Anne Boyd smashed through the glass ceiling as the first woman and first Australian appointed as professor of music at the University of Sydney in 1991. Yet Boyd (b 1946) says she was always made to feel like a second class citizen because she was a woman. In her 1996 composition Meditations on a Chinese character, she quotes a poem by medieval Buddhist Lady Sarashina:

“Here they grow in mountain depths
Far from any dwelling place
And no one comes to view their blooms.”

“It felt to me like it was the voice of all the women composers that had ever composed in the world before,” Boyd explained. “They create great beauty but no one listens, no one hears, they don’t have a permanent place. And I felt one of them.”

Anne Boyd, Women ComposersAnne Boyd. Photo courtesy of Anne Boyd

Kate Moore (b 1979) has faced the same battles, two generations later. Moore is an Australian composer and performer based in Amsterdam. In 2017, she won the prestigious Matthijs Vermeulen Prize and in September will commence a residency at the Muziekgebouw curating concerts with her Ensemble Herz. She has deep anger from her experiences of being discriminated against, sexually harassed and dismissed on the grounds of gender.

“The worst part of working in my field is the ongoing everyday minor discrimination from people who apply judgement before knowledge,” she said over the phone from Amsterdam.

Kate Moore, women composersKate Moore. Photo © Marco Giugliarelli

Moore is a keynote speaker at The Gender Diversity in Music Making Conference being held at Monash University this month. It follows on from the Women in the Creative Arts conference at the Australian National University last year and represents a growing awareness of the challenges facing women composers.

The struggle for women has not always been widely acknowledged but recent research has confirmed women are disproportionately under-represented in Australian music across all genres. The 2017 Skipping A Beat report from Sydney University’s business school found women earn less, appear in fewer festivals and receive fewer awards than their male counterparts. While gender representation at tertiary music institutions is quite even, the numbers drop dramatically after graduation. In the past three Australian censuses, women have only made up 29 percent of people who listed “music professional” as their job.

Composing WomenWomen in the Arts Conference ANU 2017. Photo © William Hall

In the composition world women represent only one-fifth of members (this includes song writers – if we exclude those, it is even worse) with the Australasian Performing Rights Association, despite comprising 45 percent of Australians with a music qualification. In 2016–2017, 78.1 percent of APRA members were male and 21.9 percent were female, and alarmingly only 16.6 percent of royalty payments made to members went to females. The Skipping A Beat report found that even less recognition and power is afforded to minority groups of women such as First Nations and culturally and linguistically diverse women, women with disabilities, and those identifying as LGBTQI.

The lack of diversity in the industry was further (paradoxically) exposed when Liza Lim was awarded the prestigious Don Banks Music Award earlier this year, the first woman in 25 years.

“I’m the fifth woman to be awarded the Don Banks out of 32 prize-winners,” Lim said in her acceptance speech. “The third female composer since Ros Bandt and Moya Henderson’s wins 25 years ago (amongst 20 composers). The first Asian person – for context Archie Roach in 2015 was the first Aboriginal musician to be awarded the prize. It’s a slow process of inclusion. A year of #MeToo, the recent publication of gender pay gap figures, the rising consciousness of systemic disparities around gender, race and class: we are seeing seismic changes in understanding how so-called ‘luck’ is distributed and hopefully, we’ll also see bold changes in policy that affect how power is reproduced.”

Georgia Scott, Peggy Polias, Josephine Macken, Bree van Reyk, Composing Women, Women ComposersGeorgia Scott, Peggy Polias, Josephine Macken, Bree van Reyk. Photo © University of Sydney

Lim is the Director of Sydney Conservatorium’s Composing Women program (launched in 2016 by Matthew Hindson) which aims to put in place systemic reform around gender inequality and stem the high attrition rates from women studying music who don’t continue into the profession. The current two year post-graduate program includes industry mentoring from APRA AMCOS, the AMC, ABC Classic FM and Musica Viva plus projects with American flautist Claire Chase, the Sydney Symphony, and Sydney Chamber Opera. This year’s participating composers are Peggy Polias, Bree van Reyk, Georgia Scott and Josephine Macken.

Other initiatives are being implemented around the nation to combat discrimination and support women composers. The goal of greater gender diversity has inspired The Summers Night Project, named after Anne Summers’ The Women’s Manifesto and launched this year by Tura New Music, Soundstream and Monash University. Olivia Davies, Rachel Bruerville and Carmen Chan Schoenborn are being mentored by Rebecca Erin Smith, Becky Llewellyn and Cat Hope. Their new works will be performed in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne this month by Decibel and Soundstream ensembles.

The Melbourne concert will coincide with Monash University’s Gender Diversity in Music Making Conference, directed by Head of Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music Cat Hope (see page 22). The conference aims to bring to light the music of composers and performers who identify as female or non-binary with the goal of shaping a future where their contributions are acknowledged and represented in everyday music life.

“It is a critical time,” says Moore, whose keynote address will include the Baroque composer Francesca Caccini, the symbolism of genetically modified fruit, and the iconography of paintings featuring blindfolded women. “There are an increasing number of initiatives underway in Australia and the UK and America – less so in Europe. So much of it is about intentions and good will for change.”

There has been a groundswell of policy change from arts organisations across the country, reflecting an increased awareness of gender diversity. Musica Viva’s Hildegard Project drew a line in the sand when it launched in 2015.

“It was a moment that said ‘We can do this!’” says Katherine Kemp, Musica Viva’s Director of Artistic Planning. “I’m particularly grateful to Katherine Grinberg whose donation in honour of the late Adrienne Nagy and her sister Yolanda (Nagy) Daniel made the whole thing possible, and has since inspired other people to commit. I do think that gesture encouraged other commissioners to feel comfortable expressing to us that they were interested in supporting diverse voices.”

Since 2015, Musica Viva has commissioned 31 works and 15 works have been from women, which does not include further works performed in their less visible education arm. “We are commissioning more women than prior to 2015. The feedback to me is it also made a whole bunch of women composers feel slightly more confident about the path they are on,” says Kemp.

In 2017, Ensemble Offspring devoted their entire annual program to women composers. Also last year, Rubik’s Ensemble announced Samantha Wolf as the winner of the inaugural Pythia Prize, a new commissioning project enabling an Australian female composer to collaborate with Rubiks on a new work. 

In June, Tura New Music launched the Women’s Giving Circle, an initiative created to support women in all aspects of Tura’s programming. Other organisations intentionally programming a balance of voices include Kupka’s Piano, Clocked Out, Decibel Ensemble, Ensemble Offspring, Speak Percussion, The Muses Trio and the podcast series Making Waves and New Waves.

Speak Percussion’s founding Artistic Director Eugene Ughetti says the idea of gender balance is at the forefront of their thinking. “We ensure a 50 percent ratio in every aspect of our artists, employees, commissions, collaborators. There is an unfair bias for historical reasons and it is about correcting that imbalance. Hopefully soon the time will come when it won’t need to be so consciously addressed,” he says.

“I have heard excuses being used that there aren’t enough female musicians around or their music is not of a high enough quality. In some cases that may be true but the opportunities and investment hasn’t been afforded to women as to men so it is about addressing that issue,” says Ughetti.

APRA AMCOS has committed to a 25 percent increase in female members each year for three years and is actively encouraging female composers and songwriters who might not already be members to join and potentially earn royalties they did not know they are entitled to. They are also imposing 40 percent female participation measures on their boards and judging panels.

John Davis has been championing diversity in Australian composition for decades as Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Music Centre and he says that change is happening.

“There is also lots more happening behind the scenes, awareness is growing, change is happening, even if it’s slow. Social media enables knowledge and experiences to be shared (the Facebook page Women in Composition being just one example), and this empowers those people who feel challenged in developing and maintaining their creative and professional practice. And there is growing awareness of the critical necessity to develop networking and business skills that provide access to opportunities, building relationships with performers, presenters etc. And increasingly there are artists speaking out on equity issues, getting involved as citizens and making change happen!”

But there are also glaring absences, the most significant being the major performing arts companies. According to Ian Whitney’s survey of Australian content in 2018, only 20 percent of the Australian music being performed by the major performing arts companies (the orchestras and opera houses) will be works by women. Let’s not forget that these companies (the state orchestras and opera houses) take the largest slice of the pie when it comes to funding. In 2016-17 they received 62 percent of the Australia Council’s funding.

When questioned, none of the major orchestras revealed any formal policy in place or an interest in establishing a quota or 50/50 commissioning practice. However several orchestras demonstrated a keen interest in working with a diverse range of composers.

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra has an established track record of supporting composers with its Australian Composers’ School and the school age Composers Project. This year the school has gender parity with Holly Harrison and Ella Macens, two of the four composers involved. In 2018, the TSO has commissioned a major new work from Melody Eötvös, a graduate of the Composer’s School.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra also boasts gender equality this year although in real terms that only involves the popular, prolific Elena Kats-Chernin as they have programmed just two Australian commissions, a paltry 4.8 percent of their program.

Elena Kats-CherninElena Kats-Chernin. Photo © Bruria Hammer

The impressive Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has programmed nine works by Australians and four of these are by women. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra has Cathy Milliken as Composer in Association, and the Sydney Symphony performed  Katy Abbott’s symphony Introduced Species earlier in the year, and is partnering with the Composing Women’s program at the Sydney Conservatorium.

The Queensland and Western Australian Symphony Orchestras did not reply but we can probably infer from their lack of interest in programming Australian works in 2018 (both less than two percent of their program) and their radio silence that they have no gender diversity strategy in place. (It should be mentioned, however, that QSO is the only Australian state orchestra with a female artistic leader).

There are obvious gaps still in our national recognition of women composers, particularly in the larger organisations. It gives strength to the argument that formal quota systems are the only strategy that will work in a culture with a subconscious and pre-fixed idea of merit.

Jana Gibson, Head of Member Services at APRA said, “To see lasting change in the industry we need quotas to force programmers and industry to look deeper and broader into our community.”

Moore argues for a change in cultural recognition so that music by women is written about, made public and archived until the concept of a ‘successful’ woman is normalised.

Perhaps then people will finally get a chance to see the ‘blooms’ of women composers in all their diversity. Boyd warns that the talent and the quality of the women composers she encounters is amazing.

“And there are so many of them!” she enthuses. “We are in the process of catching up. Women composers past and present are beginning to be heard. And people are going to fall in love because the music is just wonderful.”


Liza Lim, Women Composers

Liza Lim

Known for her intricately sensuous scores and cross-cultural practice, Liza Lim returned to Australia in 2017 after eight years as Professor of Composition and Director of the Centre for Research in New Music (CeReNeM) for the University of Huddersfield in the UK. She is a Professor of Composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where she heads the Composing Women program. She has been commissioned by some of the world’s pre-eminent orchestras and has collaborated closely with Australia’s ELISION Ensemble. Her fourth opera, Tree of Codes, which premiered in Cologne in 2015, was seen at last month’s Spoleto Festival.

Mary Finsterer, Women Composers

Mary Finsterer

Mary Finsterer is one of Australia’s finest composers and her predominantly orchestral and instrumental music has won awards in Europe, Britain, the US and Canada. She was the Composer in Residence at this year’s Canberra International Music Festival and her double concerto for viola and cello Missed Tales III – The Lost was premiered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in April. Her forthright music is marked by a controlled sense of drama and a headlong rhythmic momentum. Her Renaissance-influenced percussion concerto Silva was recently released on Ensemble Offspring’s new album Offspring Bites.

Lisa Illean, Women Composers

Lisa Illean

Based in London, Lisa Illean counts among her first commissions works for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. She is a composer of highly refined acoustic and acousmatic music who uses microtunings to create incremental shifts in colour and harmony. In August, Sleeplessness … Sails will be premiered at the Proms by English mezzo- soprano Dame Sarah Connolly. Illean is creating a set of pieces for voice and electronics with soprano Juliet Fraser to be premiered in September. In November, Brett Dean will conduct her orchestral work Land’s End at Melbourne Recital Centre.

Cat Hope, Women Composers

Cat Hope

Cat Hope’s music explores the bottom end of the sound spectrum which she considers to be neglected and extremely beautiful. She tours internationally with her ensemble Decibel performing acoustic/electronic music that uses graphic scores and new score reading technologies, and features drone, noise and glissandi. She is Professor of Music at Monash University where she is convening The Gender Diversity in Music Making Conference. She is also the driving force behind The Summers Night Project established to mentor women composers in Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide.

Cathy Milliken, Women Composers

Cathy Milliken

Cathy Milliken is Composer in Association with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra from 2018–2020. In August, the ASO will premiere d’accord – the first of three of her works to be written for the orchestra. Milliken’s music can be funny, strong, strange, stringent and is strongly connected to word, movement and other disciplines. Based in Berlin, she has been commissioned by the Berliner Staatsoper, Staatstheater Darmstadt, and South Bank Centre London among others and has composed for orchestras, chamber groups, film, radio, installations and musical theatre.

Holly Harrison, Women Composers

Holly Harrison

Holly Harrison is a member of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s 2018 Composers’ School. Her upcoming engagements include a concertino for bassoon and string quartet for Matthew Kneale, a sextet for Ensemble Offspring, a children’s work for the Canberra International Music Festival, and a piece for Brisbane’s Kupka’s Piano. Her music embraces stylistic juxtapositions, the visceral energy of rock and whimsical humour. In 2017, her Musica Viva commission Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup was performed by US ensemble Eighth Blackbird and won the Sue W Chamber Music Composition Prize.

Leah Barclay, Women Composers

Leah Barclay

Leah Barclay creates immersive site-specific performances and installations to draw attention to changing climates and fragile ecosystems. She aims to teach audiences to listen to the sounds around them. Her installation Rainforest Listening has transformed urban locations like Times Square in New York and the Eiffel Tower in Paris into the Amazon Rainforest, immersing listeners through soundscapes accessed on mobile phones. She has designed immersive education programs for UNESCO, directed research projects for universities, and facilitated partnerships between communities, NGOs and governments to explore climate change.

Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, Women Composers

Annie Hui-Hsin

Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh recently completed a PhD from the University of California, San Diego and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University. Her compositions are rich with expressive intention. Her work has been commissioned and performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, The Song Company and Syzygy Ensemble. This month her quartet Tee/TEE/T will be performed at Italy’s International ilSUONO Contemporary Music Academy, and in France the ULYSSES Ensemble will premiere Elastic Chirping. Her music is championed by ELISION Ensemble with performances planned in Asia, the US and Australia in 2019–20.

Peggy Polias, Women Composers

Peggy Polias

Peggy Polias was awarded the inaugural Peter Sculthorpe Music Fellowship in 2015 and is currently taking part in the Sydney Conservatorium’s Composing Women program. Polias explores the influences of Javanese Gamelan, minimalism, feminism, fractals and handicrafts in her music. This year her work has been premiered by Merlyn Quaife and Plexus ensemble plus US flute player Claire Chase who premiered Polias’ Secrets in May. Polias is an advocate for women artists and in 2015, together with Lisa Cheney, she co-founded Making Waves, a series of new music playlists and podcasts shining a spotlight on the music of Australian composers.

The Gender Diversity in Music Making Conference is at Monash July 6 – 8