‘When We Speak’ + Words on gender

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before” – Leonard Bernstein

A few months ago I had the pleasure of accepting a commission from my wonderful friend, the talented composer Samantha Wolf. Sam was putting together a concert of new music from Australian female composers for International Women’s Day 2016, titled, This Will Be Our Reply. I thought it might be nice to jot down a few notes about the process and my considerations from start to finish – perhaps a helpful read for those just starting out or as something to browse as you listen. To watch the video of the performance, please scroll down a little further.

The brief was that the composition could be acoustic or electroacoustic, and could utilise any combination of the Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano. The work should also relate or respond in some way to a theme or issue related to International Women’s Day.  All funds raised from the concert were donated to the Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre.

I’m going to take a little detour here. Undoubtably a wonderful opportunity and occasion, I was both excited and conflicted about partaking in an all female-composer-lineup concert. Conflicted? This might surprise a few people, for those that know me well are probably well aware that I’m deeply passionate and outspoken about the career experiences of women in composition in general.

[A little context of why those who know me might be surprised: I did my Masters research on the career experiences of early career female composers in Australia, mediate social media groups dedicated to women in composition and seem to get asked about this topic fairly often in interviews].

As a ‘female composer’ with an interest in feminist scholarship, the idea of participating in an all-female composers’ concert shouldn’t bother me, right? Well, to tell you the truth, it does and it doesn’t – and here’s why. Without question, every composer wishes to be judged on her/his merit alone. No onecomposer wants anything but their music to be the drawcard to a concert. But to achieve this, we must first seek gender parity for women (and other minority) composers, rather than assume we’re all working within an even playing field to begin.

In my fairly young career I’ve spoken with female composers who choose to embrace their ‘other’ status by working with the gendered label of ‘female composer’. Many composers, such myself, consciously embrace the label as a term of empowerment that celebrates a unique status and elevates the discussion and promotion of women’s music. I’ve also met those who choose to ignore the label all together in the hope that refusing to entertain discussion surrounding gender will make their ‘other’ status eventually disappear. Each path is valid and necessary. However, no matter which way you turn, there are positive and negative ramifications to consider and as such, I often find myself existing in a unique, conflicted space.

The generation before my own fought hard to pave the way for so many opportunities and norms that I often take for granted. Interestingly, I’ve spoken to many emerging/established women in the field and have felt a general sense of uneasiness about bringing ‘gender’ in to conversations about our composition careers. We’re damned if we do and damned if don’t – so frankly, I’m opting for ‘damned if I do’ and I know that I’m in fabulous company. However, there are few things I feel you should know about those who choose to embrace a label that many in the field/society already want to pin on you.

Just because I’m cool with talking about my experiences as a female composer does not mean I like it. The truth is that I detest the existence of this label. However, I never want to let its associated feelings of isolation negatively impact any young composer as it did on me in my early years. I refer quite frequently to my ‘light bulb’ moment in the second year of my composition study at the Queensland Conservatorium. This was the moment (that I’ll never forget) when I realised I couldn’t name one single living female composer outside of my composition class colleagues (many of whom seemed to be slowly transferring to other education majors. And just for the record, I could list you 50 amazing composers just off the top of my head now, but that’s after a long period of actively seeking them out!). Horrific, right?!

As you might expect, I began to question everything. Who was I? In what context was I working? Why didn’t I have any female role models? Was this some sort of proof that women couldn’t compose? If that was true, what the hell was I going to do with my life? Was this why I’d felt so self-conscious in composition class? Was this why I felt I had so much to prove to my colleagues, teachers and myself? And was this why, at 19, I had so much self-doubt and creative anxiety?

These were amazing questions to start me on journey of self-discovery and feminist scholarship. To skip to the point: this is why concerts of exclusively women’s music are still needed and are still valid (as much as I wish they weren’t). There’s an overwhelming body of music that deserves to brought to the forefront and championed, and these types of concerts are a way of doing that. But can they bring about permanent change?


At the age of 29, each day I hold, examine and navigate the unification of myself (human, Lisa), my compositional voice (musical language) and this third realm/label of ‘female composer’ that seems to saunter along beside me; haunting biographical introductions and descriptions of my music. I recently received an email from a young female composer asking questions for a high school assignment. The first question was: “Do you think there is sexual bias in the composing industry? As in, do males have more chance in being successful purely because of their sex?”. It broke my heart. I answered her as honestly as I could, attempted to explain some of the complexities behind answering her question and sent her a big list of names of composers/articles I thought she should explore of the past and present of women in composition. Sometimes, it becomes too easy to dismiss how uncertain and lonely it can be to navigate these spaces, especially as you get older and more experienced. But I believe young woman emerging in to a male-dominated field (and even some more established women) continue to need strong access to roles models, exposure to music of other women, access to research and support. Not all women will need to use these things, but they should exist regardless.

It is my belief that we need to continue contributing to discussion on all areas of diversity in music. In particular, composers of all genders/identities should be speaking out about the ways in which patriarchal structures are often deeply ingrained into the ways important opportunities are distributed, works are programmed/broadcast/researched, and how composers are promoted, championed and supported by various parties. In addition to this, we need work for gender parity and diversity in our concert programs – we can do better than 25 per cent of all works in a concert, or training programs by women. We must continue to combine both of these techniques to raise discussion and to eventually bring about a new norm. A norm that is one of equality in performance and opportunity, and in turn provides an abundance of kick-ass role models to inspire and support.

To those who choose to reject the validity of identifying as a ‘female composer’ – that’s cool, it’s totally your choice. There are pros and there are cons – but I plead with you not to shy away from this discussion for fear of being labelled. I implore you not to let subtle discrimination or sexist comments go unchallenged. I like to think that I proudly wear the label of ‘female composer’ to advance the role and place of this discussion. However, it’s good to remember that sometimes I too want to shout from the rooftops: “I never ever wanted to have anything to do with labels in the first place!”.

Back to the music! I decided that I would write a work for solo cello and electroacoustic track – both instruments that I had been itching to get stuck in to for quite a while. I’d recently been listening a lot of music by one of my favourite musical influences, Kaija Saariaho. With the whole loaded conversation about women in music forefront in my mind, I committed myself to compose a 12 minute electroacoustic track entirely out of Saariaho’s own voice and her solo cello composition Sept Papillons (one of my favourites) carving space for the live cello to interact, emerge and solo. I thoroughly enjoyed weaving Saariaho’s literal and musical voice in to the fabric of the work. The audio came from an interview on a Meet the Composer podcast and the recording of Sept Papillon from the amazing Gemma Tomlinson herself.

As I began a lightning fast period of collaboration and consultation with my most talented and driven cellist, Gemma Tomlinson, it became clear that the concept of female voices was integral to the work’s core. The pitch language was informed by Saariaho’s own voice (beautiful cello range!) and the sound world of Sept Papillon. When We Speak navigates intimate relationships between the following key elements and structures:

  1. The live cellist.
  2. The pre-recorded electroacoustic track made in Logic, featuring:  A. Sampled/manipulated speech from Kaija Saariaho’s interview. B. A sampled/manipulated recording of Gemma Tomlinson performing Saariaho’s Sept Papillons for solo cello.
  3. The cellist’s singing voice.
  4. My own musical language/compositional voice.

This most challenging and rewarding part of the composition process was the exploration of the relationships between all these conflicting elements. The score was a mix of detailed notation, graphic notation and semi-improvised passages. The performer uses her iPhone to sync her cues with time points. The workshop process was highly collaborative as Gemma and I weaved our way through Saariaho’s post-spectral language/sound world to find gestures and timbres that both complemented and contrasted the electroacoustic track. One of the highlights was in our second workshop when Gemma told me she had always wanted to sing and play at the same time. Although it was a little late in the process to utilise this technique to the full, I absolutely adore the two moments (ca. 5’20 & 10’40)  where Gemma’s voice emerges from the soundscape textures  – rotating vowel positions to create harmonic effects/drones.

I considered how audible and foregrounded I wanted the spoken Saariaho interview to be; carefully, mixing and overlaying her messages of advice for young composers with separate messages of inequality for women in general. I held on to the symmetry of her words fighting for unity in message- a metaphor for my own practise as Lisa the woman, Lisa the composer and Lisa the ‘female composer’. I decided that this was the most wonderful and safe environment to deliver a piece that demanded the listeners attention both musically and socially. Would I have been brave enough to write a piece calling out inequality in an average concert, outside the all women lineup? I like to think I would…But the fact that I even had to ask myself that question is quite interesting to me, indeed.

Matthew Lorenzon from Partial Durations had this to say in his review:

“…Lisa Cheney brought us the voice of a woman, indeed, one of the greatest living woman composers. Cheney’s When We Speak combines live and prerecorded cello with a manipulated recording of an interview with Kaija Saariaho. While Saariaho’s voice is usually manipulated for its sonic value, moments of Saariaho’s reflections on gender politics in the music industry are clear. Cheney’s resonant electronics part is an atmosphere of unfathomable spaciousness. Clouds of voice fragments swirl around the space along with clouds of her solo cello composition Sept Papillons. In the middle of this environment the cellist Gemma Tomlinson struggles to be heard, playing strings of extended techniques with her characteristic commitment and control. At times the live cello becomes one with the prerecorded track or has a fleeting solo moment. This piece could be heard as a solo woman struggling to be heard in the male-dominated music scene, except all of the samples are of women and the piece is composed by a woman. It could also be heard as a woman engaging or even struggling with the history of women composers and the weight of Saariaho’s legacy. The piece ends with one solution, in Saariaho’s voice: “Create something personal because that’s the only thing that counts.”

This was an outstanding concert (I know that sounds biased).  I walked out of the venue feeling energised and in awe of the works written by my amazing female colleagues Jessica Wells, Alice Humphries, May Lyon and Samantha Wolf. Everyone responded to the brief in diverse and impacting ways and I felt so proud to have been involved in: raising money for domestic violence, proud of the amazing music being made by women, proud of my collaboration with Gemma and and the successful integration of my voice in to a work centred around giving voice. My thanks to Sam Wolf for having me on board and to Gemma Tomlinson for her fearless commitment to the music – barely dry on the page at the time of premiere. Lastly, here’s a the program note to wrap up my ramblings much more neatly!

Program Note:

When We Speak for solo cello and electroacoustic track seeks to comment on broader issues surrounding gender inequality and these considerations on my compositional practice. Throughout the work the interweaving of many ‘voices’ is present in: my own musical language, the music and speech of respected Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho, the expression of the live cellist and her own literal voice. This, at times semi-improvised cello part, weaves its way through an atmospheric soundscape derived from a recent interview with Saariaho. The accompanying recorded musical sounds are extracted from Saariaho’s own compositions, with special weight placed upon manipulated excerpts from Gemma Tomlinson’s own performance of Sept Papillons.


Update 09/05/16 – CutCommon Magazine published an excerpt of this blog on their website on 07/04/16, in an article titled ‘Living the label of a ‘female’ composer’.

One thought on “‘When We Speak’ + Words on gender

  1. David Cheney says:

    Hi, Lisa.

    I have taken the liberty of sending your blog to several members of the family and to the female president of our Rotary Club. Your thoughts on “feminism” are the best expression and explanation of the subject that I have read.

    Many thanks and congratulations. Keep up the good work.


    David (Cheney).

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