26 November 2006

Gendered Musical Practices, Feminine Styles

Alison Balsom
CMT: My young niece has recently decided to begin studying trumpet. I told her about how exotic and novel this choice is, and gave her copies of the recent CDs of Amanda Pepping and Alison Balsom to give her a sense for what’s possible—how mastery of that instrument can be cool for a girl.

DSM: Coincidentally, I was recently reading a medical journal article about cerebrovascular events in musicians, such as cerebral embolism due to a patent foramen ovale and spinal epidural hematoma during trumpet playing. Do you imagine that the phenomenally high intrathoracic and subsequent intrapharyngeal pressure associated with brass playing contributes to why there are so few women brass players in orchestras and other classical music groups?

CMT: I can’t imagine it. There surely isn’t any relevant physical difference between the genders with regard to brass playing—with the possible exception of tuba and lung capacity. Women are able to generate and sustain pressures in Valsalva maneuvers that are as high as men. There isn’t any gender-based anatomical difference that would differentially affect brass playing compared to other wind instruments. Mouthpiece pressure, tooth displacements, and so on. The intrathoracic pressures in double-reed playing can be higher than those for brass instruments—but there’s no barrier for women oboists and bassoonists and so on. So surely the rarity of women brass players just reflects the impact of entrenched cultural notions about what’s “feminine”—the tide of what’s culturally permissible for womanly playing.

DSM: So this is really about whether or not there’s such a thing as feminine musical style or styles. Stereotypes—like the notion that women’s music production should be fluid, should appear as playful regardless of how much exertion is involved, should be hyperexpressive and emotional and dialogical, should be pliant and enabling of others, should be acrobatic or balletic, should have great dramatic moments, should exude a certain jouissance, should be atmospheric, should refer to life events and relationships, should have wide and demonstrative ties between thematic elements, and should overtly draw attention to and emphasize the differences in the movements of women from those of men. The whole bit.

CMT: Well, yes. And how do these things replicate societal norms for gendered musical practices and experience gendered musical meanings? How do these affect women’s expectations and the specific practices and products of their composing and performing?

DSM: As you know, historically, relatively few women have been composers. Equally few are brass players. Shall we think about these correlations? Musicologists and sociologists have only in the last twenty years or so begun to study the situation, and there’s still a lot of work to be done (see Bowers & Tick, 1986; Citron, 1993; Marshall, 1993; Cook & Tsou, 1994; Halstead, 1997; Green, 1994, 1997).

CMT: Regarding primary music education, the majority of gender-related research has been on instrument choice (Bruce & Kemp, 1993; Green, 1997), with relatively little research so far on gender and music in relation to children’s compositions (Green, 1994, 1997; Charles, 2001). The children in Charles’ research carried on ideological assumptions that’re passed down through history about what girls/women and boys/men ought and ought not to do and what they’re like as musicians. She found that children have gendered expectations in relation to music and have strong ideas about the differences between girls’ and boys’ musical practices, even at an early age. She calls these ‘ideologies of gendered musical practices’. Charles found that in general children acted out gender roles in relation to compositional practices. But the most interesting findings were contradictions between the ways that children talked about things (their discourse) and how they operated in practice—contradictions they didn’t seem to notice themselves. And that is, in itself, a chink in the tyrannical cultural armor.

DSM: The teachers in Charles’ study did display many entrenched, gendered assumptions about boys’ and girls’ musical practices and products. And so there’s a summary in Charles’ paper—about girls’/women’s musical subculture—a concept of ‘female musical subculture’.

CMT: About 10 years ago, Lucy Green also worked out a model of gendered musical meaning and experience. Green argues that we must keep open some level of pure musical meaning that’s free from symbolic content. When heard, it’s affected by the values that exist outside the musical notes themselves. In relation to her model, Green says that ‘musical composition requires knowledge of the technology of voices, instruments or other sound sources, and this knowledge implies masculine delineation of mind which conflicts with patriarchal constructions of femininity’. She describes the concept as ‘twofold’ because it’s not only about the cognitive control over knowledge and technique but also because history—which is itself patriarchal—results in an assumption that the authorship behind a piece of music is male. The delineation of masculinity in the construction of musical meaning is associated with the public sphere—the mind, technology and non-conformity—whereas the delineation of femininity is associated with the private sphere—the body, emotions and conformity. It’s an excellent encapsulation of the preconceptions that girls and women in music face.

DSM: Yes, but boys are just as constrained and inscribed by cultural gender norms. Yes, they appear to have a more positive relationship to technology than did most girls, and this was in Charles’ study reinforced by boys’ choice of abstract compositional titles (‘Loud and Soft’; ‘Heavy and Light’; ‘Wooden and Metal’; and so on; see also Armstrong, 2001). But that also means that boys are culturally enjoined against being free to choose other things—they are not at liberty to choose less technically-bound, abstract, objectified, power-conscious forms. Charles finds that more girls chose compositional titles associated with emotion and nature rather than objectivity (‘Happy and Sad’; ‘Rain and Sunshine’). The findings strongly suggest that girls in their discourse and to some extent in their practice were acting as members of a female musical subculture. No surprise there. Discouraging but not surprising.

CMT: So girls reproduced traditional gendered musical practices and carried out ‘expected’ or ‘culturally constructed and sanctioned’ roles connected with the conventional private sphere that is reserved to them. The term ‘subculture’ rather than ‘culture’ is used because women’s experiences have been marginalized by male culture, and this leads to a location where commonalities emerge. Marginalization in turn discourages them, to a greater degree anyhow than boys. The concept of female musical subculture is used to explain women’s musical practice within the context of patriarchy and does not imply anything that is essentially female. It acknowledges the category of ‘woman’ as a social construction (see Nash, 1994) and is about women perpetuating traditional musical practices for social/historical reasons.

DSM: This suggestion of feminine perseverance and conformity bugs me. By ‘being girls’, by describing their music as soft and slow and having a preference for soft and slow music, they are ‘against themselves’—or so Charles interprets it. Thank goodness some music education programs are smashing these barriers.

CMT: In light of Citron’s recent writing, it could be said that the girls experience a sense of Other and ‘an anxiety of authorship’. Their sense of Other is another dimension to the concept of female musical subculture. McClary locates ‘semiotic codes’ in sonata form and argues that music participates ‘actively in the social organization of sexuality’ (1991, p. 9). Similarly, Citron identifies ‘codes of gendered representation’ in sonata form and maintains that the codes ‘tell us a lot about the representation of women and men in society, how ideologies affected how music itself was conceptualized and described, and how music had close ties with ideals and processes in society’ (1993, p. 137).

DSM: So children’s and teachers’ discourse on the musical practices of boys and girls in the primary classroom reflect views about gendered musical behavior that have been socially and historically constructed within the larger society. Microcosmic meaning drawing from macrocosmic meaning concerns larger totalities of history and humanity (where past and present connect) that are unifying patterns of beliefs. In the case of this study, in their discourse children defined their being and consciousness in relation to the social world, to others and to the system of beliefs and values that is already in existence about gender and gender and musical practice. This was then reinforced by teachers’ views about boys’ and girls’ composition.

Alison Balsom
CMT: Chamber music becomes just one more discursive field within which meanings are produced about social relations . . . the discourses will include and be drawn from those current in broader society.

DSM: Yes. Kids quickly learn the discourse of how to represent gendered musical practice that conforms to adult expectations—and this fits in with the wider social organization of music. But the taboos on gendered musical behavior are not so strong at younger ages. The discourse on musical practice has more power over their thinking than over the nature of the music they produce. Ideology quickly dominates their conscious thinking and affects their interpretation of what’s actually happening in their musical training. Would you contend that the social system of gender relations is both a cause and an effect?

CMT: Although imposed externally by outside social forces, it does arise out of self-imposed boundaries. But I think the evidence indicates that in their musical practice kids don’t consistently reproduce ideologies. Thank goodness! My niece, the iconoclast, and her supportive music teacher and parents. All things are in a continuous process of change and humanity is always, whenever it participates in social relationships, open to continual socialization. It’s only a matter of time, once kids are in secondary school, before the strength of ideology becomes greater and contradictions between musical discourse and practice decrease. Iconoclasm gets more difficult between age 14 and 20, say.

DSM: Another icon/iconoclast to tell your niece about is Ellen Zwilich. Ellen is the recipient of numerous prizes and honors, including the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in Music (the first woman ever to receive this coveted award), the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber Music Prize, the Arturo Toscanini Music Critics Award, the Ernst von Dohnányi Citation, an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, 4 Grammy nominations, and, among other distinctions, she’s been elected to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1995, she was named to the first Composer’s Chair in the history of Carnegie Hall, and she was designated Musical America’s Composer of the Year for 1999. Her chamber works have been commissioned by the Boston Musica Viva, the Abe Fortas Memorial Fund of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 92nd Street Y and San Francisco Performances (Piano Trio), Chamber Music Northwest (Clarinet Quintet), the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (Double Quartet), and Carnegie Hall (String Quartet No. 2). Ellen was named to the Carnegie Hall Richard and Barbara Debs Composers’ Chair in 1995, the first such position in the Hall’s history. And, in addition to Alison Balsom and Amanda Pepping, you might hook your niece up with Marie Speziale or Susan Slaughter, another couple of excellent women brass artists.


Ellen Taaffe Zwilich


21 November 2006

Virtuosic Bassoon: Craving Irrational Exuberance

Still-life: Nadina & Axe
“The future of classical music lies solely in the hands of musicians who really, really love it, and who live to perform the masterworks of all periods.”
  — Nadina Mackie Jackson
“The debates, before and since, over the issue of our money standard have mirrored the deliberations on the manner in which we have chosen to govern ourselves, and, perhaps more fundamentally, debates on the basic values that should govern our society. For, at root, money is the lubricant that enables a society to organize itself to achieve economic progress. The ability to store the fruits of one’s labor for future consumption is necessary for the accumulation of capital, the spread of technological advances and, as a consequence, rising standards of living… But how do we know when
irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade? And how do we factor that assessment into monetary policy? We as central bankers need not be concerned if a collapsing financial asset bubble does not threaten to impair the real economy, its production, jobs, and price stability.”
  — Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve Board Chairman,  lecture at American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington, 05-DEC-1996
« ...manie à la perfection....l’instrument se rélève tout au long du récital très proche de la voix »
  — Réjean Beaucage, La Scena Musical, DEC-2004


DSM: Do you think classical musicians tend to be more meticulous, more conformist, more submissive to authority, more self-sacrificial, more possessive, more empathetic, more disposed to think that others “take them for granted”, more hypochondriacal … more Enneagram  2-ish  … than other kinds of musicians, and more than people in general?

CMT: What have you been reading?! That’s the most inflammatory bullshit I’ve heard in quite awhile!

DSM: Oh, nothing in print. Just an acquaintance—someone who honestly thought she was reaching out to me, to visit about my interests and friends. I suppose she was merely floating a bit of the horrible misconceptions about classical music that exist among non-musically-inclined Americans. Compound that with her deep personal interest in Myers-Briggs and Enneagram analysis of personality types and you get the picture.

CMT: Well, the personal attributes that you need to master anything in life include a very high level of self-discipline. There’re other eccentricities that’re empirically associated with giftedness and intense focus on solitary activity—practicing your instrument or devoting yourself to composition for prolonged periods are by no means unique in that way. Where do you suppose these popular, idiotic prejudices come from anyway?

DSM: Who knows! Probably more important that we draw attention to musicians whose extrovertedness and exuberance and charm are so obvious and universal that they can blow away stupid prejudices and maybe enlighten a few people. Icons of why we do what we do!

CMT: You know, Nadina Mackie Jackson is probably, for me, the most brilliant, shining example of an icon in this way. Humble beginnings in northern BC to chamber music wizardess. Utterly mind-blowing performances and recordings.

DSM: And her rapport with her audiences! I attended one of her concerts in Ottawa a couple of years ago and, as she accepted the audience’s ovation, she triumphantly one-handedly pumps her bassoon up and down above her head—she does a trotting victory “lap” in her elegant black gown, and strides off the stage, beaming, waving. Looked like an Olympic athlete upon receiving the gold medal. The crowd went wild! They went positively wild, just as fans would do in any world-class sport. How often do you see an icon like that in classical music? How many classical artists have you ever seen evoke such a heart-pounding response in an audience?!

Caliban Quartet
CMT: Yes, Nadina is very special in her ability to do that! Not unique, thankfully, but truly exceptional! I’ve seen pianist David Deveau produce a similar response in a Boston-area recital last year. So, yes, there are artists who do this—whose personalities are exuberant enough to do this routinely. And, you’re right, it’s phenomenal when it happens, phenomenal to be part of it. Charismatic’s probably the wrong word. But it’s like they’ve cast a spell. The audience is enthralled by the artist and the music. There’s a synchrony of thought and feeling, a collective sense of humanity, of history and the human condition, in the air—it’s quite a singular experience, and it lingers with every person who is caught up in it. It moves you, makes you want more. And I don’t think these artists and composers fit into any particular Enneagram-typeable category!

DSM: Nadina began her career at the University of British Columbia and studied at the Curtis Insitute of Music in Philadelphia with Bernard Garfield and Sol Schoenbach, graduating in 1981. She plays and records with the Aradia Ensumble. She’s also performed with Handel & Haydn Society of Boston, Ensemble Caprisce, and Tafelmusic. Her sustained notes catapult into frenetic motion—she is very acrobatic. Her expressive leaps between registers compel you to follow. Like listening to a riveting speaker—it’s theatre and chamber music combined.

CMT: The ongoing flow of melody emanating from Nadina on-stage reveals a surprising range of moods and expressive shadings of which I never thought the bassoon to be capable.

DSM: I most like the pieces with meatier musical content and the strong performance style. The rich tone and adventurous style—quite a contrast to many bassoonists, who can be thin, pinched and lacking in warmth.

CMT: We have to hear, the audience must hear, and most of all the musicians must hear, the music. That emphasis on hearing, and a response in the musicians’ playing, is central to Nadina Mackie Jackson’s conception of performance. Her sense of balance and respect for the individual player prevents her work from becoming self-referential, no matter how virtuosic it is.

DSM: And why is the supply of this vivacious chamber music commodity so scarce and volatile? In finance—overseeing the monetary policy of almost all countries—you have a central bank, a federal reserve bank or monetary authority, which is responsible for the monetary policy of the country, or for a confederation of them such as the European Union. The central bank’s primary responsibility is to maintain the stability of the currency and money supply, but more active duties include managing interest rates on credit, and acting as a lender-of-last-resort to the banking sector during times of financial crisis.

CMT: The central bank also tends to have supervisory powers to ensure that banks and organizations don’t behave recklessly or fraudulently. In most countries, the central bank is state-controlled and has little or no autonomy, which allows for the government intervening directly in monetary policy. An ‘independent central bank’ is designed to minimize or preclude government interference—like the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of England (since 1997), the Reserve Bank of India, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of Canada, the Reserve Bank of Australia and the European Central Bank. You’re thinking of some syllogism like the following: money:chamber_music :: central_bank:chamber_music_bank ?

DSM: Just a thought. I acknowledge that it’s got some worrisome implications. ‘Centralized anything’ is worrisome. But, on the other hand, we’re talking about public cultural infrastructure. Privatization and free-market infrastructure in other domains have been pretty unsatisfactory so far. And you have to admit that the U.S. NEA has had a tough row to hoe in terms of budget and appropriations in recent years—you have to admit that entities like NEA are only one part of a solution [to arts financing]. Other countries’ government arts endowments also have a tough time, with large fluctuations from year to year. I’m just wondering what other concepts there are out there, that would help to insure the solvency and stability of chamber music and classical music in general.


Elfin Bassoonatic