New Voices. Forwarding Gender Democracy in Musical Composition.

Seminar presentation: Pedagogy and Equity in Teaching Composition for Young Students, Nordic Music Days 2018, Helsinki, 8.-9.11.2018

What is “New Voices”?

New Voices” is a project I have started in Bergen, Norway, in December 2017, with the purpose of engaging more women in the field of musical composition. However, even though “gender democracy” is a goal for this specific project, the subject I will discuss – the specific methodological approaches to musical composition – concern the epistemology of the field of composition as a whole.

To first mention a few practical aspects about this project, “New Voices” is a (my) private initiative, even though it collaborates with public institutions such as the Grieg Academy, and also receives public funding. There is one weekend seminar a month. Each Saturday seminar is public and open to everyone, both women and men. Usually the seminar on Saturday involves a presentation of an invited guest, a woman composer, who presents her musical work or aesthetic approach to the art. Further, there is a seminar discussion about a subject I have chosen and prepared. The Sunday seminar is closed, it is for women exclusively. Anyone is free to initiate a discussion about a personal experience or other subject, or present compositional work and receive feedback. Further, we do short compositional assignments and perform the results with the participants. Anyone who is over 16 years can participate.

One doesn’t have to compose within a specific musical genre to participate. One doesn’t even have to compose score music. The reflective approach of “Nye stemmer” does, however, have its roots in art music, in the sense that the aim is to forward a reflective and critical attitude to music and compositional method.

A Critical Approach

A mindset central to the conversations about compositional issues at the seminars, is approaching the language that we use in a critical way. The premise is that no language is “innocent”. All words carry loads of historical and cultural connotations. They don’t refer to something “natural”. For example, when we refer to a “master work”, or even just a “musical work”, these expressions, too, originate from a specific epoch and carry their specific meanings based no their cultural background.

Borrowing the word “denaturalization” from gender research, the idea is that words don’t refer to natural things that are just ‘out there’. By using and repeating words uncritically, not only is the use of the expressions forwarded, but also the specific structures that created them. In the context of music, specific ways of discussing the field are forwarded. This doesn’t mean that we always need to know how the words have come to exist, and figure out their etymologies. The questions about the origins of a linguistic expression are usually very complex. It is often enough just to raise the questions, and to maintain a tiny distance to the vocabularies when using them; to let a little “sociologist” or “sceptic spirit” be present through a conversation.

The ground situation of “not-being-innocent” concerns music itself, too. Approaching sounds in a “denaturalizing” way, we discover that they carry plenty of cultural connotations. When we hear the sound of an organ, for example, it might send us the signal “religion”. Any musical element communicate plenty of their own history. This is not in any way radical, we are already aware of this as composers, and we already engage critically with the sounds and practices. However, there still appears to be a paradigm, partly stemming from the Romantic Era of the 19th century musical formalism, that forwards the ideal of music having an absolute value based in the internal relationships within the musical material. The idea of the aesthetic autonomy of a musical work is forwarded by a mindset that regards the meaning of a musical work as detached from the external world: the musical material neither refers to anything outside of it, nor gets its meaning from the social implications of the material.

In other art forms, such as film, the universality of aesthetic values has been criticized. The film critic Laura Mulvey started to use the expression “male gaze” in the 60s to point out that visual aesthetic ideals have an origin: someone – or a social group – has defined the ideals. The structural critique has brought a big change in the ways of approaching aesthetic value, showing that it is not necessarily universal. A similar critique has been performed within literature and other art forms.

However, the paradigm of aesthetic autonomy still appears to be present in the ways the field of musical composition is practiced today. When a composer, musicologist, or musician, merely analyzes the internal relationships of the musical material, calculating the intervals and explaining the musical progression in time – based on pitch and harmonic progression – this might forward musical formalism as a practice. This is not to say the approach of internal musical analysis is not valuable, but that it doesn’t exist isolated from a cultural practice. It is not the case that a musical work is first composed and then put in a specific social context, but the context is already present when the work is made. All the complex ways in which we engage with music in the social world, as social beings, and all the meanings music receives, are implicitly present also when we engage in the activity of composing.

The question of musical democracy and multiplicity, the questions of the defining power to determine “artistic value” and ways of dealing with composition, does not only concern gender, but also any other type of social background, ethnicity, or even age.

Three Methodological Approaches

I’m in the process of creating different methods both in the compositional work and teaching composition, that forward a contextualizing approach to music. Three of these approaches I will mention here as examples. This might be a part of my future research.

The first method is fighting authenticity. This doesn’t mean that our individual ideas and efforts don’t have a value. It only means that we don’t compose music in a vacuum. Perhaps we find our voices specifically through engaging in existing musical materials and methods. This is not any radical view, but this way of working is often already incorporated in our methods as professional composers. However, the awareness around it is essential. Otherwise the consequence might be that a composer ends up repeating unknowingly and uncritically existing musical paradigms, believing the activity to be authentic.

The second method is denaturalizing, the activity already referred to. What I call the “disaster” of the field of musical composition is when we start to consider writing proper, abstract contemporary music as a “style”, existing as something authentic and natural. What is a contemporary style at all? As composers we continuously explore, we make experiments, we’re trying to do something. There’s no reason to think about music on stylistic terms at all. A contemporary way of dealing with sounds is not more neutral or natural. Contemporary art music ought too be “denaturalized” on equal terms; or the compositional process could perform as a denaturalizing activity itself.

The third method mentioned here is dumpster diving. “Dumpster diving” means that you could find something valuable in the garbage of others – among things that others have thrown to the dumpster as worthless, or that others wouldn’t go near. This method is based on the idea that we are always, in a way, musical colonialists. We go somewhere, and we take something which is not ours. If we work with music in an artistic and reflective way, we shouldn’t believe that a specific type of material, for example dealing with sounds in an “abstract way” (whatever that might be) is more authentic. In this sense no materials ‘as such’ should be forbidden to approach in composition. This attitude forwards a fearlessness: anything could potentially be brought to our musical laboratories and made the object of a critical survey.

Final Words about “New Voices”

The subjects at the Saturday seminars are general and concern the relationship between composition and the society from some specific perspective. For example, this fall the first seminar had the title “Kan man utdannes til å bli avantgardist?” (“Can you be educated as an avantgardist?”). Many composers have a long education, and at the same time art music, as any form of art, often stands in opposition to established truths. The seminar discussion concerned the ambiguous situation of a composer as an ‘educated artist’. The second seminar had the title “Om Pippi Langstrømpe, anarkisme og komponisme” (“Pippi Longstocking, Anarchism, and Composerism”). Astrid Lindgren’s book character Pippi Longstocking is an anarchist. She finds surprising solutions in situations that often involve specific, social power dynamics, revealing something absurd about the society. Pippi Longstocking manipulates the situations, usually verbally, and turns them around. She shows the absurdity of some of the assumptions people carry, blinded by their conventions and social habits. At the seminar we read and quoted directly from Astrid Lindgren’s books, and related Pippi’s attitude towards the society to the field of musical composition. The third seminar had the title “Musikkens grunnstoff – noe annet enn lyd?” (“The Basic Material of Music – Something Other than Sound?”). The question concerned musical formalism stemming from the Romantic Era, and how this relates to, what could be called, “sonification of music”, in the modern society.

The project “New Voices” is my personal initiative, also in the sense that it is my personal economic risk. I receive public funding, and hope this can continue for a while to go. You can find information in English at: http://box2004.temp.domains/~nyestemm/sample-page/

One of the delightful things have been that several boys, too, have been participating in the seminars on Saturdays, and they have shown plenty of interest in the subjects. Many of the male composers – or composition students – have been eager to raise questions about their social identities. The fight for a more equal field in composition doesn’t need to be a fight between two genders, but it can be an exploration that anyone is free to participate in.

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