Music bosses remain deaf to distortion that gender discrimination creates on stage


October 11, 2013,

Moya Henderson ©

If Australia's major music organisations have displayed a marked tendency to commission and perform compositions by men on this country's main stages, can it be explained as unconscious bias? What I hear, from female composer colleagues and others, indicates they believe the discrimination is deliberate.

The experience of women as second-class citizens throughout history is no different in music. And what else should we infer about the ranking of women composers when, year after year, Musica Viva Australia, for example, commissions music for its main stage that includes scarcely a note written by a woman? Other major organisations are resolute in displaying a similar preference for music written by men. Is that how deeply entrenched women's ''second-class'' status is?

There are long-time patrons of Musica Viva who remember an earlier, more egalitarian era. They have sought to promote women's music to Musica Viva only to be told there are no decent women composers.

When society fails to register how few female composers get a hearing on Australia's main stages, the stigma of sexism besmirches all women. Is women's music still to be regarded as less worthy of being commissioned, performed, professionally recorded and broadcast? Both genders, and all sides of politics, acknowledge the elevation of just one woman to the new federal Liberal government cabinet is unacceptable. Many of us were appalled at the way Julia Gillard was treated when she was Australia's first female prime minister. Women are finally registering the unendurable inequity of this state of affairs.

In her blog, ABC Radio presenter Emma Ayres recently decried the fact there are so few compositions by women listed for her to broadcast. Is this because the ABC music programmers cannot find women's music to play? Is it because the ABC does not want to pay performers for unlimited broadcast rights on older recordings? I am told that lobbying for airplay on ABC-FM is intense; I believe women composers need to clamour more vociferously for a hearing.

It is time women, and men who appreciate the talent of women, combined their power to overhaul the situation. If people want to hear women's music, then more of those in power will consider commissioning it. They could also offer financial assistance to women composers to create high-standard performances and recordings. Relying on the ABC to do this is not working. As far as art music is concerned, the ABC neutered itself when it allowed the state orchestras to be removed from its influence. It's a tragedy there isn't one ABC orchestra left. Women, too, must leave bequests for women's music to be written and performed. It is not fair to leave all the philanthropy to men.

The Australia Council for the Arts should have at its disposal an information infrastructure that enables staff to notice when a pattern of bias emerges. In the case of Musica Viva, it should have been picked up sooner that no women composers have been among the ''featured'' composers commissioned and performed from 2000 onwards. This state of affairs distorts appreciation for the complete canon of Australian music.

Moya Henderson wrote the opera Lindy about the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain at Uluru in 1980, which premiered in 2002 by Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House.

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