The British Composer Awards have been criticised in terms of gender. But what about race?

A debate is underway within the new music world following the announcement of the 2013 British Composer Awards, in which all winners were male (see the article by Jessica Duchen here). This is an extremely important issue to raise; I wish to extend this debate further to other forms of discrimination and exclusion which are barely commented upon, specifically in terms of ethnicity, and also (perhaps the most pervasive form of exclusion of all, in terms of what I suspect would be the relationship between percentages of society and representation in classical music) – in terms of class and above all private education. Here I should point out that I myself am white, male, from a middle class background, and privately educated (at what was at the time one of the most expensive schools in the country), and undoubtedly stand to personally benefit/have benefitted from all these things. But I believe the onus is on all of those who reap the rewards of inequality and exclusion to stand up against such things.

I hope to publish various figures on these matters on this blog presently; right now I want to look simply at the British Composer Awards (BCA) in terms of race. The Awards were founded in 2003, and have run every year since then. Full details of shortlists and winners can be found here. For now, I have examined the lists of winners, and the full shortlists for the three most recent sets of awards. It should be pointed out here that the term ‘shortlists’ may be misleading, as the real shortlists are longer, and the lists published by the BCA are of the winner and two others who might be seen as ‘runners-up’. I do not intend to include any names, not least because it might be seen as patronising in the extreme to single out individuals as representative of ethnic groups; I am just attempting to ascertain the ethnic break-down of these prizes. Here are some of the findings:

2003: 100% white (11 awards)
2004: 100% white (11 awards)
2005: One composer of African/Afro-Caribbean origin, all others white (Radio 3 listeners award) (11 awards)
2006: 100% white (12 awards)
2007: 100% white (13 prizes)
2008: 100% white (11 prizes awarded)
2009: One composer of African/Afro-Caribbean origin, all others white (in jazz category) (13 prizes awarded)
2010: Two composers of East Asian origin (chamber, and international) (13 prizes awarded).
2011: 100% white (13 awards)
2012: 100% white (13 awards)
2013: One composer of East Asian origin (international award) (14 awards, one joint).

Total number of awards given 2003-2013: 135. Total number of white composers: 130. Thus 96.3% white composer winners.
Total number of awards given to British Composers: 128. Total number of white composers: 125. Thus 97.6% white composer winners.

Of the five non-white winners, two have been winners of the international award, one of the chamber award, one of the jazz award, and one of the Radio 3 Listeners’ award. Three of these are of East Asian origin, two of African/Afro-Caribbean origin.

Going through the shortlists for 2011, 2012 and 2013, one finds the following:

2011: 41 names and 1 collective of five individuals. One individual of East Asian origin.
2012: 39 names, all white
2013: 39 names, one of East Asian origin

Since 2009 there has been a prize for jazz composition, a field with historically strong associations with African-American communities. Of the five winners of this, four have been white. Of the 15 names shortlisted, 13 have been white.

All of this points to the forms of composition recognised and rewarded by the BCA being overwhelmingly white (bearing in mind that according to the 2011 census, only 87.1% of the UK population were white). No individual of South Asian origin has ever won a BCA award, despite their accounting for around 5% of the population, whilst the representation of individuals (two) of African/Afro-Caribbean origin falls well below the figure of 3% of the population they make up; one of the names only won because nominated by Radio 3 listeners, the other in the category of jazz composition.

In many other fields – politics, the civil service, the legal world, academia, journalism, finance, the armed forces, the police – such blatant under-representation or non-representation might be brought to public attention and action be demanded. Should we not be looking at whether contemporary composition represents one of the last unquestioned bastions of white privilege?

Allowing for the possibility of human error, if anyone notices that I have made any mistakes, I would be more than happy for them to bring them to my attention, and I will correct the above accordingly.

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4 Comments on “The British Composer Awards have been criticised in terms of gender. But what about race?”

  1. Thank you for drawing attention to this.

    It does seem as though what ought to be a disproportionately large part of the blame for this, if blame there be, rests with the educational system, for it seems rather less than obvious either that non-white candidates are being sidelined in terms of submissions of works or that those whose works are indeed submitted are being sidelined by judgements and/or votes that favour white composers’s entries over those of non-whites. In this, I suspect that the problem is not dissimilar to that affecting women composers as outlined in the article that gave rise to your consideration here.

    I suppose, however, that the only way to try to address this is to seek to collect evidence as to the nature and extent of the encouragement or otherwise that is given to all budding composers in schools, colleges and the like with a view to extracting from it some statistics as to how women fare as compared to men and how non-whites compare as to whites; I do not imagine such a task to be an especially easy one to accomplish, but I do believe that, if attempted, it would at least be done in the most appropriate starting area.

  2. […] The British Composer Awards have been criticised in terms of gender. But what about race? → […]

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