When it comes to movies, television, and video games we often forget just how much power music has. Music shapes our experience with a piece of media with the ability to guide our emotions and understanding of what’s happening on screen. But when we call to mind the god-tier of composers the same small group springs up: Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Danny Elfman. You see the pattern. According to Variety, female composers wrote 1-2% of scores for the top 250 films at the box office over the last three years. On top of this, only 7 female composers have ever been nominated for the Academy Awards’ Best Original Score, with only 2 wins. To celebrate women in film, here are five composers that are definitely worth a listen.
Known for her recent win at the Academy Awards for Best Original Score for her work on Todd Phillip’s Joker, Hildur Guðnadóttir has made some big contributions to the world of film music. More than just a composer, you might recognise her work as a cello soloist in some iconic scores such as The Revenant and Arrival. Her contribution to TV is also strong, with her work on mini-series Chernobyl winning her a number of awards, including an Emmy for Outstanding Music Contribution. Guðnadóttir’s style centres on a freedom to try new things; whether that’s writing a soundtrack without using a single instrument or using a traditional orchestra to create a haunting soundscape.
One of the most prolific female film composers of all time, Rachel Portman has worked on over 100 soundtracks for films and television shows spanning from 1982 to the present. This comes as no surprise, having composed her first score at the age of 13. Not only was she the first female composer to win an Academy Award in the category of Best Musical or Comedy Score for Emma, but she also holds the most nominations for a female composer at the Academy Awards with two for Best Original Score. Portman’s work has a focus on solo instruments and a ‘less is more’ approach that makes it so enjoyable to listen to. You need only listen to her score for the romantic-drama Chocolat to see how powerful her music can be, as it reflects the mystical and haunting nature of the film.
You might be asking why you recognise the name of Irish composer and conductor Eímear Noone. One of the most celebrated video game composers, some examples of her work can be heard in Overwatch, Hearthstone, and World of Warcraft. Her scores for such popular games as these have earned her more than just several awards (including Best Video Game Score at the Hollywood Music in Media Award for Warlords of Draenor) but also the title ‘the Irish Queen of Game Music’. If you don’t know her from her gaming composition, then maybe it’s the fact that Noone became the first woman to conduct at the Oscars after she led the ceremony orchestra through select pieces of all five nominated soundtracks earlier this year. Or perhaps it’s just Noone’s Classic FM radio show High Score that you know her from – like her scores, this too is worth a listen. And if you didn’t recognise her name at all, there’s no excuse now.
Still early in her career, Ariel Marx is perhaps best known for her work on Jennifer Fox’s The Tale that premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. This project is as Marx as it gets as she flexes her musical-combination muscles, blending traditional orchestras with folk instruments and electronics to create a truly unique sound. Marx’s style is one that’s garnered her a fair share of awards and having had two features play at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, with The Tale and To Dust, it is no surprise that she has even earned herself a position as one of ASCAP’s ‘Composers to Watch’. You might also recognise her work for Amazon’s documentary series Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer. Her style is still recognisable but tonally different, showing off her versatility. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what she does next.
With a background as a singer-songwriter, you might know Tamar-Kali’s voice better than you know her scores. (At least for now.) With no formal musical training, she rose to prominence as a vocalist before going into film. Having arranged and performed for films such as Pariah and Bessie, both directed by American writer-director Dee Rees, their third collaboration marked Tamar-Kali’s first foray into scoring. Her work for Mudbound was an impressive feat, experimenting with short motifs and reworking strings to create intimate haunting sounds, which unsurprisingly earned her the ‘Discovery of the Year’ at the World Soundtrack Awards. She has since gone on to score for feature films such as The Lie and Come Sunday and her first composition for a documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, is set to be released in the following months, so be sure to keep an ear out for that.
Some notable mentions must go to Michiru Yamane (who composed Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever made), Pinar Toprak (the first woman to compose a score for the MCU with the power-house Captain Marvel), and Anne Dudley (winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Musical or Comedy score for The Full Monty and composer for BBC’s Poldark), and Lesley Barber (the first female composer invited onto The Hollywood Reporter’s Composer Roundtable, for her work on Manchester by the Sea).
Listen to some of my favourite pieces by these composers here.
Categories: Anything and Everything