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by Serge Vuille

Structural Rigidity as a Barrier to Diversity

I am the artistic director of Ensemble Contrechamps in Geneva, a group of twenty classically trained new-music specialists. I would like to start by acknowledging the privilege of sharing my experience with diversity on this platform. I am a white middle-class cis male, and I have enjoyed many of the privileges this entails throughout my life, and now as artistic director of a 1.5m Swiss francs per year institution.

This report is based on a talk I gave as part of the 2019 GRiNM Network Conference in Zurich, and I’d like to thank Susanne van Els, Valentina Bertolani, Julia Eckhardt, and Bnaya Halperin-Kaddari for their contributions and questions during the presentation, which have informed and helped to clarify this text.

The report addresses the issue of diversity within contemporary classical music. I’m purposefully avoiding the term “new music” because it encompasses too many forms of music which I will not be discussing. I do dislike the term contemporary classical, but for the purpose of this paper the negative associations do help illustrate some points. We should acknowledge this heritage, as most of the institutions for contemporary classical music function and are funded following much the same process as the traditional classical ones.


Contrechamps presents a series of twelve main productions in Geneva, a few smaller co-productions, and three to four of our programmes go on tour nationally and internationally each season. I have been director since 2018, and the first season I curated for the ensemble has just closed—incomplete due to COVID-19.

This first season achieved a 50/50 gender balance for composers and conductors; this figure reflects both headcounts, the number and duration of pieces, and the resources allocated to projects. Achieving a 50/50 gender balance may be problematic or simplistic in various ways, but I do believe it is a decent starting point and a reasonable ask, which in my opinion could be achieved with immediate effect for all organisations. With Contrechamps, it was achieved by reconsidering, if modestly, the traditional production models (being open to different timelines and composer-interpreter relations) and opening up composition commissions to artists with a strong interest in acoustic instruments, but little or no knowledge of musical notation.

The response to the season from guests, artists, musicians, and audiences has been overwhelmingly positive. Audiences grew by over 50%, and while we did not collect further data, we observed that there was an improvement in diversity and a lowering of the average age among those attending our performances in Geneva. This year, we will take more care to capture demographic information about our audiences. We were pleased that our previous audience continued coming, and the majority within this group were positive about the new formats and content we developed. Interest from co-producers and festivals increased locally, nationally, and internationally, and with it the number of planned performances almost doubled in a year for the ensemble. I am confident that no harm was done to the image, success, or artistic standing of the ensemble by striving for, and achieving, gender balance in these two areas.

Although I am proud of this starting point in addressing diversity as part of Contrechamps’ programme, juggling the constraints of production models and funding requirements whilst maintaining artistic integrity has been a real challenge and did involve serious compromises. Diversity in aesthetics and practices goes far beyond gender identity and often requires us to rethink the process.

Making New Work

The main barrier I identify for diversity within contemporary classical music is the structural rigidity of many institutions, specifically around the models for commissioning and producing new work.

Composition commissions mostly exist as a pre-defined format, which I can summarise in this way:

1. A group commissions a piece, setting its duration, number, and instruments of the players, and clarifying the possible use of technology.

2. The composer creates a score, usually delivering this to the group one to three months in advance of the performance.

3. The interpreters practise and rehearse the work—sometimes with the composer present. Rehearsal time for one composition typically varies between three to eighteen hours.

4. The work is premiered, and all too often will not be performed again by the commissioning group or anyone else.

This format creates barriers to diversity because it requires specific skills and experience from the composer that can almost only be acquired within the context of higher education (conservatoire or music university), including the detailed knowledge of how classical instruments work and how to produce a score. It also requires a willingness of working at a distance and independently from performers until the last few days before a premiere.

One could argue that this specific way of making music requires certain skills and that other ways of making music require other skills. This statement is true, but it is also problematic as the overwhelming majority of funding for music goes to institutions that function in this particular way. It is my understanding that artistic practices that do not fit into this model have historically not received such generous funding: all the music groups and ensembles I can think of that have been able to develop and become financially sustainable function as a modified version of the classical orchestral model.

It Has to Look and Behave Like an Orchestra to Be Funded Like an Orchestra

Contrechamps is a new music organisation with a budget of 1.5m Swiss francs per year, two thirds of which comes from public funds. While this figure is dwarfed by the budgets of most classical orchestras or opera houses, it is larger than most new music organisations in Switzerland. It is my understanding that the ensemble is funded somewhat like an orchestra because it looks and behaves somewhat like an orchestra, and that it has a 40-year funding history. The fact that it is dedicated to creating new music and championing recent work or that it strives for diversity perhaps does not really play so much of a role here.

While funding guidelines often focus on content and, more recently, diversity, it is my experience that projects following the orchestral model, and its union-backed rates, have the best chance of securing support. It seems that artistic and diversity concerns remain secondary to the documentation of the budget. In fact, it has been my strategy, since long before I joined Contrechamps, to translate performers’ fees into ‘orchestral rehearsals’ in funding applications, even when the rehearsal process did not follow this model, to give the applications the best chance.

Pressure Attached

In return, with the level of funding that Contrechamps receives, one feels that there is an expectation from its musicians, audiences, and funding bodies to deliver the full orchestral experience: written music, frontal concerts, dinner jackets on stage, and all the classical rituals of no clapping between movements, etc. As a relatively young director in a relatively established institution, I do feel pressure not to change too much.

There are not any actual procedural barriers preventing me from trying an entirely new model, but too sharp a turn may risk losing the trust of musicians and partners and even seriously damaging the institution. I consider that reflecting on the production model with the artistic content is part of my job description; that said, it is often hard to know how and whom to ask for advice going forward, and it is easy to feel lonely and overwhelmed in the process. This might explain the feeling that, ultimately, I need to go carefully, step by step.

Alternative Models

Some ideas come to mind for how we might turn new production models into sustainable practices. Working with fewer people for longer periods of time or making fewer productions each year but performing them more often could be roads to follow.

There would be a risk for the ensemble, however, as this drives us away from the orchestral format—and its recognised funding model. The ratio of ‘production costs’ and ‘musician salaries’ within the global budget could be forced to change, to the disadvantage of musicians, and there is a risk that we might see productions becoming smaller and smaller, potentially limiting their impact and reach.

I feel there must be a diverse, fundable, producible, sustainable, ecological, professional model with artistic integrity out there! For now, it all comes down to a balancing act. Building an artistic profile and funding history can take decades for an ensemble, and can be eroded in a far shorter time. Time is required to experiment and find bespoke models that actually work with some level of pragmatism.

Case Studies

I would like to share three practical attempts to address diversity in practices within Contrechamps, adjusting the production model and funding strategies to respond to artistic imperatives.

1. Research, premiere, record

Contrechamps recently experimented with a new model, working on a new large-scale commission (25 minutes of music for 22 players) that was developed in staggered steps over the last year. The composer first spent two weeks in the venue where the piece will be performed and recorded in order to compose specifically for its acoustics. She then spent two late-night sessions with six musicians recording material to inform the composition. The work will be first performed at the end of the summer, a full year after the first residency, and will subsequently be recorded for a portrait CD. The main benefits of this process have been the space and time made for real experimentation, allowing for outcomes that were not anticipated at the start, and the opportunity for a more personal relationship to be developed between players and composer; the level of investment from all parties also perhaps led to a shared urgency to see the project succeed. Such a long and engaged process did, however, cost double that of a traditional commission of this scale. We were able to apply for and receive specific funding to allow for it to happen. This model can be helpful to work with composers who work with a collaborative approach, or who would like to go out of their comfort zone.

2. Commission in stages

Next season, we will be testing out this model of commissioning in stages. We have commissioned a composer to write a 30-minute work in this way: first, a 10-minute work for six players will be performed as part of our 2020-2021 season, then a 20-minute work for twelve players will be premiered as part of the 2021-2022 season, some eight months later. The process therefore includes two collaborative stages (in preparation for the writing of each piece) and costs the same as two commissions of 10 and 20 minutes, but since both are presented in our concert programme, there is no issue with allocating the necessary budgets. This model reduces the number of composers involved in commissions over these two particular years, but it will give the best chances for the work to succeed and give us time to promote it. We have already secured a second performance for both works together. This model can allow us to work with experienced musicians who have a hybrid practice between written and improvised music for example.

3. Alternative scores

We have worked and will continue working with composers who do not usually produce scores. Their process for composing can be cognitive or empirical, and the work is fixed once the rehearsal process is over, but it does not exist in the form of a conventionally notated score to be transmitted to others. Talking with the composers or music-creators of this kind, I found that the most important element for them was not rehearsal time with the whole ensemble but, rather, the possibility of collaborating over a period of time with someone who is used to writing scores and who is able to help translate their ideas onto paper. For some, meeting a few instrumentalists individually ahead of the first rehearsal also responds to a need. By introducing a moderator into the process, we are able to transcribe the music into a form that is easily and quickly read by our musicians. Despite its limitations, musical notation is an extremely efficient, detailed, and condensed way of transmitting information, and one that classically trained musicians are extremely fast at decoding. Using a moderator in this type of situation can really help bridge the gap in communicating musical ideas with little complication or cost, and allow us to work with artists who don’t normally work with musical notation.

In Conclusion

I believe that strong institutions are important as part of a healthy cultural ecosystem, and that they have the potential of providing the basis for sustainable cultural and artistical practices. I do, however, also believe that publicly funded art institutions have a duty to lead the way in societal changes and that demonstrating the fulfilment of this duty should be one non-negotiable condition for receiving funding. Many large music institutions are mirroring and reinforcing a conservative system—for example, perpetuating a strong composer-conductor-interpreter-audience hierarchy with patriarchy as the default model: I do think they should be directed to make immediate and substantial changes towards a more progressive societal model, or risk being defunded. Having strong and diverse music institutions will not only benefit society, it will also benefit music and the arts.

I find the orchestral model to have many qualities, and it can allow truly unique work to be created and performed. I also believe ‘analogue’ instrumental music still has a lot to contribute to the musical discourse. Working with a large group of highly trained instrumentalists remains an inspiration and an aspiration for many—including, in my experience, those who are offered such an opportunity for the first time. Making this environment more flexible, open, and diverse is possible and is urgently necessary if we want our musical practices to thrive.

As a director of Contrechamps, I want to create alternative spaces and support the artistic needs for diverse voices within the context of a highly professional ensemble of specialist musicians. I acknowledge the fact that real diversity will only be achieved once enough diverse profiles are awarded directorships of the kind that I currently hold. Making space for this to happen and supporting diverse voices in this career path will be the next step for me. In the meantime, I am grateful for the many works and collaborations that have happened in the last year alone—they have been a constant source of inspiration for me on artistic and human levels. It is my personal experience and belief that a diverse musical scene is more meaningful and fulfilling for all.  

Serge Vuille is a Swiss programmer, curator, percussionist, and composer active on the contemporary and experimental music scene. He developed an open and engaged vision of today’s music with the Kammer Klang series, as well as with the percussion and electronic ensemble We Spoke, for which he was the artistic director for five and ten years, respectively. In April 2018, he took over the artistic direction of the Ensemble Contrechamps, where he continues to develop, enhance, and contextualise contemporary instrumental music and creation. As a musician, he plays with the London Sinfonietta, Ictus Ensemble, BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the Martin Creed Band. As a soloist, he performs in festivals such as HCMF in Huddersfield, LCMF in London, Schubertiades, SMC in Lausanne, Musikpodium in Zurich, and Druskomanija in Vilnius. He regularly collaborates with composers, performers, and artists in the creation of new works and composes concert music as well as multimedia pieces that are presented in Switzerland, Europe, and America.  He teaches experimental music and coaches the percussion ensemble of the Royal College of Music in London. In addition, he regularly gives masterclasses and workshops both at the Birmingham Conservatory and for dance students at the Manufacture in Lausanne.

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