Illuminate | Women Composers & Performers

Dr Angela Elizabeth Slater is a UK-based freelance composer who enjoys working with both professional and amateur musicians. Among other top ensembles, she has worked with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Quatuor Bozzini, The Assembly Project, Aurea Quartet, BBC Singers and Psappha.

While working towards a PhD in composition at the University of Nottingham, Angela became particularly passionate about the need to raise the profile of female musicians and composers. To that end she has founded Illuminate: a new project seeking to promote the work of emerging women composers and performers, and to give a platform to historical repertoire by women composers alongside new works.

Below, Angela explains what Illuminate is about ahead of a major UK concert tour that will run from March to October, kicking off in London this Thursday 8 March, International Women’s Day, and visiting Cardiff on Sunday 11 March.


Illuminate is a project and concert series that I established to celebrate the work and music of women composers and performers from the past and present. In Spring 2018, Illuminate is staging a concert series across the UK, programming new music from living women composers: Gemma McGregor, Blair Boyd, Sarah Westwood, Carol J Jones and myself. We have written pieces drawing on the instrumental forces of performers Késia Decoté (piano), Cassie Mathews (classical guitar), Sabina Virtosu (violin) and Gemma McGregor (shakuhachi and flute).

Top L-R: Angela Slater, Gemma McGregor, Blair Boyd and Sarah Westwood. Bottom L-R: Carol J Jones, Késia Decoté, Cassie Matthews and Sabina Virtosu.

The Illuminate project also seeks to celebrate historical works by women composers that have been all but forgotten outside of a few, particularly dedicated performers. Across the Illuminate concerts, we are programming works by Morfydd Owen (1891-1918), Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), Amy Beach (1867-1944), Grazyna Baçewicz (1909-1969), Louise Marie Simon (aka Claude Arrieu) (1903-1990), and the more familiar Clara Schumann (1819-1896). Thanks in part to historical and cultural suppression of women’s music across the ages, there is a lack of knowledge about these composers and, ultimately, this has led to their music being much more difficult to source than traditional canonic repertoire. Hence it is rarely programmed, leaving audiences unaware of the existence of these wonderful composers. Through its 10 concerts in 2018, and hopefully more in future years, Illuminate aims to reverse this established cycle and bring their music to audiences across the UK.

Illuminate founder and director, Angela Slater

In the build up to our concerts, on our website we are hosting a series of in-depth blogs which will shed further light on the lives and music of women composers. These blogs will help provide greater contextual depth to lesser-known figures and their music. We hope that, by programming these women, that we will begin to break the cycle and allow these fantastic pieces to become known by audiences and, eventually, to be considered alongside those canonic works whose place in concert programmes seems secure. However, for this problem of programming to be fully resolved fully, large classical music institutions need to start actively finding, valuing and scheduling music by women from all eras, and educating their audiences about this lesser known repertoire – something that Illuminate is leading the way on.*

Something of a hot topic in the classical music industry, gender imbalance can be seen in all areas: performing, conducting and composing [see the WA Review 2013 archive for Steph Power’s ‘Smyth, Suffragettes and Women in Music: a Conversation with Odaline de la Martinez’]. There are many unfortunate statistics that highlight the underrepresentation of women composers. Take, for example, Women in Music’s 2017 BBC proms survey which showed that overall programming of women composers accounted for only 7.5% of composers and 22% of living composers programmed. These strikingly low figures are unfortunately all-too familiar, despite evidencing a markedly more positive view than we might have seen only a few years ago! Although there have been some wonderful strides forward in some areas, there is still a lot of work to be done before women truly have the same musical opportunities as their male counterparts.

Our concert series will start in London at Goldsmiths University on International Women’s Day (Thursday 8th March) and continue across the weekend and beyond, visiting Oxford (9th March), Stafford, Birmingham, Cardiff, Brighton, Liverpool, and Nottingham, before returning to London. A particular highlight of the series will be our visit to Cardiff at The University of Cardiff Concert Hall on Sunday 11th March at 2.00pm. This concert will focus on Welsh composers and composers with links to Cardiff including: Morfydd Owen (1891–1918), Arlene Sierra and Blair Boyd.

Illuminate is very proud to be programming some of Morfydd Owen’s music in our 2018 series, as this year marks the centenary of her death. There will be many celebrations and performances of Morfydd Owen’s music this year through the dedicated hard work of Dr Rhian Davies and others. Rhian will be giving a short talk at the Cardiff concert about Morfydd Owen and her music, she has also written a blog about her for the Illuminate blog series.

Morfydd Owen was a Welsh composer born in Glamorgan in 1891. Her musical talents emerged at an early age, and she started composing aged six! Despite her life being cut short, she had many successes, and established a strong reputation with numerous concert invitations and commissions. For the Illuminate concert in Cardiff, pianist Késia Decoté will perform Owen’s Four Welsh Impressions for solo piano:

This short, beautiful and simple set of pieces explore themes about the Welsh landscape and people. The first piece is ‘Llanbryn-mair’, the name of the Montgomeryshire village where Owen’s father, William, was born. The second is ‘Glantaf’, a church that sits opposite the Treforest house in which she grew up. The third, ‘Nant-y-Ffrith’, refers to a stream near the Flintshire home of her patroness Ruth Herbert Lewis. The set concludes with ‘Beti Bwt’, linked closely to her best friend and London flatmate, Elizabeth Lloyd.

At our Cardiff concert, Késia Decoté will also perform two selections from Arlene Sierra’s Birds and Insects, Book 2: Hermit Thrush and Thermometer Cricket. The characteristics of each piece reflects its title, representing the specific animal described. This is achieved through a variety of ways, including spelling its name through pitches, using transcription of the animal’s natural call, recalling its physical movement in different ways or developing ideas from cultural associations with these animals. Arlene Sierra is a Reader in Composition at The University of Cardiff and her works take impetus from military strategy, game theory, Darwinian evolution, and the natural world.

We will also be hearing works from our own Illuminate composer Blair Boyd, who is currently studying for a PhD in Composition at The University of Cardiff under the supervision of Arlene Sierra. For the Illuminate series Blair has written two new works: Slowly Tilting, Sinking for solo piano and Dialogue for violin and classical guitar.

Pianist Késia Decoté, has a special affinity for contemporary music. She has had pieces for piano and toy piano dedicated to her, and has premiered works in Brazil as well as the UK. Késia will be treating us to performances of many new works such as Always by the Shore by Gemma McGregor, and A Note from the Blue by Carol Jones, my own Night Mirrors and many more.

There will also be new works by Gemma McGregor and myself that explore the wonderful musical expression of the shakuhachi – a traditional Japanese flute. Gemma McGregor, one of the Illuminate composers, is also a proficient master at the shakuhachi and will be performing. The shakuhachi is full of colour and musical expression, and is a must-hear for any music-lover. My own piece, Into the Scarlet Sky, will combine the classical guitar with the sonorities of the shakuhachi, creating an eclectic mix of sounds and the coming together of two different musical worlds.

Illuminate is designed to challenge cultural norms. There are countless composition opportunities and general concert programmes that end up with entirely male programming and, even when women are present, they feature in a minority role. Why is it that we deem this as perfectly acceptable and normal when such underrepresentation would not be tolerated in other walks of life? Illuminate is giving women composers the space to be the ‘norm’, and celebrating the wonderful repertoire that has been written.

There’s a wealth of female composing talent out there just waiting to be heard, so I hope you will come and join Illuminate in some of our concerts this year to celebrate the music and work of women composers and performers!


* Editor’s note: in a very welcome move, on February 26, as part of the PRS Foundation’s Keychange initiative, the BBC Proms were among 45 international music festivals in the UK to announce a pledge to achieve gender parity in live music acts, conference talks and commissions by 2022. The announcement follows an initiative by the UK new music charity Sound & Music, which has pledged to work with at least 50% female composers by 2020.

Header photo: Angela Slater