Angela Slater and the personal canon - Bangor 2017

First International Conference on Women's Work in Music, Bangor University, September 2017

Session 1C: Autoethnographic Approaches

Dr Angela Slater (UK-based composer): Invisible Canons: Towards a Personal Canon of Female Composers

Angela Slater is a composer who found herself at odds with the (still) monolithic and very much androcentric canons of what for want of a better word we call Western classical music. Her solution to this problem is most elegant and entirely applicable to each and every one of us struggling with the same gender-exclusive canons we were all taught from the year dot of our classical music education.

Angela's problem started at school, with a total lack of any female composers on her 2006 GCSE syllabus and continued into A-levels and to a large extent into tertiary education. This pervasive absence of examples of female compositional activity means no access to role models, and an absence of any context to think yourself into as a woman composer. A vicious circle ensues - for women who want to compose and don't know they can because they can't see any women doing it, either in the present or the past, and for men who learn that women can't compose because there aren't any women composers included in the lists of the canon. As Betty Atterbury notes in Old Prejudices, New Perceptions (Music Educators Journal, March 1992 p.26): "Omission is a powerful teacher". 

Canons are social and historical constructs that ensure cultural reproduction of shared values, and they undergo a constant reinforcement through a process of integration (or non-integration) of material that supports those shared values. One of the main ways in which new music is integrated into the canon is through the simple expediency of being performed more often than other music. This of course is a problem with music by women composers, because their music is not performed very often at all. Another vicious circle ensues.

The elaboration of a personal canon of music that supports her compositional work allows Angela Slater to legitimize her creative approach, because she can point to a whole body of work by other women composers interested in similar themes. Suddenly, from being on the outside or at the best on the margins of an androcentric canon that still doesn't recognise her creative endeavour as intrinsically as valid as that engaged in by male creators, Angela moves to being an integral part of a community of creators who share her interest in the musical exploration of a particular field of investigation, namely our connection with the natural world and the incorporation of aspects of ideas and concepts from the natural world and the world of science into the compositional process.

Angela Slater showed us her canon - a non-exhaustive and ever-evolving list of women composers exploring our relationship with the natural world.  That list amounted to a cultural hinterland to point to for compositional context, inspiration and justification, and it showed that Angela's interest is far from being unusual or exceptional, but rather part of a larger stream of investigation into which she can pour her own highly individual and uniquely valuable contribution, and be recognised for it.

This is what the conventional canon represents for men. This is the hinterland they have always been able to point to, be validated by, and integrate themselves into. This is what we women creators desperately need. 

And so why not do what we women have done forever, and just go and do it for ourselves? Angela's approach points a way: elaborate our own canons for the work we do, then bring those canons together in a big stream of work created by women. Hopefully that big stream will meet the other big canonical stream some place downriver, merge and give us all a shared cultural hinterland full of exciting and diverse stuff from all parts of creative society.