The Frame

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Composer Laura Karpman's quest to get more women in the film and TV scoring stage

by Michelle Lanz | The Frame

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Composer Laura Karpman (center) poses with the Best Engineered Album, Classical trophy for "Ask Your Mama" in the press room during the 58th Annual Grammy Music Awards in Los Angeles on February 15, 2016. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

We all know about the lack of women directors in Hollywood, but there are jobs in the film biz where the lack of gender diversity is even worse.

Take the composer category, for instance. According to a Los Angeles Times study of voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the academy’s music branch is 92-percent male. What's worse is women comprised just 1 percent of all composers working on the top 250 films of 2014, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at SDSU. 

But if composer Laura Karpman has her way, that's about to change. Karpman is a 25-year veteran of the industry and the co-founder of the Alliance for Women Film Composers, a group that offers resources to women working in composing. 

"It is a man's world and we're changing it. I think that what is different now is there's a conversation," said Karpman on The Frame. "That's the beginning of a difference. For the past 25 years no one's even been asking that question, there has been a tacit assumption that there are no women composers out there working."

But there are women working in the composing world, even if they're not writing music for big, tentpole movies.

Karpman is currently the composer for the WGN series "Underground" and her composition "Ask Your Mama" just won two Grammys. "Ask Your Mama" takes the Langston Hughes's poem of the same name and sets his poetry to music. 

Karpman joins The Frame to talk about "Ask Your Mama," the Alliance for Women Film Composers and how she's working to get more women in scoring stages in Hollywood. 

Interview Highlights: 

Tell us about the genesis of "Ask Your Mama."

It started out with rejected cues by CBS, basically what happened was I had written this...they probably should have rejected it, this super cool neo-noir jazzy music and I had these wonderful cues [for a TV show] a number of years ago and I was looking for something to do with this music that had been  rejected so I went to the bookstore, I know that's kind of a crazy idea, and I came across the collected poetry of Langston Hughes looking for jazz poetry.

When I came across "Ask Your Mama," I just went nuts because as probably people don't know, in the right hand margins in this poem, which is in all caps, are very explicit musical directions and they go from everything from the most specific reference to more general guidance and as a film composer, I thought, Oh My God, this would be like having the most esoteric, erudite film director telling me what to do with the music. So I thought this is something I have just got to do some day. 

Do you think the combination of poetry and jazz illuminates the poetry in a way that hasn't been illuminated. Or does it make people listen to jazz in a new way?

One of the most mind-blowing experiences of this journey is the way people perceive the piece. Everybody sees and hears it differently and I think this is the case with the poem, too. Some people see it as jazz, some people see it as classical music, we were nominated in three classical [Grammy] categories. We were thrown out of the jazz category by the recording morphs, it changes, it evolves and it's continuing to evolve and that's one of my favorite things about this project. 

Women are grossly underrepresented in the composing world. What do you think is behind this and how are you working to change this?

I've been doing this for about 25 years, and it is a man's world and we're changing it. I think that what is different now is there's a conversation. You asked the question, that's the beginning of a difference. For the past 25 years no one's even been asking that question, there has been a tacit assumption that there are no women composers out there working. There are quite a few of us, actually who are working at a high level. I've really perceived in the past two or three years that there's a real shift. I'm a new member of the motion picture academy, I'm pleased to say. I'm actively recruiting women to come into the music branch. The academy is very much supporting that effort...I think the very fact that they let me in indicates that they're open and willing to look at this issue. 

Do you think there is an unconscious bias by film directors against hiring composers who are women?

I think that you can't look at our numbers and say there is not an unconscious bias, at this point it's ridiculous to say that. But I can also tell you in meetings that I have had at studios, in various places, that there is an openness and willingness to look at why this is the case. That's what we're talking about. A lot of us have gotten together and we now have a directory of women composers. It seems like a little thing, but it means you can go to that directory and there are 100 people there.

I think the issue for women composers is the same as women period. Visibility, are we getting out there, are we making enough money to hire the publicists to get us in the conversation, is there a consciousness about putting us on panels, is there a consciousness about including us in concerts. I think that the more advocates that we have...the better it is, and we need men, frankly, to advocate for us. 

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