Aberdeen's annual festival of new music places a focus on the viola and the work of female composers in 2018
soundfestival, Aberdeen's annual festival of new music, has a twin focus in 2018: continuing the practice of spotlighting a particular instrument (last year it was the bassoon, this year it's the viola); and presenting work by women composers, who are commonly under-represented in concert programmes.
Throughout the history of music, women were consistently told that composing was a man's job. In the 19th century, Clara Schumann was persuaded to doubt her own talent, while Gustav Mahler is said to have told his future wife Alma Werfel that a condition of their marriage was that she had to stop writing music (although he did become more encouraging later.)
Only in the early twentieth century did women get the bare minimum of economic and civil freedom to pursue careers as full-time composers, but a recent global survey of concert programs around the world showed that, of the 1445 concerts on offer, only 76 contained works by women – a mere 5%.
soundfestival is doing its best to fight this trend, with performances of works by over fifty women composers. Sally Beamish is one, having started playing the viola again in 2015 after a gap of 20 years. She'll be performing in her own new work for six violas, A Farewell (Sat 3 Nov, Lemon Tree), alongside Garth Knox, her former desk partner in the National Youth Orchestra, who she met when they were 16.
'Having now spent nearly half my life in Scotland,' she says, 'I am about to return to England and have written a set of six 'farewells' to Scotland for chamber ensembles. This is the first. It seems to join up lots of elements at the beginning of a new chapter in my life, and is built around a Gaelic Psalm (Psalm 46, with the central words 'Be Still')'
How important is the viola to Beamish as a composer and performer? 'I have written a great deal for the viola, including three concertos, but have never played any of it myself, not having even owned an instrument for 20 years. It's very interesting to experience my music from the inside. I hadn't realised just how tricky my string writing can be – and it's getting a lot simpler now, strangely enough!'
Asked what advice she has for up-and-coming composers, she stressed the importance of being in touch with performing, 'whether as singer, conductor or instrumentalist. That way, you meet other performers, who are always glad to advise, and often keen to perform new music, especially if you confer with them so as to make the music feel good to play.'
What does she think of the festival's focus on women composers? 'I had looked at the festival brochure and in fact hadn't noticed the focus. So that must be a good thing. I'm hoping we're moving towards a time when gender simply isn't an issue.'
Meanwhile, the new music group Icebreaker is performing works by six women composers in a concert called System Restart (Fri 2 Nov, Lemon Tree). We asked artistic director James Poke how System Restart came about.
'I had become increasingly frustrated by our failure to play enough music by female composers. We had certainly not made enough effort to do so, but I also noted that our funding applications for male composers had a much higher success rate than those for female composers. Overall, Icebreaker's record in this regard was terrible, and it was personally something I really wanted to change.
'However, there were also an increasing number of women composers whose music we really wanted to play anyway, with Kate Moore, Anna Meredith and Kerry Andrew high on the agenda. I then heard some music by Jobina Tinnemans, whose I hadn't previously heard of, and was fascinated by her music, and when we talked to Lakeside Arts Centre in Nottingham about the project, they suggested Elizabeth Kelly, and she provided the piece which really pulled the whole programme together, so that was great. The other piece, by Linda Buckley, came from our previous "Recycled" project, and we liked it very much and wanted to incorporate it.
'The programme starts with an arrangement from one of Anna Meredith's Moshi Moshi releases, which is a great opener. We then play Jobina's piece, which is quite accessible and occupies an interesting sound world, building up to a big drum-and-bassy climax. Elizabeth's piece finishes the first half, and it was a key piece because it creates a great stylistic contrast. She plays around with jazz and rock sounds in strange ways – it's quite abrasive, but with a great groove.
'The second half starts with Kerry Andrews' piece, which like most of her music is based on folk music forms, including a soaring cello line (representing the eagle in the title, although the weird title is apparently based on a Donald Trump quote, when he couldn't remember what the word for eagle was). Linda's piece, Azure, is the slow one, a big cool blue soundscape with an electronic element.
'The biggest piece is at the end – The Dam by Kate Moore, a British-born Australian-Dutch composer, whose music we've been keen to play for a while. This is an existing piece but she rewrote it for us (the original was done in an Australian festival and included soprano and didgeridoo). The new version then went on to win last year's Matthijs Vermeulen prize in the Netherlands, kind of like the Dutch Pulitzer for composition, and the first time a woman has had one in its 45-year history.'
Poke affirms the importance of positive discrimination to showcase the work of women composers: 'Although women composers are becoming more visible, we still live in a society which is structured to favour male composers. We should be at a point where half the composers being commissioned are women, but that is still not the case.'
The justification for positive discrimination is, as Poke explains, that women composers have not so much failed to rise to prominence based on their own talents, but have been actively prevented from doing so: 'The usual complaint, that overwhelmingly male programming should be justified on 'merit', seems like a bizarre argument to me, because if you are claiming that "merit" means 90% of music played is by men, then you are actually arguing that male composers are inherently 90% better than women – an extreme viewpoint that even the most sexist anti-positive-discrimination exponent would baulk at. Traditionally the programmers have been men, and they have systematically excised women composers from concert programming, even those who had success during their lifetime. Rediscovering many women composers from the past – e.g. Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, Mel Bonis, Louise Farrenc, Amy Beach and many others – has been an eye opener in this process.
'We're, really, really pleased to be part of a festival that showcases so many women composers. People coming to the festival will hear so much fantastic music, which means greater awareness of women's music, and therefore greater integration of women's music into the overall music scene, so that it increasingly becomes normal to have equal representation of women in concert programmes.'
Hopefully, Soundfestival 2018 will provoke more music ensembles and festivals to push for women composers to be better represented on concert programmes. In the meantime, Aberdeen has two weeks of world-class new (and old) music to look forward to.
Soundfestival is in various venues, Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire from Wed 24 Oct–Sun 4 Nov.