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Female Composers Are Trying to Break Film’s Sound Barrier

The “Mudbound” composer Tamar-kali in her Midtown Manhattan studio. In the largely white male milieu of movie composers, she’s used to being “an outlier within the outliers.”

Composers have been hired for two forthcoming blockbusters about warrior women — “Wonder Woman 1984,” directed and co-written by Patty Jenkins, and “Mulan,” directed by Niki Caro from a screenplay by three women.

The composers: Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams. Both, plainly, dudes.

More than just a missed opportunity to lend flinty female heroes a female musical voice, the announcements were simply the latest examples of women being sorely unheard in film music. A 2018 studyby the University of Southern California revealed that for the top 100 fictional films at the box office every year from 2007 to 2017, only 16 female composers were hired, compared with more than 1,200 men.

Another report, from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, showed that of the top 250 films at the domestic box office in 2018, 94 percent were scored by men.

Tamar-kali is working again with her “Mudbound” director, Dee Rees, on “The Last Thing He Wanted.”CreditDana Scruggs for The New York Times.

“The numbers are bleak, but the landscape isn’t,” said Laura Karpman, a veteran film composer (“Paris Can Wait”) and a governor in the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “People are reaching out in a way that I’ve never seen it my whole career.”

Karpman was instrumental in expanding the diversity of her branch’s membership, which now includes the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Karpman also spearheaded the creation of a shortlist in the score category of the Academy Awards. “Had we had a voted-upon shortlist last year, I think we would have more diversity,” she said. Citing the composers behind “Get Out” and “Mudbound,” she added, “I want to see Michael Abels and Tamar-kali on Oscar shortlists.” (Karpman spoke before the shortlist was announced in December. It includes Terence Blanchard’s score for “BlacKkKlansman” — his first Oscar nomination if he moves to the next round — but, alas, no women.)

Tamar-kali is one of several new voices in a persistently white male milieu. “Mudbound,” directed by Dee Rees, was the Brooklyn artist’s first score, which she followed with the Netflix drama “Come Sunday.” She’s also reteaming with Rees for an adaptation of the Joan Didion novel “The Last Thing He Wanted.” As an Afro-indigenous woman in the New York punk rock scene, she said, she was already used to being “an outlier within the outliers.”

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“It just kind of fuels your creativity,” she explained. “The ethos means even more to you, because you’re practicing it every moment — even in the pit, even at shows.”

Tamar-kali - "Mudbound Theme" (Mudbound OST)CreditCreditVideo by Milan Records USA

Like a handful of other female artists, Tamar-kali wasn’t pursuing film composition, but was commissioned after a director heard her work. Mica Levi, a British rocker from the band formerly known as Micachu and the Shapes, was nominated for an Oscar for “Jackie,” which followed her shivering, queasy breakout score for “Under the Skin.”

The Icelandic cellist-composer Hildur Gudnadottir was hired for “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” and the forthcoming “Joker,” starring Joaquin Phoenix — two patently “macho,” big-budget features — largely because of her experimental electronic solo work.

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