This book presents accounts of creative processes and contextual issues of current-day and early-twentieth-century women composers. This collection of essays balances narratives of struggle, artistic prowess, and of “breaking through” the obstacles in the profession.
Part I: Creative Work – Then and Now illuminates historical and present-day women’s composition and various iterations and conceptions of the “feminine voice”; Part II: The State of the Industry in the Present Day provides solutions from the frontline to sector inequities; and Part III: Creating; Collaborating: Composer and Performer Reflections offers personal stories of current creation in music.
A Century of Composition by Women: Music Against the Odds draws together topical issues in feminist musicology over the past century. This volume provides insight into the professional and compositional procedures of creative women in music and stands to be relevant for composers, performers, industry professionals, students, and feminist and musicological scholars for many years to come.
Dr Linda Kouvaras, musicologist, composer and pianist, is Professor of Music at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne, with full artist APRA-AMCOS representation. Her research interests centre on gender issues in music and musical post/modernism (particularly Australian composition), and she is a piano examiner for the Australian Music Examinations Board.
Dr Maria Grenfell is a composer and academic living in Hobart, Tasmania. An Associate Professor at the University of Tasmania, she is widely commissioned by orchestras and chamber ensembles in Australia, New Zealand, and internationally, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.
Dr Natalie Williams is a composer, academic and artistic manager. Her music has been commissioned and performed in Australia, the United States and Europe. A performing arts leader, she has worked as an academic dean and also held faculty positions in music theory and composition at the University of Georgia and the Australian National University.
This remarkable volume captures a wide diversity of music-making practice by women in the western world through the last one hundred years. It documents and explores many challenges to success that have been faced, the ways in which some of those challenges have been overcome and many of the issues that remain. It also goes some way to identifying the lasting impact that many women’s music has had upon cultural identity, impact that has been frequently underestimated in existing literature.
We hear here the voices of composing women from particular times and places, and the voices of women writing in today’s sociocultural situations. Reading these accounts, we may be impressed by extraordinary individuals, heartened by positive shifts towards a more egalitarian world, frustrated by the incremental pace of those shifts, and also confronted by cold industry realities of then and now. Presented with hard statistics that dem- onstrate in no uncertain terms that the gender gap has persisted even though in some areas it has reduced a little, we may also learn much from those who have found ways to make space and recognition for women’s music.
This collection includes writing about a range of musical creative outputs, from overtly “female” to those activities that are not specifically gendered yet which are typically seen through a male-dominated lens. We are reminded that femininity is not the “negative” or “opposite” of masculinity, and it remains clear that the recent and important increase of dialogue in regard to prejudice against non-binary and trans artists does not reduce the necessity for ongoing feminist debate; in fact, the opposite is true.
In addressing gender disparity, it is heartening to read of the real benefits that come from the simple act of asking people to consider gender issues. Becoming aware of our unconscious biases, rather than pretending we don’t have them, helps us to embrace a more diverse artistic world. These writings encourage us to strive to change our world, so that it no longer forces women to omit their first names in order to gain access to opportunities. We could all gain more if our musical “meritocracy” encouraged relational connections and a celebration of difference rather than rewarding blind ambition; the latter, sooner or later, causes distress to all.
Here we are presented with tales of women who achieved a great deal, yet whose output was all too often unsung or bypassed. Whether their music was largely confined to the domestic (not that there is anything wrong with a domestic focus if that is chosen), whether the few widely recognised women composers were treated as exceptions and therefore set up to be discounted, or whether the involvement of a male in a collaborative project automatically detracted from female contributions, we can read here just some of the many ways in which long shadows have been cast across women’s musical successes.
In 2019, after 97 years of male leadership of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), I found myself elected first female President of the ISCM, having also been the first female Vice-President (elected at the same time the organisation gained its first female Secretary General). That it took so long for the pattern of male leadership to be broken is simply shocking. Yet there was a lot of male-dominated history to address. Looking back to the ISCM festival of my birth year (1960), I see a ten-day programme featuring music written by 40 men and one woman. The festival organising committee (based in Köln) involved 18 men and no women. Of the 24 national sections, 2 (Poland and Norway) had female presidents. I am happy to report that gender disparity in represented composers has been far less in recent ISCM festivals; most notably, the 2017 festival in Vancouver set out to achieve gender parity and very nearly achieved it. Furthermore, as the society has become more truly international, we are not just exploring gender norms in western society but across many more cultural bases.
In seeking to understand how gender disparities arise, let us not forget that by far the majority of human individuals experience relationship with the maternal as primary, and our relationship with our fathers is generally quite different. This simple fact underpins and to some extent explains—but does in no way excuse—fundamental differences in our apprehension of the feminine in comparison to the masculine.
Overcoming that takes effort and self-awareness, and a breadth of understanding to which this volume contributes much.
In A Century of Composition by Women: Music Against the Odds, we hear the voices of the women who are creators, scholarly commentators, performers, activists, mentors and leaders. Listening to them will transform us all.
Auckland, New Zealand Glenda Keam