‘It’s not that female composers didn’t exist,’ my lecturer began, waking me up from the 2pm slump I had dozed into, ‘it’s just that they simply weren’t as good.’ Now I was truly awake. Hadn’t they literally just been telling the class how influential the pedagogue Nadia Boulanger was to most of our favourite 20th century composers? (Stravinsky, Copland, Carter, Glass and Bernstein to name but a few of her students) The contradictions of the information we were being told weren’t lost on me and I couldn’t help but think that it was pretty unrealistic that, of all the female composers that have existed, not one was deemed ‘good’.
This sparked a shattering realisation for me. In all the years I had been attending concerts, playing in orchestras, competing in eisteddfods and taking AMEB exams, I had rarely heard or played music by composers that weren’t dead white men. And now I sat in conservatorium lectures week after week with almost no mention of women, First Nations peoples or people of colour (POC) in music, and realised that there was an industry-wide acceptance that this was just ‘how it is’.
As both a ‘Gen Z’ and a classical violinist, I felt a jarring disparity between what seemed like opposing sides of myself. On the one hand, I’m upholding a tradition driven primarily by men and, contradictory to that, I’m part of an open-minded generation which advocates for the rights of women, the queer community and POC. All groups that have historically, for the most part, been excluded from the Western Classical canon. In an attempt to reconcile these conflicts I began my journey to learn about as many composers – new or old, national or international and of any gender identity – that I possibly could.
Much to my dismay, my lecturer’s beliefs about female composers seem to be echoed by much of the classical music industry. Research by the UK-based Donne – Women In Music Foundation found that of 100 international orchestras’ scheduled pieces in 2020, only five per cent were written by women and three per dent were by POC. In the programming of the surveyed Australian orchestras (SSO, MSO, QSO and ASO), three per cent of the pieces performed were composed by women and two per cent by POC.
While these damning statistics don’t include smaller ensembles, or trailblazing groups like Ensemble Offspring and Flinders Quartet, which would knock these statistics out of the park, they do speak to a bigger problem within the classical music industry: an exclusion of many voices due to our history with discrimination. More specifically, a history of husbands banning their wives from composing, of orchestras not employing musicians that were women or POC and of composers like Australia’s very own Margaret Sutherland struggling to have their music published.
As concert violinist and inclusivity advocate Jennifer Koh says: ‘Classical music is often called “universal,” but what does universality mean when the field was built for white men who still hold much of the power?’
While I’m very pleased to report that, in Australia, our major musical organisations boards’ are fairly gender balanced, the field of conducting, and the composers whose music we play, remain male-dominated, and Koh’s point remains ever-present: how is our artform universal if we’re unable to hear a whole range of voices?
After all, in 2021 we no longer hold the same beliefs as the world of music hundreds of years ago, so why have our programming choices not changed?
What’s more frustrating to many musicians is the sense that programming is dictated by tradition and familiarity rather than creative curiosity or expression. Anne Cawrse, Australian composer and curator of She Speaks – Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s musical celebration of female composers – reflects on the difficulties of having her music performed, particularly her orchestral works. She says that the programming norms are ‘as much about old versus new, or familiar versus unfamiliar as they are about he versus she’ and highlights the often-observed lack of openness that the classical world can demonstrate.
Unfortunately, much like my lecturer’s sentiments, unfamiliar music is often viewed as music that wasn’t ‘good enough’ to survive in the canon, rather than something exciting to discover. Academic, conductor and performer Peter Tregear wonders whether we are avoiding ‘questions of musical value’ for the sake of ‘self-centred arguments’ and ‘identity politics’ in our calls for inclusion. In all honesty, these perspectives do more harm than good. Not only do they completely disregard our sometimes unsavoury history of exclusion, but these ideas perpetuate the notion that unfamiliarity equates to ‘not of musical value’, and implies that including composers who are women and/or POC is solely due to their identity, rather than their artistry. To equate diversity in programming only with identity politics is diminishing, and limits our artistic development and openness to musical experiences. There’s no way we’ve heard all the ‘good’ works in music history; this should be cause for excitement and curiosity, regardless of the identity or time period of the composer.
I get it, the unknown is scary for everyone. It’s particularly terrifying if you’re an arts organisation trying to provide work and stability in the midst of a p**demic.
The good news is that audiences are actually excited to hear works and composers that they’ve never heard before. When I asked composer Anne Cawrse, conductor Johannes Fritzsch and Flinders Quartet cellist Zoe Knighton how their audiences have responded to new or unfamiliar programming, I received a resounding and consistent answer. Whether their performances included an interruption of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a 20th century composition, a daring collaboration of dramaturgy and musical performance, or newly commissioned pieces, audience responses had been overwhelmingly positive. Anne even found that reactions to She Speaks consisted of remarks like: ‘This is a really good piece, why haven’t I heard this before?’ In their experiences, this fear of the unknown subsides in the midst of a unique and exciting musical experience.
The breadth of programming experience that Anne, Johannes and Zoe recount demonstrates that there is no need for tokenism when performing new works, or works by women and POC, and that the inclusion of such music is a much deeper choice than one of diversity. Zoe explains that Flinders Quartet’s programming is based on wanting to perform pieces that they love, regardless of the composer, rather than searching for something specific. ‘We want to craft our programs from an artistic aesthetic, rather than ticking a box,’ she says. ‘Nobody wants to be programmed because of their gender’. Likewise, Johannes stresses the importance of connecting his symphonic programs with a conceptual thread, regardless of what composer or time period the pieces come from. As he explained: ‘Even the ingredients of a minestrone have to work together.’
Zoe and Johannes also emphasised the importance of performing the music of our time, music which current composers like Anne describe as ‘living and breathing’. Claire Edwardes, artistic director of new music group Ensemble Offspring, percussion extraordinaire and equality advocate sums it up: ‘The way to make living culture a viable thing that’s reflecting our lived experiences is going to be through new music.’
It’s not that the canon that has formed isn’t already amazing – we would be nowhere without our beloved Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and beyond – but it’s equally, if not more, important to perform the works of composers who are continuously expanding the artistry of sound with new ideas, musically reflecting our current world and progressing an artform whose relevance is constantly being questioned. If you think about it, all of our favourite pieces of music were new and unfamiliar too, once upon a time.
Along with growing our artform, supporting current composers and new music also presents an opportunity to develop more diverse audiences. A study by the Australia Council for the Arts in 2010 found that 13 per cent of Australians had attended a classical performance and that such audiences were more likely to be 65 or older. On the other hand, new classical, improvised, electronic and sound art genres were more likely to be attended by people under the age of 35, with performances attended by 7 per cent of the population. Not to mention, such new music performances were the most frequently attended form of live music, with audience members attending eight times per year on average, compared to classical audiences who attended five times per year.
Similarly, when ABC Classic began working towards broadcasting targets for the inclusion of female composers and Australian composers and performers, they noticed a gradual rise in the number of listeners and even reached a ten-year high in 2019. These studies and statistics, alongside Johannes, Zoe and Anne’s own experiences with programming, go to show that our classical audiences are much more open to unfamiliar music than what we give them credit for. More than that, given the common perception that classical audiences are an aging population, there is potential for inclusive programming approaches to captivate more concertgoers, including young people.
Although the programming norms that have developed are reflective of years of exclusion, the positive news is that audiences and performers alike are excited to experience music that they haven’t heard before. This is a promising sign that there is substantial opportunity to make programming inclusive of First Nations peoples, POC, women and current or emerging composers across the classical music industry as a whole. In an ideal world, such open-mindedness and inclusivity sounds wonderful, but how are we actually going to make these industry-wide changes? Luckily, there are many artists in Australia – like Johannes, Zoe, Claire and Anne – who have already been making waves in music programming that we can take inspiration from.
Not surprisingly, the primary way to become more inclusive in our programming is to perform a diverse range of works. While this sounds simple, our audiences have become accustomed to traditional programming approaches, and changing industry norms is a complex task. For larger musical organisations, inclusive programming could include commissioning new works, particularly by local composers, and programming pieces by women and POC alongside their usual repertoire. Johannes has programmed concerts this way on numerous occasions – Alma Mahler alongside Gustav Mahler, Beethoven paired with Australian composer Melody Eötvös or African-American composer Florence Price – to create unique and artistically compelling orchestral programs.
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s managing director Vincent Ciccarello highlights the responsibilities that orchestras have to both their audiences and their stakeholders, which can make it complicated to initiate big programming changes. He says that orchestras have an artistic responsibility in their programming, and can make gradual, but meaningful, changes. For example, the ASO has programmed music by female composers in each of their major Symphony Series concerts in 2021, an action that Vince says was ‘actually not that hard’. Setting goals such as this is an essential key for musical organisation to create long-lasting changes.
In 2015 ABC Classic revealed that music composed by women made up only 2.2 per cent of the station’s broadcasting time and began working towards increasing this number to five per cent over an undesignated amount of time. By 2017, female composers counted for 5.9 per cent of broadcasting time and the network subsequently increased their target again to ten per cent, and in 2019, 9.9 per cent of ABC Classic’s broadcasting time was music written by women. While these statistics sound bleak, ABC Classic demonstrated the importance of tracking figures and setting goals, and the station found that diversity targets were a valuable tool to ‘keep momentum moving in the right direction’. On top of minimising their gender gap, the radio station found that these goals began to influence the rest of the Australian music industry, as they were actively sourcing and encouraging the commissioning, programming and recording of female-composed music. For other large music organisations, setting targets and tracking their progress will be an impactful part of creating change.
Smaller ensembles, on the other hand, have more freedom in their programming and can use this to showcase a wider range of voices. For Zoe and the Flinders Quartet, this involves an emphasis on commissioning Australian composers, and an extremely varied programming schedule, including everything from a Shostakovich quartet cycle to a concert featuring music entirely by women. Similarly, Claire and Ensemble Offspring programmed an entire year of female composers in 2017 and actively highlight First Nations voices through their involvement with the Ngarra Burria: First Peoples Composers program. The group – which mostly performs commissions and premieres in any case – continue to support inclusivity through their progressive programming approach and collaborations with current composers. Ultimately, for chamber ensembles like Flinders Quartet and Ensemble Offspring the programming opportunities are endless.
As a conservatorium student myself, I know that we don’t always get to choose the pieces we play. But when we can, particularly in our recitals, it can be an opportunity to include music outside of the expected repertoire. This is also a great way to explore new composers and learn different performing techniques. If you are a student interested in this, or you come across a contemporary or female/POC composed piece that you’d love to perform, don’t be afraid to go for it! It’s a great opportunity to share your exciting musical experiences with others and contribute to our ever-evolving repertoire. You may even find that your lecturers will love you for playing something other than that one violin sonata they’ve heard over and over again.
Alongside the implementation of programming changes, including contemporary, female and/or POC composers in music, education is imperative to creating long-lasting change. By teaching younger generations about all kinds of composers, the inclusion and awareness of the many voices in classical music will become expected and, hopefully, normal. As Claire Edwardes says: ‘We have to invest in the next generations so that the seeds are all planted and it’s just a given. We have to invest the time to make changes across the board.’
Just like programming changes, promoting inclusivity in music education can be achieved through actions big or small. Having noticed a gender gap in the composers of solo percussion repertoire, Claire created her Rhythms of Change project, in which she commissioned six female Australian composers to write pieces for solo mallet percussion, aimed at high-school and tertiary-level musicians. This project not only champions female composers, Australian composers and new music, it also makes such music more accessible for emerging percussionists.
In a different way, Anne uses her position as an educator to normalise discussion and awareness of female composers. In her Theory and Musicianship lectures she will play compositions by women, or use their work as an example and, most importantly, not make a fuss about it. ‘We’re trying to weave composers’ names and music into the syllabus, and not make it a big deal, to start normalising different types of composers,’ she says. Anne highlights how educational institutions can become more inclusive and broaden perspectives in music history and theory, rather than teaching as previous generations were taught. Such education would develop widespread awareness in future generations, and further normalise inclusive programming in the music industry.
While discussing the omission of diverse voices can be disheartening, it is crucial that we address this issue and move forward with a positive and inclusive perspective towards music-making. Following in the footsteps of the artists and organisations that are raising awareness and revolutionising programming, everybody in the classical music industry can make meaningful changes, big or small, to be more inclusive. When looking towards the future of our industry, Johannes hopes that we will be in a position to risk more diverse programming, while Zoe would love to see everybody find their own artistic voice. For Anne, the future of the classical music industry should prioritise open-mindedness:
‘I would like most of the programming to be some kind of blend of old and new, or male and female, and everything in between,’ she says. ‘It’s about an openness to discovering new things, and recognising that in that space there are composers who you haven’t been aware of. We should be moving more into a curious creative realm, one which considers relevance and is less about upholding the status quo. ’
To me, a thriving musical environment would honour the extensive history that has led us to this point, while fostering the music of today and reflecting our culturally rich and inherently diverse world. It’s clear that there is space for a vibrant array of music, familiar or unfamiliar, to be heard in our concert halls, and I’m hopeful that hearing, performing and learning about all kinds of composers – including First Nations peoples, POC, women and living composers – will become an expected and normal part of our artform.
Whether you are a conservatorium student or professional musician, an educator or an executive, we can all make changes to continue growing an inclusive and flourishing musical community. As author and public speaker Dr. Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason says:
‘If we want the music industry to thrive, to retain and to grow its audiences, we need to ensure that those who produce, create and perform music represent the diversity of our communities. Music belongs to us all.’
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably keen to get to know some new composers. Here are just a few resources to get started.
(a huge list of female composers)
(an introduction to some current Australian composers)
(an introduction to some First Nations composers)
(a database of Black composers worldwide)
(music theory examples from female composers)
I would like to say a massive thank you to Johannes Fritzsch,
Anne Cawrse (http://www.annecawrse.com/),
Zoe Knighton (http://www.flindersquartet.com/) and Claire Edwardes (http://www.claireedwardes.com/) for generously sharing their energy and knowledge on this topic with me, and to Phillip Sametz for his support and wisdom during the Words About Music program.
Claire Litwinowicz is an alumnus of the Words About Music program, AYO National Music Camp 2021.