Elizabeth Younan: National Women Composers’ Development Program

Interview series with Sydney Con's women composers



Four emerging composers at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music have been selected for the first National Women Composers’ Development Program.

Through the two-year program, the students are undertaking workshops with leading Australian women in music such as Anne Boyd and Maria Grenfell, and will have their works performed by groups including the Goldner String Quartet, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

Traditionally, it seems female composers are under-represented in composition. For instance, women only make up 26 per cent of the Australian Music Centre’s represented artists, and 44 per cent of the undergrad students at the Sydney Con. So to celebrate this new program for women in music, we interview the four composers involved.


About Elizabeth Younan, NWCDP participant: Elizabeth completed her Bachelor of Music (Composition) with First Class Honours at the Sydney Con last year. She received the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence in her Honours year and the Jean Bogan Youth Prize for Piano Composition in 2014. Her winning work Persian Preludes saw its premiere by Michael Kieran Harvey. The same year, her composition skills were rewarded with the Ignaz Friedman Memorial Prize. 


How did you first get into composing and how would you describe your sound, style or compositional philosophy?

At age 14, I discovered the music of Beethoven and became completely enamoured with it, even though I didn’t really understand it. I just knew that I wanted to try to recreate those amazing feelings that I had from listening to Beethoven, somehow. But I definitely wouldn’t say my music sounds anything like Beethoven, though! I’m not sure how I would describe my own sound, but I just try to write things that excite me, and hopefully excite others, too. My compositional philosophy is based upon notions of organicism, motivic economy, and structural integrity.

Who are your top five all time favourite composers, and who is your biggest influence?

In no particular order, they would be Shostakovich, Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Bartok, and they all equally influence me. They each have different ways of treating their musical material that communicates a stimulating musical trajectory and a sense of forward drive.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a composer in Australia, and how do you approach these challenges?

I’ve been very privileged and lucky in my upbringing. I haven’t faced any challenges as a composer in Australia. I’ve been able to study at the Con with fantastic mentors, and have been fortunate to receive many opportunities, both compositionally and academically. I guess the type of challenges I’ve experienced in general concern all composers, like the challenges of always striving to improve.

You are one of four people enrolled in a post-graduate degree in composition specifically designed to give female composers further opportunities. Why do you think this is important?

Initially, I was conflicted about the program because I didn’t want to be labelled – I just wanted my music to be celebrated based on its merit alone. But I soon realised that this somewhat ignores a much more complicated social, historical, and cultural issue that needs to be addressed. This degree is incredibly important – it not only promotes and liberates the music of female composers, but most importantly, it sparks the conversation.

But that being said, I not only look forward to the time when the label of ‘other’ disappears, but to when such a celebration isn’t needed as a separate entity but as a norm that is intrinsically integrated throughout society.

You are reaching the end of your first semester now. Can you give us a bit of information about this National Women Composers’ Development Program and the projects you’ve been working on?

This is a Research Masters program, which means that we have to complete a thesis as well as a composition portfolio. We’ve been given fantastic opportunities to work with musicians. I’ve just finished a marimba solo for Claire Edwardes, and am about to start working on a piece for the Goldner String Quartet – all brilliant opportunities which carry a great deal of responsibility!

This year, I’ve been very fortunate to write an electroacoustic work, Gestures, for musicians Brad and Sam Gill, who commissioned the work as part of their Sideband concert series. I’ve also been very lucky to write for Musica Viva Australia’s inaugural Future Makers, the Arcadia Quintet, who will be playing my work Shoreditch Grind in the BBC Proms Australia Chamber Music series in April.

Why do you feel there is an imbalance in regards to gender in composition, and how do you feel that a program, such as this, contributes to addressing this imbalance?

This is a very interesting question. There’s obviously no single reason for this imbalance, and of course, we have to acknowledge the trailblazers of previous generations who have made this conversation possible. But this question brings to mind current social events like the Australian of the Year awards, issues around women’s role in society, and equal access for women in all industries. Composition, like many other industries, is often a reflection of society and societal values – we’re slowly noticing more women being a part of composition among many other industries, and this degree, along with Musica Viva Australia’s Hildegard Project celebrates, encourages, and promotes that.


For more about the National Women Composers’ Development Program, visit the website here.


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