Ivy Benson was an English musician and bandleader, who led an all-female swing band. A blue plaque at her home in Holbeck reads: “…Her appointment as the BBC’s Resident Dance Band in 1943 confirmed her significant contribution to women’s equality.”
There are many more women saxophonists shooting from the hip from 1970s onwards.
Part 2 ——--
The majority of my chamber music experience has involved playing music written by male composers and withmale musicians. I’ve enjoyed it hugely. I absolutely love playing chamber music and feel extremely lucky to have worked with some incredible musicians.
And now I’m looking forwards to playing new and old repertoire by women composers with the pianist, Yshani Perinpanayagam. Again, I feel extremely lucky to work with these incredible musicians.
So why do we need to be so gender specific? Music is sound, transportation, communication. Sex comes pretty far down the list, on the whole.
And there are horrific, horrific violent atrocities happening across the world to women - and let’s be honest - the majority of victims will not be white women.
So why? How can this project be relevant?
And here I must introduce the composer Clare Loveday. Full of crystal clear thoughts, quick wit and shrewd first-hand observations of inequality of both gender and race in the beautiful but complicated lands of South Africa.
On a Wednesday afternoon in June, we zoomed from a rainy Crystal Palace to a wintery Johannesburg to catch up. She told me that after the lockdown alcohol ban in Johannesburg was lifted there were 11 reported rapes in just 48 hours. That sexism and racism is so deeply tangled into patriarchal society that be raising awareness is an open invitation to make yourself extremely unpopular.
I remembered a quote Clare shared once by Susie Orchbach, best known for her book Fat is a Feminist Issue. Orbach writes about passivity: "Surely activity is more pleasurable and rewarding than passivity? Not necessarily. For a variety of reasons, passivity has become the psychological result of the internalisation of the messages about self-identity. It happens rather like this: a pattern has become established in which a person's original initiatives were disregarded; this happens to all of us some of the time without being troublesome, but the continual thwarting, misreading and ridiculing of initiative creates a sense inside a person that what they produce, that what emanates from them, is somehow not quite right. They may present themselves and their desires differently and, if they are still not heard or seen, they may get angry, they may withdraw, they may comply and look as though they are not in trouble; they will have absorbed the message that it is better not to show."
Clare Loveday continues to say: “The sexism and violence towards women in this country permeates every aspect of life. The woman in our story has led a relatively contained life but has been a victim of violence. Her friends have been raped, beaten, are almost routinely humiliated. The tiny pockets of immense privilege may protect a few lovely young women for a short while, but the reality of the outside world is beating at the windows. This violence is not only physical; it manifests in a thousand ways. And this little story is just a small sample of a much much bigger picture. We should never fool ourselves into thinking that ignoring a woman shouting to be heard, or ignoring her revulsion at your sexist comment, is not an act of violence on her. For what is the purpose of violence if it is not to silence.”
I admitted I’m lucky. I struggle with ‘white guilt’. I live on a cosy if quite complicated Island. I could complain, but don’t need too. I’m lucky. Clare replied,
“White guilt is, for me, about my extraordinary good fortune at having been born white into a system that powerfully advantaged those with white skins. The effects of this are long, complicated and inescapable.
I feel zip white guilt in the UK. I shouted at beggars in Oxford. I was a monster white person. I'm always astonished by how white the UK is and how I can just blend into the pale background. You (Naomi) don't come from a stinking rich and privileged background. You work harder than anyone I know and any born privilege you've had comes from being born British (like being able to travel without visas, grrrrr) rather than white.
Yes, the UK is cosy, up to a point. It isn't ridden with crime, or desperate poverty, or the vestige of colonialism (it _should_ have a vestige of colonialism but has managed to dodge that one neatly by very British denial). It is rich, really rich. But it's hard too, as you well know - I don't have to detail that for you”.
So I asked her: How can this project, Illuminate, be relevant?
During a time that makes it difficult to look forwards, creating new music – with Yshani, Angela, Lara, Nina and Rachel – whilst looking back and learning from the past seems a luxurious lockdown pastime. And whilst I try to untangle loop pedals and pre-amps, it’s comforting to look back and think about ends and beginnings. And realise that never before have I appreciated my musical comrades so much. Here is to seeing you again soon and making some real noise.
Clare Loveday’s City Deep: https://vimeo.com/289882439
Transit of Venushttps://soundcloud.com/naomisullivan/venus-naomi-stereo