5th Wave Collective Celebrates Women and Non-Binary Composers

Chicago-based 5th Wave Collective is an ensemble that strives to discover and perform music by womxn and gender-nonconforming composers. The name comes references the different “waves” of feminism that have progressed since the Women’s Suffrage Movement at the turn of the 20th century. Since its founding in 2018, the collective has performed works by more than 100 composers, including pieces ranging from solo repertoire to full symphonic works.

5th Wave is made up of a large pool of 110 musicians that rotate in and out of performances. In fact, many CYSO staff and alumni are included among the collective’s ranks, including Operations Manager Andrea Kennard, Operations Assistant and 2004 alum Scott Bakshis, Debut Orchestra Winds & Brass Coach and 2011 alum Abby Black, and CYSO@CPS coaches Nayelii Duran and Richard Brasseale, in addition to many other CYSO alumni including Sam Sharp (2002); Carmen Abelson (2009); Quinn Delaney, Alex Laskey, and Crystal Qi (2010); Annika Sundberg (2011); Alexandria Hoffman, Matt Kibort, and Alessandro Tenorio-Bucci (2012); and Roy Cho (2015).

Social Media Team members Alyssa Shih (Symphony Orchestra, violin) and Abigail AuYeung (Concert Orchestra, cello) spoke with Carmen Abelson, ’09 (violin) and Ashely Ertz (oboe and Artistic Director) to find our more about 5th Wave’s mission and their experiences with the group.

How did the 5th Wave Collective start?

AE: We started April of 2018. I was trying to find more pieces to play at recitals and I started making a spreadsheet of every piece I was able to find by a female composer. It quickly grew to over 500 pieces. Myself and another friend, Mika [Allison], started this ensemble. We held our first concert in a yoga studio in April 2018. Ever since then, we’ve been doing concerts about one a month because we keep finding more cool music to play.

5th Wave Collective is a Chicago-based ensemble dedicated to performing and promoting music by womxn and gender-nonconforming composers.

Has your involvement in 5th Wave changed your perspective of music?

AE: Oh, 100%. I have three degrees in oboe. My first two degrees, I think I played one or two female composers—I never thought about it until I was at DePaul and we were talking about Clara Schumann’s violin romances that oboists play all the time. Someone was playing it and my teacher asked us how we rank it in relation to other masterworks in our repertoire and for whatever reason, that made me think, “Oh! I need to find more works by women composers!”

I’ve always been a staunch feminist, but I never thought about the fact that we’re almost exclusively playing works by dead white guys. When we’re students, we’re told that that’s what we’re supposed to do is play. Maybe not your generation, but that’s what it was like when I was in high school and undergrad. I thought that the spreadsheet I created was going to be a short project, but I’ll probably never finish it because there’s no end! It’s completely changed my outlook on everything.

CA: I feel like we all know that classical music is a conservative industry. I know we all hope to change that, but I’ve always been frustrated by sexism. Those experiences I had growing up, that I didn’t realize at the time were sexist, like violin teachers telling me, “You’re a solid player and good looking!” Why does it matter what I look like?!

As an educator, I realize I give my students a lot of the same pieces by dead white guys to learn technique and to create a foundation for decent playing. There are other ways that we can shape the classical music industry from an early age. Just by looking the way that I look or treating my students with radical kindness.

One of the main ways for me to fight against sexism in the industry is through 5th Wave. I get to go play music by some radical queer feminist woman, for example, who wrote an awesome piece with a ton of really rad friends and musicians. I feel like it does chip away at that feeling that things can’t change and that we’re always going to be stuck in this antiquated late 18th century kind of vibe where we only play music from that era and worship the gnarly guys who were ruling music in that era. 

Some of the composers 5th Wave Collective has performed over the past few years. Pictured left to right: Louise Ferrenc, Angélica Negrón, Jessie Montgomery, Shulamit Ran; Florence Price, Lera Auerbach, Amy Beach, Steph Davis; Aziza Sadikova, Gabriela Lena Frank, Augusta Read Thomas, Andrea Tarrodi.

Do you have any favorite pieces or composers that you’ve discovered since joining 5th wave?

CA: I think the [Louise] Farrenc Nonet is a big favorite for me. I’d like to perform it again to have another chance at it because it is a hard place. We’ve performed it twice so far, and I feel like the second time was lots better than the first time. It’s a really cool piece!

AE: The history of that piece is amazing. It was written for Joseph Joachim, the famous violinist who premiered so many pieces. Louise Farrenc was the first woman to be hired as composition faculty at the Paris Conservatory. She has a fascinating history!

CA: She’s awesome. It’s interesting to look at pieces by women through history because I think the fact that music by women, even to this day, is not performed as often, means that there are mistakes, and sometimes there are things that if someone had access to a famous string quartet to read through their work and provide them with feedback, it would be better. That’s one of the reasons I like this piece so much. For whatever reason, it doesn’t have those problems; it’s not perfect, there’s definitely some things that are weird with it, but I think all of the parts are very idiomatic for the instruments. 

How has the goal of 5th Wave changed since its inception?

AE: We started off trying to only program women-identifying composers. Slowly, we found more and more composers that we really wanted to include that were either transgender or gender-nonconforming so we adapted our mission so that we would be supportive of all those people.

Specifically since COVID, we’ve gotten a lot more interested in publishing things, such as 5th Wave Editions and video projects. We’ve also gotten interested in making recordings for pieces. Eventually we’ll start making recordings to share on streaming platforms like Spotify and YouTube. The entire classical music world has been really trying to adapt and see how they can stay relevant in COVID and post-COVID times. A lot of the things that we adapted, I think, are going to stick around, like livestreaming. We need to continue to grow and adapt. 

Were recordings part of the original goal?

AE: In the beginning, we weren’t really thinking long term. We were just thinking about wanting to play these pieces. Recordings were always kept in mind, but not in the way it is now. It’s a lot more attainable now, especially since our musician base has grown. One of our tuba players, Akshat [Jain], who has been with us since the beginning, got into audio engineering. He has really been interested in helping with recording and there have been others who have wanted to help with publishing things. 

Were you doing many concerts over the pandemic?

AE: The once a month concerts were a more pre-pandemic thing. During COVID, we did a couple of concerts, random stuff over the summer with people playing together outside, but didn’t do anything proper until the fall. We did some recording projects and concerts. We did a couple of quartet livestreams, too. Last November we had a live audience and that was amazing! Then this January, we got invited to ILMEA and we played there with a nonet down in Peoria. 

Collective members rehearsing before their performance at the 2022 Illinois Music Education Conference.
Collective members rehearsing before their performance at the 2022 Illinois Music Education Conference.

Do you have any advice for finding and enjoying new composers (composers outside of the canon)?

AE: We are so lucky to have the internet. I don’t know how people survived without the internet. I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of hours on IMSLP going through lists of composers – it’s a fantastic resource. You can sort by instrumentation or whatever you want. That’s how I’ve found so many composers. It’s amazing! A composer I’m currently obsessed with is Emilie Mayer, and we’re actually going to be performing one of her symphonies in May. We’re also engraving that work for 5th Wave Editions. She has seven symphonies, only three of them have recordings. She has, I think, nine violin sonatas – I’m actually working on one of them right now for myself. She had at least 15 cello sonatas, a bunch of chamber works, piano works, piano trios, quartets, everything. She was alive during Brahms’ time. I’ve been taking these parts from IMSLP that are handwritten and hard to read and putting them into notation software. There’s no score or recordings, so getting to put all the parts together and being able to hear it is like musical archaeology. It’s been really exciting!

CA: I have played so many new pieces with 5th Wave. I played a recital at the end of February, and I thought, “I can’t not play a piece by a woman at this recital; that would be a crime!” It was a bit more difficult this time because it was short notice and my pianist wasn’t really up for learning a lot of repertoire, so I was like, “Oh! Good thing I’ve played multiple and heard multiple solo violin pieces by women. Let me just pick one that I have under my fingers.”

AE: I know so many friends who have played with 5th Wave that have taken pieces that they either played with us or found through us and programmed them on their student recitals. I got to work for Grant Park one summer and they asked me for suggestions for pieces and I think three of the pieces I suggested are actually being performed this summer at Grant Park, which is an amazing feeling. Also—I’m not sure if it was me, but I’m going to take credit—The Illinois Philharmonic (IPO) is playing Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony, which we played a couple years ago. And one of my friends who works for the LA Philharmonic sent me an email asking for suggestions of other pieces and composers she should be looking out for.

I’ve gotten so many emails from people being like, “Hey do you have any suggestions for this instrumentation?” and I’m like, “Give me 24 hours I’ll give you a spreadsheet of pieces” because that’s just my style. I wholly believe that we’re making a difference, even if it’s just a little bit at a time. If all 200 of our members make that little bit of a difference, that warms my heart.

Can you tell us a little bit more about 5th Wave Editions?

AE: It’s still very much in its infancy, but it kind of grew out of my impatience to find pieces specifically by women composers. I think it was at our second 5th Wave concert. I really wanted to play something by Florence Price but there was nothing for wind quintet. So I found these 3 pieces of hers that are on IMSLP and I thought, “Wait, these 3 together would make a perfect little suite!” So I arranged them for wind quintet and we’ve performed it like a million times now. By arranging things, I’m giving more opportunities for people to discover music that might not normally be heard. 

CA: The work you’ve done to arrange orchestral repertoire for smaller ensembles is good work because how often do young people and people with our kind of goals in mind have control over the season of an orchestra? There are tons of groups out there that have these really fantastic, progressive missions that aren’t orchestras and don’t have the funding to be an orchestra.

Do you have any projects coming up that you’re particularly excited for?

AE: We’re doing a collaboration with a composer collective called 6 Degrees. It’s a collective of 5 or 6 women composers who are here in Chicago. 

Earlier you said you were hopefully making a difference. How are you seeing that difference with your audience?

AE: I feel like what we were talking about with the ripple effect of just seeing people programming works by non-male composers on their own recitals or like people asking me for suggestions. Also someone said that they loved playing with 5th Wave because they know that everyone believes in the mission but also believes in equality and they feel like it’s a really safe space to be in.

CA: You’ll often find that a lot of the performers that perform with 5th Wave are also women and props to men who perform with 5th Wave! I think a lot of guys sometimes get confused and think that we are not only performing works by women but also that the collective itself is only made up of women-identifying and nonbinary humans. Often they’re kind of like, “Oh I don’t know if I can do this,” but they can! Guys, if anyone reads this interview, come play with 5th Wave! It’s for everybody!

AE: Yeah! For the most part, we’re slowly getting more income, but this started off as a passion project and we’re all volunteer-run. So we’re not doing this as our job, we’re all doing this on top of other things because we want to, because we believe in it.

Collective members pose after a 2018 performance at DePaul Art Museum
Collective members after a 2018 performance at DePaul Art Museum

Do you have any advice for young musicians, especially with finding and enjoying newer music?

AE: Just follow any curiosities or any passions that you have in regards to music. If you find that you have this niche, like “Oh I want to perform music by Native Navajo composers,” go for it! Find it! Even if it’s not music-related, don’t be afraid to explore untraditional paths. Also, it’s often said that there’s only teaching or performing as a musician, but no, you can find a way to make your passion anything.

CA: If I could give any advice to young musicians, it is to learn about music. Learn how music is created. Ask yourself, “What is this? Why are we doing this?” I got really into period performance for a while, and finding historical contexts, cultural contexts, are what kind of reminded me why we do this. Listen to the music that you listen to, whether it’s classical or not, bring your passions to rehearsal and figure out what it is.

Thank you to Ashley Hertz and Carmen Abelson for speaking with us. You can find out more about 5th Wave Collective on their website.


Abigail AuYeung is a cellist in CYSO’s Concert Orchestra. This is her second season with CYSO. She’s currently a freshman at Hinsdale Central High School. In her free time, Abigail enjoys reading, baking, and playing the cello, of course!


Alyssa Shih is a Symphony Orchestra violinist and senior at Walter Payton College Prep. Outside of music, she book binds and does graphic design in her spare time. Alyssa hopes to pursue Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This