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Women composing beyond the barriers

The Sound Barrier : Blog

It can sometimes be easy to think that by breaking one set of boundaries and barriers, we break them all – but we rarely do. And there is hardly any greater example of this than in the whole domain of new music where, even though so many conventions about sound and musical creativity have been challenged and traversed, traditional dominance on the basis of gender is still a problem.

I am far from immune to this myself – my own programming on The Sound Barrier, even if you take out all the Stockhausen, still has a bias towards the music of men, despite the huge and exciting body of work that women have been creating in new music for decades. Some of new music's most significant and earliest pioneers – Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue, Daphne Oram, for example – have been women, and the legacy they and others have helped found has continued to be advanced by many creative, explorative, talents who continue to be kept in the shadows by an industry that, for all its innovation and rebelliousness, is still so easily and so widely dominated by the old gender power structures.

With International Women's Day reminding us last week of how much is still to be done in fighting gender inequality, I too was reminded of this and of how a quick survey of the show's playlists reveal such an imbalance in gender and, therefore, an imbalance in presenting the really great things that are happening in new music today.

And so, for that reason, I decided to launch an ongoing attempt to redress that imbalance with a show this week devoted entirely to the work of Australian women composers currently active in the local, and the international, new music scene.

Once that decision had been made, the decision about which work to feature as the major piece for the show followed without hesitation. Ever since hearing the world premiere of How Forests Think by Liza Lim at the 2016 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, and then discovering its release on CD last year, I knew that I would have to feature this remarkable work, that digs deep into the earth and spirit and communion of trees, on the show.

And as if the goddesses of everywhere were reaffirming that decision, just as I was making that decision for this weekend's edition of The Sound Barrier, I read the news of Liza being the recipient of this year's Don Banks Award from the Australia Council.

In accepting her award, Liza spoke about music as connection and community. It lays futures. So when we restrict how we support and enable music, we restrict how we support and enable the future to grow. We restrict what we can be.

Nurturing new futures, blended from rich and diverse pasts and paths, is a recurring theme in Liza's work, and her plea for more inclusivity and equality, across gender, class, and race, in her speech at the Australia Council Awards reflects in the connections that form and entwine in How Forests Think. The music is built from vines and roots and branches of sounds reach out to one another and forming new families and communities as they do so. It is a metaphor, Liza has explained, for the ways in which anthropologist Eduardo Kohn believe forest ecologies connect and build, sustaining and developing themselves through forming new and fertile connections that both sustain what is old, and generate what is new.

Those diverse connections are reflected in the music, not just by the ways in which the strands of music form and reform together, but by the instrumentation itself, with the prominent part for the Chinese sheng, an instrument over 4,000 years old which, in this work, was heard in a unique 37-pipe version built by Wu Wei, who performs on this recording along with the Elision Ensemble, for whom the piece was composed.

So far, only two other female composers have received the Don Banks Award since it began in 1984 – Ros Bandt in 1991 and Moya Henderson in 1993. We heard samples of each of these composers' works on tonight's show too: the magically beautiful Woman's Song, which Moya Henderson wrote as a harmony exercise in her second year of study at the University of Queensland, and in which two voices, both sung by Elizabeth Campbell, weave a heartbreakingly beautiful love song, tinged with the pain of farewell, and the hint of the prohibited, to the words of poet and activist Judith Wright; and Pandora's Box for tarhu and voice by Ros Bandt. Its title refers to a hurdy-gurdy made out of recycled wood and built into a box, and Ros explains that the opening and shutting of its lid in performance is 'a powerful metaphor for being responsible for our actions in controlling uncertain futures.' The piece brings together many sounds, emerging from the box, capturing a wealth of possibilities, as Arthur McDevitt reads from Works and Days, written around 700 BCE by Ancient Greek poet Hesiod.

In between these two works, I brought you three very different pieces from women composers who are all active and vital contributors, all in their own and different capacities, to Australia's new music scene in addition to their work as composers.

Hannah Reardon-Smith is a Brisbane-based flautist, composer and improvisor who is working at developing an understanding and practice of queer-feminist free improvisation and, as such, of ways to bring into music a more prominent voice and aesthetic outside of its current male and binary dominance. Her work Olive is an evocative and elusive contemplation of her parents' olive farm, where land and life are forever present, yet also somehow distant. The music shimmers and slides through gossamer microtones and intangible rhythms, ethereal and beautiful, but haunted and uncanny as well, holding you as it flies through the air, on wings that you cannot see but trust nonetheless.

Cat Hope is a composer, performer, and academic who now heads the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Melbourne's Monash University. As a composer she has left a stamp in many places, but none more than in her pioneering work with graphic score notation and in developing technologies to enable it to be used in increasingly wide and more accessible ways. Broken Approach, composed in 2014, brings graphic notation into the percussion context, in a work that juxtaposes forward motion, stasis, and decay throughout and between its five sections. You hear toys and clocks wind down, the huge percussive sounds of a bass drum kit propel the music on, and then moments of pause punctuating it all. It is like space and motion no longer operate in their known confines and, with it, time itself ceases to move in just one direction. It's a quietly, restlessly, powerful, breathtaking work, realised here by one of Australia's greatest percussionists, Vanessa Tomlinson, for whom it was composed.

Susan Frykberg, originally from New Zealand and now living in regional Victoria, is a composer who, as well as working across a large range of musical styles in her own work, from vocal chant to electroacoustic sound art, is also a prominent champion of women composers and their work throughout the centuries, and across the cultures, of musical history. She has organised concerts and events that have showcased the diversity of women's contribution to music, reminding us for how long, and how widely, that voice has sounded, regardless of a male-dominated reluctance to hear it. Her own work weaves themes of womanhood, culture, ecology, and theology. I brought you her work, Astonishing Sense of Being Taken Over By Something Far Greater than Me, one of a suite of four works that together comprise The Audio Birth Project, which tells the story of birth from the perspective of the composer's sisters and mother. Voice recordings inspire instrumental timbres that blend with electoacoustic soundscapes, capturing both the words and inflexions of the women's stories. Astonishing Sense of Being Taken Over By Something Far Greater than Me uses the voice of Susan's sister Margaret, with solo violin and tape.

The show ended where it began – in the forests. Mary Finsterer's percussion concerto Silva, composed in 2012, takes its name from the Latin word for 'forest', and captures the beauty and expanse of the forest from different perspectives: from the air and sky, seen through entwined branches and leaves, wispy and delicate; and from the earth itself where wood and soil mix and give ground. It is music rich in love and respect for the timeless lure of the forest, and for the connection and reconnection it offers, no matter how, or from where, you approach it: connection to the past, connection to dreams, to places of magic both dark and wonderful. You will hear in this piece the resonance of the renaissance, reverberating into the now with its shifting, ambiguous harmonies.

If there is one thing that links all of these very different works together, other than the gender of their composers, it is there exploration of connection and their embrace of diversity, across the media and musical techniques they use, they ideas with which they engage, the domains and dimensions they inhabit and to which they take us.

Is this what women bring to music? That is not a question for me to answer but it is, at very least, something that everyone can benefit from not only in the context of music and creativity more generally, but also in life itself: that the male tendency to colonise and confine the world has to be opened up, so that the futures that music generates, like the roots that entwine under Liza Lim's forests, can be creative futures, open futures, inclusive futures.

If we are to paint that sort of future, women most not only be equal parts of the picture, but equal partners in holding the brushes.

As usual, the playlist and audio are available here on the PBS website for you to check out!

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