Thursday 14 November 2019

Radio: A woman's place is on the airwaves

Chanteuse: Catatonia frontwoman Cerys Matthews
Chanteuse: Catatonia frontwoman Cerys Matthews

Eilis O'Hanlon

For International Women's Day - which is today - BBC Radio 3 is devoting almost the day's entire schedule to exploring the work of female composers and performers.

To mark the occasion in advance, last Monday, Woman's Hour on Radio 4 broadcast an item on the neglect that women have suffered in classical music. It was an interesting piece, which included an old clip of English composer Rebecca Clarke, then in her 80s, recalling how, when she first began writing, newspapers speculated that she "literally didn't exist", and that her music was so good it must have been the work of a man.

What was striking, though, was that this segment was only five minutes long, which was less than the time given to former Catatonia frontwoman Cerys Matthews on Weekend Woman's Hour to discuss her favourite female singer-songwriters. The daily Woman's Hour is 45 minutes long. That makes 225 minutes a week. So the slot on a thousand-plus years of overlooked, underrated female composers was given 2pc of the weekly airtime, an infinitesimal fraction of the space given by Woman's Hour to other subjects in any given year.

Such tokenism is part of the problem. Rather like feminists demanding that more attention be paid to women's sport, even though they're not willing to give it their own attention, it's hard not to conclude that it would be better for women themselves to actually listen to, and talk about, the work of female composers, rather than demanding in some abstract way that it ought to be done.

Radio 3's commitment is, at least, an example of what public service broadcasting is meant to be about. With such a tiny audience, it's possible to take more risks. Composer of the Week for the last seven days was the little-known - and, as presenter Donald McLeod pointed out on Monday, splendidly named - Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, the 17th-Century protege of King Louis XIV.

More significantly still, the coming Composer Of The Week will feature five contemporary female composers under the age of 35. It's a pity that lyric fm doesn't do more of this sort of thing, rather than playing it safe along Classic FM lines. There's no point in a licence fee-funded service that simply does the same as a raft of other commercial channels.

In fairness to lyric, it does broadcast the achingly eclectic Blue Of The Night each evening around the midnight hour, as well as Nova on Sundays, a show whose selection of electronic and experimental music makes for some thrillingly unexpected listening.

This week's line-up, fittingly enough, even featured an excerpt from Belfast-born Ian Wilson's music for Una Santa Oscura, a modern theatrical re-imagining of the life of 12th-Century female composer Hildegard of Bingen; as well as another piece of chopped-up sound collage created by the author of an essay entitled Plunderphonics, Or Audio Piracy As A Compositional Prerogative. It was an awful racket, since you ask, but it's the thought that counts.

Sunday Independent

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