INTERVIEW: A year of female composers


With Ensemble Offspring having devoted the entire 2017 season to highlighting the work of women composers, I was asked by Cut Common magazine for a player's perspective on this, during the Canberra International Music Festival. 

For years, Ensemble Offspring has been a driving force in Australian contemporary classical music. You could say variety is the keystone of this Sydney-based sextet, which is led by renowned percussionist Claire Edwardes and also features flute, piano, violin and clarinet. Performance is far from the only thing on their schedule, though. They also commission new works, collaborate with artists across many genres and art forms, and champion rising composers through their annual Hatched Academy.

These days, Ensemble Offspring has embarked on a new mission: gender equality in the arts. Throughout 2017, they’ve committed to performing works by female composers only! Ensemble Offspring clarinettist Jason Noble discusses his take on this provocative project. The group will perform Half the Sky – the Sound of the Sexual Revolution at the Canberra International Music Festival this week.

This year, Ensemble Offspring has put together a program of works exclusively by female composers. How did this idea arise?

I first heard of this idea at the end of 2015 during a discussion between Damien Ricketson and Claire Edwardes, who were both artistic directors of Ensemble Offspring at the time, though Damien has since moved on from this position. I must admit I was a little hesitant when I first heard about the idea, as I thought it could create a sort of reverse discrimination, but I have since come to love the way it simply highlights inequality.

As a contemporary music group, we probably played more female-composed works than classical ensembles anyway. But even then, the numbers of works were weighted in favour of male composers. We saw the gender imbalance, and realised we were in a great position to do something about drawing attention to this problem.

Around the world, we’ve recently seen a variety of groundswell movements to rediscover the female composer. What is Ensemble Offspring doing differently?

Well, I don’t know of any other organisation devoting an entire year’s program to female composers. This doesn’t mean five or six works a year, it may mean more than 50 works. So my music shelf is certainly becoming more gender-balanced!

How have you seen the project evolve since it first started out?

Researching for this type of project is like any other kind of research. At first, you look for the ‘go-to’ female composers, but then you start digging deeper, and unearthing works by women you hadn’t heard of before.

What is exciting is that women are becoming more forward in approaching us to have their work performed. For Seven Stories at Angel Place, one of our coming shows at Vivid Sydney, seven female composers will give their take on the supposed main story archetypes (think ‘rags to riches’, ‘comedy’, etc). Since I’m the only guy in the show, the gender balance is turned on its head for this gig. And I personally do love it when there isn’t an all-female dynamic – I think it’s more interesting for people to ask themselves, ‘Why just one male? How does he feel in that situation? How does that work in rehearsal?’. 

How has this commitment been challenging the ensemble musically, and you as an artist?

Well, we are certainly learning some new repertoire, and also doing a lot of listening to find new works to perform. This requires more practice time and rehearsal, but you also get to find a new voice for interpreting what is on the page.

Another great thing about playing ‘living’ music is that you have access to the composer, whether they are actually attending a rehearsal, or whether you can fire off an email to the other side of the world to ask for their thoughts on a particular section.

One response to this project could be that a gender-based program might sideline the importance of artistic quality, making it no longer just about the music. How would you respond to this idea?

I do think this is something you have to have in the back of your mind. You don’t want the project to be just some gimmick, with works of inferior quality, because this would negate the reason for doing it in the first place. But with careful research and proper preparation going into each gig, I would challenge anyone to suggest that the works we’ve programmed are inferior in any way.

What would be really interesting would be to ask the listener in question if they perceive these works to be written by female composers at all – because I suspect they wouldn’t.

What has been the public response to the ensemble’s year of female composers?

The public seems to be embracing this project so far. Every year, we have a gig at our local bowling club called Sizzle. We play a set, and invite some friends and colleagues to perform with us throughout the afternoon. This year we had the Sirens Big Band, an all-lady jazz group, who were very impressive. It was certainly the best attended yet, and that is a good sign that our broader audience is really supporting this project.

Finally, what changes do you hope this project will result in?

In previous years when we held our Hatched Academy for emerging composers and performers, we received less applications from female composers than from males. Hopefully this year’s focus will encourage and inspire young female composers to continue refining their craft, and to apply for programs such as this.

Also, I personally know female musicians who have been encouraged by their husbands to stop playing or touring. It seems amazing to me that such an attitude still exists in this age, but it does. Hopefully some of our female focus will have a flow-on effect in other areas of artistic creativity. And I hope across all musical fields, this project will encourage others to think about gender balance in programming.

Photo by Heidrun Lohr, courtesy of Ensemble Offspring.

Originally published at CUTCOMMONMAG