April 24th at 3 PM). Below, Tamzin Elliott shares her thoughts about her piece, Daughters Concerto, feminism, and the future of classical music.


TŌN: You’ve written for chamber ensembles, string quartets, orchestras, and more. What have been some of the most formative experiences in your development as a composer?

TAMZIN ELLIOTT: I spent many summers as a teenager doing the Yellow Barn Young Artists Program, writing chamber pieces in two weeks, rehearsing the work in progress every other day. The experience of writing for my peers, rehearsing unfinished pieces with said peers, and learning the art of coaching chamber music molded me into a composer who is not afraid to edit, to admit I do or don’t know how I want something to sound, and to grasp the gritty details of preparing for a performance. Those summers primed me for inquiry into what is truly important to me in live performance and music making, the lifestyle and the stage.

Can you talk about the inspiration for the piece? What topics were you seeking to address in composing this piece, and how did it affect your compositional process?

My statements in the piece are not written in notation, there aren’t clues to be found in my harmonic and structural material. My musical decisions in this piece were guided most strongly by my fears, anger, and sadness for the continuing dangers facing women and people assigned female at birth. Will my daughter in the future be blamed for being assaulted while traveling alone? Will she blame herself for the orgasm inequality with her partner, or will she assume that it’s just harder for girls? Will she still have to drive five hours to the nearest abortion clinic, only to be turned away? Will someone still hold the power over her to deem her worthy of sexual objectification? At the heart of this piece are my own various songs as a growing activist – the emotional contours of beginning to live the life of a woman who is in the position to speak out, to fight.

As far as my process goes, I had to begin to come to terms with the fact that the history of the western classical music world is a sexist one, and that fact of course has implications on the musical language I have inherited from that past. I had to ask myself, how do I write music that concerns my own body without objectifying it? It’s no accident that opera plots have a tendency to be about a woman getting destroyed in some way, or at least are put on a pedestal of evil (why do we think Salome was an interesting and revolutionary plot to choose for opera?). Bluebeard’s Castle, Lulu, Carmen, The Fiery Angel, Die Soldaten, the list rambles on and on. These pieces show us that there has been a long lineage of reveling in women burning at the stake (I’m talking to you, Fiery Angel), and it never matters if it was deserved or not. Pain of death, or pain of bodily or mental or moral disease is largely the impetus for musical material concerning women. I found myself having to fight the instinct to add a rotten core, to add a moral failing to the sensual music I wrote in this piece, and it disgusted me that I would have been primed to add bruises and disgust to my own body.

In addition to being a composer, you’re also a poet and a singer of Georgian folk music; how do your artistic activities inform each other?

All these things have significantly influenced how I think about performance and what I want to do moving forward. Poetry, classical music, singing, Georgian music—they all share a bedroom in my head. I like to think that my classical music training is the neatest kid in the room, but secretly is really behind on homework. And maybe Georgian music is hilarious but leaves its socks all over the place.

We’re so excited that you are the first woman whose work is being performed by TŌN. According to a survey of the 22 largest American orchestras, women composers accounted for only 1.8 percent of the total pieces performed in the 2014–15 concert season. It’s clear that women are underrepresented on the programs of American orchestras. Are there women whose compositional work has particularly inspired you? What pieces of music do you find particularly influential?

My friend Gabriella Smith has really shown me that I can do anything I want. She’s a rockstar in my book, and one of the strongest musical voices I know. I have loved everything of hers that I have heard.

I feel rough in saying that I don’t have another influential women composer to add to that list, but the pool is so small and the visibility so bad, what can I say?

Your work has been played by several ensembles including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York ensemble Contemporaneous. What has been significant for you about working with The Orchestra Now on Daughters Concerto?

It’s really special to have this large work done by TŌN and pianist Blair McMillen because it feels like a culmination of five years of life and work here at Bard. Even though TŌN has only been around for a year, it still feels like getting to work with a home team (and at the home stadium).

What are your hopes for your career in music and the arts, and for women in orchestral music?

For myself, I hope to be a part of putting on performances that I would want to go to. What that means is mysterious to me, but at least I know what I have to figure out to go forward.

For women composers who want to write for orchestra, my hope is that they get commissioned. The more women get commissioned the more it even occurs to young girls that being a composer is an option, and the more girls become composers the bigger a pool organizations will have to commission women. Sexism and oppression are subtle, but thankfully the dearth in women’s music on orchestral programs is not hard to rectify (if the problem is recognized as a problem, it should be fairly obvious what to do about it).

It was a source of great pride for me when I realized that my own successes could lead to the future success of others; that my visibility as a minority in the composition field could open the door further so that in future I may not be a minority. That is the dream, and I sincerely hope I can play that part for someone.


The Orchestra Now will perform Tamzin Elliott’s Daughters Concerto at the Fisher Center for the Arts on Saturday, April 23 at 8 PM and Sunday, April 24 at 3 PM.

Interview by Angus Davidson. Photo by Dávid A. Nagy.