Sounding the Feminists: #EqualityTime, #HearAllComposers

Yesterday, Sounding the Feminists, a collective of women composers, musicians and musicologists, began a Twitter campaign to encourage the programming of contemporary music by women. Irish composers Amanda Feery, Finola Merivale, and Emma O’Halloran started the campaign and it has taken on a life of its own.

Campaigners used Twitter to highlight women composers whose work they’d like to see (and hear) programmed. Each tweet named three women composers and many of the tweets supplied their photos. The hashtags morphed a little over the day, from #timeforequality to #equalitytime, and #hearallcomposers.

The list of women composers generated here is pretty diverse, although I’m sure that could be improved still. It includes women composers of colour (right from the first tweet), and women of various ages. It is also quite diverse in terms of genres, styles, performing forces.

I have collated the tweets into a Storify story based on the three hashtags that were used throughout the day. It is very, very long. I have done my best to ensure there are no repeated tweets or repeated combinations of composers, but there are simply too many tweets for me to check right now that each tweet contributes something unique. If I have a chance over the coming days, I will edit to improve the story. (There are surely ways to group the mass of material to tell a story.) But one thing is abundantly clear: there are a lot of living women composers—this campaign has barely touched the surface—and no self-respecting music programmer can claim ignorance.

Women of Renaissance Ferrara

This is a super quick post to flag up last week’s BBC Radio 3 Composer of the Week series. Instead of concentrating on one composer, they chose as their focus music and women in Renaissance Ferrara. The series draws heavily on the research of Professor Laurie Stras (University of Southampton) and recordings by Musica Secreta, the women’s voice ensemble that Prof. Stras co-directs with Deborah Roberts.

Do not miss the third programme! It is devoted to the music of nuns, and it reveals a newly-discovered woman composer. Stras identifies Suor Leonora d’Este, a noble-born nun in the Corpus Domini convent in Ferrara, as the likely composer of an intriguing book of anonymous motets, the Musica quinque vocum: motteta materna lingua vacate (1543). ‘Felix namque es sacra’, a motet written for five equal soprano voices, is one of the highlights.

At time of writing, there are between 21 and 26 days left to listen again to these programmes, so get listening! And if that’s not enough (it won’t be), Musica Secreta’s recording of these exquisite motets, Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter, is now available.

Day 1: St Catherine of Bologna

Day 2: Lucrezia Borgia, Tromboncino, and de Rore

Day 3: Leonora d’Este and Raffaella Aleotti

Day 4: Giaches de Wert and the First Concerto

Day 5: Dangerous Graces: Luzzaschi and the Fall of Ferrara

Lady Gaga cakes, continued

Gaga has released a new album, Joanne, and the fan cake tributes continue. (I’ve written about these on my blog, in print, and now as a UCC op ed.) Gaga’s changing image is all part of her play with authenticity, and multifaceted identity performativity. For this album, Gaga’s costuming appears to be Americana with a twist.

Throughout Gaga’s stardom, she has encouraged her fans creativity. There is a tradition of fan cakes referencing Gaga costumes, and this continues. Bradley’s Baking Bible came up with this fun cake that nod to previous Gaga looks and tops them off with the new pink hat that she’s been wearing to write and promote Joanne.

Gaga’s pink hats are by Gladys Tamez, and are tweaked versions of her hats named for iconic women—Marianne Faithfull and Bianca Jagger.

#Joanne is here! We’re celebrating every @ladygaga album right back to #TheFame in our #LittleMonsters Cake! ⚡️ Video link in the bio! 💃

A photo posted by Bradley’s Baking Bible (@bradleysbakingbible) on

Processing Don Giovanni

The programme booklet for Opera Theatre Company's Don Giovanni

The programme booklet for Opera Theatre Company’s Don Giovanni

 

 

Mozart’s Don Giovanni seems to be everywhere this season: I know of three productions that happened around the same time (in Ireland: Opera Theatre Company; in England: the ENO; and in New York at the Metropolitan Opera). Most likely, it’s everywhere every year, since it’s a mainstay of opera repertoire. Perhaps all that is different is that I saw it this year when Opera Theatre Company brought their new production (with libretto by Roddy Doyle) to Cork Opera House.

The opera is about, as the ENO puts it, alpha male identity. (They even offered an all-male workshop to explore alpha masculinity: Being a Don.) Don Giovanni commits sexual assault, rape, and murder, and uses his status and charming manner to get away with it for most of the opera. As Bonnie Gordon puts it, the ‘parallels between the two Dons [the titular character and a certain presidential candidate] are too obvious to state.’ A statue drags the operatic Don to hell at the end; the other one appears is getting away with it. (In fact, it might be one of the elements of his campaign that made him successful.)

I’m still processing the version I saw in Cork—particularly the disturbing audience reactions that might have been encouraged by the librettist’s word choices. Other elements of that production seem to be part of a phenomenon that Micaela Baranello noted: a proliferation of ‘depictions of sexual violence against women’. Baranello observes:

As any “Game of Thrones” fan knows, the horrors of rape apparently cannot be conveyed without its suspiciously frequent and detailed depiction. The problem with many of these scenes is that they generalize and make abstract an acutely painful and personal experience by co-opting individual trauma for symbolic currency. The sacrificial onstage woman, usually an actress or lady of the chorus rather than a principal character, is rarely given an identity and is discarded as soon as her illustrative role is complete.

This happened at least once in the OTC production. At least. While Don Giovanni’s assaults took place off stage (as far as I remember), after Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding celebrations had moved to Don Giovanni’s place, there was a staging of a sexual assault by a man chorus member of a woman chorus member; they were both supposed to be drunk.

The audience laughter made me uncomfortable right from the opening scene. In this staging, Donna Anna sang from halfway up a rolling platform ladder while Don Giovanni straddled (and yes, I am using that word on purpose) a pommel horse. There was no physical contact, but Donna Anna’s words were fending off an attack. The first laugh came when Don Giovanni called Donna Anna a slapper. I suppose it was not what one expects to hear in that environment. The audience laughed again in scene three as Donna Anna told Don Ottavio of Don Giovanni’s attempted rape. Did they understand what was happening? Was it the incongruity of the language that prompted laughter? And … does it matter what the librettist’s intention was? My colleague and opera buddy Dr Jillian Rogers and I discussed this during the interval and concluded that, whether Roddy Doyle intended it or not, his word choices prompted behaviour that encouraged members of the audience to ally themselves with dominant cultural values that subordinate and dismiss women. The laughter appeared to be against the woman. For a surprisingly and disturbingly large percentage of the audience, Donna Anna’s experience of assault was funny.

The audience laughter reminded me of the 2009 incident in Tralee when an assault survivor sat in a public gallery, supported by a Garda and a friend, and watched as fifty people, mostly men, from her community lined up to shake the hand of her convicted rapist before his sentencing.

A large number of the giggles in the opera house were women’s voices. I was surprised at that, but I shouldn’t have been. In truth, there is a long history of women supporting patriarchy. In fact, that is what appears to have happened in the US election. Somehow, 53% of white women voters supported the candidate who bragged about assaulting women. They considered protecting white privilege more important than misogyny.

Those interested in hearing more about what feminist musicologists make of Don Giovanni (including Gordon and Baranello) will want to watch the panel discussion that Prof. Ellie Hisama organized at Columbia University as part of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender & Sexuality’s series Feminist to the Core. Prof. Hisama kindly arranged for the panel discussion to be live-streamed and recorded.

 

Hisama, Gordon and Baranello also spoke on these issues at the joint meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory in a panel chaired by Suzanne Cusick on Sexual Violence On Stage: How Musicologists Promote Resistance in the Twenty-First Century. Richard Will and Monica Hershberger joined them. Paula Higgins is working on this topic; you can read her abstract for a spoken talk.

 

Joy in the archives

My archive trip was great fun and, as is often the case, productive in ways that I was not anticipating. I was looking for material relating to two different patrons: Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, and Felice Orsini Colonna. I didn’t find so much on the cardinal—I think there are probably better places to look—but I came away with some wonderful material pertaining to Felice. So, that’s all good. In addition, I read several letters from sixteenth-century musicians. The letters were catalogued in the inventory, so not really a discovery, but I don’t think anyone has published on them yet. Anyway, I have plenty of work to do, and I am already working out when I can return.

In a previous blogpost, I wondered how Felice Orsini Colonna had learned to run a household and to perform her identity as a Roman noblewoman. Not long after that post, I heard from a fellow scholar that Cardinal Sforza had entrusted Felice to the care of Giovanna d’Aragona—Felice’s future mother-in-law. So, in my recent visit to the archives, I decided to look for useful tidbits of information in the daily letters Felice wrote to her mother-in-law when they lived in separate cities. They had shared interests, and I imagined their letters must have been full of information about this or that writer, or musician. In fact, the letters I read (not all of them; I couldn’t see everything I wanted to see in a fortnight) were entirely taken up with relating the health of Felice’s children, and asking after her mother-in-law’s own health. Of course, this could have been in part down to their correspondence not being private (thanks, Valeria De Lucca!), as much as it could be related to the relationship between the women, or between grandmother and grandchildren, and to the very real and understandable concerns over health given the standard of medical care (not to mention the cultural importance given to male heirs).

I did eventually find the kind of information I sought, but in a different place: in Felice’s letters to Cesare Gallo, her husband’s secretary. In those letters, she thanks Gallo for sonnets that he sent her; she sometimes mentions artists, and on one occasion a musician. I didn’t get through all of this correspondence either, but I made a good start.

The other reason this trip was so joyful was that I brought my daughter and my mother with me. Introducing my daughter to real Italian food and gelato was a pleasure. Some researchers who are parents are able to travel for weeks without their young family. I could not bring myself to do it, even though I knew our daughter would thrive with her dad, as he’s more than capable, and I knew that I really wanted—needed, even—to do this work. I couldn’t have done any of that work without my mother coming to provide childcare, and I’m very grateful for that. So, thank you, Mum, for your labour, and thanks to my daughter for being a fun travelling companion.

Thanks, also, to other parents for blogging about how to fly with a car seat. In case it helps someone else: I used bungee cords to attach the FAA/TÜV-approved car seat to a lightweight, collapsible hand trolley. I packed our clothes into one large suitcase with good wheels, and had our carry-on items in a small rucksack. When my daughter was too tired to walk during the travel, I wore her in a buckle carrier. It was manageable. More than that, it was liberating, even, to find that I could balance work and family that worked for us.

The staff of the archive were enormously helpful, informative, and welcoming. I am so glad to have met them.

Now I’m back home, and the new semester is starting in two weeks. I have a lot of material to sift through in my research time, and I’ve plenty of writing to do. It’s good to have found my archive feet again.

Nifty Tool for Setting Writing Targets & Strategy

This past week, I discovered an online ‘flexible planning tool for writers & students’: Pacemaker. I’ve created a plan that (if I stick to it) should mean I can finish a draft of a monograph chapter by the end of August while still taking a couple of weeks of holiday. I took the basic ‘Rising to the Challenge’ strategy and then tweaked it to suit the time I have available (not as much as I’d like, given the quality of work I’d like to produce). I’m only a few days in, and I’ve found it really motivating so far. I’m exceeding my writing targets (I do expect to slow down, alas), and I’ve discovered that I know more than I thought I did about the topic and this relatively new material. So, that’s a nice confidence boost.

I’m also preparing to head in to the archives next week and I’m feeling a bit nervous. My spoken language skills feel very rusty. I know they will return given a little time. The staff of this particular library are among the friendliest, most helpful people I’ve ever met, so it will all be OK. If I was better prepared for the practical side of things (it’s a long time since I’ve experienced temperatures above 22C, let alone above 30C), I’d probably be less nervous. I do have positive feelings about this trip too. I’m excited. It turns out that I really, really enjoy sitting in a quiet library to read and figure out other people’s account books and letters.

Purity in Early Music

Following the Women, Music, Power conference, I received an email from Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, a freelance arts journalist who contributes regularly to the New York Times. She saw an interesting story in my work on purity and early music vocal practice in the disconnect between the way early music singers describe singing and the sound they make, and the way critics describe early music voices. She took the idea and ran with it, interviewing numerous singers and directors, as well as me, and the result is a rich and critical investigation. ‘Early-Music Ensembles: Praised as Pure, but Seeking More’ is a really thoughtful exploration of purity as the main adjective to describe women singers of early music. The article is published online already (link above), and will be in the print version of the New York Times on Saturday, 23 Jan. 2016.

As da Fonseca-Wollheim notes, ‘The lexicon of praise for female singers of early music can be narrow, with purity a recurrent concept’. I hope that this lexicon will now become richer.

More on ImproTech Paris-New York

Just a heads up: Han-earl Park has collected his live tweets from the ImproTech conference and gigs at freedom, machine subjectivity and pseudo-science: twitter transcript – io 0.0.1 beta++ and he will be following up with a longer post soon. There’s some consideration of historical context, politics of performance, as well as comments and questions about the techniques, performance styles on display, and on the presented papers themselves (e.g. George Lewis on imbuing machines with “integral subjectivity”). It’s certainly worth keeping an eye out for the follow up blog post.

ImproTech Paris/New York 2012 at the Roulette

My blog has been a tad quiet recently. This was not entirely by choice, but I can’t go in to the reasons here. Anyway, I’m resurrecting it with a post that I wrote on 17 May. I haven’t gone through and edited my original text. What I’d want to spell out more clearly, were I to rewrite this, is that the problems I’m struggling with are in part (perhaps largely) to do with the conventional way of understanding the dynamics between performers and composers. In many cases, performers playing works written for them have lengthy conversations with the composers, and in fact make a substantial input into the piece. This can be recognised by composer, performer, and programme writer, or the piece can be performed and written about in a conventional way. Some of the performances I discuss below staged their creative work in a way that highlighted the collaboration and did away with the customary hierarchy of composer over performer. Others did not. And in the two performances that did not, there were very specific intersections of gender and race.

—–

Last night, I went to hear ImproTech Paris/New York 2012: Improvisation & Technology at the Roulette. It was a gig bringing together musicians from three institutions: IRCAM in Paris, New York University and Columbia University. The gig prompted lively conversation afterwards over a late night diner meal. (I could just have been hungry—it was almost midnight—but I swear the eggplant rollatini I had at the diner was the best diner food I’ve ever had.)

So, who played what? The line up was:

 

  1. Raphael Imbert: OMax at Lomax – Nine Spirit Company : Raphael Imbert, sax, Simon Sieger piano & trombone, Benjamin Lévy, Omax interaction, Thomas Weirich, Guitar
  2. Robert Rowe : Cigar Smoke (2004) for clarinet and interactive music system – Esther Lamneck, clarinette
  3. Steve Lehman, sax, live electronics, Mari Kimura, violin, live electronics, Vijay Iyer, Piano, Improvisation
  4. Jean-Baptiste Barrière : Crossing the Blind Forest (2011) for flute, live electronics and live video – Margaret Lancaster, flute
  5. Roscoe Mitchell, Saxophone, David Wessel, touch controller & computer , Improvisation
  6. Georges Bloch : Duck Laughs (world premiere) for percussions, preceded by Canaries by Elliot Carter – Laurent Mariusse, percussions, Georges Bloch, OMax interaction
  7. Bernard Lubat, piano, Gerard Assayag, OMax interaction, Improvisation
  8. George Lewis : Interactive Trio (2007) for trombone, two pianos and interactive music system – George Lewis, trombone, Geri Allen, piano
  9. Steve Coleman, saxophone, Gilbert Nouno, live electronics, Improvisation

(Source: ImproTech Paris / NYC 2012 Schedule)

 

I guess it was not a complete surprise to have so few women in the gig, although it was disappointing, particularly since public funding (from the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche) went into the event; there were also private institutional sponsors.

What I want to think through here is not so much the gender imbalance of the gig in terms of numbers, but rather the ways in which gender and race appeared to intersect in some of these performances. I have more questions than I do answers. (Isn’t that always the way?) And I am sure there are other, perhaps more positive, ways to read this. I hope there are, because what I have come up with isn’t exactly heart warming and affirming.

Numbers 2 and 4 were a pair, in a way. In each, a white woman performed a woodwind instrument in front of several music stands. They appeared to be compositions rather than improvisations, although there could well have been moments of improvisation built in.  The electronic wizardry happened off stage: those performers (the composers?) were not visible. In each case, the women were the only performers on the stage. And they staged a particular kind of femininity. The notes they played were written by someone else (perhaps the music stand ‘stands in’ for the composer). There is doubtless a degree of agency in how they interpreted the scores, but in effect they were using their bodies and instruments to sound someone else’s compositional voice. (To my knowledge, there isn’t yet an adequate theoretical model to account for a performer’s input into a specially-written composition and/or a performance. Convention dictates that, even if the performers had substantial input, the concert programme identifies only ‘the’ composer.) And in each case, that person had written some kind of algorithm (I think) to take that sound and respond to it, sometimes with a kind of echo and reverb, sometimes with some more complicated process that produced contrasts rather than repeats. At some points, especially at busy, climactic moments, it became hard, even impossible, to distinguish the sounds coming from the clarinet or the flute from the processed responses, in effect merging the human and the digital into one. A kind of transcendental loss of the self, perhaps? But only of the female performing self: the composer self was controlling almost everything anyway, and already disembodied, invisible but audible. In #4, the embodied performer/disembodied composer had a different spin, in that the performer was also source material for live video, her face and upper body and flute appearing superimposed on to nature walks, including a close up of a tree trunk, and the whole subject to further processing, blurring so that just as the sounds melded human and digital, the images melded human and nature. And in this, I think gender is significant again: in Western societies, women are often considered to be closer to nature than men.

I found it very hard not to see these performances as reinforcing a particular set of binary oppositions, that woman = body, man = mind; woman = reproducer, man = creator; woman = nature, man = culture (or perhaps science, or perhaps technology; all of those work). The woman is visible, and yet is not always audible, often indistinct, with blurred boundaries.

The performer ostensibly generated the sounds, but they were composed by someone else: this is a kind of ventriloquism. The disembodied, invisible composer occupies the performer, in a way, which could sound kind of cool in terms of cross-dressing/trans-of-some-kind, except the performer’s self is subordinate to, subsumed/overwhelmed by the composer’s: it is an occupation. The electronics were reactive to ‘her’ stimulus. The electronic performer reacts to his sounds coming from her embodied instrumental presence. But these electronic systems did not appear to be interactive systems, despite the descriptions, since it seemed that the women were playing already notated music from which they could not deviate. They could not respond to what they were hearing. And nor could the algorithms deal with visual cues in the way that a live performer would. In one particularly memorable moment, almost at the end of the flute piece, the flautist made the most assertive gesture of finality, punctuating the end with her body, her head movements, only to have this ignored as the electronic sounds continued on, as if the performer and the physical stimuli she produced were utterly irrelevant. The performer finished and was flushed with the effort and the intensity; the disembodied performer kept going.

This is in contrast to the two ensemble improvisations with women, in which women had their own creative voices. Mari Kimura (#3) triggered her own live electronics, as did another member of the trio. All three improvised, interacted; all three were on the stage. Geri Allen improvised with George Lewis on trombone and an improvisatory system of Lewis’s devising which played the second piano. This seemed to actually interact—to respond to Allen and Lewis, and they in turn responded to it, just as an all-human ensemble works. No sign of a one-way relationship with the electronics. But it is possible my ears missed something. And in each case, all performer-improvisor-composers were on stage. Indeed, that was true of, I think. every piece in the concert save numbers 2 and 4.

I find myself wondering if it is any coincidence that the pieces in which the performer-on-stage is at times indistinguishable from the disembodied-performer-off-stage, where only the instrumental performer has a body but in effect has no voice, and the little she does is easily con-fused with the digital/electronic manipulation…. Was it a coincidence that those performers were white women, or appeared to be? Is this a kind of good girl white femininity being staged here?

What a contrast, too, with the Roscoe Mitchell/David Wessel duo. Both on stage, both embodied and apparently enjoying it, both improvising, and both interacting with each other: two way communication. (And I had no idea it is possible to circular breathe on the flute.)