And Don`t Call Them "Lady" Composers

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a piece of music cannot, however, account for the meaning of that piece unless it
is placed in a historical continuity. By the same token a "theory" derived from
analysis can never legitimately be used as a tool for producing music. Attempts
to do this betray an idea of musical language based solely on procedures for com­
bining elements, which is, to say the least,' irrelevant to any serious discussion of
mUsic.
Such a concept of music gives rise to the well-known query which opens many
"theoretical" discussions these days: "How did he get the notes?" Shuffling notes
with the illusion that one is dealing with the formation of music is like using
words like "peace" and "freedom" in speaking about Vietnam without touching
the underlying relationships that constitute the real and horrifYing meaning of
that rotten war. .
But, rather than pursue that unhappy metaphor, let me tum t,6 another, this
time from linguistics. The choice is lOgical, with all one hears ab<fot "language of
music," "musical grammar," and such, and discussions of musi,¢ ;llways seem to
:Iemand an eventual resort to metaphor anyway.
Recently a major breakthrough Was witnessed in the field pf linguistics. At its
lead was Noam Chomsky, who pOinted out the need to abAndon the dead end
)f taxonomic linguistics, which is based on segmentatio I and clasSification of
llements. These elements are foundby "discovery proc ures" which are con­
:idered supremely Scientific by some because they are plied only to given se­
Iuences of sounds without regard to the underlying ructure of the language.
rhis is a consequence of the notion that the sequen of sounds represents the
tructure of the sentence in some direct way.
Chomsky's insight was that one must begin, not ·th discrete units (in a loose
ense, sounds) but with a semantically meaning{; deep structure, from which is
lerived, by a series of operations, the surface st cture, which is then asSigned a
,honetic form. The grammar, then, which deS~ribes these steps, shows how the
ense of a sentence is related to its words. homsky repeatedly asserts that a
rammar is a theory of language in that it d scribes what a person must know in
rder to speak and understand but that it s not a model for the speaker or the
earer; that is, it does not explain the Ian age user's ability, nor can it be used to
roduce language.
The parallels to music here are not ccidental. The composer's steps always im­
Iy theoretical experience, but he i : so to speak, condemned by the very nature
fhis responsibilities never to suc ed fully in reconciling theory and practice. To
se Adorno's terms, "the proble faCing the composer is not so much how to or­
mize a musical meaning bu ather how to give a meaning to organization."
There is the story of the an who stopped his watch, which had been running
ow, so that it would at east give the exact time twice a day. The composer's
atch is always too slo or too fast. Still, he falsifies the nature of his work and
)dicates his respon . ilities if he stops the mechanism to assure himself a nar­
IW range of absol e accuracy and security. He is bound, instead, to resist sur­
mdering to the rejudice of The Theory and be prepared to face the multiple
laracter ofexperience. He must find conceptual schemes open enough to allow
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him to select, to process, to combine the JIDiny aspects of reality, always bearing
in mind that any Significant musical id~s not the result of a neo-positivistic pro­
cedure but a system of interrelatiopShips in progress.
A theory cannot substitute {. ~eaning and idea; a discrete analytical tool can
never be turned to creatio y dint of polishing and perfecting it. It is poetics
which guide discovery
not procedural attitudes; it is idea and not style.
This basic fact ' been missed by those who insist on trying to create a
twelve-tone uto . of "twelve-tone coherence" by forCing on us the dubious gift
of twelve-ton melodies in which, as someone has written, "the twelve-tone
rhythmiC s cturalization is totally identical (sic) with the structuralization of
the twel tones." Alas, this industrialized twelve-tone horse, dull on the outside
and e pty inside, constantly being perfected and dragged to a new Troy in
sh ow of an ideolOgical war long since fought and won by responSible minds
. e Schoenberg, with neither systems nor scholarship for armor!
Reprinted from The Christian Science Monitor (July 15, 1968) by permission of the publisher. Copy­
right © 1968 by the Christian Science Publishing Soci~. All rights r:-F rved.
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And Don't Call Them "Lady" Composers
An artist who works in acoustic, electronic, and mixed performance media, Pauline
G
Oliveros (born 1932) resigned from an academic career to be an independent com­
poser/performer. She has received numerous awards, commissions, and grants for her
work in composition, performance, music therapy, and criticism. Many of her purely
electronic works were produced in the 1960s, when she was co-director of the San
Francisco Tape Center and director of the Mills Tape Music Center. Her multimedia
works incorporate dramatic narrative,.electronic sound sources (both precomposed and
improvised), acoustic sound sources, improvisation, film, text, and choreography. An ac­
complished performer on the piano, accordion, hom, and violin, she often scores her in­
strumental works for strikingly diverse combinations. She has written many articles on
music and has published two books: Pauline's Proverbs (1976) and Software for People:
Collected Writings, 1963-80 (1984). In response to an article published in The New York
Times on the theme "why there are no great women composers," she wrote "And Don't
Call Them 'Lady' Composers" (1970), a frank discussion of the profeSSional barriers
faced by women composers.
Why have there been no "great" women composers? The question is often asked.
The answer is no mystery. In the past, talent, education, ability, interests, motiva­
tion were irrelevant because being female was a unique qualification for domes­
tic work and for continual obedience to and dependence upon men.
This is no less true today. Women have been taught to despise activity outside
of the domestic realm as unfeminine, just as men have been taught to despise
domestic duties. For men, independence, mobility and creative action are im­
perative. Society has perpetuated an unnatural atmosphere which encourages
distortions such as "girl" used as a bad word by little boys from the age of nine.
or ten. From infancy, boys are wrapped in blue blankets and continually di­
rected against what is considered feminine activity. What kind of self-image
can little girls have, then, with half their peers despising them because they
have been discouraged from so-called masculine activity and wrapped in pink
blankets?
The distortion continues when puberty arrives and boys tum to girls as sex ob­
jects but do not understand how to relate on other important levels. Consider
the divorce rate! No matter what her achievements might be, when the time
comes, a woman is expected to knuckle under, pay attention to her feminine du­
ties and obediently follow her husband wherever his endeavor or inclination
takes him-no matter how detrimental it might to be to her own.
A well-known contemporary composer has a wife who is also a competent
composer. They travel together extensively and often return to the same places
for performances of his work. She is rarely if ever solicited for her own work and
no one seems to see anything wrong with constantly ignoring her output while
continually seeking out her husband's work.
Many critics and professors cannot refer to women who are also composers
without using cute or condescending language. She is a "lady composer." Rightly,
this expression is anathema to many self-respecting women composers. It effec­
tively separates women's efforts from the mainstream. According to the Dictio­
nary'ofAmerican Slang, "lady~ used in such a context is almost always insulting
or sarcastic. What critic today speaks of a "gentleman composer"?
It is still true that unless she is super-excellent, thC;! woman in music wiU al­
ways be subjugated, while men of the same or lesser talent will find places for themselves. It is not enough th.at a woman chooses to be a composer or conduc­
tor or to play instruments formerly played exclUSively by men; she cannot escape being squashed in her effortS-if not directly, then by subtle and insidious exclu­
sion by her male counterparts.
And yet some women do break through. The current Schwann Catalog lists
over one thousand different composers. Clara Schumann of the Romantic Pe­
riod and Elizabeth J. dela Guerre of the Baroque are the sole representatives for
women composers of the past. But on the positive side, over seventy five percent
of those listed are composers of the present and twenty four of these are women.
These approximate statistics point to two happy trends: 1) that composers of Our
time are no longer ignored, and 2) that women could be emerging from musical
subjugation. (It is Significant that in a biography of Schumann that I have read,
Clara is always talked about as a pianist, not a composer, and she is quoted as say­
ing ''I'd give my life for Robert.")
The first of the two trends is developing even though the majority ofperform­
ers do not include contemporary music in their repertoire and private teachers
seldom encourage their students to try new music or even to become acquainted
with their local composers. Agencies such as the Rockefeller and Ford Founda­
tions have helped establish centers for new music in universities across the coun­
try, and independent organizations such as the Once Group of Ann Arbor and
the San Francisco Tape Music Center promoted lively programs of new music
throughout the nineteen sixties. Isolated individual efforts throughout the coun­
try have gradually created an active, new music network.
At last, the symphony and opera organizations may have to wake up to the fact
that music of our time is necessary to draw audiences from the people :.mder
thirty. The mass media, radio, TV and the press could have greater influence in
encouraging American music by ending the competition between music of the
past and music of the present.
Many composers of today are not interested in the criteria applied by critics
to their work and it is up to the critic to discern new criteria by going to the
composer. With more performances of new works at which the composers are
present, and with the greater mobility of our society, critics have a unique oppor­
tunity-a duty-to converse directly with the composer. Then (since performers
are often irresponsible with new works because of disrespect for or lack of estab­
lished models), works with which the critics have familiarized themselves would
escape some scathing misjudgments due to poor performances. The ideal critic
could not only interpret technically and encourage an atmosphere which is sym­
pathetic to the phenomenon of new music, but present the composer as a real
and reasonable person to audiences. Certainly, no "great" composer, especially a
woman, has a chance to emerge in a society which believes that all "great" music
has been written by those long dead.
The second trend is, of course, dependent on the first because of the cultural
deprivation of women in the past. Critics do a great deal of damage by wishing to
discover "greatness." It does not matter that not all composers are great com­
posers; it matters that this activity be encouraged among all the population, that
we communicate with each other in nondestructive ways. Women composers are
very often dismissed as minor or light-weight talents on the basis of one work by
critics who have never examined their scores or waited for later developments.
Men do not have to commit sexual suicide in order to encourage their sisters
in music. Since they have been on top for so long, they could seek out women
and encourage them in all profeSSional fields. Libraries of women's music should
be established. Women need to know what they can achieve. Critics can quit be­
ing cute and start studying scores.
Near the beginning of this century, Nikola Tesla, electrical engineer and in­
ventor of electrical power from alternating current, predicted that women will
some day unleash their enormous creative potential and for a time will excel men
in all fields because they have been so long dormant. Certainly the greatest prob­
lems of society will never be solved until an egalitarian atmosphere utilizing the
total creative energies exists among all men and women.
Reprinted from the New York Times (September 13, 1970) and Software for People: Collected Writ­
ings, 1963-80 by Pauline Oliveros (Smith Publications-Printed Editions, 1984), by permission of
the author. Copyright © 1970, 1984 by Panline Oliveros,
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