Ellen Kirkwood – Playing a Part in Rectifying an Imbalance

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Ellen Kirkwood. Photo supplied.

You can’t accuse Ellen Kirkwood of lacking ambition. She describes her new large-scale composition [A]part, to be premiered on Saturday, as being about “all the major issues in the world at the moment”. These include climate change and the refugee crisis, with the cryptic title reflecting our feeling of being simultaneously connected to and divorced from such problems.

“For instance the internet makes us feel like we’re closer to what’s happening,” she says, “and we feel like we’re on top of all these subjects. But we’re not… It’s kind of a question of do we really know what’s going on, or are we in our own sort of bubble of a particular perspective?”

Mercifully her motivation is not to proselytise, however. “It’s more of an urge to keep feeling something about these issues,” she says. “One way that I can express that is through writing music, which will hopefully speak to the audience on some level – maybe not even necessarily the level that I was thinking when I first wrote the music.”

Performing the work is Sirens Big Band, the female jazz ensemble formed in 2010 by regulars at the long-running Young Women’s Jazz Workshops, including bassist Jessica Dunn (the band’s leader) and Kirkwood (trumpet and composer/arranger). The idea was to address the gender imbalance in the jazz community.

“But we didn’t want to just be a band of women,” says Kirkwood. “We wanted to be a band that played music that had our own sound and was very distinctive. Meanwhile we wanted to help everyone become better musicians.”

She believes the gender imbalance reflects subconscious biases within our culture, and points to the dramatic impact on rectifying it that introducing blind auditions had in the orchestral world in the 1970s. The imbalance remains in other areas of music, however, and Kirkwood suggests the existence of more role models is key to the solution. Jazz, for instance, has dramatically fewer female instrumentalists than singers, partly due to the ongoing typecasting whereby, say, a flute is considered a “female” instrument and drums “male”. Nonetheless Kirkwood is confident that the aforementioned workshops, the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival and the annual Jann Rutherford Memorial Award (for an outstanding female improviser, which she won) are helping create the required role models.

If progress is slow, it is still tangible. Figures supplied by the jazz course at Sydney Conservatorium reveal that from 2006-11 the average proportion of women in the intake was 14%, while for 2012-17 that climbed to 23%.

By way of further fostering female talent Kirkwood is also director of the Young Women’s Jazz Orchestra (YWJO), founded last year by Sirens to help student players persist and not be discouraged by the preponderance of males. “It’s a wonderful atmosphere,” she says. “They’re all really good friends, and I can tell that for years to come they’re going to be playing together, hanging out together and keeping their passion for it. Not only is it encouraging them to be better musicians, but it’s also creating a community where they feel more comfortable being themselves.”

Like Sirens, the band plays mostly Australian compositions to help it develop its own sound, and both ensembles have a relationship with University of NSW, which provides free rehearsal spaces and the venue for the forthcoming performances of [A]part]. Preceded by a set from YWJO, [A]part will feature three of Australia’s preeminent improvisers in saxophonist Sandy Evans, pianist Andrea Keller and singer Gian Slater.

Sirens Big Band: Io Myers Studio, UNSW, August 5, 5pm and 8pm.