From a privileged perspective

Recently I finished reading Rosalind Appleby’s wonderful book, Women of Note. A collection of marvellous chapters, based on research and interviews with Australian women composers, each one making me want to rush out and listen to the composers in question’s music. It’s a fascinating read and I heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in the lives of contemporary composers (only a very few of the composers discussed are no longer with us), in Australian music or in the experiences of women composers from the early 20th century onwards.

But while I was immensely enjoying the book, it also occurred to me, with each passing chapter, what a privileged position I occupy. So many of the women in Appleby’s book had to really struggle to overcome the barriers raised by society simply because they were women. And the things they accomplished were truly extraordinary. I, on the other hand, never even realised that ‘women composers’ were anything but 100% boring-normal until I was well into my undergraduate degree.

I was fortunate enough to be born into a family of artists – my great-aunt was pianist-harpist with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, my mother was a piano teacher, my father a poet and there was always a (gentle, non-pushy) expectation that I’d do something creative. My high school years were spent at a girls’ school which was dedicated to turning out professional well-rounded women (Home Economics wasn’t even an option) where I was taught by a fantastic choral composer, Candy Lawrence. When I got to the University of Sydney, Anne Boyd was in charge of the music department and as far as I can remember there was no significant disparity in numbers between women and men selected for the composition degree – although it must be said that Sydney Uni accepted such small numbers (no more than 18 students for the B.Mus. per year, split between composers and performers) that it’s possible that such a disparity wouldn’t have been noticeable anyway.

And so I progressed through my education entirely unaware that to be a woman composer might be considered odd by some. The Australian instrumental tuition curriculum contains numerous pieces by women, all the study materials for Musicianship were by a woman composer. Why should I think anything of it?

The first real hint that that my world-view might not be like others’ came from the Australian Music Centre, who in 1993 published an entire issue of their journal, Sounds Australian, dedicated to women composers. I remember thinking the whole thing was pretty silly really – it felt like musicologists desperate to find something to differentiate women’s music from men’s and I just couldn’t see the point. Now, many, many years down the track and on a different continent, I’m beginning to understand. I see now why concerts of “women’s music” have been and continue to be important and useful. The things that I thought were so silly and counter-productive are the very things that have allowed me to end up thinking that way. They are what produced the world I grew up in.

So this is a gratitude post, really. It’s easy to dwell on the difficulties of being a 21st century composer, and I can see now that there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of putting women composers on an equal footing with men – and I could write a whole other post on what I believe the problems are but that would be ranty so I’ve been avoiding it for a good while now! – but I think it’s also a good time to stop and look back on what the hard work of so many women composers before us have achieved. In Australia, they pushed for new sounds and for recognition in an era when it was acceptable to consider them insane for even wanting to write music. So, Margaret Sutherland, Peggy Glanville-Hicks and all those other women who came before and after them, I salute and thank you – you’ve made my life as a composer immeasurably easier than it could have been. My achievements up till now may be small, but my options for the future are wide open.

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