by Kristin Robinson

How Germany’s track15 is tackling the gender imbalance of film and TV scoring

Four members of the all-female composer collective tell us how they're building careers around
camaraderie, discipline, and craftsmanship.

For many young women, the world of production, scoring and composition can feel like an exclusive boy’s club. According to a gender inclusion study from the University of Southern California, women made up only 2.6% of producers on the 800 most popular songs from 2012 to 2019. Another study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that a mere 6% of composers on top films in 2018 were women.

But across Austria and Germany, a group of 11 female composers remain undaunted despite the odds. Calling themselves track15, the women-only collective has become a haven of creativity and camaraderie for the composers in one of music’s most competitive and male-dominated sectors. Meeting first at a summer school for women in film, TV, and media scoring in Cologne, Germany, the young talents built an unbreakable kinship while completing their coursework.

“After those intense days full of lectures, talks, experience exchanges and laughs we felt very inspired and connected,” Iva Zabkar notes. “We decided to stay in touch.” Soon, the newfound friends decided to work on their first project together and found that they could be even stronger together than they were apart. “We decided to ‘take the next step and found the collective,” says Iva.

Now, each of its members contributes her own expertise, from Susanne Hardt’s knowledge of theory to Yu-Chun Huang’s penchant for notation, and each member wears many hats to manage the business and creative affairs of the group. Though they are all adept musicians who compose for film, games and television, they also distribute the logistical tasks of any professional operation, such as managing client accounts, planning social media, and designing graphics.

To find out what impact a women-only composers’ collective has on the scoring industry, we connected with four members from track15 – Susanne Hardt, Iva Zabkar, Zeina Azouqah, and Yu-Chun Huang – to talk entrepreneurship and composing alike.

Yu-Chun Huang

What is your role at track15?

When we do studio recordings, I help out with orchestrations and notations. Also, I am kind of the collective bridge between East Asia and Europe, aiming to bring our collective to music festivals and conferences in Taiwan and other east Asian countries.


As a collective, there are so many talented people working together on projects. What are  some of the best parts about getting to work with other talented track15 members?

We all have different strengths and areas in which we are the most confident in. Not everyone will participate in every project, but if we do, we respect the different musical directions we suggest to each other very much. As for the artistic aspect, we support each other without trying to change each other’s artistic identity, but merely offering our opinion in technical matters. We also advise each other on things like financial agreements between composers as well as legal questions about rights and shares. Those important subjects, that we might need more time figuring out alone, we can now discuss as a team.


Can you tell us about the most exciting project you worked on with track15.

I must say, every project that we have been working on together was inspiring, but the most exciting one is surely the album Northern Tales, where I took part by orchestrating two songs. The album was made in cooperation with the band The Remaining Part and the amazing German Film Orchestra Babelsberg.


What advice would you give to a woman composer trying to break into this industry?

Write your music and don’t be shy to show it. And I am still telling this to myself every day.

Iva Zabkar

What is your role at track15?

At the moment, I’m part of the social media team; specifically, I’m curating our Instagram page. It sounds like fun, which it is, but it’s also a bunch of work because I try to create content on a daily basis or at least a few times a week. We all do so many different, great things, and I love to feature that and pay tribute to it. In addition, I also try to feature other dear colleagues of ours because I think supporting each other and creating more visibility is an important thing to do and can be very powerful!


Are there any tools or samples that you find yourself gravitating towards for composing?

When I started working with DAWs my first ‘external’ sound libraries were from NI. It opened a whole new world to me sound-wise and I was overwhelmed by the amount of possibilities offered. Nowadays I almost always use at least one virtual instrument from the Komplete collection in my projects. Currently I’m a huge fan of Noire, Cremona Quartet, and Arkhis. The sounds are amazing and very cinematic, which I fancy a lot.


You’ve done demo tracks for NI sound libraries like ARKHIS and CREMONA QUARTET. How does this kind of gig come about for a composer, and how do you approach writing it?

As we get requests as a collective, we have decided to share the jobs by taking turns. Sometimes we do a demo track by ourselves and sometimes in teams of two. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to work with fresh, newly developed sounds and libraries. The approach can be very different in doing so. For example for Cremona Quartet I worked together with my track15 colleague Hanna Sophie Lüke and for Arkhis I made a demo track on my own. In addition to the briefing I usually like to start by first exploring the new sounds and then letting them “lead” me into different drafts and sketches. From there on I continue composing a new piece.


How has being a part of track15 supported your career?

Well, it’s an easy concept: When you appear as a group you usually get more attention. I guess this is one of the main goals – reaching more visibility, and through that generating more jobs. Not just for us as a group but as an example for women in film and media in general. The claim “we would have loved to hire a female composer, but we didn’t know any qualified ones” is simply outdated!

I remember, when we first met back then in Cologne, we were quite surprised that there were so many of us. Of course we knew that there must be a bunch of female composers out there, but for some reason it was quite hard to find them. Now, just two years later, we get to know and meet more and more female composers, which is just great! Societies like WIFT and AWFC are also very important to contribute to this development of creating a more inclusive workspace in the industry. So let’s continue to take our space and, moreover, own it!


What advice would you give to a woman composer trying to break into this industry?

Compose the music you love and you’re attached to, network, create your sound, collaborate, improve your style, network, collect experiences by doing free projects such as student shorts, network, follow the trail of those who are starting new projects and say hello, practice scoring scenes or analyze your favorite ones, network, try to stay honest in/with your music because, I think, personal sound is precious. And oh, did I mention network already?

Zeina Azouqah

What is your role at track15?

We all wear many hats and try to share the load, but I am currently in charge of communication with one of our regular clients. For our orchestral sessions, I help my colleagues to turn the MIDI files into notation and help with the orchestration. Then I make sure the notes are prepared in a clear way for the musicians. I also designed our track15 logo.


What are some of your go-to sound design and production tricks?

In general, I like to find a synth pad that I can blend with any timbre, whether it’s a recorded acoustic instrument or a sample library instrument. I find myself using a lot of doublings with some kind of grainy or vibrating pad, just to give another dimension to a sound that might be too familiar on its own. Even changing just one parameter like harmonics can make a huge difference to the mood it conveys.


Name some of your favorite projects that have come through track15.

We’ve been regularly commissioned to compose demos for Orchestral Tools this year. That’s always super exciting, because they have some unique libraries and we’re always excited to see what they come up with instrument-wise, and it’s always exciting to see what my colleagues come up with music-wise.


Could you talk more about this process of composing for sound libraries?

Well, to expand upon this idea of giving another dimension to an already familiar sound, I think that’s where sound libraries have their most untapped potential. Sure, there is a demand for samples sounding realistic to replicate an existing instrument, but I found that, when I moved away from that realism, I can come up with a more interesting sonic palette. I can design a sound that can catch you off guard or send you somewhere new in your imagination, because it’s not a one-to-one replica of an existing instrument. For example, a glass harp in real life is not capable of pitch-shift, but in a library it is, and something as simple as pitch shifting in an unconventional way can create a sound that has a very unique character. Or how about setting a very long attack on a percussion instrument such that it is no longer percussive? What does that resulting sound convey? It sounds simple, but it can go a long way and you can spend hours playing around like that.


Have you faced any overt sexism in the industry before?

Yes, I faced it a few times, but it’s the more subversive kind, the not-so-obvious sexism that keeps women and gender minorities on the margins. It also goes hand-in-hand with other forms of discrimination. Thankfully more support networks exist nowadays and we can actively make a change. I think we should all just listen to each other’s needs more to create a safer and more inclusive work environment. Everybody wins in the long run.


What advice would you give to a woman composer trying to break into this industry?

Go out and get it, however you identify! Network, network, network – until it becomes fun. We are all music geeks and spend hours honing our craft and researching, enjoying, consuming music – that’s a given. We’re always going to gravitate to the fun part of music making. So we have to remember that communication with others in the industry and building and maintaining a network is just as important. Plus it’s lonesome enough in the studio. Even more so as I type this during COVID times.

Susanne Hardt

What is your role at track15?

I think I’m something like the “scientist” in the collective because I’m the only one of us who studied music theory and is currently doing a PhD in it. Otherwise I have taken care of the internal organization in the collective for the last two years. This included scheduling, taking minutes of our monthly Skype conferences and writing the weekly info mail with an overview of all current publications, projects and inquiries.


What’s the most fulfilling part of being involved in a composers’ collective?

For me, the most fulfilling aspect of the cooperation with track15 is nothing technical or actually tangible. It is much more the feeling of not being a lone fighter anymore, of being part of a motivated and highly qualified team. Of course, we also do wonderful projects together that I enjoy a lot and that I probably wouldn’t be able to implement that quickly and solidly on my own. But the most important thing for me really is the team spirit and the internal cohesion.


How has being part of track15 helped your career as a woman in a male-dominated industry?

The many exciting projects and joint albums that we have implemented and released as a collective have generally pushed my career forward, but they would probably have that anyway, regardless of the male-dominated environment. Being part of track15 has strengthened us all in the sense of a different “mindset” than before. We no longer have the feeling that it is unusual to work in this field as a woman, as we know now many other female composers and are in regular contact.


When it comes to projects, how is the work typically divided among your team?

It is very rare that we are all working on the same project, as not everyone is always interested in every project. For each project a new group of collective members comes together and the work is distributed according to the specializations and experiences of the individual team members. In my opinion, this is also the best thing about working together: you have the opportunity to benefit from the knowledge and experience of the other talented composers and to learn from them while working together.


What advice would you give to a woman composer trying to break into scoring?

I would give her the same advice as any other composer: make your music. Be convinced of it and don’t let it get you – but also be aware of your weaknesses. And, above all, look for projects that you enjoy. It might take a lot of time and hard work to really get into the industry, but once you are there it’s worth it.


You can learn more about track15’s members, check out recent projects, and get in touch via the collective’s website.

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