Canadian composer Zosha di Castri is a prolific and wonderfully inventive creator who is currently the Francis Goelet Assistant Professor of Music at Columbia University and a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow. Di Castri’s latest project, “The Dream Feed: Musicians on Motherhood,” is a podcast series featuring insightful conversations between musician moms, centering on their shared experiences, challenges, and inspiration while balancing their identities and duties as both professional musicians and mothers. In “B-Side” episodes accompanying each interview, the performers share a jointly created duo and discuss what it was like to collaborate at a distance. Each woman offers a unique perspective of the musician-mother experience, and the first installment has featured violinist Olivia De Prato, composer Pauchi Sasaki, soprano/flutist Alice Teyssier, cellist Chloé Dominguez, and percussionist Aiyun Huang.
You describe motherhood as “one of the final “taboos” in the professional music world, with women often still believing they must choose between family and career or keep quiet about their desire for both. What led you to this conclusion, and how did it influence your path as you pursued both music and motherhood?
As a younger composer, I knew very few professional female composers and never had the opportunity to formally study with a woman. Most that I knew of didn’t have children, and older examples like Alma Mahler stopped writing with the arrival of their babies. With very few models to look to, and the already precarious financial reality of being a musician, the idea of pursuing both a career in music and a fulfilling family life seemed difficult.
I also know several female colleagues whose artistry was questioned when they became mothers. Some assumed these women would no longer have the time for a gig or commission, assumed they had lost their edge, or might not look the same, or the logistics of employment would be too complicated. With men driving much of the music world’s decision-making, it is not surprising that this topic is still largely ignored.
Despite many apprehensions about whether having a child would jeopardize my identity as an artist, I decided it fundamentally didn’t make sense that creating a human would mean I would cease to be an interesting, creative person. Though I didn’t know of many mother-composers, my piano professor Sara Laimon at McGill University was hugely supportive when I found out I was pregnant shortly after accepting my position at Columbia. I was also particularly buoyed by an email from Kaija Saariaho congratulating me and quietly encouraging my work through this period. Knowing she raised two children while writing her incredible music was such an important reminder at that time.
As an educator and artist, I hope to foster a more open and positive environment for the next generation. By seeing a woman with a big belly give a pre-concert talk, I hope we can begin to shake the skepticism around motherhood and music, while welcoming new perspectives.
Women in nearly every profession have demonstrated that they can rise to the top of their careers while also bringing life into the world. How are we perpetuating the idea that motherhood (but not fatherhood, it seems?) is a significant limitation for professional musicians?
I think the societal assumption still largely remains that mothers will be the primary caregivers — even as our conception of what constitutes “family” has diversified — and we perpetuate the idea that motherhood and a career in music are inherently incompatible. However, by imagining a reality where partners (regardless of their gender identity) truly share the labor of raising a family, and/or a community model where artists are supported by a village, we would have a much richer pool of talent to draw from. We also need to de-stigmatize asking for help.
Music residencies, which are so important to an artist’s development, present another hurdle, as they are almost exclusively childfree environments. As Emily Doolittle mentions in her NewMusicBox article, this forces many mothers, especially breastfeeding ones, to opt out. Those who do decide to pursue residencies deal with an additional layer of guilt, as it is more socially accepted for fathers to be away from children than mothers.
We have also created a culture where people feel they can’t take a moment’s pause. There is a deep fear, especially for freelancers, that by saying no or taking a break, one will be left out permanently with no opportunities to catch up. This pushes mothers to jump back in too quickly before they have recovered, and also discourages people from having kids entirely. I fully respect that not everyone may want to have children, but it saddens me when people make this huge life decision based on external factors rather than personal desires.
I decided it fundamentally didn’t make sense that creating a human would mean I would cease to be an interesting, creative person.
More broadly, I’d like to see more conversations with fathers about how having children has affected their creative lives. Too often these questions are asked only of women, and we exclude a major part of fathers’ identities denying men the chance to explore this topic.
A major way we perpetuate the idea that motherhood is a limitation for musicians is the constant negative framing (even if jokingly) of an event that should be joyful and exciting. When I was pregnant, I received cynical comments about how I was brave, or how everything was going to be crazy after the birth, or how my tummy was a ticking time bomb. We should instead respect people’s decisions and support them through this transition.
Lastly, we need to be able to speak about our whole identities, rather than silently compartmentalize. By acknowledging these multiple facets, we normalize mothers as successful musicians. Think of all the women that are killing it: Valerie Coleman, Liza Lim, Hilary Hahn, Marin Alsop…
As a mother, I wholeheartedly relate to your assertion that raising a child can be an inspiring and “profoundly creative experience.” How has motherhood inspired your own approach to music both practically and artistically?
Seeing my children discover the world inspires me to be more playful in my compositional process. I try to trust my intuition rather than justifying every decision. I particularly want to learn from the confidence, ease, and pleasure my oldest takes from drawing: she is not precious with her creations but loves art. After creating a beautiful painting and posting it for a couple days, she will cut it up as material for another game, or recycle it.
I also share my projects with my kids, as they often have striking insights. I let them listen to or watch what I’m making, and their input can unblock me when I’m stuck. Their sense of humor can be just what I need when I’m taking myself too seriously. When writing an orchestra and chorus piece for the BBC Proms, which needed to be about the landing on the moon, it was fascinating and inspiring to look at the moon with my then four-year-old and ask her thoughts about this celestial object that I had stopped pondering with curiosity.
My children have also made me more sensitive to all aspects of a performance, not just the sonic. I now think more about how it will be experienced with all our senses. I long to create art that will bring us back to that kid-like sensation of being completely transported or lost in a world, of rekindling our curiosity to know how something works.
Motherhood has also taught me patience. Much like growing a baby, making music takes time and though fraught with uncertainty, there is a need to trust in the process that is strikingly similar to pregnancy.
Listening to the exceptional musician mothers featured on “The Dream Feed,” it became clear that the experience of motherhood and the accompanying logistics, depth of emotions, and artistic responses vary tremendously. What were some of the most relatable or most surprising revelations that your guests shared with you?
In creating this podcast and duo project, I deeply related to my collaborators’ passion and dedication to their music, while simultaneously holding a profound love and commitment for their families. Even if we all go about juggling our responsibilities differently, one of the recurring themes was how motherhood pushed us to be more efficient. Though we have less time to practice or compose, we’ve learned to harness the time we do have in a hyper-focused way. We also connected through the welcome shift of perspective that children bring.
One thing that surprised me was that several interviewees mentioned they never spoke to their mentors about this topic, but many had had conversations with wives of professors or teachers. I found this to be an interesting back-door insight. I was also pleasantly uplifted to hear the many stories of how motherhood has enriched peoples’ creativity, especially as I struggled to find a creative foothold during the pandemic.
Finally, it’s been really interesting to learn about being a musician/mother in different countries, given local customs and social policies.
Creative problem solving and adaptability are hallmarks of parenting, as the growth process is often non-linear and frequently messy…much like life is now amidst the Covid pandemic. Do you think that the experiences of the last two years will encourage women musicians who crave motherhood to embrace the role and perhaps remove some of the “taboo” associated with embracing both identities simultaneously?
I could see it going both ways. On one hand, there have been many headlines about how terrible this period has been for artists and working mothers, with a disproportionate burden of responsibilities and home-schooling falling to women. On the other hand, the pandemic has given us pause to reevaluate our priorities. As Alice Teyssier said, “It has taught us to just do what we feel like doing and do it now.” Many people have been finding creative solutions to make it work, and the pandemic has highlighted the need for good communication and support within families.
I think we also now see that different modes of participation can be effective, be it online, hybrid, etc., as we re-imagine what concerts can look like. It has certainly made some aspects easier, such as giving artist talks in far off places without having to leave my baby.
During this period, I’ve felt more solidarity from fellow musician mothers than ever before, and have really enjoyed coming together with like-minded artists like Alice, Olivia De Prato, and Allison Loggins-Hull to connect our projects and develop Matricalis, a website community hub for the exchange of ideas between musician moms. We’re excited to see where this will lead!
Maybe because we have been forced to stop and become more comfortable with the unknown, the pandemic will encourage women musicians who want to be mothers to take the leap. We surely have shown ourselves to be resilient.
I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.