Breaking the Glass Ceiling
Breaking the Glass Ceiling
This essay has been a long time in the making. Being the daughter of the first generation women in my family to receive a university education, I am compelled to stand before you and appeal for greater awareness of the importance of diverse representation in the field of new music and sound art. In recent years a number of issues have been raised regarding the representation of women in new music. Despite this subject being a prime topic of conversation with faculties, festivals, commissioning bodies and concert programming, the number of women to appear on these steadfast platforms remains disturbingly low.
This discussion aims to point out some key issues that keep women out and why it is of vital importance to encourage the inclusion of women, aiming as best as possible for equal representation. The primary question is why are the numbers so low when the population is roughly 50/50. The obvious answer is because fewer women pursue this path. My argument is to point out that there are inherent systemic reasons why this is so and why it is not because of the lack of interest, ambition or desire.
The crux of my argument is that the creative voice is an earpiece for a society and the voices of creative women drawing attention to their experience should and must be heard and be valued with utmost respect and importance on an equal standing with men. The tragedy of my generation is that for the first time in history women have been educated with exactly the same education as men with equal opportunities and no vocational directive, yet, as we enter the workforce and public office, we are faced with prejudice from figures of authority and power who are unwilling to recognize the changes that have occurred in recent years where women are highly skilled, exceptionally competent and excel in their field and are worth rewarding, employing and celebrating.
I am saddened by the fact that in the closing month of 2016, the representation of women in composition and sound art is still a matter of contention that must be defended and pleaded for and the fight for equality is still a bloody battle. The operative word is “fight”. This is a subject that carries weight and historical baggage. Women’s rights are a matter of human rights.
In considering my approach to this keynote presentation, I have concluded there are two methods of approach. The first being a presentation of statistics and academic arguments, the second being to communicate an experiential point of view, outlining concerns and issues that are brought up by everyday interactions within the community of musicians, composers and public. Both approaches are necessary in order to grasp the depth and dimension of the subject. To an extent I have done my best to prepare both considering the limited amount of time available for me to do so.
Statistics are an important component of the argument and necessary to emphasize information about how many women are employed/ commissioned/ awarded prizes/ played on programs, how much they are paid in comparison to their male counterparts, for what are they being paid and for what forces are they being commissioned. Documentation of experiences provides information about what happens to individuals and groups of people that may affect the statistics. In this presentation I have compiled a bibliographical list of articles, statistics and surveys from recent discussions primarily from America, The United Kingdom and Australia where the subject of feminism and equal rights for women is highly evolved and of huge concern. I hope that my bibliography may encourage others to seek further information.
I am happy to say that because of the astute authors of these articles, who have successfully articulated some of the general concerns surrounding this subject, the discussion about the representation of women in classical music has lead to an awareness that has contributed to many positive developments, ensuring the presence of female teachers on faculties and panels, in discussions and publications and development and outreach programs and an attempt to address visibility in programming and festivals. Statistically speaking, representation of women is still dramatically low and the most important question to ask is “why”.
Experience is not a scientific study and it is important to listen to many experiences before making judgments or conclusions. As many women are afraid to talk about their experiences for fear of being judged, losing their job/ opportunities or contacts or gaining a bad reputation with people who are in positions to give them work, it is important to consider gathering anonymous accounts via private surveys is perhaps the only way to get an accurate and complete picture. It is important to spend time gathering information with patience and without judgment. The most caustic, toxic situation would be to brush over, ignore, ridicule or gaslight someone who is communicating their experience. It is important to hear what individuals are trying to say. Everyone has a right to communicate a situation where they are misunderstood, ignored, excluded, degraded or caught in a situation that has a negative influence on their life. Everyone has the right to make moves to improve the quality of their situation and this is beneficial not only for the individual but for the entire community.
One of the most common means to dismiss women in a community is via stereotyping and generalization. This is particularly rife in the music industry including classical music and new music. It is important to pinpoint, analyze, confront and dismiss stereotypes because they are not based in fact, attribute certain characteristics to groups of people without being tested and overlook the concerns, abilities and expertise of individuals within that group. This can be dangerous because it can lead to the acceptance of certain ill informed attitudes and institutional prejudice and bias that can become accepted and even unnoticed, causing hurt or disadvantage to certain individuals and groups.
I have some stories that I would like to share with a mind that they may provoke discussion. I do speak from personal experience and would like to note that my experience is not everybody’s experience and it is necessary to look at individuals, case-by-case studies and the nuance of context and situation. I encourage women to speak about their experiences because it is important to hear their point of view and I would like to promote the necessity for a safe place where women can go without fear of judgment to speak honestly about issues that concern their well-being, mental health and ensure there is a portal wherein they may seek professional advice including legal and social support.
This weekend I had the good fortune to meet and spend time with James Poke, the artistic director of the Icebreaker Ensemble, a seminal British based group, heavily aligned with Dutch composers Louis Andriessen, Diderik Wagenaar, American composers Philip Glass, Michael Gordon and David Lang and English composers including Brian Eno. This is the first time I met James and the reason that I made the effort to visit him in the UK this weekend was to discuss his experience with commissioning female composers. This was sparked by an email discussion I have had with him in recent months about his attempt to address the imbalance between male and female composers in the programming for the ensemble. Icebreaker created an all-star female touring program. A year ago, James approached me to write a new piece for Icebreaker to be included on this program along side Anna Meredith, Linda Buckley, Jobina Tinnemans and Elizabeth Kelly. As I know Anna, Linda, Jobina and Elizabeth, being my contemporaries and colleagues, I can tell you that they are all exceptional composers with a strong, individual and original voice. I was honoured to have been included on that program and immediately agreed.
The Icebreaker Ensemble is one of the most important new music ensembles in the world, closely related to my immediate circle of composer colleagues and with an aesthetic that matches my aesthetic. Previous to this introduction, I had not had any contact with the ensemble, and in our recent discussion he disclosed that he came across my work through the late Bob Gilmore.
This program, titled System Restart has been embraced by high profile venues across the UK who have expressed interest in these composers and who are keen to redress the desert of waspish masculine monoculture, by programming more female composers. It has been successful, with a tour to set sail in the early months of 2017.
My setback occurred when The Icebreaker’s application for funding for my commission was turned down, which meant that I have no available income to afford the hours necessary to work on this new piece. Being turned down for such a high profile and beneficial commission is in itself heartbreaking because the invitation to write for an ensemble of such high caliber and significance does not happen often and it does provide the possibility to develop as a composer, working at a higher level of professionalism.
The biggest blow however was to discover that out of the 40 applications made by festivals, ensembles and programmers to the funding body in question, there were only three applications made for female composers. Out of the 20 successful commissions, only one was for a female composer and this commission was for a small amount compared to the amount being awarded to the male composers.
When I told James about this he revealed that in his experience this was a trend that he had encountered where nearly all of the applications for commissioning male composers had been successfully awarded whereas nearly all of applications sought for female composers had been turned down, leaving female composers in the position where in order to write music they must do so for free, out of their own goodwill or not write music at all. The figures he gave me were that the ensemble had commissioned 17 male composers, 16 of which were successfully awarded funding for their commission and with the amount they asked for, the ensemble had commissioned 9 female composers, 7 of whom were turned down completely and the 2 who received support were given amounts substantially less than what the ensemble had asked.
This is a shocking statistic, especially considering the fact that the ensemble, in deliberately attempting to address the issue of including more women on their programs, are being discouraged to do so by the inhibiting nature of the selection process of funding bodies. This is a point of discussion. Given the interest and necessity for ensembles and festivals to include more women on programs where traditionally they have been overlooked and even discouraged, how is it possible to ensure this can be addressed when the selection of composers by ensembles and festivals followed by the selection process though funding bodies and peer reviewed panels, turns women down at an extraordinary rate compared to men.
The question of writing music for free is a topic of discussion that embraces both male and female composers. In some instances composers may have independent income but for the most part composers rely heavily on the income they make from commissions to get by. In some cases commissions are the only income a composer earns. A commission fee covers the costs of living, professional costs including instruments, equipment, office and administration costs, travel, recording and documentation of performances, studio hire as well as the hours afforded to research, sketch ideas, building up a new score from scratch, typesetting and production of the final score and parts ready to present to the performers. This is a huge amount of work, detailed and time consuming.
The fact that fewer women are successful in funding applications can contribute to one of the many reasons why festivals, programmers and ensembles may not seek to commission women because setting up a program, approaching venues and organizing a touring program is a time consuming and fragile process in its own right, one of which cannot accommodate uncertainty or hesitation. In some instances the program has already been advertised and tickets sold before it is known whether the commission fee has been successful. This leaves a very uncomfortable situation if the funding turns down a commission, forcing the composer to work for free which can have a detrimental effect on the quality of life for that composer, especially if they do not have an alternative source of income. If the link in the chain is broken, for example a composer may not be able to write the piece because there is no commission fee, then the easiest solution would be to seek surety and ask composers who are less of a risk.
Speaking of alternative sources of income, women face another setback in that the jobs they are qualified for, for example teaching in composition faculties, working in radio, sound engineering, programming, artistic direction, typesetting and publishing, face more or less similar issues as with composition commissions, in that it is harder for women to get jobs in these fields, being largely dominated by men.
There is an unspoken suggestion that the quality of female composers is somehow lower or not worthy of awarding a commission. Yet the question of quality of music written by women has been proven to be of the highest standard time and time again. My question is why, when there is a demand for the music of composers who happen to be women, are they being turned down. James revealed to me a list of women Icebreaker has tried to commission over the years that have been unsuccessful. This list includes people such as the American composer Julia Wolfe who has recently not only been awarded a Pulitzer Prize but also the most prestigious MacArthur Genius award.
I would like to ask the panel and audience about this in plain, direct language: What is the problem with endorsing female composers?
What discussions, protocols, systemic initiatives are in place, or are to be developed to help encourage and promote female composers at every stage of their career from the earliest years to their most senior years?
In the two tiered selection process, whereby a composer must first be chosen and put forward by an ensemble or festival and then undergo a competitive selection process via a panel of peers, how can we ensure that the question of balance and diversity can be addressed?