Megan Steinberg - BBC Proms Inspire: International Women’s Day Project
What do you imagine when you think of a ‘composer’? Manuscript paper strewn about a desk, a grand piano sitting in the corner of a room and a lone figure with a pen in hand, absorbed entirely in their own creative ideations, their genius flowing from their head to hand to paper? Perhaps you picture stern, wild-haired Ludwig van Beethoven or the powdered wig and ruffle of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. What’s wrong with this picture?
On the morning of 14th February 2017 at the BBC Maida Vale Studios, I met eleven other young female composers, as well as composer Hannah Kendall, vocalist Sarah Dacey and cellist Marianne Hardisty. As part of a BBC Proms Inspire scheme for International Women’s Day, we had three days to compose, perform and record a piece to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune. We worked closely together, composing a piece as a group. Our dialogue and collaboration were and are integral to the piece.
The BBC Proms Inspire scheme has been running since 1998 to create projects for young musicians and inspire them to create new music while working alongside their peers and renowned professional composers. This project was driven by International Women’s Day 2017 to inspire the next generation of female composers.
Hannah Kendall began the first day by introducing us to the poetry of Sabrina Mahfouz, her piece ‘Rosalind’ for James Cousin’s Company dance show, and sparking a conversation about our place in the world as women and as composers. The aim of this project was for us to prove to ourselves, and the world, what we were capable of creating and what we want to create. The resultant piece Here, is a space. I am is a slowly evolving, shimmering soundscape of blurring colours for flute, 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, electric bass, piano and voices, using text from Mahfouz’s poetry. The music is representative of fantastical and mysterious mermaid imagery featured in her work. This text and imagery was a strong starting point for our creative process in terms of sonic and thematic material. As we approached the piece, we considered how to include issues of feminism, social inequalities and gender identity in the music, and the mythological, elusive conceit of a mermaid was a wonderful way of doing this. Addressing social or political issues in music is incredibly challenging. We were able to approach the topics of humanity and identity by subverting them, exploring the issues of modern female identity through mythological and non-human symbolism.
Many people would argue that these issues have no place in music; it should exist for its own sake and doesn’t need to be muddied or diluted with extramusical concerns. A reasonable argument. However, it is an argument that reinforces, and is reinforced by, the romantic ideal of the Great White Male composer sitting alone in his study crafting his genius. As artists we are influenced by many things and Mahfouz’s poetry immediately placed issues, concerns and feelings centre stage that demanded expression and dialogue. This is, ultimately, why the collaborative process is fundamental to the piece.
Gender equality is still a massive issue in the art music industry. Getting a proverbial foot-in-the-door of a highly competitive and under-funded industry at a young age is only worsened if you’re a woman. In 2015 BASCA published a report on diversity and inequality in music commissioning, featuring statistics gathered from works nominated for their annual music awards. The studies found that 21% of works were composed by women; 39% of undergraduate composition students were women - dropping to 31% for postgraduate degrees, and to 14% for PhDs. I’m sure it isn’t a foreign feeling for young female composers who, like myself, have applied to calls for scores and competitions and been rejected, only to find that the winning pieces were written by men. Not only does a lack of representation for female composers begin at school and continue into higher education, it is a constant barrier for women aspiring to a career as a composer. When the finger is pointed back at us for not applying to degrees, calls, competitions or residencies: is it a surprise? When the world’s idée fixe of ‘composer’ is an archetype akin to Beethoven, Bach, Mozart or Wagner, it holds women back (as well as ethnic minority, LGBT+ and disabled musicians).
The most striking part of the BBC Proms Inspire project for International Women’s Day, for me, was the result of removing gender roles from the collaborative music-making experience. Three days was a very short time in which to compose and record a piece that we were all happy with, but it led to a wonderful and unique exchange of ideas that compelled us to utilise improvisation, graphic notation and extended techniques to achieve the sounds we envisioned. If the same project was undertaken by a group of mixed gender musicians, it would be natural to see common gender roles emerge as the collaborative process unfolded. Even when the behaviour is subconscious, men can tend to place (or be expected to place) themselves in dominant positions over women, and women are expected to take submissive roles. In a group of female musicians, we had an incredibly productive and rewarding three days at Maida Vale Studios. Instead of a person’s role in the ensemble and process being defined by their gender, true identity and personality was brought into the music by each participant.
‘What a privilege to work with such an engaging, dynamic, inspired and talented group of young composers. It was an incredible experience supporting this collaborative work, one that I too found to be wholly inspirational.’ - Hannah Kendall
Here, is a space. I am will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s ‘In Tune’ from 4:30-6:30pm on 8th March to celebrate International Women’s Day.