Purity and Whiteness in Early Music

It is pretty standard still to hear early music singing voices described as pure or clear. Purity is a selling point (see, for example, The Pure Voice of Emma Kirkby [1998/99]). In this article, I explore the use of the discourse of purity to adjudicate belonging in British early music practices–to claim some voices and reject others. Critics employ purity logic to police the boundaries of early music singing. Donald Grieg has already explored the relationship between class, gender, institutional belonging and valued ensemble singing skills; I add the dimension of race and whiteness. I argue that the style of singing developed and embodied by Dame Emma Kirkby was embraced as pure and rhetorically aligned with familiar vocal sounds from Anglican worship as part of the conservative turn of the late 1970s.

Melanie L. Marshall, ‘Voce Bianca: Purity and Whiteness in British Early Music Vocality,’ Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 19 (2015), 36–44.
Available on Project Music (subscription required)

My thanks to Emily Wilbourne for inviting me to contribute to this special issue of Women and Music dedicated to Suzanne Cusick.

Prof. Ellie Hisama and Prof. Wilbourne will launch the special journal issue at a symposium in December, Women Music, Power: A Celebration of Suzanne G. Cusick’s Work.

‘”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.

 

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.

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.

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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.)

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!