in conversation with Elizabeth de Brito from The Daffodil Perspective

What have you been listening to over the past months?
Are there new sounds, ideas, artists and programs that you have come across in this time?

One program I came across in some of my searches for new sounds was The Daffodil Perspective, “the 1st ever gender balanced radio show”, based in London, United Kingdom. This ‘revolutionary’ new radio show is “rewriting classical music history with a more accurate and gender balanced account“. With Elizabeth de Brito as it’s founder and host, The Daffodil Perspective showing how women fit into our current version of classical music history and takes the listener on an exploration through the stories of these women, their music and monumental achievements. At least 50 percent of each episode features women composers.

In this edition of Women Write Now, we had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth, and diving in deeper into what makes The Daffodil Perspective a pioneering radio show in the championing gender equality in classical music.

Phoebe from Women of Noise: Welcome to Women Write Now, Elizabeth! Would you mind telling us a bit about yourself and your background to get us started?

Elizabeth de Brito from The Daffodil Perspective: I’m British, from Hertfordshire, studied piano and clarinet, former member of the National Children’s Wind Orchestra and National Youth Wind Ensemble and studied at Junior Guildhall. I’m from an ‘ordinary’, working class background, state school educated, mixed cultural background, so even though I adored playing, I found the world stuffy, snobby and a bit excluding, surrounded by many private school, wealthy, privileged children. I was always the only person who wasn’t white and I was only taught music by white men so never really felt like I fit in, like there was no space for me. I left the classical music world at 18 for those and other reasons, I spent all my 20s searching for my passion, doing various different things, exploring many other music genres and finding a love for radio. My personal taste in music is about as diverse as you can get, I listen to everything that’s created across the globe and across every conceivable genre. I’ve produced and presented various eclectic music radio shows over the years, particularly folk, world music and jazz shows.  Then I was nearly 31, and I became aware of female composers, black composers and black female composers and suddenly classical music was fascinating, much more interesting than I grew up thinking. So I stopped searching because I found my purpose in life. Now I produce the 1st ever gender balanced radio show The Daffodil Perspective voluntarily while working an admin day job to survive.

Phoebe: In classical music the ‘canon’ has seen a shocking underrepresentation of women composers and musicians, and yet the musical output by women was voluminous, although steeped in the shadows. Are there ways that we can rethink and rebuild the canon so that it embraces ‘inclusivity’?

Elizabeth: Well, first of all we need to think about what we mean by inclusivity. Inclusivity is not a concert of all female composers then twenty concerts of dead, white men. Inclusivity is also not a token woman or a female composed piece as the starter 5 minute piece on the programme. Inclusivity is including women on most, if not every programme, inclusivity is featuring music by all genders consistently on recordings, radio shows, even silly games like Quarantine House.

We do have more female composers being performed and recorded but so much is exclusionary. So often they are billed as women composers, and just one token programme. This segregation of women just excludes them more. It doesn’t help people understand how they fit into the canon that we know, doesn’t give people the opportunity to embrace a greater knowledge of the real history of classical music and it doesn’t encourage us to see women composers as anything more than a token sensation instead of something normal.
This segregation is creating a split music history with men on one side and women on the other. Only when we stop separating them can we rebuild the canon and embrace a more gender balanced industry. 

Much of the information lies with the dead white males we seem to worship. So much research exists on Haydn, well Haydn dedicated several pieces to composers Maria Theresia von Paradis and Marianne Auenbrugger. Rethinking the canon will partly involve taking the ‘male-lens’ off the ‘great composers’ and look at all the women they mention, dedicatees of their work, students, friends, wives and teachers. Mozart and Haydn actually spent most of their lives in the company of numerous immensely brilliant female composers yet somehow no mainstream classical institution ever mentions them, funny that. 

We also need to think about the language we use when talking about historical female composers. So often the words ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ are used, like it’s an unfortunate turn of events that led to us not knowing these women and their astonishing accomplishments, it wasn’t. We must take collective responsibility, as an industry, for the consistent and
systematic sexism and racism we’ve inflicted for the past millennium, which has resulted in the current canon.

The words lost and forgotten also perpetuate the dangerous lie that the reason these women aren’t known and performed now is because their music wasn’t good enough to be remembered all this time.

It’s important when studying and talking about these marginalised composers that we understand the societal structures and external forces at play during their lives, not just analysing their work in absolute terms but in the context of their lives and the sexism and politics surrounding them as well as these women’s achievements.

The ‘Sicilienne’ is one of Maria Theresia von Paradis most widely known works and is performed on a variety of instruments.

Phoebe: Do you think that the music industry, particular classical, has an ethical and creative responsibility to communicate local and global issues and correct injustices?

Elizabeth: Absolutely, music, and art in general, has always been about communicating issues and fighting injustice, from protest songs to Live Aid. The classical music industry successfully obliterated all women from the canon. Well now it needs to own up and and correct this injustice. What are we teaching 50% of the population by excluding them? What are we saying to women when we don’t programme them, what are we teaching young girls when we don’t include women in books on composers. How can we expect them to care about music when the music industry does not care about them? And what are we saying to men and the next generation of young boys? That sexism is okay? it’s okay to degrade and denigrate women, it’s acceptable to be chauvinistic and misogynistic? That we allow these qualities to thrive? 

You cannot be what you can’t see. As far as I can tell the only people who completely disagree with this statement are people who always see themselves. Not only that but correcting injustice will save our own hides. This obsession with only playing music by dead male composers is a large reason behind the destruction of the industry. Ticket sales are constantly decreasing, there is an ageing population with approximately 50% of the audience over 40 and almost exclusively white. Classical music is constantly branded as music of the past. To remain relevant in the 21st century we cannot rely on music from the 18th. Imagine what could be achieved if the whole population saw themselves represented on stage instead of the fraction at the moment. How many new audience members could we get if we created programmes actually relevant to all of us? Hold up mirrors to the whole of our wonderful technicolor world, not just the monochromatic version we currently see.

Phoebe: What does the statement ‘masterpieces are not made, they are heard and programmed into being so’ mean to you? Do you think that as female-prominent and gender-balanced events and projects that also address past inequalities become increasingly prominent that the ‘canon’ will start to shift to a greater and more diverse representation of voices? 

Elizabeth: The so-called masterpieces we all know are most of the time only thought of as such because they are so oft programmed. I would even say sometimes certain pieces are obsessively shoved down our throats constantly at the expense of everything else. Often they’re not as masterful as we are led to believe, the more we explore a more diverse repertoire the more obvious it becomes that many of these ‘masterpieces’ were not in fact that great, even at the time of writing. If Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 was performed and recorded as much as Beethoven’s 5th over the past 150 years there is no doubt that it would be considered a masterpiece. 

Take contemporaries Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and Dame Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994). There have been 400 performances of Britten at the Proms, of 109 different pieces. On the other hand Dame Elizabeth Maconchy’s music has had 21 performances at the Proms, of 19 pieces. 17 pieces were programmed once, 2 were programmed twice. That’s 5% the number Britten was played. It’s mostly certainly not because Britten is that much of a better composer. Maconchy has been called the greatest composer for strings (she is) but Maconchy’s music cannot be judged fairly because its barely been heard. 

I hope the canon will start to shift but it’s not simply about performing more women. It’s also about addressing the reasons why they are so underperformed, acknowledging that these women should have been much better known. It’s about taking the white male fragile ego out of the equation. I constantly hear people on social media asking ‘How have I never heard this before?’ when talking about music by women. We need to answer this question and change this fictional history we’ve created.

Too often I see token women on programmes, until we start regularly having two or more female composers on programmes will there be more than an incremental change. The emphasis needs to be on creating more gender balanced programmes instead of female only programmes.

Dame Elizabeth Maconchy– a remarkable composer of music for strings.

Phoebe: You are the host to The Daffodil Perspective, a radio show which is “rewriting classical music history with a more accurate and gender balanced account”. Considering your aims, how does the show seek to “rewrite the past”, “support the present” and “inspire the future”? 

Every week I explore the life and work of one female composer, putting her into musical and historical context with other composers creating at the time. This way I rewrite the past by showing the huge amount of music written by women throughout history, their various contributions to the music industry and showing how their lives envelope the current white
male dominated narrative that’s been concocted.

I support the present by playing many contemporary composers, at least ⅓ of the show is dedicated to living composers, showing classical music as a living breathing genre. I celebrate all the performers and organisations that I consider allies in creating gender balance and in addition I feature new releases on every show.

I hope to inspire the future by making a space for everyone to see themselves in classical music. The classical music industry continues to be overwhelmingly white male dominated yet classical music is created by people of all skin colours and all genders. 

© Image by The Daffodil Perspective/Elizabeth de Brito

Phoebe: What was the impetus for creating The Daffodil Perspective

Elizabeth: I went to Women of the World final concert in 2018 and heard the Overture to En Voyage by Elisabeth Lutyens, the first piece I ever heard by a historical female composer. I was completely mind blown, I never though there were any women composers, certainly not any good ones and immediately went searching for more. So I went down the rabbit hole, found the hundreds and hundreds of brilliant composers, so many awesome pieces that I’d never heard of and were not being performed or taught. I was so infuriated, livid that I’ve never heard of any of these remarkable women. I knew I had to do something about it and knew I had to champion them somehow. I had a background in community radio, had a passion for it and thought this was the best way to make a stand, to create a gender balanced show, to create an inclusive space. I’m a firm believer in actions not words and being the change you wish to see in the world. Creating a gender balanced show demonstrates how much music
by women there is, how easy it is to be inclusive and how much fun classical music can be.

Phoebe: What are your considerations when structuring your weekly shows? What sort of research goes into finding gender-balanced content? 

Elizabeth: Well like I mentioned I always have a composer of the week in my segment Herstory Rewritten plus I showcase new releases, cool albums and contemporary music. I like each show to be as varied as possible, in terms of era and instrumentation and country. I tend to structure my shows similarly to concerts, so I’ll start with a short opener piece, have some big chunky pieces in the middle and finish with a short flashy piece. I do mix it up though. I always play 14 pieces on the show so I countdown it, two from the top, rest from the bottom – mostly shortish pieces with a couple of meatier works in the middle. I also try and include a symphony or concerto by a woman each week. There is so much talk about how women didn’t and don’t write major orchestral pieces so I like showing that they do.

One thing I do consider as well is the balance between the old classics and the unfamiliar. Most of these women are not well known so I try to feature at least two of the most famous white male composers on each show. And of course as a gender balanced show I have to make sure I’m playing equal numbers of men and women. The only gender balanced content I search for is albums, and organisations that promote gender balance. I only showcase albums that feature women as more than one third of composers and one third airtime. The closer to 50/50 the better. I do not showcase any tokenistic albums. I include 2 or more Black or minority ethnic composers on every show.

See the 2019 statistics here: The 1st Gender Balanced Classical Music Radio Show– 1 Year, 42 Shows, How did it go?
See the 2020 statistics here.

Phoebe: You are currently covering the A-Z names of composers in your radio show. What have been some highlights and challenges of finding composers and works to air?

Elizabeth: First of all I’m covering just the A-Z of contemporary composers. The main challenge is too many awesome composers and works to choose from! Last week I had to choose between Gabriela Lena FrankJacqueline Fontyn and Elena Firsova… such a difficult decision. Also realising how few contemporary male composers I know in comparison, spend so much time researching women I need to balance it out. There are too many highlights to mention. I’ve been thrilled to showcase music by record label Drama Musica who are putting out great albums of music by women, led by the incredible soprano Gabriella di Laccio. Her Big List of women composers is an amazing resource. I also was pleased to do a residency with Illuminate Women’s Music, a fantastic organisation run by composer Angela Slater promoting music by women, giving concerts around the UK. I featured many of their live performances on the show which was really good fun. 

Phoebe: The term ‘gender-balanced’ and ‘gender equality’ can often be focus on gender binaries. Does your show also represent gender diverse individuals?

Elizabeth: Honestly I’ve been so focused on championing women I haven’t represented any non binary or gender non-conforming composers yet (that I know of). So far I’ve programmed one trans composer. I featured the great Wendy Carlos as composer of the week last year. It’s been a long journey and 18 months in the show is still developing constantly. Featuring gender diverse individuals is something on my mind and I’m looking to start playing some gender diverse composers soon and regularly.

Wendy Carlos is an American musician and composer best known for her electronic music and film scores. You may be familiar with her iconic scores from TRON (1982) and The Shining (1980).

Phoebe: How has the overall reception of The Daffodil Perspective been? What sort of feedback do you receive from listeners?

Elizabeth: The overall reception I would say has been really positive. Listeners are really excited by the gender balanced mix, the many new discoveries and the unearthed stories behind the canon. Not only that but many of the other people championing women appreciate the show and message behind it. I’ve also heard from several contemporary female composers with messages of appreciation, often it’s led to several lovely collaborations and friendships.

Phoebe: What are some other projects in The Daffodil Perspective that audiences can engage with and support? 

Elizabeth: I’ve started a Patreon page where audiences can enjoy a monthly pint of knowledge. For £5, the price of a pint patrons get access to show transcripts, a monthly curated playlist and monthly new release round-up.

My spreadsheet listing all 2019 recordings of women composers is a also great resource. More than 100 brilliant albums of historical and living female composers by outstanding musicians.

There’s also my spreadsheet listing all 2020 recordings of women composers so far, that’s always getting updated.

© Image by The Daffodil Perspective/Elizabeth de Brito

Phoebe: Looking into the future, what can audiences look forward to seeing and hearing from The Daffodil Perspective

Elizabeth: It’s Isabella Leonarda’s 400th birthday this year and Henriette Bosman’s 125th so I’ll be celebrating them as composers of the week later in the year. Plus I’m looking forward to taking a break from focusing on one composer I’ll be exploring a few periods where the musical scene was much more gender equal than we realised. These include the court of Anna Amalia and birth of Weimar Classicism, the Royal College of Music gang of 1920’s/1930’s London and late 19th century Paris.  Lots of exciting things in the works which I’m keeping under wraps for now but I will continue championing gender equality and inclusivity you can be sure.

 Isabella Leonarda was an Italian composer from Novara, Italy. Leonarda is most renowned for the numerous compositions that she created during her time at the the Collegio di Sant’Orsola, an Ursuline convent.

For more on Elizabeth and The Daffodil Perspective see her websiteFacebook PageTwitter and MixCloudAre you an ensemble or organisation looking to program more women? Elizabeth offers bespoke consulting services for organisations and ensembles looking to diversify their programs and create more gender balance. Contact her on her website hereListen to the latest show here.

Don’t forget to ‘follow’ Women Write Now to be the first to read about creative women and non-binaries around the world.  Twice a month we’ll be in conversation creatives across the globe, and taking a deeper look into their perspectives and the work they are doing in their communities and beyond.

Are you a ‘Woman of Noise?‘ We are welcome to suggestions for who you might like to see featured in Women Write Now interviews. This could be you, someone you know, an artist you admire, anyone! Drop us a line and we’ll be in touch!

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