RMIT’s Storey Hall in Melbourne has history when it comes to women’s representation. The building on Swanston Street, built in 1887 and formerly named Hibernian Hall, was the site of Melbourne’s suffragette movement rallies and the headquarters of the Women’s Political Association in the early years of the 20th century. While the organisation’s colours – purple, white and green – no longer fly from the roof, they have become part of the décor following the venue’s renovation in the 1990s. This year the building will host the inaugural Women in Music Festival, celebrating the work of women composers, over the weekend that follows International Women’s Day on March 8.

Anne Cawrse, Women in Music FestivalComposer Anne Cawrse. Photo supplied

For Caroline Neeling, the Women in Music Festival’s founder, the connection between Storey Hall’s history and her Festival was “just pure luck.”

“I was completely gobsmacked, I didn’t know that at all,” she says, explaining she only realised the building at RMIT – where she works as the Manager of Business and Operations at the School of Media and Communication – had such a serendipitous past once the university came on board as venue partner. “I would love to say that was a strategic decision on my part.”

Neeling founded the Festival, which will feature four world premieres by women composers, after she noticed how few women were programmed at another festival she was involved with. “I suddenly realised to my horror, that out of the 40 pieces that we presented – 40 or thereabouts – only four were by women,” she says. “It struck me, as a classically trained musician myself, that we just really seem to accept that composers that we will hear – you know, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, people like that – [are men] and we don’t hear from women composers. So I did some further investigation and found out that in the classical world, three to four percent of performances on the stage are music by women. That’s it.”

Indeed, UK-based soprano Gabriella di Laccio’s recent Donne: Women in Music project found that in a study of 15 of the 2018-2019 seasons of the world’s top orchestras, only 2.3 percent of works programmed were composed by women.

Monica Curro, Women in Music FestivalArtistic Director of the Women in Music Festival, Monica Curro. Photo supplied

When Neeling was unable to find any festivals devoted to the music of women composers, she set about starting her own, enlisting Melbourne Symphony Orchestra violinist – and founding member of contemporary music ensemble PLEXUS – Monica Curro to be the Festival’s Artistic Director.

Over two evening concerts, the Women in Music Festival will present music by women in five categories – Indigenous Music, Games Music, Classical Music, Film Music, and Jazz Music – as well as the world premiere of a new work by the winner of the Festival’s Emerging Composers Competition, Sarah Elise Thompson. The Festival will also feature forums, lectures, market stalls, buskers and more, as well as composer Cat Hope reprising her Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address, All Music For Everyone: Working Towards Gender Equality and Empowerment in Australian Music Culture.

The heart of the festival is the evening concerts, however, which feature a series of world premieres. A brand new film score by Jessica Wells will accompany the 1914 silent film Neptune’s Daughter, starring swimmer, actress and women’s advocate Annette Kellerman, in a performance by PLEXUS, while audiences will be able to play a new game Noise Drawers by Maize Wallin. “It’s extraordinary,” says Neeling. “It’s a virtual reality game, so it’s sounds and music and movement in a game, all created for our festival.”

Soprano Greta Bradman will join PLEXUS for the world premiere of a work composed by the recipient of the PLEXUS 2019 Women in Music Commission, Anne Cawrse, setting poetry by Sara Teasdale, while storyteller and musician Rachel Shields will present her story Yuluwurri Gaayli – Rainbow Child in both language and in English, joined on stage by Rosie Westbrook on double bass. “That’s a beautiful combination,” Neeling says.

PLEXUS: Monica Curro, Philip Arkinstall and Stefan Cassomenos. Photo supplied

Soprano Deborah Cheetham will join Curro and pianist Stefan Cassomenos in a performance of Sarah Elise Thompson’s new work, which sets poetry by Stephanie Millett, while Michelle Nicolle will be curating the jazz components of the Festival. “She is presenting jazz standards which, many of us assumed, I guess, were written by men – but in fact there’s a woman behind the throne,” Neeling says, though she won’t be drawn on which ones: “That’s a surprise.”

In addition to the live event itself, the Women in Music Festival will roll out education resources and a YouTube channel with resources available for anyone interested in finding out more about women composers. But Neeling isn’t stopping there, with ideas already swirling for next year’s Women in Music Festival. “People are very enthusiastic about the idea, and the notion of better representation,” she says, pointing out that already people are coming to her and Curro with proposals for next year.

While the Women in Music festival will be celebrating International Women’s Day in the concert hall, ABC Classic is also marking the event on the airwaves, dedicating four days to the music of women composers – playing 96 hours of music by women from across the last 1,000 years – from March 7 to 10.

“Part of the joy of broadcasting for me has always been widening my musical horizons and discovering new music, and this festival promises an abundance of new discoveries,” said broadcaster Margaret Throsby, who will be part of the all-female line-up presenting on International Women’s Day. “There are hundreds of brilliant pieces by female composers – from all eras of music history – that we just never hear, and I’m looking forward to both presenting as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations, and tuning in to the four days of broadcasts.”

ABC Classic will also release a new 2CD set celebrating Australia’s women composers, from Miriam Hyde, Dulcie Holland and Margaret Sutherland to Elena Kats-Chernin, Brenda Gifford and Sally Whitwell – and many more. The release, named Women of Note: A Century of Australian Composers, is the first in a new series celebrating Australian women composers, and will be released on March 8.

With increasing awareness around the representation women composers gaining momentum over the last few of years – particularly with the launch of initiatives such as the Conservatorium of Music’s Composing Women program – Neeling, like Rosalind Appleby in her feature on women composers for Limelight last year, A Score to Settle, sees a tide beginning to turn. “I think that’s part of the reason we’re not starting from scratch,” she says. “But we’re very much at the beginning of having people understand the richness of what’s available in terms of women composers.”


The Women in Music Festival takes place at the Media Precinct and Storey Hall, RMIT University, Melbourne, on March 9 and 10

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