In recent months Limelight has been examining the issues arising from Ciaran Frame’s 2020 Living Music Report, as to whether the music played by our orchestras reflect us – and to what extent it ought to. The series so far has featured articles by Ciaran Frame, writer/actor/composer/pianist Phil Scott, composer Felicity Wilcox and musician and author Peter Tregear. They follow a major feature by Amanda Harris, which ran in our May 2021 issue, which examined issues around representation and cultural appropriation in Australian music history. These pieces have sparked debate among our readers and led to a number of comments via email, social media and on our website. Here are some of the responses we have received.
I’ve been following the intelligent and passionate debate in Limelight over the past few months, about the need to include more orchestral repertoire by female composers in our orchestra’s programs. Many good points have been made about the reasons our orchestras play the existing cannon of masterworks, as well as their value to us as a society. The issue of “what subscribers want to hear” doubtless contributes to these choices as well.
However at the end of the day, we are talking about the ensembles which are largely paid for by our taxes, and they do represent the most public expression of our national artistic excellence. Felicity Wilcox cites a dire statistic that “across the 114 works programmed in [SSO’s] 2020 season performed no works by women, no work by First Nations composers, no work by GNC composers, and no works by CALD Australian composers.” As a white male composer/performer in this country, I find this statistic troubling and disappointing, to put it mildly.
While the cultural and societal structures of the past millennia may have prevented music by women from being performed, we have absolutely no excuse to continue this discrimination. In my career as a performer and composer, I have come to know the work of dozens of female composers in Australia and am lucky to count several among my friends and colleagues. Their work is every bit as good as the men’s. And why shouldn’t it be? Female performers are just as good as male performers. I also think we do often hear a different creative perspective from women’s music. If we don’t get to hear it, we are missing half of the human artistic experience.
Even though there are many reasons and justifications for the current programming guidelines for orchestras and other major performing organisations, including tradition, excellence, culture, the proven track record of the giants of the repertoire, audience tastes, plus the need to experience art to escape our current times and traumas, I feel the articles written by Phil Scott and Peter Tregear are counterproductive to the main issue, which is that women composers deserve to be heard. Their arguments obscure this very pressing issue of neglect.
I write these views from the perspective of a musician who passionately loves a whole range of repertoire, new and old, classical, jazz and traditional.
I also write these opinions from a sense of duty to support the many talented female colleagues and friends who have been an enormous inspiration to my own music making over the decades. It shouldn’t constantly fall to them to battle for their own right to be heard. I think more men need to speak out in support of our creative colleagues who happen to not be male. The institutions who make cultural decisions about artistic programming need to more actively engage in being part of the solution to this.
It is troubling that the women in our industry have to constantly stand up, stake their claim, and take the flak and trolling that inevitably follows, without having significant backing from those who are responsible for programming and the endorsement of their male colleagues in the industry.
– Paul Cutlan, multi-instrumentalist and composer, via email
If music programmers do not create concerts by living Australian composers, our future history will be wiped out. We have already lost so much music from over the past 50 years that has only ever received one playing.
New music will bring new audiences. When will the major orchestras wake up?
– Robert Kennedy, via our website
Surely the focus should be on the music itself, rather than the person who wrote it? Personally, I don’t care whether the composer is male, female, white, black, trans or pansexual, and to skew live or on-air programming to try to represent all-comers equally is to do music itself a disservice. There are only two types of music – good or bad, and at the risk of offending some minorities, I would rather just hear the good!
– Peter Taplin, via our website
Reflecting current society doesn’t necessarily mean that the ink is still drying on every piece of music that’s performed. But it does mean programming in a way that is mindful of contemporary issues/cultures, even if that means some favourites are included as an “escape” to just go and enjoy beautiful art. At some point every piece was new, for the most part brought into the world at a time when (predominantly European) cultures thrived on premiering new and groundbreaking music. It’s ridiculous to suggest we ignore that historic mindset and just play the Top 10 list indefinitely.
Also surely every contemporary organisation – in any industry – is creating and reflecting contemporary society?
– Leonard Weiss, via Facebook
If an organisation is state sponsored in some form, shouldn’t that organisation then be responsible for representing the diverse contemporary society of whatever community it’s in, rather than just satisfying the existing subscription base? Can an orchestral institution ever hope to satisfy all of these responsibilities?
– Chris Lian-Lloyd, via Facebook
Pushing contemporary music, composer gender equality and diversity is not going to “drive a nail in the coffin of the absolute art form that is orchestral music”. The whole reason it isn’t diversely programmed is because of people like [Scott] writing about how new music is killing orchestral music and how the subscribers need to be “considered”. As you say in your article, music doesn’t need context to be enjoyed (although it adds to the experience) so why not take a risk and program some things that wouldn’t normally sit beside each other? Give a voice to the otherwise silenced in this art form? Isn’t the goal to have a diverse audience with their listening being expanded and challenged, not protecting the same … white Anglo-Saxon canon that is played consistently to the point of torture.
– Caleb Colledge, via Facebook
Diversifying programming to be less sexist and racist doesn’t mean removing all works by dead white men from existence calm down. Music has always been created by living beings with lives and contexts that are not separate from the work they create. To claim otherwise is ahistorical, and rooted in seeing a certain kind of person as the default.
– Annalyce Wiebenga, via Facebook