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After Julia - Cat Hope discusses women, politics, and music on The Sound Barrier!

The Sound Barrier : Blog

It took 27 Prime Ministers and 109 years for Australia to get its first female head of government. It is not that women have been insignificant in shaping who we are as a nation and as cultures, but their representation in positions of formal power and status has been a savage indictment on a people who, for decades at least, have, in rhetoric, proclaimed equality of the sexes.

But it's not just in getting into positions of status that women face discrimination - it's the experience they have when they do get there can be just as shameful, sometimes even more so.

They were these aspects of Julia Gillard's tenure as Prime Minister of Australia that inspired Australian composer, musician, and academic, Cat Hope, to commission a number of works by Australian female composers and sound artists that would reflect upon Julia Gillard's treatment before, during, and since her Prime Ministership. What does it tell us about the role of women in the body politic, in positions of leadership, in the Australian and global culture? And how can those experiences and ideas be expressed through the medium of music?

Music is itself a domain in which women have fought hard for recognition, despite the incredible role they have played as innovators. During the twentieth century, composers such as Pauline Oliveros and Eliane Radigue have been at the forefront of electronic music and, in their path, countless others have followed and continued driving progress, and yet still the history of new music is dominated by the stories of men.

Some of that may be changing - although as Cat Hope mentioned in my chat with her, it might be changing for the worse, given the ease with which complacency can take its hold after the early battles of the women's movement - but whatever advances are being made, they are being made only thanks to the energy and vigour of women composers and sound artists who typically work so much harder to have their place acknowledged and their talent recognised in a domain that is no less affected by discrimination and sexism than that which elects and judges the people who run the country.

Tonight's episode of The Sound Barrier featured some of those women - particularly those whose work will be part of the next iteration of After Julia, which Cat Hope is presenting in collaboration with Decibel New Music Ensemble, of which she is Artistic Director, in Melbourne and Queensland over the next couple of weeks.

Cat joined me in the studio to talk about the project, and about the power that Julia Gillard's experiences had had on her own awareness of the place of women in contemporary society - politically, socially, culturally. The pieces she assembled are from diverse composers, whose work displays not only the enormity of women's contributions to new music and sound art in Australia, but also the breadth of their responses to the theme of Julia Gillard's experiences as Prime Minister.

We had something of a glimpse of this diversity throughout the show, with an astonishing range of musical aesthetics from the composers who are part of the After Julia project, from the harshly divergent extremes of dynamics in the sonic architecture of Thembi Soddell, to the apparently benign, but powerfully confronting, tonality of Andrée Greenwell. There are the pounding oil drums of Kate Moore, and the quirky song-based sounds of Laura Jane Lowther, aka Kučka.

It is this diversity of insight, and the breadth of musical aesthetic through which it is expressed, that Cat Hope was looking for when she devised the show, and which she hopes will encourage more conversations and reflections about the issues the show confronts, and the place of women in modern culture more broadly.

As well as chatting with Cat about all of this, I also bookended the show with two tracks from her own new release on Hat Hut records: Ephemeral Rivers: an album of Cat's chamber works, composed as graphic scores. Cat talked about her work as a graphic score composer: an approach that for her is not about creating the sorts of free-form compositions that are sometimes associated with graphic scores, but rather using graphic notation to provide quite precise musical directions that could not be presented in more conventional notation. We listened to 'Cruel and Usual', which describes the treatment of prisoners incarcerated in solitary confinement in American prisons, as well as to 'Miss Fortune X', where the graphics of the score are based on the structure of model plane made by Cat's father.

Tickets for the Melbourne performance of After Julia are free, but Decibel New Music ask you to RSVP that you are going, and you can do this at After Julia page at Eventbrite.

Remember that you can listen back to tonight's show, as well as check out the details of all the pieces, right here on the PBS website, where I have also included links to the websites of all of the composers featured in the programme.

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