Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Ned Rorem Should Know Better

I cut my teeth reading Ned Rorem's diaries, and in the process of these thirty some odd years that I have read his prose I have been alternately impressed with him, and downright appalled by him. Today, while reading the section about Louise Talma in Facing the Night, I became angry at him for his dismissive attitude towards women (I did give him the benefit of the doubt for many years). I always imagined that if I ever were to know him, Rorem might be a friend: we'd have lots to talk about. Now I know that friendship with him would be impossible for me. Here's the passage that irked me:
Musical composition is the one art in which, until lately, women have not shone. The reason is not mysterious. Writing notes, with its attendant chores of copying, orchestration, and the cajoling of the mostly male entrepreneurs who might bring these notes to life, simply takes more time away from child-rearing than, say, writing poems. Today there are perhaps as many women as men composers. But in today's world -- even in the elite intellectual world of this very Academy -- few give a damn. It's safe to say that indifference to female composers is no more evident than to males.
What on earth is he talking about?

Is it a claim that musical life is so dreary that all composers are treated like lowly women these days? Maybe he's trying to be funny. Or clever. Does he really believe that women who write music haven't been taken seriously by the musical powers that be (and that were) because the time they spend rearing their children cut into the time it takes for the grueling mechanical process of writing music? What kind of an incompetent gender does he think we are?

Me, I'll take anything by Ruth Crawford Seeger (who reared Pete, Peggy, and Mike Seeger) over anything by Ned Rorem any day.


Ed said...

I've never believed it the least bit un-feminist to grant the fact that parenting is often more time consuming and encompassing for mothers than fathers. Rorem is probably correct that this, combined with historical oppression, is responsible for the shortage of women composers in the past. He is equally correct in saying that female composers are just as common and capable today as male composers; but that is unremarkable since the world at large cares little enough about living composer and nothing of their gender. Perhaps (because I am a male?) I fail to see your issue...

Elaine Fine said...

One of the things that irked me about this statement is that Rorem assumes that all the women who would have been composers in times earlier than the present were mothers, thus reinforcing the age-old misconception that the only way that women can really be creative is through their biological function as the gender that reproduces and rears the species. This is, of course, not true.

Maybe it's because he never spent much time with women who were mothers (besides his own). At any rate Rorem fails to understand that motherhood, even devoted full-time motherhood, is not at all at odds with serious dedication to writing music. Believe it or not, it was not until I became a mother that I had the real drive to compose. It was not until I became a mother that I understood the value of my personal voice as a musician and as a critic.

I have worked constantly for the past 20 years of my motherhood, first on arrangements, then on my own compositions. I do all the time-consuming labor connected with composing, and I try my best to carry on the kinds of transactions that composers must carry on in order to have their works performed. I am proud to have had pieces performed often by excellent musicians of both genders.

I have learned a great deal about the essentials of music from my children, particularly the importance of emotion, of honesty, of lyricism, and the relation between music and movement. I imagine that what I have learned from my children is not that far removed from what other composers who are (or have been) mothers have learned from their children.

Women who are not mothers, like men who are not fathers, have to get their inspiration from sources other than from their own children.

I have finished Rorem's book, and there are parts of it, particularly his formal writing, that I find extremely moving and very true. I certainly would forgive him his blind spot if he ever wanted to be my friend. I would remind him that the main reasons that women haven't been acknowledged as composers are the same reasons that women weren't acknowledged as worthy contributors to every field of knowledge, art, and study. It all has to do with men wanting to maintain their power.

Women of today (like me) who don't have problems saying what we mean both verbally and artistically are, little by little, making changes regarding the balance of power in our own small worlds within the larger world. Of course there are women who are just as obsessed with power as men have traditionally been; and there are women who, like their male counterparts, make uninformed choices on the basis of gender. I try not to take any of them too seriously and try to go about my work.

Ed said...

Surely, then, this could just as easily be a problem with your interpretation of the text? Your taking a generalisation and poking holes in it: 'Not all women become mothers is a true statement', but so is 'most women become mothers'... When one generalises there are always exceptions and one has to ignore them to be able to generalise. When I read his statement I filled in the gaps. I could be wrong and he could have meant exactly your interpretation. Why don't I subscribe to it? Because the first page and a half of his epitaph are about why it mattered that Talma was female, why it shouldn't and why today it would be of little consequence. It's because of his implied intentions that I find your reaction hard to swallow. Suffice to say, I am probably as irked by your comment as you are by Rorem's (but you have better justification).

Anonymous said...

I may be missing a nuance here, but it seems to me that Rorem reveals a large blind spot in thinking that the burdens of child-rearing account for the scarcity of women composers in the past. The many ways in which patriarchal culture has minimized or ignored women's accomplishments make for a much better explanation. Mothers with the education and means to write music would have given over child-rearing responsibilties to nurses and nannies anyway, no?

Rorem's comment reminds me of hearing an old Jesuit priest patiently explain that women could never be college administrators because they'd be unable to administrate for several days each month. That too is a comment that seems to reveal a tremendous distance from the realities of women's lives.

Lisa Hirsch said...

There's a book How to Suppress Women's Writing, by Joanna Russ, that is germane to this discussion.