photo of a group of nine women composers smiling at the camera

Sydney Con leads gender equity shift in Australian music

20 March 2023
Influential Composing Women program creates ripple effect in music industry
Sydney Conservatorium of Music's Composing Women program led by Professor Liza Lim has demonstrated leadership and influence in the push for gender equity in programming and commissioning works by female composers in classical and art music.

Female composers are now commissioned at a rate close to full gender equity in Australian classical music orchestras, and there is evidence of positive change from music festivals, venues and other arts organisations, after six years of gender equity leadership from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and its Composing Women program - including ground-breaking work with its professional partners.

The Composing Women two-year program for female professional musicians was set up by Professor Matthew Hindson and Professor Anna Reid in 2016 to redress stark gender imbalances in Australian contemporary classical composition. That year, in 2016, reports from APRA, AMCOS and University of Sydney found there was a glass ceiling for women being commissioned and performed – women made up 15 percent of the programming and much lower, 3 percent in the film music industry.

This year, the statistics on female composers show a sharp turnaround in gender equity with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra programming 60 percent female and 40 percent male composers.

In 2020, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra achieved 50 percent gender equity female composers in its 50 Fanfares program, with commissions from seven of the Composing Women program’s graduates: Brenda Gifford (who recently won the Merlyn Myer Music Commission, Ella Macens, Natalie Nicolas, Elizabeth Younan, Bree van Reyk, Georgia Scott and Peggy Polias.

Composing Women

Composing Women at the Con has been part of a worldwide effort to change the story around women’s merit and achievements in music. Led by world-renowned composer, Professor Liza Lim since 2018, the program set out to “create a bridge for women composers into the profession.”

Its goal is to show what an equal future looks like. “It looks like gender parity for commissions and performances, gender parity for the big resources in opera, orchestral work, dance – we also demonstrate what an equal present and past looks like,” Professor Lim said.

“The program has created a significant cultural ripple effect in the classical and art music world. We haven’t done it alone – which is really important – change only sticks when everyone comes along,” said Professor Lim.

“But now, no organisation can say that they're future oriented or relevant to contemporary society without women's presence.”

photo of composer Liza Lim with her arms crossed and smiling

Composer and Professor Liza Lim. Photo: Harald Hoffmann

“There has been so much leadership from women who have worked alongside us, particularly in the new music ensemble scene, with Claire Edwardes and Ensemble Offspring, Cat Hope and Decibel Ensemble and others who have been at the vanguard of change before the shift in the large organisations,” Professor Lim said.

“The thinking and methods that we've developed through the Composing Women program are now being extended to other areas of the Con - equity and inclusion are our continuing goals,” said Professor Lim.

Music industry partners

The Composing Women program has succeeded by demonstrating to the music industry what it looks like for women to claim equal space at the highest-level arts organisations.

The highlights include the ‘Breaking Glass’ season of four chamber operas produced by Sydney Chamber Opera, and multiple collaborations with the Sydney Dance Company, Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellows, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, amongst others.

photo of five women receiving a trophy and smiling

Composers left-right: Bree van Reyk, May Lyon, Jane Sheldon, Fiona Hill
and Liza Lim at the APRA-AMOCOS Art Music Awards, 2022.

The success and impact of the program has been celebrated through high profile prizes such as the 2020 Classical NEXT Innovation Award (Rotterdam) and 2022 APRA AMCOS National Luminary Award.

Gender equity at the Con

Professor Lim said gender equity must now stretch into every corner of the music industry. Inspired by the Composing Women program, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music now has an Equity in Jazz program, run by Dr Jo Lawry, to promote gender diversity for students, academics and industry partners, and they’ve just hired bass player and composer Hannah James, the first ever permanent female staff member in the jazz department.

Professor Lim said the change in the value of women’s achievements is reinforced by the recent appointment of Professor Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO as the Elizabeth Todd Chair (Vocal Studies). “Deborah is a distinguished composer with substantial achievements in opera and major commissions from orchestras,” Professor Lim says. “She brings unique and inspiring perspectives and will be working with the singers and composers.”

Gender equity even extends to the library: “When our students walk into the library at the Con, they see not just busts of Beethoven, Brahms and Peter Sculthorpe, but also Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO, Hildegard von Bingen and Nina Simone,” said Professor Lim. “We are using these icons to reclaim the space.”

three busts or small statues of women's heads on podiums, they are jazz singer Nina Simone, 12th-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen, and First Nations composer Deborah Cheetham Fraillon.

Busts left-right: First Nations composer Deborah Cheetham Fraillon, jazz singer/ musician/activist Nina Simone and 12th-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen. 

The busts are the work of Sydney artist Anna-Wili Highfield. The Cheetham Fraillon bust was gifted to the music library in 2020 by the Composing Women group under the initiative of composer Bree van Reyk. Following their proposal, the busts of Hildegard von Bingen and Nina Simone were funded by the University of Sydney Library led by Philip Kent. The busts will be housed in the University library at the Conservatorium.

Composing at the Con

Jane Sheldon, an award-winning soprano, said she enrolled in the Composing Women program specifically to be mentored by Liza Lim. “I had admired her work for a very long time, and it was clear to me she had a strong grasp of her singular artistic vision and I wanted to be mentored with those values as a composer,” Sheldon said. “I was also looking for structured time to push me to get my compositional work completed even while I was working full time as a performer.”

Sheldon’s compositional work explores ideas around altered states of consciousness using voice, breath and electronic sounds. “I want to foreground the body with voice and breath, and I’m interested in disorientation for the listener with respect to the source of the sound. That means the listener might think: Is that breath? Or is it electronic? Or is coming from an instrument? Is it bowing? I have composed for voice and without, but I come back to voice because it’s the instrument where I have the most expertise and the most artistic articulation.”

two women smiling at the Con, drummer Bree van Reyk, singer Jane Sheldon

Composers Bree van Reyk and Jane Sheldon at the Con. Photo: Fiona Wolf

Bree van Reyk, a drummer, percussionist, composer and sound artist, said she enrolled in Composing Women to take part in the professional partnerships with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Chamber Opera. “I’d already been commissioned by Ensemble Offspring, Sydney Dance Company and Sydney Festival and I wanted to keep growing as a commissioned composer,” she said. “And working with a composer like Liza Lim has been the most significant part of my education in my entire life, she is such a generous sharer of her knowledge and so supportive.”

As part of her Composing Women thesis, van Reyk created a piece for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on the theme of radical action against inequality. The musical score included instructions to rip a page out of patriarchal books, such as old colonial military history books, or snap a pencil to create percussive sounds of protest. “I also wrote a piece for New York flautist Claire Chase where it was like a Choose Your Own Adventure, so it gives the performer agency rather than the composer dictating the music from start to finish,” she said. “It’s about embedding practices of equality, and protest against inequality, in the music.”

Composing Women

Ella Macens

Natalie Nicolas

Clare Strong

Elizabeth Younan

Josephine Macken

Georgia Scott

Peggy Polias

Bree van Reyk

Brenda Gifford

Fiona Hill

May Lyon

Jane Sheldon

Top photo: Composers at the Con
Front row: Deborah Cheetham Fraillon, Liza Lim and Jane Sheldon. Back row: Peggy Polias, Bree van Reyk, Brenda Gifford, Josephine Macken, May Lyon, Fiona Hill. Photo: Stefanie Zingsheim/University of Sydney

Professor Liza Lim

photo of Liza Lim smiling, long dark hair
Sculthorpe Chair of Australian Music, composer, educator and researcher
See Professor Lim's academic profile page

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