‘”Farò quel che mi piacerà”: Fictional Women in Villotta Voice Resistance’

My contribution to Sexualities, Textualities, Art and Music in Early Modern Italy ed. Melanie L. Marshall, Linda L. Carroll and Katherine A. McIver (Ashgate, 2014) is now available to the public courtesy of UCC’s institutional repository. Please do download and read it!

‘I will do what I want’, so Toni, a young woman, informs her father about his plans for her marital future. This line from a sixteenth-century villotta by a little-known actor-musician, Alvise Castellino, confounds much of the scholarly consensus around early modern female autonomy. Popular entertainment like Castellino’s villotte bears out the findings of recent archival studies by Linda L. Carroll, and Emlyn Eisenach, that women from the lower echelons of society had significant input into their marriages. Castellino appears to have specialised in solo performances of multi-character songs, and his women characters are outspoken and challenge patriarchal norms. His 1541 collection of villotte—his only known publication, and the only collection of its type to contain so many songs with women’s speech—was dedicated to Duke Ercole II d’Este and may have had particular significance at the ducal court of Ferrara, where the duke and Duchess Renée de France were engaged in battles over her authority and speech. The comic treatment of songs in women’s voice resonates with the fraught relationship between the duke and duchess, in particular Ercole’s struggle to control René and thereby control his relationship with France.


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.)

Reflections after Soundscapes of Jefferson’s America

Morris Dancing in Charlottesville, VA.

Morris Dancing in Charlottesville, VA, April 3, 2012. Snapped with terrible camera on my phone.


I spent the last few days of March and the first few days of April in Charlottesville, Virginia, attending a two-day conference at the University of Virginia on the Soundscapes of Jefferson’s America, organised by the ever energetic Prof. Bonnie Gordon and her stimulating and equally energetic grad students (high energy must be a UVa recruitment requirement). While I was there, I guest taught a grad class for Bonnie (I think I probably learned more from the marvelous discussion than anyone else did), sat in on one of her undergrad classes (a lively and enjoyable conference debriefing), and met up with a UCC graduate Sarah O’Halloran who is now a UVa Jefferson Fellow working on her doctorate in composition. I would like to thank UVa Department of Music, particularly Bonnie Gordon and Prof. Richard Will, for giving me such a warm welcome and generously including me in the conference hospitality. I learned such a lot from the people I met, and I hope we can stay in touch. I really enjoyed my brief time in such a vibrant environment. I also thank Bonnie’s family for putting up with me for almost a week.

It was a particularly interesting time to be talking about the use of sound to create racialised experiences because the complex history of slavery and racism that I heard about that weekend, and interpretations of the US Constitution, lies behind so many then-current news stories—the lynching of Trayvon Martin for walking while black, for example, and the murders by police of Dane Scott Jr., and Kenneth Chamberlain, an elderly veteran who was shot and killed in his own home. I’d suggest there may also be racist and sexist thinking behind the attempts to limit women’s access to contraception and abortion: rich women may be able to buy their way around those limits (paying the full price for contraception, and traveling for abortion services if necessary [that is what happens in Ireland]), but poor women (of all ethnicities and races) are hit with a double whammy. And that touches not only every heterosexual woman who is sexually active before menopause, but also any woman who takes contraception for other reasons, as Sandra Fluke reminded the House Democratic Steering & Policy Committee back in February. What these forms of discrimination have in common, it seems to me, is a return to a narrow definition of ‘men’: men as Thomas Jefferson at the time of the Declaration of Independence seem to have understood it: wealthy, land-owning, adult, white males, rather than men in the expanded notion that means US people of all ethnicities and races and sexes and abilities. That is, an individual killing a young black man for being suspicious, the state’s initial failure to charge and prosecute that murder; a state’s murder of black men even outside of the ‘due process’ of trial, verdict and death penalty (moreover, as many death penalty abolitionists point out, black men make up disproportionate numbers of those in prison and on death row); and a state’s requirement for unnecessary penetration of a woman’s vagina removes each woman’s right to determine what happens to her body (since she is not even asked to consent, she no longer has full rights over her body: the state is claiming rights over her body—and slave owners like Thomas Jefferson claimed rights over their slaves’ bodies, male and female: how much choice did Sally Hemings really have when it came to bearing TJ’s children?)…. All these actions suggest that, to certain conservatives, only elite, white men like Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and other male former GOP candidates for nomination, are entitled to bodily integrity, autonomy, subjectivity, personhood, and constitutional rights. In effect, there is an attempt to scale back the advancements that recognize all US citizens and residents as ‘men created equal’ with ‘certain unalienable rights’ including ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’.

So, what follows is a brief ‘review’ of some of the papers from the first day that really stuck in my mind. It’s by no means comprehensive and I haven’t tried to summarise every single paper. I intend to write a future post taking in the concerts, and the second day of the conference, but that’s going to take me a little longer still. (Although I’ll try not to do that at such great length.)

The conference has an associated exhibition, Sound in Early America, curated by Bonnie Gordon, Amy Coddington, Stephanie Doktor, Emily Gale, Courtney Kleftis and Gretchen Michelson. It is on display in UVa’s Small Special Collections Library until 20 August 2012. Their close examination of Thomas Jefferson’s music library invited conclusions that have caused controversy in some circles. While TJ’s daughters’ music was used heavily, the violin music does not look like it has ever been played and that casts doubt on TJ’s reputation as a violinist.

Bonnie Gordon’s introduction set the tone of the conference: this was to be no Thomas Jefferson love-in, but rather a critical evaluation. Gordon’s paper was so rich I can’t do it justice here, but three points Gordon made about soundscapes at TJ’s home, at UVa and in present-day Charlottesville particularly stuck in my mind. Thomas Jefferson lived in a large house on a hill, Monticello, carefully oriented so that he and his family were not disturbed by the existence of their plantation slaves; Bonnie memorably argued that the careful design and the plate glass windows were equivalent to noise-canceling headphones. The architecture and landscaping was soundscaping that blocked out the sounds of his slaves housed out of sight at the bottom of the hill. And as Bonnie notes, the University of Virginia and Charlottesville more generally are not exempt from a racially charged sonic history. As Gordon noted, the bell that called privileged young white men to their higher education also sounded to exclude slaves and former slaves. Henry Martin, who rang this bell on the hour, every hour, from 4am until 10pm, was himself a freed man.(1) In effect, Martin was a tool of the institution and spent his life re-sounding his exclusion, except for one day after the Civil War when students silenced the bell by cracking it. Finally, Bonnie noted that this history of segregated sound worlds persists into present-day Charlottesville. Inadequate public transport links, among other structural inequalities, make it hard for those living in predominately African American neighbourhoods to get to the main music institutions. And live performances of hip hop are just not heard in Charlottesville.

A couple of days after the conference, I was walking through Charlottesville and came across the morris dancers pictured above, their bells claiming a sonic presence in the town that it seems is not available to other groups. And the historical significance of tying bells on bodies varies by community: for these men, perhaps it is a way of sounding their connection to a long-standing European folk tradition. But bells on bodies could mean something entirely different: slaves were sometimes braced or welded in to ‘ponderous’  with bells so they could be heard if they tried to escape.(2)

That detail came from a book co-authored by the second conference speaker, Prof. Shane White. White spoke about the kinds of noises that Jefferson excluded from his house: the sounds of slavery (the title of his book, in fact). These ranged from plantation bells, the crying of people whose family were sold away, the sound of vicious beatings, baying dogs, as well as sounds that slaves made for themselves to commemorate the dead, to celebrate, to entertain. (Themselves and their owners: Sally Hemings’ sons played dance music for TJ’s daughters.) Slave masters had varying responses to the music produced by African American slaves and in African American churches: some were intrigued, others dismissed it as noise. And there’s plenty of evidence that the white perception of African American music as noise persists into the present. Jazz may have become America’s classical music, through a process Jeff Farley examines in a freely-available paper, ‘Jazz as a Black American Art Form: Definitions of the Jazz Preservation Act’(3), and President William Jefferson Clinton could play jazz saxophone at one of his inauguration balls, but that wasn’t always the case, and some outgrowths of jazz (and I know I’m stepping into a contentious area here) are rejected as too noisy by the jazz mainstream and too ‘jazzy’ by the mainstream (if that’s the right word) of experimental music. I’m thinking here of free jazz/free improvisation/creative music in particular, but Farley suggests various fusions of jazz with pop/rock also upset the Jazz Police (the latter not Farley’s phrase). This is just one example: as George Lewis asserts, ‘virtually every extant form of black music has been characterized as “noise”.'(4)

Prof. Mary Hunter (Bowdoin) gave a brilliant paper on the work of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters. Hunter pointed out that there are real problems with simplistic notions of amateurism and professionalism, and music was women’s work even though they were not paid for it. TJ’s daughters, and no doubt many women like them, practiced daily and felt guilty if they didn’t do their work. The music written for them gave them an opportunity to show the fruits of their labour (‘It’s no accident that I play this passage correctly three times in a row; it’s the result of diligent work.’), and to display their bodies. And in this regard, it turns out women rubbed almond paste into their arms. Apparently almond paste is advocated by some today as a skin whitener. If that is what it was for back then, I would guess that accentuating pale skin would further highlight the ‘refinement’ of being able to spend most of one’s time indoors and out of sunlight.

Richard Will, with the aid of some students, gave a lively lecture-recital arguing on Scottish song as America’s national song. The thing that really interested me about this, as a Scot, is that I didn’t know any of the songs (maybe one; I don’t now remember) that were the best known songs in Virginia and America at that time, even though several Americans in the conference audience knew the songs. I’m not sure whether that was because I’m not a huge folky, or whether that’s the difference geography makes. Anyway, I was really taken with Ellen Randolph Coolidge’s description of encountering ‘a sweet Doric’ in her visit to Scotland. I know the Doric as the dialect spoken in the area I grew up in—I used to have a few words of it myself. Yet Coolidge seemed to be using it to describe the probably quite well-to-do accents of those she met in Edinburgh. This seems to a different usage from that current in Scotland at the time, when the Doric was a term used to describe the dialect spoken by low-status country dwellers.

Prof. Sophia Rosenfeld (Virginia) gave an excellent talk on ‘Atlantic Revolutions and the Right to be Heard’. This was about the relationship to the French Revolution and who gets to talk in parliament/national assemblies. Again, this has contemporary significance, since the ability to speak and to be heard is something that people have been thinking about quite carefully in the Occupy movement.

In many ways, the conference, even though it was ostensibly about the past, really connected to current political events as well as to current scholarly debates. And that is one of the things that made it such a successful and exciting event.



(1) On Henry Martin, see this fascinating roundtable discussion from UVa earlier this year. It’s well worth the hour. The final three panelists share important critical insights into the stories told by and about Martin, the politics around his life and his commemoration by UVa.

(2) Shane White and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery (Boston, MA: Beacon Press 2005), 6.

(3) Jeff Farley, ‘Jazz as a Black American Art Form: Definitions of the Jazz Preservation Act,’ Journal of American Studies 45 (2011): 113-129.

(4) George E. Lewis, ‘Too Many Notes: Computers, Complexity and Culture in “Voyager”,’ Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 10 (2000), 33-39: 34.

Thoughts on the Oldenburg ‘Selfhood’ Conference

The Stormtrooper is making a portrait or is it a self portrait?

Prof. Dr. Dagmar Freist’s stimulating three-day conference on self-fashioning/self-cultivation, Praktiken der Selbst-Bildung im Spannungsfeld von ständischer Ordnung und gesellschaftlicher Dynamik, brought together researchers at different stages of their careers from all over the world and working in and across many disciplines. It was very exciting to be exposed to diverse ways of working, new theories of artifacts, material culture, and new research questions. Although there were diverse takes on subjectivity, Bourdieu and Foucault came up a lot. Some people drew freely from both; others stuck principally to one or the other. I think I am right in saying the Foucauldians tended to find Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and the way society functions to be rather too prescriptive. I have read and enjoyed both Bourdieu and Foucault; this may suggest that I am an unprincipled opportunist. In any case, it is clear I need to think more about points of agreement, disagreement, and any potential for reconciliation.

I am not going to attempt to summarise the German papers, since my German is not as good as I would like (although it’s certainly better than it was 3 days ago!), and I wouldn’t be able to do them justice. So, here are my brief summaries from memory of a few of the papers given in English.

Mikael Alm (Uppsala) is looking at a corpus of papers written in the 1770s in response to an essay competition for a new national dress for Sweden. They show fascinating divisions of society—some into four estates (noble, clergy, burgers, peasants), others into a combination of classes and estates. One essay was more-or-less entirely concerned with political class, basically dividing people into the rulers and the ruled. For me, what was interesting is where women would fit in to the proposed social orders. The clergy presumably excluded women at that time, and it made me wonder about the other groups—especially since one of the classes were government bureaucrats (again, a group traditionally excluding women). Apparently women were a problem for these ways of thinking. Did they have the same status as their husbands? Their fathers? Or did they stand outside the social order altogether?

The final day, Saturday, was the day set aside for studies of arts and materiality. The keynote address (Prof. Dr. Hans Peter Hahn) was on the function of things in society, I think principally informed by anthropology.

Dr. Ulinke Rublack (Cambridge) gave an excellent paper on an early modern rival to Imelda Marcos: ‘Leather as Matter of Distinction in Hans Fugger’s Material World’. She suggested an alternative title could be ‘How the Oxford Shoe Got Its Holes’. The Fugger family may be familiar to early music lovers as the sometime patrons/clients of Orlandus Lassus, Andrea Gabrieli, Philippe de Monte and others. I had thought they were a banking family, but apparently they were traders. Hans was not the head of the family, or of the family business, and his role in the business has been overlooked historically. It seems his main function was to build and maintain an extensive network. He had well over 200 regular correspondents with whom he exchanged gifts. He needed to look the part, which meant he had to keep his footwear in good condition. It needed to be fashionable and durable yet comfortable—familiar challenges to many of us today. Each pair of shoes was made to order, and sometimes when they arrived they didn’t fit and had to be adjusted–the leather stretched more, perhaps, or a few careful slashes added. But the point is that Hans Fugger attended to every detail of his appearance.

Prof. Beverly Lemire (Alberta) is engaged in fascinating research on the global trade in printed cotton and the response (I’m tempted to say ‘typically insular response’) to the arrival in Britain of these beautiful fabrics. In ‘Fashioning Early Modern Socieies: Indian Cottons, Material Politics and Consumer Innovation in Tokugawa Japan and Early Modern England’ Lemire described how English fabric-related guilds (woollen guilds, weavers) tried competing with the new cotton fabrics but printing on wool is not a successful endeavour so their final response was to lobby for a ban from British shores, and to oppose it in the most violent way imaginable. Women wearing this cotton in public could literally have the cotton ripped from them, and the women were often beaten; some protestors threw sulphuric acid at women wearing printed cotton; and there is one tragic account of a women wearing printed cotton being set on fire while walking across a square; she burned to death. It seems incredible now, but actually women’s bodies are still sites of political argument and control—sometimes related to clothing, as in the ‘keep your face uncovered/ban the burqa’ arguments which restrict every woman’s right to wear what she wants, as in the cover-your-hair/wear-a-burqa-or-you-don’t-leave-the-house policies of conservative Islamist governments (under the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were beaten if they didn’t wear a burqa, and even beaten for pursuing an education), and sometimes related to women’s right-to-choose, as in the new law coming into force in Virginia this week which will force all women wanting to have an abortion to have a transvaginal ultrasound; they are not asked to consent to this procedure. (In a transvaginal ultrasound, the doctor or ultrasound technician inserts a thick-ish probe into the woman’s vagina and moves it around to get a picture of the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. It’s an uncomfortable experience even when consent is given and the procedure is medically-necessary. Since Virginia’s law will apply even if the woman does not want an ultrasound, it is effectively state-sanctioned rape of women. The party sponsoring these medically-unnecessary laws claims to be in favour of small governments that stay out of people’s way. In reality, they are getting in to women’s bodies.)

The thing that really struck me about Rublack and Lemire’s papers is just how far material goods traveled and how international trade was. People may conveniently forget about, say, the Atlantic slave trade (European-made goods to Africa, slaves from Africa to the Americas, sugar, chocolate, cotton and other luxuries from the Americas to Europe), or colonialism, and instead think of the international trade in consumer goods (by which I mean sugar, chocolate etc—not enslaved people) as a recent thing, but it’s not at all.

A second point I’ve been pondering (and I asked about a few times!) is the sound of clothing and shoes. We can often guess the gender of a person from the sound of their walk because of the gendered shoe and clothing practices of our times. Women are more likely to wear heels than men, and women are more likely to wear jangly jewelry than men. (In my teenage years when I had a few prized ‘Goth’ clothes, one of my favourite items was a skirt with bells on. And now, one of my suit jackets has beaded cuffs that make a clicky noise when I rest my forearms on a desk. Noisiness was something I hadn’t considered when I bought the jacket.) So, did the sound of clothing and footwear differ according to gender or perhaps status? Dr Rublack had come across a letter or note in which servants were required to wear soft-soled shoes indoors because they were not to be heard as they went about their work. And one conference delegate mentioned to me that a clergyman had complained of the noise of wooden shoes (worn by lower-classes) on the cobbles outside the chapel. That would be an interesting topic to look at in the future, perhaps. Maybe I should put some thought into the soundscape of certain streets in early modern Rome.

Image credit: Photo titled ‘The Stormtrooper is Making a Portrait, Or Is It a Self-Portrait’ by Kristina Alexanderson (kalexanderson) on Flickr.

Update: Virginia’s Governor did not make it compulsory to have a TV ultrasound before abortion.