This blog has moved

This blog is now at

Wednesday 5 September 2007

Questions in Feminist Musicology

Instrumental Music

To call Susan McClary's book Feminine Endings "controversial," is an understatement. It inspires not just controversy, but also outrage. One guy I knew said of it and her, "she should stop writing."

Those of you who are not in the music world may be unfamiliar with this book. What it could it say that would cause folks to want to mute the author? "The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the [Beethoven's] Ninth [Symphony] is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release." (found here) (Let's leave aside that this sentence doesn't actually appear in the book, she did write it and the book has a rephrased version of the same sentiment.) Note that she is speaking metaphorically about the piece of music, not literally about Beethoven. She speaks of his creation, not of he, himself. Still, that's provocative as hell. Is there anything to it?

I kind of like the 9th and the drama of it, so rather than knee jerking about how I don't consume that kind of pron, I want to instead address the idea underlying this oft quoted sentence: Are ideas of sexuality and violence expressed through instrumental music? One place to search for the answer to this query is to look at how instrumental music is paired with words and actions in cultural product that seeks to express those same ideas. That is, does Hollywood assign certain sexualities or actions to certain musical idioms? If, for example, woodwinds and especially saxophones were often used as musical cues attached to the sexual other, such that they came to stand as a character note, that would suggest that instrumental music could carry those sort of cues. And indeed, the saxophone's association with jazz and thus black people (an alien other) lead it to be associated with other alien others like queers (as Norman Mailer wrote, "the white negro") and fallen women. It is the case that certain instruments and tonalities tend to have cultural baggage rooted in their history. A sax playing a 'blue' note invokes all the baggage of jazz music. A drum and bugle corps playing in major invokes the baggage of military pride. Indeed, it would be more surprising if these associations did not exist as it would mean that people had no connection to their cultural history.

Lest anyone argue that the newness of 'talkies' means that poor Beethoven was writing before associations came to be attached to musical cues, I have two answers to that. 1. The term "feminine ending" is an archaic musical term, referring to cadential weakness. (wikipedia) This shows that ideas of assigning sexuality to musical structures pre-date hollywood. And 2. She's using present tense not past tense. "The point of recapitualtion" means not the intention, but the moment: the place where the theme returns and is restated. She asserts that it "is one of the most horrifying moments in music" now. I have to disagree, purely on aesthetic grounds. However, she's talking about what it means to a listener now, not what it meant to the composer or people in his time period.

Tape Music

I meant to just have an intro paragraph on McClary, but I got carried away, as one so often does. (I have to confess that I haven't actually finished reading the book. I can't even swear that I finished the first chapter, but I can't say for certain as it's in California and I am not.) Anyway, my point of bringing it up was to make the assertion that if the use of certain instrumental sounds can reference particular ideas, this must also be the case for musique concrete. That is, if a certain schmaltzy sax line implies a sexual encounter, a musician playing a sample of a moan from a porn movie must also have certain baggage. It unarguably conveys sexuality. To say otherwise would be silly. And with it, I think, it brings all the baggage associated with pron.

The first piece that I know of which uses the sounds of a woman experiencing orgasm is Tiger Balm by Annea Lockwood. This piece is feminist in intent. And the sample reflects that. It sounds like a home recording and while the fact of it's inclusion is a bit shocking, the sonic effect does not carry the titilation that one would expect. I communicated as much to Lockwood over email, after she sent me the record (I met her by volunteering for the Other Minds festival, but that's a longer story). Her reply acknowledged this.

Since then, I've heard orgasm samples used in (at least) three pieces by two male composers. Both used what sounded like recordings of commercial pornography. The first one was by Jascha Narveson, who was a colleague at Wesleyan. He played it in class and I remember it using mostly porn-y sounds. I was dismayed, but then he explained that the piece was feminist in intent. The other two pieces were both by Alvin Curran. One he performed this last spring at the Royal Conservatory. He has a large keyboard loaded up with samples and he improvises playing them, building up dense and often unexpected textures. The first inclusion of the woman moaning was a surprising juxtaposition and a funny moment, but when it returned, the humor was lessened until it was gone. The other piece was on a podcast which I just listened to and which inspired this post. It sounded like he was using the sample sample in the same keyboard. I suspect that it's a sound that he uses often, as are, probably, all the sounds in his keyboard. Therefore, it's affect cannot be merely novelty or it wouldn't bear repeating in multiple pieces and would instead wear thin as a joke that gets old.

So does a pron sample carry the male gaze with it? The production values and sound quality are as instantly recognizable as pictures of Barbie-smooth skin and shaved pubic hair. Can one speak of a male audition to compliment his gaze? And does intent matter?

If intent does matter, then McCleary seems to have slandered Beethoven. (*) I can imagine that his primary conscious desire was to create a compelling piece of music. Certainly, he had unconscious goals, firmly tied to his time and place. But even then, when women's roles in public life were less than they are now, rape was still far out of bounds. (I presume. Scholars are free to correct me.) If intent doesn't matter, then Narveson's piece would be perpetuating our hypothetical male audition. Or does it matter how the music is used? I recall that the music was composed for a feminist benefit of some kind. Does the importance of intent change over time? Beethoven's intent doesn't matter because he's long dead and we're modern listeners, so therefore, over time, the importance of the intent and original use of Narveson's piece will gradually fade and it will slowly fall into the male audition. If the intent and usage is a deciding factor in how one regards a piece, do the program notes then become an integral part of the composition? What you hear is always colored by what you know (or think you know), so, to avoid the male audition, would it be necessary to insist that everyone acquaint themselves with the program notes?

How much importance to composers should this be anyway? There is (or was) a group in the San Francisco area called the Porn Orchestra. They played live music to accompany muted porn films. Sometimes with the fast forward button firmly pressed. Amusing, certainly. When I first learned of them, it was via the internet and their information spoke of the "universal" experience of hitting the mute button while viewing porn, because the sound so often sucked. I polled my female friends and almost none had participated in this "universal" experience. So it's universal for who? (We all know the answer to this question.)

So what about using pron samples? I hope for discussion in the comments, as I don't have answers to these questions.


Something just occurred to me. There will be a followup post shortly.

Edit 2

Ok, I knee jerked a bit. Sorry. followup is here


Polly Springhorn said...

There's a PornOrchestra Chamber Ensemble show here in the Bay Area on Sept. 15th.

Daniel Wolf said...

Hi --

You wrote:

"I was dismayed, but then he explained that the piece was feminist in intent."

What happened after he "explained" this? Did the offensive sound suddenly become inoffensive?

I'm asking because this is a great problem for me. On the one hand context is supposed to be everything, but on the othe, a given musical work can be placed in just about any context, so -- at least if we're convinced that the work has some intrisic value -- context can also be nothing.

It's a messy situation, of course, with some works of music made or lost by context, and some contexts transformed by music. But what do you do with a piece of political music in which you agree with the politics but hate the piece or vice versa? Do you applaud?

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

Well, this was about 4 years ago now and in the context of a classroom show and tell, right at the beginning of my time at Wesleyan. So this was a really different context than hearing the piece in a concert. I had just moved far, far away from home for the first time, only to discover that I was the only out queer in the grad program. But there were some evangelic Christians floating around. Coming from the San Francisco area, I was in major culture shock. First time living in a small town. Didn't know anybody.

Jascha seemed like a likable guy with a playful sense of humor. But one of the first folks that I attempted to befriend had tried witnessing to me about Jesus right before, so I was mistrustful of first impressions. Anyway, he was a nice-seeming guy and played a recording of a piece with a lot of porn-y content, handled in a kind of a playful way. So my dismay was as much rooted in what that might mean about him and the next two years of my life as much as it was about the piece.

He then explained that it had been commissioned for a feminist-themed festival and that they had a bunch of categories that they wanted people to explore in their art, and he had been specifically given a sexual theme. The way in which he handled the sounds was not in a shocking or tittilating manner. I forget the exact theme that he was given, but the sounds fit it very well.

So this really wasn't a very good example. heh.

Polly Springhorn said...

o and btw, Annea Lockwood is playing in SFEMF on Saturday nite!

Commission Music

Commission Music
Bespoke Noise!!