Kolb, Barbara (1939—)

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Kolb, Barbara (1939—)

American composer of numerous contemporary pieces for chamber groups, ensembles, and orchestra. Born Barbara Anne Kolb in Hartford, Connecticut, on February 10, 1939; daughter of Helen (Lily) Kolb and Harold Judson Kolb (a director of music for a local radio station and conductor of many semi-professional big bands of the time); earned a bachelor of music at the University of Hartford in 1961 and a master's degree in 1965; studied with Lukas Foss, Gunther Schuller, and Arnold Franchetti.

Was first American woman to win the Prix de Rome (1969); was first woman to be commissioned by the Fromm Foundation to compose for concerts at Tanglewood (1970); received commissions from the Koussevitzky Foundation, New York State Council for the Arts, and the Washington Performing Arts Society among others; was first American woman to win the Prix de Rome (1970–71).

"Music is a matter of art not gender," according to Barbara Kolb. "If anything, composing a piece of music is very feminine. It is sensitive, emotional and contemplative. By comparison, doing housework is positively masculine." Kolb has specialized in compositional ideas of serialism, tone clusters, and other modern idioms, becoming one of the 20th century's most prolific composers. She began teaching as a professor of composition at Brooklyn College in New York during a time when there were less than 100 women teaching composition in the United States. In a sense, Kolb had two strikes against her—her gender and her love of modern music. "It is really a sad state of affairs when you think of the few orchestras that exist," said Kolb, "and the limited number of conductors who would even think about programming a contemporary piece."

Despite these impediments, she continued to devote her energy to modern music. Some of these works were quite innovative. For example, Soundings was orchestrated for three orchestras which require two conductors. Two orchestras play on electronic music channels while one is live. Her composition Trobar Clubs also gained a worldwide reputation in modern music circles. Kolb made use of sound mass which minimizes the importance of individual pitches in preference for texture, timbre, and dynamics. She specialized in composing nontraditional chamber orchestras which often combined prerecorded nonelectronic sounds with various instruments. Spring River Flowers Moon Night was composed for two live pianists accompanied by a tape featuring an ensemble playing the mandolin, guitar, chimes, vibraphone, marimba, and percussion. Many orchestras increasingly perform 20th-century music, and Barbara Kolb's music is often featured on the program. Kolb is a pioneer in writing for ensembles outside the musical establishment.


Cohen, Aaron I. International Encyclopedia of Women Composers. 2 vols. NY: Books & Music (USA), 1987.

Peyser, Joan. "Betsy Jolas and Barbara Kolb. Why Can't a Woman Compose like a Man?" in The New York Times Biographical Edition. June 1993, pp. 990–993.

suggested reading:

Henahan, Donal. "Rebel Who Found a Cause," in The New York Times. November 17, 1975, p. C–21 (illus).


Some of Barbara Kolb's music manuscripts are located at the New York Public Library, Music Division.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia