About five years ago Jane Sheldon had all but relegated to history her childhood joy of composing “very boring piano jams”. An acclaimed soprano who has performed alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra, she spent her teenage and young adult years discounting her ability to compose.
“Classical music training is very good at putting expertise in silos,” says Jane. “I had absorbed the idea that having trained as a soprano, composition was not mine to do.”
But the desire to create her own music never truly left her.
She noticed whenever she commissioned new pieces to perform from other composers, she would have a very clear idea for how it should sound and then be unreasonably disappointed when it sounded different. It struck her that if she had a vision, she should write the piece herself.
Suddenly determined, she began sharing pieces she’d composed with friends and colleagues at the Sydney Chamber Opera (SCO), where is she an Artistic Associate. The SCO is a partner of the University of Sydney’s Composing Women Program and she would be lending her voice to a student’s composition.
The Composing Women Program is supervised by the Sculthorpe Chair of Australian Music, an academic position specially funded by a bequest from one of Australia’s most lauded composers, the late Peter Sculthorpe. The program aims to change the fact that, compared to other areas of classical music, women are underrepresented in composition. Less than one in four working composers in Australia are female.
“It didn’t occur to me that I was actually eligible for the program,” says Sheldon. “Until one of the past students kindly prodded me a few weeks before applications closed and said ‘You should really think about applying for this’. So the time from planning to applying and being offered a place was very quick and something of a shock.”
The program supports talented emerging female composers undertaking a Master of Music (Composition) or a Doctor of Musical Arts at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, with a two-year strategic mentoring program. The crescendo is having their compositions performed by flagship Australian companies including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and other key artists. A previous cohort composed for renowned US flautist Claire Chase.
Professor Liza Lim, the inaugural Sculthorpe Chair of Australian Music, says “It is really about creating a pathway for talented women to move further into composition, connect with industry and hopefully have long-lived careers.”
“The quality of the cohorts is enhanced by the diverse outlooks, inspirations and musical backgrounds they bring with them.”
I love that my work as a teacher and mentor allows Peter’s gift and artistic legacy to live on in the creative work of newer generations of composers and musicians
The Composing Women Program is just one part of Professor Lim’s larger role nurturing composition talent at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. One of Australia’s eminent composers – she was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall - she joined the University in 2017 as a Professor of Composition and found the move into academia a harmonious experience. Adding the Sculthorpe Chair to her bow, she can now play an even more hands-on role in the future of Australian composition, just as Peter Sculthorpe imagined.
“I’m enormously grateful and still completely blown away by the generosity of Peter Sculthorpe’s gift,” she says. “It’s such an amazing gesture and it elevates contemporary music and Australian music in a wonderful way. I love that my work as a teacher and mentor allows Peter’s gift and artistic legacy to live on in the creative work of newer generations of composers and musicians.”
Teaching is something Professor Lim is relishing even in the dark times of the pandemic.
This semester she is working with third and fourth year students on special projects examining ‘Opportunities, challenges and change in the time of a pandemic.’ Their focus is the role of the artist and how musicians contribute to society. It’s something that is resonating deeply with the students and is particularly poignant given the devastating effect COVID-19 has had on the arts.
The impact of the virus on performers is something Sheldon is also keen to acknowledge. The Composing Women Program, she says, has filled her year with activity but it hasn’t been as easy for her performing peers.
The challenges inside the sector have thrown into sharp relief what a singular opportunity the program is. “I can’t imagine how long it would have taken to get a score in front of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra without this program; I’m very conscious of the enormous gift it is,” Sheldon says.
As for what she’s learnt through the experience, it’s been a reminder of the power of self-expression.
“Spending all my time, from childhood to the present, performing music composed by other people has made very salient to me the sheer power of authorship, in and of itself. There aren’t many types of power I desire, but that kind? I’d like some of that.”
One of our nation’s great composers, the late Peter Sculthorpe AO OBE, was renowned for creating music that captured the uniqueness of Australia. His other gift to the musical life of the country was through a bequest to the University of Sydney, where he was an Emeritus Professor. In line with his wishes, a sum of more than $4 million from his estate was used to establish a Chair of Australian Music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and fund a fellowship bearing his name, to support young composers.