Pale, male and stale: does modern classical have a gender problem?

Compilation album by Wayne McGregor criticised for only including two works by women

Modern classical and electronic music is still dominated by stars who are largely “pale, male and stale”, leading industry figures have warned, after learning of a major new compilation album featuring only two works composed by women.

Collaborations, which will be released by Mercury KX – a label that claims to cross “the borders between electronic, ambient, classical, alternative and modern music” – is compiled by choreographer Wayne McGregor and was billed as “a collection of music from the biggest names in modern classical and electronic music” in a tweet sent by the label. But the dearth of female artists was immediately picked up on – with footwork artist Jlin and Finnish contemporary composer Kaija Saariaho the only women represented over the 15 tracks.

Kaija Saariaho
Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho comprises 50% of the female representation on the Collaborations album. Photograph: Publicity image

Composer Hannah Peel tweeted: “Biggest names in modern classical and electronic? Makes me feel a bit sick in 2019” and then listed female artists who were not on the record, including FKA twigs, Gazelle Twin, Poppy Ackroyd, Holly Herndon, Mira Calix (who McGregor has collaborated with) and Anna Meredith.

McGregor said the record was inaccurately promoted by Mercury KX, and that the selection is taken from work he has commissioned over the last 25 years to accompany dance pieces.

“Clearly these are not the most important contemporary and electronic composers in the world. That’s just a ridiculous thing to say,” explained McGregor, who included two tracks each from Max Richter and Jon Hopkins. “When I’m commissioning I’m not just looking at music. I’m thinking about commissioning in context of the whole [dance] piece. In isolation … I realised that in terms of gender parity it is not great and we want to do better with that, definitely,” he said. “I was horrified by how few women we’d commissioned.”

McGregor said that if he were to try to put together a compilation with a 50/50 gender split he’d struggle. “I don’t think I could from work I’ve commissioned,” he said.

Hannah Peel, who has just won an Emmy nomination for her work on Game of Thrones, said that in 2019 there is no excuse for having such a slight representation of female artists. “If you’re a world-renowned contemporary choreographer on the bleeding edge, you should be leading the way on this. There isn’t an excuse.

“I’ve spoken to labels before who have said that they don’t want to put my work out because they’ve already got a woman. You’re instantly put in competition with other female artists for that one spot. There has always been a problem with the labels – it feels like a club and only one woman is allowed in.”

Wayne McGregor: ‘I was horrified by how few women we’d commissioned’
Wayne McGregor: ‘I was horrified by how few women we’d commissioned.’ Photograph: Manuel Harlan

In 2018, research found that only 76 classical concerts among 1,445 performed worldwide included at least one piece by a woman, and at those concerts 3,442 (97.6%) of all performed pieces were written by men and only 82 (2.3%) by women. Analysis from the Guardian in 2017 found that on a single October night over two-thirds of the music acts performing in the UK were all-male, with the pattern continuing for the rest of the year. In the same year the feminist music network female:pressure released research into electronic music festival bookings and found that for the period from 2012 to mid-2017, only 14% of all acts were female, 79% were male, 7% were mixed acts and 1% had unidentified gender.

Eleanor Ward, the executive director of Non Classical, a contemporary classical organisation based in London, said the row over the compilation shows how much work has to be done in the genre. “Classical music is still pale, male and stale – even though there are amazing female performers, composers, conductors and artists out there.”

Ward pointed to the PRS Foundation’s Women Make Music and Keychange programmes and the Oram awards (named after the electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram) as progressive initiatives that have started in recent years.

Frances Morgan, music writer and judge of the Oram awards, which recognise female and non-binary composers and electronic musicians, said she wasn’t surprised at the gender balance of the compilation because of the label’s style.

Ólafur Arnalds, one of the male artists championed by label Mercury KX
Ólafur Arnalds, one of the male artists championed by label Mercury KX. Photograph: Marino Thorlacius

“That label does have a very particular sort of roster which seems to skew towards men, in particular white men, in particular white men of a certain compositional style. That’s that boring post-classical world,” Morgan said.

Morgan said Mercury KX – which has never released an album by a solo female musician, although it has commissioned remixes by women and released a recording by Alice Sara Ott and Ólafur Arnalds – is typical of some monocultural elements of the contemporary classical world.

A spokesperson for Mercury KX said that the “label is actively looking to sign more female artists … [and] has an exciting new signing with a female composer” that it will announce shortly.

“A really good marker of how these things could look are festival line-ups for places like Unsound in Poland, which is like a testing ground for how these things could look,” said Morgan. “They bring together club music, electronica and commissions that are more associated with classical, and those line-ups are looking really diverse at the moment. It’s starting to become the norm.”


Lanre Bakare

The GuardianTramp

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