Written early Feb 2020
Contemplating a blog for Illuminate in the days after the UK has left the European Union, I feel especially alert to the challenges faced by women past, present and future to be heard. Not only musically, as composers and sound artists, but generally so in a society that feels increasingly insular and backwards-looking, with rising levels of hostility towards anyone deemed ‘other’.
Even in circles that like to think of themselves as cultured and holding ‘liberal’ values,it too-often still needs pointing out that gender imbalance - let alone that of race, class and disability - is a problem across music as it is elsewhere in society. And - the basic, obvious point - that it’s a problem not just for women but for everyone, since denying access to any group of people ultimately limits the potential of the whole.
It is striking how slow promoters, programmers, funders, performers and audiences have been to wake up to the problem. I am glad that some, at least, have done so and are encouraging others to do the same, and that increasing numbers of women composers are finding their voice. Initiatives like Illuminate; like the recentVenusUnwrapped at London’s King’s Place; like Keychange, co-led by the PRS Foundation; like the work that Vick Bain and others are doing to highlight the issue; these and many more are vital if we are to redress what is, ultimately, a matter of social justice which should concern anyone who cares about equal representation and democracy.
I am aghast - though sadly not surprised - at the pathological lengths some people and politicians have been prepared to go to sabotage relations with our continental kin, and the complicity of so many around them. Can music itself help to redress the sociocultural ills that led to this - and will likely lead to worse? Perhaps not directly, as notes sounding in the air. But those notes do not exist in a vacuum: music has always been a product of the society in which it is created. Just observe women composers of yore - and of the present day - who have been rendered mute by social, ideological or financial obstacles.
If nothing else, simply by existing - or by being prevented from existing - music offers some kind of testament to the times of its creation, and opens a window onto them for good or ill. We need to be prepared to hear what women have to say in music, even - or especially - if that means having to recalibrate our notions about music history, society, and about what music is or does.
At any rate, a few words about my own piece, Inner Sanctum, to be performed by Jelena Makarova for Illuminate in Nottingham on February 29: It was commissioned by the Lower Machen Festival in 2003 for pianist Llŷr Williams, at a time when I was re-orientating after a turbulent period in my life. Jelena will perform the middle movement alone, which is how it was designed if wished. The kernel of the longer work, the music is slow and calm but ambivalent in feel, with disturbance beneath the surface. Rarely, I find, is a sense of rest or peace unequivocal. But I’d hoped nonetheless to impart a sense of that as I was discovering it for myself - and I hope now that we can all find that sense somewhere through the challenges to come.
Steph is a composer living in mid Wales. Recent commissions include pieces for Uproar, the Marsyas Trio and Astrid the Dutch Street Organ, and this summer sees the premiere at the Fishguard and West Wales International Festival of a piece for the current Official Harpist to HRH the Prince of Wales, Alis Huws. Chair of TŷCerdd, Music Centre Wales, Steph also writes on music for a range of publications including BBC Music Magazine, The Stage and The Independent. She is a contributor to The Music of Simon Holt (Boydell, 2017, ed. David Charlton) and the Cambridge Companion to Women in Music since 1900 (CUP, forthcoming, ed. Laura Hamer).
some pieces: https://soundcloud.com/stephpower
some older writings on music: http://philosovariant.blogspot.com/