Life evolves, attitudes change and each new generation pushes the boundaries set by the generation before in the hope of a better, more accepting world. In 1918 women got their vote, the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 saw homosexuality legalised and in 2010 the Equality Act legally protected people from discrimination in the workplace based on their sex, sexual orientation, race or religion.
Sadly, we all know we're not finished yet. But how as musicians can we be the change we wish to see and break down old traditions that hinder progress being made?
This fortnight, I have had the privilege to speak to the founder of an ensemble that is doing just that. Her Ensemble is the first womxn string ensemble, challenging the concept of the traditional classical music concert, throwing out the female dress codes and bringing into the limelight, works by womxn who have spent too long hidden in the shadows of a dusty archive.
Ellie Consta, thank you so much for joining me.
What was the inspiration behind creating this ensemble?
I think it all really started with lockdown. Lockdown has exposed so many things for me, not just the opportunity to reflect on what areas of music I’m really passionate about – chamber music, but also the way society is run and what role I want to play in it. Recently I read the shocking statistic that last year only 3.6% of the classical music pieces performed worldwide were written by womxn. Before now, I had never questioned this side of classical music and I think it’s something that although we’re talking about it more, we’re not talking about it enough.
It then seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine my love for chamber music with something that is progressive and that I feel strongly about. To me that’s job satisfaction. Something that’s not competitive, something that is instead, collaborative with womxn, uniting and supporting each other and ultimately, just sharing good music. The group is built up of players from the UK and former members of the European Union Youth Orchestra so we're used to sharing incredible music together.
I wanted to use Her Ensemble as a chance to steer away from this elitism that is sadly a stereotype of classical music. The audience demographic is predominantly white and over 60. We want to bring music to a wider audience, who might not have had the privilege to experience classical music before. Music is for everyone and yet it’s not accessible to everyone.
This ties in with the aesthetic of the group, we all wear suits. It’s a statement, putting ourselves in a man’s shoes, because as well as being quite elitist, classical music is also quite sexist. An example of this would be our orchestral concert dress. We have a dress code for men and for women. This is annoying for two reasons; firstly, it’s different – why? Secondly, it completely disregards the existence of gender fluid people. What do you do if you’re non-binary, what do you wear? I don’t know! Her Ensemble is trying to do something that’s fresh, new and quite exciting! Society is filled with these absurd ‘one size’ templates that we have to fit into. Everyone being so shocked that Harry Styles was on the cover of Vogue in a dress – it’s just a piece of material.
Typically, how would you describe the music Her Ensemble performs? Being a group that is built on inclusivity, does this have an impact on your choice of repertoire?
We don’t want the group to be stuck in a box, all music is for everyone. The whole point is breaking down these rules and labels that we have in music. So instead of focusing on one or two specific genres we adapt to the projects we have, often collaborating with friends who are choreographers or singer songwriters. We’re even going as far as to change the way we layout our concerts. We want to chat to the audience between shorter 5-minute pieces. We want our gigs to have a relaxed feel with drinks (we actually have a female brewer in mind, although it seems funny to have to specify her gender), more like the vibe you would experience at a pop gig rather than a stereotypical classical concert where there are all these rules, often unwritten. For example, if you clap between a movement you’re often tutted at and I could just imagine someone being totally put off if they’re looked down upon for just enjoying and showing their appreciation, you just wouldn’t come back!
We want our repertoire to reflect our inclusivity, absolutely! At first, it’s hard to know where to find pieces written by womxn but I went looking on the Oxford Music Online. It has hundreds and hundreds of womxn composers dating as far back as 450BC who I had never heard about. So, we’re basically making our way through this list. Incidentally, someone asked me a couple of days ago whether we would ever play a piece by a man, for example, Brahms. It’s not that we wouldn’t perform Brahms, it’s literally just that we’ve discovered hundreds of these female-identifying composers and we want showcase these works. It’s not because we hate music written by men, we already know there is incredible music written by men but music written by womxn just hasn’t had the same limelight that it should have. I’ve often heard people say, “there’s just not as much music written by women” or “it’s just not as good”, but that’s simply not the case. Many female composers were overshadowed by their male counterparts (often brothers and husbands) and didn’t receive the same support. In many cases they were trying to balance the familial roles placed on them by society causing them to write less on an individual basis. But if we look at female compositions as a whole and look at the quality of those works, we see those arguments just don’t stand!
As the first womxn string orchestra, do you think the classical music world can do more to be inclusive to transgender and gender fluid composers and musicians?
We need to showcase these composers more. Composers who are often overlooked within society and the music industry. Nobody thinks twice when they programme a classical music concert and all of the composers are male, it’s just taken for granted. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I don’t want to be singling out already marginalised people but I guess it still needs to be highlighted. Trans and non-binary people are left out of conversation a lot of the time. This links back to dress codes. No one has thought about them when they decided what we wear. Should we highlight the fact that we’re all women, female identifying or non-binary because should gender matter? I think it does because historically it has mattered. Womxn were non-existent from most orchestras until the 1960’s. The Vienna Philharmonic only gained its first female member in 2003.
I’ve noticed, your newsfeed doesn’t just promote Her Ensemble, you’re also working hard to promote womxn composers, interesting articles on classical music and the gender gap and your fellow musicians.
I guess the point really isn’t about being the best. I really like the idea of it being a collaborative support network. The classical music industry is just so competitive, from the journey through music college to auditions, there’s a competitiveness instilled in us, which isn’t really what music is about, it should be more about sharing and enjoying music together whilst portraying the musical intention of the work, rather than our egos. We recently posted a clip of Nadia Boulanger saying in 1973, “the greatest objective is when the composer disappears, the performer disappears only the work… stands by themselves.” It’s not about your ego or your gender etc. It’s more about the point of everything being focused towards the music.
In terms of inclusivity, I think in order to have the progression we want to see, it’s really important that we don’t just politely laugh and pretend something hasn’t been said. I’ve learnt that by being passive or a ‘people pleaser’, we’re actually not being passive at all – we’re actually playing a role in or contributing to the undermining of the change we want to make. If I’ve learnt anything from this year, it’s that we need to speak up for those whose voices aren’t being listened to.
This month you joined Pixie Lott, End Youth Homelessness and the Body Shop, in a performance raising awareness about UK female homelessness. Aside from this important cause, do you have any other exciting projects in the pipeline you can share with us?
The Pixie Lott project really helped with our desire to reach a whole new audience; people reached out to us saying they’d never heard a string orchestra before so that’s something we’re keen to build on. As I said earlier about not being stuck in a box, we’re in discussions with a choreographer and film composer for some future projects. Being such a new ensemble, there are quite a lot of ideas we’re to plan and explore. But I’m really enjoying the collaborative atmosphere within the ensemble. What started off as one idea I had, has grown and developed into a group venture.
We’re all taking on different aspects of the admin, brainstorming together as a group and working as a team which I love. As womxn, we are often compared and being pitted against each other, but Her Ensemble is about womxn coming together against the gender gap and sharing some really cool music instead of striving to be the most this or that. It’s the most fundamental part of our ethos. Collaboration and supportiveness.
We can make a difference and we can do it in a really beautiful way. Art is after all the most beautiful form of protest.
I don't know about you but I feel utterly inspired by this interview! If you want to keep up to date with Her Ensemble please give them a follow on their Instagram or Facebook, their website will be up in the coming months so stay tuned!
Until next time,