Female Score Composers Piercing Through the Noise
The power of truly great, emotive sound in film is something that can’t be overstated.
Just consider the orchestral weight behind a dramatic exchange or even the delicate arrangement that carries a stirring conversation…
There’s a shortlist of film composers that most people can name off the top of their heads, but much like the rest of the music writing industry from scores to operas, that list has always tended to be heavily male dominated – despite the first identifiable composer in the history of Western music being a woman (Hildegard of Bingen).
Score composition has always been this way, with women counting for only around 10 percent of film composers and very few able to make a name for themselves.
There’s not to say there aren’t any though.
Here, we’re shining a spotlight on six trailblazing, under-celebrated powerhouses of composition produced by women. The hope is that the female voice slowly but surely pierces through the noise.
It took researching an article to realise that a woman was responsible for the Doctor Who theme tune.
Although originally written by Ron Grainer, the eerie, futuristic and evocative piece was completely rearranged by Delia Derbyshire into the song we know. Sadly, she was left uncredited for 17 seasons (50 years).
Would the television series have survived for this long without the iconic theme sending shivers down millions of spines before the Daleks even roll onto screen? It’s a good point to ponder.
Although she collaborated with many men, it’s her individual impact on the electronic music scene that’s still reverberating.
Her work has influenced bands such as Aphex Twin, Art of Noise and The Chemical Brothers. She also spent her time at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop recording on equipment not yet named, as well as composing soundtracks to alternative horror and sci-fi shows.
In a time when the world was obsessed with scientific advances, she invented sounds, synths and allowed other like-minded artistes to experiment with their music by co-founding the Kaleidophon Studio in Camden.
One thing’s for sure, she deserves to be recognised as a pioneer in electronic music.
Credit: Felix van Groeningen
Tamar-kali is pounding the composition scene with her unabashed scores and soulful punk-rock solo albums.
She was first recognised for her work on Mudbound in 2017. It’s an epic soundtrack, from the deeply threatening strings of “Missing Letter” to the galvanising “Mighty River”.
In the mere five years since then, she has gone on to compose over ten original film scores, including the captivating Shirley and the upcoming music documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything.
Her unique post-punk edge seeps into her feature scores, as she swaps her electric Washburn (guitar) for a string quartet to soften the edges and expand her compositions to suit the big screen.
See her work on television series such as Palmer and The Lie, where she has room to experiment with electronic and rock sounds within classical boundaries.
There’s something raw about her music that translates perfectly to the screen, allowing the watcher to melt into the world.
Tamar-kali is making her noise in a predominantly classical or electronic field, and paving the way for more Afrocentric and punky scores.
Video games should never go unremarked in the world of composition for entertainment, in fact they’re arguably more integral to the playing experience than a score is to a film.
They’re often long-form pieces that move with you as you progress through the plot, inciting all kinds of emotion.
Nobuko Toda does just that. As a video game composer, she manages to juggle loops, scene cuts and interactive moments, all while delivering heartfelt and propulsive pieces.
Unlike the BBC in the 1960s, the video game industry boasts a strong circle of female Japanese composers, and Toda’s work spans over 70 video games and television titles, including Halo, Star Wars Visions, Ghost In The Shell and Super Smash Bros.
Most notably is the award-winning horror game, Remothered, which is beautiful in its orchestration and maintains a perfect sense of threat through the undercurrent of deep, foreboding wind instruments.
Toda’s skill as a musician is in storytelling. Through her use of radiant fantasy electronica, you can truly feel the atmosphere without even setting one foot (or thumb) in the world.
Credit: Ben Joarwas
It took until 2021 for a woman to score a Disney animated feature film, and it came in the electrifying form of Encanto.
It’s an enchanting soundtrack, not only bringing the Colombia valley and all its inhabitants to life, but inviting the audience to get up and dance “the cumbia” in the aisles.
Germaine Franco worked remotely, mid-pandemic, with Colombian musicians and bespoke instruments (like a Marimba made from a particular palm tree) to create an authentic and rousing soundtrack.
Franco was the first Latina composer to do a lot of things, including joining the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and receiving the Annie Award for “Outstanding Achievement for Music in an Animated Feature” for her work on Coco.
Her ability to listen and respond to environments and cultures lends itself to producing animation music, but she’s often called on to orchestrate live action films from Hancock to Fargo.
Hailing from a professional percussionist background, she performs on all of her scores, and champions female and Latinx voices in the industry.
Regarded as one of the first female music composers in Indian cinema, Saraswati Devi (née Khorshed Minocher-Homji) is most noted for her score in the 1936 Achhut Kannya.
Her hypnotic singing style and Hindustani classical background popularised her at an early age when she would regularly sing on a radio station with her sisters.
She was subsequently offered a job managing the music department for Bombay Talkies, and went on to compose countless intricate and stirring scores.
Devi changed her name to avoid controversy from her conservative Parsi community, navigated the Indian independence movement through her art, but it is said that her biggest challenge was teaching non-singer actors to sing her lyrical and complicated compositions.
Despite owning a repertoire even men at the time would struggle to build, she left the world mostly unheralded, without so much as an obituary.
Even now, her legacy is disregarded by the Western world, but her voice and compositions will live on, synonymous with Hindi cinema.
It’s impossible to talk about synth music without referencing the work of Wendy Carlos and in particular her 1968 revolutionary album, Switched-On-Bach – a collection of pieces by Bach performed on a Moog synthesiser, released under her birth name, Walter Carlos.
Interestingly, the synthesisers were monophonic, so only one note could be played at a time, giving a cold and detached feeling to Bach’s otherwise elaborate and emotional compositions.
The triple Grammy Award-winning album commercialised the Moog synthesiser, and made strides in de-mystifying synth music.
Carlos’ scientific deconstructions of classical music captivated director Stanley Kubrick and they formed a working relationship.
She composed suitably unnerving themes to The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, the latter being an electronic transcription of Henry Purcell's “Music For The Funeral Of Queen Mary”.
Another genius pairing was with Weird Al Yankovic in 1988, when together, they released a satirical and comedic electronic take on the score of Peter And The Wolf.
Carlos is still working today; her ambient and atmospheric solo work having doubtlessly influenced electronic artistes from Anne Dudley to Mica Levi.
Cover: Veronica Chuah/Sound Of Life
Elevate the way you listen to music with KEF
Writer | Tallulah Boote Bond
Tallulah is a London-based music journalist, actor and playwright who has written for The Line of Best Fit, Last Bus Magazine and Moonhood Magazine. She has a feature film in development and was upset when she learnt that it wasn’t her job to choose music for her scripts.