Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world

Like many people who grew up during the 1960s, I was privileged to witness the great expansion of opportunities for women in all fields of study and in every profession, particularly in the field of music. I saw the Boston Symphony grow from an orchestra that had only one female member into an orchestra with a string section that has an equal balance of men and women. I have seen serious change in the gender balance among well-respected solo instrumentalists and international competition finalists. There are still musical organizations that refuse to accept the musical gender equity that came about during the second half of the 20th century, but they are a distinct minority and their hiring practices are not respected in the larger musical world.

The International Music Research Centre's Music Gender Identification Survey asks the person taking it to determine whether a performer on a variety of instruments is male or female. After making a few guesses I realized that there was no way for me (and probably for anyone else) to determine the gender of an instrumentalist without seeing the person play. Even the kinds of inflections that I thought might characterize male and female speech were covered up by the inflections and nuances notated in the music.

What about the person who put those inflections, nuances, pitches, and rhythms in the music that was being played? Is it possible to determine the gender of a composer from hearing a piece of music that s/he wrote? There may be qualities in music that could be referred to as distinctly feminine or masculine, but are those qualities connected to the gender of the composer? If it is not possible to identify the gender of a composer from hearing a piece of music, should women who write music be referred to as "women composers" while men who write music are referred to as simply "composers?" I believe that using the world "woman" as an adjective is as archaic as feminizing endings of professions in German. "Lehrer," for example, is the word for teacher, and "Lehrerin" is the name for a female teacher.

By the same rule "Musiker" is the word for a musician, and "Musikerin" is the word for a female musician. We can't do anything about the structure of the German language, but we can decide which words should remain gender neutral in a culture that is on a path towards gender equity. Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous statement, "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world" unfortunately applies to the way that some very intelligent (but also limited) people write about composers these days. In most academic situations the term "chairman" has been shortened to "chair," the words "professor," "artist," "painter," "director," "choreographer," "senator," "dentist," "conductor," and the words to describe instrumentalists like "violinist" and "cellist" are all gender neutral. I believe that "composer" should also be a gender-neutral term.

Imagine what simply changing "he" to either "she" or "s/he" when writing about the people who write music would do to expand the way people think about the gender balance of composers in the 21st century. The limits of my language do define the limits of my world, but my musical world (and everyone's musical world) is growing in new ways, so we need to use language that can keep up with that growth.

As I was entering the age of musical awareness in the 1970s, I heard the names Amy Beach, Lili Boulanger and Rebecca Clarke whispered among groups of musicians who seemed surprised that a woman could write music that was actually good. I remember my surprise when I found out that Cecile Chaminade, who wrote a flute piece that every high school flutist studied, was a woman. I had a firm image of a composer as a man, much the same way I think of a roofer or a train engineer as a man. I devoured music history books, but it was a long time before I read anything about Clara Schumann being anything besides "Schumann's wife." Fanny Mendelssohn was mentioned here and there, but nobody had access to her music. It was a time when most composers were referred to as "he," as well as a time of atonality, serial writing, electronic music, and other forms of experimental writing. Those "feminine" qualities in music (certainly not only used by women) like expression, emotion, and tonal beauty seemed to be on a kind of hiatus in music that was to be taken seriously, and "masculine" qualities (certainly not only used by men) like mathematical organization, experimentation, virtuosity, and bold orchestration, were the respected qualities found in composers of new music.

Though I wanted to start writing music when I was a teenager, I was put off by the gulf between the values I held for the music I practiced and the values that seemed to be important in new music. Serial music had its uses and charms, but I wanted to be able to write music that I could really hear, play, sing, and enjoy. When tonality made a re-appearance in new music in the last decade or so of the 20th century, I felt that it was finally time for me to start writing the music that had been swirling around in the abstract part of my mind for the past 20 years.

I was inspired by the music and lives of women who lived in less friendly (yet more tonal) times like Germaine Tailleferre, Louise Farrenc, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Pauline Viardot, and Nadia and Lili Boulanger. I have often wondered if the return of tonality as an acceptable component of new music might have had something to do with the general approach to gender equity that started to come about in music after the end of the 1970s. I also wonder if the trend to embrace the more traditionally "feminine" components of music might also be due, in part, to the musical and artistic community's acceptance and celebration of diversity in sexual orientation.

I was encouraged from the start by musicians (both female and male) who were thirsty for new music that would allow them to be expressive on their instruments, particularly on instruments and instrumental combinations that were in need of serious repertoire. Once I had enough technique and confidence to do so, I wrote piece after piece. I have slowed down a bit since the "chain writing" days of my relative youth, but I still almost always have a piece in the works. I try to write in a way that makes the instruments and voices I write for sound strong and resonant, and I like to write music that is rewarding and comfortable for musicians to play. I also try to write music that is accessible, entertaining, meaningful, and interesting for audiences.

I can't imagine that my approach to writing music or my reasons for writing music differ a great deal from my male colleagues who, writing in the 21st century, also embrace tonality and strive for direct and meaningful communication with performing musicians and audiences. I believe that on the practical side of music, the side that includes performers and composers, we are making progress on the path towards gender equity. I am dismayed, however, at the lack acknowledgment in the mainstream commercial musical press, where I do not believe the progress that the musical world has been making towards gender equity has been properly discussed.

I am very happy with my life as a composer. Nearly all of my work is published, and I get the opportunity to write music for wonderful musicians to play. I hope that the higher-profile people in the world of music criticism will take a serious look at the number of women who enjoy the kind of life as a composer that I enjoy, and consider the power that their use of language has to encourage us all on the path towards true gender equity in the world of music.

Tags: , , ,


Anonymous said...

Excellent post--thanks. I do think, though, that most linguists would reject the Wittgenstein statement, whose equvalent in linguistics is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I'm not a linguist myself, but my understanding is that every human language has the inherent capacity to deal with things that are novel in its speakers' experience; when we English speakers needed "airplane" or "tone row" or "sexism" to name new features of our world or our understanding, we invented them.

Peter (the other) said...

It was always curious to me, how few and far between, truly respected and influential female jazz musicians there were, except for as vocalists. Why that role distinction?

Maybe as each of our gender characteristics exist on a wide scale, there are some people who are more sensitive to the gender markers (like chicken sexxers, or whatever they are called) that might exist in the work of some. So more research would be called for, and one must assume that the success or failure to communicate gender markers through music (if they exist), must be a function of both the sender and receiver.

I remember my surprise, back as a student (the first time) when I became conscious enough of the aural identities of the various jazz players (after much listening) that I was pretty darn good on the "blind-fold test".

T. said...

Great, great post! Thought-provoking, especially to a medical person. When I show up to my patients' bedsides with a male nurse there are still undercurrents of confusion and sometimes discomfort.

I think "doctor" should be considered a gender-neutral word, too, but it's still anything but that, inside and outside of medicine. Especially in French et al. - "le medecin."

I think Wittgenstein's statement should have been, "the limits of my language mean the limits of my MIND." The way we think about the world shapes the world. Just a little thought from a beginning oboist(e).

Elaine Fine said...

Maybe one of the reasons that instrumentalists in jazz were (and sometimes still are) kind of invisible is because it is impossible to tell the gender of a person by hearing and not seeing a person play. A lot of the jazz that we hear is given to us by way of audio recordings.

This article mentions a lot of women who worked as both performing musicians and as arrangers in jazz bands throughout the 20th century. Why we don't know so many of their names is very likely due to women having been marginalized by people who have written about and talked about jazz. It is kind of like the marginalization of the role of women in "classical" music in the 20th century.