What Women's Music Does,
or Doesn't, Mean

Written for the catalogue of the October, 1998, Women's Music Festival in Cologne

By Kyle Gann

The one time I moderated a panel of women composers, I was ambushed. I had recently published an article asserting that women brought a different sensibility to music than men did, and remarked in passing that since that new sensibility was a refreshing and renewing one, I felt most of the really good composers of that time (this was the 1980s) were women.

Two of the composers on the panel were highly successful women orchestra composers. The other was an older friend of mine, a composer of deeply experimental conceptualist works. I knew the first two women would disagree with me, and insist that there was absolutely no difference between men's and women's music. But my friend had complimented the article; she was my ally.

Then, just before walking onstage, my friend turned to me and said, "You know, I've been thinking about that article you wrote, and I've decided I don't agree." We walked onstage, and I made my point, after which the three of them cut me into small strips and hung me out to dry. I kept smiling, but I wished I were elsewhere.

So I know from painful and public experience that women don't necessarily consider men qualified to comment on this issue. Let me point out at the outset the fairly obvious fact that no one could look at a particular piece of music and determine for sure whether it was written by a man or a woman. (Following the ideas of Susan McClary, one might want to except extreme cases such as the Hammerklavier Sonata or Gruppen, which seem so arrogantly male in their ambitions, but let's not tread into such deep psychological waters.) There is clearly nothing incongruous about a woman composing a forceful sonata form, nor about a man making a quiet environmental work receptive to the sounds of nature. Both have been done, and done well.

Nevertheless, over a 15-year critical career, I have paid considerable attention to women composers. I try to grant them as near-equal space with men as the rampant inequities of concert life will allow. Within my particular musical world, that of downtown Manhattan, it has been unavoidable to notice that women composers fall into different patterns than men.

For example, the following composers make music based on using their own voices and usually bodies: Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Diamanda Galas, Laurie Anderson, Eve Beglarian, Elise Kermani, Joan LaBarbara, Shelley Hirsch, Pamela Z, Brenda Hutchinson, Maria de Alvear, Linda Fisher, Bonnie Barnett, Chistine Baczewska, Lynn Book, Barbara Golden, Toby Twining, David Moss, and David Garland. It will be noticed that 16 of the composers named here are women, only three of them men.

Likewise, one could make a list of composers who make long, meditative, environmental works not structured in great detail, but open to natural sounds such as breathing, running water, overtones, and so on: Annea Lockwood, Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher, Brenda Hutchinson, John Cage. Again, the list is predominantly women.

The fact that male names occur on each list indicates that generalities in this area are worth no more than generalities are usually worth. That's not to deny that generalities sometimes suggest something.

Now let us take a first, timid step toward the theoretical. Isn't it striking that these two categories of music, that made with the composer's body and voice, and that receptive to natural sound, arose at the same time that the number of women composers increased dramatically? And isn't it also striking that these movements followed a very opposite period in which music (under serialism) was as extremely impersonal and as highly structured as possible? And didn't serialism itself seem the musical result of extreme career ambitions, each composer trying to get to the top of the heap by creating more ornate, more convoluted, more difficult-to-analyze systems than his colleagues?

Beyond this, the evidence becomes anecdotal. Very few male composers I know would be uninhibited enough to sing or dance in public. Contrariwise, I know women composers who are made uncomfortable by the obligation to commit their music to permanent, unchangeable notes on paper. I know male composers proud of the complexity of their musical systems, and who clearly feel that such complexity entitles them to a high level of stature in the musical community. I've never known a woman to hold such an attitude. The women I've known are often reluctant to express overweening ambitions; such as the excellent, prolific symphonist Gloria Coates, who wrote several large multi-movement works for orchestra before realizing, with some trepidation, that she might as well call them symphonies.

The temptation - and perhaps it is a temptation that shouldn't be surrendered to - is to draw lines between these observed tendencies and our cultural images of maleness and femaleness. Men, so the cliches go, are ambitious, analytical, driven by self-interest, dictatorial. Women are receptive, emotional, community-oriented, nurturing. Ergo, the music each writes should reflect these qualities.

Case by case, it's obviously not true. Let's take that beautiful, unstructured, lazy Walden Pond of string quartets, Music for Four - it's by a man, John Cage. Let's take that hard-hitting, heavily notated, heirarchically-composed orchestra work Sequoia - it's by a woman, Joan Tower. Neither piece is unusual enough, gender-issues-wise, to be called an exception to anything.

So let's try a different tack. Music in the middle of the 20th century was characterized by a paralyzing excess of structure, logic, scientific precision, individuality. These are frequently considered (and to cite a woman authority, I'm following Pauline Oliveros here, for it was her writings that started me down this path) male-identified values. Opposite values - community, receptiveness, emotionality, intuition, nature - are often considered female-identified.

Music nearly strangled itself in mid-century via an obsessive over-reliance on male-identified qualities. In order for music to be fun to compose again, to exhibit gratifying intuitive rightness, to restore contact with audiences, it desperately needed a drastic influx of female-identified values. It didn't matter if the structural male values were being upheld by women like Betsy Jolas and the receptive female values ushered in by men like La Monte Young. Music urgently needed to get in touch with its feminine side.

It makes sense and even poetic justice that women composers would be at the forefront of that change. If I may speak for male composers, our ambitions, our fear of being considered effeminate (i.e., "not serious"), our need to be more expert (complex) than the other guy's expertise (complexity), had wound us up into a terrible neurotic bind. I say this out of deeply-felt experience. Any one of us could have expressed intuition and emotion in our music, making it more human and lovable; but most of us were too afraid. Afraid of not being The Next Great Composer after Bach, Beethoven, Stockhausen, and so on.

The women composers - if I may be allowed my one baldfaced generalization - were not as afraid. Having received almost nothing from the musical establishment, they had little to lose. Some of them, quite true, felt they had to write huge, crashing, noisy orchestra works to prove that they weren't just "lady-composers." But many, many of them, unintimidated by male-defined career expectations, embraced intuition, naturalness, and personal reference in their music, making it human and resonant to audiences. And, individually, some of them, like Oliveros, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, and Diamanda Galas, played major roles in swinging this century's music back toward a more sane path.

A lot of males haven't accepted that. Male music critics often define "great music" explicitly in terms of male-identified values, and so of course they miss the entire revolution, ignorantly dismissing good new male composers as well as female. But they'll have to change. A recent survey revealed that, in the late 1980s, slightly more than 50 percent of the composers graduating from American colleges were women. And that, for me, is a major guarantee of our future musical health.

Whether women composers are different from men is perhaps one of those endless nature-versus-nurture type debates that can only divide people. What I'd like to suggest instead is that history has placed women composers in a prime position, if they choose to take advantage of it, to exert a healing influence on the tortured music of this late 20th century. Many have so chosen, and we have much cause to be grateful to them. And I hope, this time, nobody's mad at me.

October, 1998

Copyright 1998 by Kyle Gann

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