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From London To Phoenix, Composing Wikipedia Is Rewriting Herstory

No strangers to organizing unusual events (like this parking lot Trunk Space show in 2014), Phoenix's OME is gearing up to help edit Wikipedia.
No strangers to organizing unusual events (like this parking lot Trunk Space show in 2014), Phoenix's OME is gearing up to help edit Wikipedia. Courtesy of OME
When you read the word composer, what image comes to mind? Do you picture a white-haired, Caucasian male hunched over a ream of sheet music, inking notes with a quill? Or perhaps a severe, Philip Glass type in a turtleneck, steepling their fingers and nodding in mute approval as an orchestra of synths plays the same three notes over and over again?

The popular conception of the musical composer, of someone working in the classical and/or avant-garde world, skews male. A lot of that is due to the issue of representation. The classical canon is a powdered-wig sausage party, but if you dig past layers and layers of ossified history, you'll find female composers and musicians, too.

Despite lending their considerable gifts as composers and instrumentalists throughout music history, female musicians in the classical/new music field often find themselves consigned to the margins as footnotes (if they’re lucky). Male composers turn up as blue links on Wikipedia: Click their names and their whole histories are spelled out in exacting detail. Click the red-link names of their female counterparts and you’ll hit a dead end.

Heather Roche is doing her part to change that. A clarinetist based in London, the Canadian-born Roche is someone who’s deeply embedded in the classical world. Trained in London, she’s performed at major festivals across Europe. An academic well-versed in orchestral training, she runs a widely read new music blog where she breaks down music theory and instrument technique in exacting, lucid detail. It’s from her years of experience navigating the insular world of classical music that she noticed the subtle ways women feel alienated from it.

“One of the things I’ve noticed when I’ve been a part of competition juries is that women are far less likely to apply,” Roche says. “We tried all sorts of things to make the process more friendly and encouraging for women … The problem in getting equal numbers is no problem so long as we have equal representation in terms of who applies. I felt that making them more visible, in a way that we all see on the internet, would be a really good step.”

Talking over the phone from London, Roche is working to make that good step happen. She’s coordinating a multicity event called Composing Wikipedia. Phoenix is one of the participating cities. Composing Wikipedia is an edit-a-thon scheduled to take place on Sunday, September 2. Roche, teaming up with London's Southbank Centre, will be live-streaming the efforts of her volunteer group as they spend the day at The Royal Festival Hall, editing Wiki pages and adding more female composers to Wikipedia's database.

"One of the things that I liked about the idea of doing this was that it's really easy to raise the profile of any artist or composer," Roche says. "You see someone has a Wikipedia profile and you take them more seriously."

But there's more to the edit-a-thon than boosting profiles. Roche and her collaborators are organizing it to draw awareness to the scarcity of female Wikipedia editors. As Roche lays out in Composing Wikipedia's mission statement: "Currently, only 17% of Wikipedia's entries about people are about women and only 10% of Wikipedia's contributing editors are women."

This gender gap hasn't gone unnoticed by Wikipedia itself. The organization has been open about its awareness of the problem and its struggle to shore up that gap. It's why the edit-a-thon has become a popular activist tool over the last decade. Roche admits that she drew inspiration for organizing the edit-a-thon from reading about the success of past efforts.

Britain's The Royal Society has held multiple edit-a-thons to increase the number of articles on women who’ve worked in engineering and the sciences. These edit-a-thons, dating back to 2012, happen on October 11, which is Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration of the Victorian godmother of computer programming. Feminism in India has organized several multilingual edit-a-thons (putting together pages in English, Punjabi, Bengali, and Malayalam) in an attempt to address the paucity of female Wikipedia editors in India and increase Wiki representation of Indian women. The Getty Research Institute has played host to the Guggenheim's Women in Archicteture edit-a-thon. And the Art + Feminism organization has been organizing edit-a-thons across the globe for years.

Folks eager to help out the Wiki-editing don’t have to catch a flight to England: They can participate remotely so long as they have a Wikipedia username, which is free for anyone to create. It's through this remote participation that several other musical communities across the globe are working with the Composing Wikipedia group in England. And if you live in downtown Phoenix, your local edit-a-thon is just a light rail ride away.

Phoenix's OME is organizing an edit-a-thon from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, September 2 at the Burton Barr Central Library. OME's involvement should come as no surprise: They've been at the forefront of pushing the new music scene in the Valley for years, thanks to their marathon music festivals, pop-up shows, and OME founder's Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer's local new music round-ups

In addition to live streaming the event over Facebook, Roche's team will also be Tweeting updates using the hashtag #ComposingWikipedia. Participants at home and at Burton Barr alike are encouraged to use it to take part in the dialogue around the marathon editing session.

While Composing Wikipedia's goal of helping women composers get out of the red and into the blue may seem like a humble objective, it's a necessary step for helping to open up the canon and making female composers feel welcome in a genre that's been predominantly male for centuries. And a big part of how canons shift and underrepresented groups get heard is when they learn how to use the power of their own voice.

"I think there's still quite a long way to go, but I'm feeling optimistic," Roche says. "I've had a few people say to me, 'Oh, it just never occurred to me that I could participate in this way.'"

Composing Wikipedia. 1 p.m. Sunday, September 2, at Burton Barr Central Library, 1221 North Central Avenue; 602-262-4636; Participation is free.
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Ashley Naftule