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ABC Classic’s Festival of Female Composers: What Next?

Saariaho’s opera L’amour de loin Image Credit: The Metropolitan Opera
Graham Strahle
| March 24, 2019

In March, ABC Classic ran a four-day Festival of female composers, the aim of which was to celebrate International Women’s Day (as it has done in past years) and help break down a gender divide that still pervades the classical music world. Held over 7-10 March, music by Hildegard von Bingen and Australian composers Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Miriam Hyde and Margaret Sutherland provided focus points, along with new works by a clutch of others, including the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho – her gripping opera L’amour de loin happens to be the first opera by a female composer staged at New York’s Met in 103 years.

Presenters included station regulars Alice Keath, Vanessa Hughes, Genevieve Lang and Greta Bradman, joined by video game critic Stephanie Bendixsen and long-time radio broadcaster Margaret Throsby. Congratulations to all and the national network for doing this. The point is that here, over four continuous days, was a lot of wonderful but less appreciated music that tends to be shut off from concert performance and the airwaves for no other reason than a historical reluctance to accept female composers alongside their male counterparts.

It is an archaic state of affairs, and one that this Festival of female composers did its bit to remedy. Matthew Dewey, ABC Classic’s music director, had this to say in the festivals’ leadup: “Historically, classical music composition has been championed as a purely male artform, and modern programming reflects that absolutely.”

“It comes down to the fact that orchestras, opera companies, ensembles conductors, musicians, patrons, commissioners, labels, publishers and broadcasters have not prioritised the work of female composers and that needs to change.”

Dewey noted that as at July 2017, the amount of airtime allocated to female composers was 5.9 per cent – well down from its current target of 10 per cent (it was 5 per cent in 2015). The ABC finds itself in a difficult position here, setting a target way that in in other contexts is below anything demanded by contemporary standards of gender equity.

Dewey’s view is that audience attitudes and the music industry must do their part to contribute to change, and he urges listeners to do their bit.

“In a way it all starts and ends with the audience, who are the most powerful voice in this conversation. All you need to do is stand up and say that you want this.”

Arguably though, ABC Classic itself needs to set much more aggressive content targets with respect to gender. Its Festival of female composers is wonderful for getting people to think about this subject, but the question is what happens now that it is over. Does the answer consist of parcelling away female composers in special annual events such as this, or should the station make stronger moves in its regular programming? In having the capacity to commission, record and present composers to a national listening public, it is in a uniquely strong position to guide public attitude.

Arguably, the position of the ‘heritage arts’ makes it difficult to align modern social values with historically entrenched gender roles, but this should not be the case when one considers the celebrity status that figures such as Francesca Caccini and Clara Schumann, just to name two examples, earned in their lifetimes.

Notice, by the way, the station’s change of name. ABC Classic FM became ABC Classic at the start of this year, and this is widely seen to be a prelude to it moving off the FM band to become a digital-only radio station and streaming service. If this was to happen, it would join Double J, triple j Unearthed, ABC Country, ABC Jazz and ABC Kids listen as stations that are digital only, and hence can only be picked up on DAB+ radios.

It is claimed these offer better sound than traditional FM radios, but this may not be true in the case of all stations. According to a 2016 technical report on the quality of DAB+ radio, ABC Classic broadcasts at 80 kbps (kilobits per second). That bitrate is below the minimum of 128 kbps that has been proven in subjective and objective testing as necessary to achieving acceptably high audio quality. Listening to ABC Classic streamed over the internet yields better results, but this option comes at a cost because it chews up people’s data allowances. It discriminates against those on fixed plans.

Hopefully, this is another area where positive changes can be made.

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