Where are the women in your local music scene?

Internation Women’s Day LogoAs it’s International Women’s Day, I wondered how well that most re­ac­tionary of mu­sical beasts, the or­chestra, would stand up to tests of gender equality. I wondered how many fe­male com­posers were being per­formed by Manchester’s three or­ches­tras this season, and then ex­panded my re­search into con­ductors, so­loists and rank and file player num­bers. Perhaps un­sur­pris­ingly, the num­bers don’t look great.

Let’s start with the good news. Between them, Manchester Camerata, The Hallé and the BBC Philharmonic list 193 mu­si­cians as players on their web­sites. Of these, 93 are women, or 48.2%. According to a 2009 Mid-Year Population Estimate avail­able from Manchester City Council women make up 48.8% of the pop­u­la­tion in Greater Manchester, so that pro­por­tion looks spot on. It is worth noting how­ever that gender bal­ance within sec­tions of the or­chestra seems to vary: the strings con­taining more women while brass sec­tions tend to con­tain more men. The pro­por­tion of women to men across or­ches­tras is brought down by the BBC Philharmonic, whose ratio is closer to 3 women to 4 men.

That’s about where the good news ends. Of 77 so­loists this season, just 27 are women, a lousy 35%. That looks even worse if you take singers out of the equa­tion, drop­ping to 31.8%. That means less than a third of the mu­si­cians per­forming con­certi in Manchester are women.

The land­scape for fe­male so­loists looks a lot better than that for con­ductors though. That’s be­cause if you were to take Manchester or­ches­tras as your guide there aren’t any. Not a single woman is being em­ployed as a con­ductor by any of the Manchester or­ches­tras this year. Not one. But 34 men are.

Coming back to my ini­tial curi­osity. How many fe­male com­posers are being per­formed by these in­sti­tu­tions? The an­swer is: two. 99 names ap­pear on pro­grammes, some mul­tiple times, but the other 97 are all male. The names of this ap­par­ently lucky couple are Nina Whiteman and Sally Beamish. Nina’s Windows on the Neva was premiered by Manchester Camerata in October, while Sally Beamish’s The Song Gatherer (Cello Concerto No. 2) was per­formed by Robert Cohen with the Hallé in December. Of course, the his­tor­ical nature of or­ches­tral pro­gram­ming means that or­ches­tras will have a quick de­fence: ‘the ab­sence of fe­male voices is an un­avoid­able re­flec­tion of his­tor­ical so­ciety.’ Hence the fact the only music by women com­posers played this season is by living com­posers. Fair enough, but 13 dif­ferent works by living com­posers were per­formed by these or­ches­tras. 2 com­posers out of 13 still leaves us with just 15.4% women.

So, where are the women in your local music scene? It’s not that they don’t exist, but they are being neg­lected by some of the most highly funded and pres­ti­gious mu­sical in­sti­tu­tions. In a re­cent art­icle for the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman wrote, ‘music lovers ought to be having a real de­bate about just what it means for an artistic edi­fice so grand and ar­resting [as the Vienna Philharmonic] to be built on a found­a­tion of more-or-less ex­plicit sexual and ra­cial dis­crim­in­a­tion.’ His cri­ti­cism holds true to greater and lesser ex­tents for or­ches­tras around the word. I would urge you to do the maths, work out what your local or­chestra — or whatever cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion you value — looks like demo­graph­ic­ally and ask the dif­fi­cult questions.

Sources: Manchester Camerata season bro­chure; printed BBC Philharmonic season bro­chure; down­load­able cal­endar from The Hallé; player lists on the web­sites of all three orchestras.

This entry was written by Chris, posted on Tuesday, 8 March 2011 at 6:40 pm, filed under Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Microbiography

    Chris Swithinbank is a British-Dutch com­poser who works with both acoustic in­stru­ments and elec­tronic sounds. He is cur­rently a stu­dent at Harvard University with Chaya Czernowin.
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