Tag: gender parity

Playing Like a Girl: The Problems with Reception of Women in Music

By Carrie Leigh Page with Dana Reason

The year was 1942. In the USA, all-girl orchestras toured extensively, rather like a jazz version of A League of Their Own. Audiences were surprised to find that these girls played “just like men!” As in A League of Their Own, though, when the men returned, women were expected to go back to homemaking or other acceptably female professions. Those women who were leaders found themselves in the background once more. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington play large in the bylines of the Swing Era, but women’s bands such as the Sweethearts, the Melodears, and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “All-Girl Orchestra” disappeared. According to Sherrie Tucker, author of Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s, the story lived on in a small way, not in music schools, but in oral histories from women’s jazz festivals and in women’s studies programs, as a sociological phenomenon. One such group that crossed both gender and racial boundaries was the integrated International Sweethearts of Rhythm from Piney Woods, Mississippi, sometimes referred to as the precursors to the Freedom Riders.

How do such important contributors to 20th-century music get lost so easily? This is a question of reception.

Leaving out receptions related to touchdowns and weddings, Merriam-Webster associates the word reception with three synonyms: receipt, response, and admission. Working from that definition, we can perhaps refine the distinct meanings of reception into three musical steps:

Receipt – Getting the music to an audience, which involves access.

Response – Having an audience react to the music and form judgments about its worth.

Admission – Allowing the work to be part of a collective group, canon, or curriculum.

Any new music or new message has problems with reception.

Any new music or new message has problems with reception. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven all had problems with reception. Even Jesus had problems with reception in his own hometown. Women in particular, though, have problems with reception in music. Lucy Green, music education philosopher and author of Music, Gender, Education, posits that there is a spectrum for acceptance of women in music. A woman singer is accepted because using her body to make music is an extension of her femininity. Put an instrument in her hands or in front of her face, and it interrupts the impression of a woman as either “sexually available or maternally occupied.” The role of composer (and, I would add, producer), the dux femina facti, is the greatest challenge of all according to Green, because it places the woman in control and invites the audience to gaze upon the inner workings of her mind, disembodying the woman entirely.

The struggle to actually get our performances and compositions to an audience is particularly cumbersome and well-documented. Critical reviews of works by women can be a mixed bag that is not always based on the work itself. Actually acknowledging the worth of work by women seems painful for some in the establishment. This is true for women across all genres of contemporary music making.

Receipt: Accessing the Audience

The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) exists because women found difficulties with reception, and the problem begins with access. In our last IAWM article, we raised a gruesome specter in the “Editor’s Choice” list of concert and contest band works on the J.W. Pepper website. Just 16 works by women out of more than 1600 made the cut. (For those of you who asked, yes, I counted.) Even when works by women are available, many performing organizations seem to be sticking with men. A Baltimore Symphony Orchestra report by Ricky O’Bannon showed the representation of women composers in major concert halls around the USA to be around 1.3% during the 2016-2017 season, and only 10% of the works by living composers were by women. According to Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, only about 4% of the time scheduled for this year’s BBC Proms includes music by women composers.

Instrumental performance interrupts the expected roles of women: mother or sex object.

We’ve established the problems for women composers. What about the performers and conductors? Green’s work shows that instrumental performance interrupts the expected roles of women: mother or sex object. Case in point: Most Miss Americas win while competing as dancers or singers. A few exceptions to that include piano, flute, harp, or violin. A notable outlier is Debbye Turner, who won in 1990 with a marimba medley. There is not a winning trumpeter or saxophonist in sight. What about the wildly successful Pietà ensembles of Vivaldi’s time? According to Rosie Dilnot, “They generally performed in the galleries, or cantorie, of the church, by candle light and stationed behind gauze curtains and a metal grille.” That “mystique” of femininity was preserved.

This is why blind auditions are so important to the rise of women in our orchestras. The story of Abbie Conant and her struggle to keep the orchestra job she had already won in Munich was a flashpoint issue in orchestras of the 1990s, and a 2000 Harvard study determined that the screen between jurors and the musicians they are evaluating increased the number of women hired by 30%. A 2014 article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlights that the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra now enjoys a higher proportion of women than men in its ranks, and even the Vienna Philharmonic, which did not admit women until 1997, is likely to equalize its gender imbalance by the next generation. (Pay differences between men and women are a concurrent question to be addressed in these institutions.)

A blind audition is probably impossible for conductors.

However, a blind audition is probably impossible for conductors, and we still see an enormously thick glass ceiling, or as some sources term it, the “glass podium.” There are a few women making headway, but the number of women conductors remains embarrassingly small. The same BSO report mentioned earlier shows female orchestra musicianship to be around 47% percent in the 85 American Symphony orchestras surveyed, but they are overwhelmingly led by men, with only 8.8% of concerts being conducted by women (5.2% for major orchestras). Linda Hartley shows that the same problem exists in the band world, with similar numbers observed at that Mecca of “brass ceilings”: Midwest Clinic.

Though most of the discussion above centers on classical genres, jazz and experimental music programming is similarly restrictive. Biddy Healey commented on the gendering of instruments and the exclusion of women in the “social art” of jazz culture in her essay, “Be a Good Girl or Play Like a Man.” Even the title emphasizes the uncomfortable binary of expectations placed on women.

Women are most often hired as part of someone else’s group rather than as a leader of a large group.

IAWM board member and musicologist Dana Reason has conducted extensive research in this field. Reason’s 2002 dissertation on experimental women improvisers and jazz programming examined five major jazz festivals and concluded that the festival planners at times seemed locked into gender stereotypes: women pianists and singers were hired for “emotionality or sensuality”; women were most often hired as part of someone else’s group rather than as a leader of a large group, and the same small pool of women was rehired each year, seeming to fulfill an implicit “quota” of gender diversity without more extensive research into or appreciation for the breadth and depth of music making in the larger pool of women jazz artists. Such programming creates “silos within silos”—a small experimental jazz pool, and an even smaller pool of women practicing in that genre, and an infinitely smaller pool of the same female artists getting hired year after year.

In pop music as well, grave differences need redress. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative published a study this year that notes that women make up only 22.4% of artists, 12.3% of songwriters, and 2% of producers. A recent article in Billboard (“Where Are All the Female Music Producers?”) , the response from Ebonie Smith (“Why Are Female Producers Everywhere, Yet So Invisible?), and countless other sources highlight the invisible role of the woman producer. Smith seems to agree with Tricia Rose’s position that the primary factor that hinders growth is the cold reception of female apprentices in the tech-heavy, male-dominated studio culture.

In short, many audiences do not get access to works created by women, whether notated, improvised, or produced.

Response: Recognition and Value

Over 90% of Grammy nominations for popular songs go to men.

In the Annenberg report, we see that just over 90% of Grammy nominations for popular songs go to men. This lack of critical recognition in the pop industry, combined with the paucity of women awarded prizes and fellowships, emphasizes the invisibility of women across multiple genres.

As Reason points out, we feel the absence of women twofold: they are inadequately programmed and inadequately covered by media:

When coverage of women does occur in magazines or online, the tendency to foreground physical descriptions, make overtly gendered remarks, or advance theories as to the exceptionality of the woman in question. . . can distract readers from the quality of the work and the artistic achievements of experimental women.

In 1903, musicologist Arthur Elson (1873-1940) published a book entitled Woman’s Work in Music, a surprisingly comprehensive and relatively sympathetic tome for its time, detailing the historical roles of women in Western music as performers, patronesses, teachers, researchers, and composers, with a special focus on contemporary women composers at the end of the book. However, despite his own evidence to the contrary (literally over a thousand years of evidence on women making music), Elson still asked if women were “handicapped by the constitution of their sex” and believed that “woman’s work in music will always show more of delicate grace and refinement that man’s, and will be to some extent lacking in the broader effects of strong feeling.”

Elson seemed to claim the ability to distinguish a woman’s compositional product from a man’s, but Ethel Smyth, a contemporary composer about which he writes, was often accused of writing music that was overly masculine, according to researcher Elizabeth Kertesz. In her analysis of critical reception of Smyth’s works, Kertesz explains:

In Smyth’s case, she was accused of being too masculine for demonstrating excessive ambition in her attempts to compose using major forms which employed substantial resources and advanced techniques. Even loud, bold writing, hardly a rarity in Smyth’s style, was seen as masculine, as was technical and formal mastery. The charge of insufficient femininity was levelled at her because some critics considered her expressive range to be too limited at the tender, feminine end of the spectrum. Femininity itself was less clearly defined, including vaguer attributes such as charm, simplicity and grace. (p. 168)

Kertesz organizes the gendered critical reception of Ethel Smyth into three main categories (p. 136):

1. It’s good – for a woman.

2. Comparisons of “feminine” music and “masculine” music.

3. Reflections on the composer herself or the issues of the women’s movement.

Unfortunately, these categories are still applicable to some critical responses to women’s music today, from Vasily Petrenko’s comments about Marin Alsop to that totally weird, “there’s a good reason why there are no great female composers” article from The Spectator . (Don’t miss Emily Hogstad’s snort-laughingly funny response to it!)

Admission: The Musical Canon(s)

[The canon] can imply ideals of unity, consensus, and order. To adherents such ideals serve moral ends as they forge a common vision for the future. To opponents, however, they paper over the realities of social diversity and political dissent.—Martha Citron, Gender and the Musical Canon
It is a question of perspective, a question of emphasis. Just as we can and must cite a black text within the larger American tradition, we can and must cite it within its own tradition, a tradition not defined by a pseudoscience of racial biology or a mystically shared essence called blackness but by the repetition and revision of shared themes, topoi and tropes, the call and response of voice, their music and cacophony.—Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Whose Canon is it Anyhow?”

Martha Citron’s work, quoted above, is one of several winners of the IAWM’s Pauline Alderman Award. This award specifically honors researchers in the field of women in music with prizes for books, articles, and reference works. The Alderman awards are one of the ways the IAWM is working to encourage the study of women’s music and to help women music makers find responsive and sympathetic critics.

Change is intimidating to some, and glacially slow to others.

As we can glean from Henry Gates’s quote, whether discussing the musical canon or the literary canon, the idea of change is intimidating to some, and glacially slow to others. The furor over Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-winning DAMN. demonstrates that our musical world is still woefully reluctant to admit newcomers.

The fact is, women have been working in these musical canons alongside men all along. Studying Suor Leonora D’Este’s madrigals and Francesca Caccini’s Ruggiero does not detract from the accomplishments of the Gesualdo or Monteverdi; it enriches our understanding of early Baroque. Playing records of the multitalented Clora Bryant and Ginger Smock does not take anything from Dizzy or Bird. Julia Amanda Perry’s Stabat Mater more than holds up to those by Vivaldi, Poulenc, and Szymanowski and deserves a place in sacred concerts.

In one indicative pop culture canon, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, we find very few female songwriters honored. The first class of more than 118 stylistically divergent inductees included Irving Berlin and Cole Porter alongside John Philip Sousa and William Billings, but only four women: Katherine Lee Bates, Anne Caldwell, Julia Ward Howe, and Carrie Jacobs-Bond. Since then, only 20 women have been added, and, as Lashonda Katrice Bennet points out, only two black female songwriters.

Reason offers the following comments about the process of changing the canon:

Discovering the many voices of contemporary music making by women and allocating space for them is an important step to bridging the discursive gaps in emergent practices involving women. A research and arts presentation model that from the outset, encourages different authenticities, aesthetic practices, and musical languages to co-exist without hierarchical agendas, could emphasize the importance of individual and collective identities and voices of innovative and creative women working with music and sound.

Women do not exist in a vacuum unto themselves, and neither do the men.

Publishers, concert curators, record labels, and textbook authors—in short, those who in our time define the “canon”—need to take note that women do not exist in a vacuum unto themselves, and neither do the men. We can acknowledge the plurality of experiences of women musicians, AND we can place them within the larger framework of the musical canon.

To lift another quote from Dr. Gates’s article—perhaps a bit out of context, but apropos to the moment—it’s time for the gatekeepers of the canon to “say ‘yes’ to the female within.”

Receiving Women in Music: How receptive are you, really?

How receptive are you to women in music? Answer these 10 questions.

If you’ve gotten to the end of this article, thank you and congratulations. The International Alliance for Women in Music serves as a platform for many types of music-making women from all over the world and encourages active performance and study of women in music. It is our job to bring up questions that allow all musicians to examine their day-to-day work closely and critically to see if they are truly aligning with ideals of inclusion. Are you giving women access to audiences? Are you giving women adequate coverage and thoughtful criticism? Are you creating space for women in your canon? This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a starting place for individuals and organizations to evaluate how receptive they are being to women in music.

1. Take up the #5x5Challenge: Can I name at least five women composers in at least five different eras of music history? Can I name at least five living women composers on five different continents? Can I name five women music producers, or music editors, in five different genres? Once you start working on this, it will be a challenge to stop.

2. Do I program works written by women every year? What is the percentage of time that I actually devote to women composers? Do I segregate these works into a “works by women” concert, or do I give my audience opportunities to hear works by women throughout the year?

3. When I choose teaching materials, do I seek works written or performed by women, including women NOT singing or playing piano?

4. Do I seek out a diverse pool of women of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds practicing in different fields, genres, and subgenres, or do I choose the same performers, lecturers, and composers that are typically on my circuit?

5. When I program women, do I ensure that they are getting adequate and equitable media coverage in our printed and online materials and in press releases?

6. When I talk or write about music created by women, am I gendering my language or focusing on issues tangential or unrelated to the work itself?

7. Do I invite women to join chamber ensembles or to collaborate on projects? Do I only think to invite a woman because I collaborate with her (male) significant other? Do I require a woman to modulate, deny, or sexualize her femininity to be part of a creative space, whether blatantly or subtly?

8. Do I consult with female colleagues regularly about the mission, trajectory, and management of musical organizations with which I am involved? If so, do I enact any of their suggestions?

9. Do I actively create and support opportunities for women to assume leadership roles?

10. Do I work to ensure that women’s compensation is equal to men’s compensation, and distribute opportunities equally among my colleagues and people I may supervise?

The Long-Term Effects of Gender Discriminatory Programming

Special thanks to Neil Banas for creating the interactive model below.

“We need to be patient.”

“The music will find its home.”

“Change is coming.”

“But it’s not about fame, it’s about doing the work you love!”

“Surely you don’t want people playing your music just because you’re a woman?”

“Your time will come. Her time will come. Our time will come.”

“The best music will rise to the surface!”

“Things are getting better!”

“We’re discovering it now!”

“Just be patient!”

Over the years, whenever the under-representation of women composers is discussed, I keep hearing variations on the themes above. Whether these phrases come from those wanting to encourage women composers, those downplaying the existence of sexism, or indeed from women composers ourselves trying to look on the bright side, the underlying message is, “Yes, it’s frustrating, but we just have to wait. We’ll get our turn. Things will be okay!” And on the one hand, sure, I’ll wait (while also being stubborn and persistent and working for change). I’m hardly going to give up composing because there may be a statistical likelihood that my pieces will be performed a bit less frequently than those of a male peer! But on the other hand, let’s not pretend this is reasonable or that enforced waiting doesn’t have real, long-term consequences: real consequences in terms of opportunity, real artistic consequences, real financial consequences – and ultimately, real consequences for who gets to continue being a composer.

A complicated lineage leads to and from each piece, each performance, each commission, each award, and each royalty check.

The longer I trace my own career and observe the careers of students, friends, and colleagues, the more I see the complicated lineage that leads to and from each piece, each performance, each commission, each award, and each royalty check. Piece A is premiered, then performed six more times by people who heard the premiere, one of whom commissions piece B, which he performs and sets as repertoire for his students, who go on to perform it professionally. After a couple of years, the royalties add up to enough to pay for a couple of months off teaching, during which time one writes piece C… Or piece D is commissioned by an orchestra, which premieres it. The recording is sent to a competition and wins, resulting in the commission and premiere of piece E. Another orchestra decides to perform pieces D and E and invites the composer to be composer-in-residence, which puts the composer in touch with a donor who is able to fund the creation of piece F… Over the years each piece develops its own trajectory, almost always something completely unpredictable at the outset. One finds new opportunities, new ideas, and new collaborative partners in the most unexpected of ways. But what happens if piece A is never performed? Or is performed four years late? What happens if the performer assigns a different piece to his students? What happens if piece D is never commissioned? What happens if the composer residency doesn’t take place?

It doesn’t take much of an initial difference in the rates of commissioning, performing, or promoting works by women for the cumulative effect over the years to become striking. Let’s say (and I think this is a generous overestimate) that a woman composer’s works are 95% as likely to be performed as those of a man composer of equivalent accomplishment, and that she is 5% less likely to be commissioned than her male colleague. In order to illustrate the knock-on effects of what initially seem like small differentials, Neil Banas created a handy, interactive computer simulation of how these play out in the long term which can be found at this link.

As you can see, what seem like small differences in the rate of performance or recognition compound yearly and can have an enormous impact over the course of a career.

Depending on the combination of our upbringing, our cultural background, our gender, and our personality, we may think of ambition as admirable or abhorrent.

Writing about our careers—and particularly about the way outside factors may or may not influence them—can make us feel very vulnerable. If we’re not doing as well as we had hoped, and we admit it, someone may jump in and say, “Well, maybe your music just isn’t good enough,” or—and I’m genuinely surprised by how often I still hear this—“I’m not sexist, but there’s just not very much good music by women.” If we are doing as well as or better than we had hoped, will celebrating our successes seem boastful? Will we hurt our friends who are doing less well? Will we “jinx” things?[1] Depending on the combination of our upbringing, our cultural background, our gender, and our personality, we may think of ambition as admirable or abhorrent. We may think of contentedness with our careers as the ultimate goal, irrelevant, or a sign of laziness. But we need this kind of scrutiny if we’re going to figure out where inequities still exist and begin to address them. If the second edition of an anthology proudly proclaims that it now includes works by women composers, but the percentage of works by women is smaller than the percentage of women who are composers, then the anthology is still part of the problem. Or if I’m teaching a class on, say, contemporary Canadian music, and 20% of the pieces I include are by women, but 24% of contemporary Canadian composers are women, then I’m part of the problem.[2]

In any case, we don’t have to look at this individually. Perhaps my career has been magically untouched by sexism: perhaps yours has been, too. The fact remains that sexism, both conscious and unconscious, affects most women’s careers. In the UK, 51% of the population is female, 36% of composition students are women, 21% of commissions go to women, and only 7% of orchestral commissions – which tend to be the most prestigious and highest paid – go to women. In the US, 22% of music theory/composition students are women, but only 14% of major orchestra commissions go to women. Twenty-four percent of living composers who belong to the Canadian Music Centre are women, but women make up only 11% of the music composition faculty working in Canada.[3]

Composing is a hard profession, but let’s make sure we’re not making it even harder for people who don’t fit the expected profile.

I’m absolutely not suggesting here that middle class, white, cis male composers have it too easy. Composing is a hard profession: even those with the most advantages may struggle to find non-exploitive work situations, social recognition, and financial stability. I want to live in a world where the arts are valued, and things are better for all of us! But in this already hard field, let’s make sure we’re not making things even harder for people who don’t fit the expected profile of a composer. Women are of course not the only composers who get left out: the farther one deviates from the straight, cis, able-bodied, white, European, middle/upper-class, male composer image that remains so dominant in the North American and European new music worlds, the more likely their works are to be overlooked. The more we recognize the impact of even seemingly small decisions about what to program, who to commission, and who to recognize, the more we can work to change things.

So, yes, here I am, and here we are, being patient. I’m not going away! But no, I will not be patient about having to be patient!


1. I won’t say here how I feel about my own career, but if you’re curious, you can read this interview on pianist Frances Wilson’s fabulous blog Meet the Artist.

2. One can argue that women composers should be represented in proportion to the percentage of women who are (known to be) composers in a given place or time or period, or that music by women should always be 50%, or somewhere in between, but that lies outside the scope of this article. I think we can all agree that equitable programming would, at a minimum, include works by women in the same proportion as composers who are women, so I’ll stick to those figures for the purposes of this article.

3. I counted up the number of women composition professors in the first 20 Canadian music departments that came to mind. It’s possible the percentage is a bit higher or lower, but I doubt it’s off by more than a point to two.

Sounds Heard: 17 More Takes on those 88 Keys

Merged image of the album covers of American Vernacular and Keeping Time
Once upon a time, it often felt as if anything that did not have some kind of electronic component—or at least did not emulate those new sonic resources made possible via technology through extended techniques—was an anachronism. Things like string quartets, or—even more so—solo piano music seemed hopelessly quaint and not in keeping with the times despite the fact that tons of composers were still creating engaging music for these instruments. The recent 40th anniversary of the Kronos Quartet serves as a reminder of how they and now countless other string quartets have shown listeners that it is still possible for up-to-the-minute contemporary music to be realized on two violins, viola and cello. Similarly, myriad pianists promulgate an endless supply of recent repertoire, proving there’s still a lot to be said via those 88 keys without even having to venture inside their instruments or retune the strings. Two pianists who recently caught my attention with new releases devoted exclusively to American music composed within the last quarter century are Nicholas Phillips and Mary Kathleen Ernst. All in all, 17 composers are represented on their discs, showing that the instrument that once was a mainstay in households all across the land still has a home in the 21st century.


Cover for the CD American Vernacular

American Vernacular
Nicholas Phillips, piano
(New Focus FCR 144)

Phillips’s latest CD outing, American Vernacular, is something of a departure from the previous recordings in his discography—discs devoted to the music of San Antonio-based Ethan Wickman and the late Boris Papandopulo, who was among Croatia’s most prolific composers. Now, rather than focusing on a single composer, Phillips offers a wide-ranging program whose unifying theme is being American in some way. He approached composers telling them he wanted to put together an album of “American vernacular” music without really offering them much more to go on. In his booklet notes for the CD, Phillips wrote that he wanted to “engage audiences with new music that also drew from something familiar” but “not to make a popular crossover album.” As a result, the music represents a broad range of styles and moods.

Spectacular Vernaculars, a three-movement suite by Mark Olivieri, pays homage to Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, De La Soul, Alberto Ginastera, and tango.  That’s already a lot of ground covered in the album’s first three tracks. Ethan Wickman’s Occidental Psalmody, which is inspired by the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains, sounds like music Claude Debussy might have written if he had lived in the Western United States instead of Paris. I’m particularly enamored of On the Drawing of Constellations by Chicago-based composer and vocalist Ben Hjertmann, whose previous compositions have run the gamut from a post-modern take on the once ubiquitous secular Medieval song “L’Homme Armé” to prog rock material that sounds deeply indebted to Brian Wilson. Constellations, as is fitting for a musical depiction of the evening sky, is much more introspective and aphoristic; imagine the directionlessness of late Morton Feldman without the sometimes neurosis-inducing (wonderful though they may be) dissonances.

Billy-tude by Joel Puckett (who was profiled last month on these pages) is a delightful virtuosic piece that makes occasional nods to Billy Joel in ways that even I, who have never been much of a fan of the “Piano Man,” can appreciate. Three Piano Miniatures (Nos. 10, 12, and 13) in Mohammed Fairouz’s ongoing series are sonic meditations on, in turn, Liberace, Tin Pan Alley, and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The last of these, with its foreboding ostinato, is particularly moving. Beloved by David Maslanka is an extremely tender short piece that admirers of the composer’s imposing large scale works for symphonic winds will find rather surprising.

Luke Gullickson’s Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey offers up some of those Feldman-esque dissonances that Hjertmann had eschewed but in ways that are much more driving and insistent. But what is perhaps most striking about this piece is the way that material alternates with rapid cross-hand figuration that emulates Fahey’s signature finger-picking guitar style. John Griffin’s Playin’ and Prayin’, which mixes hoedowns and Christian hymnody from the Deep South, is somewhat reminiscent of the many “Hymn and Fuguing Tune” compositions Henry Cowell composed during the last 20 years of his life; it’s a sound world that is ageless, at least to my ears. A Southern Prelude by William Price offers a more abstract take on the sound world from below the Mason-Dixon line, taking its cues from the rambling, chatty-style delivery of Southern storytellers.

The final work featured is Hotfingers: Three Vernacular Nondances, composed in 2012 by David Rakowski. Aficionados of Rakowski’s seminal piano etudes will revel in this new piece’s similarly off-kilter takes on blues and jazz with fractals thrown in for good measure. I, for one, was extremely disappointed when Rakowski reached his 100th solo piano etude and said that he would write no more of them, but I’m overjoyed that he’s found a way around his vow.

One additional detail that deserves a mention: Phillips very helpfully provides detailed information in his notes for how to obtain scores for all of the pieces stating, “I hope this recording inspires you all, especially fellow pianists, to seek out the music.” It is laudable gesture that will hopefully get this worthy music into many additional hands and ears.


Cover for the CD Keeping Time

Keeping Time
Mary Kathleen Ernst, piano
(innova 868)

Mary Kathleen Ernst’s new collection, Keeping Time, ups the ante on Phillips’s by limiting her selection not only to recent music by American composers, but exclusively to women. For the folks who claim that such endeavors are no longer necessary in 2014, one need look no further than the fact that while Phillips’s American Vernacular is a fabulous collection, it did not include a single female composer. But Ernst’s restriction is anything but limiting and proves that worthy music is being created by everyone. In fact, I decided to feature both discs in this essay to try to balance things out a bit.

Keeping Time by Canadian-born, now Bay Area-based Vivian Fung lends not only its title to Ernst’s anthology but also a guiding principle behind the selection of all the works herein; as Ernst states in her booklet notes, “it reflects the ongoing pulse in music” and also “honors … composers writing during my lifetime.” Secret and Glass Gardens, a 2000 work by Jennifer Higdon written for the Van Cliburn Competition’s American Composer invitational, frequently enters territory that is worlds away from the frenetic virtuosity that usually characterizes her work and offers a glimpse of sumptuous lyricism that is equally appealing. Katherine Hoover’s Dream Dances is a single movement that stiches together a wide range of dance-like sections in different tempos. Jing Jing Luo’s Mosquito is, as its title implies, unbridled flittering; it is tense but very exciting. (Warning: though it is labelled correctly on the tray card, the metadata for this track was mislabeled and so it appears as though it were part of the next piece; in fact, the erroneously metadata tags continue on for an additional eight tracks of that next piece.)

The most substantial work featured on the disc is Chai Variations, a 20-movement, 21-minute tour de force for solo piano by Judith Shatin that was inspired by the Jewish folksong “Eliahu HaNavi.” Chai, the 18th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, is often used to represent the number 18 as well as life, hence Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and this set of 18 brief variations with a theme at the beginning and a recapitulation of the theme at the very end. Ernst shows a particular affinity for this music, having previously recorded a whole disc of Shatin’s music with violinist Hasse Borup which included the formidable solo piano piece Widdershins.

Spontaneous D-Combustion by Stefania de Kenessy, who shocked the sensibilities of the avant-garde at the beginning of the 21st century with her “Derriere Guard” movement, is true to de Kenessy’s purposefully backward-looking compositional aesthetics which provocatively reject most of the musical advances of the 20th century. But it’s not without some quirks. It is a series of seven short movements, but players can play as many as they wish in any order. Ernst chose three, ending the set with a manic Vivace in septimal meter that is not the kind of thing you’d typically hear in the 19th century.

Nancy Bloomer Deussen’s “A Recollection,” a gorgeous little piece akin to the Albumblätter that so popular during the Romantic era, is from a suite of two pieces entitled Musings: Circa 1940 that were inspired by her childhood in the Bronx as World War II was about to unravel. Coming at the end of Ernst’s CD, it almost has the feel of an encore—perhaps a not so subtle suggestion to other pianists since returning to the stage to play something like this after an entire concert program is an almost surefire way to garner even more enthusiastic applause.

But Can She Play?

“Only God can make a tree,” the swing historian George T. Simon wrote in The Big Bands (1967, London: Macmillan), “and only men can play good jazz.”
As outrageous as this statement seems on first reading, it does lead to the question of fundamental differences between male and female psychology and physiology related to jazz performance. We now accept that women are from Venus and men are from Mars, in sports women and men compete in different categories with different standards, so are there any physiological or psychological differences in learning and performing jazz? And what kind of effects might these differences have on collaborative performances and pedagogical approaches to learning jazz? In this third article on women in jazz, I’d like to share some of the recent research in this area and possible implications of the results.

Ariel Alexander

Ariel Alexander

Saxophonist Ariel Alexander, whom I got to collaborate and perform with while she was an undergraduate Jazz Studies major at Indiana University, completed her doctoral dissertation for the University of Southern California in 2011, entitled Where are the Girls? A look at the factors that limit female participation in instrumental jazz. She did an extensive review of the literature and a survey study to uncover some of the issues that prevent female musicians from pursuing a career in jazz performance. The basic ability to improvise doesn’t seem to be an issue. Selected studies by Madura (1993)[1], Hores (1977)[2], and Bash (1984)[3] did not uncover gender issues in researching factors related to jazz improvisation achievement. Thus Ariel decided to investigate the masculine image of jazz, sexual stereotypes of instruments, behavioral and social differences between males and females, and sexual discrimination.

I discussed some of the historical issues with masculine stereotypes in jazz in my last article, demonstrating the typical cover images of textbooks. In her book Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women, Linda Dahl notes that the often dangerous nightclubs, at that time an essential learning and networking environment for jazz musicians, were an unsafe environment for women to participate in late night jam sessions. In addition, Dahl explains that the aggressive self-confidence on the bandstand displaying one’s blowing power was clearly a masculine prerogative[4]. Thus an early lack of role models is apparent and as previously discussed, the few women who overcame those barriers are historically not acknowledged. The importance of such role models has been noted in research by Gould (2001), showing that women performed with significantly greater success when the role models with whom they interacted were also women.[5]

In 1978, Ables and Porter conducted a large research study including adult and child musicians as well as non-musicians on the sexual stereotyping of instruments. They found that drums, trombone, and trumpet were seen as masculine instruments, while the flute and violin were identified as feminine by respondents older than elementary school age. Younger children displayed very few preconceptions.[6] The conclusion is that the process of introducing school children to instruments reinforces such stereotypes. In addition, five of the seven instruments included in a typical school jazz band were identified as masculine in this study (drums, trombone, trumpet, bass, and saxophone). Even in more recent studies, similar tendencies were still apparent and as a result access to participation in jazz may be denied early to those who are more likely to get the recommendation of choosing the flute or violin—the girls.

Trumpet Cartoon

Image by Papapishu from Vector.me

And what about women being from Venus and men from Mars? While women may be better at multi-tasking, we also like to travel in packs and build our identity on relationships.[7] Autonomy, independence, and separation are a significantly larger portion in the male developmental journey. In addition, females tend to avoid competitive environments and display greater amounts of anxiety and stress in such situations than their male counterparts.[8] Accordingly, the likelihood of a female teenager volunteering for an improvised solo in front of her peers that includes the option of failure is certainly smaller than her male band mate stepping out to show off his unique personality. Thus negative attitudes towards learning jazz improvisation and a lack of confidence are easily the result of such personality differences. Wehr[9] suspects that the lack of opportunity to build self-efficacy, one of the main predictors of success in jazz improvisation, is one of the main reasons for the gender issue in jazz.

Is there anything we could do about these issues or should we just accept the facts? Knowledge is power, so how about transforming the findings above in some strategies that potentially have a big impact on the gender issue in instrumental jazz. Let’s revisit the history books and make sure to credit the contributions of women and diversify the images. In terms of pedagogy, how about some alternative jazz ensembles, such as a flute choir or chamber jazz group or just integrate a wide variety of instruments in the regular ensembles? And to overcome the peer pressures, let’s provide lots of safe entry points to improvisation, such as specific guidelines, patterns, etc. and introduce the concept before puberty becomes a barrier. And as much as possible, let’s encourage diversity in jazz college faculty.

A final note on physiological differences—Ariel and myself and many other jazz women are married to fellow musicians. Being such a minority in the field amounts to a large number of choices for possible mates who have the same interest, similar work schedules, and don’t mind long practice sessions and rehearsals around the house. Hence jazz couples are quite common, in fact we performed a series of triple couple concerts here in Indiana with bass/drum and vocal/saxophone duos plus our piano/guitar combination.

After 22 years of marriage, I have to give my husband Peter Kienle immense amounts of credit for sharing all possible responsibilities in terms of household chores, organizational and musical duties, and making this career path possible. Only when it came to the birth of our daughters and the initial period of nursing—preceded by a period of large dresses and awkward piano positions preferably in non-smoking clubs—did we had to give in to our differences by design. Even though I performed the night before and the night after my first daughter was born, there were many instances during the first few years of raising our daughters where I had to send Peter to gigs with substitutes and put my overall career on the backburner.

Most likely I could have increased our vast list of babysitters even further and closed the door more often while practicing and composing. But it also would have meant missing many special moments during my daughters’ first years of life: bedtime stories; evening cuddles; first milestones—my daughter Melody stood up for the first time in a playpen that we had set up next to us while performing at an outdoor event. I don’t regret any choices I had to make because of being the “mom”, even though I fell a few years behind the young lions in building successful careers.

Monika and her daughters

Monika and her daughters.

1. Madura, Patrice: Relationships among vocal jazz improvisation achievement, jazz theory knowledge, imitative ability, previous musical experience, general creativity, and gender. (Dissertation Abstracts International, Jun 1993, Vol. 53, p. 4245.)

2. Hores, Robert: A comparative study of visual- and aural-oriented approaches to jazz improvisation with implications for instruction. (Dissertation Abstracts International, Oct 1978, Vol. 39, p. 2121.)

3. Bash, Lee: “The relationship among musical aptitude, musical achievement, psychosocial maturity, sex, age, preliminary improvisation performance and the acquisition of improvisation performance skill” in Jazz Research Papers, 1984, Vol. 4, p7.

4. Dahl, Linda: Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women (Pompton Plains, NJ: Limelight Editions, 2004).

5. Gould, E. S.: “Identification and application of the concepts of role model: Perceptions of women college band directors” in Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, vol 20 (1), 2001, pp. 14-18.

6. Abeles, H. F, & Porter, S. Y.: “The gender-stereotyping of musical instruments,” in Journal of Research in Music Education vol. 26, 1978, pp. 65-75.

7. Gilligan, C.: In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

8. Eccles, J. S.: “Gender roles and women’s achievement-related decisions,” in Psychology of Women Quarterly vol. 11, 1987, pp. 135-172.

9. Wehr, E.: Understanding the experiences of women in jazz: A Suggested Model University of Iowa (In progress).

Three Strikes Against Success

I’m honored to contribute a series of four blog posts this month on the topic of “Women in Jazz” as we celebrate Women’s History Month in March.  Just a few weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion with fellow jazz women at the 5th Jazz Education Network (JEN) Convention in Dallas.  It was interesting to get everyone’s perspective, ranging from the initial “things have gotten much better, it’s just about being a good player no matter what gender or color” to admitting “but I often don’t get access to the same opportunities.”  What this tells me is that it’s an uncomfortable topic and there are issues.  The good news is that if we do talk about these issues and find solutions, we won’t need any further conversations on the topic in the future.  For the four posts this month, I plan to start with a female jazz musician’s perspective (my own) followed by some historical background and selected research facts and conclude with action items to initiate the changes needed.

In 1988, I arrived in the US ready to start a career as a jazz musician. With the support of a scholarship, I was able to complete a master’s degree at the University of Alabama while getting acquainted with my new environment and planning a career path.   My boyfriend Peter Kienle (now husband for over 20 years) didn’t seem to have any trouble finding people to play with and the telephone was ringing quite frequently for him with gig offers.  Initially, I wasn’t paying attention and just made sure to practice and learn as much as I could.



We are children of the ‘70s and came to jazz via groups like Weather Report, Return to Forever, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.  Hence we formed a fusion group with a bassist and drummer from the university (who later became Nnenna Freelon’s regular drummer) and worked up a sophisticated repertoire of originals.  I helped set up some dates on the local strip and in the Birmingham clubs and our group, BeebleBrox, became known for cool grooves and intricate compositions. One day during rehearsals, I noticed that the bassist didn’t address his questions about my charts to me, but rather to Peter.  He asked Peter what “she” wanted him to play.  I realized that it was very difficult for him to communicate directly because everything about me was different.  I brushed it off and tried to be like one of the guys, but somehow that didn’t work.  Maybe because I wasn’t one of the guys?  I finally had to admit to myself that I didn’t laugh about all the same jokes, didn’t use the same slang language, didn’t show off for the girls, and didn’t care very much about competing with others.  I loved the process of making music, writing music, and getting it ready to be heard by an audience—the sophisticated harmonic language of jazz, the cool rhythms, the interaction with the audience—but I was not one of the guys.  Could that be part of the reason why Peter was playing plenty of casual gigs without even looking and I had to arrange for performances as a leader or tag along as the guitarist’s girlfriend?

That’s when I started to search for role models, others who were like me.  As a fan of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz show on NPR, I looked a bit closer at her history.  When she arrived in New York in 1950 together with her new husband, trumpeter Jimmy McPartland, she started her ten-year residency with her trio at the Hickory House. Her first review, from critic Leonard Feather, began by noting she had “three strikes against her: she’s English, white and a woman.”  She managed to take exactly those three strikes and use them as the foundation of her extremely successful and long career.

Marian McPartland

Marian McPartland. Photo by Barbara Bordnick, courtesy of Marian McPartland

First of all, she grew up in England during the period portrayed in the PBS series Downton Abbey that recently took America by storm.  The old class separations were crumbling and a new lifestyle of freedom and personal expression was accompanied by jazz oozing in from the airwaves and the American officer’s clubs.  As a result, McPartland became fascinated with jazz as a way of expressing her musical thoughts, but she also had a strong background in classical music and other popular music styles.  Her compositions and harmonic language reflected this “English” background and, by embracing her heritage, she was able to contribute her unique voice to the jazz melting pot.

Her second strike was being white.  In jazz, this is often seen as a symbol of not being grounded in the culture and musical heritage that initially gave birth to the rhythmic, improvisatory, and expressive characteristics of jazz.  She certainly immersed herself in the jazz culture the moment she arrived in the US, and her appearance on the famous “A Great Day in Harlem” photograph as one of a handful white musicians is a testimonial.  And even further—for decades she paid her dues by playing for long hours every night in a noisy steak house, accumulating an immense repertoire of songs, and eventually bringing the cultures together by featuring musicians of all color and gender on her Piano Jazz shows.

And yes, there is the third strike of being a woman.  Similar to my experience of “not getting the calls,” McPartland realized she had to take charge and create her opportunities.  Her long stint as a leader of her trio at the Hickory House is legendary, but furthermore she also created her own record label, Halcyon Records, in 1969, released more than 20 albums under her own name on Savoy, Concord, Jazz Alliance, and her own label (not counting the Piano Jazz recordings), and at the age of 60 launched what would turn out to be the longest running show on NPR.  But even more important than learning leadership skills out of necessity was her gift for collaboration.  Research does confirm that women naturally tend to collaborate with their peers and work towards a common goal rather than exhibit the competitive nature of male counterparts.  When McPartland arrived in New York, she instinctively reached out to peers and created a strong bond with Mary Lou Williams, thus finding an ally and a gateway into the jazz scene.  Later on, her collaborative nature inspired the idea of featuring fellow pianists in conversations and duets for the common goal of spreading the word about jazz, so successfully accomplished during more than 30 years of “Piano Jazz.”
Getting to know McPartland’s story gave me courage.  I had identified the obstacles in my career path and I had found someone who had successfully overcome these obstacles and paved a path for me to follow. Once I started looking, I discovered women such as Carla Bley, Jessica Williams, Geri Allen, Joanne Brackeen, Mary Lou Williams, Myra Melford, Regina Carter, Shirley Scott, Melba Liston, and many more with established and blossoming careers.  Being part of a group gave me the confidence to proceed: to pursue a doctorate under the tutelage of David Baker at Indiana University; to lead my own groups on more than a dozen recording projects and tours around the world; to write music that received a DownBeat Award and that has been featured in television shows; but most of all to teach the following generations to do the same and get their voices heard.  I did not find the stories of my role models in textbooks though; I had to seek them out and ask questions.  Why are these trailblazers not included in our history canon?  Tracing the early history of women in jazz will be the subject of my next post.  In the meantime, make a list of your local jazz heroines and find their stories.


Monika Herzig

Monika Herzig

Jazz pianist and Indiana University faculty member, Monika Herzig has performed at many prestigious jazz clubs and festivals around the world. Groups under her leadership have opened for acts such as Tower of Power, Sting, the Dixie Dregs, Yes, and more. Her March 2011 DVD/CD combo Come With Me on Owl Studios features a mixture of originals and modern arrangements.

Matana Roberts: Creative Defiance

Conducted at the artist’s home in New York City
January 4, 2013—2 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Poster image by B. Abrams
Transcribed by Julia Lu

If there is any way to distill the wide-ranging artistry of Matana Roberts, it might be to focus on the ways in which she eludes definitions. Where the weight of other people’s expectations—of her instrument, her genre, even her race and her gender—might have fenced her in, she has instead pushed off these bounding walls into new areas of exploration, both sonic and narrative. The Chicago-raised composer, improviser, and alto saxophonist offers a friendly yet confidant smile as she explains, “Basically, I don’t like being told what to do, or who I am, or what I am by other people. I prefer to make those statements myself.”

For Roberts, that kind of self-definition seems to flow hand-in-hand with a certain creative restlessness. While the influence of jazz in her music is apparent, she has expanded her creative palette to encompass a broader world of improvisation, experimentalism, and theatrical storytelling. This drive is perhaps most clearly showcased under the heading of her work Coin Coin, which she began developing in 2006. Divided into 12 “chapters,” the project includes multiple ensemble configurations, graphic notation, and explorations both compositional and historical. It is a work that is intensely personal and yet strikingly universal, incorporating her general interests in ritual, spirits, and genealogy alongside a more exacting trace of her own bloodlines and the stories of her ancestors. Like much family history, the path is circuitous and the narrative open to interpretation. Whether she and her flexible band are whispering intimate secrets into the ears in the audience, cajoling them into joining in, or screaming at their side, however, the result is a piece of transfixing emotional power.

In her artist statement, Roberts includes a line which has inspired the title of this profile, “Through my life’s work, I stand creatively in defiance.” In the course of our talk, she celebrated what sets her apart and the vital role art can play when taken outside of its usual hallways. And while certainly there are outside forces that can try to hamper her artistry, she has also come to realize that sometimes the most forbidding barriers are the ones that can build up inside. “I have all these things that I want to try creatively,” she acknowledged, “and for a long time, I didn’t understand that there was nothing standing in my way.”


Molly Sheridan: It’s maybe too easy to label a saxophonist a jazz artist even if the genre relationship is not particularly strong. I know you often find yourself pushed in this direction, but is that where you feel most rooted or where you have been placed by others?
Matana Roberts: I try to push myself away from that word, though I will always have a love for that music and for a lot of those people. But for what I’m trying to do, I find it really confining on so many different levels—not just musical, but also in terms of the culture and certain types of generalizations that come with that word that I don’t like. I was a clarinet player first, playing classical music, but in terms of really dealing with the saxophone, it came from dealing with jazz music. There is an influence of jazz in my music, and there’s always going to be, but I feel like I’m more of a hybrid. Real jazz musicians to me are people who are deeply dealing with the traditional aspects of that music. I’m considering those aspects, but I’m not dealing with them in the way that they are. It partly has a little bit to do with gender, a little bit to do with race, and just at my core there’s a certain sense of punk aesthetic that I will always ascribe to. Basically, I don’t like being told what to do, or who I am, or what I am by other people. I prefer to make those statements myself.
MS: So there’s both a social and an aesthetic tension there?
MR: Yeah. African American jazz musicians have to deal with certain sorts of generalizations that I find really uncomfortable, and I get to feel a little bit of that when I travel, especially outside of the United States. I’ve learned a lot about how global my bloodline really is, and I want to live in a way where I’m not ignoring all those different segments. Then, I try to not really jump in on the gender thing, but I’m tired of having my work and my music or any sort of artistic output judged by men. The jazz world is still is a very male world. In order to be a part of that world—when I was really thickly a part of that world—I had to ignore certain aspects of my gender that made me, in the end, really uncomfortable. So I’m trying to chart something that takes in my love of old American traditions—not just jazz, but jazz is one of them.
MS: You made a move from Chicago to New York in 2002, and the way I’ve heard you speak about The Chicago Project, the album you released in 2008, and the artists you worked with while making that recording, it sounds like it represented a kind of graduation in a sense. Is that an accurate impression?
MR: When I was asked by Barry Adamson to make a record where I could pay the musicians well and bring on a producer that I trusted, I just felt that I needed to use that first recording as a way to honor the people who had really helped me. I was already living in New York at that time, and I could have used that opportunity to solidify one of my New York bands, but all those guys on that record—especially Josh Abrams, Jeff Parker, and Fred Anderson—they brothered and uncled and fathered me through this music when I first starting playing in Chicago. So I don’t know if it was a graduation, but that record is a document of things. I don’t think I’ve ever told them that, but I hope they understand. That record and the music on that record is my thank you to them.
MS: We’ve spoken some about what you do take from jazz, but even in an “end of genre” age, you have integrated various streams of influence in a particularly rich and personal way—and not just multigenre but multidisciplinary. What experiences or instincts pushed that side of your work? Who was influential to you in that regard?
MR: I’m highly influenced by visual art, more than sound. I’m influenced by those people and traditions that are not considered high art, that wouldn’t be let into some places because they come from more of an emotional place rather than an intellectual place. They come from more of a folk place, more a place of the heart, than some other traditions. I’m attracted to ghosts and spirits and spooks and these things. The graphic notation comes from my love of visual art. But also I have a learning disorder and the way I understand music or just understand logic is sometimes a lot different than other people. It took me a long time to understand that I wasn’t stupid, that it’s a different kind of intelligence that I have. I still don’t understand how it’s worked out the way that it has, but luckily, I’ve been able to use a lot of those things in the way that I deal with music.
I’ve always been interested in theater. When I was kid, I wanted to be a playwright, and I grew up going to the opera. We were one of the few black families with season tickets. My grandmother would save up for that and drag us. I hated it at the time, and now I feel really privileged that I got to experience that. Growing up in a classic Chicago African-American neighborhood, where you are constantly exposed to ideas of signification, to ideas of ritual—even going to black churches and seeing how black American people deal with that—used to really rub my punk side the wrong way. But now I’m able to look back at that and see how culture deals with the idea of spectacle. I really want to use my work as a way to explore those different themes that are not necessarily just related to the African American experience, but related to just the experience of peoples. There are common themes that run through all cultures in terms of ritual and presentation—ideas of pain, joy, sadness, gladness, and these traditions that get passed down, that don’t necessarily get documented, or commercialized, or valued. I’m interested in placing my own value on those things.
MS: Your piece Coin Coin, which is kind of a poster child for this type of exploration and multidisciplinary artistic integration, is obviously a huge project, so there’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start by speaking just about some of the big concepts and the structure of the work, and then we’ll dig into the details.
MR: Coin Coin is my interest in history and folklore. Some parts of it have to do with research that I’ve been doing on my own ancestry, and I use some of that information to dig deeper into ideas of narrative. Right now, Coin Coin is very much about the African American experience in America in some ways, but the whole overarching thing is about just exploring these human universals. My mother used to call it the musical monument to the human experience, and that’s how I pretty much like to explain it. It’s a multimedia sound project about my love of history. There was never enough time in the day to be a hobbyist in that and also deal with the music. When I realized I could put them together, that’s kind of the whole overarching theme.
I wanted to create a project that would allow me to challenge myself as a composer in terms of dealing with different ensemble configurations. I had so much narrative that I could break down into so many segments that I realized I could also apply that to different ensemble configurations. Each segment deals with the same kind of graphic framework and some similar ideas so that when I’m finally done with it, perhaps I can link them all together.
There are ten ensemble chapters and two solo chapters that bookend the project in my head. It’s all formulated, but the solo chapters are still under development. I just came off tour working on those. Five of the ensemble segments have been performed, and now what I’ve been doing is having these Coin Coin experiments where they’re not full chapters, but they’re ideas that I’m trying to consider in the work. I don’t have the kind of money where I can just have a lab ensemble. I have to plug them into a performance to fund them. But each chapter is structured and written out and there’s a narrative for each one. I just have to get to them.

MS: Considering the financial challenges that might hamper work of this scope, can you tell me more about how the development and composition process for these pieces has worked?
MR: Before I started the project, it was very rare that I could sit down and write a song. The one thing that I’ve always loved about jazz is melody and that will always be a hallmark of all of my work. But I also grew up during some of the best eras of hip hop and also was really heavily influenced by riot grrrl and punk, and so I would try and write and I could never finish a song. Every now and then a song would come out from beginning to end, but usually they would come in snippets, and I’d have just these pieces. For a while I felt like a real failure. Then I started weaving the snippets together and understanding that maybe they are all part of the same thing or, if they aren’t, I can make them part of the same thing. I also became more and more interested in graphic notation and the ways in which musicians see sound.
So I just started weaving things together in that way. I remember the first score I put together. I thought I was going to get laughed out of New York City. But we did it and it was like magic. I was like, wow, this kind of composition is possible if you make sure you do it from your heart. Every piece of graphic notation that you have on a piece of paper, you should be able to really break down and really minutely explain, so that it’s honest. When I went in that direction, it all started to make sense.
MS: What made you question that initially? You mentioned that you thought you were going to be laughed out of New York City.
MR: I went to jazz schools and had some really negative experiences. Those places sometimes will make you feel like anything that you have to offer is not good enough—not just jazz schools, any institution can do that to you. So I really let that undermine me. I had a professor in college that told me the only way that I was ever going to get a gig was to marry a musician. And at the time, I believed him because he was the professional and I was the student. So, I still had all these little scars from that. It almost seemed too playful and too imaginary for anyone else to understand. I found out later that that was not true, but I needed to go through that process.
MS: Can you describe the graphic score/notation system that you are using in the work?
MR: To be honest with you, I’m not sure I can really break it down because it’s work that I’m still trying to develop. Things have changed. That has been the interesting thing about it, and what has slowed it down somewhat, too. I thought I would be done with all 12 chapters by 2011. Ha! No.
To start, I had a really deep interest in sacred geometry and symbolism. I was using some Native American and African symbolism. Then, looking at these different locales that I’m dealing with—Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi by way of Africa, Ireland, England, France, Scotland—and looking at how these different places throughout their history have dealt with symbolism, and what symbols have remained. Oftentimes, I would pull symbols from that, that I could draw. I think partly this is also because I wish I could draw. So I would look at a shape or scribble and imagine how I could interpret that in sound: what someone could ask of me in terms of how to interpret that and, most importantly, how I could use it to not really create melody but how it could create texture. So that is the direction that I’ve always taken the graphic scoring. Also, people always accuse me of having a really personal sound, or a really personal approach, which is a nice accusation, but I also wanted to figure out a way that I could create but still have the performers’ own personalities come through. The first chapter of Coin Coin I actually put together partly because I wanted to play music with my friends who couldn’t read music—a lot of Canadian folk that I really loved who are amazing improvisers, but weren’t readers. Then sometimes I would do some of this work with people who were amazing readers, but not good improvisers, and there’s a definite difference in that. So, I just wanted to figure out a way to create the scores where I could find these little textures that I was interested in. Now, even with re-renderings of chapters that have already been recorded or that I’m still performing, there are still new textures that I’m looking for that I haven’t heard yet. So I’m trying to push that into the next segment of scores.

Matana Roberts: Coin Coin

Courtesy Constellation Records

MS: It seems like you would need to be both particular about who you involved in performing the project, and then also decide how much control you wanted to have over the sounds they eventually produce. How have you picked those people, and then how much do you try to control them?
MR: Well, one day I sat down and made a list of all the musicians I knew in New York by instrument—so overwhelming!—and all the musicians that I really like to play with that I just could never pull into my regular quartet or trio. It was a way that I could experiment with the graphic notation that I still needed to formulate and understand, but could do it repeated times with different groups of people. That’s one of the reasons I’ve taken the score to different cities—to play with different musicians in different places. Now there are some core people that I always call on any chance that I get. One of them I would say is the drummer Tomas Fujiwara, who has played on pretty much every incarnation of the project since I started it. But I look for a certain kind of person. Their heart matters to me more than some sort of technical execution. I’ve not always been successful in that—sometimes you just don’t know what you’re about to step into and some musicians are just not comfortable in the directives.
There is an incredible amount of control that goes on though, still, because I do utilize different systems of conduction and conducting improvisers. It’s something that I learned from watching Butch Morris and from the days that I used to be in this band called Burnt Sugar that also uses Butch’s conduction system. Then, going back and hearing old Sun Ra recordings—Sun Ra also used conduction. So even in recorded material that people hear, I’m trying to sculpt the sound within the framework of the score. There is some open improvisation in there, but I never liked open improvisation for the sake of open improvisation. It’s always bothered me. So within the Coin Coin scores, I try to dissect things and put them back together and cut them down and push them back up. Just trying all sorts of things.
MS: I love how the first chapter you recorded, Gens de Couler Libres, is such a completely enveloping piece and I was interested to read how many other commenters felt motivated to point out that your work here was “not alienating.” And yet you’re not afraid to seriously scream in the course of things. In a sense, it feels like you’re both embracing and emotionally punching the listener within the same work. It’s just a pretty aggressive thing. So I’m curious about your decision to do that. Did you hesitate at all? How has this felt to you in performance?
MR: First off, I highly recommend it! It’s incredibly therapeutic, though it’s not something I can really do on the regular and I don’t—that chapter does not get regular performances for that reason. It really wears the body down. When I first started doing that chapter in New York, after it was over, I felt like I needed to be carried off on a stretcher.
My whole thing about dealing with this history and dealing with these ideas and themes is I want some sort of experiential feeling of it. I wanted to know what it felt like to do that. Most of the things that I’m into are things that are experiential in nature. I want to know what pain feels like, I want to know what the depths of misery feel like, and that’s a hard way to live. But within those scream-sings, there’s a lot of joy there, too. There’s a level of life and living and experience. Those screams on that record were incredibly difficult for me because my mother had just passed away maybe ten days before that was recorded, so those screams were therapeutic in a different kind of way. But there’s a welcoming to them, too: We’re here. I’m alive. Let’s celebrate what we do have.
The other thing about the Coin Coin work is there are things that the work has told me I had to do that I did not want to do. That has been the speaking. That has been the singing. That has been the screaming. Those are the things that when I was putting that first chapter together, it was like, “Ahhh, I don’t really want to deal with that! Why do I have to do that? Why can’t I put an ensemble together and make them do that?” But I felt that I needed to have an understanding and experience of those ideas.
MS: Screaming in pieces usually only elicits a kind of nails on chalkboard reaction in me, but I didn’t get that sense from this piece so it intrigued me. There’s an intimacy to it.
MR: There’s an intimacy, but that’s the other thing where gender jumps in. As an African American female performer, there’s a certain sort of fetishization that goes on that has been around since the beginning. I’ve had to deal with that a little bit in ways that have been surprising to me. Sometimes people will still take it to a base level—oh, she’s just trying to get attention by putting that in there. Or they’ll define what that scream is. They’ll listen to the narrative and assume exactly what it is that’s being screamed about. There’s a power to those scream-sings. That’s why I think more people should do it.
MS: Do they mistakenly ascribe it to a certain “character” or something in the narrative?
MR: They ascribe it to a character. They ascribe it to violence. It’s automatically ascribed to a certain kind of violence. And yes, there was a certain amount of violence in slave history, but there’s also so much more than that. Why can’t those screams be screams of joy and perseverance? Why do the screams have to be whittled down? This one person I was dealing with last year was whittling it down to sexual violence. And okay, well sure. But have you been listening? It’s something that I just have to remember that I can’t care about. You do it. You put it out there. Whatever people want to do with it, they do with it. You move on to the next thing that you’re doing.
MS: As a woman journalist who often finds herself interviewing other women in a field that still has serious parity issues, I feel a constant tension as to whether or not to include the subject in interviews. But here it seems particularly relevant, considering the context of Coin Coin and the experience of hearing women’s voices and stories, to make sure that’s fostered and presented.
MR: I used to avoid these questions. There was a time when I used to try to talk about them, and then, maybe about ten years ago, I just stopped because I felt like it was pulling me down instead of pushing me up. As a black musician, I’m already focusing on a certain kind of difference. My parents were black radicals. So, growing up in this environment, it was constantly pounded into you: difference and what you have to do because of this difference. Then having to deal with the gender things was a whole other deal. Now, I feel a bit more open to talking about it because even though I try not to get on the soap box, I think it’s important to just talk about the importance of women’s voices. That’s one of the reasons, when putting that first chapter of Coin Coin together, that speaking was demanded, that singing and that screaming was demanded—it was a certain kind of statement of womanhood, too.
I’m at a point now ten years later or so where I’m a bit troubled by the way in which women musicians and women composers still are not heard of or still not supported. I’m tired of having to deal with “business and industry issues” that are highly male. I’ve loosened up a little bit, but on my website, there are no pictures of myself. That is purposeful, that was a feminist statement to me to say, you know, my body is not for sale. My person is not for sale. The sound is what I deal with. Now, I’m about to change it a little bit because I feel more comfortable in the statement of who I am, and I think it’s obvious. But there was a period there where I just felt like I was really being boxed around by men. I’ve made some changes also in the past couple of years to ground myself a little bit more in the difference that I have and that I represent, but not allowed it to close me off or create new ideas of hatred of men, who I love. I’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of really wonderful men.
The question of women in this music has a lot also to do with just the question of women in society and what is expected of us and what is not expected of us. A lot of the male composers and male musicians I know who are working, and working steadily, are oftentimes able to do that because they have a wife or a girlfriend who is a breadwinner. They’re able to have families and to do these things because they have a partner who’s willing to take on those things. Most female musicians and composers that I know don’t have that. It doesn’t really happen in quite the same way, though I’m not convinced that it has to be that way. The issues that exist within this music have a lot to do, as always, with the issues that still exist in our society, which is highly patriarchal no matter how many different ways we want to slice it. I’ve talked to women musicians from other generations, and what has been crazy to me is the repeated stories. We can sit there and just compare stories by theme and just be like, “What? I thought the man of this generation was more enlightened than the man of that generation.” No. It’s just like this commonality, which can kind of bring you down. At the same time, my difference has also helped me, I think, and I feel a lot of gratitude for that—that I stand out in a sea of men. One of the reasons I moved to New York was because there were so many women saxophonists here who were amazing musicians and had very specific goals for themselves. I wanted to be in a city where that was going on. Now I’m not really as attracted to that as I used to be, but that was one of the impetuses for coming here rather than going back to Chicago or going somewhere else.
MS: I was going to say, how do you keep yourself motivated to fight that tide? It sounds like you came to New York for that kind of community, but now?
MR: I feel strong enough because I’ve also realized how multi-rich my own creative path is, and how it’s not just portioned off to music. I’ve been able to bring in all these other things that inspire me. My community is a community of not just musicians, but of artists of all kinds. I also really see my work as a form of community work. There’s a social conscience to the work that I’m trying to do, but in terms of the contribution that I really want to make on a social level, it’s not quite there yet.
MS: In what ways? Can you talk a little more about that?
MR: I just feel this music has allowed me to have a bit of a platform that I can use for positive influence and positive things for other people. If you’re being given a lot—I’m paraphrasing—it means that you need to give even more. Living this life, there have been some real difficulties, but I’ve been fairly lucky. My most satisfying work of service has been working with people for whom the arts can act as a kind of refuge and form of personal expression to deal with pain and societal pressures. Having more of an activism strain moving through my work is what I hope to do. I’m the product of a public school education. All that free arts stuff that I got—if that wasn’t there, there’s no way I’d be sitting here right now. I grew up in neighborhoods where I got to see what happened to people who didn’t have access to those things. So I hope to use the work more as a platform for bringing focus back to some of those ideas. But I still haven’t touched it quite yet.
MS: You were also up in Montreal doing a project with kids.
MR: Yeah. It was with at-risk native Canadian youth. I helped set up a music program at a drop-in center there. I did a few zine workshops with them. I’ve done a lot of community outreach over the years. I am not the type of person that could ever be a traditional educator or someone that people see every day, but I like infusing myself into these environments. I’ve done work at homeless shelters, and it’s the people that are really going through things, those are the people who can really be helped by art, more so than anybody that’s walking into MoMA or the Whitney. It’s those Chicago neighborhoods where there’s not quite that sense of hope, those are the places that really need art. I think about that a lot. But I come from a family of people who did a lot of community service, so I think that’s what that’s about as well. I feel I have to step up and be a part of that. Because what I’m doing being an artist, or being a musician, that is not a high enough vibration for my family line. There’s more I’m supposed to do.
MS: Do you feel like you take that onstage with you, too—that desire for connection and active community support and development?
MR: Yeah, that’s an aspect of my personality that has always kind of disturbed me a little bit. I have this intense desire to connect. Always. And oftentimes, the only way that I know how to do that is to come from a really personal place in terms of how I put the music together. I want my musical output to be an experience for all involved, not just the musicians but for everyone. I want us to be able to create sort of a womb together of possibility, which doesn’t necessarily transfer to always being positive. I don’t mind it if people come and don’t like it; that’s cool, too. It’s just creating kind of this moving organism together. This spontaneous way of connecting to strangers who are not really strangers because we’re really all in this together. That has always been really important to me, and it’s sometimes made me think I’m in the wrong profession. I need to go do something else where that is more immediate. But somehow, so far, I’ve been able to feel that a little bit in performance and the feedback that I get from people. I get really detailed feedback from people, and that used to scare me a little bit, too. [laughs] I’m okay with that now, because that is at the level that I want people to really engage.
MS: That makes me think specifically about some of the reactions to the first chapter of Coin Coin, because for everything that piece covers, it very clearly and very powerfully digs into racial issues and the history of slavery. How has working on and performing the piece impacted your own thinking when it comes to the issues you’re addressing in the work?
MR: It’s jumped through many different forms and there are many different ways in which it’s come back to me. On this last solo tour that I did, at every show I made each crowd sing with me the slave auction from the first chapter, and I forget how intense that is for some people. Mid-verse, I always have to stop and say, “Listen. This is a happy song. And I want you to understand that without the bidding of these people, I wouldn’t be here right now enjoying my life.” So that’s how I like to look at those things. I know from what I’ve experienced so far with the work that for reasons I don’t completely understand—but it makes me incredibly happy—that people are able to go into a deeper part of themselves and connect the story I’m telling to some story of their own. Oftentimes after shows, people will come up and share the most harrowing stories with me to let me know that they were able to connect even though the history is different for them. But I will say, the first time I started doing that sing-along with people, especially because there are rarely people of color in the audience, it took a moment. I’m like, “All right, I just sang a slave auction with a group of white people. I hope they understand.” Am I damning these people? No, I’m not damning anyone. But I want to share this. I think it’s really important to pay attention to history because it is constantly repeating itself. And there are so many beautiful stories within it that can teach us so much, so I will just continue to go in that direction.
MS: Not that we don’t all have our dark histories, but does audience reaction differ between Europe and America?
MR: The European audiences I’d say are a bit more political than the American audiences in some respects. I mean, singing this with a crowd of French, it’s interesting the spirit that comes through. The French were just on fire, because they have a particular understanding of the pain of that history because of the African influence in their own country. Singing this with a crowd of anarchists in Leipzig? Awesome. It’s about a spirit of survival more than it’s about race, class, or gender. Traveling through Germany recently and going through cities that were completely destroyed during the war and talking to people, hearing them recount stories in a way that they could attach to my own. I was in Poland telling some of these ancestral stories and feeling the pain in the room of people who couldn’t go back before 1945 because there was nothing left. There’s no record—there’s no anything!—just these stories. It just brings it full circle for me about the importance of sharing history and, most importantly, sharing the most painful parts, because that’s what people can plug into. Then, it allows you to deal with more avant-garde sounds that they might not be able to plug into otherwise. That’s another reason why there is narrative in the work.
MS: We actually have been very philosophical in our discussion about this piece, but we haven’t gotten into very much detail when it comes to its musical underpinnings. So let’s take a focused look at that.
MR: I’m heavily influenced by a lot of musicians that have come out of Chicago. Not just the avant people, but the more traditional people, too, because there’s a common theme running through that city—I don’t understand why it happened there—where it was always about original sound, and original voice, and original approach. That combined with the certain brand of black radicalism that I grew up in there. It was expected that you understood that you could do anything you wanted to do, and that you should always hold in suspicion anybody that tells you that you can’t. You should always hold in suspicion anyone that claims that your idea is not valid, no matter what color they are or what their gender is. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians is an important organization in fostering that for a lot of people—myself and for other young musicians. So by the time I got here, I just always felt that my possibilities in terms of dealing with sound were pretty endless. Sometimes that’s actually really overwhelming, but that’s fine.
MS: I’ve heard you equate your composition process with quilting.
MR: When I started saying that, the feminist in me was like, “Why are you talking about quilting?” I don’t quilt, but that’s a tradition that is on my Mississippi side, and my grandmother, her mother, and her father, they used to quilt together. It was like a family thing, and it made me realize that the way that I was putting the scores together, with these segments intertwined with graphic notation, was a form of quilting. I think I actually wanted to create music in a way that my family might understand as well. I grew up around a lot of avant-garde music. My dad was a vinyl collector and into Sun Ra and Art Ensemble and Albert Ayler and all these people, and there’d be music on all the time. I remember having a really hard time trying to understand that music. The only way that I know how to understand these things is by dealing with narrative and story and how I can hoist my imagination onto the sound. So oftentimes I’m looking for sounds that evoke certain kinds of emotion. That’s really kind of the underpinning of a lot of the graphic notation, and this approach to texture.
MS: I think you can hear that as a listener, but it’s a very non-linear experience. More like a fever dream—you’re one place and then something else starts creeping out and all of a sudden you’re turned towards a whole new area.
MR: That’s so wonderful. I like that idea of the fever dream.
MS: What’s your relationship to the saxophone at this point in your career, then, now that you’re doing more composition?
MR: The saxophone is always going to be at the core of everything that I do because the saxophone taught me a lot about feeling and emotion and connection. The saxophone, the alto in particular, connects to people in a way that the other saxophones don’t sometimes. I remember Henry Threadgill talking about how he switched from tenor to alto. He was playing in church revivals and realized that the alto brought the Holy Ghost to people. I need the saxophone as an anchor. When I’ve tried to unanchor it, my life has gone insane. It is my tool to work through things, and when things get too overwhelming, I’m also able to shave down, and go right back to the alto, and it’s like, okay, this is the heart of everything. It’s the heart of everything that I do.
MS: Do you think there’s a point that will come when you’ll say Coin Coin is finished, or is it one of those works that will always be part of your life, that will go on, growing and changing, like a living thing?
MR: You know, originally there was a start, and there was an end. I had it broken down by years, by months. But then I would get through one segment of it and be like, okay, that was interesting, but what is it like if I do it like this? Or I could do it like that. And so now, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a living thing. And I will complete the chapters, but the idea—the work as a construct—will continue even beyond that. It feels like legacy work. I had no plans for that when I started, but that’s what it feels like now.

MS: Is there room left in your head for anything else?
MR: It’s difficult, but I refuse to just focus on Coin Coin. The history that I am dealing with is so heavy sometimes that I actually feel drowned by it. It’s important for me to have some other ways of opening. I have a new New York quartet, and my focus with them is to keep all the graphic notation out of that and just to deal with my love of themes and songs. And I still explore solo saxophone work that is just in the tradition of solo saxophone. No extra anything. I have all these things that I want to try creatively, and for a long time, I didn’t understand that there was nothing standing in my way. You can do anything you want to do.

The Choices We Make

An article published earlier today in the Independent initially caught my attention because of the provocative headline that ArtsJournal used to link to it this morning—“Why Are Next Generation Artists So Conservative?.” Politicians are probably the only people who use and abuse terms like progressive and conservative more than folks engaged in aesthetic debates about the arts. Curiously, the author of this article, former editor Adrian Hamilton, writes about politics even more than he writes about visual art.

According to Hamilton’s assessment of the 2012 edition of the ICA’s New Contemporaries exhibition in London (which has been showcasing emerging artists since 1949 and which helped launch the careers of David Hockney and Damien Hirst), the young artists that were selected are more concerned with “craft and their ambitions to become professional” than with “being revolutionary.” I’ve heard the exact same comment made about many millennial composers. But such assertions are difficult to corroborate since determining whether something is “revolutionary” or “reactionary” at this juncture is as subjective an undertaking as determining whether something is “beautiful.”

MTAs Abstract Expressionism

Do you think the following visual image is progressive or reactionary? Actually, the answer is not so simple.

It has been more than 45 years since jazz composer/trumpeter/bandleader Don Ellis challenged the status quo of so-called musical progress in his polemical Downbeat magazine essay, “The Avant Garde is not Avant Garde” (June 30, 1966). Ellis claimed that musicians who were continuing the previous decade’s experiments were as reactionary as the musicians who were not experimental, if not more so. Now, more than half a century later, it’s hard to argue that recent music that sounds like early free jazz or Darmstadt-style serialism is any more contemporary than music that sounds like ’40s era Swing or romantic-era orchestral music. Even so-called post-modernism feels old-fashioned at this point. However, if the aesthetic directive of post-post-modernism, for lack of a better moniker, is that you can do whatever you want, terms like progressive and conservative ultimately no longer have any meaning. All of it is somehow both yet also neither.

But there are lots of other reasons why Hamilton’s critique generated a bit of cognitive dissonance for me. Hamilton hinted that this year’s equal gender balance among the artists selected (which already seems off since there were works by 29 artists exhibited, an odd number) might be because all three of this year’s judges were women. This was irritating on a variety of levels. While he might have been suggesting that gender parity tipped the scales in favor of women artists, the notion that anything besides gender parity would be acceptable at this point is somewhat ludicrous. Then again, I continue to see concert programs that unashamedly list works exclusively by male composers and I’ve yet to see a program that only included works by women that wasn’t somehow specifically designated as being dedicated exclusively to women. Perhaps more disturbing, however, was Hamilton’s suggestion that the fact that this year’s adjudicators were three women “may also (or may not) help to account for the fact that the majority of artists are concerned with the personal rather than public.” Does anyone have any idea what that actually means?

But the comment that gnawed at me the most was his explanation for why these artists did not meet his standards for progressive brilliance:

[T]here is really no reason why you should find your voice in your early twenties. It’s a 20th-century assumption that creativity comes before the craft rather than the other way round. Nobody in previous centuries would have signed up to that.

I’m now in my late 40s and every time I begin composing a new piece of music, I hope that a new idea emerges. The last thing I ever want is to be forced into patterns dictated by a voice that I was supposed to have found upon “maturing.” It is my hope that none of these artists “find their voices” but rather continue to explore in this wonderful environment where anything and everything is possible.