Illustration of musicians, intended to accompany a piece on representation in music. Artwork by Rhea Brar.
Artwork by Rhea Brar

Representation in music: attempts to balance the score

Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D, performed in Christ Church Cathedral and conducted by third-year music student Alice Knight on Friday 8th March, marked the end of the RETUNE festival: a collaboration between the Alternative Canon Project (ACP), Oxford University Music Society (OUMS), and the Faculty of Music that aimed to “reflect the diversity of under-represented groups in music, both past and present, including performers, composers/arrangers, teachers, patrons, curators, writes and activists”. Attempts to promote the music of under-represented composers and musicians, who do not feature in the heavily white-male dominated musical canon, should certainly be applauded. However, I feel that there are certain questions that need to be raised in response to this project, and other attempts to balance the music scene and representation in music more widely.

I do not write this article lightly. The debate surrounding representation is a complex topic within music. Inclusivity is massively important to me, and I always advocate for any attempt to promote a greater prominence of different genders, sexualities, identities, cultures, and nationalities within music, as they are vital for progression. Therefore, I hope to raise my questions and critiques sensitively, whilst addressing prominent issues that I feel should be mentioned.

Often playing in difficult venues, such as the Holywell Music Room, the performers were able to express and capture the magic and beauty of the music, transporting audiences to their own individual sound worlds.

The vast majority of the performers were students of the University, except for a few performances that featured the Director of Performance at the Music Faculty, Maria Razumovskaya, and other non-student musicians. This gave multiple chances for students to perform a range of music in world class venues. It provided these young instrumentalists and singers with a voice that was embraced with open arms and gifted to audiences. As a student from a couple of northern state schools, I am well aware of the diabolical place that music tuition finds itself within our current education as a result of massive financial cuts to the arts by the government. It’s therefore a delight to see that music of such quality, by students from a vast array of backgrounds can still be enjoyed before it may eventually disappear from our society.   

Whilst it is undeniable that music has been wrongly centred around the white, Western men of the classical canon, one of the biggest debates within the music scene is how exactly we aim to combat this and try to rewrite our music history. Music has traditionally been viewed as an art form resistant to change and progress, lagging behind literary and art genres as they moved forward. I feel that attempts to turn music into an inclusive platform have reached a point of relative stagnation in our current society: we have achieved one level of inclusivity and become content with it. Instead, we should consistently strive to do better by discussing these issues and working collaboratively to cover and represent as many areas as possible, rather than remaining silent because they may not seem to affect us. 

Female composers are under-represented within the music scene, as is the music of non-Western composers. Their compositions are rarely performed, and the traditional instruments of cultures such as the Tabla, Guzheng, Erhu, and Gendèr are scarcely heard. In contrast, there is no shortage of white, Western and male composers within music as they have dominated the musical scene and the problematic ‘canon’ for centuries. Music by anyone other than these composers was pushed and, to a certain extent, still is being pushed to the sidelines and the periphery of the music scene. I believe that this is still the reality here in the city of Oxford.

As a Music student who performed in the RETUNE festival and has studied these issues as part of my degree, I have to draw attention to certain attempts aimed at addressing these problems. Firstly, I would like to raise my deprecations with the naming of the ACP, which was founded by students at Somerville College to showcase the music of composers and artists from diverse backgrounds.

The solution to an under-representative canon is never an alternative one. This invites a comparison between the new and the old, the ‘canon’ and the alternative.

Despite the positive motives of such a project, the notion of an alternative canon is, in my opinion, deeply problematic. The solution to an under-representative canon is never an alternative one. This invites a comparison between the new and the old, the ‘canon’ and the alternative. This would always be viewed as secondary and inferior to the primary, main canon. It also invites the assumption that specific works and composers would be lumped into the alternative canon as they weren’t good enough or important enough composers to be placed with the white men. This is what an alternative canon creates: more problems than solutions. 

Joni Mitchell described these very problems regarding attempts at creating a new canon of pop music, using the phrase being “lumped in with the women”. This feels like second place, the alternative canon always inferior, and missing out to the ‘main’ canon. Not only this, but in creating an alternative canon it further excludes any composer or work who may not be included in either the ‘main’ canon or the ‘alternative’. 

The term “retune” used for the festival would be a much better name for an overall project that is absolutely needed for the progression of music. It would not have the same negative and problematic associations, and instead would imply a ‘retuning’ or a collection of changes to the current canon rather than the creation of a new one. It would have all the same positive connotations of the current project and leave the problematic ones behind.

I must praise the RETUNE festival for the broad range of composers and repertoire that featured within two weeks of concerts – most of which were free to attend; for example, music from composers such as Mel Bonis, Emily Doolittle and Lili Boulanger were spotlighted by these concerts. Not only this, but music from other cultures were also performed: Hindustani Classical music by Trina Banerjee and Nihal Singh, and Turkish folk music, presented by the Uyumhâne Turkic Music Collective and led by Lizzy Zuhal Gür. However, only these two concerts out of twenty-six events made a real attempt to bring other cultures to the foreground. For a festival that claims to bring under-represented voices to the centre, this is poor. 

This is not representation; instead, when the events of the festival are viewed holistically, these non-Western performances feel like additional events under the label of the RETUNE festival. The extent to which these cultures are being neglected is instead showcased by a festival that claims to voice the underappreciated. By stating this, I am not trying to claim that this non-Western music shouldn’t be performed. On the contrary, the music from different cultures is fascinating, and should be central to a festival with such an ambitious aim. This is perhaps an unachievable goal, as a collection of events like this cannot possibly include everything. Was the intended aim always unattainable and unrealistic from the very beginning? I would argue so as there will always be voices excluded.

There are a number of other possible explanations as to this lack of performances of non-Western music. The British music education scene in schools is centred on Western music, and its respective genres. British musicians do not have the opportunities to learn the instruments of, or hear the music of other cultures. I make no secret of the fact that the vast majority of performers were trained in a classical background, which is perhaps a contributing factor to the lack of diversity within these events. 

Furthermore, the musicians within the University who are more likely to be able to contribute music from other cultures would be international students. However, the University of Oxford doesn’t have a supply of these instruments from other cultures to loan to students. An institution such as this, with the funding that it has, should invest in a wider array of instruments which would help to balance the score. 

I cannot fault the sheer number of under-represented voices within the Western classical tradition, such as female composers, that were presented through the festival.

With this being said, the Music Faculty do own a massive Javenese Gamelan which was not utilised, much to my disappointment. This was a missed opportunity to bring the unique and distinctive sonic colour of the Gamelan and their different traditions to a wider audience. I cannot fault the sheer number of under-represented voices within the Western classical tradition, such as female composers, that were presented through the festival. I would, however, have liked to see a greater display of different, non-Western cultures foregrounded across these two weeks of events.

Shifting the focus to the music within specific concerts also proves largely significant within the sphere of representation. The first evening performance of the festival, somewhat problematically named “Small but Mighty”, shows another level on which the festival falls short. The naming of other performances, such as “And You Sing What I Sang From a Full Heart With No Display of Art” and “Off the Beaten Track” were also problematic, but I shall focus on one example to be concise. 

Returning to “Small but Mighty”, the programme included works by Schumann, Telemann, Elizabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, George Enescu, Emilia Giuliani-Guglielmi, Boulanger, Dvorak, Britten, and Beethoven. The majority of this particular concert presented music by composers of the traditional, male dominated Western canon.

The programme was not gender balanced, nor were under-performed works by these Western giants performed: Frauenliebe und Leben is one of Schumann’s most famous works, and Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas, in particular the ‘Spring Sonata’, form part of the standard concert repertoire for violinists. One cannot claim that this work is under-represented within the concert scene, not only around Oxford but also across the global Western classical performance traditions. Britten was a queer composer; however, both myself and many musicologists would argue that he features as part of the Western canon. This is especially the case when he is viewed in comparison to his English contemporaries who were designated the rather unflattering and derogatory term “cowpat” composers. 

While Frauenliebe was a domestic work, to describe it as feminine is perhaps an exaggeration and neglects the fact that the entire narrative is controlled by the male poet and male composer.

The description of this concert, provided on the Faculty of Music’s website states: “this recital unveils how some of the most unassuming music relegated to the feminine and domestic sphere might be more than it seems”. I question whether Beethoven’s music is feminine. There have been whole discussions within musicology that have designated Beethoven’s music as masculine due to his handling of harmony and other compositional techniques, especially in comparison to others. Although the creative decision to split the songs of Frauenliebe between two singers didn’t quite work for my traditional tastes, it was beautifully performed by Kira Lee, Anna Kotilaine, and accompanied by Maria Razumovskaya.

The text and meaning of the poems were convincingly captured by the singers and Schumann’s largely restrained and gorgeous melodies rang out around the Holywell Music Room. The poetry of Chamisso and Schumann’s setting of the text, produces a song cycle with a decidedly male perspective on a woman’s life. While Frauenliebe was a domestic work, to describe it as feminine is perhaps an exaggeration and neglects the fact that the entire narrative is controlled by the male poet and male composer. Other concerts were similar in the fact that the under-represented voices remained exactly that: they were dominated by the presence of the Western canonical composers.

I have always supported the gender balancing of programmes. For certain genres of music, such as choral repertoire, this is easier than others. In choral music, there are so many more works by female composers readily available and easily accessible. However, I do not think gender balancing goes far enough to shift the focus away from the music of white men. If we ever managed to reach a point where gender equality and balance within music representation existed, then gender balanced programmes would maintain this and help music from slipping back to what it previously was. On its own however, it does not actively promote the music of under-represented composers. As a result, other strategies are needed to help change the current music scene. 

I believe we need to change music from the earliest opportunity with the education of music in schools. Take for example the BBC’s Ten Pieces, a scheme created by Katy Jones aimed at introducing children to classical music. This project is an excellent idea; however, the ten pieces are massively dominated by dead white men. This creates an inherent sense of hierarchy that works in tangent with the Western canon. 

Music has stagnated, and we are not doing enough. More is needed in order to shift the prominence of gender, and other cultures within the Western dominated scene.

If the Ten Pieces were a more diverse and inclusive collection from across music, then this could be more successful. Why not have another list where the music of different cultures is also taught within our schools? Or, even better, why not integrate these different cultures within the lists of the Ten Pieces to create a more balanced and equal teaching syllabus for music in schools? This would help to get people talking about these issues, a much needed step towards musical diversity and inclusivity. We will not achieve a representative music scene until these discussions and debates are commonplace, both within and outside of education.   

The RETUNE festival is a starting point. For music to progress further, we have to start somewhere, and why not let it be with an event like this one. RETUNE deserves to be praised for what it has achieved, but questions also need to be asked as to how realistic it was in the first place, and how successful it has been at increasing representation. These are fundamentally my biggest criticisms of the project. It set out an unattainable goal, one which it inevitably failed to achieve. It should not have claimed to “reflect the diversity of under-represented groups in music” and then neglected so many of these. 

Music has stagnated, and we are not doing enough. More is needed in order to shift the prominence of gender, and other cultures within the Western dominated scene. We should not just become satisfied with the current level of representation and we should praise any attempt to tip the balance towards a more equal and inclusive music culture. No events or festivals aimed to tackle this will ever be one-hundred percent successful: there will always be voices that are excluded. What is needed are open minds, and a spark or an idea to try to change and balance the score.