‘Hopefully it’s not too exclusively female’: Radio 3’s Five Under 35 Women Composers series

Feminism is fashionable in 2015, possibly the most fashionable it’s ever been. International Women’s Day on 8th March, therefore, presented a great opportunity for any and every brand and platform to show how they aligned with gender equality issues. For BBC Radio 3, this meant the ‘Five Under 35’ series, a celebration of five women composers aged thirty-five and under, showcased in the daily Composer of the Week show.

Having written two dissertations on contemporary British composers, I was mildly ashamed to find that I had only heard of one of the chosen five composers and therefore relished the opportunity to catch up on the latest goings on. Donald Macleod, eschewing the usual format to celebrate a different composer each day, introduced us to an interesting cross-section of composers from an array of backgrounds. On Monday we met Cheryl Frances-Hoad, a former BBC Young Musician of the Year who first heard pop at the age of thirteen. The next day Dobrinka Tabakova talked about her growing up in Bulgaria and studying with Boulez and Xenakis. Hannah Kendall, a London-born composer of Caribbean and Guyanese descent, discussed on Wednesday’s show the challenges of being both female and black. Macleod skyped with Anna Clyne, an electroacoustic composer who now lives in Manhattan, on Thursday and concluded the series on Friday with Charlotte Bray, discussing her relatively late start in composition and how she splits her time between London and Berlin.

As well as presenting a selection of each composer’s work and discussing their influences, Macleod asked how they felt being female had affected their success as a composer, acknowledging that art music is a key area where women continue to be under-represented in Britain. By and large, the responses were positive. Bray stated she had never felt discriminated against, Tabakova said it was something she had not needed to consider, and Clyne and Frances-Hoad both expressed considering themselves simply as composers, not women composers. At first glance, it sounds as if the barriers are diminishing and that the work of previous generations, acknowledged by many of the five, has indeed paved the way. Simply the fact that Radio 3 found five women composers who have all received prominent commissions shows that women are making their way in art music composition.

However, Hannah Kendall painted rather a different picture. Citing inequalities in the industry, for instance that only fourteen percent of those registered with PRS for Music are women, Kendall agreed with the others that there have been ‘some significant changes’, but that ‘there’s more to be done’. Kendall is one of very few black composers achieving success in Britain, and undoubtedly the combination of being female as well as a POC has contributed to the composer’s feeling of responsibility; that she must use her position to ‘speak up’.

When I read about the ‘Five Under 35’ series, my first thought was, why under thirty-five? Granted, younger composers have usually garnered less publicity and therefore the exposure is much more valuable for them. What troubles me, though, is the need to specify an age. When discussing issues of gender equality, it is somewhat counterproductive to bring age into the equation, as famously age is focused on to a far greater extent with women than with men. Indeed, Charlotte Bray told of when an interviewer asked whether he could publish her age, and her male composer friend commented that he had never been asked that question. If Radio 3 dedicated a week to relatively unknown male composers, would they specify that they had to be under thirty-five, or would age not be considered? It might have been more effective, and felt less exclusive, to give the series a different name, something like (but much snappier than…) Five Up and Coming. Whether meaning to or not, Radio 3 marked women composers over thirty-five as ‘old’.

Despite apparently not considering being female as a factor in her success as a composer, Cheryl Frances-Hoad has addressed gender in her work. We heard one song from Frances-Hoad’s cycle One Life Stand, composed as an update to Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -Leben. Frances-Hoad speaks proudly of the piece, stating that ‘it seems a good thing to do, to put some music out there from a woman’s perspective’, but I was struck when she said, ‘hopefully it’s not too exclusively female but I think there’s no harm re-addressing the balance a little’. The birth of New Musicology in the 1970s welcomed discussion of misogyny and the dominance of men in classical music throughout history, perhaps most famously in Susan McClary’s Feminine Endings. It is therefore concerning that successful women still feel the need to apologise for composing music centred around or targeted towards women, especially as such work is still a vast minority. Frances-Hoad’s statement speaks of the reluctance of some women to ally themselves with feminism for fear of being painted with the antiquated brush of angry bra-burning man-haters. It is unfortunate that the composer felt the need to append her strong statement with an apology, as it undermines her message and feeds back into the idea that ‘feminine’ music is less interesting or less valid.

The women chosen for Five Under 35 all have major achievements under their belts and presenting them on Radio 3 is an important statement. That they have faced few or no obstacles is encouraging for young women hoping to get into the field. However, if women are discriminated against, they are unlikely to prosper and therefore it is much less likely (though not out of the question) that those who are successful would represent those who have experienced setbacks. If Radio 3 was interested in exposing an existing inequality in art music, perhaps it would have been more interesting to seek out women whose gender has prevented them from being commissioned. Of course, Radio 3 probably didn’t want to make their afternoon show a sombre and controversial affair, but perhaps they could consider shifting the focus to women more often than once a year.

You can listen to the full Five Under 35 series on BBC iPlayer. The edited version is available on the Composer of the Week podcast.

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