Written Out of History

Whilst Tara Rodgers’ and Jonathan Sterne’s work in particular seeks to historicise sound reproduction technologies and audio-technical discourses by charting their shifting histories, the question of how to write a feminist history of the present in sound arts and experimental musics that focuses upon feminist compositional process is not such an easy question to answer (Rodgers 2010a, 2010b; Sterne 2003, 2012). This difficulty can perhaps be appreciated in light of the question, ‘where are the women’, which seems to be a perennially recurring question even after all the feminist work that has been undertaken throughout the history of feminism, feminist musicology and feminist ethnomusicology.  The continued frequency at which this question seems to reoccur, raises questions about the efficacy of historical feminist theory, musicology and politics in the historical present. For the issue of overlooked and erased histories of women’s production from hegemonic sound and music discourses in itself is certainly not new, nor is this erasure unique to the fields of sound arts and experimental musics. Rather, and perhaps obvious to some, the erasure of women from history itself is a recurring and historical pattern. In the field of avant-garde music in 1970, composer Pauline Oliveros, similarly to Linda Nochlin in 1971 in the visual arts, posed the rhetorical question to the New York Times, “Why have there been no great women composers?” (Oliveros 1985: 47; Nochlin 1989: 147-15). Her Noise Project co-curators Lina Džuverovic and Anne Hilde Neset, over thirty years after Oliveros and Nochlin rhetorically asked ‘where are the women’ posed the same question as foundational to the development of their project:

In a way, our question was a rhetorical question. It wasn’t a question that we felt actually needed an answer from us. Our answer is Her Noise. Our answer isn’t, it’s like that question, why are there no good women artists? You know, it’s the same question. It’s like well, here’s the answer, Her Noise (Lina Džuverovic Her Noise Archive Interview, 2006).

Why this question, ‘where are the women’, is still being asked over thirty years later, in hindsight, is perhaps the more pressing question to be asking. Indeed, the question arises of how it is that the category of ‘woman’ within these discourses still faces similar historical erasures in light of more recent efforts such as the countering of history with herstory or the analysis of the stratifying processes of social history through prior work within the fields of feminist political history and feminist musicology.

Some of the problems with feminist histories intent on highlighting inherent structural contradictions, which perhaps may offer correlations with processes of archiving that would seek to instate new canons instead of challenging or transforming existing value systems, is the lack of ability to actually affect any real long-lasting change.  One only needs to consider the ongoing and unacknowledged male bias, for instance across concert programs and gigs and on recording labels, radio line-up and playlists and in educational environments where the ‘exceptional woman’ is still a common theme to perceive the powerful resistance of history to feminist projects. For the recurrence of this question highlights the failure of past feminist efforts that, as Joan Scott explains, “documented the lives of women in the past, that have provided information that has challenged received interpretations of past periods and events and that have analysed specific conditions of women’s subordination” without actually effecting much change within those conditions1 (Scott 1999: 18).

Articles and blogs appear online almost daily in which people express the ongoing gender imbalances that they face within sound and music professions. Ellen McSweeny has written about the gender inequalities that she has personally experienced as a musician and writer in contemporary classical music and the arts in Chicago. Composer and professor Kristin Kuster has written of her experiences coming to terms with the label “woman composer” in US institutions where women are still woefully represented, if at all (Kuster 2013). The web based network female:pressure collated data collected from the personal and professional experiences of its 1185 international members and produced a press release for International Women’s Day in 2013 and again in 2015, highlighting the continued under-representation of women in contemporary music production and performance, at festivals, on recording labels and in music charts.   Concert pianist and lecturer Xenia Pestova undertook a “random sampling of UK music departments” in 2013 and 2016 with her findings reflecting quite drastic ongoing gender imbalances in music education.

What all this does point to though, is an ongoing articulation of the position of marginalisation as a constant spatiotemporality which one is forced to inhabit.  This manifests, as Her Noise Project co-curator Lina Džuverovic states, in “knowing that there is a certain inequality as a starting point” (Lina Džuverovic Her Noise Archive Interview, 2006). This ‘knowing’ has often been based upon experience, where as in Džuverovic’s case for instance, as well as in the personal experience of this writer, one may have experienced inequality in her personal or professional life, which Džuverovic has considered as “coming from a gendered perspective”. But this ‘knowing’ has been reiterated again and again by others who have expressed similar ways of ‘knowing’, which the examples by McSweeny, Pestova et al cited above testify to.  Further, certain inequalities as personally felt and expressed through the relaying of personal experiences point towards specifically emotional and subjugated knowledges which, due to supremacist hetero-patriarchal limitations of what can count as “credible knowledge”, continue to be individualised, pathologised and dismissed. “Knowing that there is a certain inequality” is then as Džuverovic explains,  “a starting point” from which each of the works that will be addressed throughout this blog may be understood as having proceeded from. Attempting to understand how that inequality is operative within and through the field and thus how it might be challenged and transformed, is in itself one of the primary ways that unequal experiences of race and ethnicity and gender and sexuality among other axes of difference can be perceived to manifest in the making of works.

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  1. Research undertaken for the Global Gender Gap Report 2014 by the World Economic Forum gave the UK an overall ranking of 26th out 142 countries. The UK ranked 46th in economic participation and opportunity; 32nd in educational attainment; 94th in health and survival; 33rd in political empowerment (Schwab et al 2014: 370). Whilst women in the UK have a life expectancy of 72 and men of 70, evidencing a relatively small gender gap, John Middleton, of the UK Faculty of Public Health, claims “wages and opportunities for promotion impact on health” pointing out that “women face specific problems in terms of reproductive health, but are also more likely to be on antidepressants and tranquillisers” which, he says, “relates to the disadvantages women face in the job market” (Williams et al, 2014). Additionally in the UK in 2013 “the gender pay gap widened again for the first time in five years reaching 19.1% for all employees” – as 19.1% less than men (Fawcett Society 2014: 19). In education in the UK in STEM fields “only 30% of the UK’s graduates at tertiary level are female” noting “the effect of the ‘leaky pipeline’: the gradual and continuous loss of women at consecutive career stages within Stem”. The Commons’ Science and Technology Select Committee report of February 2013 stated “Just 17% of all professors working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are women”. George Arnett writing in The Guardian in response to the The Global Gender Gap Report 2014 has found that “Women currently have 60% of the standing of men worldwide – just four percentage points up on 2006 when WEF started the report measuring female economic participation, education, health and political involvement” and optimistically estimates that “It will take 81 years for the worldwide gender gap to close if progress continues at the current rate, according to the latest report by the World Economic Forum”.

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