Women composers, past and present

September 4, 1991

By Catherine Gough-Brady

A jam-packed festival of female composers' works will be performed September 20-22 in Adelaide. The Composing Women Festival has been instigated by composer activist Becky Llewellyn.

Composition of art music is one of the last bastions of sexist historical analysis and lack of recognition of modern female composers. In all other art forms, it is accepted that the female is an equal and legitimate artist. Yet in music, like sport, the female is considered to be of practically no importance.

How many female composers can you name? Probably one or maybe two if you are extremely knowledgeable about music. This is not because females have not written music but because there is a sexist view of the history of music.

Women still tend to be assigned the role of reproducer, the performer, rather than the composer, within classical music. Eighty per cent of the applicants accepted into the music conservatorium in Adelaide are female, yet 83% of the students in the composition course are male.

Is this because the historical female role models are not recorded? Is it because, in all of Australia, there are only two female lecturers in university composition courses? Is it because music composition courses take a very male approach to training and therefore turn women away? Or is it because our society views music as a male area in which women should not enter?

Becky Llewellyn, says society's view of classical music must change. It must become less elitist and be able to accept the female as a creator as well.

A student at Adelaide University can get through a three-year music history and theory degree without studying a single female composer. This is despite the fact that there was an extensive period in the early Renaissance when female composers wrote prolifically. Most subsequent music by women has been signed "anon" and not been printed at the time of its composition, which means that it has either not survived or not been identified with its composer.

There are some theories that women composed under male names, as did authors for much of our history, or even that women such as Clara Schumann wrote much of her husband's later music. Until the study of female composers is taken seriously and at least a couple of female composers placed on the syllabuses of universities and schools, we shall never really know to what extent women have contributed to music.

Llewellyn hopes the festival will begin to break down the exclusion of women from mainstream music. A lobbying network has evolved out of the organisation of the festival, with female composers coming together to campaign for positive discrimination towards women.

For the first time, one of the two composer residencies in Australia must now go to a woman, and the ABC has commissioned works by a female, Anne Boyd (who has also just been made a professor of music in Sydney).

Llewellyn wants to integrate the work of women with the already established male networks, rather than become separatist in her approach. She hopes this will be the first and last female composers' festival. This integrationist approach has led to her coordinator being a male, John Poglaise, and the performers being a mixture of sexes.

But Llewellyn emphasises that women can bring something of their own, a perspective different than males', to music. The most obvious example is a piece she wrote from the experiences of breast feeding. Llewellyn feels that female music tends to be less mathematical and less based on formula.

Brochures for the festival are available at Bass outlets, where you can also book. There will also be a whole series of sound sculpture exhibitions and free performances to coincide with the festival.

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