Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Women composers are still climbing the Eiger

I was so angry about last week's all-male final results for the British Composer Awards that I called up my editor at the Independent and wrote this: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/dont-always-let-male-composers-call-the-tune-8994084.html

Honest to goodness, I thought there'd been more progress. The PRS for Music Foundation started a special fund called Women Make Music to help support new works by women composers. The Proms have been relatively heroic, likewise the Britten Sinfonia, and next year's Cheltenham Festival is apparently scheduling 14 premieres with eight by women. So why do these awards matter?

Well, the big awards make it into the news. They're a vital shop-window onto the world of classical music. They reach attention that day-to-day musical activities do not. And they create the wider public impression of what this little corner of the cultural world is all about.

And besides, women are writing good music. The latest Pulitzer Prize winner in the US is Caroline Shaw, who is 30 and the youngest composer ever to be awarded it: read about her here in the New York Times.

But here is more on the US situation, from New Music Box - a very good read.

There've been messages about my article from a variety of people insisting they've never encountered any prejudice towards women composers. But I think the problem is more insidious than the notion of a bunch of men sitting around a table saying "What, women write music? Mwahahahaha!"

The worrying statistics I quote in my piece show that something is going wrong at a much earlier stage. It's a matter of how deeply and unconsciously embedded in our culture is the idea that composers are mainly male and those who happen to be women are the exception. It goes back to the school system, home listening, radio and TV, training and profoundly ingrained expectation. There's nothing obviously and deliberately discriminatory about it, as far as we know - it's just that this is what people expect. And that's why it is so difficult to change. Some people have been pointing out that the UK's class system is more a problem than the gender one - most composers are from middle-class backgrounds and are privately educated - I'd suggest that it is all part of the same thing.