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Most people who haven’t heard of the theremin have heard it, usually in old science fiction movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (or spoofs like Mars Attacks). The instrument has a reputation as an oddball, by virtue of its unusual method of playing without touch (players control pitch and volume by moving their arms in proximity to two antennae), its notoriously slippery chromatic sound, and its association with all things alien and strange.
Yet the instrument was popular with U.S. audiences well before its appearance in sci-fi films. A significant surviving reception history documents recitals and concerts during the ’30s and ’40s, often given by women, known as “thereminists,” who played the instrument professionally or semi-professionally. Years before Hollywood cemented the theremin’s association with the alien or otherworldly, critics heard different qualities in its sonority: emotional expressiveness and excessive sentimentality.
This history isn’t widely known or taught, but it reveals much about how electronic musical sound takes on meaning and significance. While we might take for granted that the instrument’s touchless technique and new electronic timbre would naturally register with early listeners as alien and strange, contemporary reviews and commentary upend such assumptions and reveal the extent to which sonorities take on meaning in specific contexts, and in relationship to specific bodies.
A Theremin for the American Home
RCA Victor began producing the first commercial theremin in 1929 after leasing exclusive rights to the patent for a two-year term from its inventor, Leon Theremin. The company marketed the theremin as an instrument for the home, hiding its working parts—oscillators, vacuum tubes, and circuit board—in a polished wooden cabinet. Working with Theremin (an amateur cellist himself), RCA engineers shaped the instrument’s tone to evoke a cello in its mid-range and a violin at the top, sonorities they presumed would appeal to consumers.
RCA Victor theremin brochure c. 1930
RCA launched a campaign to familiarize audiences with the instrument’s sound. Department stores and music retailers across the country advertised demonstrations and concerts, and a series of weekly radio programs on NBC featured theremin renditions of popular repertory of the day and classical melodies like Camille Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan.” RCA marketed the instrument as a pathway to instant musical gratification for the amateur, promising that anyone could play it “without musical knowledge or training of any sort … without tiresome or extended ‘practice.’” The theremin (RCA hoped) would become “the universal musical instrument,” the piano’s heir apparent in millions of American living rooms.
Claims of universality notwithstanding, this campaign primarily targeted middle and upper-class white women, a demographic frequently associated with (and compelled to take on) domestic music-making and most likely to select music technology purchased for the home. Although men frequently played the theremin in demonstrations and broadcasts, RCA Victor’s promotional material almost exclusively pictured women playing the instrument. In Madison, Wisconsin, the local Ludlow Radio company sponsored several theremin concerts by a Mr. Lennington Shewell, but otherwise emphasized female use. The company launched a search for a “mystery co-ed” at the University of Wisconsin, alleging a gifted thereminist lived among the student body (no record of such a student survives). The local Capital Times gamely took up the publicity stunt, running an image of Ludlow’s office manager Charlotte Hilton with the instrument—although she admitted she did not know how to play it.
“Seek Mystery ‘Co-ed’ who Plays Theremin,” Capital Times front page, Madison, Wisconsin, October 19, 1930
Despite RCA Victor’s marketing efforts, the theremin was a flop: the company sold only 485 models and abandoned the instrument just two years after its launch. Any number of factors contributed to the theremin’s commercial failure, not least of them the instrument’s $230 price tag (roughly equivalent to $3,300 in 2018), which made it a luxury item at the start of the Great Depression.
RCA Victor’s most notorious blunder, though, was its gross misrepresentation of the instrument’s learning curve. It is incredibly difficult to play tonal melodies on a theremin: with no tactile interface and the entire chromatic spectrum available, the instrument lacks any readily apparent means to make a clear break between intervals, and requires a player’s hand to remain absolutely still in order to hold a steady pitch. Try to pick out even a simple melody on a theremin, and you’ll find yourself fighting a battle against continuous glissandi and poor intonation.
Thereminists and their critics
Despite these technical challenges, in the decades following the theremin’s commercial failure a small number of performers, most of them white women, concertized on the instrument in the U.S. and Europe. Among these, Clara Rockmore remains the most celebrated. A former child violin prodigy, Rockmore took theremin technique and virtuosity to a new level, developing a complex fingering method she adapted for each piece she performed. She carefully curated a repertoire for the instrument drawn mostly from works for violin and cello, with slow tempi and a great deal of step-wise motion that minimized the large pitch slides to which the instrument was prone. A typical program included works like Joseph Achron’s Hebrew Melody, Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera, and César Franck’s Cello Sonata in A Major. Her career included national tours as the opening act for Paul Robeson and a performance with the New York Philharmonic under Leopold Stokowski.
Clara Rockmore performs “The Swan” accompanied by her sister Nadia Reisenberg
Throughout her career, critics lauded Rockmore’s virtuosic playing and sophisticated musicianship. Reviewers frequently remarked on the instrument’s expressive powers in Rockmore’s hands, describing its tone as “warm” and “rich” and comparing it to the cello, violin, and human voice. They heard a “splendid sonority and vivid expressiveness” and a “clear, singing, almost mournful” tone in Rockmore’s playing. To this day, she remains influential among thereminists.
Yet critical response to Rockmore and the theremin was not universally positive. A rhetoric of noisiness threads through this early reception history, employed by (mostly white, mostly male) critics to mark the theremin as sonically obnoxious. During the ’30s and ’40s, when concert thereminists like Rockmore were active, critics often complained about their “excessive” use of vibrato and portamento. There is a practical explanation for such complaints: without the use of these techniques, it is next to impossible to locate pitches, or to create even the impression of accurate intonation, on the theremin.
Critics, however, did not limit themselves to practical questions about technique. Many turned to identity politics to signal their displeasure with the instrument’s slippery chromaticism, taking a cue from the long history of linking “excessive” chromaticism with bodies deemed sexually, racially, or otherwise aberrant. Writers for the New-York Tribune and Modern Music compared the theremin’s sonority to that of a “feline whine,” a fictional Wagnerian soprano dubbed “Mme. Wobble-eena,” and “fifty mothers all singing lullabies to their children at the same time.” Such comparisons are inseparable from the (frequently female) bodies that, in concert with the theremin, produced such sounds.
A few prominent figures in the American new music community at the time were particularly vehement in their criticism. In 1932 Marc Blitzstein wrote in Modern Music that the theremin’s “tone color remains lamentably sentimental, without virility. The most perfected [model], like a cello, exposes most brutally the cloying sound.” John Cage complained about concert thereminists in a 1937 talk (later published in the collection Silence). “When Theremin provided an instrument with genuinely new possibilities,” groused Cage, “Thereminists did their utmost to make the instrument sound like some old instrument, giving it a sickeningly sweet vibrato, and performing upon it, with difficulty, masterpieces from the past. Although the instrument is capable of a wide variety of sound qualities…Thereminists act as censors, giving the public those sounds they think the public will like. We are shielded from new sound experiences.”
The deficiencies commentators like Cage heard in the theremin’s sonority were not simply a response to the sound itself, but to the bodies and performance practices of thereminists like Rockmore. Composers of Western art music have long used “excessive” chromaticism to aurally mark women, and the thereminists’ frequent use of vibrato and portamento easily mapped onto the stereotype of the overly powerful and expressive operatic soprano. Meanwhile, new music proponents like Blitzstein often attacked traditional Western repertory in gendered terms as they sought to define a properly “virile” new music of their own. And we cannot dismiss the impact that the image of a woman performing held then (and holds now): such a vision can provoke both admiration and outrage.
Photograph of Clara Rockmore (c. 1930s) by Renato Toppo, courtesy of The Nadia Reisenberg / Clara Rockmore Foundation
“Serious” and “Beautiful” Electronic Music
It is composers like Cage who stand as towering figures in electronic music—not performers like Rockmore—and it is his take on the theremin that you’re likely to encounter in a book on the subject. Rockmore held entirely different opinions on the aesthetics of electronic musical sound. Looking back on her career in a 1977 interview with Bob Moog, she lamented that:
From the beginning of electronic instruments, the interest of composers,…builders, and performers, is that of a search for eerie, new or strange sound effects….Modern composers are shying away from melody, frankly because I don’t think they know how to write really beautiful melody….Now they make sound effects and noises when they write.
Rockmore also lamented what she saw as Hollywood’s devaluation of the theremin’s sound to a sonic cliché. She complained that Hollywood exploited the theremin for its “weird noises…you were supposed to be frightened by the sounds. That was not what I wanted to add to. I just wanted to be a serious musician…play Bach!” John Cage might have belittled Rockmore’s repertoire choices as “censorship,” but for her, playing “masterpieces from the past” was a way to confer legitimacy on her chosen instrument.
Contrasting Rockmore’s words about the theremin’s sound with Cage’s demonstrates how their relative positions of power and vulnerability influenced their discussions of electronic musical sound. Both were musicians in elite spheres—one traditional, the other avant-garde. Both worked in niche musical areas and proselytized for their chosen work. Both, at least publicly, disdained musical sounds they did not like or found threatening to their own careers.
Cage is often praised for his commitment to artistic freedom, and it is his definition of freedom—freedom from tonality, from traditional repertoire—that has been taken up and promoted by most electronic music historians. Yet in the case of the theremin, Cage argued for the restriction of performance practices, and historians use his words to explain why thereminists are not properly part of electronic musical history. Rockmore had a different take. When explaining how the theremin fit in the broader electronic music scene, she said, “The theremin is just another musical voice that the artist can feel free to do with what he can.” It is time we expand our own notions of musical freedom. Our histories will only grow richer when we do.
Is your local orchestra programming/university curriculum/conference speaker line-up a little light on the voices of women? Has someone looked you in the eye and shrugged it off, since the field is “mostly men” and so it’s difficult to discover what women are even creating? Through the years here on NewMusicBox, we’ve had some deep chats about gender and creativity, improvements in gender parity, explored the challenges to professional advancement for women, and even made some long lists for those looking to expand their horizons. We’ve also profiled the work of many female creators in the field right here on NewMusicBox. In celebration of #InternationalWomensDay, here are just a few examples for your back pocket the next time you meet someone who is having trouble finding any ladies in the house. There are plenty more in the archives!
The recent American presidential election inspired calls to action that rippled through various communities: Muslims, Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, LGBTQ people, people of color, the disabled, educators, and social justice activists to name but a few. One of the communities that responded quickly was the new music community.
In New York, National Sawdust hosted a November 10 town hall moderated by Paola Prestini, Courtenay Casey, Daniel Felsenfeld, and Roger Bonair-Agard. In Los Angeles on November 10, the Artist Council at The Hammer Museum scrapped their agenda to “deal with the more urgent situation at hand,” asking, “What can we do? … How can we protect the vulnerable and defend rights we have come to take for granted?” On November 16, NewMusicBox published Gary Ingle’s essay on Decolonizing Our Music. In Los Angeles on November 17, Nick Norton and ArtShare hosted Understanding and Action for Artists and Thinkers: An Open Forum. This meeting asked how we as artists and musicians could help marginalized communities that would be adversely affected by the new presidency. On November 28, Andrew Norman, having won the Grawemeyer Award For Music, made strong comments about privilege to NPR’s Tom Huizenga, an important statement I’ll discuss later. And recently, critic Alex Ross wrote about Making Art in a Time of Rage, looking at artistic responses from Leonard Bernstein to Ted Hearne’s recent politically charged work. Maybe you heard about some of these meetings. Maybe you attended some of them.
I was fascinated and encouraged by these prospects. The new music community wants to help marginalized and vulnerable communities? This could be a potential win-win that benefits both the oppressed and our own rarefied artistic community. Let’s go.
Before we propose remedies and strategies to help the marginalized, I believe we need to take a hard look at the new music community itself. There’s a paradigmatic assumption that our activism is a response to outside forces like the new presidency, but now is an opportunity to look within. As the sayings go: Think globally, act locally; Change begins at home.
Structural and systemic issues have allowed institutional exclusion to be rigid and persistent.
As performers, educators, composers, creators, and producers of music, we typically see ourselves working for a greater good, fortunate not to have our art and labor support the war machine or aggravate climate change, for example. However, we must acknowledge that the new music community has an established history of exclusion.
Structural and systemic issues have allowed institutional exclusion to be rigid and persistent. These issues begin with education and continue through the moderation of opportunities, career development, and audience-building structures including marketing, promotion, grants, and the dissemination of information.
Structural issues begin with early education; geographic, social, and economic privilege facilitates access to music lessons, and can affect how family and cohorts encourage childhood interest in music. Developmental psychologist Steven J. Holochwost has studied inadequacies and inequalities in access to music education in the United States. Holochworst notes there are cases where proactive outreach strategies have helped young students to become more involved in music.
With sufficient interest and success as children, many of us progressed to studying music within higher education. The conservatory, a central institution of Western art music, is based upon the conservation of musical tradition and established values, principles, and systems. (The exception often proves the rule; musicologist Nadine Hubbs describes how midcentury academic advocacy of serialism, while certainly revolutionary in many ways, served to ossify exclusionary heterosexist networks and hierarchies.)
Musicologists and sociologists have studied conservatory culture and dissected its various dysfunctions, often discreetly euphemizing names of institutions and pedagogues. Bruno Nettl looked at the “Heartland University School of Music”. Henry Kingsbury looked at the “Eastern Metropolitan Conservatory of Music,” whose entrance is on or perhaps near North Street (hint, hint). Andrea Olmsted brazenly studied Juilliard; outside the rigors of socio-musicology, Juilliard was also strongly suggested in films such as Food of Love and Whiplash. While Whiplash seemed extreme to the uninitiated, what conservatory denizen has never seen a percussionist with bloody hands, a violinist with an inflamed neck rash, or a music professor who abuses students? (According to the CBC, physical injuries contribute significantly to conservatory drop out rates.)
Professional and institutional networks intentionally bear resemblance to biological hereditary hierarchies and their concomitant racial exclusions, like a line of royal descent.
Socio-musicological investigation of conservatories finds a powerful mythology of musical genealogy, the concept of mystical secrets passed from teacher to student. This in turn helps form professional and institutional networks that intentionally bear resemblance to biological hereditary hierarchies and their concomitant racial exclusions, like a line of royal descent. Furthermore, intense conservatory experiences forge connections and communities in the same way these are formed by hazing at a fraternity, a sorority, or elite athletic or military institutions. The resultant effect is a self-perpetuating exclusionary system, much like an Etonian “old boys club” with similar socio-economic consequences, transposed into the realm of music as a profession.
Prizes, awards, and competitions—particularly those on the entry-level or semi-professional end of the spectrum—do not often function as prizes and awards per se, but as a form of gatekeeping to further professional development. Consider prizes that offer an opportunity to work with an orchestra, either as a composer or concerto soloist. It’s not like contestants habitually work with an orchestra and win a statuette or purse judged upon that work. The prize is the opportunity itself.
Prizes have been widely criticized as a thinly veiled means of fundraising, and this intersects with socioeconomic concerns. For fledgling ensembles and nonprofits, having a competition is a no-brainer; when students have already spent tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, what is a mere $25-$50 entrance fee? While this can raise a little bit of money for the ensemble or nonprofit, it infrequently offers long-term nurturing; instead, it fosters expectations that maybe someone else will become interested in the winners’ work as a result of the competition.
Criticism of the competition complex has been widely restrained because the field is small and no one wants to offend colleagues or arts organizations. Bill Doerrfeld addressed ageism in composer opportunities. Dennis Báthory-Kitsz humorously mocked the system by flipping it, creating a Performing Ensemble Competition offering $1000 and the opportunity to perform his music; no travel expenses covered, and a $75 entry fee. Ben Phelps penned a poignant, tongue-in-cheek advice column, How to Win Composing:
The competition is thus the apotheosis of cultural musical expression. This is why so many average music listeners refer so religiously to such famous competitions as the Masterprize when deciding what new music they are going to like. With competitions holding such a valuable and important place in the career paths of young composers, many justifiably want to win as many as possible, so as to secure admission to more prestigious graduate schools of composition and thus win more coveted teaching positions at more prestigious universities.
Phelps’s essay does not intersect class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and marginalized communities with its savvy takedown, but its parody reveals institutional biases and prejudices couched within musical demands. (See also Frank Oteri’s interview of Wendy Carlos that discusses how academic stylistic expectations mirror prejudice and misogyny.) Strategies for winning that Phelps recommends include using crotales, nested tuplets, and having a title with parentheses, like “Inter(rupt)ions”. This parodies new music and protectionist, institutional biases.
Efforts to define “new music” frequently align with exclusionary institutional biases.
A board member of a mid-sized nonprofit talked to me about their efforts to address diversity. The board member felt her organization was trying to combat racial and gender exclusions and explained, “Well, we have a call for scores, and it’s a blind call, so all the scores are anonymous, no names or information.” A problem with this common methodology is that a savvy panel can distinguish racial and socio-economic identities in anonymous scores through the very formulae that Ben Phelps so wryly advocates. I emphasize that having a diverse board of directors is great, and anonymous scores are great, but you still have an issue with the nested tuplets. There is a lingering means of identifying educational background and insider membership even amidst efforts to be fair and unprejudiced. One might argue that the savvy panel is merely trying to ensure that selected scores appropriately exploit new directions and extended techniques. Yes, of course, but efforts to define “new music” frequently align with exclusionary institutional biases.
Issues of diversity and marginalization are complicated by career concerns: Is engagement with new music a vocation, avocation, or appreciation? (Consider Charles Ives.) Are we free from or financially dependent upon establishment structures? How does new music engage us financially as purchasers, consumers, audience members, creators, performers, and laborers?
If new music is a career either directly or tangentially, we are looking at real world issues of hiring and tenure in academia, bookings and guarantees on the concert circuit, fees and honorariums for clinicians, as well as commissions, grants, radio airplay, recording contracts, and distribution deals. These concerns can impact how we present our politics, program our concerts, or choose what ensembles to book at our venues. We will rely on existing networks in the community to determine who gets the gig.
Diversity hiring is not about creating an unfair advantage for the marginalized. It’s not necessarily about helping underserved populations or any particular candidate, but primarily about correcting deficiencies and inequalities within the hiring institution. It is not about patronizing a candidate or applicant as much it is a course correction for the institution. This likewise applies to commissioning.
If a “call for scores” only results in winners from an existing circle, something is not right.
If a “call for scores” only results in winners from an existing circle, something is not right. If you are not commissioning outside your professional network, there is little reason to have a call for scores. If you want to keep things “in house,” this is perfectly fine; there are positive benefits from cultivating ongoing relationships. Nevertheless, it benefits audiences and encourages composers when conductors and music directors take it upon themselves to research and discover talent outside of their network. While it seems counterintuitive, there may be more equitable and challenging programming with fewer calls for scores and more promotion of work originating outside existing circles.
My focus on institutions allows for an orientation towards the micro-social. Their creation and preservation is predicated on overlapping networks, both internally—among composers, performers, and administrators—and externally—with music critics, funding sources, and audiences.
Robin shows that micro-social circles are driving forces in the new music industrial complex and workplace today. Robin briefly looks at ageism and New York geo-centrism, but he misses opportunities to interrogate how micro-social connections might also be affected by racism, sexism, socioeconomics, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and so on. These biases and prejudices surely affect new music micro-social circles and the new music professional landscape.
Remedies and Strategies
Particularly where music intersects education and social activism, there is a growing body of published research and recommendations. Oxford University Press has published a Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education that is “concerned with ameliorating social inequities affecting marginalized or underserved children and groups.” It looks at policy reforms, emerging feminisms, ableism, gender and sexual diversity, youth in detention centers, and a myriad of other concerns in 42 chapters. This is an excellent entry point for educators in both K-12 and higher education.
When our children do not see teachers who look and live like they do, they may not envision themselves in positions as teachers, conductors, composers, and leaders themselves.
College educator Joshua Palkki wrote in a Smartmusic blog post, “Because our classrooms are a microcosm of society at large, it is worth exploring how issues of diversity and inclusion influence music education. Furthermore, when our children do not see teachers who look and live like they do, they may not envision themselves in positions as teachers, conductors, composers, and leaders themselves. If we do not provide those models, we are not fully serving our students.” Palkki recommends creating safe environments, creating community, being inclusive, aware, reaching out, and championing the stories of others.
A- always center the impacted
L- listen & learn from those who live in the oppression
L- leverage your privilege
Y- yield the floor
I would like to look at these recommendations and translate them into concrete examples.
A: Always Center the Impacted
Throwing a benefit, fundraiser, or town hall should not be a means of self-promotion. It should not be seized as an opportunity to moderate or present oneself as an authority on social justice activism, even if such mantle may be rightfully claimed. If organizational leaders are knowledgeable or active within social justice movements, this is an opportunity to welcome impacted colleagues to lead, present, or moderate a discussion. If organizational leaders do not know impacted people, this is a great opportunity to reach out and make those connections. Activism often involves research, communication, and the building of bridges and consensus. Sometimes the best way to help is for institutional leaders to step aside and center impacted communities and colleagues.
A better approach would have been to invite women and people of color who work in animation at any level to come and discuss the same subject. What are their experiences? What are their recommendations? What can they tell us about the current crop of animated films?
L: Listen & Learn from Those Who Live in the Oppression
If you’d like to help, it might be best to listen rather than reiterate your punditry. To ask how new music can help the marginalized and vulnerable begs the question: shouldn’t we be reaching out to affected people directly and asking them what they need, as opposed to soul-searching in isolation?
If you’d like to help, it might be best to listen.
We should take care not to presume to know someone’s story, to assume how they are privileged or marginalized, without learning their history or background. Many things do not always appear on the surface: gender identity, racial identity, disability, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status, history of activism, civil disobedience, or arrest record. There are many possible intersections, and many surprises. One classic moment happened with vlogger and cultural critic Jay Smooth, founder of Ill Doctrine, in conversation with CBS commentator Nancy Giles on the subject of Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign. Giles seemed to believe that Smooth was “appropriating black mannerisms.” Smooth quipped, “I’m a rap guy,” then spelled things out for Giles, “I’m actually black, but you assumed otherwise, and this is the sort of awkwardness we can look forward to at Starbucks across America.”
We should acknowledge that those of us able to work in music are quite privileged. Even if we struggle to pay rent on a tiny apartment, we are privileged to work in a field of our choice in a rarefied community. There are ways for us to leverage our privilege.
This award has been given to three women out of its 30-year history. And to me that’s kind of an issue. And in all honesty, I’m a white man and I get lots of commissions and there are systemic reasons for that, reasons we should all be talking about. There are so many talented composers out there. Rather than giving me another commission, why aren’t we giving those people a commission? The canon is so overwhelmingly white and male, but we can use new music to fix that problem.
Norman, still young, has enjoyed a meteoric rise. It would have been easy for him to internalize his success and affect his own exceptionalism. The arts industrial complex has a habit of heaping awards upon the same “usual suspects” like a slowly rising conveyor belt you better jump on while you are young. A communal notion of exceptionalism encourages the idea that “new music” can “help.” These notions of exceptionalism are not unique to high art. Critic Ann Powers, in “The Problem With The Grammys Is Not A Problem We Can Fix,” notes that:
For white people, to acknowledge institutional racism is to recognize our place in it and to become prepared to move from that comfortable spot. Yet the little voice of assumed exceptionalism often convinces us that we can stay there and fight the good fight. Feeling exceptional is a privilege in itself. … Exceptionalism contradicts systematic truths and seems to solve the most deeply embedded social problems. And we all crave it. Everyone who benefits from these structures wants to believe they are natural.
Norman leveraged his privilege by speaking out on NPR. Perhaps one day he will sit on a committee himself where he can commission marginalized composers. Not all of us have the opportunity to speak on NPR, but there are other ways of leveraging privilege beyond the bully pulpit: lobbying organizations from within; writing a check; providing legal or logistical assistance to people engaged in civil disobedience; using our connections to board members and major donors to help shift commissioning and concert programming; using our connections to the media to help set agendas and shift coverage; and so on.
Y: Yield the Floor
On February 12, the Artists’ Political Action Network (APAN) held an organizing meeting in Los Angeles. Members of the Hammer Artists Council organized the meeting, but it was not held at the Hammer Museum, but at 356 S. Mission Road, a gallery space in the gentrifying Boyle Heights area. Defend Boyle Heights anti-gentrification activists picketed, interrupted, and protested the meeting with chants such as, “A gentrifying space is not a safe space.” This was an opportunity for APAN Hammer folks to yield the floor rather than counter that “gentrification” was already listed in their PowerPoint. Yielding the floor creates opportunities to listen and learn. Both groups, APAN and Defend Boyle Heights, are well positioned to do good work; afterwards, some people from either group met outside and talked, sharing concerns and ideas.
During the APAN meeting, attendees came up with a list of 150 potential subcommittee issues. These included issues like immigration rights, gerrymandering, and environmental issues, but only one issue related to the arts: diversity in gallery representation. This is one issue where a group of visual artist-activists really have especial knowledge and opportunities. It is here they could really affect change and use their connections and expertise.
My point is that if you really want to work on immigration rights or gerrymandering, for example, there are many existing groups for that, and it would be beneficial to look for people and groups already doing that work. There is nothing wrong with donating time or money directly to groups like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. The idea of creating a new “immigrants rights committee” to speak for others when the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and many other organizations already exist seems a little self-serving. You may have special expertise within your field that allows you to do unique work, and that is worthy of consideration.
I ask us to consider what we can do that is unique to our own knowledge and access. We have systemic racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and misogyny within our own institutions and micro-social networks. I believe that by tackling these issues within our own institutions and networks, we can affect change in a meaningful way. We should certainly partner with other organizations and build bridges to other communities in the arts and social justice worlds. But helping others demands humility and self-awareness as well.
Now more than ever, the music world is talking about women—and especially female composers. Consider all the recent headlines. Late last year, the field was rocked by allegations and then denials that Anna Magdalena Bach wrote the six cello suites. (One wonders: would an allegation that Bach’s son had written the suites have been met with such incredulity?) Last fall, the Baltimore Symphony released a series of infographs exploring trends behind 21 major American orchestras’ 2014-15 seasons. A disappointing, disconcerting 1.8% of the pieces programmed were written by women, and only 14.8% of the pieces by living composers were. Most recently, 17-year-old Jessie McCabe seized headlines after creating a change.org petition asking the directors of the Edexcel A-Level Music syllabus to include the work of at least one woman in their 2016 edition. Two weeks ago, McCabe received an assurance from the managing director of Pearson UK that the absence of female composers “will change.”
This is clearly an ongoing conversation, and it appears to be one that is gaining steam. Here are five big takeaways from my marathon weekend of writing, reading, and responding:
1) Lots of people have lots of ideas why there are no female composers in the pantheon of immortals. I’m struck by how wildly divergent our explanations for the phenomenon are. It’s women’s fault! (Women are not biologically suited to write great music! Women can perform but can’t create!) It’s society’s fault! (The game is rigged! Women were expected to stay home and make babies!) The subject of gender in music even leads to the subject of genius in music. (It’s the pantheon’s fault! There were great female composers; they just aren’t recognized!) And here’s one of the most striking suggestions I read: there are so few great female composers because there are so few great female critics. At that, one can’t help but glance at the genders of the current crop of classical music critics and wonder.
Some of those justifications make sense, but I doubt that any one of them alone is sufficient to explain the near total absence of music written by women, especially in orchestra halls. The conversation needs to continue. Hopefully with time we can come to a greater consensus about why women’s compositions are so often marginalized. Then surely it will become easier to change the status quo. (Or at least make the decision not to.)
2) When we’re discussing the absence or presence of female composers, we’re not just talking about female composers. Rather, we’ve moved on to even bigger questions about how a culture creates a canon. As one of my readers, Tim Rutherford-Johnson, noted in a comment on my blog: “Including Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, etc. on the syllabus is a great way to tie in many wider questions, like the way canons are constructed, how power relates to definitions of value, the place of music within 19th/20th/21st-century societies, and so on.” Clearly one of the main reasons this topic upsets and excites so many people is that it forces us to question the very foundations of our canon. If the criteria that labeled Beethoven great are fundamentally flawed, then what do we have left?
Sometimes I play mind games with myself, imagining wild alternative musical histories. Granted, this scenario has its limitations, but imagine: what if the entirety of Mozart’s oeuvre had somehow been lost for two hundred years and was only resurrected today? Imagine the press conference: “We’ve uncovered the work of the famous child prodigy!” How would we treat this new old music? Would Mozart instantly be recognized as the genius we know him as today? Or is part of our modern culture’s affinity for—indeed, deification of—Mozart partially based in that culture’s sheer familiarity with Mozart?
Another alternative history… Maddalena Laura Sirmen’s six violin concertos (one of which was actually praised by Leopold Mozart) were in print for quite some time after their publication. What if Sirmen’s six violin concertos—dating from the 1760s—had been played and analyzed and discussed and debated and, most importantly, performed, while Wolfgang Mozart’s set of five—dating from the 1770s—was only just being discovered today? How would our musical world be different? How would it be the same?
In other words, putting aside questions of gender, how much of a handicap is sheer obscurity? I don’t claim to have particularly satisfying answers to that question. But the thought experiments are exhilarating, unsettling, and even a little bit scary. And that’s one reason this is all so interesting: the discussion about female composers is never, ever just about female composers.
3) Clickbait is affecting the cultural discussion in very weird ways. I refuse to believe that an entire team of professional writers and editors at The Spectator found their article’s argument compelling, intelligent, or well-crafted. Full stop. They’re never going to admit it, but their rhetorical laziness is clearly canniness in disguise. Presumably the primary goal was to rack up clicks, rather than to advance meaningful or actionable ideas, and by that measure, the article was a roaring success.
Based on the reactions I’ve read, though, I’m willing to bet that a considerable percentage of the 2000 Facebook shares actually consisted of people saying, “Can you believe this bullshit?” Which brings up the mind-bending question: does that mean that articles like these actually advance the opposite of their stated or implied agenda? Do they actually contribute to the discussion by encouraging widespread and ultimately productive backlashes? Is The Spectator aware of this? Does it care? (Should it?)
4) People who want to hear more new music and people who want to hear more music by women are fighting similar battles. What are the two big reasons why obscure pieces aren’t programmed? Say them aloud with me: people don’t know them, and therefore they won’t buy tickets to hear them performed. It’s a hard process to add new music to a canon, to catch ears, to persuade performers and then audiences…especially if we’re working within the confines of one of the big institutions.
So I propose we all compare notes. If people who specialize in new music have methods that have expanded their audience, I think there’s a chance that those same techniques might also work to expand the audience for music by women, and vice versa. What works? Pre-concert discussions? New media? Unique performance spaces? Particular performers? New ensembles? Or should the dissemination of knowledge occur in another format altogether? Let’s have that discussion. I think it would be very interesting.
But the greatest takeaway from this weekend was…
5) People find the subject of women in music to be fascinating. And why wouldn’t we? We all have an instant connection to the topic. We all have experiences with either being a woman or caring deeply for women. These discussions aren’t theoretical like so many musical debates; they are intensely real and personal.
Given that truth, I’m flummoxed. Why are the roles that women have played in our art as composers, performers, and muses not more celebrated in our modern culture?
Attention, performers, ensembles, writers, administrators, artistic directors: there is intense interest here. Classical music especially loves to panic over its imminent irrelevancy and demise. So I would think that everyone who loves it would be racing to embrace new angles that people show interest in. This may mean deliberately spotlighting the contributions of any number of fabulously accomplished women from throughout music history.
The ultimate disrespect to the topic of women in music would be to say relatively little about it, as has happened for far too long. But I have hope that that is changing. The hubbub around the subject is an intensely hopeful sign.
Emily E. Hogstad
Emily E. Hogstad is the 26-year-old writer of the widely read blog Song of the Lark, which first came to international prominence for its coverage of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout of 2012-2014. She has appeared on or in MinnPost, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota Public Radio, National Public Radio, WQXR, Performance Today, and The New York Times to offer thoughts on topics as diverse as the Minnesota Orchestra’s historic 2015 trip to Cuba, what it means to be a music nerd, and social media activism in the orchestra world. Her great passion is researching the history of women in music, especially the great forgotten female violinists of the past. She currently makes her home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with a violin, a viola, a laptop named after Lili Boulanger, and two rescue cats, Gwendolyn and Genevieve.
Watching Susanna Malkki conduct the Chicago Symphony was moving in an unexpected way. It was moving in the way that I imagine the Northern Lights might be moving, or the Great Pyramids. It was like seeing a natural phenomenon that I had heard about, read about, but never actually observed in the flesh. My God, I thought to myself, like a pilgrim who has finally arrived at the holy site. So this is what it’s like!
I have been a musician for twenty years, and before Tuesday night, I had never seen a woman conduct a great orchestra. And unless you count the string teachers in my public schools, I’ve never worked with a woman conductor myself.
So I suppose it makes sense that every time Malkki presided over a roaring crescendo during Tuesday night’s Chicago Symphony concert, I felt a rush of unexpected emotion. Because, for all my years of playing, the sound of an orchestral crescendo has been associated with the sight of a man’s body on the podium. For my entire life, the sounds of timpani and brass seemed to be born exclusively from the waving of a man’s arms. But I now have living proof that this isn’t the case. And it matters.
Malkki’s program—Debussy’s La Mer, the Stravinsky Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz, Thomas Adès’s …and all shall be well, and Sibelius’s suite from The Tempest —was one of the most interesting of the CSO’s season. The young couple next to me were excited, enthusiastic, and fully engrossed in the concert.
“She’s only the second female conductor I’ve ever seen,” the woman said after the Sibelius.
“Yeah. Besides Marin Alsop,” her date replied. There was a long pause.
“That’s so cool, though,” the girl said in a hushed and excited voice. “She’s really good.”
Malkki is really good. She has an alert, intense podium presence and a clear and lively technique. For much of the program, her touch was perceptibly light; her years in the collaborative environment of Ensemble Intercontemporain were evident. Malkki allowed the orchestra to play. They seemed relaxed; principal string players often smiled at her as she cued their entrances. The Stravinsky in particular was transparent and enthralling: there was a sense of absolute assurance between Malkki, Josefewicz, and the orchestra.
At intermission, I circulated in the lobby, hoping to overhear an interesting comment or two about Malkki. But her presence felt like a massively successful non-event. Response to the Stravinsky was overwhelmingly positive. People were drinking champagne. A woman was on the podium, and everything seemed to be in order.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mei-Ann Chen, conductor Photo by Todd Rosenberg
It is a testament to Malkki’s prodigious gifts that Chicago’s music critics wholeheartedlyembraced her return to the CSO stage as they did her 2011 debut: with barely a whisper about her gender. Their focus, rightly so, was on the clarity and focus of her interpretive work and leadership. But I have no interest in pretending to be gender-blind. Malkki is unquestionably a master; she is also, statistically, a unicorn. In 2011, she became the first woman ever to conduct at La Scala; she remains the only woman who has. There is no sense in attempting to remove Malkki from her context: she is a brilliant musician who has rightly risen to the top of her profession, in spite of obstacles placed in her way by classical music’s persistent gender problems.
Alex Ross recently wrote about Marin Alsop breaking another glass ceiling at the Proms, and his welcome attention to the issue generated some thoughtful responses. But I find that the discussion over female conductors is often rife with false dichotomies. While one person despairs over how few female conductors there are, another protests that there are plenty and shows off a long list of them. While one person can point to misogynistic comments and despair, someone else can point to artists like Malkki and brightly insist that times are changing.
We could go down a rabbit hole of cultural differences, too. Why is it, for example, that fully half of the recently accepted conducting students at the Sibelius Conservatory in Malkki’s native Finland are women, while female doctoral conducting students remain a stubbornly small minority in the US?
Perhaps the most useful thing we can do as a society, and as a musical community, is to examine the causes of women’s low participation in conducting. Alex Ross’s most astute recent observation is that “the art of conducting is wrapped up in mythologies of male power.” At the moment, conducting and maleness seem almost inextricably linked. They aren’t, of course—but the deep historical and sociological bond means that women conductors may face subtle and complex challenges in rising to the top of the field.
As recent research out of Rutgers University shows, when women succeed at “male gender-typed tasks,” they are usually met with negative reactions that adversely affect their careers. We must also remember that there’s a likability tax paid by every successful professional woman. And in a music director role–on the podium, in the press, and at meetings with donors—likability is an extremely important factor.
Another major factor is the difficulty that female aspiring conductors may have finding role models and mentors who resemble them. A study from the University of Toronto, titled “Someone like me can be successful,” indicates that young women’s self-assessment is deeply impacted by the presence of a successful female role model. Without accessible role models, many young women literally cannot envision a life in conducting; for this reason, many talented potential conductors may never even consider the possibility.
Once a woman finally gets to the podium—no small thing in itself—we would also do well to consider sociologist Rosabeth Kanter’s research on tokenism in professional life. While the word “token” has some negative associations, Kanter used the term to refer to a minority that comprises less than fifteen percent of a workplace. Kanter’s work indicates that if you are a token minority—which women in high-level conducting absolutely are—you will endure three difficult conditions. First, you will be subject to unusually high scrutiny; second, you will have stereotypes attributed to you; third, your individuality will be compromised, and you will be viewed as a representative of the minority group.
So when the thought popped into my head that I didn’t care for the jacket Malkki was wearing, that was a perfect example of unusually high scrutiny. When we posit that female conductors are more collaborative and gentle than their male counterparts, this is a perfect example of attributing stereotypes to them. And when we conflate Malkki, Alsop, and Falletta—or even when we praise Malkki as evidence that “women can do this”—this is a perfect example of compromising the individuality of each artist, forcing them instead to Represent Women, to carry the mantle of Woman Conductor.
So in this thorny and difficult context—which we must acknowledge and actively fight against, in order to make things better—the example of Susanna Malkki is indeed a bright light.
This past Tuesday night she became, for me and probably for hundreds of other women in the audience, a role model. She steered expertly through the dangerous waters of programming, demeanor, wardrobe. She illuminated the music. She made us feel that success was possible for “someone like us.” And then, I imagine, she boarded a plane and flipped open a score, on her way to do it all again somewhere else.
Oct 30, 2013
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