‘The challenge for women in music is the lack of institutional support’

Participants in Finding a Voice, a festival of music by female composers, have their say

RÓISÍN MAHER

Artistic director and co-founder of Finding A Voice with her sister Clíona

Who is the composer who means the most to you?
That is a tricky one. I always have this fondness for Lili Boulanger's music. She was really ahead of her time. She's like this missing link between Debussy and Messiaen. She died tragically young [aged 24 in 1918]. But I just think her talent ... particularly in her orchestral music, there's just so much going on. I've always been drawn to her music and I would love to have to opportunity to programme some of the orchestral music at some point. She was very much a trailblazer. She was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome. She had a sister, Nadia, a fascinating composer, conductor and educator. That connection between the siblings is something that always interested me as well, as someone with a close connection with my own sibling.

Performer who means most to you?
I love Mitsuko Uchida's playing. Her style is so beautiful and clear and limpid. There's something that she brings to music that is really unique. I just love listening to her.

Individual work that means most to you?
It's really hard to pick out an individual work, because there are different works that have meant different things to me at different times of my life. As a teenager I remember hearing Mahler's Symphony No 5 and how completely I was blown away by it. I do love Hildegard of Bingen's music. Just this idea of someone, centuries ago, writing and being such a force of nature. There's something so beautiful in the music, so unique at that time to have someone writing, and having agency as well. Her music is very compelling. So, basically, anything by Hildegard. It's so special to have someone from that era, nearly a millennium ago, with such a unique voice and such a level of influence on her entire environment.

Biggest issue for composers?
If you look at western classical music generally and the continued emphasis on 19th- and early-20th-century repertoire, it's quite a contested space. There's no one type of contemporary music. There's a quote from John Cage where he talks about the river splitting off into all these little tributaries and rivulets and going out into the sea. There's no one way of approaching music now. There's so much out there, it's difficult for composers to find a space for themselves.

Biggest issue for performers?
Particularly in the last couple of years, just having their livelihoods effectively decimated. We're all now more aware of the importance of live music, of listening to people performing in a space and having that closeness and contact, and that sense of the performance that you don't get from the online version. It's been incredibly difficult for the independent, entrepreneurial freelance.

MARY DULLEA

Pianist, member of the Fidelio Trio

Composer who means most to you?
As a pianist and as a starting point I would say Clara Schumann, for the joy I get performing her music. I'm always fascinated because of her positioning within the musical circle that she lived in with her husband and her friends and her career. And her particular approach to chromaticism, to harmony, to the use of the piano as a sonorous instrument. You have all these strands of her life coming together as a musician, as a mother, as a touring concert artist. I refer to her as a potential starting point – so many things have happened for pianists and composers since then. She's an inspirational composer and pianist and female figure of the 19th century.

Performer who means most to you?
For a pianist, sound and tone are absolutely essential characteristics. So Dame Myra Hess, especially her recording of Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. Also there's a connection: where I studied in London was right across from the Albert Hall, where she was such an important figure. My teacher, Yonty Solomon, studied with her. So there's this lineage, I suppose, of this approach to sound. What you hear in her recordings, I just think it's magical.

Individual work that means most to you?
I'm going to give three. The Ruth Crawford Seeger Violin Sonata we're playing in Clonmel. There's a piece I love listening to by Julia Wolfe called Reeling. And Deirdre McKay, who we're also playing in Clonmel [Secundum; and A Quarter Million Miles from the Moon]. There's something entirely gripping about Deirdre's music, where every single note is there because it is absolutely the essence of what is intended by her. She is a composer who absolutely draws you into her craft, and how she paces events, regardless of the dynamic levels, is a real privilege to be able to explore.

Biggest issue for composers?
I was actually thinking about this last night. It's a massive question, because it depends so much on where you are – what country you're in, what city you're in, what access to education you have, what access you have to performance opportunities. As an actual creator, there's the question of work-life balance, and having the support for the time to compose, whatever your actual home and household situation is. It's different for everybody, and I'm not generalising about people's life or lifestyle choices or families. And it's not specific to women. But that recognition of needing time and needing space in order to germinate and produce their work is not that straightforward.

Biggest issue for performers?
In general, as performers, recognition for what it is you actually do, and how long it takes to get to that position. And, for a lot of people, the other things you might be required to do in order to make a living. The idea of having a universal recognition regardless of gender, of how much actual work goes into this. It's not a one-day-a-week thing, it is a lifetime occupation that requires time and space and security in order to do it. And to afford opportunities for composers, because people do need to work together.

SAMANTHA EGE

Pianist and musicologist

Composer who means most to you?
Florence Price means the most to me because of how learning about her life opened up new possibilities for me as a classically trained pianist. When I was an undergraduate exchange student studying at McGill in Montreal in 2009, I was a 19-year-old and had been studying piano and classical music my whole life. And while I knew that there was something unusual about me and what I was doing, as a black woman and usually the only black girl in the music classroom, I'd never really stopped to question or think about the fact that surely there must have been other people of African descent in classical music, too. It wasn't until I learned about Florence Price that I became curious to know about this history. I became eager to bring her music into my repertoire and – I'm a musicologist as well – also wanted to develop a scholarship around her. And that's exactly what I've done since.

Performer who means most to you?
I don't think I have any specific performers. I'm definitely inspired by Althea Waites, whose album called Black Diamonds had music by composers of African descent. That was really illuminating, because I'd never heard black composers in that classical context before. And Maria Corley had an album called Soulscapes which focused on African-American women. I've never seen either of them perform live. But those albums were real eye-openers.

Individual work that means most to you?
I'm going to go with Margaret Bonds's Troubled Water. It's been in my repertoire a long time, and every time I hear it I hear something new that I can bring out in it. It's just such a rich piece of music.

Biggest issue for composers?
In my research as a historian, the issues I found around women in music is often having to battle conceptions around their abilities and their intellect and their capacity to compose – the limited opportunities that women have because of these ideas that are enshrined historically about women being lesser-than. The challenge for women in music is the lack of institutional support.

Biggest issue for performers?
In my work, sometimes audiences are very, very open to unknown repertoire, and sometimes they aren't. That can be an issue, because it suggests there is something scary in the unknown as opposed to something that could be really illuminating and life-changing.

DEIRDRE McKAY

Composer

Composer who means most to you?
Hildegard of Bingen is an inspirational figure, and there are a number of fearless, very courageous works by Julia Wolfe and the extraordinary Cassandra Miller that I cherish.

Performer who means most to you?
I hate having to choose. So many of the people I've worked with have been brilliant. I have so many amazing memories of special moments in rehearsal as well as in concert. It would pain me to have to choose. It's easier to have some distance and choose somebody I haven't worked with, the soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan, who knocks me off my feet.

Individual work that means most to you?
Cassandra Miller's extraordinary Duet for Cello and Orchestra. I was deeply affected when I first heard it. A piece that makes you hold your breath.

Biggest issue for composers?
The issue for composers across the board is sustaining support.

Biggest issue for performers?
The world has been changed by the dreaded Covid. What happens moving forward is critical. The issue is exactly how the performance scene will get on its feet again in this changed order of things. How we rehabilitate, post-Covid, when we're still dealing with Covid.

Finding a Voice runs in Clonmel, March 5th-8th. findingavoice.ie

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