Interview: Ellie Consta (Her Ensemble – the UK’s first women and non-binary orchestra)

Her Ensemble is the UK’s first women and non-binary orchestra. Formed in November 2020 by violinist Ellie Consta, it seeks to address the gender gap and gender stereotypes in music.

Why did you start Her Ensemble?

I’d always felt really torn between loving classical music whilst not really loving all aspects of the scene. During the first lockdown I started writing string parts for my friends who are singer/songwriters, which allowed me to view music making from a totally different perspective. It made me question why we do things so differently in the pop and classical worlds.

Around the same time I stumbled across some shocking statistics – the main one being that in 2019, just 3.6% of the classical music pieces performed worldwide were written by women. That’s the highest percentage recorded to date. I’d been through music school, music college, the profession, and yet I could only name a handful of female composers off the top of my head, let alone name a single non-binary or transgender composer. I guess Her Ensemble was born out of this – it happened quite organically.


Photo credit: Noëmie Bottiau

What differences did you notice between the pop and classical worlds?

So many differences. I’m not really sure where to start. The whole vibe feels different to me – the aesthetic, the approach to rehearsing/creating. It feels less rigid and more fluid. Trying to explain ‘orchestral etiquette’ to my non-classical friends is so funny.

Being in an environment with fewer rules and surrounded by people who were unashamedly expressing their authentic selves was so refreshing. It made me feel like I could be accepted in all my imperfections, which allowed me to be vulnerable and explore parts of myself that I had previously censored or suppressed for fear of judgment in the classical world. I wanted to take the things that I loved from both worlds, combine them, and put my own spin on things.



Do you think that the classical music world is inherently sexist?

I think the scene encourages patriarchal behaviours, for sure.

We recently asked our followers if and how they alter their appearances to ‘fit in’ to classical music scenes. There were a shocking number of responses – they’re still on our Instagram highlights. The weirdest thing was realising how many similar experiences we’d all had and casually brushed off. I think it’s important to take a step back sometimes to see the bigger picture. Challenging the status quo is important.

But yeah, we still often see binary gendering of concert clothes, most conductors and section leaders are men, women are encouraged to cover up skin, tattoos and piercings are often hidden, instruments are still gendered, there’s the whole ‘laddy’ drinking culture, we still see a majority white people, there’s an erasure of queerness…it’s all related.

Even concert programmes are still majority white male composers, and often when female composers are included it can feel somewhat tokenistic. I’d love to see large-scale works by female composers being celebrated as the main event of the programme.


Photo credit: Noëmie Bottiau

Are you choosing to perform repertoire written by female and non-binary composers?

Absolutely. There’s so much music to discover!

Often it’s difficult, time-consuming and expensive to find, because the same amount of time and effort hasn’t been invested into the research, publishing, or recording. But it’s also really cool to discover! We’re arranging a lot of music ourselves.


Photo credit: Shane Benson

It feels like if you perform a programme full of works by female composers it’s a big deal, whereas no one bats an eyelid at a programme written entirely by male composers.

Yeah, weird right? It’s kind of annoying that we still have to say ‘female’ composers, but I guess that shows the issue.

A lot of people are surprised to hear that we are only performing music by women and non-binary people. We’ve been asked so many times if we’d ever perform any music by men. I find it interesting that that’s often the first concern. I mean we already know there’s incredible music written by men. Maybe they’re shocked because it’s not common knowledge that there is a plethora of music written by women? Or maybe it’s just the bloody patriarchy, eh?

Hopefully one day there’ll be a real gender balance in the music we’re taught, the music that’s programmed, our accessibility to sheet music and recordings. And maybe someday we’ll overhear conversations like ‘What’s your fave Ruth Gipps symphony?’ and someone else will be like, ‘I’m more of a Florence Price fan’.

Until then, I think there’s a real need for women to take up more space generally. It’s societal. For centuries women have been told to take up as little space as possible and there is still a total lack of acknowledgment of non-binary people. Even between women, there’s a competitiveness instilled in us – we’re pit against each other all the time.


Image credit: Noëmie Bottiau & Shane Benson

As an ensemble, how are you changing those societal expectations?

I think the fact that it’s 2021 and it’s still shocking to see a diverse group of ‘women’ in suits, playing classical music?!?! kinda says it all! (let alone with piercings/tattoos/body hair on show…)

I hope that by subverting gender norms, we are encouraging people to question the status quo. It’s vital for any progression. And I hope that we will continue to grow and evolve as a group as times change.

It’s also why it’s so important for decisions to be discussed within the group, and for the group to have a real mix of people. So many of my initial ideas for the group have changed through talking about stuff together. We’ve learnt so much through the process in just 6 months.

It’s the same reason I feel it’s important for us to rotate positions within the group too, so we can put ourselves in each others shoes and see things from different perspectives. I’m not saying it’s the same thing at all, leading or playing tutti. They require different types of playing, but they’re just as important. Music isn’t about ego and things work better when people are valued.

It’s difficult because there’s so much historical shit to untangle. Things obviously need to change from the grassroots, but I also feel like there’s room for so much more change now. I don’t want to be passive for fear of making a mistake. It’s about making space for each other.

Her Ensemble are performing with singer/songwriter LITANY at Jazz Café, London on June 26th

thejazzcafelondon.com

Her Ensemble are collaborating with BISHI, commissioned by Zeitgeist and premiering digitally on their international sonic arts platform Zeitge-ist.com

Main photo credit: Shane Benson


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