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Gender and Electroacoustics

Every now and then gender issues pop up as a topic on the CEC discussion list 1[1. The open and accessible email forum CEC Discuss was renamed cec-conference in 2003.], leading to a mix of vehement, rude, stupid, wise, offensive, defensive, (quasi-)indifferent, interested, ignoring and sympathetic reactions. Especially in January 1998, the discussion was hot. It started with a reaction to a concert announcement: “You better call this a Concert with Electro-Acoustic Music by Male Composers.” Since this evoked many different reactions, it seems a good idea to unravel the many opinions and positions. Feminist thought and gender studies already have a rich history. It can be instructive to relate the issue of “gender and electroacoustic music” to the work that has already been done in this broader domain. In feminist studies, often three different perspectives are distinguished. Women’s Studies and Culture, edited by Rosemarie Buikema and Anneke Smelik, is a good and clear survey of the development of feminist thinking in relation to cultural issues; this book is my point of departure here.

Although sometimes a chronological hierarchy is suggested, I prefer the idea of perspectives instead of stages: at the same time, different points of view can be taken. Even one person can take a different position on different occasions, depending on what “looks best” — that is, on what seems to make most sense in a given situation. Most of the time, a mixture of different perspectives can be found. The three perspectives are therefore more an analytical instrument than a descriptive categorization. By distinguishing these three different positions, one can get more insight into feminist and anti-feminist thought and work.


Central to the first position is the idea that men and women are and have to be equal. This leads to questions like: why are there so few female composers? The ideal is to stop discrimination and to get equal amounts of male and female composers and musicians. Historical research is done to discover more female composers. Also, the discriminating, limiting circumstances for women are studied, for example, that in the past women were not allowed to get the right education. Differentiating between men and women is seen as the root of the subordinated position of women. Action is directed to fighting discrimination and to the ideal of equal opportunities. The focus is on legal and material circumstances, laws and institutions. Most attention is paid to (female) composers, to their lives and their professional circumstances — for example, by writing biographies of women composers of the past and present. This is done to correct the unequal amount of male and female composers and to lay bare discriminating laws and practices in the past and present.

The ideal of equality, however, leads to the question: equal to whom? In practice, “equality” often means that activities and qualities that are usually associated with men or masculinity are rated higher than “feminine” activities like caring and nurturing. Under the banner of “equality” it is often women who have to adapt, not men. In practice, this may have as an effect, for example, that, in general, women invest more and more time and effort in building a career, but, on top of that, still spend more time on housekeeping and childcare than men. It may also imply that women may have to adapt their behaviour and way of communicating to the standards and habits of a male professional environment and that men can go on with business as usual. Clearly, this is unfair; but it also raises the question whether the world would become a better place if we all would adopt so-called masculine ways of living.


Why not value femininity more? In the second position, “feminine” values like caring and emotionality are central. Under the name of “difference”, feminists are looking for specific female-feminine traditions and practices. The female body gets special attention. “Feminine” nature, as opposed to “masculine” culture, is celebrated. Some feminists even go so far as to claim that when women would be in charge, there would be no war and no pollution. Feminist musicologists ask: Is there a specific feminine musical style? A feminine way of composing? Unlike in other domains, these kinds of questions seem very difficult to answer with regard to music.

The danger of this second position is that it reinforces traditional stereotypes. And how much will society change if women celebrate their femininity in separation? However, I think its critique on the masculine values underlying the ideal of equality is very important. Let’s question our self-evident values and look at their implications with regard to gender.


An important critique on the second position is that, in the name of “femininity” and Woman, other differences are disregarded. Women of colour and lesbians noticed that “Woman” is understood as being de facto white, middle class and heterosexual. The third position focuses on plural differences between people, gender being one of the important differences. Dualisms like Man-Woman, Culture-Nature and Mind-Body are questioned and deconstructed. Feminist studies now relate clearly to other fields. Often, boundaries between feminist studies and, for example, cultural studies are vague. Feminist thoughts, theories and observations permeate other domains, and developments in other disciplines are appropriated by feminist studies. Self-evident cultural values are questioned. An important step is that now masculinity is also under scrutiny and that specific male cultures are studied. I think that we not only have to ask why and how women (don’t) make electroacoustic (EA) music, but also why so many men are involved in EA music and how EA music relates to masculinity. No easy questions, of course.

One of the seemingly self-evident values that have been questioned is the value of the composer. It is a heritage of the nineteenth century to consider the Composer, the Author, as a Creative Genius, a Godlike Important Man. The status of the author has been questioned by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, among others. Feminists like Joke Dame followed Barthes’ declaration of “The Death of the Author” to free the female listener and reader. They don’t see the composer as the one with the most important opinion about his work, as an authority. They focus on how music and text are interpreted by women. Other feminists, however, ask: “Why kill the author the moment that female authors arise?”

The discussion about gender and EA music on the CEC discussion list focused for a large part on female composers. This comes as no surprise since most of the people on the list are composers. Also, the notion of “equality” is central. So, some of the discussion was devoted to questions and comments such as: Do male and female composers of EA music have equal opportunities? It seems not fair that there are so many concerts with almost all works by male composers. Is there discrimination against women? Are vacancies advertised openly or filled via old boys’ networks?

However, the notion of “equality” also led to some other reactions. If men and women are equal, why bother about the number of works by women played at concerts, as long as there is no unfair discrimination? Some female composers said that they feel themselves a composer, not a woman composer. Many female composers are opposed to the idea of their music being played on a women’s concert, because they feel they want to be valued because of their music and not because of their sex. For them, music and composing have nothing to do with the sex of the composer. Many of them don’t seem to have bad experiences with harassment and discrimination. But some other female composers spoke about having these bad experiences and they are more conscious about being a woman composer.

But if most people seem to agree that discrimination and harassment are bad and that it is important to take measures against it, there still remains the question: why are there so few female composers being played in concerts and found in histories of music? Many concert organizers and writers are not consciously or intentionally discriminating against women, I think. Other mechanisms are at work. To be sure, networks, whether of “old boys” or of other people, are important ways to get jobs or get your work played. And networks are not working according to rules for fair, equal opportunities. The mechanisms of networks are personal, fuzzy, not fully conscious. For sure, I think that jobs and concert opportunities have to be advertised openly. But I think it is unrealistic to think that society can or will do without networks, without “knowing people”. And of course, gender is an important, and unfortunately largely unconscious, factor when people interact. The only way for countering “old boys’ networks,” except by some basic openness about jobs and other opportunities, is by making your own networks, with other women and men. It has often been said that women are in general better in communication and care than men. So, let’s use this feminine quality in an active way for our own and each other’s profit as well as to change the world — this is indeed already been done in organized as well as individual ways. Let’s make connections and coalitions. 2[2. See, for example the initiatives of Studio XX [renamed Ada X in 2020], which include workshops on technologies, etc., for women.]

But there is more at stake. I think it is important to question the values and practices of EA music in relation to gender. Values and judgements of music are not abstract, general, objective and neutral, but are made by gendered people, with specific backgrounds and attributes, embedded in a certain culture with certain values. Why is a piece of music judged to be “good”? And how does that relate to gender? Or, as Barry Truax wrote:

Frankly, I don’t see the music establishment being very open at all to the alternative voices of women or gays (or other groups for that matter) unless they conform to the dominant paradigm (hence the observation that “you can’t tell the difference”). I stress “alternative voices” to mean where the art takes a different form and says different things and says them differently. 50 years of electroacoustic music has made very little dent on the classical music establishment, for instance, and I doubt that it ever will be accepted into “the canon.” Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it’s just another way of marginalizing voices by this oh-so-innocent claim that “we always choose the best music” which ignores the way in which these folk have been trained to recognize what’s best (which usually starts with the assumption that abstract music is best and we have a pretty good idea of what has set the standards by which others are judged). [CEC-discuss list, 1998]

But how marginalized is EA music? In the past, electronic and electroacoustic music had or seemed to have had status: there was the idea that it was Important To The Future Of Western Music. Especially in the ’50s, with Stockhausen, Berio and Schaeffer, this seemed to be the spirit: New Technologies, New Musical Systems, Progression! However, more and more, new “experimental”, “serious” and “academic” music came into a crisis because of its lack of listeners. Even intellectuals who do look at modern art and read Joyce or Beckett often do not listen to avant-garde music, because they find it too difficult or unattractive. As I see it now, EA music has a mixture of academic and subcultural status and societal marginalization. One of the worst scenarios would be that the diminishing of status of EA music would go hand in hand with the increase in women involved in it, or: the more women, the less status and money. This is a pattern often found in different occupations, for example medicine. In the Netherlands, the society of medical specialists is even said to keep down “too much” women in their profession, because they are afraid that would diminish their status. And indeed, at the same time that more women are becoming doctors, medical salaries drop.

How do the alternative voices sound? I don’t believe that women make different music than men because they are biologically different. I don’t even think that culturally there is one constant difference in the socialization of men and women that results in women making different music than men. There are so many differences between women and between men! And we are all hybrids: we have all taken up many different “masculine” and “feminine” traits. But it is undeniable that in society at large there are different gender patterns in many fields, that are often felt on a very personal level. Some women and men prefer to ignore this; others choose to do something with it. Some composers, more women than men, relate some of their work to gender issues. A clear example is some of the work of Wende Bartley: Ellipsis and Rising Tides of Generations Lost3[3. Both released on her CD Claire-Voie (empreintes DIGITALes [IMED 9414], 1994). See Andra McCartney’s review of Bartley’s CD in this issue.] But not only composers can relate their work to gender issues. Listeners, scholars and researchers can do it too. Whether the composer wants it or not. They can relate a piece of music to gender issues in many different ways. Andra McCartney’s writings, for example, address many of the issues discussed here; in my own research, I also explore some.

But why relate compositions of oneself or of others to gender issues? I would say to create a new place for women in a culture that is dominated by men, regarding the musical, literal, etc. canons. For a woman, to find yourself in a place like that can be quite alienating. One option is ignoring it, if possible. Another possibility is using this situation, and the work already done by many others, as a source of inspiration.

9 March 1998

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