April 2, 2009
By Kyle Gann
By Kyle Gann
I feel bad that an upcoming minimalism conference co-directed by myself, of all people, has been criticized for its absence of attention to woman composers. I don't quite know how to go about addressing the collective guilt of the musicological field. As I said in the comments, I don't know why Meredith Monk, not to mention Pauline Oliveros and Elodie Lauten, get so little attention in the nascent scholarly attention paid to minimalism. Monk's scores, when she uses them at all, don't really circulate; I managed to coax one of her opera Atlas from her, and I occasionally teach it. Still, there are a lot of scholars less score-oriented than myself who could put together a good paper on Monk's distinct and original performance practice. (In
Atlas, the instrumental accompaniments and some vocal lines are written out, but much of the vocal writing, including choral material, is developed in rehearsal, depending on the attributes of the singers available. Meredith prefers to teach her parts vocally, without the dehumanization of paper mediation.) Talking about the subject, composer Bernadette Speach once told me that in New York women composers come to men composers' concerts, but that men rarely showed up to hear women; I started taking count, and found she had pretty much hit the nail on the head.
As a critic and musicologist, I've done just about everything I could think of to champion women composers. While at the Voice, I sometimes would try to see how many consecutive weekly columns I could write about women; four was as far as I once got before encountering a week with no appropriate woman composer concert. As a master artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, I got to pick my own associate composers, and chose four men and four women. When I took over the "American Composer" column at
Chamber Music magazine, I was given a list of 70 previous subjects of columns by my predecessors: to my horror, 67 were men, only three women. Since then I have profiled 50 composers, 25 of them women, more than octupling their presence in the magazine. Dozens of women are given paragraphs or sections in my American Music in the 20th Century. (I heard that when Claude Palisca was criticized for having no women in his History of Western Music, he asked, "Are there any?") Yet I notice that when women composers are omitted from an event, complaints are inevitable; when women are abundantly included, compliments or any other notice are almost unheard of. People shouldn't expect compliments for doing what they ought to do anyway, and I don't, but perhaps an attempt to redress the situation might be more effective if it included carrots as well as sticks.
UPDATE: For further elaboration of "a carrot," read Comment #2.
Larry Murray says: The sole purpose in life for cultural hall monitors, regardless of gender, is to watch for infractions. When there are none, they seem to disappear into the woodwork.
I believe the ratio of stick wielders vs. carrot givers has always been about a hundred to one. It's human nature.
andrea says: As one of the four women at ACA with you, I definitely appreciated the 50-50-ness (and particularly because it wasn't all women. I like having a variety of folks to hang out with) and we all commented on it, positively. I do apologize if I never said thanks explicitly. But what kinds of carrots should we women bring to the table (I'm really into the red and purple ones I find at the farmers' market...)? What kinds of carrots do men provide for one another for all the publicity and support they give each other? Is that what the Old Boys' Club is? A carrot?
I'm not trying to be facetious here (okay, well maybe a little...). I guess I'm a little suspicious of the notion that all it would take for women musicians to be considered fairly and equally is saying "thanks" more often.
KG replies: You did comment, copiously - I've received so few such comments in my life that yours was one of the two or three that came to mind. I could have happily gone my entire life without being thanked, but in this case I resented feeling like a bad guy by association on the one issue in which I feel like my lifelong behavior has been fanatically scrupulous. Something like, "Strange there are no women composers represented on this conference, when you've spent your life championing them," would have left a pleasanter taste. But that's a quixotic thought, as the previous poster notes.
Also, by "carrot" I was thinking there might be means for a little more pre-emptive advocacy within the musicology world, rather than just reacting with disappointment after it's too late. After all, there are cottage industries built around Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Amy Beach, and someone's making sure that current women orchestra composers get their due (Tower, Higdon, Zwilich). Why has this kind of advocacy so far seemed absent among those interested in minimalism? I initially put up a list of favorite woman composers on my web site because most of the (Downtown) women composers I liked, many of whom I considered quasi-famous, weren't even listed in the Dictionary of Women Composers. Is there some kind of weird perception that women can be part of the establishment, but not part of the underground? Might the profession want to address this perception?
[UPDATE:] In other words, no one planned the configuration of topics for this conference. There was a call for papers, and this is what people happened to be working on. No one knew what the other people were submitting. Since this is only the first international minimalism conference presented in America, one could look at the lineup and say, "Oh, so this is the current state of the field, revealed all in one place for the first time. Let's look at where it's imbalanced and see what areas need work." Instead of: "Ew, this sucks," as though a bunch of us MCPs got together over some brewskis and screwed everything up again. *That* would be the carrot.
Remember, the carrot is the incentive, not the reward.
Marc Geelhoed says: When I was writing for Time Out (until 2007), I thought it was cool that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had a female composer-in-residence (Augusta Read Thomas), the University of Chicago had Shulamit Ran as the head of composition and Marta Ptaszynska and Kotoka Suzuki also on the faculty, and that Roosevelt University's faculty included Stacy Garrop and Kyong Mee Choi. Thomas also taught at Northwestern, and, to spread the net a little, Claire Chase was/is in charge of the International Contemporary Ensemble, and composer Kristen Broberg had also started an ensemble. It was difficult to write about contemporary music without mentioning a woman, at least if it was a local story.
Richard Friedman says: One of the best things to result from producing a weekly new music radio program has been becoming aware of a good number of women composers around the world whose music I've come to revere:
Maria de Alvear
Linda Catlin Smith
Bunita Marcus says: Yes, it's amazing how a female composer can be buried alive! Not that it would stop us from writing music, but it's certainly not fair.
KG replies: You'll find no one who agrees more than I do, and few who have worked so hard to create fairness about the issue.
Lisa Hirsch says: In other words, no one planned the configuration of topics for this conference. There was a call for papers, and this is what people happened to be working on.
Yeah - and most of the people are usually men and they happen to be working on papers about male composers. Planning is one way around this pattern.
KG replies: And the eleven women musicologists who proposed papers about male composers - should we have turned them down for insufficient gender sensitivity?
Tawnie says: Wow, Larry, you're so right. I should spend way more time thanking people for not discriminating against me based on my gender.
Now that I have _that_ out of my system...
Kyle, I'm sorry that you've received angry comments about the conference. Things like that do happen sometimes, and as a (admittedly, not terribly important) representative of those without a Y chromosome, I do appreciate your overall inclusive approach to evaluating and making music.
KG replies: No one's asking to be thanked, but people trying to help out one oppressed minority don't need kneejerk criticism for not helping out another minority as well. After all, minimalist composers and musicians interested in minimalism have been treated as personae non gratae (if that is the proper plural) in academia for 40 years. This is a very big step toward righting that situation, and that was our priority. The criticism reminds me of an ultra-liberal panel I once served on. A theater group had applied for funding for a play re-enacting the Stonewall Riots. Looked great - but the Hispanic on the panel objected because, while he admitted that the theater group had done a good job of representing the gay white and gay African-American points of view, they had neglected to include the gay *Hispanic* point of view - so the grant was turned down. The Perfect becoming the enemy of the Good, I guess.
Copyright 2009 by Kyle Gann
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