Feminism

Playlist 2017: Second Commentary

It's been a good week for listening to music by women. Both Radio 3 and Classic FM made an effort for International Women's Day, and to do them justice, it wasn't just on Wednesday, the whole week saw rather more music by women than you'd normally hear. Of course, I am grumpy as all get-out that this week's programming isn't the norm, but not as grumpy as I would have been had they made less of an effort! It will seem more like a 'celebration' of women's music (as the programming has been generally been billed) if it turns out that making an effort has made a difference.

Meanwhile, my collection of music by women is growing nicely. As with the pieces covered in my first commentary, I am delighted to find so many good performances available. It is all proving a very rich and satisfying musical experience. Keeping the general comments to a minimum today, as there are plenty of pieces of music to talk about since last time.

  • Lili Boulanger, Du fond de l'abîme (Psalm 130) (1917). Given my own musical activities, I find myself somewhat surprised to have got this far down the list before the first choral piece. I dithered between this performance, and one conducted by Lili’s sister Nadia from 1968. I think I prefer the orchestral textures in the other one, but the choral sound in this one.
  • Soapbox: Beyoncé Deserves an Apology

    soapboxI wrote this post back in January, and put it on the 'post when there's nothing much else going on' list. But now seemed the appropriate moment to post it, in the week after Adele responded to winning a Grammy by saying that it should have gone to Beyoncé.

    When I’m in my feminist musicology mode, I generally try to stay analytical rather than polemical, but sometimes I get cross. A headline towards the end of 2016 had this effect on me. I left it to brew for a while to see if it was just a passing irritation, but it turns out that it keeps calling me back to call out its casual sexism and racism.

    The headline introduced a cute non-story about the quirks of CD charts, in which it was reported that the new box-set of Mozart’s complete works was the best-selling CD of 2016. I call this a non-story because the chart counts the number of physical discs sold, so a set that includes 225 of them doesn’t really have to sell very many units to clock up an impressive number. And of course the sale of physical discs is becoming something of a minority form of music distribution these days.

    But it’s fun to note, and pleasing to see that such a mammoth undertaking as a complete-works set is doing well. Nothing to be cross about there.

    The thing that aroused my ire, though, was the way the story was introduced*:

    Playlist 2017: First Commentary

    My musical adventure for 2017 is coming along nicely. I’ve been adding a new item to the playlist of women’s music every few days, and it turns out the goal of making it up to 100 items during the year means that it is never very far from my mind. I’m still thinking about the last one when it’s time to look for another.

    So far, my search process is very informal. I think: which female composers do I know about, but not know very much of their music very well? I pick an example that seems rather different from the last one, and then have a furtle about in youtube. I can imagine I’ll have to get a bit more organised as I go on, but there is time for that later.

    One thing that is abundantly clear already is what a wealth of music is readily available. The limitations on programming and curriculum decisions are really about the internal knowledge-scapes of the programmers and curriculum designers, not the lack of possible material. Looking at exam syllabuses and concerts and radio listings, you’d think things haven’t really progressed that much in 25 years, but we are so much better resourced for listening opportunities than a quarter of a century ago, it is really very cheering.

    Right Sex, Right Instrument

    cottonbookLast week I attended a talk, hosted by the Balsall Heath Local History Society, by Maggie Cotton about her career as the UK’s first female percussionist in a professional orchestra. It bore the same title as her autobiography, ‘Wrong Sex, Wrong Instrument,’ which was the reason she was given, age 19, for being refused a grant to study at the Royal Academy of Music.

    The talk was, as you can imagine, fascinating in many dimensions. My main focus in blogging about it is going to be the dimension of music and gender – unsurprisingly, given my interests as a musicologist all these years. But one of the striking things about the talk, notwithstanding its title, was how little gender obtruded into the stories. Most of the time it was a collection of tales from a percussionist, about her travels, about the instruments, about the conductors, composers and fellow players she had worked with.

    New Project for 2017


    On the eve of this year, I confidently predicted I’d be engaging in some musical feminism during 2017, and that forecast has come true already a couple of times in January. It’s not just that, in depressing contrast to the expectations people have of ‘progress’ over time, our musical lives aren’t immune to the upsurge in misogynistic discourse in culture at large. It’s also that I’m finding the analytical tools vouchsafed by writers like Daniel Kahneman are use proving useful to understand the manifestations of unconscious prejudice that seem to be swamping us.

    A perennial case in point for musicians is the way our musical canons are constituted as exclusively male. Whilst the profession remains open to female musicians to make their careers (merely strewing the passages into it with lots of hidden obstacles whose existence is strenuously denied by those who don’t stub their toes on them), the history books remain resolutely closed. In contrast to the consistent tokenism of subjects like English literature, we still have people studying music for A level who encounter not a single woman in the syllabus.

    On All-Woman Shortlists

    Well, all-woman anythings really. Shortlists are the famous example from the process of MP candidate-selection that really delivered, briefly, a more representative set of parliamentarians to the UK. But the reason I've been thinking about this again recently was my conversation with that outraged man who couldn't enter competitions for female composers.

    I'm going to begin with a critique of his objections to this method of encouraging female talent, which were entirely typical of the genre and thus worth discussing in general terms that go beyond this particular instance. This will be the grumpy feminist bit. If you prefer, you can skip ahead to the more cheerful part later on where I discuss the very positive experiences this approach offers, which aren't necessarily apparent until you've participated in them.

    On the 5% Rule, and Other Errors of Thinking

    Joanna Russ, whose detailed analysis of critical strategies that thwart female artists I have had reason to cite before, makes an observation about the constitution of anthologies and curricula in the study of English literature. Quite reliably, about 5% of the writers represented will be female. It won’t always be the same women listed, as different editors bring different interests to the task, or focus on different nationalities or time-periods, but the proportion is remarkably stable.

    You can check this if you like. After all, Russ was writing back in 1983, surely things have got better now? I did with The Oxford Book of English Verse, published in 1999, and it is up to about 6%, so that gives you a measure of historical progress. Ahem.

    Anyway, I have been aware of this form of tokenism for some years, but have only recently started getting an insight into how it works, thanks to the work of people like Daniel Kahneman and Rolf Dobelli, who have done such sterling work in diagnosing habitual errors of thinking.

    Genius and Bad Faith

    battersbyThe conversations about race and repertoire that I mentioned just after the Sweet Adelines International Convention continue to thrive in both public and private spaces, and continue to present all of us with much food for thought. Today's post is in the genre of 'trying to nurture a vague hunch into full thought-hood'. If you are reading this, then I managed to articulate it enough to have something to publish...

    The hunch is this: that the way classify certain cultural artefacts as 'art' or the product of 'genius' serves to protect them from genuine critical scrutiny. We may analyse them and discover cultural values that encode oppressive social relations, but that analysis does not dent the work's reputation or place in its canon. If anything, it just makes it look more important to be subject to all that attention: musicology as clickbait.

    ...found this helpful?

    I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.


    Archive by date

    Syndicate content