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Time for a treasure hunt for music by women

05 November 2020
Time for a treasure hunt for music by women

Long overdue, the hunt is now on for hidden treasures by women composers whose music has not often enjoyed exposure in the concert hall or on the radio. Now the International Music Council (IMC) is taking action to change all that. Silja Fischer, the Secretary General, and Davide Grosso, Project Manager, talked to us about IMC’s exciting new project.

Q: Recently, we’ve been hearing quite a bit about redressing the gender balance in music, including the EBU’s own Women in Music initiative last year. For the International Rostrum of Composers (IRC) organized each year since 1954 by IMC, you have noted that women artists make up a paltry 7% of those selected and recommended. Was that the catalyst for your new PSM project, “Hidden Treasures Mixtape”?

Davide Grosso: Yes, this was indeed the main catalyst. Of course, the springboard is the IRC, but we had to postpone it this year and we didn’t want to have a kind of virtual Rostrum. Since the main elements of the IRC are the exchanges among radio producers and the act of listening together to music, we decided to do something completely different. We thought it was about time to give the opportunity to these hidden treasures to be presented in a kind of exchange for public broadcasting organizations.

Q: Was there a specific reason behind this desire to rediscover women composers?

Davide Grosso: On the one hand, it’s something in the air. On the other hand, we are moving our archives, and today I found a publication for my conference that IMC organized on contemporary creation by women in 1996! Since then, this topic has become more visible, and at the same time IMC has started to deal with this issue, because it is an issue and has been for a long time. I think now is the perfect time to take action.

Silja Fischer: Actually, I was present at this 1996 colloquium, and Davide’s publication was the first of the newly created Centre de documentation de la musique contemporaine in Paris, which was kind of a spin-off of the SACEM (Société des auteurs, compositeurs et éditeurs de musique). So I think it’s been on our radar for quite some time. As always, things have to grow, and, of course, it has been in the air in other organizations of IMC. We all know, for example, about the Keychange project. But also, some radio organizations have adopted progressive measures to promote the work of women composers. 

Q: How exactly is this project going to work?

Davide Grosso: We have asked participating radio organizations to submit one work by a woman composer of the past 66 years, since the first Rostrum – so it could be 60 years ago, it could be last year – that they could have presented to the IRC and didn’t, for whatever reason. Now what we have observed more recently is an increase in women composers presented at the Rostrum, and one of them has become quite famous: Agata Zubel, from Poland. We would like to think that the IRC has contributed to this because its main reason to exist is to promote emerging composers through radio broadcasting organizations. At the same time, there are many women composers presented in the past, say, ten years who, while they may not have been selected, have been recommended. It’s worth mentioning that the Rostrum has two winners, one in the General category, and the other in the Under 30 category, and then we also have a list of what we call recommended works. A radio broadcaster who participates in the IRC undertakes to broadcast the two winners as well as the entire list of recommended works in the year following the awards. 

A couple of years ago, we had a young Estonian composer, Maria Korvits, who was the winner, and she also won a joint commission by the IRC with Swedish Radio. I would say that this is something that is increasing. Indeed, sometimes radio broadcasters present only young women composers. That was the case last year or two years ago with both Serbia and Russia. I want to add that since radio organizations have begun adopting this new approach, one thing we want to do with this new project is to provide them with a sort of playlist, which in this case we call a “mixtape”. This is because we have had feedback from them that sometimes they would love to program more women composers but they don’t know whom. Or if they do have the name, they don’t know where to find the recording, and if they have the recoding, there are issues with copyright. So this list we provide is already filtered by radio organizations, already of high quality, where broadcasters can go and make their choice. In the end, the beneficiaries are not only the composers but also the listeners.

Q: So the aim is not only to raise awareness of emerging women composers, but to rediscover those from the 20th century who may never have been justly recognized.

Davide Grosso: Exactly. 

Silja Fischer: I would even say it’s mainly about that. Maybe the word “access” is over-used nowadays, but it’s really about giving a second chance to works written by women composers who just didn’t make it for various reasons into the list of works presented by a specific radio broadcaster. We don’t want to judge those reasons, but we want to give an opportunity for those works to be heard. As the title says, we believe there are hidden treasures out there. It’s also to invite and to give an incentive to our participating radio organizations to look into their archives and to say, “Oh, yes, there was this work!” And they may have other works by the same composer, things that have totally gone under the radar. 

Q: It’s quite courageous to launch such an ambitious project during the extraordinary period that we are living through. Is there a risk that it will be drowned out by all the noise around the pandemic and the economic collapse?

Davide Grosso: For us, there is no risk, because we know that our usual participating radio broadcasters are always ready to share their music. In this pandemic, lots of physical events are reinventing themselves online. We ourselves discussed whether we shouldn’t do the same by holding the Rostrum online, but in the end we decided not to because it’s a gathering for professionals which has this unique approach of listening together. It was not possible to re-create that virtually. So we decided to do something completely different that is also in line with IMC values, the five Music Rights. We have already received expressions of interest by many, many radio broadcasters. The deadline for submitting their works is 13 November, with the online event on 1 December. 

Silja Fischer: I think the only risk we can’t manage is the quality of the archive recording, and how easy it is for our delegates to delve into their archives and look for the hidden treasures. It might actually be less difficult now than if we had done it in April or May because everyone has become used to using archival material.

Q: Do you think you’ll have any recordings of works that were actually presented but not selected at the time?

Davide Grosso: I’m not sure, because to check in the IRC archives for a specific work is almost impossible. In the last ten years, for instance, we have had at least 50-60 works presented each year, with ten that are on the shortlist. That’s around 35,000 works since the IRC began! And actually, one of the rules is that the composer should not be someone who was selected or recommended if they were presented. Probably, they weren’t even presented because our statistics show that during the first 20 years, there were no women at all, and after that, until 1990, there were only four!

Silja Fischer: Davide mentioned our five Music Rights, and the fourth one is the right for all musical artists to have access to all media and the proper facilities. So it’s yet another thing we do to promote and realize the five Music Rights, which are our core values and which we have to live up to ourselves.

Q: Aside from the exchange of these hidden gems among broadcasters, I believe these works will even be available to the general public via streaming for one week. How will that work?

Davide Grosso: This is something that actually started in 2015 at the Rostrum because it was part of a bigger project called Rostrum Plus, a European collaboration co-funded by the European Union, which had the Rostrum as its core activity but expanded its outreach. One of these other activities was called “Listen, vote and win”, to bring this music closer to the public through online streaming. We put all the works online for one week and asked people to vote for their favourite one, and by voting they might be selected to win a prize. It’s a small thing, but contemporary music is not something that people will go and look for on their own, unless they’re musicians or composers or interested in classical music. That’s exactly one of the missions of the Rostrum and IMC in general. In this case, promoting contemporary music also means going on Facebook and having people see that they can win a prize! We’re giving people music they can’t find on YouTube or Spotify or Deezer, because usually the works presented at the IRC have been freshly recorded, so not available on any streaming platform. So we give people this music free, for one week, they can win a prize, and it’s a way to invite non-classical music lovers to discover this repertory. We will do the same with the Hidden Treasures.

Q: How will you bring that to the attention of the general public?

Davide Grosso: We will promote it on social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – and we will use our 120 members all around the world. Many of them, like the EBU, are networks of a large number of members. Let’s not forget that our participating radio broadcasters are always helping us as well, and if you think that we usually have 35 participating public  radio organizations, we are talking potentially about millions of listeners from Argentina, Australia, China, Europe and beyond.

Q: Are these only public radio broadcasters?

Davide Grosso: 90% of participating broadcasters are public radio organizations, but we do have some private stations as well as university radio stations where, for instance, the national broadcaster is not interested or has no programme on contemporary music. We as Europeans tend to think that all public radio organizations broadcast contemporary music, but this unfortunately is less and less the case.

Silja Fischer: University radio stations enjoy a special status in Latin America in particular, historically speaking, and their programming of contemporary music tends to be much stronger than that of national broadcasters.

Q: Will this be made available to the EBU as a Members’ Selection offer as the Rostrum would normally be?

Silja Fischer: Yes, when our participating radio organizations submit a work, we always ask that it be made available for broadcast at least once by participating stations, and this actually goes through the EBU.

Davide Grosso: Yes, the EBU has always been a technical partner of the Rostrum, so we use the EBU server and communicate with EBU Members. I think we speak the same language!

Silja Fischer: I just wanted to mention that IMC is currently involved in a project called SHIFT (Shared Initiatives for Training), which is about training new leadership for cultural networks to address the specific question of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). We have picked three of them, and one of those is gender equality. The other two are climate care and inclusion to reduce inequalities. It’s about raising awareness and finding ways for cultural organizations to implement the SDGs, which may not appear obvious to those organizations. Actually, however, the role of culture as driver and enabler of development is being increasingly recognized,and this is one way for us to show it very prominently.



Relevant links and documents