The new music ensemble’s performance for International Women’s Day launches a year celebrating female composers.

In 2017, Ensemble Offspring (EO) is performing music composed exclusively by women. And to celebrate International Women’s Day, the new music ensemble is presenting Arc Electric – a showcase of works by female composers from Australia and around the world. Angus McPherson spoke to EO Artistic Director Claire Edwardes about the programme.

Arc Electric launches EO’s year of championing female composers. Why is this so important?

We feel that it’s really important to shine the spotlight on female composers for an entire season to make a start to changing the paradigm of the dominant male composer, which has been in existence for almost the entire history of western music. For so long, we have all programmed mostly male composers, just because their output has been more prominent and prevalent – and so it becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that men are programmed predominantly because we keep seeing their work, it’s always around us and in our face. Ensemble Offspring see our commitment to programming all female composers as one way to disrupt the status quo and make the work of a diverse range of women more visible.

You’ve been Co-Artistic Director of EO for ten years now. How have you seen attitudes towards female composers change over that time?

Well, 10 years ago, for one thing, no one was really conscious of programming female composers, which just meant that basically you had your occasional work by Elena Kats-Chernin and Mary Finsterer and it pretty much stopped there. It was especially rare for younger female composers to be programmed. That said, I feel it was really just an awareness issue because if I think back, many women were still there doing their thing – Kate Moore, Felicity Wilcox, Rosalind Page – the quality was certainly high, but there were just possibly less female composers than there are now.

Percussionist and Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring Claire Edwardes.  Photo by Heidrun Lohr

What are the biggest challenges female composers face in 2017?

There is no simple answer to this question and it will differ for individuals, so I don’t want to generalise too much. I’ve already mentioned that historically we just didn’t, and so still don’t see female compositional voices on the stage. The days are hopefully now gone where a woman was considered mentally unstable if she wanted to compose, but there is still a lot of unconscious bias – we’ve seen it most recently in Tropfest’s blind judging process which changes finalist results from 5% women to 50% women. We then also have issues like women tending to be less likely to put themselves forward for competitions or open calls for opportunities that obviously make them less visible – for example, generally for our Hatched Academy, we get only about 30% of applications from women, which is usually reflected in the final mix as well. So when there are less women in the pool for selection we are then seeing less in the public eye, such as representation in programmes and awards.

What do you think are some of the reasons women may be less likely to put themselves forward these opportunities?

The reasons women may be less likely to put themselves forward could take up a whole article, but there is a lot of research to point to the fact that it isn’t simply a case of natural inclination (in fact, women who do put themselves forward are often discriminated against as well), so we really need to actively look for ways to make sure women are being consciously supported. These are just a couple of issues, and we should acknowledge that it is a challenging landscape for composers of innovative and adventurous music more generally (e.g. recent funding cuts), and that gender parity isn’t the only representational disparity we have in classical music, but for us it’s a starting point.

Ensemble Offspring

Arc Electric features works by six composers – Melody Eötvös, Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes, Liza Lim, Kate Moore, Kaija Saariaho and Cassie To. How did you select the six pieces?

Sometimes I programme to a theme but in this instance I wanted to select six works that excited me for their vast differences. They are all works of the highest compositional quality and also formally, for my feeling, all of the works push boundaries and don’t play out in the traditional ternary format. I’m always looking for something special and unique in the sound worlds of the works that I programme and I personally find it exciting listening to different instrumental combinations alongside one another. So there is a piece for cello and piano, three sextets, a duo for piccolo, percussion and electronics and a trio for piano, cello and flute. There is the high energy of the Moore pitted against the heavenly tones of the Saariaho – the complexity of the Lim complimented by the repeated patterns of the Kozlova.

What can audiences expect from Melody Eötvös’ new work, which will receive its world premiere in Arc Electric?

Lamorna (Nightingale, EO’s fabulous flautist) and I were really excited to receive Melody’s finished score last week. We had recorded samples of sections of it for the electronic part (which is the third element of the work – Melody refers to this as Blade Runner-esque) but it’s always exciting to see how a piece comes together in its entirety. I play a lot of bowed vibraphone as well as a chromatic set of rice bowls – the type you eat out of at a Chinese restaurant. Lamorna’s piccolo part jumps about like crazy and is a real feature of the work. The work is called Tardigradus – meaning slow stepper – and this refers to a little water bear or moss piglet, which is microscopic and can survive in the most ridiculously extreme environmental conditions.

The programme includes the work of established composers like Kaija Saariaho – who recently became the first female composer to have an opera staged at the Met in over 100 years – why is it important to also include the work of emerging composers like Cassie To?

We feel quite invested in Cassie and her sextet Avialae as we worked closely with her in developing it over a long period of time and we premiered it at our 20th birthday celebrations in 2015. Our musicians’ input into a work can go as far as even helping decide which bird call works best on a certain instrument as well as input into structural decisions, so it’s quite amazing how markedly a work can transform when we have the opportunity to work directly with a composer on it over time. This year, Cassie is involved in the MSO’s Cybec programme and we’re proud that our recording of this work was one of the reasons she was accepted into the programme.

What do you hope will be the flow-on effects from EO’s championing of female composers across 2017?

We are obviously not the only ones championing female composers at this point in time and that is a great thing. A scene needs to band together to drive change when there are so many systemic problems, and I feel that this is really happening currently in the Australian music scene. I think that initiatives like ours can only work positively to give female composers more exposure and showcase their skills and voices. There is no question about the quality of music these women are producing, so it’s all about getting their work in front of more people and ingrained in people’s memory. Another important aspect is commissioning new work, to increase the repertoire available for other groups with a similar line-up to Ensemble Offspring to perform worldwide.

What changes would you like to see across the broader music industry to support the work of female composers?

I believe that if all organisations (orchestras included) were to give themselves a target in terms of the programming of female composes then that would be a great start. Regardless of what that target is, it will make programmers more aware of who they’re programming, and hopefully overcome some of the unconscious biases I mentioned earlier. I don’t know any programmers who would consciously programme (or not programme) a composer purely based on gender, so it’s really about making changes to counter the unconscious decisions we make, whether through bias, or through the sheer lack of visibility. I would feel so proud if by the end of my lifetime I could see a tangible difference in the representation of female composers in Australia. I hope that our work this year will be a small step toward enacting that change.

Ensemble Offspring performs Arc Electric at the Sydney Opera House March 5 and Melbourne Recital Centre March 8.