Illuminate Women's Music

Hollie Harding
September 1, 2018

In the run-up to our 2018-19 season starting in October, we got in touch with composer Angela Slater to discuss the upcoming collaboration between Illuminate Women's Music and Borough New Music on the 16th October 2018. In this short interview we discuss the under-representation of women composers, how to find repertoire by historical female composers and things to listen out for in the Illuminate at Borough New Music concert programme.

HH: How did you come to set up Illuminate Women's Music and what are its aims? Why is it important to you to prioritise and highlight the work of both historical and contemporary female composers?

AS: The Illuminate project had been forming in my mind for several years. There were a number of things that I had started to notice and got increasingly bothered about, which ultimately led me to form Illuminate. Whenever I was at a composition course I was usually the only woman or, if I was lucky, I was one of two. I started to think back to my education - both at school and university - and could not recall any women composers being introduced to me. When I did some research into this, I found it to be largely true, although I was glad to discover I had come into contact with some female composers through my flute grades, but these composers were usually labelled as either a ‘jazz composer’ or ‘educational composer’. It seems that women composers often have to be qualified by an additional label other than ‘composer’. This really concerned me personally, but also generally for the representation and respect of all female creativity; as Betty Atterbury expresses, ‘Omission is a powerful teacher’.  

As a composer in my PhD I was fascinated by incorporating the natural world into different parameters of my compositions. Through this, I increasingly came into contact with more female composers and their works. I quickly realised that I had started to form a type of personal canon of female composers, for myself. This made me wonder about the place of females in the established canon, the cycle of cultural reproduction it feeds, and how we can truly have an impact on this. The idea for Illuminate started as a plan to host a couple of concerts that had all-female programmes. However, I soon realised I wanted to reach more people, opening up new repertoire for the audience to add to their own personal canons. Most concert-going audiences, by their own admission, know very little about women’s music, or that it even exists. By programming both historical and living women composers side by side, I hoped to create a forum to celebrate creative women from across the ages. In the long term, I would like works by women composers to be considered as equal to canonic works whose places are safe in concert programmes. As our knowledge of female composers grows, continued omission is unacceptable. Lack of a fair hearing leads to unjustifiable neglect. I hope, through Illuminate, to begin to reverse the tide, even in a small way.

As our knowledge of female composers grows, continued omission is unacceptable. Lack of a fair hearing leads to unjustifiable neglect. I hope, through Illuminate, to begin to reverse the tide, even in a small way.

HH: Is it more difficult to find and access repertoire by historical female composers? Are there any tools / tips you have to help others to find repertoire of this type? 

AS: Yes it is definitely more difficult, but far from impossible. There is far more repertoire out there than you might expect, even on mainstream music publishing websites. Some publishers have women’s works listed, but not ready to order, so you might need to get in contact with publishers directly to enquire if they have a work. There are works in IMSLP as well, though often these survive in illegible editions that would only be performable if you typeset the piece yourself. Other than those options, it is about being really engaged in finding women composers, using resources such as the Composer Diversity Database, books such as ‘The Pandora Guide to Women Composers...’ by Sophie Fuller, and ‘The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers’ edited by Julie Anna Sadie and Rhian Samuels, just to name a few resources. See if you can get in touch with experts and enthusiasts, or see if any other ensembles have performed works by women. Depending how keen you are, you might even want to start doing some of the primary research! There needs to be more editorial leg-work done to bring this music into performance-ready editions, and more musicological scholarship to better understand the value of a largely unknown body of repertoire. Encourage budding musicology PhD students to study an unknown female composer!

HH: How did you select the programme for the upcoming Illuminate Women's Music concert at Borough New Music?

AS: The programme is largely drawn from repertoire from the Illuminate 2018 touring concert series, where we commissioned five emerging women composers – myself, Gemma McGregor, Sarah Westwood, Blair Boyd and Carol J Jones. These composers were selected to be part of the Illuminate 2018 inaugural series as they all have really distinctive and contrasting compositional voices. They have written such a wide variety of music, leading to a fantastic concert series with an eclectic mix of styles. The addition of works by other, more established living composers, creates another interesting dimension to this and I have thoroughly enjoyed hearing the new and slightly more familiar side-by-side.

For this particular programme we have three world premieres including Drifting Spells by myself for solo guitar with loop pedal, Joy for solo violin by Gemma McGregor and Clipped Square by Blair Boyd for guitar and violin. I am very excited to hear these new works alongside previous Illuminate repertoire including Libby Larsen’s Sarabande In Profane Style for classical guitar, which you can read more about on the Illuminate blog page.

Sabina Virtosu (violin) performing at Illuminate Women's Music

HH: Have you collaborated with the performer Cassie Matthews on your new piece in the programme? Can you tell us some things to listen out for in this new work?

AS: For my new piece called Drifting spells (written for Cassie Mathews, for guitar and loop pedal) we have collaborated quite a bit. I’m not overly tech savvy and Cassie has helped me to develop my compositional idea to include a loop pedal and multiple tracks in a way where this fulfils my compositional aims, whilst still being practically possible. It has been quite a learning curve for me and I am sure this will continue when we meet for rehearsals in a couple of weeks!

The inspiration for Drifting Spells comes from my memory of Codale tarn, a small, isolated, mirror-black tarn high above Easedale tarn in the Lake District. I found this tarn to have a mysterious quality. It looks untouched, like a dark sapphire, or black mirror. In my memory the water was so flat and still, it could have been solid. The passing weather systems of the lakes seemed to drift past, unable to touch or affect the tarn. The piece explores different patterns that change, blend and drift past each other. The texture builds up to a violent and passionate section, with percussive hits on the guitar reflecting the dark intensity of the tarn.

HH: What can we expect from the other premieres in the programme, Clipped Square by Blair Boyd and Joy by Gemma McGregor?

AS: Blair often has very rhythmically driven music that deals with the perception of time, incorporating polyrhythms and mathematical ratios as the scaffolding for her work. The tangram, a puzzle of Chinese origin consisting of seven flat shapes, served as inspiration for the structure of her new work Clipped Square. The objective of tangram puzzles is to form a specific shape using all of the seven pieces. Blair uses this game to inform the construction of her piece combining seven motivic figures together and even incorporating a groove of 7 into the metre of the piece.

Gemma has written a new solo violin piece for Sabina Virtosu called Joy. The piece is inspired by music Gemma heard being played by a quartet of Hardanger fiddle players in Shetland. The Hardanger fiddle is a Norwegian violin that has four or five resonating strings lying underneath the four strings that are bowed, this creates a drone effect in the music akin to constant double and triple stopping. Gemma’s piece Joy will conjure up visions of happy social occasions involving dance and general merriment! I am very much looking forward to hearing both pieces premiered at the Borough New Music-Illuminate concert in London on 16th October!

HH: What's next for Illuminate? And for you?

AS: In 2019, we will be having two seasons of touring concerts with two new resident ensembles. We will be commissioning more living women composers and exploring some more fantastic historical works in our programming. We will release the details of this in early 2019 – so watch this space!

I have an exciting year ahead on a personal level. I’ll be taking up my Mendelssohn scholarship in Boston studying with composer Michael Gandolfi in the spring, and also having the world premiere of my orchestral piece Roil in Stillness performed by the New England Philharmonic.

The Borough New Music - Illuminate Women's Music concert is part of Borough New Music, Series 10 at St George the Martyr Church, Borough SE1 1JA at 1pm on Tuesday 16th October 2018, performed by Cassie Matthews (guitar) and Sabina Virtuso (violin). The full programme is:

Angela Slater (b. 1989) – The Moon is Falling (2017); Drifting spells (2018)*

Blair Boyd (b. 1990) – Clipped Square (2018)*

Libby Larsen (b. 1958) – Sarabande: In Profane Style (1979)

Carol J Jones (b. 1993) - The Butterfly Effect (2017-18)

Gemma McGregor - Joy (2018)*

Sarah Westwood (b. 1989) - Another Dance (2017-18)

(* = World Premiere)