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31 July 2018

Impostor syndrome - finding a cure

Olivia Davies Image: Olivia Davies  

Olivia Davies writes about her involvement in the Summers Night Project, presented by Tura New Music, Soundstream and Monash University, with the support of APRA AMCOS, the Australian Music Centre and Decibel New Music Ensemble.

Impostor syndrome. The feeling that somehow you've cheated your way in, that, actually, you don't really know what you're doing and could be exposed at any moment, that the selection committee simply couldn't find anyone else. I didn't realise they had a name, these (illogical) thoughts until it came up a number of times during my recent involvement in the Summers Night Project and at the Gender Diversity in Music Making Conference. I'm guilty of having these thoughts in most of the programs I've been involved in. What I've learnt recently is that I'm not alone.

The Summers Night Project is a mentor-based program that commissions three composers who identify as women to write a 7-11-minute work for mixed ensemble, made up of Decibel and Soundstream musicians. I was the Western Australian composer chosen to participate, alongside Rachel Bruerville from South Australia, and Carmen Chan Schoenborn from Victoria. We were each paired with a composer-mentor from our home state, and were also given the opportunity to contact the musicians throughout the writing process.

We all finally met in Perth at the end of June, scores in hand, and began the intense two-day rehearsal period in the lead-up to the first concert at the Subiaco Arts Centre on 2 July. What was immediately apparent was how different all the pieces were: my The Shape of Breath, Ruby, shine bright by Rachel, and Our Current State of Progress by Carmen, along with pieces from two of the mentors - Cat Hope and Becky Llewellyn - formed a diverse concert program that we then toured to Adelaide and Melbourne.

This project was unique. The two-day rehearsal period gave us time and permission to experiment with alternative ideas, and the tour that followed enabled us to hear our works evolve and change over the course of a week. This enabled me to listen to my own work calmly and judge the various acoustic spaces and how they transformed the music. I could also appreciate the nuances within each performance, and how the proximity of the audience to the musicians changed the energy in the space.

After the Adelaide concert, cellist Tristen Parr and I reflected that the Perth premiere had a nervous energy about it and the smaller venue and closeness of the audience seemed to intensify this (I also acknowledge that I was far more nervous as it was the first performance). By contrast, Elder Hall in Adelaide (a beautiful space), has a more reverberant acoustic that gave my piece a kind of distance. The sounds blurred a little more and the greater separation between the audience and performers emphasised the stillness and silences in the music.

The last concert, held at Monash University in Melbourne, was again a completely different space. I considered it to be in-between Perth's Subiaco Arts Centre and Adelaide's Elder Hall, sharing qualities of both. Ending the tour at the conference felt right, and quite special. There was a real excitement after this concert, knowing it was the last one and that it had all come together.

Apart from this inadvertent lesson in acoustics, what I also found special, and apparent from the beginning of this project, was a sense of collaboration. There was always an opportunity to discuss our works, to resolve any performance or compositional issues. These discussions often occurred in-between rehearsals and performances. It was these valuable, in-between moments that I hadn't anticipated. Going from simply knowing of these musicians to sharing a late-night feast of dumplings and discussing all things music and all things not. These connections, as I reflect now, were the biggest personal benefit to come out of this project for me.

The other benefit has been more subtle. In the last year I've become more aware of the under-representation of women in music and it always left me feeling irritated. The issue is insidious, difficult to pin-point and therefore difficult to discuss, but after this project and conference, I feel more empowered to arm myself with the facts and statistics that prove this inequality exists.

One of the strongest motivations of the Summers Night project is to help increase the visibility of women composers. On various occasions now, I've heard Cat Hope speak about the very real issue of visibility for women in music, and this has in turn led me to ask if and how this lack of visibility has affected me throughout my musical education - I return now to this idea of impostor syndrome. After Cat first brought it up at the beginning of our second day of rehearsals in Perth, I started to connect the dots in my own previous experiences of this almost crippling self-doubt. Even though my musical education was full of encouragement, upon reflection, I realise I had no women composer role models, because I didn't know they existed. I was never directly told I couldn't be a composer, but the image that was painted for me said otherwise. My curiosity and love for sound, along with the support and encouragement I've had (and still have) has always helped me overcome such moments of self-doubt, but I think there's a lot to be said for recognising yourself in others that are in the roles or position to which you aspire - to see women composers as part of the norm and not an exception to that norm, or dare I say it, a novelty.

> The Summers Night Project - Tura New Music

> 'The Summers Night Project - composers announced' - an article on Resonate (6 April 2018)


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