Levelling up in the music world

Posted on

by Jessica Duchen, journalist and author

Here, Jessica Duchen, journalist and author, shares her thoughts on gender parity in the music world.

I’ll never forget the day when a high-placed arts personnage told a large meeting that many of my colleagues in music journalism thought my preoccupation with women’s equality in the music world was, I quote, “a bit silly”. What a charming revelation. I nearly went through the floor. This was a few years ago, before the pandemic, before the referendum, in what now feels like another world. Since then, one thing’s become clear: things are changing. The tide strengthened. And it’s turning.

It was clear, back then, that much of the classical music field was still mired in a complacent, traditionalist, arrogant, laissez-faire attitude to our creatives and performers, and it didn’t want to shift. The gender balance was appalling, the racial one still worse; but that was not considered a reason to do anything to change it. That would – shock, horror – rock the boat. Besides, we – she, you, me – have decent careers, so how could there possibly be a problem?

Still, we’d made the coffee by then and it was percolating. A few years on, the cause of women in the music industry has been embraced by organisations with the power to make a difference. On the macro level, international initiatives have sprung up and gained results. On the micro level, women who would previously have failed to see a problem started tweeting about everyday sexism. Once we wake up, it is pretty much impossible to go back to sleep.

A few examples? The Royal Philharmonic Society has thrown its weight behind the Women Conductors training programme originally started at Morley College. Classical:NEXT devoted an entire trade fair to the issues facing women in music. The Cheltenham Music Festival was a crucial pioneer in programming music by composers who were female. The artists’ agency Harrison Parrott founded a department devoted to female conductors.

Statistics? There are lots. Here’s one set. Back in 2011, the PRS for Music Foundation devised a grant scheme called Women Make Music – because in 2010 only 13 per cent of their members were women and 16 per cent of their grant applicants. This fund began to change lives. In 2016 they found that 79 per cent of successful applicants said the grant had helped their confidence. The funding had generated a 100 per cent return and, for recipients, an average 27 per cent increase in income. A staggering 78 per cent of applicants interviewed said they had experienced sexism and/or felt pigeonholed in the music business. One recipient said simply: “The fund addresses the imbalance in how things have worked for so long. It sheds light on people who are doing something. This needs to become normalised. Hopefully one day it won’t be needed.”

The PRS for Music Foundation went on to spearhead a project called Keychange, in which 12 partner organisations from all over Europe aim to achieve gender parity by, among other things, gathering pledges from music festivals to work towards 50/50 programming by 2022. The project continues and so far about 150 festivals have signed up.

This year the Black Lives Matter movement has made a volcanic difference, and music is no exception. The impact of the Chineke! Orchestra shouldn’t be underestimated. If you’ve attended one of their concerts, you might have found the atmosphere transformative. The audience, compared to that of other orchestral performances, seems newer, younger, more enthusiastic; chatting to people around me there, I’ve found they’re often new to the venue and are thrilled to feel comfortable listening to live orchestral music and to see people on stage they identify with. This is an example of the joy and positivity that results when change is, at long last, facilitated. As Spitalfields welcomes the Chineke! Junior Orchestra for a virtual walking tour of East London, with the world premiere of Amanda Aldridge’s Three Arabian Dances, it’s a chance to see that change in action, while lifting the lid on the Black history of Spitalfields, which goes back 500 years.

The blame for persistent racism and sexism often falls upon unconscious bias. To state the obvious, the trouble is that it is unconscious. Many people spouting sexist views on social media are aghast if you challenge them, because they are horrified at the idea they might be biased.

You have to see it to be it, the saying goes; and it’s also true that if the sight of something is “normalised” for everybody, it no longer needs a fight for acceptance. A sight such as a woman on a conductor’s podium. Try this: would I have liked to try conducting? You bet. Why didn’t I? Because it never occurred to me. Why not? Perhaps because I’d seen so few women conducting when I was younger, there was no positive example to follow? It’s not a conscious process. But it’s there. And so the recognition of figures like Marin Alsop, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and Dalia Stasevska as not only fine musicians but vital role models has come not a moment too soon.

Even today, when organisations try to level things up – the La Maestra competition in Paris for female conductors, for instance, or the Dallas Opera Hart Institute for Women Conductors – their efforts are often met with whinge upon whinge from…men who, to coin a phrase, haven’t remembered to “check their privilege”. Those individuals tend not to cry “sexism” at music competitions in which all the finalists are male, because these things happen all the time. See what I mean about normalisation?

Other fields have already been transformed through the challenging of unconscious bias, notably orchestral playing: in the US, when orchestras introduced screens for auditions so that the applicant was invisible while playing, the number of women who won the jobs went up by a whopping 25 per cent. Seeing orchestras comprised of roughly 50-50 men and women became normalised; today, certainly in the UK, there’s not such a problem. Crucially, now audiences not only notice, but expect equality. Witness the disapprobation at the annual New Year’s Day Concert by the Vienna Philharmonic, when Twitter splutters with fury at the scarcity of female performers.

As for the hinterland of female composers over the centuries, that includes names that are now beginning to shine as brightly as they deserve. Previously, without that hinterland on view, it was depressingly easy for detractors to declare that “so few women wrote music” (to quote a notorious instance from The Spectator). What? Did they really think there was Hildegard of Bingen and then nobody until Dame Ethel Smyth? Now the full richness of music over the centuries is being revealed – and the picture is very different.

Women make music. Women have always made music. But they haven’t often been allowed recognition for it in the past. Indeed, the shocking historical scarcity of women in the “musical canon” is not an accident. It is the ongoing result of about 1000 years of social, political, economic and educational history – and remember, it’s only a little over 100 years since the first tranche of women were accorded the vote in Britain. It’s a societal issue, so deeply ingrained that it requires a radical push to effect any change. Leaving it to “evolution” simply isn’t enough.

The proof is in the music itself. Just as the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi, in this year’s exhibition at the National Gallery, were a revelation in terms of the strength, incandescence, fury and wonder of the artist’s vision, so the music of Barbara Strozzi can prove breathtaking as she – rather like the revered Monteverdi – pushes to its limits every expressive effect at her disposal. You can hear her work and that of the magnificent Francesca Caccini alongside their male colleagues of the early baroque in the Dunedin Consort’s festival performance “Lagrime mie: Songs of Prayer and Solitude”.

In a field where performers are often being judged on their ability to highlight tiny new nuances in a piece that we have heard two or three hundred times, there is really no excuse not to perform, instead, repertoire that is usually left languishing unheard. Adding to our programmes the wealth of fine music by female composers increases not just the quantity of repertoire, but its depth too. An alternative take on the world, perhaps, and one that enriches our rounded image of the whole.

This is equally true for contemporary music, and you can sample just some of the range on offer from today’s female creators by listening to “Fast Food, Fast Music”: short commissions from eight female composers receiving their world premieres. The project displays diverse and energetic compositional voices: Heloïse Warner, Susannah Self, Victoria Benito, Joy Effiong, Bobbie-Jane Gardner, Millicent James, Sarah Rodgers and Jasmin Rodgman are a fine sample of our kaleidoscopic musical environment. The late night Song Club offers a chance to enjoy the music of Errollyn Wallen, which crosses effortlessly from singer-songwriter to intricate orchestral superstar, as well as the melliflous creations of Katie Melua.

Levelling up the music world, then, is not only not “silly”. It’s necessary. Musicians want it, audiences want it and we all stand to benefit. After all, just think what might have been. All that music unwritten, all those spirits unfulfilled, all that potential that died young or withered away because other people said: “No, you can’t, because you’re a girl”. What music might we have had? Maybe 27 piano concertos by Anna Maria Mozart? Three volumes of sophisticated song cycles by Clara Wieck? Thirty-two piano sonatas by Fanny Mendelssohn? Essential partitas for every cello student by Anna Magdalena Bach? More composers mean more music for us all to enjoy. A greater diversity in that music means more tastes catered for, more people joining the audience, more spirits resounding to the joys that music can bring. Let’s open the doors and windows and let it all in.