For six months Ciaran Frame systematically made his way through the 2019 subscription brochures and program booklets of Australia’s Major Performing Arts (MPA) funded orchestras to chart what music they played and who had composed it.

“I chipped away at it. It was enjoyable exploring program notes and different programming from different orchestras so it wasn’t too much of a chore. There was a lot of manual data entry but I think it was worth it in the long run,” says Frame, who has released the results in a document called The Living Music Report.

Ciaran Frame. Photograph supplied

The Report summarises information on every work performed across the 2019 main orchestra seasons, recording what music they played – or didn’t. It found that music reflecting the culture and diversity of 21st-century Australia “is notably absent from MPA programming”.

Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart were each individually featured more times than all the female composers combined. As for First Nations composers? There was only one – Deborah Cheetham whose music was performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Composer Ian Whitney has released an annual report since 2016, counting the content by Australian composers in the subscription brochures for the MPA funded orchestras. His report “has become a finger on the pulse of Australian orchestral content, providing a snapshot of the overall landscape” as Limelight put it in 2018, when writing about his coverage of the 2019 seasons.

“I love his reports!” says Frame. “I actually had a chat to him when I started embarking on this and he gave me some fantastic tips. I guess he really inspired a lot of the work as well.”

Where Whitney charts Australian content, Frame has also charted the amount of music by female, First Nations, CALD Australian (culturally and linguistically diverse), and Non-Binary and gender diverse composers.

The orchestras surveyed for the Living Music Report were Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Musica Viva, Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

In a nutshell, the Report found that of every performed work in the MPA 2019 mainstage programs, 19 per cent were written by living composers, 9 per cent were written by Australian composers, 3 per cent were written by female composers, 0.45 per cent were written by CALD Australian composers, and 0.05 per cent were written by First Nations composers.

Despite the fact that 379 of the 2,006 performed works were by living composers, the average year of composition for a work was 1885, while the average year of birth for a composer was 1843.

Frame is a 25-year-old composer, media artist and educator. He completed an honours degree at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and is now based in Melbourne. Passionate about cross-disciplinary collaboration, he works in the world of data, technology and music.

Speaking to Limelight, he says that he undertook the task of researching the report because he had assumed “there would be a metric or some kind of measurement that looks at what MPAs program, but I didn’t find anything out there and so I guess I wanted to understand what orchestras are actually playing in Australia. We know what they are playing as it’s public but we don’t have that big picture view so I guess that’s why I wanted to have a look.”

He began with the subscription brochures. “That gives a pretty good overview but it’s not 100 per cent accurate because programs change. So then I had to do a second part, looking at all the program booklets that were used for the concerts. Most of them are publicly available.”

Frame contacted the orchestras in question for confirmation of his results. ”It was just me essentially collecting this data and I just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t missing one concert that was hidden with 30 female composers or something like that,” he says.

Not all the orchestras responded to him and those that did weren’t prepared to comment. “Essentially [there was] no willingness to agree or disagree with the data,” says Frame. “And actually the most common response was what are you doing with this report? Where is it going? Not anything to do with the data.”

Dead white composers still dominate Australian orchestral music. An image from The Living Music Report: Joseph Haydn playing quartets c. 1790. Painting in the Staatsmuseum, Vienna

Where Whitney found that QSO had programmed the most Australian work for 2019 with 11 per cent of its program written by Australian composers, MSO ended up coming out ahead with 13 per cent by Australian composers. In 2019, 22 per cent of MSO’s program was by living composers and 2 per cent by female composers, with one work by a First Nations composer and three works by CALD composers.

The QSO and SSO were the only other orchestras to perform works by CALD composers. The ACO played the most amount of living music (36 per cent), as well as 14 per cent by Australian composers and 5 per cent by female composers. The SSO played only 5 per cent by Australian composers and 1 per cent by female composers, while WASO played 4 per cent by Australian composers and no music by female composers.

Frame admits he was surprised by the low percentage of music by female composers at the SSO, though agrees that their 50 Fanfares project, announced in February 2020, which will see it commission and present 50 new works by 50 Australian composers, of which 24 are female, is a step in the right direction. “[That is] fantastic. They have made an active effort there and it shows in their choices.”

Frame hopes that the Living Music Report will trigger discussion. “There are a couple of avenues I am hoping to go down. One of them is [approaching] funding bodies like the Australia Council, and different members of parliament that might be interested in this kind of thing, and then the other important part for me is talking to individuals who actually have lived the experience,” he says.

“I’m a young, white male, I don’t think necessarily my voice is the voice that needs to be [heard] in that discussion. I think it’s really important that the leaders in the sector have the ability to have a discussion and dialogue with this data. That’s why I want to access the different leaders in the sector whose voices are more important.”

Deborah Cheetham, who is currently Composer in Residence at the MSO, is one of the people he aims to contact. “I have never met her so it would be a cold call, but definitely she is on my list. She is the only First Nations composer in the MPA season last year. She is such an amazing leader and voice for the sector, it’s really inspiring.”

Frame believes that the pause in live performances inflicted on orchestras because of COVID-19 restrictions, makes this a perfect time for change. “I think in a way it represents such a fantastic opportunity for orchestras. They are already moving towards chamber models and smaller venues because of COVID and I think it is laid out on a platter for them [to present] Australian work and different programming. I think it is a perfect opportunity for change.”

The Living Music Report can be found here