Women, First Nations composers under-represented in orchestral repertoire: new report

Analysis of the repertoire of nine major organisations, including the QSO, MSO, SSO, TSO, ASO and WASO, reveals that only 9% of 2,006 works performed in 2019 were written by Australian composers.

Australia’s largest orchestras and other major classical music organisations played more pieces with the word ‘violin’ in their titles in 2019 than works by female composers, according to a new independent report released this week (24 June).

The Living Music Report, created by composer and educator Ciaran Frame, reveals that only 0.05% of works performed in 2019 were written by First Nations composers; just 3% of works in repertoire were by female composers; and works by Australian composers represented only 9% of all music performed.

Compiled from close analysis of program booklets and season brochures in order to document over 2,000 performances across the calendar year, Frame’s report analyses the public performances of nine members of the former Major Performing Arts (MPA) group (now the National Performing Arts Partnership Framework):

Frame said he was not surprised by the findings of his report, though he was pleased to see a relatively high percentage of works by living artists represented.

‘I think it’s interesting that 19% of the works performed were by living composers. That’s quite a respectable number in some senses,’ he told ArtsHub.

‘I think it’s interesting that 19% of the works performed were by living composers. That’s quite a respectable number.’

– Ciaran Frame

The MPA companies whose work is analysed in the Living Music Report shared in an overall funding pool of $113.6 million in the 2018-2019 financial year, with Frame suggesting a discrepancy between what they played in 2019 and the aims of their funding bodies. However, he is quick to highlight the fact that the companies’ public programs are only a fraction of the work they conduct.

‘Obviously, something like their Australia Council funding doesn’t just go towards the front-facing program. There’s still a lot of background work in education and different development programs and fellowship programs, so there’s definitely things happening with that funding that are positive. But I do think for a front-facing program like the core programs of these orchestras, that there’s definitely a disconnect between the purposes of their funding and what we see the orchestras playing,’ he said.

His data is freely accessible, Frame added. ‘I’ve made the data open as well so that other people can use it, other people can correct it. And maybe other people have fascinating insights as well.’

THE SHAME FILE VS ORCHESTRAL RESPONSE

While he believes some companies are definitely headed in the right direction, Frame’s ‘shame file’ extends to all the major Australian orchestras.

‘Generally I think the ACO and to a lesser extent Melbourne Symphony are leading the field but I do still think they could both do better … but honestly, I think the shame file includes all our orchestras. I think the entire sector is lagging behind in comparison to theatre and the visual arts. I think that’s the shame file in a way – it’s the orchestral sector as whole, you know? I don’t want to single out particular organisations, but I think collectively the orchestras could all do better, yeah.’

Read: Female composers forced to think small

Kate Lidbetter, Chief Executive Officer of Symphony Services International (representing Australia’s six largest symphony orchestras) suggested that Frame’s report may be skewed in its findings.

‘Symphony Services Australia acknowledges that an examination of only season brochures and published programs would indicate that the majority of repertoire performed at ticketed, mainstage events has been written by non-Australian male composers. However, this does not represent the reality of the orchestras’ overall offering, as many performances of works by Australian composers (both men and women) are not reflected in season brochures.

‘Often these works are featured in the extensive education programs, community engagement activities, free or un-ticketed concerts and other events that can represent up to 50% of orchestral operations,’ she told ArtsHub.

‘Viewed in isolation, statistics gained from concert brochures do not provide insight into the reasons why there might be under-representation of certain groups of composers. One factor is that the symphony orchestras are partially funded by government to create public value – and much of this value is created outside of ticketed concerts.

‘The choice of repertoire is complex, and not simply resolved by putting more content on mainstage. Programming decisions are made across all orchestra activities which serve diverse audiences. These decisions are undertaken with a need to find balance between artistic and fiscal realities – and with considerable understanding of each audience segment,’ Lidbetter said.

Read: 50 Australian composers commissioned by Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Noting that orchestras are deeply engaged in commissioning, composer training, recording, and the performance of new work in a multitude of settings, Lidbetter continued: ‘Success is finding new voices, connecting them with audiences and for newcomers – making the unfamiliar familiar.

‘This is a journey the orchestras have been undertaking with all their audiences for some time, and which they look forward to continuing post-COVID-19. The symphony orchestras are committed to taking constructive and positive steps and playing a leading role in being part of the solution in all aspects of value creation.’

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Frame notes that he does not want to see the classical canon replaced – only expanded upon.

‘I say to people who just want Beethoven non-stop that I don’t want to replace Beethoven. I don’t want to replace our heritage. We all share a musical tradition and we don’t need to ignore where we’ve come from. But you know, to say audiences won’t enjoy First Nations music or that it’s too risky to program female composers, I think that’s just unacceptable, really.’

The current disruption caused by COVID-19 presents an ideal opportunity to re-examine and reimagine orchestral offerings – and the programs of other bodies whose focus is classical and contemporary classical music – in the months and years ahead, Frame believes.

‘At the moment, organisations are in flux with COVID and I think it actually represents an opportunity for change … What form that change takes, I’m not quite sure, but at the moment anything would be a step forward in my opinion,’ he said.

Read the Living Music Report in full.

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Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. In 2019 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021.

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