Why mentoring matters: Liza Lim on the new wave of Composing Women

Tuesday, 23 Jan 2018

Composer Liza Lim (photo by Klaus Rudolf)

Why does mentoring matter? It's a question worth exploring as application deadlines are closing for our mentoring opportunities for female songwriters and composers and programs get underway, including Sydney Conservatorium's Composing Women program which recently named its four participants for 2018-19.

Congratulations to these composers:

Art Music Award-winning composer, Art Music Fund recipient, and professor Liza Lim leads the innovative program and in the following Q & A, she discusses the benefits of mentoring, creative risk-taking, and the future of female composers.  

Q: Briefly, what does the Composing Women development program entail?

LIZA: This is the second iteration of a two-year specialist training program for four composers, originally called the National Women Composers Development program that was initiated in 2016 by Sydney Conservatorium’s Matthew Hindson. For 2018 I’ve put together a program of projects with American flautist Claire Chase, the Sydney Symphony, and Sydney Chamber Opera in association with NIDA and Carriageworks. Other partnerships will come into play next year. I’m also delighted that APRA AMCOS, the AMC, ABC Classic FM and Musica Viva are our mentoring partners for a range of music industry business skills.

Q: What makes it a unique opportunity in the composing community, particularly for post-grads? What is its point of difference?

LIZA: I can’t think of another postgraduate program like this internationally in which there is this depth of engagement with such a wonderful range of professional artists and organisations over two years. I think it’s a dream program.

Q: What stood out to you about the composers selected for the 2018-19 program?

LIZA: The four composers come from quite different musical backgrounds and all have something unique and strong to say. Bree van Reyk is a highly established percussionist and drummer who has toured and recorded extensively with people like Paul Kelly and Katie Noonan as well as working with the ACO and Ensemble Offspring and making her own projects. Peggy Polias has also put out a couple of albums and was awarded the Peter Sculthorpe Fellowship in 2015. Georgia Scott is a recent graduate of the Royal College of Music in the UK and her most recent work is a ballet score called ‘The Undercurrent’. Josephine Macken is a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium and recently spent time on exchange at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music where her string quartet 'Laceration I: Lung and Bone' was played by the MIVOS Quartet.

Q: What are your key responsibilities as a mentor?

I’ve set up the program to provide opportunities for each composer to hone their craft in a highly professional and collaborative environment in which they can take artistic risks. As well as one-to-one supervision sessions, there are many seminars covering topics from instrumental technique to dramaturgy in opera as well as business skills. One of the things I’m interested in as a teacher is ‘muse-mentoring’ (a concept described by Huddersfield University's Dr. Elizabeth Dobson) – a form of peer exchange and collaborative learning in which the members of a group develop knowledge and skills by taking creative risks with ideas and imagining what they have not done before. I’m hoping to learn as much from this as any of the other composers.

Q: What are the advantages of a formalised mentoring program such as Composing Women? Do you think meaningful mentoring is something that can happen on a more casual basis as well? Is there a difference?

A formalised program is a gift of time and focused attention – I think all artists need that in some form in order to develop a strong foundation that will carry them forward in their work. One-off lessons/mentoring can also be great as a way to gain inspiration and widen the scope of your influences and knowledge but I think a more sustained program, whether in the form of a course or private lessons, is invaluable.

Q: In your own career, have you benefitted from having a mentor? If so, can you share a bit about how it helped you? And from that relationship, what will you incorporate into your own role as mentor?

The most important of my early mentors was my high school music teacher, Rosalind McMillan (PLC, Melbourne). She encouraged me to compose for fellow students, explore new notations and techniques with the school orchestra and choir, and introduced me to composers such as Berio, Penderecki, John Cage and Yoko Ono, all of whom were hugely formative for me.

In my own composition teaching I also encourage collaborative projects with performers and introduce students to as wide a range of styles and techniques as possible. I prioritise very recent music so that they can see that their own work in composition is part of a current and ongoing artistic conversation that is part of a large and living community.

Q: Lastly…why is the future exciting for female composers?

This is a really interesting time for women in music. Last year’s reports from APRA AMCOS, authored by Catherine Strong, and from Sydney University’s business school highlighted the ways in which the music industry has not provided equal opportunities for women, whether in terms of participation, pay, leadership roles or safe spaces. I feel it’s the first time in the 30 years I’ve been a practicing artist that there’s greater traction in addressing these problems whether through quotas or other programs. Composing Women is part of Sydney Conservatorium’s efforts to put in place systemic reform around gender inequality and to stem the high attrition rates where women who study music don’t continue into the profession. I think there’s a stronger sense of possibility, of responsibility and commitment to ensure that women have more opportunities to thrive as composers and I hope that this will also increase the societal, cultural and economic valuation of their work. The future’s exciting but I don’t think we can be at all complacent.

Please note: Applications closed 2 February 2018 for the following mentoring opportunities. Good luck to all the applicants.

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