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Constructing the Identity of a Feminist Musicologist: Mainstream or Margins?

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I won’t be posting during December, so I’ll leave you with a longer piece to be getting on with. This was my keynote address at the Musique et Genre conference in Paris in December 2015.

Wishing you all a vibrantly feminist holiday season, and see you in the New Year


Individuals construct their sense of self through autobiography. We each maintain an internal narrative, using the discourses our culture provides, to make sense of our experiences and thus understand who we are, what we have done, and what we might yet do. We also do this in groups, where shared stories bind people together into cohorts. We tell the stories to newcomers to make them ‘one of us’. We re-tell the stories amongst ourselves to re-live shared experience, and update our understanding of what that experience means. In academia, we call this process ‘literature review’. We create our identities as scholars through the search terms we choose to build our bibliographies.

My intention today is to participate in this reflexive process of identity formation, at both a personal and a disciplinary level. And I wish to do so with the specific purpose of considering how feminist musicology as a field, and by extension, feminist musicologists as scholars, are positioned relative to the mainstream - both the mainstream of our academic world, and the mainstream of wider musical culture. What impact have we had so far, and what impact do we want to have in the future?

This is in part a story of the resilience of canons, of a physical and ideological infrastructure that resists our attempts to dismantle it. It is also in part a critique of the relationship between musicology and the music profession. The central question is: to what extent is it possible to develop a genuinely critical discourse from within the field one wishes to transform? Do we stand at the edge and risk marginalisation, or stand in the middle and face assimilation?

Before we start, I’d like to take you back to 1976, and my journey through A Child’s First Piano Book. I was still at the ‘both thumbs on middle C’ stage when I learned:
'Tune from Haydn': I can't actually remember if the last note was to be played by the left or the right hand'Tune from Haydn': I can't actually remember if the last note was to be played by the left or the right hand

Right from the start of my formation as a musician, I imbibed the stereotypes of the classical canon. ‘Ah, Papa Haydn’ said my father, when he heard me. And it was from my father that I later learned the game of turning the radio on and guessing the composer. The idea that music is classified by author-function, and that you ‘win’ by identifying it, was part of my habitus before it was ever part of my formal education.

I

Leaving my childhood behind: 1991 was the year that three landmark conferences in Minneapolis, London and Utrecht turned a world full of isolated scholars into an international community of feminist musicologists. It sounds exaggerated to call them ‘life-changing’, but in my case it is literally true: I would not have continued into postgraduate research had the London event not given me permission to pursue the ideas that my undergraduate teachers had forbidden me to include in my bachelors dissertation.

Since then, that nascent field has developed into a well-defined terrain. The four strands identified in this event’s Call for Papers are evidence of a mature field of study. And, with this maturity come retrospectives from several of our pioneers, reviewing our journey so far.

Marcia Citron is quite up-beat in her assessment of both the infiltration of works by women into college curricula and the incorporation of critical theory into standard methods. ‘Cultural context,’ she asserts, ‘has emerged as the main paradigm in musicology.’ Ellen Koskoff, by contrast, is frustrated by the failure of feminist methods, and in particular gender as an analytical category, to become fully embedded in ethnomusicology. This intrigues me, as I had thought that ethnomusicology led the way for traditional musicology to understand music as a socially meaningful act. Now I wonder if the feminist grass always looks greener on the other side of the disciplinary fence. Susan McClary draws a parallel with the suffragists of earlier generations. If you look back and see how different the world is as a result of their efforts, you have to consider them successful. But history has not been kind to them; their achievements outshine their reputation.

These retrospectives encourage a state of moderate optimism; there has been a good deal of good work done. And while we’re looking back, it is worth stopping to consider the context in which this work flourished.

II

Feminism - and critical musicology in the wider sense - offered scholarship a new landscape of possibilities in a profession that demands originality, but in a field where the grand narratives of music history had locked down what counted as content. Beethoven studies had become very crowded.

By the 1980s - when the imperative to publish copiously was drastically increasing - your choices were either to apply traditional historical methods to a composer considered so minor that they had not previously been documented, or to try and find something new to say about figures whose work had already been raked over many times. To become expert on a ‘minor’ composer assured a safe corner in the field, but effectively opted out of ever being a big name. On the other hand, the competition was fierce amongst the scholars of the ‘great masters’, as the status of the composer you chose to study was implicitly a proxy for the status you sought amongst your peers as a scholar. Beethoven studies is so crowded because he is the lynchpin that holds the whole firmament of the classical canon together. The growth of music analysis and historical performance practice in the 1970s and 1980s can thus be read as strategies to find new things to say about the same old music.

In this context, the world of New/Critical Musicology opened doors into whole new careers, and it did so by attacking the two primary ideological pillars of musicological orthodoxy: music’s aesthetic autonomy, and the mythology of genius. In the first case, dropping the fiction that music means ‘nothing but itself’ gave access to a huge range of new critical strategies that situated musical works in their contexts, and sought thereby to find contingent, socially-constructed rather than transcendent meanings. In the second, actively dismantling the aesthetic hierarchies between, the ‘great composers’ and everyone else, made possible the study of all kinds of musical agents and traditions that had previously been beneath scholarly notice: popular and world musics that had hitherto been seen as more trivial than art music, performers and listeners who had hitherto been regarded as subservient to composers, even, dare I say it, female musicians.

So, whilst in many ways Critical Musicology framed itself in opposition to the field it emerged from, it also offered all kinds of opportunities within that field. And as a result, even the most traditionally elitist institutions now offer far more critically and musically varied courses than 30 years ago.

Whilst I am in literature review mode, however, I have some further observations. First, to note how much reading lists of feminism in music are still dominated by texts from the early-mid 1990s. As I’ve not been employed by a university for six years now, when I was invited to give this paper, my first instinct was to worry about how far behind the field I had fallen, and I was both relieved and disappointed to find myself not as far behind as I had expected. There’s some good stuff I should catch up on, but not as much, proportionally, as I thought there might be.

There is an argument that once feminism has done its work in changing the discipline, the need for it as a sub-field in its own right diminishes. All work, goes the argument, should include an awareness of gender and cultural politics. You could point to both of my books as cases in point: neither would be shelved under feminism, both use gender as an analytical category at various points. But we are some way off that ideal world in which feminism is no longer needed; our work here is not yet done.

Second observation: if instead of gender or feminism, you do a literature search for ‘music and masculinities’, you’ll find yourself with a good deal of current material. Now, we should celebrate this recognition that masculinity is a culturally contingent category, rather than an assumed human norm. But, didn’t we already have a literature all about music and men?

When I was young and foolish, I used to think I wanted to find a man who could talk about his feelings. What I actually wanted, it turns out, was a man who would listen while I talked about mine. Interesting as much of this burgeoning literature on music and masculinities is, I can’t help wondering whether women are being pushed back to the margins, and if moreover we are now also supposed to be grateful for the sensitivity of the men who still assume the right to take centre-stage.

Third observation: my articles on feminist themes have all appeared in relatively minor publications. I had attempted to get work into mainstream journals, but I seemed to achieve that more reliably with my less explicitly feminist work. This point is entirely anecdotal, of course, and when I was failing to get this work published, I took those failures to heart as my own inadequacies. And as the pressures mount not only to publish, but to publish in high-status places, you find that you focus on the areas where you are meeting success, leaving the less readily accepted material to languish. I never did hear back from Music & Letters.

III

Back in September [2015], a long-standing British magazine called The Spectator published an article about the quality of music by women. It came in response to news that an online petition started by a 17-year-old had persuaded one of the UK’s main examination boards to include some music by female composers in its syllabus. The article started thus:

A delicate question lies at the heart of the subject of female composers, and it’s not ‘Why are they so criminally underrepresented in the classical canon?’ It’s ‘How good is their music compared with that of male composers?’

The author, Damian Thompson, then picks a small collection of pieces by women and is rude about them. Critical terms include ‘dud’, ‘platitudes’, ‘embarrassingly banal’, ‘boring’, and ‘badly crafted’. The only reason anyone has heard of these women, he claims, is special pleading. This article raises several instructive points.

The first is how entitled Thompson feels to make these pronouncements as a gate-keeper to culture. He is a well-established journalist, though not a specialist in the arts. But his lack of awareness that terms like ‘greatness’ and ‘genius’, which he uses quite uncritically, are now seen as problematic is apparently no obstacle to using his access to a wide readership to shore up his unearned cultural privilege.

Feminist epistemology teaches us that all knowledge is constructed within a social context, and that the writer’s power to define what counts as knowledge is not neutral. So we situate ourselves, acknowledging the partial and provisional nature of our truths. This article reminds us that when people exercise the power conferred by their cultural capital, they don’t check their privilege; instead they wield their hegemonic discourses confidently and aggressively to keep those who would disrupt their knowledge-base at bay. The arrogance of Thompson’s style provides a warning that the scholar who checks her privilege by situating herself can risk giving away the power that comes with that privilege.

The second point to note is the intemperate tone of both the article and the comments that followed it. In our era of social media a virtual flashmob of misogyny routinely gathers to bully any online expression of feminist consciousness. Yet, part of me is genuinely surprised to see a baying mob summoned to the attack on what is by now a relatively mild suggestion that perhaps an all-male canon looks a bit passé.

This leads to the third and most significant point. Given that it is a quarter of a century since feminist musicology was established as part of our discipline, why is it only now that there is any significant public debate about the absence of female composers from the UK’s school curricula? What does this tell us about the relationship between the academy and wider musical life? Have all music scholars been basically wasting our time, or just the feminist ones?

At this point, the reflexive, reflective process of identity construction slips from literature review into soul-searching.

IV

I lectured higher education from 1995 to 2009, and during the first half of that time, I had specific responsibility for the parts of the curriculum that dealt with music history and its literature. The courses I inherited were built around the Great Works of the Great Masters model, and my employers were, in principle, happy to accept that we should update them to reflect current developments in musicology. So in theory, I was in a strong position to make significant changes in the way people thought about music, its histories and its meanings. I made an honest attempt to wield that institutional power, and in the process learned a lot about the mechanisms by which canons are maintained.

First, there’s what the students come in with. Their school-teachers had all been brought up through the same kinds of courses I was just starting to change, so of course the students brought this worldview with them to college. And this wasn’t just what they’d been taught, this was the framework of values in which they had been encouraged to identify as musicians. It baffled me at first to read essays that finished, ‘I therefore conclude that Beethoven was the greatest composer that ever lived!’ The student who wrote that was quite affronted when I pointed out how irrelevant it was to the essay question he was supposed to be answering.

I thus learned from my students how invested people are in these old, exclusionary models; this was the same dynamic, in a rather less sophisticated version, as scholars bidding for status by doing PhDs on Beethoven’s sketchbooks. I also learned that the students from less privileged backgrounds care about this the most. I was critiquing these power structures from inside the club; for those who were struggling to get in, those signifiers of cultural capital were hard-won, and they were not willing to let them go.

Next, there was the infrastructure of the institutions themselves. Now, I wanted students to question our standard historical narratives, and I also wanted them to read widely around the subject. But, given the content of our libraries, reading round the subject perpetually reinforced the very worldview my classes were attempting to subvert. Our shared academic heritage exerts a huge disciplinary drag on the process of change.

And there was the wider musical life of the institutions. Students may have learned in their history classes to see music as a socially-embedded cultural practice, but in their instrumental lessons and orchestral rehearsals they learned the core repertoire of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms as the central pillars of the classical repertoire. And while doing so, they also learned to respect the detail of the score as both constituting the autonomous musical work, and representing the authority of the composer over the performer. They imbibed not just content, that is, but attitudes towards that content, as I had with Papa Haydn as a child.

Looking back, I was part of this problem. My classes on music and gender examined music by women, but when I taught Schenkerian analysis, my examples came from Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. I too had been constituted as a musician through this same core repertoire.

So canons maintain themselves in part through our physical infrastructure, and in part through institutional processes. The statues of the great composers and the bound Urtext editions encode not just the content of the canon, but how we should feel about it, while curriculum and examination structures regulate access to that cultural capital. These external cultural facts, though, are also manifestations of our internalised conceptual and emotional structures, patterns that keep snapping us back to the grid of our underlying enculturation.

So, whilst the Critical Musicology project succeeded in broadening what constitutes a valid object of study in the subject called ‘Music’, this breadth has often suffered from the either/or logic of intersectionality. Positioning ‘women’ as one minority among many, rather than as half of all populations, we find ourselves studying many more types of music, but still mostly male musicians.

Implicated in this ongoing marginalisation of women’s music is the myth of historical progress, the idea that we see so many more successful female musicians working today than we read about in our history books because conditions for women today are better. And whilst conditions may indeed be better, this so-called ‘explanation’ for women’s absence from the canon actually helps to keep us out. The myth of historical progress hides the achievements of women omitted (or removed) from the record of the past, whilst deflecting attention from the obstacles that still remain. It blames women’s invisibility on past injustices, rather than on current authorial choices, and leaves each generation believing that they are the first.

One of Feminist Musicology’s aims is to bring women from the margins of our discipline into the mainstream, to have us recognised as fully-functioning musical subjects with authentic creative agency. But, embedded in a tradition that ignores us, women’s voices can be hard to hear. The ways we have been brought up to think about music actively impede our perception of historical women’s work, and interfere with how we listen to the work of our contemporary female peers. We even doubt our own.

The problem is that the disciplinary inertia that obscures women as musical agents is also the means by which our musical culture is preserved and propagated. The infrastructure of canonicity may constrain what we can do as musicians and how we can do it, but by the same token it is what enables us to be musicians at all. Whilst I am very ready to critique the narratives that cast Beethoven as the transcendental signified in a pantheon of masculine genius, I am most reluctant to relinquish the cognitive and emotional structures built deep into me through studying and teaching Beethoven’s music. To turn my back on Beethoven would be to turn my back on my own musicianship.

V

When I started this paper, I had a clear view of its central themes: literature review as disciplinary autobiography, and the strategic question of whether we do better to stand at the edge and critique or attempt a take-over of the centre. As it has unfolded, I have often found myself confused by the way the categories I am deploying perpetually collapse into one other.

One moment I am writing about musicology as the field, with the careers of scholars as territorial battles over the definition of legitimate work. The next moment, I am talking about musical practices, about our objects of study, that is, and how real achievements are marginalised through the discourses by which we understand them. One moment I contemplate my students’ cultural allegiances, and the next I discover how the patriarchal mainstream is built into my own fundamental ways of being as both musician and musicologist.

This could be from a lack of clarity in my thinking. But it may also be telling us something about the relationship between musicology as a discipline and music as our field of study.

The act of writing is one of separation, we hold ourselves apart from that which we contemplate to construct an argument about it, to create a coherent narrative, and thus a belief that we understand its place in the world. The sense of objectivity this affords the writer, though, is an illusion. The authorial ‘I’ comes into being through the act of writing, much as the narrative self is actively constituted through our individual projects of identity-formation. Both emerge through and within the discourses available to us; there is no place outside of those contexts on which to place our critical fulcrum, to ground my Derrida references in Archimedes. “There is only a taking up of the tools where they lie,’ to quote Judith Butler, “where the very ‘taking up’ is enabled by the tool lying there.”

So, back to practical, tactical matters to finish. Our central problematic - margins or mainstream - is impossible to resolve at either a philosophical level or in practice. All we can do is as Judith Butler suggests and pick up the tools lying in reach of where each of us currently is as a scholar.

The two issues that have emerged to worry me the most through the process of writing this paper are, first, the way feminist musicology has been gently sidelined within the discipline since those heady days of the early 90s, and second, how little impact any up-to-date musicology seems to have on the ways music is talked about and thought about in wider culture. We are at the margins of a field that is itself marginal.

However, feminism as a cultural and political movement has a presence in the public sphere today that is much bolder and less apologetic than 25 years ago. Back when musicology first embraced gender studies, the rest of the world had already moved on to “post-feminism” and regarded anyone still identifying as overtly feminist with the same embarrassment they regarded flares and platform shoes. These days, feminism may be as contested as ever, but it is far more visible in mainstream media than musicology has ever aspired to be.

So if we are concerned about the contemporary relevance of our discipline, about our impact beyond the walls of the academy, about our usefulness in the world, then maybe one of the tools we have at hand at this moment in our history is this wider resonance with feminism in the mainstream beyond our discipline. The retrospectives I cited at the start of this paper considered how feminism has changed musicology. When we look back at today from 20 years hence, it would be gratifying if we were considering how feminist musicology has helped change society.

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