‘We have proved we are trailblazers’ – inspiring women of Edinburgh International Festival share hopes for classical music

20 August 2021, 09:49

From left: Anna Clyne, Ayanna Witter-Johnson and Errollyn Wallen
From left: Anna Clyne, Ayanna Witter-Johnson and Errollyn Wallen. Picture: Courtesy of Jennifer Taylor, Bumi Thomas and Edinburgh International Festival

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The bright and brilliant women composers at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival speak to Classic FM about how musicians can rebuild their lives after the pandemic, and their hopes for women music-makers of the future.

Every year, some of the world’s finest performers from opera, classical music, dance and theatre, flock to the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) for three weeks of glorious music and performance.

And as Classic FM partners with the EIF to present online highlights from their classical music offering, we shine the spotlight on three of the festival’s star composers, Errollyn Wallen, Anna Clyne and Ayanna Witter-Johnson, who tell Classic FM about why we all need music in our lives – and what performers desperately need in order to keep making it.

‘Music is what links humans to their humanity’

“Music is what links humans most deeply to their humanity,” says Wallen, a Belize-born and London-bred composer now living in a lighthouse in the Scottish Highlands, who at the EIF is reimagining one of the English language’s most famous operatic works, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

Read more: Errollyn Wallen – ‘Christmas carols are about singing together, and community’

While increasingly in-demand as a composer, Wallen took time during lockdown to take a bigger-picture look at life as it is for musicians in the modern day. “Personally, I was hugely busy in lockdown and was reflecting on how important the relationship is between musicians and their audiences,” she says. “Imagination is needed by not only musicians but also promoters, venues and commissioners.”

Mighty River by Errollyn Wallen | New Music Biennial 2017 | Oxford Contemporary Music OCM

‘We need to continue to import and export our cultural stories’

Clyne, a Grammy-nominated, London-born composer, now lives in New York City composing acoustic and electro-acoustic music. She has written music for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Chicago Symphony and L’Orchestre national d’Île-de-France, and is described by the New York Times as a “composer of uncommon gifts”.

“Music is absolutely essential,” she harmonises with Wallen. “It has the ability to lift the spirits, and to provide comfort and hope during difficult times.”

Witter-Johnson, a London-born composer, virtuoso cellist and singer, will make her debut at the EIF with Chineke! Orchestra, Europe’s first majority Black and ethnically diverse ensemble, who will feature at Classic FM Live in September. For her, music is essential to our lives because it allows us to “celebrate together, dance together, cry together and embrace the fundamental truth that we really are one global family”.

Music, without musicians, simply does not exist. The past few years have brought up immense challenges for the UK’s musicians, from navigating the realities of Brexit, to having all concert bookings snatched away for the best part of a year and a half.

To recover in a post-Covid world, musicians above all else “need freedom to travel and do what they do,” Clyne says.

Witter-Johnson adds that musicians and composers desperately need “safe spaces where audiences can gather and appreciate live music”. Secondly, she says: “We need to keep our ability to travel easily from country to country open so that we can continue to import and export our cultural stories.”

It was reported this month that following years of cuts to local and central government funding, A level music in schools is falling at such a rapid rate that it could ‘disappear’ altogether in little more than a decade.

The reports prompted outrage from the music industry, including Witter-Johnson, who says investment in music education is crucial if we want “our rich legacy of music and music makers in the UK [to] continue to flourish”.

Read more: ‘Musicians are abandoning the industry for a stabler career’

Anna Clyne: DANCE, I. when you’re broken open

‘We have proved that we are trailblazers’

Life for women in classical music is improving, albeit more slowly than one might hope. In 2019, there were thirteen women in the top 50 contemporary composers in Bachtrack’s annual classical music statistics report – a rise from seven, in 2016.

“We have proved that we are trailblazers in all areas of music,” says Wallen. “We have led the way in discovering more about the achievements of women of the past and supporting women of the future.”

Clyne says she feels hope for women in music because of seeing “more representation of women in programming in more prominent contexts”, which “suggests a positive trend and hope for more diversity moving forward”.

For Witter-Johnson, it’s seeing “fantastic initiatives like PRS KeyChange that push for greater representation of women and gender minorities in all aspects of the music industry”, that gives her hope.

“In general,” she adds, there is “a greater awareness of diversity in sex and race in orchestral player representation, as well as a push for a better balance of representation in radio play and concert programming. PRS’s ‘Power Up’ initiative is also a fantastic way of levelling the playing field for female musicians of colour.”

Head to Classic FM’s Facebook Page on 21 and 30 August to watch beautiful performances of works by Saint-Saëns, Mozart, Ravel, de Falla and Lorca.