By Sue McCreadie
Finland’s Kaija Saariaho, whose alluring and shimmering sound worlds have made her a candidate for the world’s most revered female composer, has had an uneasy relationship with the feminist label. But in November 2013 she gave the music world a serve during a speech at McGill University, claiming things were going backwards for women.
At about the same time, Perth-based composer and legendary noise artist Cat Hope became affronted by the treatment of Julia Gillard. Like Kaija Saariaho, she thought feminism had done its work. Then she had an epiphany. The “Julia period” highlighted for her that things weren’t as they seemed.
“Women started looking at their own lives and experience,” she says. When she looked at her own practice she realised she was only programming male composers with her new music ensemble, Decibel. From that realisation that came After Julia, seven pieces by women in response to Julia Gillard’s time in office, supported and broadcast by the ABC’s New Music Up Late.
In March, Musical Viva, criticised in the past for male domination of its programming, announced the Hildegard Project, aimed at addressing the paucity of commissions for women.
“It’s an issue that’s lain dormant for a while,” says Professor Matthew Hindson, Chair of Composition at Sydney Conservatorium, “but there’s definitely something in the air.”
The Musica Viva initiative takes its name from Hildegard von Bingen, the twelfth century Benedictine nun, composer and sage whose ethereal music had a major revival in the late twentieth century. The project will commission six new works from women, including Professor Anne Boyd and emerging talent Alice Chance.
As the announcement observed, only a quarter of living composers represented by the Australian Music Centre (AMC) are women. The AMC’s Executive Director John Davis says “that’s up from 12 per cent in the early ‘nineties. But he confirms it’s an issue that’s becoming “more and more topical.”
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that women represent only 27 percent of composers working professionally, a percentage similar to male-dominated industries such as agriculture and manufacturing. In contrast, over 60 percent of visual arts and writers are women.
According Matthew Hindson, there are a good number of Australian women composers, such as Elena Kats-Chernin, who are writing fine music and getting exposure. “But the percentage is not really acceptable.” The Australia Council’s Music Director Paul Mason says the Council shares the sector’s concerns. “It’s not peculiar to notated music. It’s across the whole music sector. Music skews more male than other art forms.”
Ann Carr Boyd was the first music graduate from the University of Sydney and became a strong advocate for fellow women composers through her landmark broadcasts on the ABC. She received plenty of encouragement from her composer father and was warmly received by male teachers in London, Peter Racine Fricker and Alexandre Goehr, despite being “not only a woman, but a colonial and pregnant.”
But she agrees early trailblazers were sometimes less fortunate. MargaretSutherland’s psychiatrist husband famously thought composing music was a sign of mental illness in a woman. Boosey & Hawkes then refused to publish her work once they realised ‘M. Sutherland’ was not a man.
The obstacles nowadays are more subterranean. Women comprise only 10 per cent of composing students at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), where Cat Hope has taught for over 10 years. “Girls at school aren’t hearing women composers. There is so little experience of classical music anyway. But if they go to WASA [West Australian Symphony Orchestra] or listen to the radio they aren’t aware it’s an option.”
At the Sydney Conservatorium the scorecard is better – 50 per cent of first year students are women according to Matthew Hindson but by graduation the percentage has dropped to 44 per cent. “While a lot of talented women are there in the early stages, there is a pyramid. There is a drop off.”
No one is sure why this occurs. John Davis says it would be good to have some research that tracks female composers from high school, through tertiary study, and into professional practice. He says “there is something that happens in tertiary institutions that discourages females from continuing.”
The drop off continues after graduation. “If they come through uni the number who go on to make careers is small, “ says Cat Hope. “Lots go into teaching. Lots have families.” Ann Carr Boyd believes domestic responsibilities are still an issue. “What is fairly noticeable is the lack of larger works by women and very few operas, which are huge undertakings.”
Caitlin Yeo is one of a younger generation of composers making its way in the screen industry. Her credits include the haunting, award-winning score to The Rocket. She says if you get off the wagon it’s hard to get back on.
“I left film school and within a year I had a family. I had to say no to a lot of commercial TV jobs. But I’ve found myself working with other women – directors and producers – who also have families and are willing to negotiate flexible times.”
She ventures that there is a difference in how men and women write music. “Inevitably music is going to express who you are. The type of music used for TV drama is often overly dramatic and hard-hitting. We are used to certain gestures driving the drama. The more that TV is made with masculine music the more than becomes the norm.”
The dominance of 19th century ‘masterworks’ is one reason only four per cent of concerts feature works by women. Another is pressure on broadcasters to program names that audiences recognise. “It’s catch-22,” says Ann Carr Boyd “you need the name, but how do you get it if you don’t get exposure.”
She points to the continuing power of the ABC. “If they choose to play you, you get royalties.” Her popular Fandango, written for the Sydney Mandolins, does get played but she says composing is the hardest art form in which to earn money. “It’s why so many of us are teachers.” The Australia Council cites statistics showing that two thirds of all music teachers are women, “highlighting the different career paths for men and women in the music industry.”
Despite a ‘could do better’ report card, the Australian music sector stacks up well internationally. While only 25 per cent of composers and songwriters registered for royalties with the Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA) are women, the figure for APRA’s UK counterpart is 9 per cent.
When Caitlin Yeo won a spot at the prestigious ASCAP Film and TV Scoring Workshop in Los Angeles, and a chance to work with Hollywood’s A list, she was surprised to find only two of the 12 participants were women. “It felt more male dominated than Australia.”
John Davis, a former president of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), says that whenever the issue was raised at ISCM the response was “if they [women] are good enough, they would be here…”
Over its 90 year history the ISCM has granted honorary membership to 69 musicians, mostly composers, with internationally remarkable achievements in the field of contemporary music. Prior to 2012 no women had been acknowledged. In 2012 the drought finally broke when Kaija Saariaho became the first woman elected. Sofia Guibaidulina, widely acclaimed if once blacklisted in her Soviet homeland, was elected the following year.
Launching the Hildegard Project, Musica Viva Chair Carl Vine said, “There is never a simple panacea for gender imbalance.” Matthew Hindson nominates long-term training, a supportive environment and being able to undertake projects in a wide range of performance environments. John Davis emails from a conference in Rotterdam where recent UK research is being unveiled; it shows women are more reluctant to apply for grants, nominate for awards or enter competitions.
“Things may change when money is attached and when woman are making the decisions,” says Paul Mason. In the most recent Australia Council funding round 37 per cent of successful applicants were women, among them Elena Kats-Chernin, Cat Hope and jazz composer Sandy Evans. And two of last year’s three fellowships also went to women – Ros Page and Kate Neal. “The thing that goes with it is that of the 12 peers, eight were women,” he says.
The AMC’s John Davis says: “Our Board is 50 per cent women, our Advisory Committee 50 per cent, and when convening any panels we aspire to parity.”
Cat Hope has never been a fan of quotas, but says “the way things are going that might be the only option.” Matthew Hindson concedes men may complain they’ll miss out because of positive action. “But there is a broader problem with a lack of opportunities for all emerging composers. They may well miss out anyway. So they might as well miss out for a good reason,” he says.
“The hard work should be done by men,” says Cat Hope. “When there’s a panel, when there’s a concert program, it’s now up to them to take a stand.”