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Why is Everyone Pointing at Me?

by Laura Karpman
December 2, 2013 2:00 PM
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Laura Karpman

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. 

With four Emmys and another seven nominations, an Annie nomination, and two GANG awards for her video-game music, Laura Karpman is one of a handful of female composers scoring film, television and video games today. She recently collaborated with Raphael Saadiq on the score for Kasi Lemmons' Black Nativity (Fox Searchlight). She has just completed The Galapagos Affair, starring Cate Blanchett, and is currently scoring Regarding Susan Sontag (HBO). Karpman is also currently working on recording her multimedia opera Ask Your Mama, an opus based on a text by Langston Hughes and commissioned by Carnegie Hall for singer Jessye Norman.

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  • Daniel Carlin | December 3, 2013 7:35 PMReply

    The fact that you don't seem to have heard Laura talking about other issues of importance is precisely the point. I have collaborated quite a bit with Laura--mostly in academic settings--and I can assure you that she has lots of things to say about non-feminist issues, and she does so with intelligence, wisdom, and wit. The reason you aren't so aware of that fact is that the only time she seems to get any press is when the issue of "women in the industry" is being spotlighted. But, what really prompted me to write is your wildly naive assertion that Laura Karpman's 4 Emmys somehow proves that she no longer is a victim of gender discrimination. Wow; Shirley Walker must really be spinning over that one!

  • Bruce McGlory | December 3, 2013 1:35 PMReply

    ignore the whiny "why are you talking about this instead of what I want you to talk about" comments. They've missed the point and aren't willing to open their eyes, so whining is easier than thinking. You're amazing. Keep on keeping on.

  • Peter Maleitzke | December 3, 2013 4:13 AMReply

    In principle, we all want what Jon and Lindsey say they want. I am sure Laura would agree, it will be a joyous day when there is no need to have this discussion. But reading Laura's article, I believe she was suggesting we all do the math. One female composer and how many men for how many years, Jon? It is a complex math problem I know. I have followed Ms. Karpman's career closely and I can assure you, she has explored many topics with her music and with words. And Lindsey, you won't have to look very deep into Laura's oeuvre to discover her music does speak loud and clear for itself. Although I doubt she would ever say it, Laura can write circles around most composers, and would be on to the next project, not waiting for a pat on the back from anyone.

  • Lindsey | December 2, 2013 8:43 PMReply

    As a female composer, I'm with Jon. I'm just tired of female composers constantly bringing attention to their gender as if picking up a keyboard and writing some music is this groundbreaking accomplishment for our gender. It's 2013; there's nothing holding us back.

    I really wish female composers would just let their music speak for itself instead of always seeking some sort of pat on the back.

  • roro80 | December 2, 2013 4:17 PMReply

    Despite what Jon has to say, I for one hope you will keep on talking about this subject until the situation has been changed. Thanks for the article, and congratulations on this latest acheivement.

  • Jon | December 2, 2013 4:10 PMReply

    I've heard you talk about this so many times in interviews — being a woman in the biz. Would be nice to hear you talk about something else for a change. This schtick gets old fast. You're a woman who is a talented composer. Embrace it and quit making it an issue. As someone who has won four Emmy's, I hardly think you are overlooked in any way due to your gender.

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