Thursday, October 13, 2016

Is the Avant-Garde sexist?

Matana Roberts
My reflection about this problem started quite some years ago. I was going to a concert with a friend, a trumpet player, who told me that 'women cannot play saxophone because their rib cage is smaller than that of a man'. Curiously enough, in that period a woman saxophone player was emerging, Matana Roberts, and the media dedicated to improvised music were praising her for the freshness of her sound and vision.

The result was that I started asking myself: 'is the avant-garde sexist?'. After all, what we needed was Peter Brotzmann heavy blowing, Cecil Taylor strumming, Han Bennink hammering. What about hues and shades? Obviously there was Marylin Crispell playng piano in many records by the Anthony Braxton quartet, there was Susie Ibarra playing drums with William Parker band 'In Order To Survive', and the concert me and my friend trumpet player were attending to was that of Joelle Leandre.

But that assertion about women's rib cage was so impressed in my mind that I started aking myself if the seed of mysoginy was in some way present in my environment. After all, when I was in London for six months, I attended many gigs and festivals and I noticed only few women. To be honest, I remember four of them – and only one from outside the Eu/US. And only few titles in my CD collection were attributed to women.

At a certain point, I started searching the web for articles about the subject. I read that women were mostly hired by the music business in jazz as pianists or singers, while all the other instruments were taken as instruments for male performers, as an example. This is mostly true also for improvised music. Then, I found a dissertation by Dana Reason Myers titled “The Myth of Absence: Representation, Reception and the Music of Experimental Women Improvisors” (2002).

Pauline Oliveros
I will talk about this thesis for all the lenght of this article, since it's really interesting if you want to deepen the problem of women musicians in a male-dominated world as the one of jazz and particularly the avant-garde scene of improvised music. The thesis of D.R. Myers starts with drawing the life and art of seven women improvisors: Pauline Oliveros, Marylin Crispell, Maggie Nichols, Joelle Leandre, Miya Masaoka and Susie Ibarra.

Since all these women are very well acknowledged nowadays and are well known to my readers, I will omit their achievements and I'll pass to the rest of the discussion. D.R. Myers starts analyzing how Down Beat magazine covers women in jazz from 1960 to 2000. Down Beat doesn't cover free jazz or avant garde music in general, and his columns are seen more as an opportunity to sell records of the concerned styles of music (bebop, fusion, classical jazz, etc.) more than discussing about issues of interest from the musicians themselves.

Nonetheless, Down Beat sometimes pays hommage to the masters of free jazz and avant garde music, favoring male participants: Cecil Taylor, Julius Hemphill, Anthony Braxton, Anthony Davis, and Ornette Coleman among others. Occasionally a review of a CD by Marylin Crispell appears. In addition, some journalists, such as John Corbett, have written about male and female improvisors. Despite his contributions, prominent American women improvisors has been very limited.

While the magazine tends to profile American musicians, on occasion European improvisors appear, including Barry Guy, Evan Parker, Han Bennink and Alex Von Schlippenbach. European women from the same generation and field are not featured: only three have been featured in articles and only five have received reviews in Down Beat. We obtain similar results consulting the database of the magazine Cadence, where, from 1976 to 2000, there are 686 articles about male musicians and only 30 featuring women musicians.

Myra Melford
As far as the magazine Jazziz, a special number was issued in 2000 dedicated to women artists. Only two women, Myra Melford and Carla Bley, are involved in both creative music and jazz music. Women instrumentalists remain marginalized, and experimental women remain even more marginalized. Things don't get better if we consider books. D.R. Myers analyzes the following titles: Robert Walser's Keeping Time (1999), Ingrid Monson's Saying Something (1996), Krin Gabbard's Jazz Among The Discourses (1995), Paul Berliner's Thinking in Jazz (1994), John Corbett's Extended Play (1994) and the famous book by Derek Bailey Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (revised 1992).

All these books provide little mention of the contributions of women improvisors, and even less on cross-cultural aspects of the role of women in music. In contrast, Val Wilmer's As Serious As Your Life (1977) dedicates an entire chapter titled “You sound Good – For a Woman” in which Wilmer discusses attitudes towards women musicians and how creative women improvisors have helped support the male musicians they maintained personal relationship with (Alice and John Coltrane, Fontella Bass and Lester Bowie, Linda and Sonny Sharrock).

At this point D.R. Myers ask to herself if the statement “sound good for a woman” necessarily imply the notion of a woman who plays like a man, or if the comparison of creative women's abilities to creative men's abilities engender notions of the women being understudies of 'big brother' either directly of indirectly.

Amina Claudine Myers answers in an interview: “I don't recall actually hearing that statement [“sound good for a woman”] in reference to me, but I have heard it … years back when I was playing organ with Gene Ammons, I heard someone saying 'she plays like a man'. One time I was referred to as a female Mc Coy Tyner, or Cecil Taylor”. Amina Claudine Myers believes that statements like “'she plays like a man' means being strong and aggressive on the piano, but it's been proven that women have done heavy work and stood up under it.”

Susie Ibarra
It is perhaps safe to assume that the most valued physical standard would be gendered masculine. In an article issued on Times, a newspaper from New York, of May 30, 1999, David Yaffe describes the music of drummer Susie Ibarra depicting her as an 'exceptional' woman. Susie Ibarra can surely physically handle the drums differently from what many critics of the past were thinking about women – as my friend trumpet player – but the discussion of physicality leads readers to assume that there is a standard by which physical qualities are to be measured and compared in order to play the drums.

Yaffe discussion of Susie Ibarra creates distance between her and other women drummers or women improvisors. Allan G. Johnson makes an additional claim suggesting that what makes some women exceptional “is their ability to embody values culturally defined as masculine” (1997). In addition, many reviews of women musicians call attention to personal traits, physical attributes, or compare their music to other male musicians obscuring why these women's voices are important to be heard.

Coverage by media is not the only problem women approach through their journey in music. Joelle Leandre recalls that “as a woman, it is certainly more difficult to enter the musical 'machine'. We are the minority and it is therefore difficult to find one's language as an artist while remaining faithful to ourselves”. Other women have experienced a mixed reaction to their work, as it happened to Miya Masaoka and her piece Ritual.

Ikue Mori talks about the feeling of being displaced in both the improvised music field and technology: “They see the technology and they don't really consider me a musician playing an instrument. So I feel that they don't understand. But then I go to electronic music people's concerts. It's all male dominated. My music made by machine is not electronic enough, like I am too female for them”.

Maggie Nichols
Public criticism made by other musicians or participating colleagues can also alienate women improvisors. Maggie Nichols and Irene Schweizer, from the Feminist Improvising Group, recount how they were ostracized at one of the early important performances at the Total Music Meeting in Berlin in the late 1970s. Perhaps the discontent expressed by other musicians towards the ability of the musicians in the Feminist Improvising Group indicates not only gender bias, but also latent gendered conceptions of how music ought to sound or be created.

“We could be very iconoclastic and very surreal, or very silly – recalls cellist Georgina Born – I am sure there were good moments of music and moments of real hilarity. Only video would do justice to the character of what we did”. Born elaborates on how this use of humor could have led other musicians to perceive the Feminist Improvising Group to be not a serious band. “I am sure that humor is always a weapon from the margins. We were also using parody and probably the grotesque”.

It's time to have a look at various festivals of improvised music and its policies. Total Music Meeting (Berlin) has hired only a small number of women since 1968. Peter Brotzmann has appeared fifteen times, Evan Parker thirteen times, and Alex Von Schlippenback twelve. Twenty-eight different women performed at TMM. No African-American women were presented, and only three Asians have performed (Aki Takase, Jin Hi Kim and Sainkho Namchylak). The most women ever presented during a single festival was in 1979 with the Feminist Improvising Group (seven members).

At the Vancouver Jazz Festival, the number of creative improvisors, both male and female, totaled 45 on 1600 artists represented from 1986, equaling 2.8%. Creative women improvisors made up only 0.37% (six on 1600). Compared with other festivals, Taklos (Zurich) includes a large number of women who are not pianists and singers. This is important, since the festival more accurately represents the diversity of creative women improvisors. The number of women presented at this festival ranges from a minimum of three out of thirty-tree (9%) in 2000, to a maximum of ten out of thirty-four (29%) in 1996.

Jin Hi Kim
The festival has featured six Asian performers and two African American women. The programming demonstrates that there are more women who are not just pianists and singers which should be hired. The Guelph Jazz Festival (Guelph, Ontario) began in 1994 run by Dr. Ajay Heble, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Guelph specializing in post-colonial studies, and he has been the festival's founder and artistic director.

Up until 2000, the festival has concentrated on bringing women improvisors from Canada or the United States and has presented a handful of women improvisers that were not presented at the Vancouver festival, including Maggie Nichols, Amina Claudine Myers, Pauline Olveros and percussionist Gayle Young. The Festival de Musique Actuelle Victoriaville has programmed a variety of Asian women improvisors and European women improvisors. The percentage of creative women improvisors varies from 15.7% in 1985 to 7.8% in 1990, to 5.5% in 2000.

A close examination of the number of women hired to perform at all those festivals reveals that women are hired substantially less than their male colleagues. The attention placed on singers and pianists in festivals and the media over other istruments may be examined in terms of historical notions of women in music. In her study of girls' musical education in British schools, Lucy Green points that teachers tended to identify particular istruments with girls.

Recent musicological studies address the history of women pianists and singers in Western classical music, a tradition that still has enormous influence on music industry and social practices. During the 19th century the piano was associated with the bourgeoisie and was almost exclusively an instrument for females of amateur rank. Many artists used women pianists as subjects for their paintings and drawings, capturing many of the dominant culture attitudes towards women.

Mary Lou Williams
“The piano served as an object to be looked at besides being heard or played … the looking was insistently gendered, driven by the instrument's extra-musical function within the home as the visual-sonoric simulacrum of family, wife and mother” (Leppert, 1993). The notion of women as pianists and singers is widespread even in contemporary jazz music. The most famous women in jazz before the 1960s were pianists (Lil Harding, Mary Lou Williams, Dorothy Donegan, Marian McPartland, Hazel Scott).

The prominence of women pianists still dominates women's contribution in jazz today. But if a girl is conditioned and trained on one instrument from elementary school, it may be difficult to switch instruments once a certain proficiency is achieved on one instrument. And certainly a visit to any Western music conservatory will clearly reveal that the majority of women tend to major in piano and voice. Many traditional music programs foster the continuation of this kind of gendered construction in their students and curricula.

One way for women artists to counter some of the dominant hiring practices at festivals is to produce their own festivals. Festivals such the Canaille Festival (Frankfurt) co founded by trombonist Annemarie Roeflos and Irene Schweizer has created a space for many women improviors. Joelle Leandre, Elvira Plenar, Maggie Nichols, violinist Maartje Ten Hoorn and Marylin Mazur have played there.

City of Women, a festival held in Ljubljana, was started in 1995 with the specific goal of providing space for women artists, musicians and theorists. The 2001 call for artists posted by the organizers is especially telling: “City of Women's main theme for the first edition of the new millennium is inspired by an in 1989 written, unpublished poem by Audre Lord: 'Most people in the world are Yellow, Black, Brown, Poor, Female, Non-Christian and do not speak English.

Joelle Leandre
By the year 2000 the 20 largest cities in the world will have one thing in common: none of them will be in Europe none in the United States'. In addition to this we also want to stress that a large percentage of the European and North-American population is not 'white'. 'Western society' is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. In this new global contest it is not surprising that the main creative centers, the contemporary art talent is less and less to be found in 'white' cultural fortresses.

With this in mind we have decided to call the 7th edition: YEAR ONE, and select only artists and theoreticians 'of colors'”. However, the women programmed by the festival still legitimizes the most famous women (Marylin Crispell, Lindsay Cooper, Ikue Mori, Tenko, Meredith Monk and Zeena Parkins) and is not committed to the younger generation of improvisors.

Another festival, Kosmos Frauenraum, is held in Vienna. There, in 1997 a group of women formed LINK. Part of its mission was to raise awereness for the need of women-centered performance space in Austria. They obtained from the governement a space, a cinema called 'Rondell' as their homebase. After a while, the governement retracted their promise and so LINK squatted the 'Rondell' for the next months.

Performances, readings, concerts as well as actions of protest took place not only at the 'Rondell' but all over Vienna. Finally LINK found the cinema 'Kosmos' suitable to substitute the 'Rondell' and the space was named 'frauen.raum' and opened in 2000. In 2002 Kosmos presented an international festival of music entitled 'Here I am': artists invited included trombone player and violinist Annemarie Roelofs, The United Women's Orchestra, Joelle Leandre, sound artist Gabriele Proy, Susie Ibarra, trombonist Abbie Conant and Sylvie Courvoisier.

Another example of a festival open to women is the Vision Festival, based in New York and founded by bassist William Parker and her wife Patricia Nicholson. The 2002 Vision Festival reveals a much stronger commitment to African-American improvisors and featured women include Joelle Leandre, bassoonist Karen Borca, and the vocalists Ellen Christi and Jayne Cortez.

Ellen Christi
In March 2002 the San Francisco Jazz Festival presented “Women and Jazz: A Panel Discussion” featuring writer and activist Angela Davis, musicologist Sherri Tucker, composer Maria Schneider, pianist Mary Watkins and Susie Ibarra. One would argue that in the near future things will go better for women improvisors, but the path is still long and full of obstacles.

The lesson we can learn is that the world of art is not ripped apart from society, and that it reflects the same dynamics. This means that the music we all listen to reflects the dynamics of power we all live through our society and that a music that reflects change and committment is still far from us. This is also an explanation to the problem I raised up with my last reviews.

The records I reviewed, all by male musicians, are records of 'post avant garde' music. A music that takes improvisation mixing it with other styles of music from the 20th century. A music that has its reference in the past, that doesn't look at the future. A music that reflects a period of stagnation. Maybe if in the future men and women will collaborate together, there will be a new music, reflecting new values and new musical ideas – think about the Feminist Improvising Group as an example.

Until that moment, I expect to encounter music that reflects the past and the status quo, as the records I reviewed in the past months. It is necessary to include different genders and races in our culture if we want it to be renewed. If we fail this target, we will listen to music created following old schemes and old dreams, a music that is far from being near to us, a music that will be conservative.


If you want to read Dana Reason Myers dissertation in its entirety, follow this link.  









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