Embracing the ethos of Sounding the Feminists

A new commissioning scheme will provide opportunity to established and emerging [female] composers to have their work commissioned and performed at the NCH

Josepha Madigan, Minister for Culture, Heritage & the Gaeltacht: ‘Ensuring equality across all areas of the arts requires not just fine words or putting in place good policies, it requires actions too’. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Josepha Madigan, Minister for Culture, Heritage & the Gaeltacht: ‘Ensuring equality across all areas of the arts requires not just fine words or putting in place good policies, it requires actions too’. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Back in May 2016 when details were announced of Composing the Island, the huge festival celebrating the century of music written by Irish composers following the 1916 Rising, the negative reaction was swift in coming.    

The focus, predictably enough, was not on who had been included by the planners in RTÉ and the National Concert Hall, but who had been left out.  And the big issue was the under-representation of female composers.      

The festival was bigger than anyone could reasonably have expected. It reached back into the 19th-century. It generously included non-Irish works written in Ireland. But the generosity of spirit was not extended to women.      

The NCH’s chief executive Simon Taylor was quick to defend what he had done by saying “we can’t rewrite history”. Yet he effectively admitted his failings by adding an extra all-female concert of piano music to balance the many all-male programmes – around 40 per cent of the total – that he had already planned.      In terms of containing the sense of outrage, however, he was way too late.

Composers Jane Deasy and Siobhán Cleary fronted a movement and mocked the very name Composing the Island by calling it Composing the Feminists.      

People set to work and calculated the statistics of the injustices. It was not, they concluded, just a matter of the gender balance of composers or works. Men dominated in terms of the prestige of the slots they were given and in terms of the duration of the works they were represented by.      

The movement has since changed hands and got a new name. It held a public meeting last September as Sounding the Feminists (STF), and is now run by a formal committee.      

Simon Taylor came to that public meeting and articulated his view of gender imbalance in the world of classical music. Speaking of female composers, he said, “We will never get to a stage, where looking at the historical canon of classical music you will get anything approaching gender equality, because they’re not there. That’s not to deny that there are a certain number of female composers there who were neglected, who could be revived.”     

"In a way,” he said, “that’s the same as a lot of male composers historically who have been neglected. But I think if you look across the various genres, and you include popular music and you include performers, then I think you do see an emerging gender balance that is getting more gender balanced all the time.”     

Last Wednesday, the day before International Women’s Day 2018, he showed a more concerned and collaborative side as he joined Josepha Madigan, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, to reveal details of a five-year, multi-stranded, €20,000-a-year initiative that will embrace the work and ideals of STF. He intends this to provide a significant lift in the range of opportunities open to female composers in Ireland.   

 The NCH and STF will co-curate a chamber music programme as part of the NCH Chamber Music Series 2018. The series “will seek to reveal the work of female composers and highlight women who have been active but hidden as composers over the centuries, with reference to the context within which they were working”. No further programme details have yet been announced.     

A new commissioning scheme “will focus on the creation of cross-disciplinary and collaborative work in the NCH programme” and will “provide opportunity to established and emerging [female] composers to have their work commissioned and performed at the NCH”.    

 The third strand will “focus on the diverse range of works of female artists working in today’s contemporary music space”. This is intended to cover “not only concerts but workshops, residencies and collaborations to further enhance creation and promotion of work by female artists.” These activities will first come on stream in 2019.   

 Minister Madigan said that “Ensuring equality across all areas of the arts requires not just fine words or putting in place good policies, it requires actions too”. She said she was “delighted that my Department, under the Creative Ireland Programme, will partner with the National Concert Hall to co-fund a programme of new initiatives with Sounding the Feminists”.   

 Interestingly, no one from Sounding the Feminists was actually given voice in the separate media releases issued by the NCH and the Department of Culture.      

The headlines for both call the Department and the NCH “co-funders” of the initiative, which is described as being “worth €100,000”. But the message on soundingthefeminists.com is rather different. The €20,000 per annum is attributed to the Department of Culture and Creative Ireland, and the site says “The National Concert Hall have pledged to match this funding amount, making this a €200,000 contribution to promoting work by female musicians and composers.”   

 The initial objections to Composing the Island were focused on the work of female composers. But STF have taken on a much wider brief. They plan to work on behalf of “composers, performers, song-writers, sound artists, educators, musicologists, administrators, promoters, sound engineers, etc”. So whether the amount is €100,000 or double that, the benefit will not be going exclusively to composers.    

 In terms of cultural politics the absence of the Arts Council from this development is noteworthy. Not least because the council does not yet deal with five-year planning. Its furthest reach is three years, and that is only for a select few among its clients. This latest initiative shows not only how useful the new organisation’s interventions can be, but also exactly why the council is so focused on Creative Ireland as an existential threat. 

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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