I still remember the first time I heard of Peggy Glanville-Hicks. I was working at Fish Fine Music, still a relative newcomer to classical music, and the most joyous, triumphant, exhilarating piece of music came over the shop stereo. It was the Etruscan Concerto, by an Australian composer I had never heard of.
A minor figure, surely? A one-hit wonder? In fact, it turned out that this composer was a rockstar: a talented composer from her student days, a highly respected critic, musical director at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a fierce advocate for new music and a significant philanthropist. As a young man with aspirations to be a music writer, Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ biography was damn near the coolest thing I had ever read.
So how had I never heard of her? She should be a national icon, elevated into that rarefied air that we reserve for our most brilliant musicians, a trailblazer for her fellow artists. And once I started digging, I learned that, in fact, it is female composers who have been crucial to our country’s musical development, from Miriam Hyde and Dulcie Holland influencing thousands of aspiring performers through the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB), the likes of Glanville-Hicks and Anne Boyd expanding our musical horizons beyond our European musical inheritance, to Elena Kats-Chernin, Liza Lim and more representing us on the world stage in the 21st century.
When I started as the manager of the ABC Classic record label in early 2018, I was determined to better tell this story, to make more people aware of this incredible history hiding in plain sight. I have discovered so many talented composers at gigs, in our archives, listening to the radio, and by keeping a close eye on artists like Ensemble Offspring, ACO Collective, Alicia Crossley and Matt Withers, who are so enthusiastic about commissioning new works. I became more and more convinced that we could create something significant – an ongoing series showcasing the incredible female talent in this country.
And so, on International Women’s Day 2019, ABC Classic released Women of Note, a collection celebrating a century of Australian female composers. This first volume is very deliberately an introduction, a way for new audiences to be introduced to these brilliant composers, and for listeners familiar with these names to hear them in a new context. Our publications editor, Natalie Shea, has done an incredible job at showcasing this rich history in just 12 works, guiding us expertly from 1934 (Miriam Hyde’s Piano Concerto No 1) to 2018 (Olivia Bettina Davies’ Crystalline).
The overwhelming enthusiasm we have received to both this album and ABC Classic’s four-day radio festival of female composers proves beyond doubt that listeners are hungry to hear music by composers from diverse backgrounds. Including historically marginalised voices reinvigorates our culture, grows our classical community, and awakens us to new ways of expressing our human condition.
And the best part is that things can only get better, broader, more inclusive. I have already had so many composers, artists and organisations contact me to pitch their compositions, recordings and commissioning plans. There were already so many composers that we just couldn’t fit on this first volume – Betty Beath, Jessica Wells, Mary Finsterer, Moya Henderson, Deborah Cheetham, Liza Lim, Katy Abbott, Sally Greenaway, Ann Carr-Boyd, just to name a few – and there are so many new voices emerging. And I haven’t even mentioned the major works by established composers that have never been recorded. People often refer to organisations like the ABC as ‘gatekeepers’ – well, we have flung the gates wide open, and the talent and enthusiasm that has come pouring through them is remarkable.
Of course, this isn’t just a one-off indulgence. ABC Classic has always been a strong supporter of female composers, and we will continue to release music written by women as standalone albums and on collections like this throughout the year. But International Women’s Day offered us a moment in time to pause and reflect on the incredible contribution that women have made – and are still making – to Australian music, and I am already planning for Women of Note volumes 2, 3, 4, and 5. That way, the next time someone in a record store wants to learn more about the brilliant Australian female composer they have just discovered, there will be a whole range of compilations to help them do just that.
Women of Note is out now on ABC Classic. Read our review here.