Saturday, January 20, 2007

Words of Wisdom

Deep Listening is listening to everything all the time, and reminding yourself when you're not. But going below the surface too, it's an active process. It's not passive. I mean hearing is passive in that soundwaves hinge upon the eardrum. You can do both. You can focus and be receptive to your surroundings. If you're tuned out, then you're not in contact with your surroundings. You have to process what you hear. Hearing and listening are not the same thing.

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros' words of wisdom came from a collection of statements from composers on Steve Layton's website.

While wandering through websites and blogs on the internet, I can't help noticing that blogs that discuss new music seem to be written mostly by men, and inspirational words of advice from composers and musicians are also mainly quotes from men (as shown on Steve Layton's inspirational choices). Why, in an age that claims to be "post gender," is this still so? Are we beginning to move backwards?

I do agree that what I guess could be called "retrospective gender equality" in music is often misleading, and sometimes even silly. The music history textbook I use for my music appreciation course (I didn't pick it) gives Hildegard's "Oh Greenest Branch" as its sole example of Gregorian Chant. Of course it isn't a piece of Gregorian Chant, but it is written by a woman. The textbook's sole example of Troubadour music is by Beatrice, the Countess of Dia. Go figure. It is a fine piece, but the Countess was not your typical Troubadour composer.

The textbook publisher wanted to give the impression that women who wrote music in the Middle Ages were just as important as men, but he (I'm assuming the publisher is a company run by a man or a group of men) gives a false impression to students who know very little about both music and history. The textbook goes on to discuss a piece by Barbara Strozzi, and even provides a detailed listening guide for it, but the publisher neglected to include the piece on the recordings that come with the book. I guess the project was a clumsy stab in the dark at trying to make a statement that women have been writing for as long as men have been writing music, and whatever proofreading powers that let the book out into the world drew a bit of a blank when it came to the Strozzi piece.

I began thinking seriously about myself as a composer about ten years ago. The late 1990s was a time of forward feminist thinking that translated itself musically into the re-discovery of many 19th century women who wrote music. Some of the "high profile" composers were excellent like Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann, and Louise Farrenc, and some where not so great, like Alma Mahler. Because of the dedication of recording companies and musicologists, I have been able to draw a great deal of inspiration from hearing the works of Germaine Tailleferre, Lili Boulanger, Amy Beach, and Ruth Crawford Seeger, who still, in spite of their staying power, carry with them the title of "woman composers."

In a day when "woman driver," "woman banker," "woman writer," and "woman doctor" would be considered rather silly to use in polite and educated company, I fear the the title "woman composer" is still with us. I have actually never considered myself one, and one of my goals in life is to be able to write good music without having to be put in the sub-category of "woman composer." And oh how I wish I could find more women who write music and think about music critically willing to talk about it on the composer's forums on line.

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