Monday, December 12, 2005

Her Muse

Beginnings of my argument on women and noise/music:

Her Noise: "why are there so few female activists in the electronic music scene?" - each one of us has heard this question a thousand times... here is the answer: it's not our number, it's about how and if we are recognized!

From female composers like Delia Derbyshire, Wendy Carlos, "deep listening" pioneer Pauline Oliveros, to sound sculptor Maryann Amacher, to Sonic Youth co-founder Kim Gordon, and noise artists like Lindsay Karty and Jessica Rylan, the influence of women on experimental and popular forms of music, while serious and profound, continues to skate on the margins of sonic cultural awareness. This paper will attempt to describe and locate the multifarious genres and musical developments that have been pioneered by women in contemporary times. If Jacques Attali’s premise that music is an important auger for change at the economic, political and culturally representative levels is true then one may fairly ask how gender plays a part in its development and force. One might also productively explore ways in which the relation between gender and music might change the narrative Attali writes. This paper will explore how the eliding of gender from discussions about music as a force for cultural change needs to be addressed. The hope is that by exploring the impact and importance of innovative music by women one might disrupt and/or contribute to the narrative of musics culturally dynamic role as a whole.

What becomes immediately obvious once one brushes past the cultural obscurity of women’s roles in the production and experimentation of musical forms is that women have been instrumental (excuse the pun) not just in performing music (the role they have typically been assigned), but in developing and expanding its sonic perameters. Of crucial significance is the technological adeptness of many pioneering women composers and instrumentalists. I want to focus in particular on the development of complex and sophisticated (as well as beautiful and challenging) electronic and acoustic assemblages and instruments invented by women over the past 50 or so years. By working with electronic tape, making their own synthesizers, adapting acoustic instruments or delving into the range of hearing/listening possibilities inherent in everyday objects, women have been capably manipulating what has often been deemed a "man's world."

I use the term "man's world in a doubly exclusive sense. What I mean by doubly is that, first of all, music itself has traditionally been deemed as excusively within the purview of men. Music, particularly at the level of composition, production, and distribution (as is the case with most levels of culture no doubt) has circulated through patriarchalized systems of power. In addition, at the level of understanding music as a purely aesthetic form, as an intellectualized, disembodied, and trascendant entity, music takes on a further significance. In Laocoon Lessing emphasized the separation of artistic practices into the simultaneous and the successive. The plastic arts were described as simultaneous in that they could be perceived spatially or all at once i.e., a painting is a bounded, framed object of perception. Music, on the other hand is seen as succcessive in that it unfolds over time. The division between the spatial and temporal arts and the privileging of the temporal/musical can then be attributed to the baseness or materiality of visual forms of art. Music was deemed the highest form of aesthetic practice and registered as the "upper limit" of asthetic form since, in effect, it was invisible/nonmaterial. The plastic arts and even poetry could only attempt to reach this limit, their materiality prevented them from ascending to the immaterial level. This hierarchizing of aesthetic forms was, according to WJT Mitchell, gendered at its core. Femaleness was ascribed to the base level of material, embodied form, maleness to the realm of disembodied transcendant thought. This supposedly natural division between the arts served as "proof" of the inherent division between the sexes. Music as such, as both a thing in itself and as a cultural practice, has thus been deemed to be produced and to exist outside the inherent nature and capabilities of women; its hierarchized placement within aesthetic discourse has further served to ideologically reinforce their subordinate role.

For the most part then, women have engaged at the margins of musical composition. It is not that they have been entirely excluded from exploring music's formal boundaries -- boundaries that lie within the harmonic scales and modes that reinforce its immateriality and transcendence -- rather, they have been excluded from inheriting the mantleship of musical authority and creative authorship both within traditional compositional fields and from outside its boundaries. The history of musical innovation, particularly though not exculsively within dominant forms of musical authorship, has thus excluded women from being known as and considering themselves as musical innovators or pioneers in a practical creative sense, and it has excluded them from the realm of music in an inherent, essentializing sense. [It is interesting to note the history of myths about music originating within ancient cultures and the role of the female muse. Briefly, I would argue that mythic female figures --the Pleaides for example-- were never equated with the actual social and intellectual abilities of women as they actually existed in those socieites in there everyday habits and practices. (Go here for background.) Womanhood or femininity has served as a guide for artistic impulses while remaining a subordinating attribute in historical, lived experiences. In fact, the whole notion of the muse as servant to the artist functions as an inherently subordinating procedure. See Rachel Blau du Plessis's essay "Marble Paper: Toward a Feminist 'History of Poetry'" for a compelling examination of the ideological role of the muse in the development of lyric poetry.]

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