On 20 May, 2021, Ciaran Frame wrote an article for Limelight about his 2020 Living Music Report. The Report is an annual analysis of Australian orchestral programming, examining whether the composers, whose works were performed around the country, adequately reflect the Australian identity and our gender, cultural and First Nations diversity. Coining a phrase used by the Australia Council, the article was called Do Our Arts Reflect Us?. Frame found that in 2020 the answer was “not yet” although the trajectory is headed in the right direction.
Phillip Scott, a regular music reviewer for Limelight, replied to Frame’s article with a piece in which he argued against classical music being programmed through the prism of 21st-century diversity and gender equality.
Felicity Wilcox has written an in-depth response to Phillip Scott’s piece, which will feature in the July issue of Limelight. Subscribe now to receive a copy. Here are two extracts that open and close her article.
As a composer, and gender equity researcher and advocate, I cannot turn a deaf ear to Phil Scott’s article, An orchestra’s role is not primarily to reflect contemporary society. I respect Scott’s work as a performer, but as a commentator on this issue, he is not so deserving of a platform. His arguments are tired and tedious, hurtful to many, and deserve a swift debunking.
Scott writes: “The greatest music has survived the era in which it was written; it has transcended its time.” What he terms (without explanation or qualification) “the greatest music” was written in a period, lasting several hundred years, where 100% white, male composer quotas were in force. This music is a direct product of its era, its primacy guaranteed by workplace discrimination that locked out women, people of colour, and anyone who may have dared to identify as trans or gender non-conforming. These cohorts were simply not admitted to the table. The canon many of us grew up with, studied, and have listened to all our lives is the direct result of discrimination that continues to have very real implications for equal opportunity among arts workers. It strikes me as ironic and disappointing that Scott, who has derived a large portion of his success from satiric cabaret that lampoons the establishment, would display such a marked insensitivity to this point.
As highlighted in Ciaran Frame’s Living Music Report, the Germanic-European canon Scott gushes about is disproportionately maintained by our tax-payer funded National Performing Arts (NPA) organisations to the great cost of our own arts workers and national culture. Australia’s orchestras received almost $82 million in government funding last year through the Australia Council, who outlined one of their core strategic objectives as being, that “our arts reflect us”. Last time I looked, the majority of Australian citizens were not dead, white, German men. Our orchestras have patently failed to deliver on the Australia Council mandate; instead, according to Frame, just 18% of their total programming included works by living composers; just 10% were works by Australian composers; only 4% were works by female composers; just 1% were works by culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) Australian composers; 1% were works by First Nations composers; and precisely 0% were works by gender non-conforming (GNC) composers. Where these sets overlap, these defined percentages blur; for example, of the 18% living composers, a little under half of these were Australian, meaning that only 8.1% of all repertoire played by our orchestras was composed by Australians of any subgroup who are alive today. Just 17% of living works programmed were composed by women, which means that overall, a total of 3.06% of all works programmed were by women alive today, and just 1.37% by living Australian women. Yet this is a cohort that, according to the most recent ABS data, makes up 51% of our population. These yawning discrepancies do not in any way reflect ‘us,’ and need to be called out.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s 2020 season was particularly shocking. Last year this orchestra sucked up more than any single orchestra in funding (over $15 million), yet across the 114 works programmed in their 2020 season performed no works by women, no work by First Nations composers, no work by GNC composers, and no works by CALD Australian composers. Throughout his report, Frame highlights quotations that reveal the lip service orchestra administrators pay to equity agendas against the backdrop of such inequity. In the same spirit, let’s all continue to monitor equity initiatives such as the SSO’s laudable 50 Fanfares commissioning project to ensure they are not merely symbolic gestures, but meaningful steps towards the sustained reform our broken system so desperately needs.
Another core objective of the Australia Council is that “arts and creativity are thriving”. Can that be said of our composers? I love the music of Bach, and some of the other men named Johann, whose music is still programmed at almost four times the rate of First Nations composers, but I’ve heard them all before. I studied them at school and at university – to the almost total exclusion of people who looked like me. They’ve had their time and they’ve certainly had their turn. I am not advocating for their cancellation, because historically they are important. But surely we can make more space for other composers to thrive?
Australian composers must collectively organise to consider our options: male, female, cis and gender-diverse, white, CALD, and First Nations alike – because we are all losing this battle. Research clearly shows the importance of role models to a person’s capacity to imagine and plan a career pathway in in music and other areas of the creative industries. We have come to a juncture where none of us can see ourselves adequately represented in the culture we collectively fund and we must ask those responsible why this is so.
Is it simply a lack of leadership that keeps the status quo in place when it comes to orchestral repertoire? What will it take to change a culture that locks so many of us out? Is there a legal case to answer for any tax-payer-funded orchestra in Australia that continues to program work at the staggering scale of the current inequity? Who exactly are Scott’s “classical music lovers” who “today turn to this vast repertoire not to have our society reflected back at us, but to escape it”? How can orchestras work harder to engage them in exploring new sounds? Surely those who truly love music want to see it remain relevant, and to support its regeneration? A commitment on the part of conductors, directors, audiences and orchestras to embrace a more diverse, living repertoire can only lead to a more nuanced musical legacy than we currently have, and would be a worthy project, as we have so much that is unique to celebrate here in Australia.
Australians deserve to hear a great deal more music by First Nations peoples, by women, by gender non-conforming people, by composers of colour, and by our male contemporaries in our concert halls today. All composers deserve to believe in their future. Orchestras must urgently address the stark deficits cited in The Living Music Report, and get (programming) with the program.
Felicity Wilcox is Senior Lecturer in Music and Sound Design at University of Technology Sydney, and an ARIA and AACTA-nominated composer, who has received many commissions for leading chamber ensembles and screen productions. Her latest album is Uncovered Ground: Felicity Wilcox- Collected Chamber Works released on Move Records. She is the editor of Women’s Music for the Screen: Diverse Narrative in Sound, published with Routledge.
You can read the full version of this article in the July issue of Limelight. Subscribe by Sunday 20 July to receive a copy of the print edition, available online for subscribers to read from Monday 28 July.