Natalie Williams: The Hildegard Project

BY DELIA BARTLE

 

Natalie Williams is an award-winning composer whose works have been performed in Europe, Australia and the United States. She is the inaugural recipient of The Hildegard Project, a chamber music initiative launched by Musica Viva this April. The program is named after Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th Century German nun recognised as one of the earliest women composers whose work has survived.

The project was launched with the world premiere of Natalie’s string octet ‘Saudade’, which translates as ‘nostalgia’ (something once loved, but now lost). Commissioned by Linda Matthews and Robin Budden, the work is in honour of their mothers and Natalie uses two string quartets to explore the universal relationship between mother and child.

The Hildegard Project aims to encourage more women to pursue a career in composition by providing them with publicity around performances, and opportunities to connect with Musica Viva’s network of performers, patrons and other composers.

Natalie is a deserving first recipient. Her doctoral dissertation was chosen for the 2012 Omaha Symphony New Music Symposium. She was a joint recipient of the inaugural Schueler Awards for Orchestral Composition, resulting in ‘Whistleblower’, an overture commissioned for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. The work premiered to an audience of 30,000 in 2007. Natalie was also the youngest Australian composer commissioned by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra to compose a Fanfare for their 75th Anniversary Concert in 2003.

Natalie reflects on her life as a composer and shares her thoughts on the role of women in composition.

 

How did you come to start composing? 

My composing life began at a young age (around seven years old) when I commenced piano lessons. Each week, I would create short little pieces to play, often based upon fragments of other music that was in my ears at the time. When I began high school and started playing the viola, I began to notate my small compositions and built up a collection of little pieces. I entered a competition run by the Australian Chamber Orchestra in 1993 and was accepted as a participating composer. From the experience of that workshop, I was hooked and I decided to make classical composition my life.

The idea behind this project is to encourage more female composers in an industry of orchestral music, where women are currently outnumbered three to one. Given your experience in a broad range of industries – such as film, theatre and dance – is there a similar imbalance across all areas? 

I have found that the gender imbalance is common across all compositional genres. The new Hildegard Project announced by Musica Viva will boost the voices of female composers within the concert-music arena, but this will also enable them to branch out into other professional avenues, and seek opportunities in various sectors of the field. With the support of a program such as The Hildegard Project, women will have scores and recordings of high quality that will open other opportunities across the disciplines for their work.

What do you think is the reason behind such a gender imbalance across compositional genres?

This is indeed the million-dollar question. The Society of Music Theory task force has embarked on a research project to try to answer this very topic. A similar situation exists in the conducting world, but no one has really pinpointed why women aren’t entering either field. A 2012 article in The Guardian (UK) addressed the topic, but offered few conclusions.

For my part in the process, I aim to nurture the voices of all whom I teach, and I work especially hard to encourage young female composers to pursue this career if they really feel driven towards the profession. There are many support systems and opportunities for women composers and I have been lucky enough to take advantage of those resources. The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) and the Society for Music Theory’s Committee on the Status of Women are two organisations that offer support, mentorship, networking and competitions for women composers to advance their work.

More recognition for women is being achieved; for example, out of the last six Pulitzer Prize winners in Music, three have been awarded to women, which is highly encouraging.

As a female composer who’s achieved great renown and won numerous awards, what do you feel is required in order to encourage more women to pursue composition as a career? 

I believe that the best source of support for emerging composers, male or female, is access to performance opportunities and promotion of their new works. Partnerships with performers and musical ensembles, combined with promotional support and advancement and exposure of their work, is crucial towards establishing a voice and a presence in the industry. Prizes and competitions are often difficult to place within – or win – so while they definitely help to establish a career, they are not always the best, or most readily available, road to success. There is a mid-level area of support, beyond the university arena and within the professional field, of professional performances and promotion that enable composers to have their voices heard and establish a reputation. It is this middle ground that The Hildegard Project will fill so beautifully and I am excited to see what new works the project generates over the coming years.

In terms of gender imbalance, is there a noticeable difference between the music scene in Australia and the United States? 

In my observation, the situation seems to be global, with no real perceivable difference between locations. What does exist, however, is a strong international network of composers who are deeply passionate about the advancement and success of new music. Without fail, every single one of my male colleagues, teachers, and peers has been unendingly supportive along the journey and they too celebrate the growth and advancement of women in composition, to contribute to the rich tapestry of new music that grows each year.

 

The world premiere of Saudade performed by the Doric String Quartet (UK) and the Pavel Haas Quartet (Czech Republic) was broadcast live on ABC Classic FM. You can hear the broadcast here until Mother’s Day on 10 May.

 

Image supplied. Credit: Megagraphics Photography.

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