It’s time this Friday and Saturday for the 5th annual WoCo (Women Composers) Festival from the Boulanger Initiative (BI), and with each passing year it grows bigger in size and impact. They recently unveiled their BI Database, a repository of music written by non-living women and gender marginalized composers, which can be used to improve representation and equity wherever music is played or performed.

There is a lot to look forward to musically and otherwise as the festival opens this Friday with a concert they say will “leave you enraptured, delighted, and giddy.” BI co-founder Laura Colgate answered some questions and tells us what she’s looking forward to in the coming year.


John Banther: Boulanger Initiative is now on its 5th annual WoCo Festival, did you anticipate the growth would be as fast as it's been?

Laura Colgate
BI co-founder Laura Colgate

Laura Colgate: In some ways, but we had very ambitious goals from the very beginning because the music world has so far to go to adequately represent women and gender marginalized composers.  When Dr. Joy-Leilani Garbutt (BI co-founder) and I first met we talked about all of the ways that the industry needs support and resources and growth in terms of gender equity, and a lot of those goals that we had discussed at the beginning have gone much faster than I had anticipated and some of them have gone much slower. I think that the festival is kind of the one thing that has been consistent, sort of our backbone, that we’ve been able to hold onto year after year. But the real needs that are going to make the biggest impact to the entire industry, the resources for education and research advancement, take more time to build because it really hasn’t been done on the scale that BI is reaching. BI’s Database (BID) just went public in March because it took years to build it from scratch and do it right, and we have so much more in terms of searchability features that haven’t been made publicly available yet because we want to make sure it’s done with complete accuracy. So it was just the first iteration of the BID that we launched in March, and there’s still a lot coming in the future. 

JB: The 2021 Festival was called Revelry, 2022 was Amaze, and 2023 is Awaken. What does Awaken mean, and how do we see that accomplished/play out in this year's festival?

LC: Choosing Awaken for this year’s theme really has to do with the recent launch of our database, which just happened in March and as of right now the database only houses pieces written by non-living women composers, so it’s this idea of awakening these voices that have been unrecognized and lost and forgotten. For a lot of these composers, they were well known when they were alive, they were recognized and performed, and then they fell out of history, and for this festival, we really wanted to shine a light on some of those composers that are in our database, and that deserve to be brought back into recognition.

JB: There is a lot going on at this festival, and not just performances. A yoga and music experience that sounds totally unique, panel discussions, and more. Are there some things new to the festival this year as compared to previous years?

LC: We have never done yoga before so that’s really fun! We will have a yoga with live music session first thing on Saturday May 6th at 11 AM on the back of the Strathmore Mansion which is going to be a great way to start out the day. But I think for me, one of the most exciting parts of the day at the Mansion is all of the education booths that we have because we have more than we’ve ever had before and it’s a really great opportunity for young professionals, students, composers, and really anyone. This is a great networking opportunity for them to be able to come and ask questions for experts in the field, and anyone with a ticket can sign up for free consulting sessions with multiple professional development experts from around the DMV. There’s even going to be a booth with free headshots so people can come and sign up for a free 10-minute session and walk away with free headshots, which I would have absolutely died for when I was a student.

JB: What is something you think audiences will love about this year's festival?

LC: My favorite thing about the festival every year is the spirit that it brings; the spirit of coming together, of curiosity, of community. It’s always such a celebration of the beauty that we’re able to bring together with such amazing music that we don’t always get to hear being performed. Being able to see the relationships and the projects that have grown out of some of the relationships that formed at the first and second festival, and what’s happened since then and these relationships that keep happening and growing and keep people coming back. And to be able to have an ensemble like Roomful of Teeth this year, a group that is so industry changing and has had such a huge impact on the field and to have them be a part of that community building is really really exciting. 

BI Co-Founders
BI co-founders Dr. Joy-Leilani Garbutt and Laura Colgate

JB: Something that strikes me about the festival's description on the BI website is “You are certain to come away heart-struck with something you never knew you were missing.” That is what is so wonderful about the festival, but it’s also frustrating, isn’t it? Artists and audiences have lost out on countless works over decades and centuries by excluding certain composers. 

LC: Well that’s really the reason that Boulanger Initiative exists: that simultaneous feeling of being enraged and frustrated, and being inspired by so much incredible music that we just don’t know is exactly how I felt when I first really started digging into all of these historical women composers that I had never known about, or even heard of, or performed before. To be able to come away with a full two days of this music and be so moved and enraptured by this overwhelming amount of amazing music that the majority of us have never been exposed to or heard before is a completely different type of festival that really is unique and special. 

JB: From reading the list of musicians and ensembles performing, it sounds like audiences will be hearing a wide range of musical styles. How important has it been for BI to extend and welcome such a diverse range of sounds?

LC: That sort of idea behind the festival is this idea of discovery and curiosity and being able to wander from one event to another and come away with something completely different for each thing. And really the idea is that there actually is something for everybody, but also that the majority of this music none of us knows even. Even as professional musicians, we’ve never had the experience of being able to learn about these composers in school or be able to play it on stages so trying to find the maximum amount of variety in what we can bring to the festival, so that we not only know that we can reach the professional musicians, but we can reach somebody who has just come for the yoga session and discovers the music there, or comes to hear that one percussionist, but then hears a new trio from the 18th century that they love and they didn’t know that they even liked classical music before: this idea to be able to extend that curiosity and widen everyone’s horizons is one of my favorite goals of BI. 

JB: What are you looking forward to most this year?

LC: Now that we have launched the BI Database and so many of our education programs, we can really start to build on them and see the actual impact that they have on the industry; not just the music world but beyond that. I’m excited to see how we can use our tools to change preconceived notions and traditions in the music world. I think we can all grow and become curious in a new way and expand our knowledge. We can find inspiration from all of these stories and this overwhelmingly huge amount of forgotten material and composers that haven’t gotten their due diligence. That’s the most exciting thing, and it doesn’t end this year. This is a never-ending process, but we can at least try our best to highlight forgotten women composers, and support and inspire the next generation to continue this work.

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