Imagine if …

The ‘othering’ of Australian female composers is soooo yesteryear.

An advertisment that appeared on social media this week, promoted a concert at which a prominent 19th century European composer and one of his well-known and much loved works were highlighted. Also on the program were two female composers, one Australian. Their names were not mentioned. Their works were not mentioned. They were ‘anonymised’ in the ad. They were ‘othered’. It seemed they were merely on the program to meet the organisation’s yearly gender quota.

The anonymous Australian composer referred to, is well-known in Australian contemporary music. She has received many awards, commissions and accolades. She is one of the composers represented on the Women of Note: A Century of Australian Composers, reviewed in this edition of Loudmouth.

Margaret Sutherland

Rather than chastising one organisation for missing an opportunity in the promotion of a concert, I want to look at the systemic attitude inherent in this example of ‘othering’. According to the Bureau of Statistics, in 2011, and things may have improved in the interim, 284 Australians’ main occupation was as a composer. I’ll repeat that: TWO HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-FOUR across all genres of music. Of these, 235 were male. I’ll let you do the maths. Job Outlook suggests the total number is 310 and that females make up but 15%  of this number, even less than the ABS stats suggest. It’s an elite club, which is by no means representative of the number of actual composers in Australia, male or female.

Apart from the fact so few musicians can earn their main income from composing in this country, that the proportion of women is so low, either suggests that those composing just don’t cut the mustard, or alternatively, that they are by-passed in favour of the blokes. And equally appalling, from the illustration of the social media ad, that contemporary Australian male composers are being by-passed in favour of the dead male variety. To put a cork in the idea that there is less compositional ability amongst contemporary female composers in this country, at the bottom of the Women of Note review I have provided links to the websites of each included composer. Those in any doubt about their abilities can listen to their music. I’m inspired by Brahms and Mozart as much as the next person, but hey, roll over! There’s a whole bunch of talent in the local neighbourhood that needs to be heard.

One of the reasons why organisations continue to showcase the dead blokes, is because it doesn’t cost them anything to do so. The music of these composers is in the public domain. And music being what music is, the more the ouevre of such dudes is performed, the more it sits as a meme in people’s heads and the more it is therefore desired to be heard. So it drags people to their concert hall seats and helps ensembles pay the bills. But are people really so averse to new music, or is it just new because there are not the opportunities for it to be played, absorbed, loved and remembered? Tempo Rubato is a small venue in Melbourne that showcases the works and performances of contemporary composers. It has no problems filling its venue. Neither does the smaller auditorium at the Melbourne Recital Centre, nor, when the more risk-taking ACO Collective and other similar ensembles are performing, the large auditorium there.

Overwhelmingly, contemporary composers must be commissioned for works, or recipients of grants, in order to get a gig. Luckily, some ensembles, such as Ensemble Offspring, particularly concentrate on commissioning and performing works by contemporary composers. However, in the scheme of things, such commissions and grants are hard to acquire, particularly on an economically sustainable basis. It all comes back inevitably and at every point of contact, to the regard in which the arts are held and funded by governments. The cyclic nature of the underfunding and performance opportunities for female composers, indeed the majority of Australian composers, will continue unabated if, on top of the lack of access they already face, they are promotionally ‘othered’. If you don’t see or hear these composers’ names, how can you know them? How do you find your way to their music? If, on a program, Shostakovich is Shostakovich and he is supported by ‘two female composers’, what message are we conveying?

The behaviour of governements and cultural organisations must change if the inherent value of the music produced in this country is to be cherished and those damned statistics, re-imaged. We shouldn’t require programs to denote the gender of the composer. They’re not female composers, they’re composers who happen to be female. They should at least make up half of the fuck-all space and time given to Australian composers on large and small ensembles’ programs, as a matter of course. Hey, here’s a thought. Maybe we could headline them on programs sometimes, replete with their names. A change by music organisations in direction and discourse may surprise recalcitrants who forever anticipate a cultural cringe in their audiences’ attitudes and responses. Let’s take some creative risks. It should be in our DNA.


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Job Outlook

Mandy Stefanakis is a sessional lecturer in music education at Deakin University. She was previously Director of Music at Christ Church Grammar School and Essex Heights Primary School. She is a member of the Advisory Council of The Music Trust, Assistant Editor of the Trust’s e-zine Loudmouth, past-President and a Life Member of the Association of Music Educators. She lectured in music education at the University of Melbourne where she received her Master of Education degree. She has contributed to many arts curriculum initiatives and conducted professional development to assist implement these curricula over several decades. Mandy is the author of the Australian music focused education kits, Turn it Up! She has conducted extensive interviews for the National Film and Sound Archive, is an avid composer and her obsession with piano and cello continues.

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