by Jill Kimball
Composer Angelique Poteat. Photo: Hayley Young
We in the world of music are often thankful for this increasingly digital world. It allows us to access new music from all over the globe, to communicate with musicians and music appreciators who live thousands of miles away, and to find inspiration in countless eras, countries, and languages.
But for many young women, globalization has its drawbacks. It allows us to obsessively compare ourselves with other women, some of whom we know and others whom we’ve never met. It invites anonymous bullying in comment forums and objectification in the media. And for many teenagers, it turns the schooltime popularity contest into a 24/7 battle.
“We have this global access, so we can see what’s going on all over the world,” says Seattle-based composer Angelique Poteat. “When you hear about women in the media, you can see that people are constantly expecting more from women. You’re expected to do it all…family, work, et cetera.”
Poteat wanted to know how teen girls felt about society’s high standards for them, both online and in real life. She surveyed a handful of teens who sing in the Northwest Girlchoir, and the answers she got were so stunning that she set the words to music with the help of grants from the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture and 4Culture.
On Wednesday, November 18, members of the Northwest Girlchoir get to do something they’ve probably never done before: sing a piece set to words they wrote themselves. The Girlchoir premieres Poteat’s five-movement work, Listen to the Girls, alongside the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra at Seattle’s University Christian Church. You can buy tickets right here.
I asked Poteat a few questions about the project, and her answers are below.
Where did you get the inspiration for Listen to the Girls?
I noticed that all this stuff kept coming up in the media about young women and self esteem and unrealistic standards that girls are being held up to. Rather than take the media’s word for it, I wanted to get the girls’ opinions. I came up with a questionnaire and gave it to Seattle-area middle and high school girls. I asked things like, “Who are your role models? Do you have a fear of failure? Where does it come from? How does criticism influence the decisions you make? What are the pros and cons of using social media?” I used all of this information and came up with text for a piece of music. I scored it for large orchestra with a girlchoir, so I could have girls actually singing the words of girls.
Members of the Northwest Girlchoir.
What kinds of things did the girls say in the survey?
You’ll be able to hear it all in the piece. In the first movement, you’ll hear their responses to the question, “Who are you?” They answered, we’re redheads, nerds, geeks, we like contact sports, we’re adopted, we like film and anime. Stuff you’d hope young women would be interested in.
In the second movement, we find out who their role models are. You’ll see that it’s women who are strong, kind, smart and honest, who inspire and change, who fearlessly speak their mind and stand up for their beliefs.
The third and fourth movements are about doubt and social media. There’s an internal conflict here: the girls want to know what their friends are doing, they never want to miss out on anything. But they also feel like they have to stand up to the expectations of their friends, they have to change the way they look or behave to get approval.
In the last movement, they sing about the pressure to succeed in a competitive world where value is placed on perfection. But what is perfection? Are we supposed to be attractive or smart? Can’t we be both? It ends really triumphantly. The girls are determined to say they’re not a stereotype, they’re not objects, they’re working harder for people to accept them as they are.
What does it sound like?
I wanted to write something that was more relevant to the girls, so it’s got a bit of an energetic, perhaps lightly pop-ish feel to it. The first movement is really fiery, with fast stuff weaving in and out. There’s a moment with a grooving bass line. Second movement is kind of an off-kilter waltz. The third movement is mostly an orchestra movement, with long lines, rich harmonies, and changes in mood. The fourth movement is about social media, so it’s kind of mechanical, almost like you’re sitting at a computer and you’ve got this frantic energy. In the last movement about societal pressure, it’s very march-like and strict, and then there’s a very grand conclusion.
What will be different about this new generation of women?
Today we have global access, so we can see what’s going on all over the world. And because of that, we can see that women are so completely varied. These girls feel like it’s okay to be an individual, but they also see that people are expecting more from them than before. I think it’s really hard to deal with that pressure. We’ve all felt it.
Of all the classical music performed today, only 14 percent is composed by women. How does it feel to be in the minority?
I don’t know what it feels like to be a male composer, but it does feel curious to be a certain minority in my field. I always feel really weird when I get programmed for one of those concerts showcasing female composers, because you’ll never see a program called “Music of Male Composers.” Luckily, if you’re listening to the music and you don’t know who wrote it, it’s just music. I’ve never felt that being a woman is really holding me back.
What kind of music do you usually compose?
Music for large orchestra is my main focus right now. Earlier this year, the Seattle Symphony premiered a piece I wrote, and that was so exciting for me. I’ve always been influenced by jazz, rock and roll, and 20th century masters like Bartók and Messiaen. All those old dead guys used to write music inspired by whatever was popular in their day, and I think it’s wonderful that composers are trending toward that again.
What did you want to communicate by calling your piece Listen to the Girls?
There are so many places on the internet and in real life where people try to guess what girls and women are thinking. Instead of guessing, why don’t we just listen? Open up your ears, get rid of the biases and expectations, and just hear what these women have to say.