Writing About Women Musicians

And once women are working as professional musicians, they get written about as if they are only bodies, or only supposed to be bodies. Maura Johnston’s How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide (in Village Voice) is a must read for anyone writing about women musicians.

Update: The coverage of Whitney Houston’s death highlights several myths of women in music (especially women in popular music); Susie Bright pulls some of them apart.

Including Composers Who Are Women in the Music Curriculum

Yesterday The Plashing Vole brought to my attention Kerry Andrew’s recent article in the The Guardian, ‘Why are there so few women composers?’ Andrew suggests that one way to increase the number of composers who are women is to revise the curriculum so that composing is seen as something women do. Sensible suggestion, that. Writers of supposedly general histories of music have often failed to mention that really they’re writing histories of music by white, European men. Many failed to mention their decision to omit the creativity of specific demographics and instead passed off the work of a select demographic as the work of an entire culture. Of course, all histories involve decisions about what to include and exclude, but some histories are a bit more upfront about those decisions and criteria for inclusion than others. And sometimes even music history surveys that include women do so in ways that differentiate them from men—for example, women composers may be introduced as student of Mr. X, whereas the men composers are apparently born fully-formed creative geniuses who never required teachers. (Yes, I have a specific music history book in mind.) Casting a wider net in telling history, being more inclusive in many ways, paints a fuller picture of what was going on in a specific culture. It isn’t just good for groups of musicians currently marginalised by society, it’s good for society as a whole. More people see music as a possible activity and we all get to hear a wide variety of music. What’s not to like?! (Please, don’t answer!)

So, yes, I agree with Andrew that primary and secondary schools need to revise their curricula (which in England and Wales really means changing the National Curriculum). It needs to happen in tertiary education too—you know, in the classes where future teachers learn the kinds of things that our culture currently thinks are worth teaching. In cases where survey courses are still the main approach, the ideal would be to revise those completely. (The late Prof. Donna Cardamone Jackson, who taught at the University of Minnesota, once told me that in every course she taught she used music examples by diverse composers—diverse in terms of gender and race. I would say Donna was quietly revolutionary. Sometimes not so quietly.) It’s not just a case of keeping the same basic “great composer” narrative and including a few token women, say. The “great composer” narrative functioned to exclude people, to devalue certain types of music making. Ultimately, the narrative needs to change too, and in many places it is changing.

Today I happened upon a relevant book that might help those interested in revising undergraduate curricula: Julie Dunbar’s Women, Music, Culture: An Introduction (Routledge, 2011) and its companion website. Like Women’s Voices Across Musical Worlds, edited by Jane Bernstein (Northeastern University Press, 2003), chapters of which I’ve used in my undergraduate course, ‘Women and Music Across Cultures’, it’s organised by theme. I’ve only skimmed the Google Books preview of Dunbar’s book, but so far it looks quite interesting. Both Bernstein and Dunbar’s books are suitable for undergraduates and might be particularly useful for those who are not research-active in women’s or gender studies and want to work at mainstreaming gender-related issues in their courses. Dunbar’s includes questions, exercises and discussion points that encourage students to reflect upon the kinds of stories that are told (including the one being told in the book). Bernstein’s edited book doesn’t have that kind of thing—it’s aimed at a general music readership, not just undergraduates—but it does have really useful topic introductions that draw out common threads between the various essays. In my very brief scan of the very short preview, I saw abundant mention of Hildegard, Pauline Oliveros, and an index entry for X-Ray Spex. Bernstein’s book likewise covers a wide range of musical practices.

I’m curious enough to request an e-copy of Dunbar’s book for examination, even though it’s going to be a while until I teach an undergraduate course again. To be honest, the paperback price seems a little on the high side: £39.99, or $64.95 versus $29.95 for a paperback copy of Bernstein’s edited volume. (I’m quoting prices on the publishers’ websites: at time of writing, Amazon.com is charging almost $140 for Dunbar’s in hardback and just under $60 for the paperback.)

Finally, the Committee on Women and Gender of the American Musicological Society is updating their collection of course syllabi. I’ll post the link when I have it.

Musicological Conformities and Whiteness in Modern Early Music Performance

No, I’m not quite done with my posts following on from the American Musicological Society meeting in San Francisco yet! As with any productive conference, I have plenty of thinking to do as I work through new ideas and revise my own in response to comments and questions.

My paper was in an evening session organized by the AMS Committee on Women and Gender. Bonnie Gordon and Laurie Stras put together a fabulous panel, chaired by Jane Bernstein, considering Musicological Conformities. The idea was to think about gender, race and class from within marginal groups. (The abstract is on page 69 of the conference book [PDF].) Craig Monson interweaved entertaining and sobering stories of seventeeth-century convent choirs with thoughts on the family networks and with readings of the visual, textual and musical environment. Musical networks included competing family groups of musicians—aunts and their nieces might try to have a monopoly on certain types of music-making (the organists stuck in my mind). Emily Wilbourne opened her paper with an arresting account of stalking her subject (Virginia Andreini) through the archives. (Archival research has a creepy element. To be honest, I love reading [dead] people’s private correspondence.) Sindhumathi Revuluri brilliantly highlighted the colonial treatment of folksongs in her paper on “Civilizing Harmonies: Folksong Collection in Fin-de-siècle France”.

My paper considered whiteness in British early music vocal performing practice. Is it operating? If so, how? Is it in the sound? There’s a substantial body of scholarship demonstrating that, for example, the early music movement is about modernity (e.g. Richard Taruskin, John Butt), the British early music vocal sound comes from the Anglican cathedral and Oxbridge choral traditions (e.g. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, John Potter, Christopher Page, Donald Grieg), and that there are significant gender and class issues too (e.g. Kirsten Yri, Don Grieg). My contribution is to consider the operation of whiteness in this, particularly in relation to vocal conformity. Yes, it’s elite in terms of class, as Grieg and Page have demonstrated.  All I’m doing is considering the possibility that the practice in Britain is racialised as white, in part because of the history of institutional racism and the “possessive investment in whiteness,” to quote George Lipsitz’s book title, that has meant that the sound has been developed in particular ways.

I’m not going to recap my paper here. All I’m doing is briefly recording some of the directions for further research that came up in discussion and conversation. (I’m working the paper up for publication, and in due course a version will be available via my institutional open access repository.)  Some people shared personal stories that shed further light on British vocal culture in the mid-20th century. One person generously said I’d explained her childhood vocal training. Others talked of how they had felt excluded in Britain—even people who came from privileged backgrounds in the US and Canada found that they didn’t have the “right kind” of whiteness in Britain: their gender, ethnicity or religious heritage meant they didn’t quite fit. This does not mean that the whiteness angle is null and void, rather it highlights how whiteness operates differently in different times and places—it is not a cross-cultural constant, and needs to be considered with intersecting axes of difference. (Gwen Sharp posted a great discussion of this at Sociological Images.)

Some took issue with the idea that early music is racist. That is not precisely what I claimed: I was not insinuating that musicians who participate in early music deliberately discriminate against those who do not fit the current cultural ‘definition’ of white. Rather, there is a history of structural discrimination (perhaps better known in Britain as institutional racism) and the sound that now dominates British early music vocal performance originates in those very institutions. The sound cannot be entirely divorced from the social contexts which developed it.

I am concerned that the discourse of purity and simplistic ideas of authenticity are often based on an understanding of an imagined European past that was entirely Christian and white and in which the musicians were male. This denies the diversity and complexity of the past and it denies the diversity and complexity of the present, too.

Performativity and Marginalization

An SF bridge at night

An SF bridge at night

It’s been just over a week since I got home from the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in San Francisco and I am well on the road to recovery from the plague that everyone caught. The trip was worth a feverish cold. I had a blast catching up with colleagues, meeting new people, hearing new ideas and fresh interpretations, and trying out my own (more about that in my next post). The fabulous Laurie Stras and I stayed in a hotel a short walk from the main venue, and passed by the Occupy San Francisco encampment at least twice a day. Friday night was a special treat, as I actually escaped from the small circuit between hotel and conference centre. The LGBT Study Group held an evening session in the Castro District—the area where Harvey Milk lived and worked and agitated—and Rachel Cowgill and I lucked out bumping into Byron Adams who not only knows the area well but also took us for an impromptu tour with sad stories, affectionate stories, and hilarious asides. The walk worked up an appetite which we satisfied with delicious fried egg sandwiches in a diner that had been there since Harvey Milk’s time.

The session was “Trans/gendering the Voice: Julia Serano in Conversation with Stephan Pennington”, and it was really stimulating. I am already rethinking the way I will teach the construction of gender on my return to the classroom. Many feminists will challenge gender dimorphism (the concept that there are only two genders and they have distinct body shapes) and gender essentialism (the idea that we are the way we are because of our body/sex—males are masculine, females are feminine, and we have no option but to behave the way we do) by raising examples of people who are intersex or transgender, but Serano pointed out that it’s dehumanizing to always/only be the exception that proves the rule. (I don’t remember if Serano mentioned this, but it’s often tokenistic, too, since people who are intersex and/or transgender are mentioned in that one class to make the basic point and then might be forgotten about for the rest of the course.) And it is basically lazy, since people who are cis-gender (that is, not transgender) are just as socially, culturally, medically, physically constructed. That point I am definitely taking on board.

Serano had a really interesting take on the slogan version of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Serano noted that the whole book often gets reduced to ‘gender is performance’, which then implies that gender is something one can put on and take off. Serano went on to note that she is the same person inside now that she was before she transitioned and thus Serano queried the idea that there is no core identity. I can see this problem: the over-simplified slogan can lead to the idea that gender is as straightforward as getting dressed in the morning. Performativity is different from performance. It is through performativity, through daily interaction with our gendered society, daily repetition of certain behaviours (which might include behaviors that flout social convention), that the very subject—my self, a thinking, feeling, acting agent, which I think is what Serano meant by core identity—comes into being. What’s more, according to Butler, we continue to come into being on a daily basis because we are never fixed. Not one of us stays the same through our entire lives, although the changes may be tiny and barely noticeable on a day to day scale. Our social system and our culture don’t remain static either, even if the changes are miniscule evolutions rather than revolutions. (Although sometimes there are revolutionary changes—civil rights, and the political-legal-social-cultural recognition of same sex unions, to take just two examples.) So, I need to do more thinking about this. I’m not quite ready to ditch performativity in the way I understood Butler to mean it. I will keep chewing this one over, though.

Alas, I didn’t manage to catch the whole session—not just because of the fried egg sandwich, there was also a long wait for transport down to Castro—but other snippets that came up after I arrived included the continuity of the voice—which ties in nicely with Serano’s core identity—and Pennington’s discussion of steps he takes to be perceived as non-threatening, such as wearing a bow tie, and stepping off the sidewalk when passing a woman he thinks might feel threatened by his presence. I was talking to a friend about that last one and it turns out he does it too and hadn’t even realized he did it. (Incidentally, that’s an example of gender performativity in the Butlerian sense—regular repetition of a gesture without necessarily knowing one does it at all.) I found myself wondering whether any other axes of difference intersect with that gendered action.

So, all in all, a very productive session which I’m clearly going to be thinking about for a long time yet. Thanks so much, Julia Serano and Stephan Pennington!