Female Composers and Participation in Contemporary Music
Today, Tim Rutherford Johnson published an interesting post on his blog, The Rambler about women composers in the Gaudeamus Music Prize. What is most positive about this post is that when the representation of women was questioned, the festival went away to try to find out what had happened. They found that they had proportionally represented the number of women who had entered the competition. So, 2/13 nominees were women, and only 36/189 entrants were female. This does throw up further questions, which Tim asks at the end of his post:
How representative are these figures of the general population of young composers? (They don’t sound right to me.) And if they aren’t, why aren’t more women entering competitions like this? And what difference does this make to the overall visibility of women composers in the wider new music culture?
I’m going to try to offer some tentative answers, here, which are all drawn from my own experiences. Other people might disagree with me, which is fine. But I think it is important to offer some answers and experiences to this discussion, as well despairing about the statistics.
How representative are these figures of the general population of young composers?
I don’t have any figures to offer here, and I think any figures are going to be influenced by the definition of ‘composer’ used, and how the statistics are collected. However, if one were to compare these figures with female composers represented, overall, by other awards, or by female composers who are working, teaching, or resident in institutions they are probably representative. If one wanted to compare the figures with the number of men and women who identify as composers or sound artists, or whose work might fall under a very general banner of ‘composition’ then they seem not to represent the number of women involved in writing music (and Tim, as someone very involved in contemporary music, notes that his experience is that there are more women composers than 2 in every 13, so their music must be accessible in some way).
But I make my first point for a reason: women’s representation and participation in institutions, rather than their ability to do something (such as write music) is usually the thing that contributes to their representation. As a student I ran the contemporary music society at my university, and I would say at that point in my life the number of women who took part as composers and performers was roughly even with men (or perhaps only slightly lower). As I have continued in my academic and compositional career, I more often notice my difference through being the only female composer on concert programmes, or the only female musician present in discussions. At Gaudeamus this year, my collaborative work with Rebecca Armstrong was the only piece written by women in the concert in which it was featured, although two of the performers were women, and I did notice many more male than female names in the other concerts. So, this isn’t a phenomenon that was experienced by Gaudeamus only this year.
Why aren’t more women entering competitions like this?
Women’s lack of representation in institutions might also be one reason that more women did not enter the competition. There is an obvious financial reason for this: people with institutional support are able to access opportunities that need to be paid for more readily than those without it. Research budgets, or income relating to their art, allow people to set aside money for such things. Since Gaudeamus is a paid competition (and at the moment I don’t want to debate here the merits and problems with that), and since the €50 fee is not inconsequential, it is likely that financial barriers exclude women more often than men.
It is also likely that women do not enter competitions when they perceive that they are dominated by men. In the case of Gaudeamus, the nominees and judges do represent women, so it is not true that the competition is dominated by men, but it is true that without knowing the statistics which Gaudeamus gave for the entrants the competition might seem to be dominated by men. In these cases, actively seeking female entrants might encourage women to increase their participation. Similarly, many women may have taken the message from the contemporary music culture as a whole that their music is not welcome, and cease to spend time on competition entries that they could use to create new work. Women are represented more equally in areas such as composition in the community and education. It might be that women simply choose to work in areas where they see the likelihood of getting their work done and heard as being greater.
What difference does this make to the overall visibility of women composers in the wider new music culture?
Personally, I don’t think that this Gaudeamus competition is making a difference to the visibility of women, but it is perpetuating the norm. They have established that there might be an issue relating to participation, and I don’t think that issue can be tackled by women only. Men are more frequently visible as composers, conductors and critics in New Music, and what is required is an attempt by all involved in the culture to address this problem of representation.
The gendered conference campaign contacts philosophy conferences without any female speakers to ask how that has come about. Perhaps something similar is needed with respect to competitions and concert programmes. I don’t necessarily think that concerts of historical musics should be exempt, either; the message that women are not composers is one that is begun to be transmitted to musicians at a young age (and, once again, this is an area in which the ABRSM have a lot to answer for). One big problem is that, unlike the Gaudeamus festival and Tim Rutherford Johnson, many involved in contemporary music are simply not interested in the under representation of women in contemporary music, or even believe that there is no problem at all. I’ve often heard it said that women’s struggle for equal representation in music is over, and that any problem of representation must be one of quality(!). I won’t even begin to engage with the ridiculousness of such an argument.
In my compositional life and work I am not intimidated by men and male dominated institutions. But when my time and resources are stretched I consider carefully what I do and do not engage with. I didn’t enter the Gaudeamus competition, primarily for financial and time reasons, so I also partly contributed to the low number of female entrants. I’d be interested in how my experiences and thoughts tally with those of others in the field. I’d also be interested in hearing how those who are concerned about under representation of women might plan to help redress the balance in the future.