Re-dress: Women Composers

With Radio 3’s excellent focus on programming women composers since 2014, there has been an increasing awareness of the gaps in our knowledge of works written by women. Orchestras and ensembles have been trying to programme more works by women, with a commitment from orchestras such as Southbank Sinfonia to programme 20 pieces by women in 9 months. However it is extremely difficult to obtain useful information, parts and recordings of many of these works, some of which are still unpublished, and rarely if ever performed. Most ensembles do not have time or money to spend long in researching such repertoire, and so it remains unplayed, despite goodwill. 

Changes in thinking come through education, as well as availability. There are few works by women composers included in university courses, and few if any taught in schools. Generations of girls with an interest in music grown up without performing works by women, or even being aware of the possibility of a career as a female composer.

This is an extraordinary omission in the twenty first century. If we think across other disciplines, we aren’t aware of JK Rowling being a ‘woman author’, or of Tracy Emin as a ‘woman artist.’ And yet not only do we designate women composers as a special, rather suspected and neglected category, we hardly even know who they are. We know even less about women composers from across the globe- the project will aim to be as inclusive as possible, examining work by European and American women alongside female composers of the Global South.

The BBC and Oxford University, led by Dr Kate Kennedy at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, will work together to address this imbalance in multiple and creative ways, using cutting-edge digital technology, and reaching many thousands through radio, live performance and television.

This project aims to change our understanding of the canon of classical music, and its overwhelmingly male appearance. It will allow access to a whole new repertoire of music by women, presented using innovative and state-of-the-art technologies, and accessible to everyone from school children to managers of professional orchestras. It has huge impact, and will be advertised across the BBC, and will be available globally. We will be creating a research base that allows us to find other material that has hardly been used, and to make it accessible. Through the website and the app we will be creating a research resource to harvest the public’s opinions on this new music. We can obtain data on which pieces are preferred, and what people are saying about them. This is vital information for concert programmers, and will help them programme pieces that might have seemed a financial risk, but that they can have confidence in appealing to audiences. It aims to investigate the forgotten identity of women composers, and to redress the balance. Its ultimate aim would be to erase the need for the distinction of ‘female’ composer entirely.

We will be using artificial intelligence to make inferences and decisions based on what it finds. AI notices correlations. Machine learning and AI watch what we do, and learn from it. Working with researchers from Oxford, we can create the AI to track what people listen to, respond to and how often they return to it. We can then build a data set and make it available to other humanities researchers, with the possibility for a whole new wealth of research to emerge. We will experiment with haptic, visual and audio elements to create new experiences of sensory immersion. We will create performances that can be heard and even touched, in unusual spaces.

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