Sally Macarthur recently wrote an article for The Conversation about the under-representation of women in Australian concert and radio programming, a topic that has been a subject of lively discussion in the United States over the past year. I was surprised to see the New Music Network, a grassroots contemporary music organisation, criticised alongside the ABC for the gender imbalance in their programming. Does the Partial Durations blog suffer the same disparity? Thanks to my obsessive tagging of composers’ names (I knew it would come in handy), presence at every possible new music concert in Melbourne and occasional interstate contributors, Partial Durations is a geographically and chronologically limited data set that nonetheless provides a cross section of new music concerts from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Metropolis New Music Festival to barely-advertised new music nights at local art galleries. However, in counting performances—especially in the case of new music—we may be looking at the wrong end of the data. Shouldn’t we be surprised that, to begin with, possibly only around 25% of composers are women?
Macarthur draws this figure from the list of composers represented by the Australian Music Centre. As Macarthur points out, despite a quarter of composers being women, very few women composers can be found in the ABC’s Classic 100: Music in the Movies and Triple J’s Hottest 100 of 20 Years. Eleven percent of works presented in the New Music Network’s current concert series are by women composers.
A quick count finds 29% of the 94 composers reviewed on Partial Durations to be women. This is hardly parity, but certainly suggests a greater representation of women composers in new music concerts than in the New Music Network series alone.
Even if my statistics gathered in Melbourne over the past five months were representative of the amount of works by contemporary women composers performed in Australia as a whole, the AMC figure for the number of women composers might not be accurate. The AMC list captures those composers with a few commissions and performances already under their belts, but does not necessarily capture student composers and composers working on the wackier side of the new music spectrum. I suspect a more inclusive figure might show a greater proportion of women, probably closer to that suggested by the Partial Durations count. Even if this were so, why are these women not getting commissions and breaking into the compositional mainstream?
Emma Ayres via Macarthur suggests three reasons why there are so few performances and broadcasts of compositions by women: Lack of familiarity with women’s compositions, the lower number of women composers and the assumption that music by women is of a lower quality than music by men. With new music lack of familiarity is really not an issue. Most concerts include world premières and it is often difficult to hear a work more than once. This leaves us with the actual number of women composers and public perception of the quality of works by women. I imagine the latter could have a lot to do with the former by determining how many young women composers are encouraged and given the opportunities to continue in their careers, but perhaps some actual emerging composers could share their views on this.