Settling the score

Female composers still struggle to avoid musical typecasting.

If you're a male composer in Hollywood, it's unlikely you've ever been asked if you can write music "feminine enough" for a romantic comedy. Yet, most successful female composers working in the field today can recall at least one instance in which their ability to write music appropriate to a specific genre has been questioned. Laura Karpman, who scored the Sci Fi Channel's 2002 miniseries "Taken" and now is working on ABC's procedural drama "In Justice," admits that she has been asked countless times, "Can you write music that's masculine?"

Karpman has managed to take such shortsightedness in stride and has built a strong career working in male-dominated genres such as science fiction and horror, though she acknowledges it hasn't been easy. "I started out definitely doing female-skewed projects -- a lot of CBS movies of the week in the early '90s and doing a lot of movies for Lifetime -- and then crossing over into science fiction, which was definitely 'boy music.'"

Karpman and veteran composer Shirley Walker (New Line's "Final Destination 3") are the exceptions that prove the rule. Both have excelled at writing music for genre projects and have avoided being pigeonholed with female-skewing subjects. And while Oscar-winners Rachel Portman and Anne Dudley have tackled more male-friendly fare -- Portman on 2004's "The Manchurian Candidate" and Dudley on 1998's "American History X" and 2003's "A Man Apart" -- women still are more likely to be offered costume dramas than action movies.

"I was aware when I was working on 'Manchurian Candidate' that I have often done these costume dramas like (2002's) 'Nicholas Nickleby' and (1996's) 'Emma,' as well as lots of other stuff over the years," Portman says. "But when I was doing 'Manchurian Candidate,' I really wanted to write something that was viscerally terrifying so that I could prove that I could do it just as well as any man, and that's the only time I've ever thought like that."

While Walker has enthusiastic supporters in Glen Morgan and James Wong, the former "The X-Files" scribes who brought the "Final Destination" films to the big screen and hired her to score their 2003 remake of "Willard," young composer Penka Kouneva, who helped orchestrate the elaborate Don Davis scores for 2003's "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions," hasn't yet found a similar patron. "I still have no answer to the question for myself, why I've never been able to receive support from women executives who are more highly positioned."

Kouneva cites Walker's "Willard" score as one of the best action scores she's ever heard, noting that the skills required for such work have nothing to do with testosterone. "It's all about compositional techniques and the ability to sustain a certain level of energy, and once you learn the compositional chops, a woman can do as well as a man."

"Shirley Walker's fantastic," New Line president of music Paul Broucek adds. "We love working with her, and she's as good as anybody at finding the heart and emotion and the drive that's necessary. She's one of the best-organized and focused film composers I've ever worked with."

But even Walker saw her abilities questioned in her early TV work on shows like "Lou Grant." "Not so much on the conducting but just the responsibility of a budget and the pressures of delivering the goods," she recalls. "That's where the biggest resistance came because male composers sometimes blew it and couldn't deliver the goods, so (the feeling was), 'If the men can't do it, then good Lord, how could a woman possibly do it?'"
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