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.


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.

Sexualities, Textualities, Art and Music in Early Modern Italy Coming Soon

The volume on early modern sexualities that I have co-edited with Prof. Linda L. Carroll and Prof. Katherine A. McIver has just been sent to Ashgate’s production department to be printed! I’m very excited! The essays are marvelous, of course, and it now bears a comprehensive index, courtesy of Samantha Bassler. Thank you to our contributors: Catherine Baxter, Paul Schleuse, Catherine Lawless, Anthony Cummings, Flavio Rurale, Christophe Brouard. And a special thanks to my co-editors Katherine McIver and Linda Carroll.

Early Modern Women in the Private and Public Spheres: Felice Orsina Colonna

Device of Felice Orsina Colonna

Device of Felice Orsini Colonna, from ‘Delle Imprese’ by Giulio Cesare Capaccio (Naples: Carlino & Pace, 1592), book 1, 50v.

When I first ‘met’ Felice Orsina Colonna (153?–27 July, 1596) almost three years ago after visiting the Archivio Colonna in Subiaco, I thought she was quite something. I was impressed that she apparently ran family affairs when her husband, Marcantonio Colonna (25 Feb. 1535–1 Aug. 1584), was away fulfilling his military duties or other duties of state. (This was often: his best known battle was the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when he led the Papal forces. He was also Viceroy of Sicily.) However, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that she wasn’t as remarkable as I thought. The idea that noblewomen didn’t worry their pretty heads about much other than spending their time in honest (decent) pursuits, like needlework and ordering the servants around—in other words, that they were active on a domestic level, while their husbands were active in public—is being laid to rest. Felice Orsina Colonna’s activities seem to be another nail in the coffin of the notion of noblewomen exclusively operating in the private sphere. Moreover, women from diverse backgrounds, even noblewomen and cloistered noble nuns, regularly operated outside the home.

Felice was the daughter of Francesca Sforza and Girolamo Orsini. Both her grandmothers were acknowledged natural daughters of men who became popes. Her maternal grandmother, Costanza Farnese, was the daughter of Silvia Ruffini and Alessandro Farnese, who became Pope Paul III. And Felice was named after her paternal grandmother, Felice della Rovere, the daughter of Lucrezia Normanni and Giuliano della Rovere who became Pope Julius II. Felice della Rovere negotiated (or had negotiated on her behalf) excellent terms on her marriage to Gian Giordano Orsini, including that any sons she had would inherit over Giuliano’s sons by his first wife. Felice della Rovere oversaw her family’s interests after her husband died; she built the family fortune up with prudent management and key property deals. Until two days ago, when I read sections of Caroline Murphy’s Murder of a Medici Princess (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), my fantasy was that even though Felice Orsina never met her paternal grandmother, she heard lots of stories about her and took them to heart. But it turns out she wouldn’t have heard those stories from her parents. Her father, Girolamo, died in late 1540, leaving the 19-year-old Francesca Sforza a widow and heavily pregnant. Felice’s brother Paolo Giordano, was born a couple of months later. As Murphy notes (56), Francesca did not know how to run a household, and Francesco Orsini, Girolamo’s brother, seems to have been devoted to misrule. He ran the family’s finances into the ground, ruining the wealth and, presumably, the reputation that Felice della Rovere had built up. Pope Paul III, Francesca Sforza’s grandfather, stepped in: Francesco was exiled in 1542; Francesca remarried (presumably into a more financially stable family), and Felice and Paolo Giordano were entrusted instead to their maternal uncle, Cardinal Guido Ascanio Sforza (1518-64).

At some point, Felice must have learned how to run a household. I’m not quite sure yet how that happened—perhaps the answer will lie in the Cardinal’s account books and correspondence—but in any case she seems to have done a good job following her marriage to Marcantonio Colonna in 1552. At least, that was my impression after a brief perusal of the Colonna family’s financial records for 1575 in the Archivio Colonna.

Felice and Marcantonio’s wedding was commemorated in music by Antonio Barré, with a four-voice setting of Francesco Bellano’s five-part madrigal ‘Sorgi superbo’. This and another piece dedicated to Felice’s uncle and guardian, Cardinal Guido Ascanio Sforza, are encomiastic texts praising Felice. The book as a whole (Primo libro delle muse a quattro voci [Rome: Barré, 1555]) is dedicated to Felice. There are other celebrations of her in a number of song and dance collections—Pompilio Venturi (1571), Gasparo Fiorino (1571 and 1573), and Fabritio Caroso’s Il ballarino (1581).

According to Rinaldina Russell, Marcantonio Colonna and Felice Orsina hosted a literary salon that may have included Margherita Sarrocchi.* There are numerous poems to Felice in various anthologies, including Muzio Manfredi’s, Per donne romane: Rime di diversi raccolte e dedicate al Signor Giacomo Buoncompagni (Bologna: Alessandro Benaco, 1575) and a manuscript anthology in the Archivio Colonna. Felice was a muse for Curzio Gonzaga, and is also mentioned in Maddalena Campigli’s Flori.** She also had a book dedicated to her by Don Benedetto dell’Uva, Le Vergini prudenti (1582).

In terms of public works, Felice helped the marchesa Giulia Orsini Rangone to establish S. Maria del Rifugio, a refuge for impoverished girls and widows.*** In this, she may have been following the lead of her mother-in-law, Giovanna d’Aragona, who founded a convent. (Patronage on that scale certainly sounds like acting in the public arena to me.)

I still have to answer the question ‘how typical is Felice’, but my hunch is that she was, in fact, pretty normal for a Roman noblewoman. In any case, I have a lot to go on here. With luck, I’ll have more to say following my trip to Rome in July.

* Margherita Sarrocchi, Scanderbeide: The Heroic Deeds of George Scanderberg, King of Epirus, ed. and trans. Rinaldina Russell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 9.

** Maddalena Campiglia, Flori: A Pastoral Drama, ed. V. Cox and L. Sampson, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, 284-285 and 323 n.97.

*** Carolyn Valone, ‘Women on the Quirinal Hill: Patronage in Rome, 1560-1630,’ The Art Bulletin, Vol. 76, No. 1 (Mar., 1994), 129-146: 136.


Championing the Work of Women Composers

Kerry Andrew’s piece in The Guardian continues to attract blogosphere responses. Jenny Clarke’s post, The Stats on Women Composers, gives a brief account of two contemporary music concerts she recently attended in New York: one fifth of the composers represented in the Music of Now Marathon‘s program were women; in the second concert she mentions, only one out of the thirteen pieces was composed by a woman.

I have only been to two concerts of contemporary art music since I arrived in New York. The first was a free concert showcasing recent commissions by Chamber Music America with pieces by four men composers: Anthony Plog, Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, John Zorn, and Rudresh Mahanthappa. The event was part of Chamber Music America’s 2012 National Conference. I encourage you to follow the conference link and view the photos selected to represent the conference. CMA has chosen for its public image photos that show women as audience members, diners, and sometimes performers, but never as speakers addressing the conference. Granted, performers have agency, but to be honest the predominant view in the classical world is still that performers are channels for the composer’s music. So, in short, the picture of the conference that I’ve been able to put together is that that women were absent from CMA 2012 as authorial voices. This is surely not the complete picture: I only attended one concert, and I couldn’t find the conference program, but this is what I have been able to find out from my own experience and from the CMA website. I don’t for a moment believe that no women gave conference papers, so the questions are: were they not photographed? Or were the photos not selected for inclusion in the website? If not, why not? And were there any compositions by women in any of the conference concert programs? If not, why not?

The second concert was given by Thomas Buckner as part of his ‘Interpretations’ series at the Roulette. In this concert one third of the pieces (two out of six) were by women composers—Anne Guthrie and Annea Lockwood. The next concert in the series, on March 8, International Women’s Day, is 100% women composers, with pieces by Bun-Ching Lam, Monique Buzzarté, Frances White, Pauline Oliveros, Alice Shields and Sorrel Hays.

One other upcoming series I’d like to draw attention to is Women’s Work 2012, which will present three concerts of music composed by women—twenty-four composers in all. The link is to their Facebook page which includes clips of music by some of the featured composers. It appears the series is seeking sponsorship. The composers are:

  • Elizabeth Raum
  • Melinda Wagner
  • Gwyneth Walker
  • Amanda Harberg
  • Nancy Bloomer Deussen
  • Margarita Zelenaia
  • Judith Shatin
  • Luo Jing Jing
  • Katherine Hoover
  • Stefania de Kenessey
  • Jennifer Higdon
  • Vivian Fung
  • Mary Lynn Place Badarak
  • Mary M. Boyle
  • Adrienne Albert
  • Lydia Busler-Blais
  • Sharon Farber
  • Lera Auerbach
  • Rebecca Oswald
  • Winifred Hyson
  • Deon Nielsen Price
  • Chen Yi
  • Sharon J. Willis
  • Carol Worthey

There is plenty more music out there. Get programming!

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.

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, 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.