Rethinking the canon

Music by women composers represent only a small part of the Western canon, in spite of important contributions which date back to at least the Middle Ages. A new project by UBC faculty and alumni is helping to change that.

By Graham MacDonald


UBC School of Music's Dr. Laurel Parsons (MA’91, PhD’03) and Dr. Brenda Ravenscroft (PhD’93) of McGill University are the editors of Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers, a four-volume series of essays devoted to the study of music written by women composers. The first volume, which features essays on concert music composed between 1960 and 2000, recently won the Society for Music Theory’s 2018 award for Outstanding Multi-Author Publication. With the release of the second volume fast approaching, we sat down with Parsons to discuss the project.

Laurel, how did the project come about?

I did my dissertation on the music of Elisabeth Lutyens, who was a British composer. I started reading about how influential she was on British music of the time, but I couldn’t find anything more specific about how she was influential. I decided I would explore her music for my dissertation. At the same time, I started noticing how few papers there were on music by women. After tracking this for many years, it became clear to me that we had to do something to improve the representation of composers who were women in our discipline.

When complete, there will be four volumes of essays on approximately 35 composers from the middle ages, with Hildegard of Bingen, up to 2014. The four volumes will be mostly 20th and 21st century music, but the volume that we have coming up will be music from the middle ages to 1900. Our final volume will be electro acoustic, experimental, and multimedia music.


In the first volume you write that, between 1994 and 2013, only 23 out of 1524 papers published in eight peer-reviewed journals were about music composed by women. How did you interpret these numbers?

We weren’t surprised at all because we’ve been tracking them informally for years. This confirmed what we already knew. Although it’s rather stark when you start looking at numbers like this – even 23 seemed like more than we expected.


Can you talk about what your experience was like as a music student and, what kinds of music tend to make up the classical canon?

Dr. Brenda Ravenscroft, left, and Dr. Laurel Parsons, right

Dr. Brenda Ravenscroft, left, and Dr. Laurel Parsons, right

There’s so much wonderful music that you learn as a student and there’s so much wonderful music that you learn in university. Not to take anything away from that, but once you start looking for music by women, or people who are not white men, in particular because classical music is such a Eurocentric discipline, it really becomes shocking to see how narrow that representation of composers really is. It wasn’t that women weren’t composing; there is a long history of women composing from the Middle Ages until now. But they definitely were composing less frequently than men because they didn’t have the same opportunities.


Each essay begins with a biography of the composer. How important is biography to this project, and what role does it play in how we listen to this music?

Many people have not heard of these composers, so it was necessary to provide a little bit of background on who these women were. The more we did this, the more we have seen how extraordinary these women were, and are. For example, when we go through music school, we’re often taught about Clara [Schumann, nee] Wieck as a young woman having this domineering father — Friedrich Wieck — and the influence he had on her relationship with Robert Schumann. But we never hear about her mother. In reading Nancy Reich’s book on legendary concert pianist and composer Clara Schumann, we learned that Clara’s mother had briefly performed as a concert pianist. After the birth of her fifth child, she took Clara and the baby and left what may have been an abusive marriage, but Friedrich forcibly retrieved the children and raised them himself. So Clara’s mother had been an extraordinary musician in her own right, but it’s a remarkable part of the story that we never hear. We also want to highlight these women independently of their husbands, or their brothers. It’s often the way we hear about these women. 


Is the balance of representation changing in music scholarship?

It is changing a little bit, but it is still slow to change. So we would like to move it along. What we’re hoping with this project is that it provides ideas for music theory instructors in university music programs to come up with their own lesson plans based on these chapters, so they can incorporate them into their classes. And we hope that radio broadcasters might use this as a sourcebook of ideas for programming and giving them ideas about what they might say about the work that they’re broadcasting.


What is the impact that you hope for this project?
We see ourselves as contributing to a larger movement. There are many people involved in the cycle that is musical activity. You have teachers, you have students, you have performers, you have broadcasters, you have listeners. There are lots of places you can enter that cycle. So as music theorists, this is what we can do. We hope to inspire more activity and it’s great to see some of that happening. There are websites now, for example, where theory instructors who want to incorporate music by women into their courses can find score examples of various compositional techniques. It’s exciting to see those online resources happening, and it’s exciting to see concerts of music by women.

We began this project as a kind of compensatory analysis, trying to rectify an imbalance.  Through this we’ve learned about so many composers we had never heard of,  and we’ve heard so much music that we didn’t know was out there. It’s been tremendously exciting for us to hear this fresh repertoire that we feel anybody can to enjoy,  and we should be hearing this music, not in order to create some political balance, because it’s really good music! It’s an exciting venture of discovery, not just political duty.  We want to share that with our readers and with anyone who’s interested in discovering what they’ve been missing.

Watch out Dr. Parsons and Prof. Ravenscroft on the next episode of On That Note, the School of Music podcast, out later this month.

The Conservatory and the Future: Lessons from the Past, Lessons from the Present

Note: The Shanghai Conservatory of Music was founded in 1927. On November 27, 2017, the Conservatory hosted an International Forum for Directors of Music Institutions, as part of its 90th anniversary celebrations. Directors and other representatives from major conservatories and universities in Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Tokyo, Taipei, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Auckland, Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, London, Paris, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Vienna, and Minsk, gathered together for a lively international dialogue on advanced training in music performance, and a gala concert that showcased the wonderful artistry of the conservatory’s faculty and students. The text below was presented as my contribution to the dialogue. I welcome your comments and responses (!

Photo courtesy of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, November 2017

Photo courtesy of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, November 2017

By Dr. Richard Kurth
Director, UBC School of Music


Dear President Lin Zaiyong, esteemed colleagues here at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and from institutions around the world: I am delighted and honoured to participate with you in this memorable anniversary celebration, and I thank you all for your contributions to our stimulating time together. Above all, I congratulate the Shanghai Conservatory of Music on the many impressive and inspiring achievements of its first 90 years, which attest to the abundant energy and talent of its leaders, faculty members, and students!

My remarks today address the Role of Professional Music Institutions in Contemporary Society. My subtitle, in seeking “lessons from the past,” and “lessons from the present,” considers how conservatories have reacted to historical change in ways that inadvertently limit our current and future vitality. Although I will critique certain practices that impede our energies, I also affirm that we are all introducing innovations into our teaching and artistic practice to address these problems and vitalize our work. 

My aim today is to encourage our efforts in refreshing our pedagogies, by reminding us that some problematic practices have deep roots that are still reinforced every day.  The more clearly we can perceive ingrained habits, the sooner we can liberate our work from their negative impacts.

Let us first consider the global establishment of music conservatories, mainly from about 1870 to 1950, which aimed to preserve privileged modes of music creation that had flourished in golden periods of artistic cultivation. Conservatories were established precisely because the conditions for artistic activity were changing rapidly — with waning and waxing political and economic forces, redistribution of wealth, and large-scale migration into modern cities. The use of pastoral folk music elements in 19th-century art music was not only a means of building national identity, but also a strategy of assimilation related to changing dynamics of urban musical activity.  With migration into the cities, a burgeoning everyday musical life also grew from folkloric traditions, featuring music that was accessible in idiom and content, was heard in everyday performance venues, and was later widely circulated through recording and broadcast technologies. Indeed, these technologies were quickly emerging when the Shanghai Conservatory of Music was founded in 1927, one hundred years after the death of Beethoven. 

Recording and distribution technologies have chiefly amplified the pervasive impact of popular music forms. Conservatories have adjusted slowly and incrementally to technological change, while the popular music industry embraces a constant flow of new production and competitive change, with new styles and idioms replacing old ones, often along with the application of new technologies. To survive in this competitive environment, art music has also adopted recording and distribution technologies, with many positive outcomes, but also some negative impacts on performers, audiences, and training. 

In fact, it is interesting to note that our traditional performance pedagogies are also a kind of proto-recording practice, in the sense that (and to the degree that) they still emphasize imitation and reiteration. Although conservatories now take steps to engage diverse musical idioms, we still devote most of our energy to the standard repertoire. And our pedagogy is still based mainly on constant practice and repetition, which risk an emphasis on echoing and reiteration, and reduce the likelihood of creative re-discovery. Practice is essential, of course, but practice techniques must maximize efficacy and liberate creativity, building reliability without dulling the imagination.

The technologies of recording worsen our addiction to repetition and imitation, by surrounding us with copies.  The ubiquity of edited recordings forces performers to focus on technical precision and consistency in order to match the recorded standard in a live performance. But repetition is dulling our capacity for discovery, and even understanding. Familiarity and repetition are the deadliest foes, lurking everywhere in our deeply-ingrained routines, especially in practice rooms. The risk is that performances become reiterations, to be compared with other reiterations — a circular process of making copies from copies.

Instruments and singing are very, very difficult to master, and we must meet that challenge.  But artworks are deeply complex and can only be grasped if approached from many angles. If we believe in the works in the legacy, we must always rediscover each one through changing perspectives, and adjust our learning processes so that each encounter and performance makes the musical work unfold with vivid presence, as though emerging for the first time.  Every student and teacher must guard against the unnoticed habits of repetition, by finding ways to make daily work more spontaneous, but still informed by understanding and taste.

Photo courtesy of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, November 2017

Photo courtesy of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, November 2017

How can we change our training methods to break the pernicious cycle of repetition, but still sustain the repertoire as a living legacy? I believe we can profit greatly by rethinking aspects of our lessons and performance training, to change the energy, character, and purpose of daily work.

The individual lesson is both sacrosanct and necessary, but the advantages of one-to-one mentorship come with drawbacks and complications that are familiar to every student and teacher. In addition to the complex interpersonal dynamics, emphasis on individual training reinforces ideas about career development and professional identity that isolate the individual, rather than cultivate an ethos of collaborative music making. The individual lesson will remain essential, but should play a less dominant role, and be complemented by numerous opportunities for active collaborative learning and peer mentoring. 

Until students acquire a toolbox of targeted and efficient practicing techniques, unsupervised practising can simply reinforce unwanted habits. A new daily regimen that includes guided group practice, sight-reading, and coaching could help steer students clear of pitfalls, and would foster peer-mentoring, collaboration, and more rapid acquisition of confidence. Team-sports training can provide models for new approaches to skills acquisition in group contexts. Students need careful guidance in effective practice routines, and a hands-on approach involving advanced students as mentors can have benefits for all.

Teamwork is even more important in collaborative co-creation of musical interpretations. Here too, responsiveness and spontaneity should play a larger role in daily training, through coached sight-reading and fully-engaged peer learning, so that more repertoire is played, and stylistic differences are actively learned. A young quartet can make more progress through mentored reading of all six of Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets, than by preparing just one of them for performance. With more teamwork, engagement in the spirit of the moment, and immediate learning from mistakes and misfires, students can more quickly achieve confidence and success, and recognize that it comes from collaboration.

By reducing unnecessary repetition in our daily work, we can hone skills that bring music to life anew each time, thriving on spontaneous responsiveness and living presence.  We can liberate ourselves from pernicious effects of recording and repetition, by learning to make unreproducibility a vital element of every performance, while of course still striving to be faithful to the work and stylistically cultivated.

Recordings will not go away, but we will show that they cannot substitute for a much richer and livelier concert experience.  Above all, our performances will not imitate recordings.  Of course, the great artists already achieve this.  Our students must cultivate this ability.

Many concerts, and the majority of student recitals, are still curated in outmoded ways that involve dated assumptions about the knowledge and interest of the audience, and about the performer’s role and persona. Audiences are thirsty to learn about the music, and to understand the experience and insight of the performer. Performers can find liberation and new authenticity when they embrace the role of communicator, and don’t limit themselves to mere reproduction. Happily, new performance formats are emerging everywhere, bringing richer immediacy and multifaceted understanding to audiences. Peter Sellars’s concert stagings come to mind, including their lively use of supplementary video images. At the Konzerthaus in Berlin, the “Hear it Twice” Series (Zweimal Hören) features two performances of a major work, surrounding an interview with the performer. At Le Poisson Rouge in New York, classical and contemporary chamber music are part of a wider-ranging musical menu, and the setting allows performers and audience members to interact more. 

Conservatories and universities are perfect crucibles for developing new formats of musical presentation. In my own institution, my colleagues are presenting themed ensemble programs with a variety of multimedia components; symposia to complement opera productions; and art song programs that use projected video and subtle elements of staging, to weave songs and cycles into an insightful larger narrative conception. I’m sure new approaches are likewise developing at your institutions. There is much we can share, and also broad momentum in our collective efforts. 

The graduating recital offers another opportunity for liberating change. Students should of course encounter a wide repertoire across their studies, but their graduating recitals should showcase projects that express their individuality, and their ability to collaborate and communicate.  Each recital should be unique, so that we no longer train every performer on a single model.  One size does not fit all.

Our conservatory curricula and professional institutions are evolving, and there are many exciting new practices to be emulated.  We are gradually casting off obsolete economic, technological, and pedagogical conditions that were already becoming outdated in 1927. To ensure our future vitality, let us liberate our pedagogy from the suffocating effects of repetition, and design fresh ways to learn. Let us teach our students to be engaging communicators, and give listeners as many points of contact as possible, so that the concert experience excites a lively collective present. Let us actively forge a new sustainable economics of live concert music, featuring the unreproducible uniqueness of the shared moment. Let us cultivate the joys and energies of shared active experience — the most vital, universal, meaningful, and unreproducible aspect of our shared musical spirit.  Our profession can then shape its destiny with renewed vitality.

Photo courtesy of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, November 2017

Photo courtesy of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, November 2017

Banner image: Interior view (architect's rendering) of the new opera house currently under construction at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. 

© Richard Kurth 2017

Mushrooms and chocolate, together at last

The following article was originally published over at The Omnivorous Listeners Blog.

By Jocelyn Morlock

If everyone is a musical omnivore these days, composers perhaps even more than others, it seems likely that now and then we’ll mix a couple of things that don’t go entirely well together. Or maybe we’ll mix a couple of things that you wouldn’t think would go well together, only to find that the combination is awesome.


Some years ago, while I was a member of a Balinese gamelan, Gamelan Gita Asmara at the University of British Columbia one of our teachers was talking to us about a class he was teaching in cross-cultural musical interactions, and our conversation digressed from a discussion of musical fusion to fusion cooking. We started trying to come up two foods that just couldn’t work well together, and the most unlikely culinary pairing was mushrooms and chocolate. Raw mushrooms and chocolate syrup — not appealing. Fried mushrooms and onions with chocolate chips on top — also a no-go. Mole sauce was a possibility, although since it was savoury that seemed like cheating...

But I digress — the students in the cross-cultural musical interactions class tried eating some raw mushrooms and dark chocolate together, and it was weird, but it was only a matter of time before someone from the outside world figured out how to combine them in a wonderful way (click the picture):


Back to Gita Asmara, at one point in time we had a small group that learned a gamelan Kotekan on electric guitars and drum kit, and that was improbable and weird, and fun to do. More strange and delightful to my ear was listening to Gambang Kromong — a sort of mashup style of gamelan music from Jakarta. This recording of Stambul Bila includes gamelan instruments, Hawaiian style slide guitar, and Dixieland trumpet. I love it. 

For several years the music director of our gamelan was Dewa Ketut Alit, one of the most amazing and unusual composers I’ve ever known. He’s written some great music for Çudamani, and for the ensemble he founded in 2007, Gamelan Salukat. Alit’s music might combine multiple gamelans of different modes, or incorporate Western instruments — whatever he does, it is always surprising (if not downright shocking) and exciting.

Among the best concerts I ever attended was a sold-out show by Robert Ashley and Jacqueline Humbert at Vancouver’s Western Front. Ashley, who died in 2014, was a deeply iconoclastic composer of what is referred to as opera, but bears little resemblance to Puccini, Wagner, or any other opera I’ve listened to. The first piece of Ashley’s I ever heard, "Automatic Writing" —

— takes as its starting point Ashley’s involuntary vocalizing from Tourette’s syndrome. This is one of the more unlikely premises for vocal music that I’m familiar with; the result is hauntingly beautiful.

When Ashley and his colleague (co-conspirator?) Jacqueline Humbert were performing at the Western Front, the entire experience was joyfully surreal. Something happened at the beginning of the event that set the mood for me: Jacqueline Humbert came onstage looking rather operatic, wearing this elegant black cocktail dress and a somewhat large, flashy rhinestone necklace. I was sitting near the back of the hall and it took me several moments to realize that the rhinestone necklace spelled out the word FUCK in glorious capital letters. One of the pieces they did was Au Pair (first part is here, other parts also available on YouTube):

Ashley and Humbert are having something of a dialogue — Ashley’s part is a combination of listener/commentator/Greek chorus as Humbert tells the strange story of a group of middle-class neighbours who all decide they want au pairs for their children. Their desire to employ trendy European nannies leads to a bevy of appalling though hilarious consequences. For days, the sound of Ashley’s voice mumbling “au pair…au pair…oh, my…” wormed its way through my ear.

I will leave you with one final video, of the music of Milton Babbitt. In my years of academic study, I had to listen to and/or analyze Babbitt’s music more often than I would’ve liked (to be honest, once was more than enough). To my surprise, The Bad Plus covered Milton Babbitt’s rather dry, cerebral piano piece, "Semi-Simple Variations." No one would expect to say of Babbitt’s music “it’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it” but, well…

Jocelyn Morlock is an award-winning composer and instructor at UBC School of Music. You can listen to her music and read her blog at

New research and publications


Dr. John Roeder presented two conference papers recently:  “Formative processes of durational projection in 'free rhythm' world music” at the Fourth International Analytical Approaches to World Music Conference in New York last June; and “Durational process and affect in a Papua New Guinea song” at the SMT World Music Analysis interest group meeting, in Vancouver in November. Dr. Roeder also published "Superposition in Saariaho's 'The claw of the magnolia….'" in Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music, 1960-2000, ed. Laurel Parsons and Brenda Ravenscroft, 156-175. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Drs. Alan Dodson, Nathan Hesselink and Ève Poudrier were awarded a grant from the Grants for Catalyzing Research Clusters: Performing & Creative Arts for a series of three symposium on the theme “Exploring Musical Time” during the academic year 2017-2018. The newly formed Rhythm Research Cluster brings together the research interests of six UBC faculty members (including Drs. Richard Kurth, John Roeder, and Michael Tenzer) in the fields of music theory and ethnomusicology that converge on the study of musical time and the production and experience of musical rhythm, timing, and periodicity. The first symposium on “Entrainment and the Human-Technology Interface” is planned to take place in September 2017; stay tuned for more details in the next issue!


Dr. Brandon Konoval published a chapter entitled "Discipline and Pianist: Foucault and the Genealogy of the Etude" in Foucault on the Arts and Letters: Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century (Rowman & Littlefield, October 2016). In July, he presented a paper at St. Anne's College, Oxford, "Pythagorean Pipe Dreams? Ratios of Pipe Scaling from Vincenzo Galilei through Marin Mersenne," for the international conference in early modern science, Scientiae. In December, he was a panelist at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies for 'Foucault on the Arts and Letters.'

Sessional lecturer Elizabeth Volpé Bligh published “From Solo to Section,” a new article in Harp Column magazine about the role of harpists in an orchestra.

Dr. Stephen Chatman published three new educational books for piano at part of Canticle Publishing’s “Mix and Match” series. His compositions offer “an array of stylistically varied pieces, all paired with harmonically rich duets” for beginning students to learn from. 

Sessional lecturer James Palmer published “Humorous Script Oppositions in Classical Instrumental Music,” an article about humour in the works of Joseph Haydn, Michael Haydn, and Mozart, in the latest issue of Music Theory Online.

Music is the furnace of your being

Photo: Brian Hawkes

Photo: Brian Hawkes

High Notes talks to Dr. Richard Kurth, Director of UBC School of Music, about music, music education, and society at large.

By Emma Lancaster

In a world where technology and science are moving forward at an incredible pace, and education is increasingly focused on employment skills, studying music can seem like an anachronistic choice. But not for Richard Kurth. “For me, the definition of music would be: coordinating the body, the mind, the imagination and expression into a single activity that can draw on all of them. That’s why we love music. We are charging our whole being–physically, intellectually, emotionally–using music as a way of getting everything fired up as intensely as possible. Music is like the furnace of your being.”

The way our culture experiences music has definitely been affected by technology-driven changes. “It’s actually hard to grasp how much the whole musical culture has changed in the last few decades. In many ways the changes are extraordinarily positive because we have now access to much more music and a greater diversity of musical traditions than we ever had, or could have had, in the past,” he says. “We have music of other cultures available to us; we can revisit the music of the past with a few keystrokes. Music used to be very hard to acquire, now it’s easy.”

That ease of acquisition paradoxically makes Kurth uneasy. “In the past, music was something you did, by singing or playing. Now for many people it’s something you own.” That slippery slope inspires Kurth in his work at UBC. “I think it’s important that we do everything we can to ensure that music remains a participatory culture–not just something we surround ourselves with, but something we do.” He includes running to music, dancing to it, playing a guitar alone, and listening to great jazz in a club as ways that people can engage actively and keep their own furnace burning, in addition to the obvious activities of performing and studying that take place at the School.

Students of all faculties can reap the benefits of this participatory philosophy. Ensembles from the UBC African, Balinese, and Korean music ensembles to the many choirs, jazz ensembles, orchestra, and others are open to students from outside the School of Music. And there are almost daily opportunities for the public to hear students and faculty perform.

“We want the school to be diverse in terms of where people are coming from; and diverse in the types of music that we make–music of different cultures, but also music from all of the long and multicultural Western tradition as diversely as possible, across history and cultural geography; because all the countless forms of music are different manifestations of human experience, and we learn from them all,” he says.

Despite, or perhaps because of this diversity, Kurth celebrates the School’s unity of purpose and dedicated teachers. “We all want to listen really closely to what we’re hearing, no matter what kind of music it may be. We all believe that music is very deep in nuance; we engage by contemplating it, and focusing on it, imagining it anew, and performing it.”

Music surrounds us in contemporary culture, and Kurth sees contemporary talent shows like American Idol as important in that they are very public–they make people excited to see the process and hard work behind every performance. He’s hopeful that the individual stardom these types of shows celebrate is secondary to the sharing of music that’s the backbone of his own philosophy. “It’s got to be for everybody. Young people who are training to be artists need to focus on acquiring skills and confidence to be ready to get up on stage; but once they’re there, it has to be to give to other people. It can’t be only about the performer–it’s got to be for everybody else. Talent is called a gift, because you are called to share it.”

The concert experience is also an opportunity for participation. “When our students perform on stage, they’re demonstrating their commitment. They’re showing human nature in one of its really productive and positive forms. Going to concerts should give you a feeling, as a listener, that you’ve participated with others in something really exciting and moving, a celebration of creative energy and human spirit. And you listen better at a concert because other people are listening with you.”

As listeners, our personal experiences of music are constantly changing or filling in; allowing us to see the same world in a different light, or reinterpret familiar knowledge. As we re-experience favourite pieces or hear new ones, our world grows richer and more nuanced, and our creative fires are kept stoked. Kurth believes that’s an opportunity that music and all the arts afford us. “They nourish us,” he says simply.