The Sydney Conservatorium of Music has announced the Composing Women line up for 2020-2021. Brenda Gifford, Jane Sheldon, May Lyon and Fiona Hill will be the next cohort to take part in the development program, working closely with the Sydney Dance Company, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, as well as developing their own projects, under the mentorship of Liza Lim and the Sydney Conservatorium’s composition unit. The composers will also receive mentoring in business skills provided by industry partners including APRA AMCOS, the Australian Music Centre, Musica Viva and ABC Classic.

Brenda GiffordBrenda Gifford

“Music composition has traditionally lagged behind the other arts in terms of gender representation,” Lim said. “I am proud of Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s deep commitment to creating new pathways for a more inclusive world in music where the incredible diversity of women composing can be celebrated. With diversity comes increased quality and we have seen brilliant results with the achievements of previous cohorts of the program.”

For Lim, there has been one very simple lesson that has emerged from the last few years of the program: “When you remove barriers to participation and provide opportunities and the space for people to thrive, then success, achievement and quality flow naturally,” she tells Limelight. “A recent highlight achievement was the tour to the US in September with current students Peggy Polias, Bree van Reyk, Georgia Scott and Josie Macken. We visited Harvard and Columbia Universities for research exchange and the trip culminated in a wonderful concert with leading flautist Claire Chase, which was lauded [by Limelight Editor at Large Clive Paget] for its “bold new works… part of an inspirational event at National Sawdust, New York’s trailblazing Brooklyn-based new music hub”.

Fiona HillFiona Hill. Photo © Rachelle Kellett

This new line up will be the third group of Composing Women to go through the Conservatorium’s program, which was established by Matthew Hindson in 2016. “Each of the new cohort of composers has come to composition via different pathways and with a different focus,” Lim says. “For Fiona Hill, it’s been electroacoustic music and composing for film and television as well as art music; Brenda Gifford has a background as a jazz saxophonist and developed as a composer through her experience with the vitally important AMPlify Indigenous Composer’s Initiative at the Australian National University set up by Chris Sainsbury and the Australian Music Centre (now called Ngarra-Burria – First Peoples Composers). Brenda’s work with Ensemble Offspring and ABC Classic Kids has led to an ARIA nomination.”

Jane Sheldon in Sydney Chamber Opera’s La Passion de Simone. Photo © Victor Frankowski 

“Jane Sheldon is of course one of Australia’s most remarkable singers and the music theatre work she’s making reflects her incredible knowledge of breath and body as a performer,” Lim says. “May Lyon ranges far and wide in her inspirations – her work Ignition for orchestra is impressively accomplished. It’s a fascinating cohort!”

May LyonMay Lyon. Photo © Ben Bligh

So in the years since the program began, has there been much change in the industry when it comes to the representation of women composers? “I can see that the use of quotas as a tool is starting to be seen not as a crude anomaly and there’s been a shift in the language and tone around discussing diversity,” Lim says. “It’s moving beyond lip service to being about real commitment to change. Ultimately the quantitative approach to redressing inequity has to lead to more fundamental shifts in culture to create real inclusion so that any change for the better has longer term traction.”

“I’m optimistic and I’d love to see investment for this more broadly,” she says. “There’s also no reason why other music departments shouldn’t have similar programs partnering with arts organisations.”