Dispatch from the Game Developers Conference: #1ReasonToBe a Woman in Gaming

Last week, I attended the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. This is a yearly pilgrimage for most people in games. I love writing music for games, and I do at least one major game project a year. It’s a terrific venue for composers, a place where we can really stretch and write music that is dramatic and melodic. But if I’m one of the “2% of women composers in Hollywood,” I can’t even imagine what the numbers are in the game world. So as a woman over 50 who has no idea how to move a joystick, I had no idea if I would enjoy or benefit from this conference. But it was worth a try.

On my carefully constructed agenda, in between seminars and meetings, I included two Women in Gaming International (WIGI) activities: a party and an awards luncheon. WIGI is an organization devoted to gender diversity in a very male-oriented side of entertainment.

I went to the first event at the Cartoon Art Museum, buttressed by two friends and ready to network — or at least I told myself that. I find “networking” awkward at best, and miserable at worst. We went early and planted ourselves at a table. To my delight, lots of people stopped by and chatted, from a young woman making a kids’ game about poop to Noah Falstein, a legend in the field and now Chief Game Designer at Google. (He wore a pair of Google Glass.) Whipping out cards (mine was a USB stick with my music on it) was simple; I met lots of terrific women and men.

But the real highlight was the next day. At the WIGI award luncheon, very generously hosted by Microsoft, I sat at a table with several friends, including Jeanine Cowen, a gamer, composer, and the Vice President of Berklee College of Music, and the legendary Leslie Ann Jones, a Grammy-winning recording engineer who has produced and recorded many game scores. The rest of our table was filled with young female game developers, mostly in their twenties — self-described math nerds who write computer code for major companies.

Parsons professor and game designer Colleen Macklin moderated the #1ReasonToBe panel, which asked super-smart women why they entered — and have continued to stay — in the video-game industry. There were many tough questions: including one on whether the panelists believed in affirmative action (one no, one HELL YES!) and whether it’s possible to have a career and family (yes, but your life will be a hot mess).

The fantastic Robin Hunicke, the winner of the Ambassador Award, which honors women who have helped make the video-grame industry more hospitable to women, gave a memorable speech at the luncheon.

Hunicke told a story about a recent talk in Sweden, a country famous for gender equity, where she was asked how to correct the gender inequality in gaming. She asked the women at that gathering to raise their hands. There were 8 in a group of 80. She responded, Why don’t you ask a man?, and and went on to say, We can’t work hard, raise families, and be asked to solve this problem as well. It’s for men to solve as well. She declared that she hopes the Ambassador Award goes to a man next year. The cheers overwhelmed the couple of boos.

The luncheon was totally inspiring, honest, warm, and fun. At the end, a young woman who writes code turned to Leslie and me and said that sometimes she doesn’t even want to go to work because of the overt sexism. But seeing us there — we who have somehow lasted and made careers — gave her hope. I told her that every day she goes to work, it’s a feminist act.
— Indiewire, Women in Hollywood, March 25, 2014

Ask Your Mama: Collaboration With Langston Hughes and Jessye Norman

I think in everyone’s life there are seemingly small moments that end up changing everything. One appeared during a winter afternoon, in a bookstore in Santa Monica, when I was killing some unexpected free time. Leafing through the poetry section, I came across the collected poems of Langston Hughes. I read some favorites, and then turned to the back of the book and found a long poem I had never seen. Not only did its first pages contain the notated music of “The Hesitation Blues” and “A Shave and a Haircut,” but in the margins of his text, Hughes wrote exactly how the music should sound, often asking for well-known songs and requesting rapid stylistic changes from German lieder to traditional 12-bar blues. Hughes had actually scored a poem! Crazy! Outrageous! Genius! As a film composer, I had certainly been asked to be versatile — sometimes even gymnastic — in musical thought. In “Ask Your Mama,” there was the possibility of working with the most brilliant, erudite “director,” Langston Hughes, with the most specific directions. What a perfect project. Now, how to get it done.

”Ask Your Mama” sat on my desk while I waited for the right opportunity.

Enter legendary soprano Jessye Norman. I got a most unlikely phone call from the late great Edgar Baitzel, the former COO of the L.A. Opera. He wanted me to collaborate with her on a different project. What a chance for me to work with one of the great artists of all time! But I kept thinking about “Ask Your Mama,” not the project Edgar was proposing. Jessye Norman simply embodies the poem. This would not only be setting a text for a great artist, but a real collaboration. I rolled the dice and sent her a first edition copy of the poem and hoped she would respond. Five days later, I was sitting next to her, on her couch, listening to her sing gospel in my ear. By the end of our first meeting, we agreed to embark on this journey together to use this opportunity, through music, to have an honest and impassioned conversation between black and white America.

”Ask Your Mama” is Hughes’s longest poem, epic in scope, and in some ways, his least known. On the surface, it seems unlike his earlier poetry. The text is in all capital letters, the typographical signature of a scream, and there are those musical annotations in the margins. The text is thick, modernist and doesn’t have the surface ease of some of his earlier poems. Each mood is full of lists, jokes, and metaphors: they are layered and dense. The more time I spent with the poem, oddly, the simpler it became, the purer the message.

At times I felt like Langston was speaking to me — and he was. I managed to locate an out-of-print recording of Hughes reading “Ask Your Mama,” in that wonderful voice of his — warm, wry, poignant. He had to be a part of the piece somehow.

I spent a great deal of time thinking about how to set Hughes’s words to music and what kinds of voices would be singing and speaking them. But who could hold the stage with Jessye Norman?

In what had become typical for this project, an unexpected angel appeared. A friend of a friend, a paralegal who was studying in her free time for the bar, had worked with a lot of artists and suggested the Roots. I said, sure, but how would I get to them?

Black Thought, an icon. ?uestlove, one of the most profoundly gifted musicians I have ever encountered. I went to City Bakery in L.A. to meet with Rich Nichols, the manager of The Roots. After about five minutes of me pitching, he said softly, “We’re in.” Elation. Soon after, Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon joined us, and said to me, even though her part was super challenging, “Well, we’ve swung long enough! Let’s try something new.”

I think, for me, the true joy, was that I was able to realize the vision of a great poet and thinker. Langston Hughes had a multimedia vision that was 50 years ahead of its time. “Ask Your Mama” broke a mold for him, which is why I think it was not performed in his lifetime. People just didn’t get it. I think too, for Jessye Norman, the Roots, Nnenna Freelon, Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and now the Apollo Theater, and certainly for me, we have all broken out of our comfort zones. But meaningful art seldom emerges from the zone of comfort.
— Huffington Post, March 18, 2013

Defying Boundaries: Being / Becoming a 21st Century Artist Columbia College Dean's Lecture - February 21, 2013


Why is Everyone Pointing at Me?

2008 was a watershed year for me. I was nominated for my eleventh Emmy — for a composition I had created in three days for a science-fiction show.

But what was most remarkable to me about the awards ceremony was standing with my peers, approximately 30 fellow nominees, and having people pointing.

At me.

I wondered, What was everyone pointing at? I had already won four Emmys by then and had been nominated many more times, so this group photograph was not a new experience for me. But the pointing was new. For the first time, people around me finally noticed something that I was well aware of — that I was the only woman in the group. But I had been the only women every other time too.

Why was this time different?

The only answer I could come up with was Hillary Clinton. She was visible. The public had seen a female leader in action, and that made the rest of us a bit more visible too. In my tiny corner of the world, I had always been the only woman, whether I was studying composition in college and graduate school, as a fellow at Tanglewood or at Sundance. And now finally, Hillary Clinton had made people aware.

This week, Black Nativity opened on 1500 screens. I was lucky enough to compose the score. It is an extraordinary film for so many reasons. Foremost, there is director Kasi Lemmons, one of the most visionary and talented filmmakers of our generation. The film is artful and commercial, which is a very tough balance to achieve. But Kasi has done it. Working with her was a dream come true. She was a perfect collaborator: challenging me, pushing me to be my best, and supporting me all the way. It was one of most perfect experiences of my professional career.

I also collaborated with the great Raphael Saadiq. Kasi brought us together, and I know we will continue to be friends and colleagues. We adapted the songs to the images and composed the underscore together even though Raphael and I come from such divergent musical backgrounds: me with a doctorate from Juilliard, Raphael finding his way to music though the church and becoming a success in the R&B world. Our collaboration was filled with music-making at the highest level — and lots of joy and laughter.

I am so grateful to be making a living doing what I love: making music everyday and collaborating with brilliant filmmakers and video-game developers. I don’t know what the exact statistics about my peers are. My guess would be that the only female composers who have worked on studio films in wide release have been the late, great Shirley Walker who forged the way, the terrific British composers Rachael Portman and Anne Dudley, and Deborah Lurie, a fine composer who has had great success. With me, that now makes five. TOTAL.

I look forward to watching my field expand to include diverse voices of all kinds. I’m glad people finally noticed the skewed gender imbalance in my industry to point at me, but I hope that the situation improves for women composers as a whole so that no one has to point at me at all.
— Indiewire, Women in Hollywood, December 2, 2013

Portrait of a Serial Composer

The American composer and teacher Milton Babbitt died Saturday, Jan. 29 at age 94. For years, New York-based journalist and filmmaker Robert Hilferty had been constructing a documentary on Babbitt. It was a quirky, loving look at a man regarded by many as a composer of “difficult” music. Hilferty left the film unfinished when he died in 2009. Composer and former Babbitt student Laura Karpman has now completed Hilferty’s film. And she has graciously placed its premiere on NPR Music.

Two years ago, I spent the winter in New York, preparing for the premiere of a new piece of mine at Carnegie Hall. I went to visit my old friend Robert Hilferty, who wanted me to watch the latest cut of his film about Milton Babbitt.

For years Robert had constructed Portrait of a Serial Composer. He realized that it was still a work in progress, and we discussed the major changes he intended to make in order to finish it up. He died tragically several months later. His partner, Fabio, asked me to complete the film.

Last summer, I began to sit in the room with Milton again, just as I had done as his student years before. I spent hours combing through footage — seeing images of Sylvia (his wife) again, listening to Milton go on about baseball, Chinese food and music. Always music, with that twinkle in his eye I knew so well.

I think we all know why Milton is so important, and now, why this film is too. He loved music above all things, and because he cared so deeply about every aspect of it, he was greatly misunderstood.

In this film, we see him as the intellectual titan that he was, and we see why he wrote what he did and a bit about how he did it. But he also sings, laughs, drives with Sylvia, talks about his family and his own musical beginnings at the dawn of the last century.

Early last fall, I sent Milton a copy of the completed film. I believe this project started as Robert’s love letter to Milton and it ended as mine. In a three-word email, Milton requited the feeling that inspired the film: “I love you.”
— NPR, Deceptive Cadence, January 31, 2011