Toby Deller talks to Her Ensemble founder Ellie Consta about making it classic to pop.
“I’ve always felt like I love classical music, but I haven’t always loved every aspect of performing,” admits Ellie Consta, violinist and founder of His outfit, the string orchestra for musicians of marginalized genres which she started towards the end of 2020. “Just trying to identify them showed me very clearly what I liked and what I did not like . Comparing how we do things in different worlds, different scenes made me think: I could take the elements I like from both worlds and do them my way.
Consta had followed a fairly standard training as a classical performer (Chetham School of Music followed by a master’s degree royal college of music) and settled well into a varied independent career when she found herself cooped up during the pandemic with singer-songwriter friends from the pop world.
“We had been living together for ages, but we hadn’t really seen what the other was doing up close. We just started noticing how different our lives were, even though we were all in the music industry, and I started wondering why. I started writing string parts for their songs, and this process was completely different from the way I was used to working in other ensembles or orchestras. I was wondering why we work so differently: is there a specific reason or is it just because that’s the way things are?
The pandemic has also brought other revelations, including some findings from gender inequality fighters GIVEN on equality and diversity in orchestral concerts. “I read the statistic that in 2019 only 3.6% of classical music pieces played in the world were written by women, and then it went up to 5%. [the following year] – the highest percentage recorded to date. I thought: how did I never realize this? I’ve done so many gigs, been to music school, music college, the profession, and I can only name a handful of female composers. I thought back to school and college and teachers saying, oh, that’s terrible, but there weren’t that many and they weren’t writing that much. Although these phrases are technically true, there are thousands of them, and they have written thousands of pieces of music.
This, among other patriarchal consequences, encouraged Consta to focus on women’s music. In this regard, Her Ensemble joins a growing number of ensembles whose explicit goal is to promote women in music. Others include the instrumental groups Scordature Collectivethe Tailleferre set and the a cappella vocal musical theater troupe Electric vocal theaterwhose work includes a strand celebrating the work of women in science subjects, Minerva Scientifica.
“I realized there was a real problem with people even acknowledging the existence of non-binary people in the classical world,” says Consta. “Even thinking about dress codes: they are often binary. What would I wear if I was non-binary? How would I even feel, not just what I would wear? Thinking of my friends in those positions, I guess I just wanted to create space for people to feel like they could thrive. And taking up space – this is also a big problem. I’m sure some of the composers we know today as women might have identified differently had they been able to or had the terminology.
The first appearance of her ensemble was posted around Christmas 2020: a string arrangement of Elizabeth Poston’s Christmas Carol, jesus christ the apple tree. This has led to collaborations with pop musicians as well as the ensemble’s first live, self-promoted concert in September 2021 at the Battersea Arts Centerfor which they applied and received a grant from the Canada Council.
“I guess I just wanted to create space for people to feel like they could thrive and occupy space.
They will rehearse the show from one hour to from Chetham to celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8, 2022). Designed on the model of a pop set, it offers a series of short original pieces and arrangements from various periods. Among the composers represented are contemporary figures such as Alexandra Hamilton-Ayres and Anna Meredith. The program also features Florence Price, the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra, and Angela Morley, the Oscar-nominated British transgender composer who died in 2009, who was among the first to assert her gender. surgery in the 1970s. Their repertoire goes directly back to Hildegard von Bingen, one of the earliest known female composers. “It’s our own arrangement and we added some electronics to it,” Consta says of the latter. “I think with the lighting, it really takes you back to the early 1100s. It’s really cool.’
The day after the concert, they will lead workshops for Chetham students, before heading to London for another performance, this time led by noise night, the new series of crowdfunded classical music club nights, at the OSO Center for the Arts. As other projects emerge from the pipeline, they continue to use social media to post material, news, and their views on the classical music industry. Recent versions include video recordings from the repertoire of RSL Rewards classical program, in association with the prizes and state51and a direct collaboration with CN Lester at Barbara Strozzi Lament.
Although the group is led by Consta – “it’s just me and a laptop” – she hopes the players of Her Ensemble will help shape its development. “We have a WhatsApp group for if there’s anything they ask or I ask. Basically, I wanted it to be run like a pop band or a band. I guess a difficulty too is that there are a lot of things to juggle on my own, so I want to try and divide the tasks. But also, I don’t want it to become institutionalized. It won’t be because there are so few of us, but I wanted it to be like a band and not like a structured thing.
An important part of this perspective is that players are free to make the dress code their own. They will often use costumes as a basis, for the possibility they offer to play with gender stereotypes and for their visual impact when worn creatively, but without their appearance being controlled.
“We play music, which is art, but we’re confined to such a small box. I don’t know how you can play genuinely – authentically is probably the best word – and feel like you can express yourself the way you want through music but have to cover your ankles. I don’t mind covering my ankles, I don’t object to it, but it looks really juxtaposed. This stems from the fact that women’s bodies are sexualized or parts of them are sexualized.
As a result, they appear, in person or in photos and videos, as a group of people who are there on their own terms and in their own identities, representing the diverse nature of society at large not by calculation or seeming but by virtue of their individuality. It also perhaps represents a departure from the way the industry has prioritized modular musicians whose interchangeability is sometimes valued over the individual ideas they can contribute, even in orchestral contexts.
“That time spent with my friends in the pop world, seeing them wearing what they wanted to wear, expressing themselves – it was such a different vibe. I was like, why do I have to cover my shoulders and ankles “I think in the world of classical music, we love tradition. But where’s the endpoint? Is it really necessary if it’s harmful to people?”
His outfit appear at Stoller Hall in Manchester on March 8 and at the OSO Arts Center in London on March 12.
You can find out more about Her Ensemble here.