This year’s Canberra International Music Festival has a distinctive theme – “…the idea of Vienna”.
Festival director Roland Peelman says the ellipsis in the title is intentional.
“The lovely thing about the three dots is that the festival is open to anyone’s idea of Vienna, but I must say that to most people, Vienna represents everything about classical music,” he says.
And while he doesn’t want to be “prescriptive”, it’s almost always the case that whenever anyone thinks of classical music, the names Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Mahler surface to the top of the list.
This year’s program delivers on what Peelman calls the “core canon of classical music”. Patrons can breakfast with Beethoven and moonlight with Mozart, choosing from recitals, chamber or orchestral programs to feed their Viennese appetites.
Peelman readily admits that the program nourishes a stereotypical view. For today’s audience, and especially for women, the Viennese vantage reinforces how intrinsically and overwhelmingly classical music has been dominated by the male perspective, and how institutions continue to perpetuate this anomaly.
During the high point of the classical period in Vienna, female composers were beginning to make their mark. While composers such as Maria Theresa von Paradis and Marianna Martines have made it onto our modern-day Wikipedia pages, their contributions at the time were relegated.
Other women with obvious and competitive talent were also dismissed. In a pre-nuptial letter to his wife Alma, Mahler insisted that he should be the only composer in the family.
“The role of composer, the worker’s role, falls to me, yours is that of a loving companion and understanding partner,” he wrote.
“I’m asking a very great deal – and I can and may do so because I know what I have to give and will give in exchange.”
Well, that was then and this is now, you might be thinking, but little has changed since Mahler’s letter to his wife. Of all the art forms, classical music remains the place where women need not apply. In 2018, according to a report from the Donne – Women in Music project, only 2.3 per cent of compositions performed in classical music in Europe were composed by women. In the United States, a survey of America’s largest orchestras found that women composers accounted for 1.8 per cent of the total works performed in the 2014-2015 season. In Australia, the figures reflect the same global statistics, with women making up 26 per cent of composers, sound artists and improvising performers.
But why? A musical score is genderless. Is it the patriarchy of the music business, the crushing influence of men, or society at large to blame for such a skewed situation? The recent events in Canberra offer us insights into how little Australia’s cultural reckoning has progressed.
But with an eye on parity and an unexpected prescience for this moment in Canberra, this year’s festival is prising open a few of its antique Viennese doors to some of the most distinguished women in Australia’s musical history, asking us to, at the very least, recalibrate our assumptions about classical music, and imploring us to ponder the question – why have women’s contributions been marginalised? And also, what might our classical music landscape look like today if composers like Alma Mahler and Maria Theresa von Paradis were given a chance?
Look deep enough into the festival’s 2021 program and you will discover an elite and diverse cohort of women who have not only forged careers through courage and determination, but who consistently clear the path for the next generation of women who follow them. Each of these women offers the universal message: that every courageous act by a woman is a transformative moment for her society. It was Madeleine Albright, the first female US Secretary of State, who once, famously, said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. The women in this year’s festival don’t fit in Albright’s category.
Take for instance jazz saxophonist Sandy Evans. Her experience as “the only woman in the band” for most of her professional career has led her to instigate a scholarship expressly for female jazz artists. Running since 2005, the scholarship has given opportunities to musicians such as Canberra guitarist and singer Jess Green to take their careers to the next level.
The Aria-award winning Evans, a long-time member of the Australian Art Orchestra who has an OAM for her services to music, will bring her deep and dedicated interest in Indian classical music to the festival. On May 6 at the Fitters Workshop, Evans will perform her composition Ahimsa: Meditations on Gandhi with a quintet made up of virtuosic western and Indian musicians. The work is bedded as a fusion of jazz, Hindustani, and Carnatic chant with contemporary electronic sounds. Based on Gandhi’s writings, Evans hopes that the Sanskrit-sung work will “provide an emotional narrative that will articulate how change can be achieved through non-combative means”. Evans believes that Gandhi’s messages have taught her how “positive acts can provide impetus for change for women’s status in society and musical practice”.
Yuwaalaraay storyteller, singer-songwriter and now art music composer Nardi Simpson will bring a striking and culturally powerful performances to the festival with the premiere of Possum song, Yugal Mudhaybarray at the “Hand to Earth” concert at the National Gallery of Australia on May 2. Commissioned by the festival, Possum song, Yugal Mudhaybarray revives ancient women’s cultural practice. As a storyteller from NSW’s north-west freshwater plains, Simpson has led the construction of a cloak made from New Zealand possum hides with women from her community. At the performance, audiences will witness the cloak being used as a musical instrument. Simpson says the sounds “will resonate with deep thuds”.
“The world of the cloak has many dimensions of cultural practice,” she says. “It asks us to perceive the value of music in an object, but at the same time the music is secondary. The piece will translate place into a playable source. We are playing as one, connecting as one.”
Gender permeates and penetrates the intangible and tangible spaces of our everyday lives, so, as symbol of women’s solidarity, it is conceivable that Possum Song will be a powerful performance for anyone who cares to take its messages home.
Simpson has recently transitioned to the world of western art music as a current PhD candidate at the Australian National University. As a singer-songwriter for 22 years, best known as a member of the Stiff Gins, Simpson says her new passage into classical music has “invigorated her career”. In her explorations of the interface between western art music and Indigenous music, she says “indigenous music and art music can be seen as opposites, but if you allow western classical music to brush against Indigenous music you will discover how all people are connected and driven by music”. She also believes that her piece will let people be more aware that “people hold the key to sharing sound and place”.
Simpson’s musical diary is not only filled with her current PhD studies. She is also the composer-in-residence for Sydney’s Ensemble Offspring, which is led by their indefatigable artistic director and international virtuoso percussionist Claire Edwards. Ensemble Offspring will perform twice during the festival. As a female percussionist Edwards has been a trailblazer for her instrument, for women, indigenous culture and indigenous music. She has commissioned and presented more than 60 world premieres of works created specifically for her, and is currently touring Australian music conservatoriums promoting music composed by women for her specialist instrument, the marimba. Edwards says there is no more pertinent time to promote equity for women than now.
As artistic director of the 25-year-old Ensemble Offspring, Edwards has steered seismic First Nations projects. The Ngarra-Burria: First Peoples Composers project builds bridges for First Peoples musicians to further develop their composition skills. Nardi Simpson is a composer-in-residence, and follows fellow Indigenous composer Brenda Gifford whose work Djiribawal will be performed at the festival’s opening gala.
Ensemble Offspring will also give a special performance of Do I matter by Katy Abbott, a Melbourne-based composer who is also a senior lecturer in composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. In 2015, Abbott sought the hidden thoughts of 200 women and put them to music, but says her composition is more relevant today, at a time when so many women are having an inner dialogue with themselves.
“People might have lived with ideas and thoughts for a long time, but never articulated it,” she says. Some of the thoughts received hint or speak of deep pain, others are observational in nature. Abbott says she knows nothing about the women in this composition except their age. “I’m hoping that people who contributed to the anonymous survey will listen in to the performance,” she says.
Listening in to the performances of these remarkable women will recalibrate Peelman’s idea of Vienna. And while we are still in the cradle – we still use that dreaded compound noun the “female composer” – we might as well celebrate. Until we degenderise the roles of women in classical music, there will remain a strong discrimination between the women interpreting music and the women who create it. As one of very few female cultural critics, I believe that when you start looking at alternatives, you also start creating those alternatives.
Then, you might you just start to build a more equitable society. Are the politicians listening?
- The Canberra International Music Festival is on April 30 to May 9. Visit cimf.org.au for details.
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Move over Beethoven: women of note join Canberra International Music Festival line-up
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