Orchestral programming must accompany the program

On May 20, 2021, Ciaran Frame wrote an article for Spotlight about its 2020 Living Music Report. The report is an annual analysis of Australian orchestral programming, examining whether the composers, whose works have been performed across the country, adequately reflect Australian identity and our gender, cultural and First Nations diversity. Coincing a phrase used by the Australian Council, the article was titled Do Our Arts Reflect Us ?. Frame found that in 2020 the answer was “not yet” although the trajectory is heading in the right direction.

Phillip Scott, regular music critic for Spotlight, responded to Frame’s article with a piece in which he objected to classical music being programmed through the lens of diversity and gender equality in the 21st century.

Felicity Wilcox wrote a detailed response to Phillip Scott’s article, which will appear in the July issue of Spotlight. Subscribe now to receive a copy. Here are two excerpts that open and close his article.


As a composer, researcher and advocate for gender equity, I cannot turn a deaf ear to Phil Scott’s article, The role of an orchestra is not primarily to reflect contemporary society. I respect Scott’s work as a performer, but as a commentator on this issue he doesn’t really deserve a tribune. His arguments are tired and tedious, hurtful to many and deserve a quick debunking.

Scott writes: “The greatest music has survived the time it was written; he transcended his time. What he calls (without explanation or qualification) “the greatest music” was written in a period of several hundred years, where quotas of 100% white and male composers were in effect. This music is a direct product of its time, its primacy guaranteed by discrimination in the workplace that excluded women, people of color and anyone who dared to identify as trans or gender nonconforming. These cohorts just weren’t allowed to sit at the table. The canon with which many of us have grown up, studied and listened to throughout our lives is the direct result of discrimination that continues to have very real implications for equal opportunity among workers in the arts. It strikes me as ironic and disappointing that Scott, who has derived much of his success from the satirical cabaret that pokes fun at the establishment, is so markedly callous on this point.

As Ciaran Frame’s Living Music Report points out, the German-European canon Scott talks about is disproportionately maintained by our taxpayer-funded National Performing Arts Organizations (NPAs), to the great detriment of our own artistic workers and artists. our national culture. Australian orchestras received nearly $ 82 million in government funding last year through the Australian Council, which defined one of their fundamental strategic goals as “our arts reflect us”. The last time I looked, the majority of Australian citizens weren’t German, white, dead men. Our orchestras have clearly failed to fulfill the mandate of the Australian Council; instead, according to Frame, only 18% of their total programming included works by living composers; only 10% were works by Australian composers; only 4% were works by female composers; only 1% were works by culturally and linguistically diverse Australian composers (CALDs); 1% were works by First Nations composers; and precisely 0% were works by non-gender-conforming composers (GNC). When these sets overlap, these defined percentages become blurred; for example, of the 18% of living composers, just under half of them were Australians, meaning that only 8.1% of all the repertoire played by our orchestras was composed by Australians from all sub- group alive today. Only 17% of scheduled live works were made up of women, meaning that overall, a total of 3.06% of all scheduled works were by live women today, and only 1.37% by living Australians. Yet this is a cohort which, according to the most recent ABS data, represents 51% of our population. These gaping discrepancies do not in any way reflect “us” and must be denounced.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s 2020 season has been particularly shocking. Last year, this orchestra absorbed more than any other orchestra in funding (over $ 15 million), but of the 114 works scheduled in their 2020 season, no female works, no composer works. of the First Nations, no works by GNC composers and no works by Australian composers CALD. Throughout her report, Frame highlights quotes that reveal the words orchestra administrators pay for equity programs in the context of such inequity. In the same vein, let’s all continue to monitor equity initiatives such as the laudable SSO 50 Band Commissioning Project to ensure that these are not just token gestures, but meaningful steps towards the lasting reform our broken system desperately needs.

Another central goal of the Australian Council is that “the arts and creativity flourish”. Can this be said of our composers? I love the music of Bach and some of the other men named Johann, whose music is always programmed at almost four times the rate of First Nations composers, but I’ve heard them all before. I studied them in school and university – to the almost total exclusion of people who looked like me. They had their time and they certainly had their turn. I am not arguing for their cancellation, because historically they are important. But surely we can make more space for other composers to flourish?

Australian composers need to organize collectively to consider our options: male, female, cis and gender diverse, white, CALD and First Nations – because we are all losing this battle. Research clearly shows the importance of role models for a person’s ability to imagine and plan a career path in music and other areas of the creative industries. We have come to a point where neither of us can be adequately represented in the culture that we collectively fund and we need to ask those responsible why this is so.

Is it simply a lack of leadership that maintains the status quo when it comes to the orchestral repertoire? What will it take to change a culture that excludes so many of us? Is there a legal case to justify for a taxpayer-funded orchestra in Australia that continues to schedule work on the staggering scale of current inequity? Who exactly are Scott’s “classic music lovers” who “today turn to this vast repertoire not for our society to come back to us, but to escape it”? How can orchestras work harder to engage them in exploring new sounds? Surely those who really love music want it to stay relevant and support its regeneration? A commitment on the part of conductors, directors, audiences and orchestras to embrace a more diverse living repertoire can only lead to a more nuanced musical legacy than we currently have, and would be a laudable project, as we have so many unique things. celebrate here in Australia.

Australians deserve to hear much more music from First Nations people, women, gender nonconforming people, composers of color and our male contemporaries in our concert halls today. All composers deserve to believe in their future. Orchestras urgently need to tackle the serious deficits cited in The Living Music Report, and get on (programming) with the program.


Felicity Wilcox is Senior Lecturer in Music and Sound Design at the University of Technology Sydney, and ARIA and AACTA-nominated composer, who has received numerous commissions for chamber ensembles and productions at the foreground screen. His latest album is Uncovered Land: Felicity Wilcox – Chamber Works Collection released on Move Records. She is the editor of Women’s music for the screen: a diverse sound narration, published with Routledge.

You can read the full version of this article in the July issue of Spotlight. Subscribe by Sunday July 20 to receive a copy of the print edition, available online for subscribers to read starting Monday July 28.

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