Femmelody Wants To Make Classical Music Feminist: BUST Interview

by Jasmine P. Ting


Mozart had a sister. She was just as good—if not better—than her legend of a brother. But not a lot of people know this. I didn’t know this until I spoke with feminist flautist Leanne Friedman.

We met at Sundaes and Cones, a small ice cream shop in the East Village—not too far from the NYU campus, where she’s finishing up her double degree (BA in Flute Performance, MA in Music Education). She got a double-scoop cup with Lavender and Green Tea ice cream.

The 21 year-old classically-trained musician has a long and slender figure, much like her musical instrument of choice. Her dark chestnut brown hair stops just below her big brown eyes, and the rest (up to her shoulder) is dip-dyed in electric blue—not a typical sight in a sea of black attire that makes up a traditional orchestra. But then again, with both her parents in the field of medicine, there’s nothing typical or traditional about Friedman’s choice to become a classical musician. And there certainly isn’t anything typical or traditional about starting her all-female chamber music collective, Femmelody.

femmelody2 1740ecourtesy Femmelody

What age did you start playing the flute?

I started in fourth grade. So that means I was 9, I think. So it’s been close to 12 years.

Wow. Do you ever run out of air when you play?

[Laughs] All the time! That is such a huge struggle of playing any wind instrument. I feel like half of my musical development was just learning how to subtly take breaths. Any day could very well have at least an hour’s worth of talking about air with other musicians. It’s pretty goofy.

Are there any other classical flautists with blue hair?

There’s kind of this overarching rule of “Don’t wear anything that makes you stick out” for ensembles and big orchestras. So I guess blue hair would be interesting for that.

Classical music does have that connotation of being on an ivory pedestal. With that comes a lot of tradition and proper etiquette. There are some aspects of performance tradition that are cool and beautiful, historical and great. But there are some things that I think could be updated. I hope to do that with our concerts for Femmelody. But to answer your question: I don’t think I’ve encountered other classical musicians with blue hair. 

What exactly does it mean to be an “all-female chamber music collective”?

It’s an organization of women in music who are interested in promoting and celebrating the music of women composers—both of today and the past. It’s primarily classical music.

Why not an orchestra?

Besides that there’s just a lot of cool repertoire out there for chamber music by women composers, I think chamber music is one of the best ways to get to work with each other, getting to know each other through the collaborative artistic process. I think a lot of that happens while they’re rehearsing. Smaller ensembles give more opportunity for intimate exchanges than large orchestral pieces.

Is there any other group like you?

There are ensembles that are all women. There are also chamber ensembles that play the works that like to focus on the works of female composers. But I don’t know of any collectives like this one that is all women that is playing music by women, and also changes in instrumentation.

How did you first come up with the idea?

It started with conversations with other music students, from NYU and other schools, about how in four semesters of music history we probably learn about three to five female composers, as opposed to tens and hundreds of male composers. It was strange that it wasn’t even addressed that we weren’t talking about women composers. I just kind of came to the idea that we should have a platform to celebrate the music that we aren’t necessarily studying — for whatever reason — but is still significant and beautiful.

Why do you think it is that there are more male composers getting attention than female composers?

A lot of it is tied up with just the history of our Western world. Gender equality is, unfortunately, a new development. So many people have had exposure to Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Mozart. Those names are no less significant, but we just want to show the work of people who are overlooked. Works of composers like Madeleine Dring, Louise Farrenc and Jordyn Gallinek.

You can’t really generalize this, but have you noticed what differences there are between music from male composers and music from female composers? INTERESTING QUESTION.

Part of why what is so confusing about how we don’t focus on women in the later music history classes is that it’s so not different from male compositions. They’re equally…whatever you want to call it! Beautiful, weird, cool, interesting, mind-boggling, boring — or whatever your experience is. Whether it’s written by a man or a woman.

So do you feel like Femmelody is trying to reach out to a more female audience?

The idea is for it to be for everybody and just offer everybody to see these artistic contributions to the classical music world that you might not get a chance to in a regular setting. I really believe that you can reach anyone with music because it’s really tied to our humanness and our experience of living in this world.

I’m sorry. Your ice cream is melting. I didn’t think this through.

No! It’s okay. I’m a slow ice cream eater regardless of interviews. [Laughs]

At what point did you realize that there had to be a group of women who support the work of female composers?

I had a very introspective realization when I was preparing for my junior recital at NYU. I was finding that when I was preparing to play pieces with men, I did not feel as comfortable speaking up about my musical opinions. I felt like I should keep quiet more. And I was thinking, “Why is that so ingrained in me?” I never felt like I didn’t have any equal opportunity in music, to pursue flute as a woman or anything like that. But when I considered it more, I realized it did tie back to the educational absence of women in the field. It’s been such a historically male-dominated field.

What do you enjoy about working with other women?

I don’t necessarily prefer working with women over men. I just prefer working with women on a project like this, who have also seen that there is sort of a gap in this area for women. It’s almost like philosophically filling a gap that we’ve felt and seen and want to do something about in the company of women. 

Do you hope to incorporate this sort of philosophy in your teaching?

I had some kids this summer who were learning about Mozart. I really wanted them to know that Mozart’s sister was equally—if not more—talented as he was and used to be on tour with him when they were kids. But when, I believe, she was fourteen she had to be sent home to get married and raise a family. When I mentioned that to them, they were all saying, “That doesn’t make sense! That’s not fair!” And I was like, “Nope.”

What is the goal of Femmelody?

We’re still in the beginning stages, but while it’s obviously music, the greater picture is trying to show that you don’t necessarily see yourself represented in an industry you love—whether it’s music or engineering—it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a voice that can shape the future of it.

Femmelody plays their first concert on October 22nd, 4:00 PM, at St. Peter’s Church in Chelsea as part of the “Music in Chelsea” series. All the proceeds go to the church’s food pantry.

Top photo by Justin Smith

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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