Wednesday, September 28, 2016

We Are Still Far From Eradicating Gender Bias in Music, Folks

I like to believe that in the field of music we are making serious progress towards eradicating gender bias. Blind (internet) tests have shown that nobody listening to a performance of a piece of music can tell the gender of the person performing it. But in spite of the fact that everyone agrees that the quality of a person's playing matters far, far, more than the gender of the person playing, and the fact that orchestras are often populated by more women than men, and that some of the best 21st-century conductors around happen to be women, gender bias is still lurking under the surface of the world where I swim. And even though women composers have been given a small share of prizes and such, the real proof is in the concert programs.

This article by Max Moran pokes at some nerves.
The notion that someone can objectively determine quality assumes that they are “living in some patriarchy-free universe somewhere,” Curtis added.

“We all know that gender bias exists, and even those of us who work every day against it can never be free of it,” she said, sharing an anecdote about seeing conductor Susanna Malkki walk on stage and thinking, “Who’s the soloist?”

Yet the labels “women composers” and “men composers” still have a place in this discussion, Curtis concluded. “We need these labels to point out the presence of men without women and the lack of women and the lack of inclusion,” she said. “We both need special events that celebrate women, and we also need more women in the mainstream.” She added that orchestras are making some progress, especially smaller orchestras playing women composers, but that there is still more progress to be made.
I'm pleased to notice that Emilie Mayer is among the "common practice" composers Moran mentions. And though he doesn't mention her partronymic homophone, Amanda Maier, this is as good a place as any to let everyone know that an excellent edition, with orchestral parts and a piano reduction, of her Violin Concerto is available for free in the IMSLP. I find it terribly sad, given the quality of the piece and the importance of the composer, that it only seems to have been downloaded around 35 times. If any piece should be played by major symphony orchestras that feed their audiences a diet of 19th-century music, this one should. And the score and parts are available for free.

Not available for free, but very much worth paying for, is an excellent edition of Amanda Maier's Piano Quartet (another GREAT piece). I can't help myself from thinking that if these pieces had been written by a man they would be hailed as great 19th-century discoveries.

Gregory Maytan, a great champion of Amanda Maier's music, made a soon-to-be-released recording Maier's Violin Concerto and her Piano Quartet. Keep your eyes on this spot for a review.


Michael Leddy said...

In poetry there's a small world of discussion about neglecterinos, poets of significant accomplishment who have for various reasons received little attention in the academic quarters. The myopia of those inside academia can be appalling. I remember hearing someone ask at a conference, “If these poets were any good, wouldn’t we already know about them?” Sigh.

Anonymous said...

The Leddy post is apt. While some gifted women composers have indeed been neglected, I am not sure of the social and musical calculus necessary to somehow eradicate gender bias in music. Given that classical music is such a small and possibly diminishing subset of the larger field of music -- with pop of various kinds dwarfing all the classical canon -- stirring up politics in our little corner of the world doesn't seem productive. Here are some questions:

1) How does one "eradicate" gender bias in classical music?
2) If there are "neglecterinos" as the post says, are there not only neglected women composers but also neglected male composers too? A quick look through Petrucci will show just how many composers there are, as a way to cross-check how many of those names of either gender have any recognition value.
3) Who judges? Might not one myopia -- as noted above -- replace another?
4) If gender bias is asserted and redress desired, should not one also assert and redress other modes of identity/self-identity? Racial? Religious and non-religious? Political slant? Age?

As the calculus to deal with perceived issues in music programming and performance becomes more complex, where then does taste apply? Choice?

While an interesting topic for a blog post, I suspect the enthusiasm to bring modern/postmodern sociology into the domain of music can be more than problematical. It might even become a turn-off for the next generation, who could be given the musicological version of "eat your broccoli, even if you don't like it." Certainly when I first began formal study of music, I pushed back against the enforced tastes of decades ago. Might not this be merely the next foray into that battleground, which every generation has found in the Zeitgeist of the time and place.

Just a thought....

Elaine Fine said...

There are indeed male composers who are neglected for reasons I do not understand. Perhaps the "space" that people have for contemporary composers has always been limited to composers who are sponsored (by royalty or by corporation). I have always wondered, for example, why Boccherini's music is not the kind of staple of the string quartet repertoire as it should be. And I wonder, given the quality of his music, that I am in such a small community of people who admire the music of Titz. Composers who did not write 12-tone-music during the earlier 20th century were not among the "cool kids," and composers who did not embrace minimalism during the later 20th century (and 21st century--minimalism is still with us) were not embraced by the powers that controlled who should be taken seriously and who should not.

My friend Seymour Barab once told me a story about getting his first piece published and showing it to a friend in New York. It had a key signature. His New York friend told him that key signatures were "out," (his was in the 1950s) and that made Seymour feel kind of lousy.

I suppose that gender doesn't play a part in these preferences, but name recognition does.

Any piece by Philip Glass will be taken seriously because of his name recognition. Any piece by Ned Rorem will be taken seriously (even if it has a key signature) because his diaries are so well known among musicians. Any piece by John Williams, whether it uses minimalism or not, and weather it uses serialism or not (not that he does much with serial music) will be taken seriously. I suppose that music written by Jennifer Higdon will be taken seriously because she received a Pulitzer prize, though I imagine that her name will extract a resounding "who?" from most people reading this paragraph.

There was a discussion among people working on the IMSLP a few years ago about identifying religious music, and people brought up the subject of how it should be labeled. A search for Jewish music, for example, would be difficult to do because there are composers who are Jewish who do not write music that is particularly Jewish, and there are composers who are Jewish who do not wish to be identified as such because they either practice other religions or do not participate in organized religion. And the same goes for every other religion (and there are many religions to consider). After some discussion, the idea was abandoned.

There is no subset in the IMSLP for composers who are women. This is sometimes inconvenient for me because I am always searching for viola music written by women. I use other ways of finding female composers I haven't heard of before, and then I look them up in the IMSLP by name.

The problem that I notice with gender bias happens most often on the personal level, and for me it is mostly restricted to the creative realm of music (composing). I have spent a lifetime trying to get people (mostly men, I guess) to take me seriously as a creative person. Some do, and some don't. I don't believe that men who write music have to work as hard at being taken seriously, but I have never been in the position to take on the world as a man would take on the world.

But, in conclusion I might add that the term "gender equity" ALMOST ALWAYS relates to giving women equal opportunities and compensation for their work as men. It is difficult to think of a situation where it is the other way around.

Anonymous said...

If it is any consolation to you, I have first hand heard a couple of "names" who bemoaned even their level of recognition as not enough. As a working musician over decades who has always been on a "B list" -- think Hollywood -- I have had the chance to be around and overhear many things. Without mentioning names, please trust me when I tell you A-listers whine that they are overlooked.

For this reason, it is wise to heed the life examples of Dickinson who never published in her lifetime, or of "the" Bach who was being passed over in his own lifetime. They did not give up. Neither should we.

The "we" includes you, young Ms. Fine. Sometimes "to take on the world" is best done by ignoring it and its powers-that-be-until-they-aren't.