Where are the women in your local music scene? — Paris Edition

International Women’s Day logoLast year for International Women’s Day, I took a look at the or­ches­tras of Manchester and how women were rep­res­ented in their activ­ities. Since then I have moved to Paris and seeing as I am studying at IRCAM, it seemed apt to in­vest­igate how well fe­male com­posers are rep­res­ented at this in­sti­tu­tion. Initially, my curi­osity was sparked by a par­tic­ular dec­or­ative fea­ture in the stair­case of IRCAM’s main building: the walls are hung with shadowy por­traits of com­posers who have worked here in one ca­pa­city or an­other. I counted the por­traits; there are forty run­ning all the way up four flights of stairs, but save for the pho­to­graphs of Florence Baschet, Kaija Saariaho and Cecile Le Prado, they are all of men.

With that rather un­scientific measure in mind, let’s look at the course on which I’m studying at the mo­ment. This year’s class con­tains 6 women and 9 men, which while not per­fectly equal ranks as quite bal­anced con­sid­ering I have pre­vi­ously been on courses where fe­male par­ti­cip­a­tion was less than 10%. There is an on­line archive of the com­posers who have studied on Cursus 1 since 2004, so I put to­gether this table to see how the demo­graphics de­velop over time:

Table showing proportions of female and male participants in IRCAM’s Cursus 1 programme.

Over nine years, the mean fe­male par­ti­cip­a­tion is 27%, once drop­ping as low as 10% (in 2006/07) and only twice hit­ting its peak of 40%.

Pie chart showing 4 female composers against 32 male.As a way of seeing how this is re­flected in IRCAM’s public-facing pro­gram­ming, I counted up the com­posers being per­formed in IRCAM’s 2011/12 Paris season (without counting the Cursus 1 con­certs at the end of this month). This pro­gram­ming is highly varied and in­cludes young com­posers in­volved with Cursus 2 or the Tremplin pro­ject with Ensemble in­ter­con­tem­po­rain, as well as per­form­ances by various in­vited groups and com­posers in res­id­ence. Of 36 com­posers per­formed, 4 were women — 11%.

There are deep-rooted and com­plex reasons be­hind these dis­ap­pointing fig­ures, and I don’t wish to pin the blame solely on IRCAM for the im­bal­ances — the ap­parent fil­tering out of women cer­tainly be­gins much earlier in their ca­reer paths — but I do think it is im­portant to raise aware­ness of these is­sues. The con­tinued cel­eb­ra­tion of any cul­tural role — such as that of the com­poser, but an even more ex­treme case is that of the or­ches­tral con­ductor — which ap­pears to be sys­tem­ic­ally male-dominated is in need of scru­tiny. I would be very in­ter­ested to hear thoughts on how best these in­equal­ities might be ad­ressed or why the num­bers look like they do.

In the mean­time, International Women’s Day is about cel­eb­rating women’s achieve­ments, so get listening to some of my tal­ented col­leagues Tatiana Catanzaro, Elvira Garifzyanova, Heera Kim, Diana Soh, Lisa Streich and Ying Wang, or if you have Spotify, plug your­self into Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s IWD-themed playlist.

Update, 10/03: Two people have sug­gested that per­haps fe­male rep­res­ent­a­tion on Cursus 1 might cor­relate with the pres­ence of women on the juries that  se­lect stu­dents. This seemed slightly du­bious to me, but the archives also list jury mem­bers, so I was able to do some fur­ther ana­lysis (PDF, 76kb). It shows no clear re­la­tion­ship between the two, but it does allow us to note that over the last nine years just 11% of the Cursus 1 jury mem­bers have been female.

This entry was written by Chris, posted on Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 10:00 am, 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.


  1. Nicolas Tzortzis
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    The num­bers only re­flect reality. it’s neither good nor bad,it just is. there are more male com­posers than fe­male com­posers. In the western world,at least,that is.
    In order for the re­search to be exact,we would have to know the per­cent­ages of men and women that ap­plied for the ircam (or other things) in the first place.
    saying that “only” 30% of se­lected com­posers are women and im­plying that this is “bad”, or “un­just” or any­thing else, is, in a way, ig­noring some ac­tual num­bers that per­fectly ex­plain the situ­ation.
    Out of all the stu­dents, what is the per­centage of un­der­graduate and graduate women studying com­pos­i­tion in the world? is it 30%? it is cer­tainly higher than it was 30 years ago, and that is why women com­posers get much more at­ten­tion today than they did 30 years ago.
    On the other hand: I was in a fest­ival in South Korea five years ago,and the vast ma­jority of local com­posers being per­formed were,in fact, fe­male. This is also easy to explain,since there are way more women studying com­pos­i­tion in Korea than there are men. is this good or bad? nor the one,or the other.it’s just the way it is, and there prob­ably are reasons why it is as it is. see you in the studios :-)

  2. Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Nicolas: of course I am not im­plying that somehow the reading panels are act­ively dis­crim­in­ating, and a gender audit as used above is of its nature crude, but to state that this in­equality ‘is just the way it is’, seems to me rather naïve. What is un­just is that many of the cul­tural roles that are held with the highest re­gard re­main male-dominated. This means at various stages women are being ex­cluded (from what are ef­fect­ively po­s­i­tions of power). Not ne­ces­sarily through active dis­crim­in­a­tion, but per­haps through dis­cour­aging ex­per­i­ences or a lack of role models at various points in their edu­ca­tions and ca­reers, which is some­thing that does need addressing.

    Despite this, fe­male com­posers con­tinue to pro­duce work of stag­gering genius, which we should also cel­eb­rate today.

  3. Nicolas Tzortzis
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    i’ve seen other people say/write this:” but per­haps through dis­cour­aging ex­per­i­ences or a lack of role models “
    a composer’s life if FILLED with dis­cour­aging experiences,so one should just deal with that,man or woman.it’s not al­ways pretty,but it’s the same for everyone. the world is filled with people that will try to pull down a young as­piring artist,male or female.one just has to overcome,and get used to it. I don’t see how a dis­cour­aging ex­per­i­ence is “dis­crim­in­a­tion”.
    as far as role models are concerned,why should a woman com­poser look for an­other woman com­poser for in­spir­a­tion (to be­come a composer)?it’s music that makes people want to be composers,not the fact that is was written by males or fe­males. an enormous amount of women started playing bas­ket­ball thanks to Michael Jordan,started writing music thanks to Bach or Stockhausen. it’s music that is (or should be) the driving force,not the sex of the maker.
    again,if you look at the his­tory if the ircam cursus,most women com­posers that had been selected,come from Asia. that could be ex­plained in many ways (first of all, demographics).it does not mean that non-Asian fe­male com­posers are dis­crim­in­ated against…
    someone could even argue that fe­male com­posers have dis­crim­in­a­tion in their favor, since there are a lot of com­pet­i­tions and call for scores ad­dressed ex­clus­ively to them. that,in my mind, does not seem fair and is even rather de­meaning to women, and I know many women com­posers that agree on that.

  4. Posted Thursday, 29 March 2012 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure that this is a ques­tion of women com­posers. IRCAM is a sci­entific re­search fa­cility, first and fore­most, and as cool as music is, the sci­ence of it isn’t easy and typ­ic­ally re­quires a math or com­puter sci­ence back­ground. Hey, I wrote a book on it, AND I’m a woman!

    But, this is totally the reality, and it is strange. I’m about to enter a graduate pro­gram in mu­sical acous­tics, and don’t ex­pect to meet many women there. My boss is a woman with many years of IRCAM under her belt and a fant­astic role model for me. I went to Music Hack Day SF and there were only 2 other fe­males there, and they were both soft­ware en­gin­eers by trade. Maybe, it oc­curred to me last night, women aren’t as in­ter­ested in soft­ware pro­gram­ming as are men be­cause (1) it takes a long time to learn (you ba­sic­ally have to go to col­lege for it); (2) it seems like it will only get easier to learn, so let’s just wait; and (3) there’s a lot of com­pet­i­tion, and they’re all men, and it’s confusing!

    [Hey read my book! It’s called “Numbers and notes: An in­tro­duc­tion to mu­sical signal pro­cessing”. Starts with an over­view of the physics of sound, mu­sical in­stru­ment design, and psy­choacous­tics, and then travels to the di­gital realm with sampling and the fast Fourier trans­form! And code, speaking of the devil.]

    Thanks for the in­ter­esting read!

    Regina Collecchia

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  1. […] Another small con­tri­bu­tion comes from com­poser Chris Swithinbank, who has been taking a look at fe­male rep­res­ent­a­tion at IRCAM. Share this:TwitterEmailPrintMoreFacebookDiggStumbleUponRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

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    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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