This paper, adapted from a seminar paper given at the Africa Open Institute for Music Innovation and Research in 2019, examines the circumstances out of which the Women in Music website, emerged.
I have worked in new music composition, first as a student, then professionally, for over 20 years. These years have been good ones, particularly the last 12 since leaving academia, but have also revealed the insidious and deep patriarchal structures in music in South Africa.These structures are deeply racist too. I cannot speak of this from personal experience, of course, but am very aware of how my experiences and those of my black colleagues intersect.
Over the past 12 years I have built a considerable reputation as a new music composer. I have developed strong relationships with performers all over the world and had my works performed in London, Arhus, New York, Paris, Birmingham, Sydney, Vienna, Boston, L.A., Chicago. I have given lectures and masterclasses at prestigious conservatoires, my works are now often used in audition lists at conservatoires; British libraries house my saxophone works. My collaborative work also expanded as I worked with award-winning fine artists and in collaborative theatre spaces.For more information, see
In South Africa, I enjoyed some success (remembering that the field of new music in South Africa is very small), particularly with a cluster of excellent local performers. But, as my reputation grew, I became aware of the increasing struggle to be taken seriously, manifesting in countless small ways, some big ways.
I was granted only one commission request in 5 years from a major commissioning body. I would occasionally get unrequested commissions for short solo or small ensemble pieces involving no more than three instruments, from the major commissioning bodies, usually for competitions or Gala Evenings when a “representative programme” was required. Could women really be trusted with larger works? the commissions seemed to suggest.
Frequently my works were programmed in concerts of light-hearted music, as though there might be some kind of danger in taking my work too seriously. When I encountered male colleagues, the conversation would always begin with the colleague beating his chest about the work he’d been doing, his achievements, his mastery of composition. Young male colleagues, 20 to 30 years my junior, would give unsolicited advice on career movement, perhaps a change of composition style was in order, they would suggest.
During lectures, male colleagues would often either engage with me to demonstrate their mastery, or simply ignore me altogether. I sat in meetings of male colleagues and listened in astonishment to openly sexist commentary, openly sexist jokes. My revulsion was noted, and ignored.
Being ignored became so common I stopped noticing.
I started encountering other women like me, highly educated women of a similar age who also worked outside the protection of institutions. They talked of how the professional institutions simply did not engage with them as beings with intellectual capacity and a capacity to contribute to their professional worlds. My black female friends talked about being trotted out for photo ops, or invited to give key note addresses at conferences to which no one would listen. They’d be invited to sit on panels and not asked one question. They’d be flown economy class while their male colleagues were flown business class, and similarly accommodated. They would be talked over at dinner tables, called “cheeky” if they expressed an unpopular opinion in a meeting. If they managed to fight their way into a discussion, they were simply ignored. Men would interrupt them, talk over them, tell them “time was up”, and often proceed to make the very same point themselves, to applause.
We wrestled with these issues. We talked about them, shed tears, wondered at our behaviour, if we had perhaps contributed to it. We held ourselves responsible. Every now and then we held someone else responsible, in which case we had to shout, over and over again, to be heard. Masters theses were written about the difficulties faced by women in music performance in South Africa, telling shocking stories of pay discrepancies, exploitation, objectification, sexual assault. We were told we were difficult, demanding, unreasonable. But look at your achievements!, we were told. Look at how much you have been given already!
A woman conductor, for example, started an all-woman big band to give young women players a space to play in the deeply patriarchal world of jazz, and this band was given a slot at the Cape Town Jazz festival. The conductor posted in frustration on Facebook about how a review of this band commented only on what the performers wore. Nothing else was remarked on in the review. This was bad enough. To add insult to injury, a male jazz colleague commented in the post: “I understand your annoyance regarding journalistic ineptitude. However, surely the thing to focus on here is that you got to play at the Jazz Festival at all? Many of the more talented musicians in the city do not get this opportunity. So, my 10c here is to be happy about a great, high profile gig, and ignore the journos”.
Refraining from responding, the conductor commented: “If I had commented with what you just said I would probably be dismissed as another angry feminist. Which I am I guess. Or dismissed for being emotional“.
When did I start to notice that I was being systematically sidelined and ignored, that these were not isolated incidents but a regular and ongoing experience, part of a broader pattern? The tipping point was when a woman saxophonist I worked with in the UK came out to South Africa for a tour. We had worked closely on a concert in the UK and, along with a clarinettist, put together a project that was premiered in South Africa and toured for three weeks.
The saxophonist expressed shock and disbelief at how I was treated, even in the context of her own struggles as a woman saxophonist in the UK. She noted many examples in her visit to South Africa of how I was being ignored, sidelined in conversations, not being engaged with. She described it as systemic sexism. I was stunned, partly that it was happening, but mostly that I had not been aware of it happening.
I was also stunned when I went to the UK and discovered what it felt like to be taken seriously. Men didn’t beat their chests when they met me or when I met male composer colleagues for coffee. I was asked seriously about my work, they didn’t mansplain, they never advised. They drove across the country to attend my concerts; they talked to me about my work as a highly intelligent professional worthy of respect. They took me very seriously and I was astonished. I had never experienced this before and barely knew how to respond.
When I returned to South Africa, I had a good long hard look at the field here and started to get very angry indeed. I realised that I and my similarly-positioned woman friends stand at the gates of male privilege and resources. We have studied, learnt, thought, and are very competent. We have been keynote speakers, received glowing reviews in the international press, been invited to share our expertise all over the world. We have tried again and again to be heard in our home country, tried new angles, new platforms, new spaces, and have made a little progress.
Many male colleagues, often less accomplished than we are, make significant progress. One male music colleague posts, for example, derogatory comments on public platforms about how women should not be in his composition field, that it is not a suitable vocation for women. There is a little flurry of outrage, but nothing happens and nothing actually changes. These men remain inside the gates, inviting other men in. Accomplished women are only invited in as an accompaniment to the men, temporarily, for we must then leave again.
And we are tired. No, we haven’t applied for all the funding, come up with the fabulous new ideas, motivated for independent spaces, chased down every possibility. Because every note or word we write carries the huge burden of a fight: the fight to ignore the male braying, dick-waving and humiliations, wrestling with where we might have gone wrong. The fight through the sexist jokes, being ignored, being shut down. The fight not to listen to the voices that say women can’t do this, women aren’t supposed to do this, women can start doing this when they’re young but can’t continue into unattractive middle age. Pretty, young, compliant women can be accommodated. Older women with lines on their faces, padding on their hips and the authority of achievement are too jagged, too confident. It’s much better to shut them out, ignoring them, not hearing them, keeping them in the middle-stage holding pattern, leaving the big men to get on with the real work.
Middle-aged women realise there is a huge appeal to taking on the silence created by being ignored. There is immense comfort in retreating to the silence and peace of a battle not fought. Once a certain level of accomplishment has been achieved, work will continue to come and perhaps it is easier to fly overseas to be taken seriously? Perhaps it is better to accept that we have to go abroad to where men talk to you with respect and genuine interest? Perhaps a 10 hour flight is not such a great price to pay for being regarded as a seriously accomplished composer rather than as lucky to be getting any attention at all. Because it is wonderful that overseas discussions are about your work, rather than about how you should be handling yourself differently. Perhaps, we think, home is where we retreat into silence. Because if you don’t take on the silence, if you take on every action that seeks to push you aside, if you are constantly engaged with the wolves at the gate, you will probably never write another note or another word.
Susie Orbach, best known for her book Fat is a Feminist Issue, writes about passivity: “Surely activity is more pleasurable and rewarding than passivity? Not necessarily. For a variety of reasons, passivity has become the psychological result of the internalisation of the messages about self- identity. It happens rather like this: a pattern has become established in which a person’s original initiatives were disregarded; this happens to all of us some of the time without being troublesome, but the continual thwarting, misreading and ridiculing of initiative creates a sense inside a person that what they produce, that what emanates from them, is somehow not quite right. They may present themselves and their desires differently and, if they are still not heard or seen, they may get angry, they may withdraw, they may comply and look as though they are not in trouble; they will have absorbed the message that it is better not to show”. Orbach, S. 1999. ‘Finding Emotional Literacy’. Virago Press. pp16.
The sexism and violence towards women in this country permeates every aspect of life. I have led a relatively contained life but have been a victim of violence. Friends have been raped, beaten, and are almost routinely humiliated. The tiny pockets of immense privilege may protect a few lovely young women for a short while, but the reality of the outside world is beating at the windows. This violence is not only physical; it manifests in a thousand ways. As women age, they continue to be treated like mature students. As they develop more confidence, more courage to act on toxic male behaviour and patriarchal structure, they are ignored, their uncooperative behaviour complained about. They are excluded, shut out, or kept just above entry level where they cannot command respect or enjoy authority. They are patronised, mansplained. Men who publicly humiliate and degrade women and women composers are not called to account. And so every note women write or play is an immense struggle – even a saxophone cannot be heard through the cacophony of male voices that dominate their professional lives. We should never fool ourselves into thinking that ignoring a woman shouting to be heard, or ignoring her revulsion at your sexist comment, is not an act of violence on her. For what is the purpose of violence if it is not to silence.
All this made me very angry, very depressed, and increasingly determined to make a change. I decided that rather than retreat to those spaces where I am taken seriously, I wanted to create a space where South African women’s voices could be heard, to kick that glass ceiling a little higher so that younger women don’t smash into it quite so soon in their careers. I realised this would never happen in the existing institutions – their very structures facilitate the silencing of dissenting voices but needed to be outside and beyond.
So I set about a slow gathering of women, forming first a Women’s Music Collective. At first, this took the shape of a private Facebook group, where women could meet to share experiences good and bad, vent, rage, publicise, network and find help. The collective focused on women music practitioners – composers and performers – who do not have the structures or protection (such as it is) of institutions, who are the most vulnerable to disrespect and abuse. For a while, this Facebook page played its role, but it needed to be extended.
And so the idea for the website was born. I sourced funding and set about building a website that, unlike many websites of South African composers, is not curated. Any South African woman composer or performer who has been active in the last few years will be included: any music genre; any instrument or stage of career; any age, colour, height, size, political inclination or network. This is a website for women to be seen, a resource for local and overseas people to find women musicians. It is a space for our voices, our bodies, our music.
|1.||These structures are deeply racist too. I cannot speak of this from personal experience, of course, but am very aware of how my experiences and those of my black colleagues intersect.|
|2.||For more information, see|
|3.||Orbach, S. 1999. ‘Finding Emotional Literacy’. Virago Press. pp16.|