(This piece appeared on Night and Day, The Spectator Arts Blog, on 11 March)
With International Women’s Day celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, it stood to reason that sundry shenanigans were in the works, with a 24-hour ‘day’ guaranteed to stretch into a solid week. Sure enough, London’s Southbank Centre has launched ‘Women of the World’ (WOW), a three-day festival that puts women at centre stage, while several publications have weighed in with lists of ‘Top Women’ in a range of fields, from business to entertainment to science. And Twitter is rightly a-tweet with news of #IWD festivities.
Active participants in this year’s celebrations include PRS for Music Foundation, the UK’s largest independent funder of new music, whose Women Make Music initiative puts their money where their mouth is. Offering financial support of up to £5000 to organisations and ensembles that commission new works by women composers, the scheme aims both to encourage collaboration, and raise awareness of the poor representation of women composers’ works among those performed on the world’s concert stages.
Indeed, notwithstanding the hoopla – and at the risk of being labelled a humourless feminist, as tradition would have it – it is difficult to look at the broader position of women today without feeling rather deflated. Just last week we learned that the UK is neck-and-neck with Uzbekistan in terms of women’s representation in politics (that’s 53rd, in case you’re like most people and lost interest at 20), while the number of women in corporate boardrooms hovers stubbornly at about 5%. In film, Kathryn Bigelow remains the only woman ever to win the Best Director Oscar (for The Hurt Locker) and not a single one of Hollywood’s ten highest-paid stars is female.
While many people outside the classical music world convince themselves that it’s a soft and gentle place, the gatekeepers’ blinkered thraldom to tradition can make it a similarly hostile environment for women – and that’s especially true in classical composition. Of course, we’re all aghast by stories about Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn’s thwarted ambitions, but it’s not clear that things have changed significantly for female composers since the 19th Century.
Sure, the Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning American Jennifer Higdon is one of that country’s most frequently performed composers, while her younger compatriot Missy Mazzoli’s inventive works consistently astonish critics and listeners. And here in the UK, Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra has just announced that Helen Grime will be its new Associate Composer, while women like Anna Meredith blaze trails with their work, mashing up genres in the process. (In fact, Meredith is currently ‘Composer in the House’ at Sinfonia Viva, a residency scheme devised by PRS for Music Foundation with the Royal Philharmonic Society.)
Nonetheless, the stats suggest that these women are the exception to the rule. According to UK Feminista, a mere 4.1% of works performed at last year’s BBC Proms were by women and 1.6 % of Proms conductors were women. As for membership by music writers in PRS for Music, the society that represents composers, songwriters and publishers, only 14% are female. And the problem isn’t limited to classical music: among short-listed albums for the Mercury Music Prize, those by men outnumber albums by women by more than 2:1.
William Mival, Head of Composition at the Royal College of Music, points out that this data can be misleading, however. ‘Of course, we have been a male-dominated society for a long time now, and the Proms programming reflects the whole classical repertoire over several hundred years,’ he says. ‘Women over the centuries have not had opportunities to express their creativity, and it will take a while for that to work through.’
Besides, Mival points out, many of RCM’s most successful graduates are women, citing Grime and Meredith alongside Emily Hall, whose song cycle written for Mara Carlyle will be premiered during the WOW Festival. On the other hand, Mival acknowledges the need for female composition teachers to act as role models for women students, and says the College thinks carefully about that issue.
‘Teachers are very much role models, especially in the conservatoire, because teachers have a very trusted relationship with students,’ he says. ‘If you only have male teachers inevitably you’re sending a signal there.’
As PRS for Music Foundation Chair Sally Taylor has said, ‘Women Make Music’ aims to provide both funding and a similar nudge. ‘By promoting role models for future generations, we hope that we will be encouraging more women to think about making a living as a music creator,’ says Taylor.
The first deadline for ‘Women Make Music’ is 13th May. To find out more visit PRS for Music Foundation’s website.