New Project for 2017

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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.

You get all kinds of justifications for this, but the underlying problem is one of availability. Not literal availability – the feminist musicology of the 1980s and 1990s did a lot of sterling work to document the work of historical female musicians. But that work has largely failed to infiltrate our overall musical imaginary. The prototype composer of our culture remains male, white, and bewigged.

This is true for those of us who think this a problem as much as for those who are happy with the current shape of our knowledge. The structures of how we think about classical music are built in our heads in ways that make it hard to integrate those women we know did good work, but whose music we just don’t get to hear very often.

I had already been brewing a blog post to analyse some of these epistemological difficulties (it’s something I presented on at the Musique et Genre Conference in Paris at the end of 2015 too). You may yet get that full analysis.

But the day after I started my notes on it, my friend and pioneer of feminist musicology in the UK, Sophie Fuller shared a glorious recording of Grace Williams’s Sea Sketches on Facebook. Williams exactly falls into that category of musician I know about but of whose music I have only a passing acquaintance with the detail.

As well as being a bewitching musical experience, this reminded me that the only way to make our forgotten sisters and foremothers come more easily to mind when browsing our internal representations of musical repertories is to make them more literally available in our external soundscapes. And this is so much easier to do now than it was in the early 1990s when I first started to explore this neglected repertory. We now have the internet.

So, I gave myself the task during 2017 to build and share a playlist of women’s music that, if we hadn’t all had such an impoverished and partial musical education, we should probably know already. I reckon 100 pieces is a good target - it will make me go beyond the obvious, and ensure I have a certain regularity of engagement, but not add them so thick and fast that I skimp on the listening.

I am doing this in the spirit of ‘be the change you want to see’. If I want everybody to listen to more music by women, the person to start with is myself. It is also for my own artistic growth. One’s musical experiences do tend to settle into well-worn patterns, in which the new material you encounter fits quite comfortably. It’s been a while since I have deliberately stretched myself in any sustained way in this particular dimension, so it will be good for my imagination to have a bit of a declutter and re-organise.

I’ll be putting up a link to the playlist on the front page of this website, and also periodically blogging about some of my choices. You’re welcome to join me on the journey, or just dip in when the mood takes you. By the end of 2017, we will have the following outcomes:

  • A musical collection that explicitly refutes the impression that women’s musical creations are rare, and by implication aberrant. There has been a lot of talk of normalisation in political discourse recently, and this playlist will use that process to positive effect.
  • A commensurate reconfiguration of our mental landscapes in which our knowledge of women’s work stops feeling tokenistic and gets into a more meaningful dialogue with our existing musical knowledge.
  • Happy memories of 2017 as a year of musical adventure.

I’ll figure out exactly how I’m going to make my choices as I go along, but to start with I just have to share the work that inspired this project. Enjoy!

And here is the complete playlist.

If you haven't read it yet, I can strongly recommend "Lutyens, Maconchy, Williams and Twentieth-century British Music: A Blest Trio of Sirens" by Rhiannon Mathias

Nicola LeFanu was perhaps fortunate in being a 2nd generation woman composer too...

For listening, I would recommend:

Roxanna Panufnik's Westminster Mass (I particularly like the Gloria and the Sanctus!)

Thea Musgrave's Clarinet Concerto (1968), Horn Concerto (1971), Helios (1994), Three Women (1997) and also any of her operas - particularly Mary Queen of Scots and A Christmas Carol

Elizabeth Lutyens' "O Saisons, O Chateuax", "And Suddenly It's Evening", and 6 tempi for 10 instruments

Ethyl Smyth's "Mass in D" is also worth a listen. I find this one interesting because Grove included it in his Essays on Music, whereas later editions of the essays removed it - since it was "not popular" or widely enough performed!!

Oh, thank you for all these suggestions Colin, really appreciated!

I have heard the Musgrave Clarinet Concerto, but not for a couple of decades, so it is overdue a re-listen :-)

Interesting about the Grove Essays - fits the pattern of women being known in their lifetime, but getting quietly dropped from the literature thereafter, which I wrote about here:

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