A one-sex shortlist of candidates in any field is enough to prompt a groan – or something altogether angrier. What greeted the social media staff at Britten Sinfonia on the announcement of the orchestra’s new cohort of OPUS2018 composers was more graphic. In response to the Sinfonia’s revealing of a five-strong, all-male shortlist, the campaign group Female Pressure posted a meme of dozens of cocktail sausages being fired into an aluminium tub. In case anyone out there hadn’t got the message, Wandagroup followed up with ‘PENIS AWARD’. Point made.
The anger is justified, even if the subtext of ‘gender overrides everything’ – not to mention the representative use of sexual organs – could be considered mildly offensive and even a little confusing in an age when we’re being encouraged to stop thinking in such binary terms (one of the shortlisted composers tweeted that he is intersex, which spiced up the argument). Some more thoughtful responses to the announcement came from composers and figures in the new music world who have been working hard to address the gender imbalance for years. One pointed to Sound and Music’s various initiatives and unflinching research, the former hell bent on changing the look of the latter (both can be viewed online at soundandmusic.org).
Meanwhile, Britten Sinfonia stuck to its guns – those guns being a process by which scores are judged anonymously, so gender doesn’t come into it. At first glance, that method presents not just a solution but an opportunity. The orchestra informs us that ‘female musicians have been involved in every stage of the process’. How about going one step further? Fill the selection committee with women, and then we’ve dissolved the patriarchy without watering the process down into a box-ticking exercise whereby the music becomes the least important thing in the room.
Would that have thrown up a different result? The idea that women only identify with music written by other women is as shallow as, say, failing to get past an image of penises when confronted with a list of talented composers who happen to be men. It may be that Britten Sinfonia chose the five best composers and that next year, they’ll end up with five women as a result of the same process. At least as many women as men are writing excellent, interesting music right now. In the long term, that will prove un-ignorable.
People who call for nuance in such arguments are usually those enjoying the comforts of the status quo. But justice in this arena will surely come about via a process of evolution rather than revolution. There must always be room for rubric that chooses to focus on something other than gender while striving to achieve equality as a side effect. There should always be mechanisms in place to give extra opportunities, support and exposure to those who have been unjustly ignored. Personally, I’m glad there are both.
Barely a kilometre across the quadrangles of Cambridge, another debate flared up the same week. Should the choir of King’s College alter its constitution so that the world’s most watched carol service might showcase the talents of women as well as men? Organist Anna Lapwood wrote a persuasive article arguing that it’s better to create more opportunities for girls than to take them away from boys. The explosion of opportunities for girl choristers in the last two decades has already pushed so much talent into the profession. Besides, dozens of boy choristers now forge boldly into adulthood knowing what a woman looks and sounds like.
That’s an example of individuals – women and men – seizing the initiative rather than rigging the ecosystem to ensure that process trumps creativity. Oxford, Cambridge and London choirs have to catch up with the provinces, but they may well do so in ways that prove more longsighted than simply crowbarring girls into a choir famous for containing boys. Wouldn’t it be interesting if, one day, we saw the likes of Anna Lapwood commanding the penis-possessors of King’s College Choir on TV screens across the globe?