Gender-Centric Feminisms in Music and Sound

Through what Ellen Koskoff identifies as a ‘second-wave’ of feminist musicology and ethnomusicology, is scholarship that has sought to question productions of gender through productions of music such as Susan McClary’s Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (1991), Marcia Citron’s Gender and the Musical Canon (1991) and Elaine Barkin’s and Lydia Hamessley’s Audible Traces: Gender, Identity, and Music (1999) (see also Oliveros 1983, 1994; Carson 1995; Macarthur 2002, 2010; Born, 1995; Born & Hesmondhalgh 2000; Jarviluoma et al, 2003; McCartney 1995, 1997, 2000, 2006, 2010; Hubbs 2004; Brett et al 2006; Mockus 2007). These texts address “understandings of how both music, sound and sociomusical activities are gendered” (Koskoff 2005: 90). They are largely based upon defining the field, identifying key artists and analysing their work or establishing and defining key terms and practices by which to shape the discourse. Koskoff explains that at this time, whilst texts in feminist musicology continued to find publication, textual publication of feminist and gender ethnomusicology began to slow down (2005: 90). This can be perceived as a signal of the shifting ground between musicology and ethnomusicology, of changing understandings between formerly fixed categories of music as Western and non-Western and between hierarchies of, at one end, avant-garde and art music and, at the other, popular and folk music (2005: 92). Koskoff asserts that in light of these shifts what actually distinguishes each field is “not the genres they study, where they study them, who studies them, or even the analytic and interpretative models they use but, rather, their method of data collection – textwork versus fieldwork” (2005: 92-3). Textwork, according to Koskoff, has historically been the preferred methodology in musicology with fieldwork more typical of ethnomusicological methods. The field of sound studies and sound arts consists of both textwork and fieldwork approaches, though there are very few of either that focus specifically upon the work of women let alone that engage feminist or critical race analyses.

Andra McCartney’s Creating Worlds for My Music to Exist: How Women Composers of Electroacoustic Music Make Place for their Voices (1997) and Tara Rodgers’ Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound (2010) each present interviews in which women sound artists, soundscape composers and electronic musicians are granted sites from which to speak for themselves within each text. Cathy Lane’s edited text Playing with Words: The Spoken Word in Artistic Practice (2008) and Lane and Angus Carlyle’s edited texts In The Field: The Art of Field Recording (2013) and On Listening (2013) are all texts consisting of interviews with artists and artists writing about their own practices, but none of which focus specifically on women or gender. The field of experimental music, particularly where there is a cross-over with rock and punk, evidences a greater number of anthologies of women talking about their music, such as Zora Von Burden’s Women of the Underground Music (2010) and Liz Evans’ Women, Sex and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Their Own Words (1994) as well as musicological writing about women in music (O’Dair 1997; Reddington 2007; Leonard 2007). Archives, such as the Her Noise Archive, Devotional Collection, Women in Punk, Women’s Liberation Music Archive, and Odd Girl Out may be considered as seeking to fill the perceived gap of women in sound arts and experimental musics in the UK, developed largely through ethnomusicological methodologies that have sought to make spaces for women ‘to speak for themselves’, often through audiovisual interviews. But these archives have not yet received much critical musicological or ethnomusicological interest in terms of any reflective analysis of the data collected as either detailed investigations into the ‘herstories’ or social histories contained within or any combination there of.

The few feminist texts that may be considered as circulating within the field of sound studies predominantly reflect Koskoff’s assertion of more gender-centric analyses of socio-musical histories situated within a textwork paradigm of musicological research practices but have combined ethnomusicological processes of fieldwork as a means by which to generate analysable data. Within early electroacoustic arts and soundscape composition, Andra McCartney was perhaps one of the first feminist voices to explicitly speak up about feminism and gender in sound studies, electroacoustic music and acoustic ecology. McCartney has contributed to the establishment of feminist sound studies since she freely made available her Masters thesis in which she traced the gendered assumptions underlying the dominant discourses of electroacoustic music, elektronische musik and soundscape composition which she combined with interviews with and analyses of the work of fourteen female Canadian composers (McCartney 1997). Since then she has continued to work towards bringing the words “woman” and “composer” into some sort of combined recognition. Working through listening, composing and reception in soundscape composition and environmental sound (2002b), taking seriously Hildegard Westerkamp’s compositional practice through detailed analyses of her works (2002a), analysing Gender, Genre and Electroacoustic Soundmaking Practices (2006) and exploring working methods of female sound producers in the sound studio have all contributed to establishing a “greater sense of community among women sound producers” (McCartney 2005), particularly, perhaps, for those living and working in Canada. McCartney’s Inventing Images: Constructing and Contesting Gender in Thinking about Electroacoustic Music is an important text that set the scene for ongoing research in feminist sound studies (1995). In this paper McCartney challenges dominant stereotypes of women through deconstructions of language and technology in the recording studio. Through case studies McCartney traces the use of audio metaphors as “embodying powerful and cognitive performative functions” through “early scientific and technological discourses” modelled on violence and misogyny, which through repetition, through daily use and through advertising in specialist audio magazines, she claims, have come to seem natural (McCartney 1995: 58).

Tara Rodgers’ Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound, published in 2010, similarly reflective of a socially embedded combination of gender feminist musicology and ethnomusicology, also combines an anthology of interviews of women working in sound and electronic music predominantly in the USA with a theoretical introductory chapter. In the introduction Rodgers extends McCartney’s uncovering of “early scientific and technological discourses” (McCartney 1995: 58) through analyses of the dominant foundational discourses and origin stories of Western electronic music and sound studies, through the binary poles of noise and silence. Rodgers addresses and questions the dominant origin stories and progress narratives that noise and silence have presented throughout histories of electronic music, where the former is often originated with the futurists and the latter with John Cage in ways that she asserts are shaped through discourses of violence and domination in the former and where Cage’s legacy “in electronic and experimental music histories has often had the effect of silencing others” (Rodgers 2010: 10). Further, where Salomé Voegelin seemingly sought to heal the split between noise and silence by positing an idea that resonates as écouter feminine (Voegelin 2010), Tara Rodgers in Pink Noises seeks to understand how it is that noise and silence have become the undisputed limit-points of this expanded field by critically questioning the historical construction within audio-technical discourses of these foundational terms themselves.

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