How Sounding the Feminists Put Music and Gender in the Spotlight

Composer Karen Power, Chair of Sounding the Feminists (far right), with Minister Josepha Madigan (centre) and Maura McGrath, Chair of the NCH, at the Female Commissioning Scheme winners announcement in March.

How Sounding the Feminists Put Music and Gender in the Spotlight

In less than two years, the Sounding the Feminists movement has changed the conversation in the Irish contemporary music scene and put the issue of gender equality and composers firmly on the musical map, but, asks Adrian Smith, can it have a long-term impact without more support from the music community?

Three years ago, when the board of the Abbey Theatre announced their Waking the Nation programme for the centenary of the 1916 Rising, they unwittingly provided the spur for another act of rebellion that would ultimately change the landscape of Irish theatre. Of the ten works that were to feature on the programme only one was written by a woman – Me, Mollser by Ali White – which just happened to be a monologue for children.

Three months after Waking the Feminists (WTF) had staged a high-profile demonstration outside the Abbey theatre, RTÉ and the National Concert Hall were accused of making a similar blunder when they announced Composing the Island – a three-week festival of music by Irish composers written in the one hundred years since the Rising. When the festival programme was unveiled in June 2016 it was swiftly criticised for the lack of female representation. For many in the music community this was the last straw. Sparked by composers Jane Deasy and Siobhán Cleary, the initial frustration soon crystallised into a coherent movement calling for change known as Sounding the Feminists (STF). This collective formed in the summer of 2017 and is currently composed of a four-person steering committee consisting of composers Karen Power (Chair) and Ann Cleare, academic Laura Watson and Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown councillor Grace Tallon.

The group has notched up several notable achievements in a relatively short space of time. The most significant of these has been a five-year partnership with the NCH which will see €100,000 going towards a number of initiatives. These include a Female Commissioning Scheme that has recently announced two winners for this year’s competition – Jennifer Walshe and Claudia Schwab; a Female Composer Series that this year featured music from the Baroque era to the present day; and a series of workshops, titled Pitch Perfect, aimed at empowering women working in the music industry.

In many ways it is a mark of the group’s success that talk of gender balance continues to remain firmly in the spotlight. Several months after the collective formed, the co-director of Ergodos, Garrett Sholdice, stated that the Santa Rita concert series, which his music company curates, will adopt a policy ‘to make the series at least 50:50 in terms of representation’ while also aiming for 50:50 in the organisation’s yearly recorded output. In December 2018, John Harris, the director of New Music Dublin, announced at the launch of the festival that all commissions for the 2019 event would be 50:50 gender balanced. The issue is here to stay and only the most out-of-touch arts administrator would willingly choose to ignore it. 

Quality versus equality
These days it is generally accepted that the reason for the relative paucity of female composers throughout the history of western music is due to societal prejudice, with the lack of opportunities for female composers reflecting their historic lack of political, economic and social rights. The current situation is radically different and several female composers such as Unsuk Chin, Kaija Saariaho and Sofia Gubaidulina are widely acknowledged as being among the first rank of contemporary composers. Nevertheless music still seems to lag behind other art forms when it comes to recognising female artists. When British composer Rebecca Saunders received the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize back in January, her status as the first female composer to win this prestigious award almost seemed to take precedence over her achievement:

It is of course shocking that in 2019 my gender pretty much defines the first question I’m asked when getting a prize like this. But it is also understandable.

Despite recent progress, female composers still remain substantially in the minority. In Ireland, data from the Contemporary Music Centre shows that out of the 212 composers registered, 46 (22%) are female. The Association of Irish Composers currently lists 102 composers on its website, 33 (32%) of which are female, while the Irish Composers’ Collective has 16 female members (26%) out of a total membership of 62. Of course, these organisations do not represent all composers currently active in the state and tend to be made up of those who see themselves as active in the contemporary ‘new music’ scene. Nevertheless, we can broadly estimate that the percentage of female composers is somewhere in the region of 25–30%. Although this figure is on an upward trajectory, it still has a long way to go before it attains anything like 50:50 parity.

Other genres throw up similarly unbalanced statistics. Jazz has long had a particularly poor record while the FairPlé movement has raised awareness of the issue in Irish traditional and folk music. Mnásome, Gash Collective and Girls Rock Dublin have highlighted gender inequality in Irish electronic, rock and pop music. The UK-based organisation Keychange, which campaigns for gender equality across the entire music sector, supports the introduction of affirmative action measures to help improve such disparities. As a result of its work, the BBC Proms pledged that half of all new commissions will go to women by 2022.

Campaigners like Keychange argue that these measures are necessary due to the accumulated weight of historical prejudice, the lack of role models and the fact that commissions are less likely to flow their way in such a male-dominated environment. The latter argument is very similar to the one advanced for introducing gender quotas in politics. How is a female candidate supposed to make it on to the ballot paper if the local party apparatus is dominated by men who have traditionally decided such matters huddled away in smoke-filled back rooms?

Similarly, in the world of contemporary music, anybody involved in commissioning knows that while one might outwardly profess an emphasis on quality, in reality, cliques and who-knows-who inevitably play a role in deciding who is awarded the best opportunities. Indeed there is some evidence indicating that even though female composers comprise around 25−30% of the total composer population, they have actually received less than this figure in commissions and performances.

In the wake of the Composing the Island debacle, STF carried out their own research and discovered that only 19% of pieces in the announced line-up were by female composers, adding up to a measly 18% of the festival’s total amount of music (when measured in minutes). A survey carried out by musicologist and TU Dublin Conservatory lecturer Mark Fitzgerald in 2017 seemed to corroborate their claims revealing that several prominent ensembles and music bodies routinely underrepresented female composers, most glaringly in the area of opera. Although these can’t be deemed comprehensive, they do seem to suggest that just because 25−30% of composers are female, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they will automatically be represented by that percentage in performances or commissions.

On the other hand, there is the argument that the primary concern of anyone involved in music is, or should be, quality. Is the mantra of ‘equal everything for everybody’ not fundamentally out-of-sync with the nature of artistic activity? Surely allocating resources on a statistical rather than a quality basis is an encroachment into the arts of a very dreary utilitarianism? However, these concerns tend to overlook the fact that actually increasing the number of women composers relative to the current number of males would almost certainly improve the overall quality. There would be more competition for the same resources and as more female composers emerge they would displace weaker male composers. As it stands there is likely to be more than a few male composers availing themselves of the opportunities at the expense of more talented women who have not been encouraged to pursue this career. The justification for a theoretical 50:50 balance is therefore not just equality; it would ultimately result in a better overall standard of music. 

Tackling the historical legacy
One of the very real factors preventing younger women from even considering composition as a viable career option is the lack of role models. The history of western music is a narrative dominated by men and although there is no credible way to perfectly balance the books in that respect, there is a strong case for giving the work of women composers a disproportionate representation in order to compensate for their historic exclusion. Fanatical adherents of the quality argument may baulk at this notion, but even a cursory glance over any ensemble’s season will reveal plenty of work programmed on the basis of curiosity, novelty, rarity and other non-quality considerations.

An even more pressing task is combatting and calling out the most egregious instances where women have been airbrushed from the historical record. Back in 2015, Laura Watson contributed an article to the Journal of Music in which she pointed out that none of the set works on the listening strand of the Leaving Certificate – which encompassed contemporary ‘classical’ music as well as popular music – were by women. Since a majority of those taking the Leaving Certificate music exam are female, Watson argued that these students ‘deserve better than the wholescale, wholly inaccurate erasure of their sex’.

One doesn’t have to look too hard to uncover similar instances where women’s voices have been marginalised unnecessarily. In the 2015–18 piano syllabus from the Royal Irish Academy of Music for instance, only two female composers featured on the advanced grades (Grade 6 to Senior Certificate) out of 56 male composers. Furthermore, neither of these composers made it into the convenient RIAM piano albums from which most students tend to select the pieces they will perform in their exam. The 2019–22 syllabus features nine female composers and as such represents a conscious improvement but only one, Marianne Von Martinez, is included in the popular piano albums.

Most depressingly, the syllabi for the Associate and Licentiate diploma piano exams contain not a single work by a female composer out of literally hundreds of pieces by male composers. In combination with the Leaving Certificate, it’s quite possible that a female piano student could make it half way through their undergraduate music degree before ever encountering a substantial work by a female composer. Only a blinkered observer could fail to acknowledge that this greatly diminishes the prospect of a young female student even considering the prospect of a career in composition.

It should be pointed out, however, that as regards ‘mainstreaming’ of female composers in their concert programming, the RIAM has led the way. Their staging of Francesca Caccini’s 1625 comic opera Alcina in May will be the third year in a row that an opera by a female composer has featured in their season. Other pioneering initiatives include performances to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage, a ‘Boulanger’ day dedicated to the music of Lili and Nadia Boulanger, a continuation of their annual ‘Saluting the Feminists’ day of work by female composers and a commitment to feature a least one work by a female composer in each of their coffee morning concerts which run from January to March. According to Ciara Higgins, Head of Artistic Programming at RIAM, the current seasons marks ‘a real start of our journey to place women – composers, performers and pedagogues – centre stage in our programming output in the years ahead’.

Yet the fact that such disparities exist even in an institution that seems acutely conscious of gender balance only serves to highlight the need for an ongoing holistic approach.

How to get to 50:50
While these schemes are a step in the right direction, we are nevertheless condemned to living in the present. Increasing the number of female composers can’t obviously be achieved overnight and it will likely take at least a generation or so to get closer to an even split. One of the most difficult issues in the gender debate is whether Irish commissioning bodies should follow the example of the BBC Proms and roll out 50:50 quotas across the board for all commissions and funding schemes. Given the current gender ratio, such a measure would automatically result in a female composer being, on average, three times more likely to receive a commission than a male composer. This is not exactly equitable and one has to question whether it would be fair.

On the other hand, there is certainly an argument for introducing quotas in some form. Quotas can function as helpful safeguards, keeping the issue in focus and preventing backsliding. If 30% of the composer population is female then a 30% quota would be a minimum expectation, but if the aim is to ensure a steady increase in the number of female composers, without unfairly disadvantaging the current majority, then there is a case for a substantially higher quota. When asked in a recent interview in the Irish Times what she would do if given the power to impose change, Ireland’s most successful female composer Jennifer Walshe proposed a very sensible solution: 

I would say you don’t get funding unless, over a five-year period, you demonstrate that you’re programming a minimum of 40 per cent of work by women. Then everybody would change their tune. 

If such a target could be achieved over the medium term for contemporary work, one would hope that the issue would sort itself by its own accord without necessitating the hyper rational 50:50 quota – though of course this can’t be taken for granted. At the moment, if a group or organisation is commissioning and performing 30% of either gender, then they are ensuring that nobody is being unfairly discriminated against on the basis of their sex.

STF is currently awaiting the results of a comprehensive research project that aims to explore whether or not institutional gender bias can be proved on a more objective basis. The research intends to analyse publicly funded composer opportunities in Ireland over the last ten years across a variety of sectors including performing groups, festivals, opera, recordings, as well as considering factors like the duration of pieces performed, repeat performances, and age patterns. In doing so they are following the example of WTF, who carried out a thorough assessment of the theatre scene which provided them with leverage when attempting to extract commitments from arts bodies.

Along with quotas, another potentially controversial issue is the whole notion of female-only initiatives that can sometimes appear to contradict the idea of gender balance. Recently, Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan was forced to reconsider her department’s ‘Markievicz bursaries’ in which €100,000 per annum would have been split amongst five female artists. This proposal raised many eyebrows considering that 54% of the bursaries dispensed by the Arts Council in 2017 went to female artists. The scheme has since been extended to include male applicants also.

By contrast, there is infinitely more justification for STF’s five-year female composer commissioning scheme given the current gender imbalance in music as well as the collective’s need to raise their profile. However, such a scheme has to be seen as a short-term solution while negotiations are taking place to extract more substantial reforms. Often arts institutions are inclined to market the work of female and female identifying composers almost as a genre in its own right, and if such schemes were to become the norm at the expense of long-term structural reform, they risk ghettoising rather than mainstreaming the work itself.

Whether they decide to pursue quotas or not, STF has contributed to a fundamental shift in consciousness on the issue of female inclusion in the Irish classical music community. This in itself constitutes a significant victory but the ultimate metric of the group’s success rests upon whether or not they can ensure that this is sustained into the future. Part of the process of ensuring this will inevitably involve wrangling commitments from arts bodies about gender equality and possibly navigating the sticky issue of quotas. The justification for the latter will surely rest on the findings from the group’s research which is expected to be made public later this year.

While the current climate has proved to be particularly conducive to their campaign, STF’s job will be made considerably easier if they can mobilise broad-based support from within the composition community in Ireland. It is noticeable that although the STF website lists several partners – Music Network, Irish National Opera, ConTempo Quartet, NUI Maynooth, Contemporary Music Centre, Irish Baroque Orchestra, Quiet Music Ensemble and Dundalk IT – the two most glaring absentees are the Association of Irish Composers and the Irish Composers’ Collective whose support would surely be helpful in achieving long-term change. In this regard, it might be a politically astute move for STF to do something about the exclusively female composition of their own steering committee which, at the moment, is bereft of anyone in possession of the pesky Y chromosome.

That said, the ‘activism’ of the larger composer community is best described as ‘low-energy’. Not so long ago, in an article lamenting the fact that not a single new work by an Irish composer would feature in the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s current main season, I asked the question of what would happen in other artistic disciplines if institutions such as the Abbey or IMMA decided to exclude their work. The answer duly arrived in January when 312 actors, directors, designers, agents and playwrights expressed their ‘deep concern and dissatisfaction’ with the way the Abbey is being run, pointing out that in five and a half months not a single Irish-based actor had been employed there. The response was swift and overnight the Arts Council released a statement claiming that they had frozen €300,000 of the Abbey’s €7 million grant for 2019, and demanding evidence relating to employment practices at the theatre. Surely it’s not beyond the ability of Irish composers to act together as a cohesive group on major issues? Fans of contemporary music are perennially at a loss to explain why the composer community cannot seem to get its collective act together in this respect and when one compares this difference in attitude with the theatre community, STF clearly has its work cut out.

There are also other challenges that their precursors WTF didn’t have to worry about. While STF may have won the sympathetic ear of some in the media, Irish ‘classical’ music does not have anything like the same sway with the Irish media that theatre does. Almost from its inception WTF could rely on comprehensive coverage not just in the print media but also on television and radio which gave the movement a high degree of visibility with even Meryl Streep sending her support at one stage. The momentum built up with the help of a highly supportive media played a huge part in getting initiatives over the line.

STF can’t quite expect anything like the same level of coverage and will likely have to work longer and harder to achieve the same kind of concrete results as WTFNevertheless, the determination shown over the past twenty months mark them out as a formidable force in the Irish music scene and the coming year will undoubtedly prove to be another important chapter.

Published on 11 April 2019

Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.

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