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Joanna Ward on achieving diversity through composing competitions

Updated: Jan 2, 2019

When I was approached to be a part of the Cambridge Female Composer Festival, having a role organising the composing competition seemed like the obvious way for me to make myself useful. Over the last four or so years, since I first started composing, I have had a wide range of experiences with composing competitions — from very positive to very (very) negative.

Competitions are oddly central to many developing composers’ growth. On the surface, they appear to be impartial and democratic assessments of the music submitted, and so are seen as a credible way for composers to gain experience and exposure, as well as in some cases money, recording opportunities, commissions — etc. The other side of the prevailing composing competition culture is that they can be very demoralising, exploitative, and divisive. They can encourage a culture of competition, pitting composers against each other when what they really need is to support each other. Perhaps more insidiously, they can further entrench value judgements about music that exclude those whose music does not fit into the panel’s idea of what ‘new music’ should be. Moreover, it is often anyone’s guess what these value judgements will be — should new music be an intellectual exercise, for the composer or the listeners? Cross-genres? Should it be expressive, impenetrable, transparent, difficult to perform? Competitions can therefore feel

like a complete shot in the dark, but they are (whether we like it or not) a key entry point to composition.

I’ve also done a lot of thinking about the ‘fairest’ approach to competitions when it comes to ensuring, or promoting diversity. There are so many questions here — whether it is competitions’ place to impose quotas in the first place (of, for example, selecting 50% female composers), what picture of ‘diversity’ we want and what we can realistically strive for. A lot of what all of this boils down to is what — who’s — idea of ‘fair’ we are trying to achieve. I have come to a firmly held conclusion that ‘fair’ does not mean ‘completely anonymous judging’. This seems a contradiction — most people jump to the conclusion that anonymous judging ensures the ‘fairest’ results.

However, this takes for granted the idea that that those who are taking part in the competition have been treated with this same version of ‘fairness’ in their composing lives thus far. Equal experiences are assumed — equal pedagogical experiences, equal ability to find support networks of peers and mentors, equal access to visible role models to affirm and encourage their aspirations as composers. Equality in how their musics have been received, and in how their bodies have been received, as creators. I don’t think you’re going to be surprised when I say that across all of these factors and more, women making music face oppression which their male counterparts simply do not. Society, and (new) music in its own particular ways, are not fair to women, if fairness means equal treatment. My dissertation research has shown me just how pervasively this is true, ranging from the underlying implications of prostitution meaning women find it difficult to ‘blow their own trumpet’ (to self promote), to the idealised image of the independent male composer figure along with the way in which PhDs are taught meaning that women are systematically excluded from postgraduate study in composition. All of these fascinating case studies are supported by impossible to ignore, quantitative statistics, such as the fact that women account for around 50% of undergraduate music students but only 19% of composition PhD students.

Composing and new music is an increasingly marginalised and underfunded area of the arts, and diverse voices are integral to its relevancy and therefore to its future. The frustrating irony here is that the increasing marginalisation of new music further ensures that it is most easily accessible for the privileged few who fit into the traditional mould of the ‘composer’. And let me be absolutely clear, this mould is — at least in the West — male, white, and privileged, with economic as well as cultural capital. I think that absolutely key to the journey towards gender parity in new music is exploring and really trying to understand the myriad ways that barriers to women participating and thriving are manifest. Hopefully the above discussion will prompt some thought in this direction — I know that I’ve had plenty of conversations where these layered, deep-rooted barriers are just not obvious to people, and pointing out that they are real — and impact us all — is a good place to start.

We have designed the Competition for the Festival with all this in mind, and with the ultimate aim for it to be as positive as possible for all the women and n.b. people taking part. We have a panel of composers including Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Errollyn Wallen, two leading female composers with differing musical styles, perspectives and experiences. A shortlist of pieces will be workshopped with the panel before the winner is selected, allowing for a maximum number of composers to have the benefit of hearing their pieces and receiving verbal feedback from the panel. Additionally, the requirement is to write for string quartet, a standard and very flexible ensemble, with the idea that composers will be able to have their works performed in future.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this blog — thanks for sticking with it and I hope that some of the topics discussed have been thought provoking. We can all be better feminists and supporters of diversity in new music, but it takes honesty and self-reflection — I hope you feel compelled to follow the CFCF on our journey!

(P.S. Obviously, many of these barriers also apply to people of colour, and the lack of ethnic diversity in new music is serious. For the sake of a limited undergraduate dissertation, as well as this festival, I have focussed in on women’s experiences and how to improve them, sidelining (but not ignoring) the fundamental intersectionality of many peoples’ oppressions. Women also evidently make up 50% of the population, and so striving for 50% of composers being female is a fairly indisputable goal — an easier place to start than most other forms of ‘diversifying’. I’m hoping that some of the themes explored in the festival and in my research may apply across the spectrum of oppressions, to help promote the compositional voices of people of colour, working class people, LGBTQ+ people, people from the North and state school pupils — to name but a few systematic barriers that composers in the UK face.)

Joanna Ward is a third year undergraduate reading Music at Jesus College. She is a composer and singer, interested across her practice in contemporary musics, women’s musics, and how we express ourselves in abstract ways through music.


The deadline for the competition is coming up on 10th January (see our 'competition' page for more info) - if you have any queries or issues with this deadline please email us at!

Happy New Year!!


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