drucken Bookmark and Share

by Kajsa Antonsson, Anna Jakobsson

The Quick Fix: Thoughts on Chance and Community in New Music

“What are the structures that enabled this situation?”[1] This is a question that still echoes in our minds after listening to Anke Charton, Assistant Professor in Theatre at the University of Vienna, who opened Day 1 of the GRiNM Network Conference 2019 with a keynote on intersectionality as an approach to recognising diversity issues in new music. In her presentation, Charton talked about how new music inescapably draws on and moves within “sections of situated knowledge” and encouraged us to ask ourselves—being, as we were, practitioners together in a space by reason of discussing diversity in new music—what this knowledge looks like, and what it admits. She expressed the impassibility of diversity being something other than a practice; how we move through a space, since diversity as an attachment to an otherwise unmoving infrastructure “only reinforces the default lines” of an assumed new music, which emerges where situated knowledge falls short.[2]

Konstmusiksystrar has worked for inclusivity within the contemporary music field in Sweden since 2014. Being a network for women, transgender, and non-binary composers, we are experienced in being the attachment to concerts, festivals, and the like: a quick fix to create temporary change in the name of gender equality. We also have experiences of having to re-evaluate our methods when our situatedness has been staring us in the face. How we are situated is nevertheless a perspective on an intersectional approach, and recognising where you fall short is the only way to move forward. For Konstmusiksystrar, becoming more aware of our position in an intricate system of practitioners, audience, organisers, and spaces for music has meant a necessary push into the realm of curation. In reflecting on this, inspired by her repeatedly asked questions, we echo Charton’s words: “What are the structures that enabled this situation? What is the set-up in which such a thing could feasibly happen?”[3]

Konstmusiksystrar was established in 2014 by composers and sound artists Marta Forsberg and Lo Kristenson, who at the time where students at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. The initiative was triggered by the low representation of female composers at the 2014 Young Nordic Music Festival in Malmö—a festival for composers under thirty years of age with a connection to the Nordic region. Astounded that only six out of thirty-five composers participating with pieces in the festival were women, they turned to the festival’s production team who answered that, “There are no female composers applying.” As a reaction, an email was sent out with the purpose of listing names of young female, transgender, and non-binary composers active within the Swedish contemporary music scene, and to encourage them to apply to open calls, festivals, and music programs; to engage with contemporary music where representation of non cis-male composers was considerably lacking. The list of names would be distributed to concert and festival organisers, as well as published online, and in this way serve as a handy tool for anyone struggling to find non-cis-male composers to program, or for those who maintained the belief that there are none.

The mapping project quickly grew into a manifesto.[4] Konstmusiksystrar would strive to be a room where women, transgender, and non-binary people could be in the majority and change current structures within contemporary classical music (CCM) by standing together. Up until this point, KVAST, the Swedish Association of Women Composers, had been the only association working in pursuit of gender equality within Swedish CCM, with the primary goal of increasing the number of compositional works by women in the Swedish repertoire.[5] A vital part of KVAST’s work is to provide statistics on Swedish orchestras’ and opera houses’ repertoires. In this way, they create an important, easily accessible overview of what the gender representation looks like on these stages.[6] In addition, KVAST educates music institutions such as orchestras on gender perspectives in repertoire-building. They uncover works by female composers from the past, encourage institutions to perform them, as well as commissioning new pieces composed (and performed) by women.

Because the backbone of the majority of the institutions that KVAST was working within still belong to the classical music monoculture, who gets to be a composer and how much space they are given still resonate. The composer’s profession is by tradition a lonely one, and although outdated in terms of who it represents, it seems like the societal need to sustain myths like the Singular Genius in order to legitimise artistic practices is as accurate as ever. Having seen and experienced ourselves how the canon of being the best is a pressure that influences your aesthetic choices and what space you dare to take with your music already at a young age, Konstmusiksystrar have focused on building a more tolerant atmosphere where the pressure to act according to these ideals is off already from the beginning. Undoing the notion that there is only room for one (“woman”) composer became an important part of our original practice, and we applied this dialogue in workshops and courses for teens and young adults exploring sound. It has since influenced the network’s practices and grown into a philosophy of a community sharing each other's successes.

In 2007, the cultural funding system in Sweden saw a major structural change when the government decided that state funding would only be given to institutions and festivals that have fifty-fifty gender representation in their program. This has since worked as obligatory guidelines for Swedish music institutions, putting pressure for more equal programming. There has also been what you could call “a feminist boom” in the Swedish music field in recent years, with movements like #metoo enabling feminism to become a social stakeholder in central parts of the Swedish cultural scene. Rather quickly after the network was founded, we experienced the craving of music institutions who were in great need of a more “diverse” program. They wanted to collaborate with us in order to do the box-ticking necessary to meet the requirements for a gender-equal repertoire. This was, of course, a beneficial position for Konstmusiksystrar. We got access to venues that had not previously been open to us, as the network was, after all, founded to increase the representation of non-cis-male composers. At the same time, we often felt uncomfortable, since we repeatedly found ourselves in the role of “poster girls,” promoting gender equality in the name of institutions that would program Konstmusiksystrar along with another ten concerts from their usual, canonical repertoire.

The opportunity to work with established music institutions also raised questions with regard to how we should select works for the collaborations that we entered. How could Konstmusiksystrar choose one member over another to be featured with their music in a sound booth at the Stockholm Concert Hall, or to perform their work at the Swedish Museum of Performing Arts? We thought hard about what we could do in order to present the music of our members without reproducing the discriminating structures we opposed. From an early age, music students learn to compete with one another and to view our fellow colleagues as possible threats to our own success. To break with this toxic pattern, we came up with the idea of working with a lottery and using chance in the selection process when we put out a call for works directed to Konstmusiksystrar’s members. By using lottery as a method, we could feel confident in the transparency of our curation process if someone were to ask about how the selection of works had been made. This, however, soon turned out to be a risky way of working, that occasionally put both Konstmusiksystrar as curators and the participating artists on the spot.

A turning point in our curatorial work was the reflections we made after a chilly evening in Stockholm when we had participated in a festival that was seemingly sceptical about our ways of working. We had accepted a slot in the programme to, as usual, give a number of composers from Konstmusiksystrar’s list an opportunity to perform their music. All works had been randomly chosen from the open call—which the composers were aware of—showcasing a mix of experience where some were quite new to the field and others had had more exposure. That the line-up was the result of a random selection was announced to the audience at the beginning of the concert. Following a panel discussion earlier that day, where Konstmusiksystrar’s ideas of chance as a method for more solidary programming was met with scepticism and doubt that it could ever result in something other than low-quality art, the thought of how our members were going to be received at the concert felt very discouraging. The fact that what we were advocating in terms of togetherness between practitioners was reduced to a question about quality made us recognise the limits of our knowledge, as our perspective did not extend very far beyond our roles as composers. To question how we define quality was a way for us to work towards more solidarity in our field, but we were insisting on presenting our findings in spaces where people were not prepared to discuss them with us. We realised that in order to create any lasting change, we had to include the institutions, audiences, performers, and whoever else was present in the dialogue we already had going with the composers. This insight created an urge to extend our work on chance and apply our methods outside of our network of members.

“In thinking about curatorial practices aiming at a greater diversity of people and works selected, the first task is not to identify the ‘other’. The first task is to identify through what practices the other is marked as such.”[7]

From 2018 to 2019, Konstmusiksystrar conducted the preliminary study In the Service of Chance to examine chance and randomisation as a method for music curation. In the project, which was funded by the Swedish Arts Grants Committee, we approached chance as a thought model for various experiments around music production and curation, together with a number of different practitioners in the wider contemporary music scene. When we started to ask people about their curatorial practices, it became apparent from their different answers that music curation is a complex process. When running an institution, you make thousands of choices at every turn. Using chance can be a way to expose the power of habits, routines, and priorities that affect everything from what kind of coffee you will drink during your next meeting to which person you will employ—and, of course, what music will be programmed for the next concert season. In this sense, chance becomes a way of playing with the limits of situated knowledge. What kind of decisions are “unmarked” to the extent that we do not even think of them as decisions?

At first, there were many who misunderstood the purpose of the project and thought that our goal was to create chaos. They feared that we wanted to replace entire orchestra productions with completely random events on the main stages of the concert halls. Our intention was never to force people to work with chance exclusively. Instead, we tried to encourage them to think about their curating processes as a number of choices and asked them to pick one that they could imagine giving up to chance. It did not necessarily have to be the choice of composers per se; it could be the choice of venue, the order of the works in the program, or at what time or which day of the week a concert would be performed. Our hypothesis was that if you continue to do what you usually do, but leave one of the choices up to chance, it would probably be enough to make the outcome very different.

The result of one of the collaborations of In the Service of Chance was a concert that we arranged together with Mimitabu, a contemporary music ensemble of freelance musicians based in Gothenburg. Mimitabu works mainly with time-limited project grants, and often collaborate with composition students at the Academy of Music and Drama in Gothenburg. We spoke with the artistic leader of the ensemble, Johan Svensson, about the challenge of attracting new audiences to CCM concerts. He expressed his concerns about their audiences seldom extending beyond the ensemble’s own community of colleagues and music students. Gothenburg is a small city, in numbers as well as in area, and this sparked the idea of randomly picking a number of people living in Gothenburg and inviting them to a concert with Mimitabu. The lottery was made through an app connected to a database of Gothenburg addresses that was created for this specific purpose. The app selected one hundred and forty people to whom we sent physical concert invitations. We put a lot of effort into making the invitations look neat, and the members in the project group signed them by hand to make them more personal. It was important to us that the people who received the invitations would feel like they had been chosen to be part of an exclusive “once-in-a-lifetime” event. Out of the one hundred and forty invitations sent out, three people accepted. One person replied a couple of days after the concert had taken place and said that he had lost the letter in his pile of unopened mail. The initiative, however, had moved him to tears and he was honoured to be a randomly chosen citizen of Gothenburg.

The concert took place in April 2019 at Cinnober, a small black box theatre in central Gothenburg. The three people who had accepted the invitation each brought a friend to the concert. In addition to them, the audience consisted of a few other people who had all been informed of the particularity of the situation. On the previous night, the ensemble had performed the same programme for the usual, paying audience. We could all feel that the atmosphere at Cinnober was quite different. None of us had been quite sure what to expect. When the audience members arrived, we served them sparkling wine and appetisers, something that we had promised in the invitation. Before the concert started, we presented Konstmusiksystrar and In the Service of Chance. A person in the audience asked what contemporary music was, and to provide an example, one of the project group members gave a spontaneous presentation on the development of the twelve-tone method. The fact that somebody dared to ask the million-dollar question, “What is contemporary music?,” became an icebreaker and opened up a dialogue between all of us present in the space.

When it was time to enter the auditorium, we felt nervous. We worried about things like the pieces being too long, and the hard, wooden benches in the space being uncomfortable to sit on for the whole concert (we offered everyone cushions). When realising that the audience actually seemed to enjoy the performance, the tension left. It was obvious that the ensemble made a particular effort to make this new audience feel welcome, and the musicians and composers took turns introducing the music since the genre was unfamiliar to them. After the concert, we got a lot of feedback from the invited audience members, who all agreed that it had been really useful to get these personal reflections as keys to the different pieces. In presenting her piece, In My Volcano Grows The Grass (2017-2018), composer Michelle Agnes Magalhaes shared a short reflection on what contemporary music meant to her. She described the scene as a small community of people all over the world sharing risks together. The audience is part of this risk-sharing, which is what keeps the field alive and makes the practice of this art form so exciting. One person in the audience pointed out that it sounded scary, and received the encouraging response: “Things that we don’t know can be scary. But they can also be beautiful because we are just discovering and seeing new things that we didn’t imagine before.”[8]

Reflecting on the success of the experiment, we realised that we had, albeit on a minimal scale, managed to reach Gothenburg as a community, and made them feel part of the contemporary music scene. One of the people invited to the concert offered the suggestion of making use of the local media for the process of inviting audiences, in order to create more anticipation around the project and reach a larger number of people. Michelle Agnes Magalhaes’ speech on the importance of a strong, yet inclusive community was a much needed reminder of why we, as young composers and curators, have maintained an interest in CCM at all. We ourselves are co-creators of the myth that CCM would be more difficult to interact with than, for example, pop music. While Konstmusiksystrar had been so focused on problematising the rooms in which we had been working in recent years, the encounter at Cinnober reminded us about the subversive potential of our art form and that it has the potential to be shared and enjoyed by a lot more people. The outcome of our experiment—and of the In the Service of Chance project at large—clearly showed the fragility and progressiveness latent in each of the spaces through which we are moving, and that a push out of a habitual orbit can sometimes be enough to trigger it. The performers in Mimitabu also agreed that we had been part of something special at Cinnober. Johan Svensson put it nicely when he said that the entire ensemble had experienced the concert that night with new eyes and new ears.

Rather than asking “Is applying chance in selection processes a long-term solution to diversity?” or “Who will I include with this method?,” what was great about the In the Service of Chance project was how chance became a question about our default modes and practices. It made apparent the relationships between all of the actors involved, and it inspired a dialogue that showed how risk-taking and caring is involved on all sides. While chance is not the only methodology Konstmusiksystrar uses, this early programming experiment was central in developing our group’s self-reflection about our position in contemporary music, and our relationships to a wider community.


Anna Jakobsson (SE) is a creative producer and (artist-)researcher based in Stockholm. Her practice expands over the fields of contemporary music, opera, and theatre and is distinguished by an interest in feminine narratives and non-hierarchical working methods. Anna’s work often explores different modes of audience participation, and she wants her work to be both gentle and challenging in once. She holds a MA in Performance Practice as Research from the Royal Central School of Speech in London. Anna also studied stage directing at the College of Opera in Stockholm under the supervision of prominent stage director Kasper Holten, head of the Royal Danish Theater (Det Kongelige). Since 2017, she has been the creative producer of Konstmusiksystrar (Sisters in Contemporary Music), a network of artists, producers, and educators working to increase the representation of women, transgender, and non-binary people in new music. As part of her work with Konstmusiksystrar, Anna currently holds a two year-long residency at Transit Stockholm together with long-term collaborator composer Rosanna Gunnarsson.

Kajsa Antonsson (SE) is a freelance composer and producer/project manager. She finished her BA in composition at the Academy of Music and Drama in Gothenburg in 2019 and spent her final undergraduate year as an exchange student at the Universität der Künste in Berlin. She works acoustically and with electronic media. Kajsa is interested in how sound is relational to a body and how bodily presence as a social and sensory aspect shapes experiences of music. Her works often seeks to decentralise the audible aspect of a sound or in a piece with the aim of acknowledging social and sensory forces that work in pursuit of the illusion of music’s autonomy. Kajsa has worked with ensembles such as Curious Chamber Players, Mimitabu, 40f, Faint Noise, and the Great Learning Orchestra, and has participated as a composer and performer in festivals such as Vorspiel/CTM, Crescendo Musikfestival, Svensk Musikvår, and Young Nordic Music Days. In 2019, Kajsa was nominated chairperson of Svenska Stiftelsen Ung Nordisk Musik, and she co-produced the Young Nordic Music Festival 2019 in Piteå. Since 2015, she has been a member and producer in Konstmusiksytrar (Sisters in Contemporary Music), a Swedish network for women, transgender, and non-binary composers

Konstmusiksystrar (Sisters in Contemporary Music) is a network for women, transgender, and non-binary composers and sound artists within contemporary music. It was founded in 2014 by composers and sound artists Lo Kristensson and Marta Forsberg. All 155 members are published on the network's website, and the list is growing steadily. The list is the backbone of the network and is available as a tool to any organiser who is struggling to find non-cis-male composers to program. To speed up the process towards an equal music scene, Konstmusiksystrar organises workshops, lectures, concerts, and festivals, and participates in the public debate on issues of gender equality and music both in Sweden and abroad. The network works according to the philosophy that the successes of other composers should also feel like your own. By promoting togetherness between composers, Konstmusiksystrar wants to reduce the competition and elitism that characterises the contemporary music industry. From 2018 to 2019, Konstmusiksystrar conducted the preliminary study In the Service of Chance to examine chance and randomisation as a method for music curation. Since then, the network has continued to examine curation as a way of problematising notions of quality in music production and challenging the hierarchical social structures within the Swedish contemporary music scene. In 2019, Konstmusiksystrar received the Framtidens Musikpris (Music Prize for the Future) in the category of Möjliggörare för Ungas Komponerande (translating roughly as “Artistic development for young composers”).


[1] Anke Charton, “Diversity and New Music: Interdependencies and Intersections” (keynote, GRiNM Network Conference 2019, Zurich, CH, November 14, 2019).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The full manifesto can be found (in Swedish) on Konstmusiksystrar’s website. See “Manifestet | Konstmusiksystrar,” Konstmusiksystrar, accessed 11 June 2020, http://konstmusiksystrar.se/manifestet/.

[5] KVAST stands for Kvinnlig Anhopning av Svenska Tonsättare, and was founded by composer Karin Rehnqvist in 2008. KVAST is open to members of all genders and backgrounds that sympathizes and wants to act in accordance with the association’s goals. See “About Kvast | KVAST,” KVAST Swedish Association of Women Composers, accessed 11 June 2020, https://kvast.org/om-kvast/.

[6] The last statistic report was published in Fall 2019, and made by KVAST in collaboration with the Swedish Composers Council. The statistics are based on three different categories: new and older music, Swedish and foreign music, and gender (man/woman). For the full report see “Statistik | KVAST,” KVAST Swedish Association of Women Composers, accessed 11 June, 2020, https://kvast.org/verksamhet/kunskap-och-metoder/statistik/.

[7] Anke Charton, “Default, Debug, Decolonize: Thoughts on Intersectionality and New Music,” in Defragmentation: Curating Contemporary Music, eds. Sylvia Freydank and Michael Rebhahn, Darmstädter Beiträge zur neuen Musik (Mainz: Schott, 2019), 66.

[8] Michelle Agnes Magalhaes, live concert recording of “solo/duo/trio: Mimitabu at Cinnober,” 12 April 2019 (Gothenburg: Cinnober Teater, 2019), WAV file.

Go back