Monday, March 28, 2016

Listening to different spaces

A hard-hitting interview with the composer Olga Neuwirth has appeared in VAN magazine in which the distinguished composer tears the patriarchal structures of the classical music world into little bits and pieces. (The interview took place in November last year and has been translated, in what the magazine says is abridged form.)

It is also fairly horrific to discover that on one occasion an opera commission together with the author Elfriede Jelinek was cancelled, and the reasons Neuwirth alleges were behind this. Jelinek subsequently won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Here's a taste of Neuwirth's work: this piece is all about listening to different spaces...

Neuwirth also asks in this interview where those people who now speak up against sexism in the industry were 25 years ago, when she'd already started doing so.

That got me thinking. Where were we? Why are we late starters? Why were we listening to different spaces then?

Well, some of us were pretty young and green, for a start. I was in a junior post, learning how magazines were put together. I got my first music journalism job on The Strad when I was 24 and I had not the first clue about the structures and traditions of the music business. I was resistant to the notion that music was a business at all. Until a year earlier I'd spent three to five hours a day practising the piano, and I was still licking wounds that resulted from that dreamectomy. My mother had cancer and her illness hung over our family like a sword of Damocles. I had other preoccupations, too, as one does at 25, and was basically trying to find my feet, do my job and learn my way around the industry in which I'd landed.

My elder sister was the family feminist and activist. She was a lecturer in French history and politics, at that time at Bath University (she subsequently moved to Sussex). Although she sometimes berated me for my head-in-the-clouds devotion to music, I somehow imbibed the sensation that feminism was her patch and that should I turn in that direction I would never in a thousand years be able to live up to her standards and her expectations.

I'd found the male-dominated aspects of my university sometimes unpleasant, arrogant and intimidating, but I was there and determined to do my own thing - or so I thought. Actually I buried ideas of composition lessons within three weeks of going "up", having spotted how unwelcome a girl composer would be... but the crucial point is that it didn't occur to me that one could challenge this. Surely one didn't need to, not in 1985?!? A woman was prime minister: that proved a woman could now do anything. Ours was the first generation that thought we could have it all. Even so, I did not experience a single lesson with a woman at that university in three years. Unless I'm very much mistaken, the only women teaching in that music faculty were one ethnomusicologist and a brilliant composer (a Schoenberg expert) who was doing a doctorate. It was just how it was. I certainly had daydreams of sneaking down to the faculty by night and spraying on some graffiti, or smashing a window or two, but a) that was for other reasons, and b) I'd never have dared.

Still, I think the sorry underlying truth was probably the syndrome I see in many young women today. They've made it, so why can't others? What's the problem? I am fairly sure that at 25 that's how I must have seen things. It never occurred to me that I'd be overlooked because I was a woman; I applied for jobs and got them, so pas de problème...

What happened? I spent 20 more years in the business. My sister died of cancer, aged 45, and I realised that life is short, short, short. I began writing for the Independent. If I'd approached a national newspaper wanting to write about sexism in the music industry as an importunate upstart of 25, I reckon I'd have been laughed out of town. Then I interviewed Pierre Boulez. He said you can't sit in front of a situation you see is wrong without wanting to do something to change it, and I realised he was right. It wasn't long after that that I found myself sitting in front of something that I felt was very wrong and I decided to do something at least to raise awareness of it, because now I could.

The floodgates of consciousness have opened all around us now and it has been heartening to see the industry's decision-makers responding: festivals from baroque to contemporary programming music by women, International Women's Day taken very seriously on Radio 3 (now we need to address the rest of the year too), the launching of awards for women in the creative industries under the auspices of the Southbank Centre's WOW festival. The argument has widened to consider diversity as a whole, and necessarily so. Chineke! has got off to a flying start, and now Sound and Music is taking direct action to address the lack of diversity in new music "because it's 2016" - here's what they're doing and how and why.

Of course Neuwirth is right: it would have been good if more people had spoken up 25 years ago. But we can't change the past. With any luck, though, we can make some impact upon the present and future.

(Meanwhile, anyone who still requires proof of the ugly nature of misogyny in the music world need only go to the reader comments thread following a Slipped Disc post about Khatia Buniatishvili - some of the views expressed below the line are nauseating. I'm not linking to it - find it yourself if you wish.)