Throughout my formative studies, I never gave much thought to gender imbalance in the arts and creative industries. As a string player, I had been privileged to learn and work in an environment where the balance between male and female players was very equal, and there was no judgement of my abilities based on my gender. It seemed strange to me that the quality of someone’s work could be judged in this way, but I have since learnt that this can be the case for many instrumentalists, composers, conductors and administrators.
During my undergraduate degree, I was fortunate to befriend many of the talented composers studying at the time. They were a proactive bunch, curating concerts regularly to showcase their works with the help of student ensembles. This was most likely my first encounter performing the works of female composers - up to this point, I had barely been exposed to any standard repertoire by females. I still didn’t even think twice about the gender of the student composers that I was performing for, particularly as there were more male composers in the cohort. This just seemed normal.
Skip ahead a few years to my final year at ANAM. I had just co-founded the contemporary music ensemble Rubiks, with our debut concert featuring two works by female composers. One of these pieces, Kaija Saariaho’s Sept Papillons gained the attention of local composer Lisa Cheney. I was thrilled when she approached me to collaborate on a new work for solo cello and electroacoustic tape, inspired by the Papillon’s and Kaija’s own words on the issue of gender in music. The end result was so emotive and powerful having combined both Lisa and Kaija’s feelings, and I finally realised the depth of the imbalance, particularly for composers. I suddenly felt shocked at the years I had spent without realising how little I knew about the work of female composers and desired to learn more.
My fellowship year at the Australian National Academy of Music has given me a platform to explore so much new repertoire and to hear the voices of these women who write so powerfully. I have discovered some of the most incredible music, and feel so privileged to have been able to expose these works in meaningful venues and with extraordinary musicians. These concerts have blended beautifully with a significant project run by Rubiks this year: in the next few days, the winner of the Pythia Prize, awarded to a female composer we will collaborate with in 2018, will be announced. This will be presented at a portrait concert featuring the music of Meredith Monk, a woman that all ensemble members connect with on a significant level.
This being said, celebrating female composition cannot just be left to passionate individuals or contemporary music ensembles. Standard arts organisations need to be recognising this music more regularly in order to allow for a change in the industry and to break down the unconscious bias toward male composition. This is completely achievable with a slight change in attitude, greater exploration and continuous encouragement of these women who have fought to be heard for too long.
Gemma Tomlinson’s final She Speaks recital, Voice of Nations, will be held at the South Melbourne Town Hall on October 27 at 7pm. Tickets are available here.