BYC Silent VoicesJanuary 14, 2017© Julienne Schaer

Silent Voices, Sounding Alarms: On Gendered Spaces in the New Music World

Well, here I am, once again tasked with writing about the underrepresentation and tokenism of women composers in the new music scene. I could apologize for sounding like a broken record, but aren’t women always apologizing for the way we sound: “shrill” or “loud” or “nagging?” Even in the ostensibly “silent” world of written journalism, our voices are somehow heard as obnoxious and out-of-place by the garden variety misogynist troll. Every time an article with the keyword “feminism” is published, a fleet of these trolls crawl out from under their bridges to threaten and intimidate non-cis-males into abandoning social media and falling silent. The materiality of female vocal production, with its seemingly infinite capacity to drive men to madness whether thanks to its attractive qualities (e.g. seductive Homeric Siren) or unattractive qualities (e.g. nasally Hillary Clinton), seems to get carried over and grafted onto non-vocal expressions of agency. These representations of female vocalization and agency turn up the volume on gendered and sexual stereotypes while muting the content of these expressions.

As a “woman music critic,” I am frequently asked to interview “women composers,” putting me in the position of attempting to use my already stigmatized voice to “amplify” the already stigmatized voices of others. (How am I supposed to transform myself into a megaphone when I’m constantly being shouted over myself?) Sometimes it feels like I’m expected to advocate for my gender rather than for specific individuals or initiatives, which is exhausting. It should be possible to dislike a piece of music by a “woman composer” without invalidating the efforts of all “women composers” the world over.

Olga Neuwirth - Photo by Marion Kalter

Olga Neuwirth – Photo by Marion Kalter

Sadly, it seems that there is still little room for “failure” on the part of “women composers.” When heard by dominant modes of listening that deem women biologically inferior at composing (and sometimes conducting as well), a single sub-par piece can doom an entire category of creators. And while a personal aversion to Bruckner typically doesn’t mean an aversion to all “men composers,” I have received comments and messages stating that that particular troll’s negative opinion of Olga Neuwirth or Yoko Ono means that all “women composers” are inherently inferior. Sorry ladies: you’ll never be as great as Beethoven so you might as well pack up the manuscript paper and pick up a vacuum cleaner instead.

Along those lines, a couple weeks ago I interviewed two women composers—one who just turned 90, and one who is considerably younger—and both of them seemed exhausted by the patriarchal expectations of their role as a “woman composer.” Thea Musgrave rolled her eyes at how frequently she has been asked “what’s it like to be a woman composer?” over the course of her multi-decade compositional career, scoffing that just because she happens to be both a woman and a composer doesn’t mean that one informs the other. How many “men composers” have been asked “what’s it like to be a man composer?” How much of Musgrave’s time has been wasted, how much of her energy has been sapped, in this insistence on her “Otherness,” this refusal to allow her to exist simply as a “composer” rather than a “woman composer”?

I also spoke with composer and PhD student Gemma Peacocke, who rightly called out the pseudo-wokeness and “virtue signaling” that prevails in the new music community: “people are trying to include more women and people of color, both composers and performers, but it seems to be more about getting funding and looking inclusive than anyone actually giving up their own opportunities so that our community better reflects the world.”

Gemma Peacocke

Gemma Peacocke

The good news is that several recent initiatives geared towards female, trans, and nonbinary composers are attempting to reshape the new music world such that it might eventually better reflect the world we live in outside the concert hall. These initiatives, which include Alarm Will Sound’s Matt Marks Memorial Fund, the Luna Composition Lab, National Sawdust’s Hildegard Competition, MATA’s “A Room of One’s Own,” and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus “Silent Voices” concert series, provide funding and other resources for non-cis-male composers.

With its Matt Marks Memorial Fund, the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound hopes to “help break this cycle” of the programming and promoting of “well-established” and privileged composers who are granted a disproportionate number of opportunities. The fund is named for composer, musician, and noted satirist Matt Marks, who died suddenly last month and who consistently spoke out against sexism and racism and spoke up for marginalized people in our community. The fund is intended to be “a living memorial that embodies his values and continues to push Alarm Will Sound—and the entire field of classical music—to be more innovative, diverse, and inclusive.”

For their part, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (pictured in feature image above) endeavors to “celebrate the power of young people to be instruments of change, amplifying the voices of those who have been overpowered, marginalized, or rendered silent.” Their “Silent Voices” concert at National Sawdust last month “gave voice to” not only eight composers who all happen to identify as women; they also created space for the voices of their teen choristers to be heard. In between each of the eight compositions, different vocalists recited a miniature monologue exploring issues of gender, difference, oppression, and listening. One explained how frustrating it was to get stereotyped as “the angry Black woman who will deck you in the face;” another rattled off an astonishingly impressive rant about period stigma. Their powerful, moving spoken words glided seamlessly into song as they launched into a beautiful array of choral compositions. It was evident that the Brooklyn Youth Chorus thoroughly enjoyed the performance, particularly Shaina Taub’s stunning Huddled Masses (for which they were joined by Taub on the piano) and Shelley Washington’s The Farthest, a lively and sonically wide-ranging meditation on striving for change and for equity.

Shelley Washington

Shelley Washington–Photo by Peter Yankowsky

These initiatives are an important step in the effort to destigmatize the voices of women and to decolonize the new music world. And yet, the sort of virtue signaling Peacocke mentions has led to a contemporary music scene that at times feels as gender-segregated as a middle school dance. Even this past week in the new music listings on I Care If You Listen, there were quite a few concerts featuring all-male programs alongside a handful of all-female concerts (including a full evening of works by Peacocke at Roulette as well as a concert put on by the Luna Composition Lab).

While amplifying “silent voices” is certainly admirable, it should be stated that women deserve to be heard in all contexts, and not only gender-essentialist “female-oriented” spaces that risk devolving into echo chambers. The problem with amplifying the voices of “women composers” only as female voices is that it reifies the difference and “Otherness” of these voices in a manner that simply reinforces the gender binary rather than dissolving it. Instead of continuing to shove certain voices into a separate (and at times tokenistic) category, the new music world should strive to include non-cis-males on a regular basis. Ultimately, initiatives like “Silent Voices” and the Matt Marks Fund make this goal more possible as they work towards space for “women composers” to exist simply as “composers.”