2008 was a watershed year for me. I was nominated for my eleventh Emmy — for a composition I had created in three days for a science-fiction show.
But what was most remarkable to me about the awards ceremony was standing with my peers, approximately 30 fellow nominees, and having people pointing.
I wondered, What was everyone pointing at? I had already won four Emmys by then and had been nominated many more times, so this
group photograph was not a new experience for me. But the pointing was new. For the first time, people around me finally noticed something
that I was well aware of — that I was the only woman in the group. But I had been the only
women every other time too.
Why was this time different?
The only answer I
could come up with was Hillary Clinton. She was visible. The public had
seen a female leader in action, and that made the rest of us a bit more visible too. In
my tiny corner of the world, I had always been the only woman, whether I was studying
composition in college and graduate school, as a fellow at Tanglewood or at Sundance. And now finally, Hillary Clinton had made
This week, Black Nativity opened on 1500 screens. I
was lucky enough to compose the score. It is an extraordinary film for so many
reasons. Foremost, there is director Kasi Lemmons, one of the most visionary and talented filmmakers of our generation. The film is artful and commercial,
which is a very tough balance to achieve. But Kasi has done it. Working with her was a dream come true. She was a perfect
collaborator: challenging me, pushing me to be my best, and supporting me all
the way. It was one of most perfect experiences of my professional career.
I also collaborated
with the great Raphael Saadiq. Kasi brought us together, and I know we
will continue to be friends and colleagues. We adapted the songs to the images and composed the underscore together even though Raphael and I come from such
divergent musical backgrounds: me with a doctorate from Juilliard, Raphael
finding his way to music though the church and becoming a success in the
R&B world. Our collaboration was filled with music-making at the highest
level — and lots of joy and laughter.
I am so grateful to be making a living
doing what I love: making music everyday and collaborating with brilliant
filmmakers and video-game developers. I don’t know what
the exact statistics about my peers are. My guess would be that the only female composers who have
worked on studio films in wide release have been the late, great Shirley Walker
who forged the way, the terrific British composers Rachael Portman and Anne
Dudley, and Deborah Lurie, a fine composer who has had great
success. With me, that now makes five. TOTAL.
I look forward to
watching my field expand to include diverse voices of all kinds. I’m glad people finally noticed the skewed gender imbalance in my industry to point at me, but I hope that the situation improves for women composers as a whole so that no one has to point at me at all.
With four Emmys and another seven nominations, an Annie nomination, and two GANG awards for her video-game music, Laura Karpman is one of a handful of female composers scoring film, television and video games today. She recently collaborated with Raphael Saadiq on the score for Kasi Lemmons‘ Black Nativity (Fox Searchlight). She has just completed The Galapagos Affair, starring Cate Blanchett, and is currently scoring Regarding Susan Sontag (HBO). Karpman is also currently working on recording her multimedia opera Ask Your Mama, an opus based on a text by Langston Hughes and commissioned by Carnegie Hall for singer Jessye Norman.