Venus Unwrapped – the start of a brave new world for women or a quickly forgotten publicity stunt?

Kings Place is starting the series Venus Unwrapped this Thursday, a year long series celebrating women composers throughout history and across the world. The classical music world has been talking about it for ages.

But is it so groundbreaking?

Is it just a publicity stunt?

Will it change the way ensembles think about programming music?

Will it have an effect on the audience?

At first glance it seems very exciting, programming the works of amazing composers marginalised for centuries seems a brilliant idea, bringing their work to light and getting people to hear them. King’s Place programmes a diverse range of genres – jazz, folk, electronic and Venus Unwrapped is just as diverse. Folk legends Kathryn Tickell and Kate Rusby are performing as part of the series as well as the stunning jazz composer Zoe Rahman.

In particular the classical concerts are programming lots of historical composers including the amazing polymath Hildegard von Bingen, Rebecca Clarke, Lili Boulanger and Clara Schumann. Recently there has been a noticeable increase of contemporary female composers being performed around the world but never any historical female composers. This is definitely a plus, acknowledging the long history of women composing music, not just something women started doing in the 60’s but saying women have always been composing.

The big question for me is why not just decide to program 50/50 gender split concerts from now on, or at least a lot more than in previous seasons, what will happen at the end of the year?

In 2020 will Kings Place go back to playing mostly male composers and marginalising women again? Or will they have received so much positive feedback and seen the work of so many other women composers, not just the ones programmed, that they will continue with a gender balanced programme from now on?

Let’s have a closer look at just the classical music concerts.

The series starts on Thursday with the work of amazing Baroque composer Barbara Strozzi, played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

OAE are an internationally renowned orchestra based in London. In the 2018/2019 they are playing 100 concerts, the only concert in which they feature a woman composer is the one as part of Venus Unwrapped. The rest is just a sea of usual suspects – mostly Bach, some Handel, some Elgar and Strauss etc etc etc.

Now you could argue that maybe the rest of their programme was set already before Venus Unwrapped was announced and they got involved but:

  1. This sounds like they are just jumping on the bandwagon – Venus Unwrapped is getting a lot of publicity so they thought would be good to join in, not because they actually believe in diversity in programming.
  2. Their programme is completely male dominated, why have they not been playing Barbara Strozzi, Martines, Smyth before?
  3. Is there a possibility that people will think they have more of a commitment to gender balance than they really do?
  4. If their season was already set in stone before they joined in Venus Unwrapped what about next year? Will they realise that they should start programming more women composers?

But that is just one orchestra, what about the other ensembles involved?

Well amongst the other ensembles taking part are English Symphony Orchestra, early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico, Aurora Orchestra and Piatti Quartet. If you look at all their programmes it is a similar story, no (or almost no) women composers apart from their concert(s) as part of Venus Unwrapped.

Also if these ensembles are playing a female composer it is usually a contemporary composer, in the case of Aurora Orchestra playing Anna Meredith and Missy Mazzolli. So there are centuries of female composers they are ignoring.

It’s not just one ensemble, it is everywhere, all these ensembles are simply playing female composers as part of Venus Unwrapped.

I’d like to be optimistic and at least wait until the 2019/2020 seasons are announced before I pass judgment on these groups, maybe they will be inspired by Kings Place and think they need to start creating gender balanced programmes.

On the other hand it’s showing just how much work needs to be done, if these ensembles are only playing female composers as a publicity stunt.

Any playing of women composers as part of a gender balanced programme should be commended, especially a year long series, it isn’t just the one concert marking the centenary of women’s suffrage or International Women’s Day. That doesn’t mean it’s not tokenism though, just on a grander scale.

The marginalisation of female composers is everywhere – on radio stations, recordings, awards and performances. Change needs to happen in all of these settings if we can hope to create gender balance in the classical music industry. It can’t be down to one venue to change. They can be the rolling ball though, the question is are they?

There’s a great blog post by Helen Wallace, the programme director of King’s Place responsible for this remarkable festival. A remarkable inspiration, she says:

“Venus Unwrapped has become an unstoppable force, and will transform our future programmes at Kings Place. Despite the inclusion of 140 composers in the series, our research has uncovered so many more: this is just the beginning.”

That itself sounds very promising. Read the whole inspiring post here.

I think Helen Wallace herself is not viewing it as a stunt, it looks like King’s Place are coming at this as the start of real change which is fantastic but for the orchestras involved it doesn’t seem to be making an impact as yet.

There are lots of other initiatives going on to promote female composers, including my own gender balanced show. Maybe all of these together will make 2019 the watershed year?

These are just some of the questions on my mind going into the year of Venus Unwrapped.

What do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

Gender parity is for life, not just for Christmas

This is a message for all those orchestras out there playing one concert of women composers then sitting back and patting themselves on the back thinking the job is done. It’s no good just playing music by women composers in one concert or even one season of women composers.  Gender parity, or the work towards creating gender parity in music needs to be consistent, a constant consideration in every programme, every concert, every season.

We can’t just play one concert full of women composers then forget about them the rest of the year. It’s not enough, one concert could be said to be tokenism. One concert to satisfy the raging masses, pretending that gender parity is a consideration, only to go back to the usual programme of mostly dead white males for the rest of the year.

2018 has been great, there have been lots of concerts with female composers including a major performance of Dame Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D at Southwark Cathedral. Having said that, I can’t help thinking that it’s not so much to do with genuine thought towards gender parity but more to do with the Vote 100 anniversary. It’s been 100 years since some women got the vote in the UK and lots of orchestras have celebrated that by playing a concert of women composers.

Everyone loves an anniversary or birthday. Peter Maxwell Davies got an entire Proms concert on his 70th, John Williams’ 85th was the same plus you have the birthdays of long dead composers being remembered with whole concerts or programmes dedicated to them.

In particular this year there have been a lot of performances of Dame Ethel Smyth, a composer and suffragette.  I also wonder if performances of her work are more because of her connections to the suffrage movement? She is known in both camps, classical music and feminism so playing her music makes sense.

And what about whole seasons of music by women composers? Are they any better? Trinity Laban’s Venus Blazing and Kings Place Venus Unwrapped seasons are both one year programmes playing music by women composers in every concert. But what about next year, will it just go back to the usual? Or will people have got used to hearing women composers in every concert that they will start clamouring for more of the same?

Then there are the orchestras themselves. The English Symphony Orchestra is playing two concerts in Venus Unwrapped at Kings Place next year, 2 out of 13 concerts next season. That being said these 2 concerts are the only concerts that contain works by women composers. Are they just jumping on the bandwagon, thinking being involved will make them look progressive or diverse when in fact the rest of the time they don’t have to bother with thought toward gender parity or don’t want to?

Lot of questions, lots of things to consider. Some of these decisions may not be as conscious as orchestras realise but it needs to be conscious. If we hope to change things we need to consciously think about the messages we send by the music we choose to play.

I hope this year is not just an anniversary year, I want this year to be a stepping stone towards a 2019 season that plays even more women composers. Let’s work on making that happen. Donne, Illuminate and Scordatura are just 3 of the amazing organisations committed to playing music by women composers plus I’m continuing with my weekly radio show playing women composers, listen to past shows here. We are not going anywhere, we are spreading the word.

Just a few thoughts I needed to express, I’ll be back with some more blogs on gender and music soon.