For the past few years, I’ve felt an increasing uneasiness around how any kind of true feminism can fit within the ‘traditional’ model of composing. The existence of Illuminate, and other similar initiatives for the programming of music exclusively written by women, only serves to add further urgency to these questions; how can genuine feminist practice exist within a world which, generally speaking, relies on patriarchal (and capitalist) hierarchies? A traditional model of ‘composing’ — writing music, giving it to performers, having it played, with the attached notion of the ‘genius’, isolation and intellect of the composer — remains largely unchallenged within the academy today. (And, significantly, the legitimacy of composers is often verified by the academy, in the conferring of postgraduate degrees or faculty positions. I can’t think of many conventionally ‘successful’ composers in this country who have not gone through university or conservatoire education, many to PhD level.) Thinking outside of this traditional model is challenging — and has led me to deeper questions about what I’m writing, and why.
These traditional ideas about what composing is are built on patriarchal Western philosophies of creativity and of gender, so much so that it is difficult to even recognise: it is just the normal mode of thinking. Moreover, within traditional pedagogical models for composing, it is difficult to escape from the studying of ‘master works’ which exemplify different ways to intellectually construct a composition, largely within the parameters of a conventional score, or if not, at least a score which exists within a straightforward semiotic system which conveys the composer’s precise intentions to a performer. The locus of ‘creativity’, the generation of ideas, lies with the composer. Moreover, the way we think about composing suggests that the generation of ideas — thinking, logic, reasoning — is central to composition, and that ties it into very fundamental ideas about gender in the West. I summarised this in the opening paragraph of my undergraduate dissertation:
“Ever since the birth of the concept of ‘the composer’ in the Renaissance Christian Church, Western constructions of gender have had an impact on who has been allowed to compose. Genevieve Lloyd suggests that “from the beginnings of philosophical thought, femaleness was symbolically associated with what Reason left behind.” The concepts of reason and objectivity are gendered male: masculinity produces culture, whilst femininity is bound to nature. The Cartesian mind-body dualism of the seventeenth century further constructed mental capacity as a masculine trait, and femininity is therefore attached, in oppositional definition, to the body, and ‘feeling’. Western composition also, at this time, moved away from the home and into the public sphere, which reinforced ideological oppositions to women’s participation.”
Researching barriers to women being composers for this dissertation led me to much more profound questioning of my own compositional practice than I had expected. There are many societal factors which prevent women from accessing composing as a career; obvious and ubiquitous factors such as childcare, or the socialisation of women to be less confident or ‘pushy’, as well as deeper ideas about what being creative means and who can be creative.
However, the most challenging, nuanced and profound avenue of research was around the very definition of ‘composing’, and the radical change many thinkers have suggested is necessary to allow anyone (not just educated white men) to find a place in the world of‘composing’. One example of such thinking can be found in Sally Macarthur’s book Towards a 21st Century Feminist Politics of Music, which examines composing using an intellectual framework provided by Deleuze, a French poststructuralist. The irony of the esotericism inherent in her framework for exploring how to democratise composing is not lost on me. However, the actual practical ideas — focussing on collaboration, improvisation, pedagogical reform, removing the focal point of compositional practice from the academy, challenging conventional value judgements about structure and time in music, considering radical new contexts of reception for new musics — ultimately, how to compose in a genuinely ‘experimental’ way — seem tangible, achievable, and straightforwardly aligned with more broad feminist (as well as decolonial, and anti-capitalist) epistemologies. These ideas have helped form my compositional ideology, rooted in a self-definition as ‘experimental’. This label is not interested in genre definitions, focussing on a conceptual and methodological framework to define my practice, rather than an aesthetic end result, or any retrospectively analysable, intellectual ‘merit’. Thinking about composing in this way has become integral to how I understand my identity as a composer.
Other influential ways of thinking about musical contexts along similar lines include Pauline Oliveros’ notion of ‘deep listening’, re-imagining notions of directionality and structure which are so valued by conventional definitions of ‘composition’, as well as Suzanne Cusick’s pioneering thinking around queering conceptions of music, moving away from a patriarchal, gendered understanding of power in music, into a world where there is no force of pre-conceived ‘normality’. This kind of thinking relates all the way back to Sally Macarthur’s Deleuzian framework, in which it is reassuring to remember that a key idea in poststructuralist feminism is that we cannot know or control how the future will look.
During my studies I have also engaged with postcolonial writers, which definitely has come to influence how I feel about my own compositional practice, and the urgency and unavodability which I feel around constantly questioning and renewing my approach to creativity. Audre Lorde’s powerful, iconic essay The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle The Master’s House is ever-present in my mind, serving as a reminder that resistance to systems of oppression (i.e. patriarchy, and coloniality) cannot be achieved using those systems’ language. In the context of composing, this clearly aligns with the above suggestion that traditional aesthetics and processes cannot be used in a project of radical democratisation. This kind of thinking also allows my practice across being a creative musician — a performer, improviser, composer, and writer — to flow freely, allowing cross-pollination of ideas and breaking down boundaries about what I ‘should’ do for certain commissions or in specific situations.
Being a performer as well as a composer is integral to my artistic practice. Performing as well as composing, and seeing the two as a fluid overall creative practice, helps redefine ‘composition’ away from an intellectualised exercise with defined, score-based parameters of doing and of results. Performing using my voice also carries special feminist meaning to me. The fundamentally embodied nature of the voice, especially when harnessed towards experimental performance (which can often be visceral and unpredictable), helps counteract the intellectualisation of music which places composition in the masculine domain of the ‘mind’. Ultimately, the embodied nature of vocal performance links my practice to contemporary discourses rooted in the body, such as Judith Butler’s transformative ideas about performativity, and Sara Ahmed’s phenomenological explorations of the idea of ‘orientations’ — engaging my work with queering the definitions of ‘composition’ and ‘performance’.
I often look to other female composer-performers for a significant source of inspiration. Much as I obviously love and am interested in lots of the music made by non-female composers and peers too, I firmly believe that it’s really important be able to see yourself in those who inspire you. (One of the many reasons Illuminate is such an important project — demonstrably platforming female composers for the next generation of young women to see.) Women who have significantly shaped my current practice include Jennifer Walshe, Meredith Monk, Errollyn Wallen, Anna Meredith, and Claudia Molitor. These women all practice in different ways, making ideologically experimental music within a variety of aesthetics. I love to engage with the work of these composers primarily through performing and improvising with their work, and imagining my own methods and contexts to perform it, such as interactive performances, self-accompaniment, and layering and fragmenting their pieces.
Another important strand of influence for me is popular music. Popular music has provided radical contexts for creativity, political engagement, and expression for women; it is also standard practice for women to perform their own music, as classical music’s hierarchical divide between creator and performer does not exist. Popular music’s short-form nature, as well as its existence within the cultural mainstream, also means that it is heard by a wide audience, providing potential for everyday political engagement. These strands of the fabric of popular music are clearly really engaging, and influential, especially when trying to create a practice which moves away from the esotericism and gender-, race- and class-based exclusions which operate in the ‘classical music’ world. And lastly, I have already mentioned Pauline Oliveros and Meredith Monk; it is clear that the fundamental anti-teleological ideology of minimal music is an interesting thread with the creation of a new anti-conventional compositional practice. Beyond (or within?) the aesthetics of minimal music, I’ve been fascinated by reading explorations of how minimal music can be understood as anti-patriarchal, circular, and self-renewing, in a way which links to Cusick’s notions of queering power in music.
My piece for this Illuminate project, GRADIENT, draws on lots of these ideas. I have thought about breaking down structure and directionality, creating materials which are short, repetitive, cyclical, and can be re-ordered as the performers see fit. I have also used a small fragment of text over and over again, invoking the seemingly simple aesthetics of popular musics which belie a more nuanced conceptual basis, and removing the possibility of surface-level analysis of or links between text and music and instead making space for a flexible relationship between all of the performers. The score features faded, simple pastel-ish colours; this is heavily influenced by the work of Claudia Molitor. Her beautiful graphic scores are rich in colour, often in a ‘visually consonant’ way, and I have become fascinated by the potential of including colour in my own scores, whilst still using some conventional notation. Colour is not a conventional element of a traditional score, and not something which can be interpreted in any specific or direct way; the hope is that including colour adds a sense of playfulness and subjectivity, welcoming the performers to have a more fluid and interpretive relationship with the score. The voice is considered in the same way I do as a performer (as something which is textural and embodied), and tried to translate that into a score by using some non-conventional notations to encourage the singer to make the piece something which they can feel comfortable and empowered experimenting with. Ultimately, the piece is delicate, reflective, and small, constantly looping back on itself; I’m looking forward to hearing how the performance shifts and changes throughout the upcoming concerts, as the performers’ relationship with the score and each other shifts and changes too.
Sources, and possibly interesting ideas for further reading:
Ahmed, Sara. Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Duke University Press. 2006.
Barthes, Roland. Image-music-text. Macmillan. 1977.
Bikini Kill: The Riot Grrrl Manifesto, 1991. (https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/riotgrrrlmanifesto.html)
Cusick, Suzanne. “On a Lesbian Relationship with Music: A Serious Effort Not to Think Straight,” in Biddle, Ian D. Music and Identity Politics. Library of Essays on Music, Politics and Society. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.
Dell'Antonio, Andrew. Beyond Structural Listening?: Postmodern Modes of Hearing. Berkeley; London: U of California, 2004.
Fink, Robert. Repeating ourselves: American minimal music as cultural practice.Univ of California Press, 2005.
Green, Lucy. Music, gender, education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Hanoch-Roe, Galia. “Musical Space and Architectural Time: Open Scoring versus Linear Processes.” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, vol. 34, no. 2 (2003): 145-160.
Lim, Liza. Luck, Grief, Hospitality – re-routing power relationships in music. Keynote for ‘Women in the Creative Arts’ conference, ANU, 11th August, 2017. (https://lizalimcomposer.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/1-final_lim_rerouting-power-anu-keynote.pdf)
Lloyd, Genevieve.The Man of Reason: 'male' and 'female' in Western Philosophy. London: Methuen, 1986.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press Feminist Series. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984.
Macarthur, Sally. "The woman composer, new music and neoliberalism." Musicology Australia 36, no. 1, (2014): 36-52.
__________. Towards a twenty-first-century feminist politics of music. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.
Scharff, Christina. Gender, subjectivity, and cultural work: The classical music profession. Routledge, 2017.
__________. “Blowing your own Trumpet: Exploring the Gendered Dynamics of Self-Promotion in the Classical Music Profession.” The Sociological Review, 63 (2015): 97-112.