Flashback to the second day of the recent Gender Diversity in Music Making Conference in Melbourne, Australia (6-8 July 2018). In a few hours, I will perform the first movement of the Sonata in E minor for piano by Florence Price (1887–1953). In the lead-up, I wonder whether Price’s music has ever been performed in Australia before, and feel honored to bring her voice to new audiences. I am immersed in the loop of my pre-performance mantra:
My music and message is powerful, my music and message is powerful.
Repeating this phrase helps me to center my purpose on amplifying the voice of a practitioner who, despite being the first African-American woman composer to achieve national and international success, faced discrimination throughout her life, and even posthumously in the recognition of her legacy.
In Price’s time, there were those in positions of privilege and power who listened to her music and gave her a platform. One such instance was Frederick Stock of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and his 1933 premier of her Symphony in E minor. But there were times when her musical scores were met with silence. For example, when she wrote to Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony Orchestra requesting that he hear her music, the letter remained unanswered. There was a notable intermittency in how Price was heard, which continues today. It seems most natural for mainstream platforms to amplify her voice in months dedicated to women and Black history; any other time of the year appears to require more justification. And so, as I am repeating this mantra—my music and message is powerful—I am attempting to de-centre my anxieties, and center my service to amplifying Price’s voice through an assured performance.
I applied to the conference a few months ago. I was keen to bring my research to new audiences. Upon seeing that the conference was in Australia, I knew this would be a fantastic opportunity to gain transnational insight into the ongoing work around representation and inclusion in music. Fast-forward to July: here I am, in Australia for the first time. The venue is unfamiliar and I have not met anyone here before this visit. However, this is what I do know: I have fifteen minutes for my performance; hence, I have only prepared the first movement of the sonata. Looking in the program, I noticed there will be a paper taking place at the same time as my performance, given by an academic who identified himself in his printed abstract as “a white, old, straight man with power and privilege.”
The title of his paper? “I Have Nothing to Say.” While gender diversity was the overarching theme of the conference, the goal towards inclusion negated the fact that not all platforms are created equal. The speaker’s proposed topic advertised the ease with which the dominant voice may access a space for its mere presence, regardless of what will be said. Conference logistics then set this voice and its contribution against the radically diverse sounds of our time slot. In addition to my lecture and performance, there are several other events taking place simultaneously. The subjects include: mentoring women composers, creative realizations of parenthood in composition, gender balance in Australian jazz, interpretative approaches to the music of Kaija Saariaho, music as a vehicle for navigating the challenges around non-binary and transgender identity, and a cis-gendered white man’s exploration of ceding power and listening.
I remember a casual conversation the night before in which the joke arose of the speaker being “the token white man.” Of course it was a joke; the very notion is absolutely ridiculous. I remember reflecting on tokenization earlier that day and tweeting to that effect:
I knew the joke was light-hearted, but there is nothing light-hearted about being a token, nothing light-hearted about knowing your excellence, yet wondering if it will even factor into the decisions around your involvement. Anyway, I did not want to prioritize thoughts about the token white man over my purpose at the conference because that would take up time, space and energy, and in my pre-performance rituals, that time, space and energy belongs exclusively to the women that I seek to honour.
When it is time to perform, I bow, then sit, then sink into the first sound, which is this rich e minor chord that engages almost all of my fingers. I relish the rich tones in the grandeur of the introduction. But as the first theme comes in, conjuring up the soundworld of plantation songs, I calm the mood down to ensure that the lyricism of the top melody really sings.
My music and message is powerful.
The performance is followed by a presentation where I talk more about the sonata, who Price was, and what she achieved. I make sure to highlight her Arkansan roots and her Chicago successes, particularly around the Symphony in E minor. I speak about the influence of the spirituals within the classical frameworks of her compositions. I also speak about the privilege and the incredibly moving significance of being able to present and perform her music for an audience, largely of African descent, at the Chicago Symphony Center.
I play excerpts from the rest of the sonata off my recent album Four Women on Spotify and struggle to find the best time to pause the track because there is so much that I want the audience to hear: from the development of spiritual themes in the second movement, to the virtuosic whirlwind that is the final movement.
A dynamic discussion ensues, weaving in the narratives of Nina Simone, African-American folk tradition and my passion for this repertoire. I elaborate upon the ways in which exploring classical music by women has been an empowering personal journey. I articulate how the perception of men achieving “firsts” renders them gods while women achieving “firsts” are miracles that were never supposed to happen, that may never happen again. I express my role as a musicologist-pianist as demonstrating a long and rich history of women music-makers and, therefore, evidencing precedents—her-stories—for the creative contributions of women now. My time comes to an end and I am left feeling proud to have represented Price’s music and legacy here, today.
After my performance, I tweeted the following thought-through (but clearly not proof-read) thread expressing my disappointment:
My goal with this post was to juxtapose this paper with Price’s music and career, spotlighting the implications of uneven power and access therein.
3. His talk was called “I have nothing to say.”
Some people therefore chose to listen to a man who has “nothing to say” over the music of an African American woman composer who has historically been silenced and is barely heard in this current day.
Let that sink in.
— Samantha Ege (@samantha_ege) July 7, 2018
Wrapped up in my post was the criticism of the fact that, being a university professor, the speaker of “I Have Nothing to Say,” has access to this kind of platform year-round, while marginalised voices only get amplified in the specific and limited spaces that society has carved out for them.
My critique is not about the individual, but about the systemic and institutionalized undermining of underrepresented voices, even at a conference designed to amplify them. The fact that such a work was placed on such a program evidences the extent to which we are so conditioned to ensuring the most powerful and privileged voice speaks in every single space, even when they acknowledge they have nothing to say.
Since posting that evening to both Twitter and Facebook, I have received a backlash on the latter, one that is, at present, unaffiliated with the organisers of the event. It has, however, attempted to derail the conversation. Apparently I was only upset because my program faced competition from other papers. Maybe I should have looked into the scheduling to make different arrangements. Or I should have found out what the speaker’s talk was about because there is a chance that I would have enjoyed it. Repeatedly, the onus was placed on me to reach out to the “token white man” and better understand his position. I also learned something new: passing judgement on a presentation because of its title is no better than passing judgement on a composer because of their gender. However, I was under the impression that the paper title was a choice and that Price’s identity as a black woman was not.
Anyway, I did not judge by the title. I judged by the abstract:
When one of the organisers of this conference suggested in a Facebook exchange on someone else’s post that I should submit an abstract for a paper, I was surprised. And a little frightened. What could I possibly contribute to such an event? I am the problem. I am a white, old, straight man with power and privilege. Surely my voice could only be heard by others as a violence in this context. Surely, my job is to get out of the way, to shut up, to not be heard. Surely, the only thing I could ethically and honourably bring to this is my listening. But then I felt that this is what needs to be said. I am and old straight white man who says that the job of people like me is to actively get out of the way, actively cede power and authority, actively be told, actively shut the fuck up. So I decided to use the occasion to practice a way of speaking that does those things, gets out of the way, cedes power and authority, gets told, shuts the fuck up. To practice speaking which listens. A listening-speaking. So that’s what I am trying to do in this paper. To enact a listening-speaking that gets out of the way, cedes power and authority, gets told, shuts the fuck up.
The speaker’s participation was invited and his proposal both encouraged and evidently accepted by the organizers. The abstract presents a sense of knowing better. “Surely my voice could only be heard by others as a violence in this context.” Yes. “Surely, my job is to get out of the way, to shut up, to not be heard.” Yes. “Surely, the only thing I could ethically and honourably bring to this is my listening.” Yes! “But…”
Ultimately, what needed to be said, actually needed to be done. The enacting of a listening-listening with neither platform nor audience would have been a powerful statement, quietly powerful, but powerful nonetheless. To reiterate, not all platforms are made equal—could I, realistically, have told him to shut the fuck up? How would that have sounded? How would I have sounded?
The derailing responses I have received pointedly ignore how the very presence of this paper disrupted the multiple and intersectional conversations happening in that moment. It distracted from the rarity of these subjects and their platform, and quite materially, culled an audience who could and should have been doing the very listening the abstract advertises. Scheduling this paper restored the speaker’s position to the center, and re-centered his power and authority to speak about everything and “nothing.” His privilege remained intact. In the midst of the most diverse and pertinent themes was the voice that has, both historically and to this day, spoken over the top of so many others.
I chose not to reach out directly to the institution nor its organisers because of the emotional labor this would entail. To put the issue forward in a quiet behind-the-scenes way that is sensitive to those who created the issue, is to chip away at my voice and its power. On the otherhand, to project the issue with a loud “shut the fuck up” is to perform a type of power and privilege on a platform that I do not have. I enact a public conversation here via Sounding Out! so that this experience may inform wider work towards diversity and representation. I enact this conversation in order to progress definitions of inclusion to a point where the choice to engage the dominant voice factors in a listening-listening as an exceedingly valuable contribution to the narratives offered by lesser heard voices.
I have since received a written acknowledgement from the organizers of this problematic programming, with a formal apology for the impact. But I must bring to light the important action of two allies, in particular, who recognised the emotional work required of me to bring this forward institutionally. They offered to continue the conversation on my behalf. We talked about the way in which the ensuing discussion must center listening. We shared that the process towards inclusivity may result in mistakes being made along the way. We discussed that while compassion and sensitivity can be important parts of the dialogue, I cannot afford to extend that compassion and sensitivity without becoming emotionally drained. And so, they wrote to the institution with the message of actively learning and making efforts towards change. I am so grateful for that allyship because while I knew that my voice would be heard, I could not guarantee how it would be heard. After all, if there is one take away to be had from this experience, it is that regardless of intention—and regardless of occasion—the dominant voice is very much conditioned to speak up, and speak over. And the dominant ear cannot help but listen.
So, how do I move forward?
My music and my message is powerful.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Author
Samantha Ege is a British musicologist, pianist and teacher based in Singapore. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Music at the University of York, UK. Her research focuses on the aesthetics of Florence Price. As a pianist, her focus on women composers has led to performances in Singapore (supported by the British High Commission and International Women’s Day), and lecture-recitals at the University of York, the Chicago Symphony Center and the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, USA. Her album Four Women: Music for Solo Piano by Price, Kaprálová, Bilsland & Bonds reflects her journey into a rich and unrepresented repertoire.
She would like to thank Deborah Torres Patel for the gift of this mantra.
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On Whiteness and Sound Studies–Gustavus Stadler
On April 2, 2018, the MIT CoLab published the incredible Listening to the City Handbook: Community Research and Action through Sound and Story, a 181-page toolkit dedicated to furthering civic engagement as expressed in sound studies research, art, and pedagogy. Free and downloadable via the CoLab website, Listening to the City works toward “cultivating empathy and developing a multi-layered understanding of place. . .[while urging] academics and practitioners alike to explore emergent methods for making meaningful change within communities,” as the book’s overview states (10). Assembled by Allegra Williams (Project Curator and Principal Author) and Maggie Coblentz (Researcher and Graphic Designer), the book offers engaging, accessibly written lesson plans, practical strategies, best practices, worksheets, and real-life community models from organizations such as LA Listens, the Binghamton Historical Soundwalk Project, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, the Urbano Project, the Frontier of Change Soundwalk, and OJBKFM Third Coast Pop-Up Community Radio.
Listening to the City the book began as the experimental conference Listening to the City: Engagement, Exploration + Intervention through Sound held in Cambridge, Massachusetts (and the Greater Boston Area) on May 25-26 2017. A National Endowment for the Arts-funded collaboration between the MIT Community Innovators Lab, (CoLab), LA Listens, and the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI), the free conference offered an innovative, interactive weekend that brought artists, activists, and academics together to discuss sonic orientations to social change.
For a review of the conference, click here.
When conference attendees began excitedly sharing assignments, drafts of grants, syllabi, and other resources via Google Drive, the organizers realized the necessity to commemorate the conference and widen the conversation. If folks at the center of the conversation were this starved for like-minds and start-up materials, then the greater need for a handbook was definitely out there. In the months following the conference, Williams and Coblentz conducted interviews with attendees, followed up on sources, led testing and feedback sessions, and organized the ensuing material into sections based on eight emerging methods: meditative listening, audio mapping, soundwalking, personal storytelling, pop up listening, drama, story mapping, and photovoice.
In the introduction, Williams and Coblentz identify four key guiding principles for Listening to the City, as both a volume and a culmination of a collaborative research process. They selected projects, methods, and practices for the book based on 1) accessibility–having a low barrier of entry for participants, 2) transferability–how readily the material could be used across disciplines and in varying communities, 3) high levels of participation and collaboration, and 4) possibility for transformation–strong interest in enacting community change. By compiling and sharing these methods more widely,” Willams and Coblentz write, “the creators of this handbook hope others will come to see the unique power they hold to uplift and amplify critical community voices and their struggles through community research and action” (16-17).
Collaborators and contributors to the volume include Allegra Williams, Maggie Coblentz, Kenneth Bailey, Jessica Blickley, Douglas Burnham, Emily Cohen, Erik DeLuca, Katie Diamond, Rachel Falcone, Michelle Fine, Jocelyn Frank, Terra Graziani, Matt Green, Elisa Hamilton, Krista Harper, Dey Hernandez, Josie Holtzman, Aurie Hsu, W.F. Umi Hsu, Salvador Jiménez-Flores, Nathan John, Steve Kemper, Beau Kenyon, Isaac Kestenbaum, Jonas Kirkegaard, Lori Lobenstine, Stella Aguirre McGregor, Liz Ogbu, Anthony Peña, James Rojas, Katy Rubin, Catherine Sands, Katherine Shozawa, Jennifer Stoever, Brett Stoudt, María Elena Torre, and Marc Weinblatt.
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SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory–Stuart Fowkes
SO! Amplifies: #hearmyhome and the Soundscapes of the Everyday–Cassie J. Brownell and Jon M. Wargo
Feminista Music Scholarship understands music production and listening as a collective site of engagement that sometimes produces and sometimes challenges social structures of race, class, gender, sexuality and nation. It is a method and practice that pushes on narrative frameworks that naturalize the absence of women of color and Chicanx subjects in music scholarship. It is always about imagining and practicing life, as the old-saying/ dicho goes says, to the beat of a different drum, to an alternative, more just reality and experience of time, built on the knowledge of buen vivir or sumak kawsay (a kichwe concept and practice that understands the good life cannot be attained without living right with others in convivencia, in mutual respect of marginalized communities, knowledges, cyclical non-linear time, and of La Pachama/mother earth, one that aligns with knowledge practices of many indigenous communities across Las Americas).
This Chicana Soundscapes/Feminista Music Scholarship Forum is inspired by the “Sounds Like Home: Mapping Chicana Mexicana/Indigena Epistemologies in Sonic Spaces” presented at the annual American Studies Association (ASA) Annual Conference, Denver 2017. Thanks to the roundtable organizers Yessica Garcia Hernandez and Iris Viveros Avendaño for inviting me to chair the panel and to ASA Sound Caucus committee for sponsoring the panel and putting a spotlight on this much-needed research. Many have worked tirelessly for over 25 years to make space at the ASA for such a panel–one that is focused on feminista music scholarship, robustly composed of emerging feminista scholars from different localities. It is truly a collective endeavor. That is took this long says much about the way such knowledge has been valued. That is finally happened says much about what’s coming next!
— Sounding Out! (@soundingoutblog) November 19, 2016
The forum’s inspiring research by scholars/practioners Wanda Alarcón, Yessica Garcia Hernandez, Marlen Rios-Hernandez, Susana Sepulveda, and Iris C. Viveros Avendaño, understands music in its local, translocal and transnational context, and insists upon open new scholarly imaginaries. Not only does each scholar’s research point to the exciting present and future of music studies, it points to the work of feminista scholars and music practicioners who’ve pushed the frames of music studies, from inside and outside of ethnomusicology and musicology, scholars such as: Deborah Wong, Deborah Vargas, Sherrie Tucker, our own mentor Angela Davis, Maureen Mahon, Daphne Brooks, Andreana Clay, Martha Gonzalez, and others. Feminista scholars like Inés Casillas, Jennifer Stoever, Roshanak Kheshti, Monica De La Torre, and others, have made way for for feminista music studies in Sound Studies. And yet, it wasn’t so long ago that Susan McClary shocked the music studies world by insisting that gender mattered in music analysis. We still face constant pushback on that assertion, in particular subfields, especially now. Current times require us to bridge intersectional, decolonial, and gender analysis. Music, and our relationship to it, has much to reveal about how power operates within a context of inequality. And it will teach us how to get through this moment.
For the last 13 years my research for Chicanxfuturism manuscript has engaged the following question: What practices compose Feminista Music Scholarship? As a practitioner in dialogue with scholars and practitioners, I identify Feminista Music Scholarship as:
- a fluid practice of collective listening and producing music attentive to power relations
- an examination of power-flows through music via epistemologies birthed from feminist of color and indigenista theorizing and practice
- approaching all genres
- troubling the notion of home
- responding to community displacement & social alienation
- networked (through digital archive, social media, etc…; collaborative and collective; and social justice oriented
- recognizing the reciprocal exchange of knowledge and labor between community and scholarly collaborations
- a collective endeavor
Feminista Music Scholarship is what the participants of this forum are doing (among their many important interventions)!
Indeed, Feminist Music Scholarship disrupts what Daphne Brooks describes in “The Write to Rock: Racial Mythologies, Feminist Theory, and the Pleasures of Rock Music Criticism” as “the imagined subaltern sphere of independent rock culture (dubbed “indie-rock”) [that] depends on a narrow discourse of shared knowledge that largely marginalizes (if not altogether erases) the presence of women and particularly women of color in alternative music culture” (61). The conceptualization and development of recent pop music exhibits, scholarship by emerging scholars, and community music dialogues, decidedly influenced by Feminista Music Scholarship is one of many possible answers to Brooks’s serious question, “How do we break outside of these tightly policed spheres?” The scholars/music practitioners in this issue respond to the burning question, “how does Chicana feminist music criticism break out of these spheres and serve as a home for new methods for writing about punk, banda, and new wave, son jarocho and participatory community music production?”
During the ASA roundtable, Alarcón, Garcia Hernandez, Rios-Hernandez, Sepulveda, and Viveros Avendaño presented six-minute flash presentations and then opened the floor to a discussion that is wide-ranging yet grounded in the material practices of sound, music, feminism, and home. They continue that important discussion there. More than ever we need panels, forums, dissertations, articles and other forms scholarship that spotlight the ways vulnerable populations have found ways to disrupt systemic oppression through their raucous listening, producing and community practices. This permits us to remember that this fight is not over, that we are deep in it and we have much strategy to share.
Rock on forum readers, rock on!
Michelle Habell-Pallán, associate professor of performance culture of the Americas in the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, and adjunct associate professor in the School of Music and Department of Communication, at the University of Washington (UW), is currently the Director of the Certificate for Public Scholarship. For her fifteen years plus of community engagement and the arts, she recently received the Barclay Simpson Prize for Scholarship in Public, which recognizes her efforts to foster the humanities as a public good. Her research examines music, performance, and theater as communal forms of expression that archive alternative histories used to imagine new futures. In tandem, her research also reflects on the way developing media platforms compel new methods of cultural expression, research, archiving and delivery. Her most current research considers dialogues between feminista movements and hip hop feminista musics in Ecuador and its relationship to indigenous social movements rooted in Andean concepts of Sumak Kawsai (Right-living). She is the Co-Director of the UW Honors Quito, Ecuador Study Abroad Program.
Habell-Pallán authored Loca Motion: The Travels of Chicana/Latina Popular Culture (NYU Press). Her most recent book is the bilingual American Sabor: Latinos and Latinas in US Popular Music: Latinos y Latinas en La Música Popular Estadounidense co-authored with Marisol Berrios-Miranda and Shannon Dudley, published by University of Washington Press (Autumn January 2017). Her single-authored book Chicanxfuturism: Punk’s Beat Migration and the Sounds of Buen Vivir is in-progress.
Habell-Pallán guest-curated the award-winning bilingual traveling exhibit American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music hosted by Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). As a digital feminista she transforms digital humanities, through community engagement, as co-director of University of Washington Libraries Women Who Rock (WWR): Making Scenes, Building Communities Oral History Archive.
A former UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, Habell-Pallán is recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Research Award, Woodrow Wilson Foundation Research Award, UW Royal Research Fund Award, and UW Simpson Center Digital Commons Faculty Fellowship (underwritten by the Mellon Foundation).
Habell-Pallán makes community & music with the Seattle Fandango Project, and is a member of the Fembot Collective|Gender, New Media & Technology. She collaborates with a range of local community partners to direct the Women Who Rock: Making Scenes, Building Communities Collective, whose free and family-friendly Seattle unConference/Encuentro takes place annually.
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