Composing Equality

In terms of media coverage of the arts world, theatre and literature have an advantage, and the widespread exposure given to the Waking the Feminists movement undoubtedly helped it to increase pressure on the major theatre companies in the country to move to a more balanced programming policy. Far less publicity has been given to a similar movement which has emerged in the music world entitled Sounding the Feminists (STF). As with Waking the Feminists, the catalyst for the formation of this group was a 1916 centenary festival, Composing the Island, a major retrospective of classical composition in Ireland featuring almost two hundred compositions by ninety different composers. It quickly became clear that the representation of female composers was poor, with only 17 works by living female composers as against 74 by living male composers in the announced programme. These simple figures were only part of the issue, as female composers were frequently only represented by short works for small forces and the five premieres featured were given to males. Composer Siobhán Cleary was the first to point out the lack of balance and at first the National Concert Hall responded on Facebook stating that ‘we can’t rewrite history’ and ‘a retrospective of the 21st century will look very different’. The idea that one merely had to wait for a hundred years for things to improve missed the point made by Cleary about the lack of balance in the representation of contemporary composers. Eventually, in a process redolent of the debacle surrounding the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, an extra early evening concert of piano works by seven female composers given by Isabelle O’Connell was scheduled. While this improved the representation of living female composers, for some it merely highlighted the disparities which exist across the sector.
Indeed this was far from being an isolated incident within the classical/contemporary music scene. The National Symphony Orchestra’s (NSO) programme for 2016–17 repeated a number of the compositions by male composers from Composing the Island on Friday nights, but the only work by a female Irish composer in the season was scheduled for a Tuesday lunchtime concert.1 The differences, apart from audience availability, are that Friday night concerts receive more publicity, are broadcast live, have a longer rehearsal time and are conducted by a range of international musicians, whereas the sporadically scheduled Tuesday lunchtime concerts do not have a regular audience, are frequently not advertised apart from on the NSO website, and the rehearsal time is very limited. In addition to this, in 2015 a series of NSO concerts featuring the Beethoven piano concertos was coupled with works by five male Irish composers; in 2016 RTÉ commissioned five works from male composers for performance by the RTÉ ConTempo String Quartet; and the four composers chosen to be mentored in the NSO’s annual Composer Lab project were male.2 It seemed, whether consciously or subconsciously, that there was a gender bias across a number of different events in that period.

That this was nothing new is demonstrated by a quick examination of the most prominent contemporary music festival in Dublin. New Music Dublin (2013–15 and 2017) and its predecessor the Living Music Festival (2003–8) have never been curated by a woman. Examining this three day festival throws up the following statistics:
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In New Music Dublin 2013, the only work by a female composer was a choral piece by Rebecca Rowe. In the 2014 festival things improved somewhat. There was an afternoon concert of Jennifer Walshe’s work, Thérèse Fahy’s Handprint Project contained two works by female composers and Andrew Zolinsky performed a piece by Unsuk Chin. While the 2015 festival curated by US composer David Lang represented a step backwards in its exclusionary and limited approach to repertoire in terms of style, there was a much higher female profile, with the NSO performing works by Irene Buckley and Anna Clyne, and with performances of works by Meredith Monk, Julia Wolfe, Kate Moore and Linda Buckley. In 2017, all the commissions were once more given to male composers and female composers were banished from the headline events.3
Exploring the Data
So, are these examples indicative of a wider trend? Before examining the balance of compositions programmed by various institutes and ensembles, it is important to note just how many female composers are active in Ireland today. 22% of the 213 living composers represented by the Contemporary Music Centre (CMC) are female while in both the Association of Irish Composers (AIC) and the Irish Composers Collective (ICC) the figure is approximately 30%.4 One would therefore expect at least a 25–30% representation of female composers even where a 50:50 balance is not achieved.
I began my selective survey of the contemporary music scene with the NSO. Bizarre though it may seem, RTÉ has not kept a record of its commissions for the NSO, though the lack of an institutional record does explain how the commissioning process seems to be linked to the interests of the successive individual directors rather than to a more objective policy.5 Extrapolating the data is extremely difficult as some works appear on Friday nights and others in lunchtime concerts or out-of-season events and occasionally for radio.6 Leaving aside the major festivals discussed above, I have concentrated on works performed at and commissioned for Friday night season concerts and the Tuesday Horizon concerts which were curated by featured composers.
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It is interesting to note that, while featured female composers selected works by composers of both genders, not one male composer featured a work by a female composer in the period examined.
Friday Night Season Concerts 2004–187
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One of the reasons for the less balanced ratio for Fridays is that for a number of seasons there were no female composers included, most notably in the period 2005/6–2008/9.8 This has to be taken into account when comparing the length of commissions (for both Horizons and Friday) given to composers.
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The raw data would suggest a definite male bias for longer compositions but it should be noted that seven of the ten pieces by male composers over 20 minutes in duration date from prior to 2009. At the point at which female composers began to be more strongly represented, funding cutbacks made it increasingly unusual for any composer to receive a commission longer than 10 minutes. Clearly any further cutbacks by RTÉ to the funding of the national orchestras will only have a serious detrimental effect on future commissioning policy. A more balanced ratio can be found in the programmes the RTÉ ConTempo Quartet have performed in their RTÉ-sponsored concerts. Since 2016 their seasons have included five works by female composers, of which two were commissions, with seven by male composers (42:58).9
Crash Ensemble quickly positioned itself as the dominant group on the contemporary music scene, describing itself on its website as ‘adventurous, innovative and ambitious’, and the recent Crashlands concerts, featuring short commissioned works to celebrate their twentieth anniversary, suggested a balanced approach to commissions. However, a more thorough review suggests a different picture:10
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Examining the list of composers they have performed gives a better result, as, excluding deceased composers, female composers account for close to 20% of the total, but this does not take into account such factors as the amount of pieces performed and their durations. A further complication is that some pieces appeared in Free State concerts, which in recent years have been curated from anonymous (and therefore un-gendered) submissions.
Data for the Irish Chamber Orchestra for 2011–18 gives the following picture:

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More startling perhaps is the fact that since the appointment of director Jörg Widmann in 2012, the orchestra has performed 13 pieces by Irish composers as against 14 by Widmann himself, with several of his pieces receiving multiple performances.12
The data for recordings is also unpromising.

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Nick Roth, co-director of Diatribe, states that ‘Diatribe’s policy is to only release new sounds, irrespective of genre/gender’ and he notes that ‘the label’s overall gender balance is closer to 50:50 in terms of performers.’16 Garrett Sholdice, co-director of Ergodos, notes that ‘it is something we’re very aware of and something we have been addressing in our planning.’ By contrast with the CD label, the Santa Rita concerts which Ergodos curates have a higher female participation rate and Sholdice adds that ‘Our policy now is to make the series at least 50:50 in terms of representation. We now also aim for 50:50 gender representation in our yearly output.’17
The most striking omissions are in the highly funded opera sector.
Opera and Choral Music
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Wide Open Opera and OTC, currently directed by Fergus Sheil, have now merged to form Irish National Opera with five year funding from the Arts Council. In 2018 it will bring Opera NI’s production of Thomas Adès’s Powder her Face to the Republic and they hope in future to present a further Brian Irvine opera.24 Fergus Sheil notes that INO ‘strongly believes in gender quality and in the coming years will work with emerging and established artists in all fields to address any gaps.’25
Chamber Choir Ireland (2008–17)
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Discussing CCI’s policy, their Chief Executive Majella Hollywood x states that the primary goal in the past has been to programme good music irrespective of gender or any other personal factor adding ‘we are in the process of developing an equality policy with regards to commissioning and programming of contemporary music but we are taking our time to consult key stakeholders, and ensure the wording is right, which is central to developing a policy that is both appropriate and implementable. We believe that, as a small organisation offering c. 8 concert programmes a year, a longer term approach to our eventual agreed aims and objectives around equality (say over 5 years) is more appropriate for the size and scale of our output.’27
Getting the Balance Right
This last point can be illustrated by looking at another small organisation, Kirkos, directed by Sebastian Adams and Robert Coleman. While some projects have included an all-male line-up, other ventures such as FluxFest, Future Composers, and ICC Takeover have included a healthy balance of composers. Their 2017 KirkosKammer season included five commissions, one of which was for a female composer, while their 2018 season will include four commissions of which three are by female composers.28 Some organisations have proved that consistent responsible programming is possible even with limited funding. Béal, a production company founded in 2010 by David Bremner and Elizabeth Hilliard produces the following statistics: 29
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The Contemporary Music Centre (CMC) has always had a strong culture of gender balance. Selection panels, curators, discussion panels and composers chosen for residencies and projects (such as SoundScape or Culture Night) are always carefully balanced. All of CMC’s promotional CDs have included the work of female composers and since 2001 it has been normal for three to four composers to be featured on each CD.30
However, Concorde, which celebrated its fortieth anniversary last year, still leads the way in terms of providing equal opportunities for composers. Directed by Jane O’Leary, the ensemble has played a key role in promoting new music, mentoring young composers and giving repeat performances to works. Out of more than 900 performances of works by Irish composers, approximately 45% have been compositions by female composers. Over the last twenty years, the ensemble has premiered approximately 117 compositions by Irish and international composers and given 64 paid commissions, and in both cases 45% were by female composers.31
The Future:
In a number of areas it is clear that changes are already occurring. The Association of Irish Composers (AIC) has in recent times directed more attention to equality issues and a report on gender representation at AIC events for 2016 shows that a 29.4% representation of female composers was achieved, while the latest International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) submission has a 33:66 balance.32 Anthony Long, General Manager of the NSO, notes:
RTÉ is currently reviewing its policies on diversity and the orchestras will be aligning with that policy once released. While there is no specific gender policy in place currently RTÉ is an equal opportunities employer and the two contemporary pieces in the 2017–18 season and the two commissions currently in train are divided 50:50 in terms of gender. The Composer Lab concert will be moved to an evening slot to give it more prominence and the way in which Irish and indigenous contemporary and classical music is presented within the main season is being reviewed with the possibility of a defined contemporary series under consideration.33
The three composers selected for Composer Lab 2018 are Michael Doherty, Maria Minguella and Anne-Marie O’Farrell. The new curator of New Music Dublin, John Harris, states that as some of the commissions for the coming festival were already in place, he cannot guarantee that his first season will be exactly balanced but he hopes to achieve a 50:50 balance with both performers and composers over the longer term. He adds that ‘equality, diversity and inclusivity form a longer deeper and wider issue and one that I want New Music Dublin to be a leader in addressing.’34 This is a particularly important point as the debate about binary gender issues threatens to marginalise those who identify as trans or gender fluid and the Irish classical/new music world is also predominantly white and upper middle class.
The formation of Sounding the Feminists has clearly already focussed a number of organisations’ minds on the issue of balance. As it initially stemmed from the reaction to Composing the Island, the officers are currently all female and from the spheres of academia and composition but they hope to recruit further volunteers of all genders to create a more inclusive board, representative of all styles of music and areas of the music industry. While their initial focus is on exploring the publically funded sector, in the long term they hope in conjunction with UCC to create an all-Ireland study of female representation across all musics. Concurrently, the Arts Council is developing an Equality and Human Rights Policy which will take shape in the context of a new Public Sector Equality and Human Rights Duty initiative under the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014. This places a legal duty on public sector organisations to have regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, promote equality and protect human rights in their daily work. Further details regarding the Arts Council’s plans will be announced in the early part of 2018.35
At a recent STF meeting, Simon Taylor of the National Concert Hall expressed the sentiment that, while he would like to programme concerts of all female composers, he feared there would not be an audience for such unknown figures.36 A few weeks later the NCH stage witnessed an OTC performance of an unknown opera, Eithne (1909), by a forgotten male composer, Robert O’Dwyer. With canny marketing and plenty of pre-performance publicity, the work was performed to a full house, demonstrating what courageous planning coupled with determination can achieve. It has yet to be seen whether the work of pressure groups such as STF will be enough to alter the ingrained habits of some of the larger funded organisations in the country or whether it will take action by the Arts Council, perhaps in the form of punitive measure against those who do not programme responsibly to bring us to a stage where gender is no longer an issue and female composers are no longer ghettoised into special box-ticking all-female events safely tucked away at the fringes of an institute’s outputs.

1. The works repeated were by Brian Boydell, Seóirse Bodley and Donnacha Dennehy Other Tuesday lunchtime concerts in the season featured work by Stephen Gardner, Andrew Hamilton (a repeat of a work commissioned for Composing the Island) and Sebastian Adams.
2. The NSO Beethoven Piano Concerto series featured work by Seóirse Bodley, Raymond Deane, David Fennessy, John Kinsella and Ian Wilson. Sebastian Adams, Enda Bates, Sean Clancy, David Coonan and David Fennessy were commissioned to write for the ConTempo Quartet while David Bremner, Seán Doherty, Francis Heery, and Matthew Whiteside were chosen for Composer Lab to be mentored by David Fennessy.
3. Compositions by females were mainly scheduled in the late night Festival Club spot. The exceptions were the lunchtime recital given by Michelle O’Rourke (which was both balanced and included the first performance of a work by Anna Murray) and the free concerts given by the Quiet Music Ensemble.
4. Results are restricted to the binary categories of male and female as data for people who identify as non-binary categories is not currently available. The disparity in ratio is due to historic reasons as prior to the 1980s very few female composers were active in Ireland.
5. E-mail from Cathy Stokes, 9 November 2017.
6. Also some recent commissions have been described specifically as RTÉ Lyric FM commissions as distinct from RTÉ commissions.
7. To avoid skewing the figures, a full evening concert of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’s compositions in 2017 has been omitted from the statistics.
8. A scheduled performance of a work by Deirdre McKay in October 2005 was cancelled.
9. E-mail from Lesley Bishop, Administrator RTE Quartet and Chorus, 5 December 2017.
10. Figures taken from
11. This does not include arrangements made by Roger Doyle and Sam Perkin.
12. E-mail from Majella Hollywood, Chief Executive Chamber Choir Ireland, 17 November 2017.
13. Choirland is a 2012 anthology of choral music marking the 60th anniversary of the Arts Council and published by the Contemporary Music Centre in conjunction with the Association of Irish Choirs and the National Chamber Choir of Ireland, now rebranded as Chamber Choir Ireland.
14. This breaks down into 11 portrait CDs of living composers (Gerald Barry, Seóirse Bodley, Frank Corcoran, Raymond Deane, Donnacha Dennehy, Ciaran Farrell, Stephen Gardner, John Kinsella, Kevin O’Connell, Kevin Volans and Ian Wilson) and 6 compilation CDs that only contain works by male living composers (two discs from Michael McHale and discs from Alex Petcu, Chamber Choir Ireland, Triocca, Hugh Tinney and the Chatham Quartet). It does not include their portrait CDs of dead male composers such as Frederick May, Aloys Fleischmann and Seán Ó Riada.
15. These are CDs by Clíona Doris, New Dublin Voices and a double CD stemming from Composing the Island.
16. E-mail from Nick Roth, 6 December 2017.
17. E-mail from Garrett Sholdice, 5 December 2017.
18. Contemporary and recent works by Nicholas Maw, Conrad Susa, Richard Rodney Bennett, John Corigliano, Peter Ash and Kevin Puts have all been performed and the 2018 season will include William Bolcum’s Dinner at Eight. I have not included two occasions when touring opera companies’ performances of Irish work has taken place at Wexford beyond the three main featured operas (James Wilson’s Twelfth Night by Irish National Opera in 1969 and Andrew Synnott’s Dubliners by OTC in 2017).
19. The operas were by Dominick Argento, John Buckley, Kenneth Chalmers (2 short works), Peter Maxwell Davies (2 works) Raymond Deane (1 twenty minute work and one full length opera), Stephen Deazley (2 works) Grigory Frid, Daran Hogan, Tom Johnson, Fergus Johnston, Kevin O’Connell (1 twenty minute work and one full length opera) Jurgen Simpson, Andrew Synnott Ian Wilson. Not included in the total is Michael Alcorn’s version of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo performed in 1995. E-mail from Sorcha Carroll, Marketing Manager 1 December 2017 and
20. This was Marion Ingoldsby’s twenty minute Hot Food with Strangers which was one of four short operas commissioned for performance in 1991.
21. A single performance in June 2017 of 24hr Opera, a work prepared in 24 hours with the participation of four composers (Robbie Blake, Anna Murray, David Coonan and Teodor Iuliu Radu) mentored by Brian Irvine.
22. Wide Open Opera’s productions included works by Raymond Deane, Gerald Barry (in partnership with NI Opera), John Adams, Brian Irvine (5 short operas counted as one work in the table) and Donnacha Dennehy (two operas in collaboration with Enda Walsh). See
24. See Opera Northern Ireland in its short history seems to demonstrate a similar pattern, performing full length operas by Gerald Barry and Thomas Adès, and a twenty five minute work by Brian Irvine. The 2012–13 season was launched with NI shorts which consisted of short pieces by Brian Irvine, Conor Mitchell, Ed Bennett, Christopher Norbby and the only female composer to be featured to date Deirdre McKay.
25. E-mail from Fergus Sheil, 13 December 2017.
26. One of these has yet to receive a performance.
27. E-mail from Majella Hollywood, Chief Executive Chamber Choir Ireland, 17 November 2017.
28. The commissions in 2017 were by Andrew Hamilton, Anna Murray, Stephen O’Brien, Kevin O’Connell and Breffni O’Byrne. The 2018 composers are Elis Czerniak, Jenn Kirby, Finola Merivale and Gráinne Mulvey. E-mail from Robert Coleman, 7 December 2017.
29. E-mail from Elizabeth Hilliard, 28 November 2017.
30. The only exception was Volume 9 from 2010, which featured Judith Ring’s …within an egg of space…
31. E-mail from Jane O’Leary, 8 December 2017.
32. E-mail from Anna Murray, Secretary Association of Irish Composers, 2 December 2017.
33. E-mail from Anthony Long, General Manager RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, 12 December 2017.
34. E-mail from John Harris, 22 November 2017.
35. E-mail from David Parnell, Arts Council Working Group on Gender and Equality Policy, 7 December 2017.
36. The full meeting from 13 September 2017 can be viewed online at