The gender representation discussion in contemporary music has become ever more urgent these days. Countless evaluations, theories, and strategies have been posited onto the discussion table, and now festivals and ensembles are being pressed more than ever to put words into action. In its past season, the Darmstadt Summer Courses felt the weight of this accountability, as many looked to see how the festival would respond to Ashley Fure’s 2016 call to action. In 2016, Composer Ashley Fure presented Gender Research in Darmstadt (GRID), a year-long research project archiving the history of gender representation in the festival since 1946. The most striking aspects of her research were the hard numbers. In the festival’s near 60-year history (1946-2014), pieces by female composers made up 7% percent of the total programming. Of the 51 winners of the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis in Composition, only 9 were female. In 2014, pieces by female composers made up 18% of the programming, even though females made up 44% of participants. With all this laid out, the participants of Darmstadt 2018 waited in expectation to see how festival director Thomas Schaffer would respond in light of Fure’s call to action.
Figure 1: Compositions performed by Female and Male Composers from 1946-2014 (Fure, GRID)
Figure 2: Total Participants Vs. Female Participants (Fure, GRID)
The result? Among several things, a 50:50 male (incl. non-binary)/female gender quota was implemented for participants in the composition studios (the largest studio at the festival). It is hard to give a definitive diagnosis of the quota’s effects from just one year of implementation. However, for Liza Lim, this yielded a clear increase in the festival’s quality, as well as a step closer to becoming more in touch with the rest of the world. She expresses this to me in conversation:
“What is obvious at Darmstadt is that having a re-weighted 50:50 male (incl. non-binary)/female gender inclusion rate (rather than the more traditional quota of 80:20 in the staff and 60:40 in the student cohort) is that the diversity of representation feels more in touch with the contemporary situation (though not in relation to race). It feels more normal(!). What is even more interesting is that the quality of the work being presented is higher. I thought this was very apparent in the opening orchestral concert featuring really fresh and brilliant works by Sarah Nemtsov and Bára Gísladóttir, paired together with Simon Steen Anderson's 'classic' piano concerto. The result has been the opposite of what people fear when it comes to quotas - the quality went up rather than down because the pool from which you draw from widened rather than narrowed.”
Lim’s thoughts on quotas are not without grounding and research. Following GRID, Lim gave the keynote address for the ‘Women in the Creative Arts’ conference at Australian National University in 2017. There, she addresses common skepticisms towards quotas.
“I strongly advocate for intervention as the strategy to make and take space, to build new structures that are hospitable to women and to address the deficits in structural luck that women experience again and again. I strongly believe in the use of quotas. There’s always some controversy around them but let me turn around that idea of quotas as a crude and simple thing.
A ‘quota’ means ‘a share’, ‘an apportionment’ and in media-speak, ‘a piece of the action’. Quotas create pathways – to careers, to skills and to re-imagining legitimacy. Quotas create a space for talent to rise up and come through. My belief is that there is enormous value, through the use of quotas, in jumping immediately to the result one is looking for rather than just talking about it and relying on incremental creep to get there (which history shows us never arrives).”
This ‘incremental creep’ that never arrives harkens back to Fure’s statistics from GRID. In 1972 there began a gradual increase in female representation in Darmstadt’s programming. Yet, this growth remained at a ceiling of 10-13% for decades, not increasing even as female participation in the festival rose to 44% in 2014. Rather than incremental change, Lim believes that an interventionist strategy addresses gender issue at a structural level, one that will yield sustainable change. For some, quotas represent a threat to quality and merit. However, Lim finds the opposite to be true. She explains that quotas are not compromises for merit. Rather, they unlock greater levels of it, previously closed off by bias and privilege.
“On the one hand, everyone wants to be chosen on merit rather than seemingly crude attributes. On the other hand, as activist Peggy McIntosh has said, unconscious bias and invisible privilege also work to give ‘crude’ results. As the statistics show, our current systems more readily recognize the merit of men rather than the merit of women. It’s actually really easy to show that including women means increasing standards. Take the example of orchestral auditions where musicians play behind a screen – the fact that there is good representation of women in orchestras can be directly traced to the use of blind audition processes.
So it’s not either/or (quotas versus quality). We can have the best and have women – we can get there through gender blind assessment or by quotas (a space is opened for women where their merit can be recognized) or by bypassing entrenched systems of exclusion by choosing women who are the best.”
Lim currently directs the Composing Women Initiative at the Sydney Conservatorium. There, she mentors four young female composers, who work the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Sydney Chamber Opera and more. The emphasis is not just on mentoring these four artists, but also placing them in connection with large professional institutions. Here, we see that Lim uses interventionist strategies not to show off an attractive set of demographic statistics. The heart of the quotas is in engineering new networks for professional and artistic success that are accessible for women. Lim spoke to me in conversation,
“For the Composing Women Initiative itself, it’s really a response to the fact that the beginning of undergraduate studies the field of composition is about equal in terms of participation, male and female, men and women. By the end of undergraduate it has dropped down to about 25% women. In postgraduate studies, it’s like a cliff face.”
The Darmstadt Summer Courses have only begun this new chapter of moving towards gender equality. The gender quota, as well as programming for the festival and curation of the Defragmentation conference have been met by voices of both praise and protest. In my conversation with Lim, I got a glimpse of these dynamics, not just as statistics on a page. I was able to understand the ways gender equality creates immediate embodied shifts in the community as well.
“A number of the women composers on staff had dinner together the other night here in Darmstadt, and it was a quite remarkable feeling… kind of shocking. There were eight of us, and it was the first time where we had ever been more than the one of two or three women composers at a European festival. It was really quite a moving moment...”
Liza Lim’s full keynote lecture for the ‘Women in the Creative Arts’ conference at Australian National University
My full interview with Liza Lim at Darmstadt 2018.
Ashley Fure’s Gender Research at Darmstadt.
Peggy Polias, Bree van Reyk, Georgia Scott, and Josephine Macken are current participants in the Composing Women Initiative.
The thumbnail photo is of "Atlas of the Sky," and is taken by Bryony Jackson.