Plus de Musicologie en Paris

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Quick plug for this publication from members of CReIMQuick plug for this publication from members of CReIMHaving unloaded my initial impressions of the experience of attending a conference in my second language for the first time, I also wanted to have a brief mull over some of the things I found myself taking notes about from other people’s papers. Feminist musicology is a relatively recent addition to the landscape of francophone musicology, I gather, and is still getting itself established.

(Whereas in anglophone musicology, it was fully respectable by the mid-1990s. This means that when you say anything particularly feminist these days, some helpful soul can breezily dismiss your point with the assertion that we did all this 20 years ago so there can really be nothing left to complain about. I am thinking of a particular exchange from a couple of months ago when I write that, but in a fit of discretion I am not going to say who it was between. Just because I am angry with someone doesn’t mean I have to be gratuitously rude about them online.)

Anyways, one of the things I like about conferences that are themed, but that cover a wide range of musical worlds, is that you learn all kinds of things you wouldn’t necessarily thought to seek out for yourself. At the same time, you get all kinds of new perspectives on your own regular obsessions. So here are some of the random things I got interested in.

  • There were quite a few papers that got me thinking about the Myth of Historical Progress. In some cases, it was because people were falling for the mythology, assuming that women’s opportunities are increasing through the natural passage of time - so I was glad we had some discussion about it on the second day to head people off from spending too much time in that blind alley. By contrast, there were a good many papers documenting the careers of musical women of the past that demonstrate their absence from the history books is a problem of how we write history rather than necessarily lack of opportunities in all previous eras.

    One paper that struck me particularly was Pauline Malmqvist’s account of women in electronic music and DJing. This is a genre that has emerged since second-wave feminism, and is yet heavily male-dominated. As a case-study it is as succinct a critique of the myth as I have seen.

  • Mass singing as a means for social bonding is a theme you come across all the time in both the ethnomusicological and historical literatures. Belén Pérez Castillo’s paper on music in women’s prisons after the Spanish Civil War showed how mass singing can be a vehicle for political oppression: political prisoners were required to sing nationalistic and religious songs to show support of the Franco regime they had fought against. Substituting lyrics then becomes an act of resistance, re-appropriating the subjective space the forced participation aims to colonise. Amongst other things, this gives a whole new perspective on the concept of the ‘non-singer’
  • The period my PhD focused on spanned a major shift in how gender was conceived, moving from a hierarchical model in which women were thought of as like men, only inferior, to a model in which the two sexes were considered radically different in essence. Imyra Santana’s paper tracing the critical reception of female instrumentalists performing in the Concert Spirituel saw exactly this shift in critical strategy at the same historical moment.

    In the 18th century, concert reviewers commented on women’s playing in much the same terms as men’s; possibly with somewhat more luke-warm adjectives, or with shorter accounts, but they didn’t take a fundamentally different approach. By the 1820s, most of a review of a female musician’s performance would be taken up by commentary on her appearance, with just a few words about her playing as an afterthought. One could wish today’s press could rediscover 18th-century approaches...

  • Feminist musicology in France is being nurtured through a network of scholars called CReIM: Cercle de Recherche Interdisciplinaire sur les Musiciennes. There were two particular facets of the way they have framed their work that I liked. First, the focus on musicians, rather than specifically composers, is a basically more egalitarian approach to historiography than the rigid hierarchy between composers (and in particular, the ‘Great Masters’) and everyone else that continues to dominate our standard discourses about art music - and by extension other types of music that aspire to high cultural status. And, you know, it could be that the women who directed the troupes at the Opéra Comique at the turn of the 18th century, as documented by Bertrand Porot, could well have been more important at the time than the people who were writing the music. This move may have historical as well as discursive integrity.

    Second, defining the research network as a circle rather than as a centre struck me as both strategically and philosophically canny. Circles are inclusive, and can expand; centres concentrate power. The metaphor of encirclement is also nice way to think about feminist musicology’s relationship with the discipline as a whole: it should embrace everything. My own paper was an extended reflection on the problems of marginalisation or assimilation, and this image of surrounding, or enveloping the field you wish to transform struck me as an effective way to make the edges productive rather than peripheral.

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