Ironic dismissal of passionate commitment to ideals, or indeed to anything, is as unsophisticated as anything on earth—simply a sneering “Huh-uh, no you can’t” with more syllables. Beyond being lazy, it is cowardly: the tacit acknowledgment that someone’s commitment, passion, and action have called you out, and cast your ironically superior pose into the light for what it is.
—Jonathan Bellman, “On Disparagement,” posted on Dial M For Musicology, September 19, 2014.
[dedicated to Alice, with gratitude]
Peter Sellars On Art, Ethics, and Opera*
Department of Music at Princeton
March 30, 2013
[I remember one year ago today: temperature in the 60s, or 70s even, blossoms effortlessly and joyously emerging. Today, I see a crocus here and there, a mangled snowdrop, and the spring seems elusive still, hard won. But the birds persevere, beckoning into the next season.]
Peter Sellars—I first heard tell of his legendary Adams House swimming-pool extravaganza thirty years ago when I was a freshman and years later had something of a fit when I saw his Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez during my first years of graduate school—darts in and begins by honoring his hosts, referring to musicology as a “place to create a zone of integrity,” saying that “the story behind the story is going to save the world.” He describes the value of many minds, rather than a single authoritative one, and speaks in favor of reciprocity and inclusion. He acknowledges the physical body that creates the music and describes Bach’s as a “music of questioning,” noting that the texts of Bach’s works are discussed less fully than are their ostensibly abstract principles. I think of the lecture hours my undergraduates and I have been spending just upstairs considering the norms and questions that inhere, but do not quite cohere, in Bach’s chorales, stripped of their texts and contexts.
[Three hundred sixty-four days and nineteen hours ago, in a theater across campus, I picked up my bass clarinet to sound the first notes of my opera, Weakness.]
Sellars speaks of ritualization, cooperation, reciprocity, inclusion, and the involvement of the “congregation” (audience).
[Weakness concerns trauma and healing, and the entire process of putting the work together was blessed by mutuality and cooperation even as it was bedeviled simultaneously by thoughtlessness and disregard. The final two weeks of preparation go beyond the expected pre-premiere strain, past the irritating but inevitable underfunctioning and jockeying, to insupportable dysfunction and outlandish aggression. And, as I warned at the time would happen, the damage is still resounding a year later. I have spent much of the last twelve months lathering, rinsing and repeating, but despite all my elbow grease and scrubbing, my opera remains grimy.]
Mr. Sellars—I think it’s time I call him Peter—speaks of the St. Matthew Passion: “Two weeks ago you thought you were going to change the world, and now you are standing around a tomb. What happened in these last two weeks?”
[Indeed. One year later, I am no longer surprised that a staging of the unspeakable conjured up more of same offstage, but I do still mourn it, and I think how after all this time, I am still recovering from the trauma attendant upon the trauma. I marvel at my profession’s expectation of constant activity (often confused with productivity, which is not at all the same thing) and the disinterest in addressing what has been damaging in favor of getting the next gig and making another mess. My naïve youthful belief in the academy as a sanctuary for contemplation, in the arts world as a setting for what Keats called “a vale of soul-making”—
—But here I veer dangerously toward taking others’ inventory, which is never a good idea, so I’ll just leave it at this: In a conversation with a cherished colleague, months after the beauty and horror that was Weakness, I found myself saying, “You say you have not had a moment to reflect in the past few months, and that is all I have been doing; you have reached outward, while I have been looking inward.”]
Peter speaks of the Passion inspiring one to look inward rather than outward. He speaks of Dorothy Day—I mentioned her to Charles just yesterday, and though I know little of her, she has always intrigued me with her compassionate Catholicism, so different from the one I was indoctrinated into and to which I am now violently allergic—and her growing dissatisfaction, many years ago, with the “emptiness” of the worlds of arts and politics.
There is talk of mutual dependency and of Haydn and Mozart constructing a model of democracy in the configuration of the string quartet, where every voice is essential. “What would equality look like? What would it sound like?”
Later I thank Alice, who invited Peter, for making space for these words and thoughts. She and I acknowledge, again, the dangers of discussing openly the ubiquitous and pressing topic of trauma. I say, realizing it for the very first time as the words exit my mouth, that I have encountered more resistance, even retribution, in response to performing trauma onstage than I have when I have addressed the topic in scholarly prose.
Peter has spoken about his staging of Handel’s Hercules in Chicago—coincidentally, a work I first heard and fell in love with a month or so ago—and how the performance was attended by veterans and complemented by discussions of PTSD; he stresses (no pun intended) that the opera was meant to inform the understanding of PTSD rather than the other way around. One veteran heard a countertenor for the first time—David Daniels, to be precise—and described the sound as “blood coming out of his mouth.”
[Years ago, Tom taught me a Druidic expression: “Wisdom makes a bloody entrance.” Perhaps its exit is also messy. I excised the line from my libretto, for it perplexed my collaborators, who, while sensitive and knowing, fortunately came to Weakness from their own experience rather than mine. I appreciated their input, and I return again and again to that saying as I try to imagine my next work. I am currently editing and polishing the documentation of Weakness, so that I may share it with others in audio and video format. Nevertheless, I am leery of mounting it again, of risking that the trauma story may engender yet more trauma. I have had enough bleeding for now. Perhaps it is better to leave my four years (and more) of labor aside.]
Peter says, “Bach is an incredible composer of disappointment” and recognizes what it means to live “with your idealism in such a state of profound despair.” The first and only performance of his St. Matthew Passion was “ a mess,” and Bach, realizing his work was not meant for the milieu in which he found himself, “put it away for the rest of his life.” Somehow this bad news is good news to me, much more so than the familiar narratives of dominance, of success, of triumph over adversity.
Peter talks about one’s “moral standing as an artist,” and while that is a difficult notion to explore without seeming righteous or judgmental, without seeming to congratulate oneself, and without denying the real, tangible, practical matters of survival that can be so far removed from the luxury of the proscenium, he manages somehow to inspire rather than to preach. Likely this is in part because he himself moves between the palaces of culture and glitterless venues in a way that many of us only talk about. He expresses a desire for all of us to resist the “gossip and infighting in the classical music world,” saying that “we are actually here to do something much bigger.”
It’s one of those days when I marvel at the way strands and shards weave together unexpectedly, offering solace and inspiration when they are most desired, in ways that could not possibly be anticipated. Peter talks of magic and transcendence, but all I am seeking is awareness, good faith, and perhaps a bit of company in cultivating a more equitable and nurturing space for us all. Afterward I say to Alice that these are the most worthwhile almost-three hours I have spent in this building this year. I can’t help but feel sad that such conviction, such searching, is the startling exception rather than the norm, that this talk seems so out of the ordinary in our profession, but it’s a glimpse, at least, of something more expansive and generous, more aware and committed, and I am beyond grateful to hear some of my own values reflected and affirmed.
These simultaneous sensations of dark and light, of desolation and hope, remind me of a Hawai’ian expression Riley taught me: “liquid sunshine.”
March 31: the anniversary of the closing of Weakness. Also, Easter, a holiday I appreciate without really celebrating. The birds continue to beckon, and I think they might win out at last, for a while. I think of the volunteer chorus members who contributed so much to Weakness a year ago today, and especially of the family of three with whom I have become friendly. Yesterday they sent me dozens of candids they shot as we put Weakness together. I looked at the images as at the record of a dream, tearing up just a bit. Maybe I’ll give the chorister-alums a ring today and see what they and their new puppies are up to.
March 29: I attended Emi’s show, a musical about gender-neutral parenting. As we began working together, I explained that I do not really care for musical theater’s syntax or aesthetic, but that I was happy to mentor her, and to my surprise, I was pleased to dip my ear in to this world. Her songs are incisive, thoughtful, brave, and moving—youthful and idealistic to be sure, but also more mature and ethical than what I hear from many middle-aged artists. It’s this sort of blossoming that keeps me motivated as a teacher.
April 1: a good day to post at face value. Time to listen to the birds, head out, and see what sorts of blossoms are popping up.
*”Moving At the Speed of Thought” is another phrase of Mr. Sellars uttered in this same discussion, exemplifying the content in the form of his improvised paragraphs. “On Art, Ethics, and Opera” was the title of his talk.
I was cooking right along in Robert Fink’s “The Musicology of the Present,” or so I—at least I think it was I—thought. Arriving at the end of the epigraph, I got stuck on something he did not say:
. . . the musicologists are all off doing gender studies . . .
Off where? The gender studies section is off somewhere? Where? And they’re all there? Can you point me in the right direction?
(This was a while ago, and third-hand, so I realize it may be difficult.)
And then, there was something he did say but really didn’t:
. . . we became caught up in gender . . .
Gender is something that one can “[become] caught up in”? Does that not mean it is something one can refrain from getting caught up in? Or become not caught up in? I suppose one can avoid going off, then. Where they all are.
Speaking of where, I suspect that this subject, “we,” is decentered. But I’m not sure, since I got my Lacan from “Žižek”—understandably, because Lacan tells me I do not exist. I think it has something to do with “the subject [referring] to some decentered other to whom he or she imputes this belief.” This sometimes gets confusing, because the externalized statement is mistakenly read as an earnest statement of the speaker rather than an implicit attribution to an absent but existent “we.”
Are you with me?
I predict there will be replies attributing this statement to Robert Fink. Yup, there’s one.
But he did not advocate this statement; rather he inferred it,—or, better identified it—as something that seems to be here and there. It can be worthwhile to reach out and grab these notions that float unacknowledged in the aether.
On the other hand, this he did say they said:
Richard Taruskin, like the equally prolix J.K. Rowling, has been adamant that the long narrative arc of his series is over, and there will be no sequels.
Well if the history of Taruskin is ended, we can at least probe a couple of years earlier into the history of musicology in order to consider the eminent scholar’s critique of John Adams’s “crybaby role.” That is a statement this subject did pronounce. More than once.
(Has J.K. Rowling weighed in on this yet?)
Kyle Gann reports a discussion about “narrative history”:
. . . there won’t be any contemporary accounts of history for future gender studies scholars to work from.
From accounts, to where? I am still finding it hard to locate things. I gather we (whoever that is) record the data here (wherever that is) and now (this concept I think I understand), and later on (got it), the gender studies crew (the ones who are all off somewhere) comes in (here? or do they stay over there?) to do the gender part. (Will there be gender studies scholars in the future? And off where will they be? [For that matter, will there be scholars in the future?])
There is a good example of this division of labor—accounting and gendering—close at hand. Of Gann’s excellent book, “No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4′33”,” Branden W. Joseph writes,
Refreshingly, Gann casually and straightforwardly acknowledges Cage’s homosexuality, although he relegates any reading of 4’33” as an act of thwarted expression in a period of widespread homophobia—as argued by Caroline Jones, Jonathan Katz, and, most recently, Philip Gentry, among others—to a footnote.(4)
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Gender is not where Gann’s silence is, but it is where some other subjects are speaking, and Joseph can point the way.
Cage, the man, is unlikely to have been glimpsed in person by anyone now under thirty, and few now living were present at the premiere of 4’33”, so he hardly counts as a present-day figure, except in his reverberations, which are loud. This makes for an interesting compositional and musicological circumstance. (Yale University Press anoints 4’33” an “icon”—alongside Wall Street, Joe DiMaggio, and the hamburger. I think the word “icon” may have had a different constitution when they instituted their series.)
It is getting harder and harder to tell where “here” is and who “we” is,—I mean, are—and how, if “all” are “off” it could be considered “off” at all. While I await further clarification on the topography, though I suspect it will change again before it is explained, here (!) are a few tidbits from my (I think) reading list:
Robert Fink on minimalism and opera; Kyle Gann on John Cage; Yayoi Uno Everett on Louis Andriessen; Naomi Cumming, and Sumanth Gopinath, on Steve Reich; Lydia Goehr on American opera (and John Cage); Michael Wyatt on Messaien; Majel Connery on Peter Maxwell Davies (and Thomas Adès); Lisa Coons on Laurie Anderson (and Diamanda Galás, and Antony and the Johnsons). There is also Alice Miller Cotter’s current research on John Adams; Stefan Weisman’s dissertation on Yoko Ono; and more. Oh, I have a few little things too, but I would not want to appear self-aggrandizing by recommending them. Plus, there is the Internet. And regarding 4’33”, don’t miss Branden W. Joseph’s “White on White” in Critical Inquiry, though it is not, strictly speaking, musicology (which one could say some of the others also are not). I am not sure where to put it. But I am glad to have it.
Where is “the near blackout of attention to contemporary composing?” Is it here, or is it off somewhere? How do I find it? And when you throw a spitball, is it from here to there, or there to here? I really want to know, because I’d rather not find one stuck on the back of my head.
Has anyone written about Laura Kaminsky’s opera “As One,” yet? (Or Susan Narucki’s multiply authored Cuatro Corridos? Or my Weakness, for that matter?)
Where is the data? Where is the gender? I do understand it comes second; that’s good to know. Does the second shift pay time and a half? And what comes after?
—Barbara A. White
It’s nice to see you here in the æther, Brad, and to read your “We Are What We Think.” It’s been a while, and we do not really know one another, yet I’ve always thought you a fellow good egg, so I shall presume to speak freely, as one egg to another. When I read your comment, I begin to dream about what it might be like to think of gender issues as simple and as something that could be gone beyond. The thing is, I don’t have that luxury. Indeed, #SomeOfUs, at some times, might experience the inverse: as if every mince of meat in the pie is wrapped within a tight crust of gender socialization. All the veggies and spices are held in check; it’s hot and uncomfortable in there. I observe how frequently constructions like, “it’s not just gender” come up. (Again, socialization: I myself included a formulation not entirely unlike this in my earlier text.) If I had a dollar for every time I read, “it’s not just gender,” I’d have . . . $0.73 on the dollar.
(I’ve had this détournement on hand for some time.)
I think we also think what we are. Moreover, depending who holds what sort of power and how much, we are effectively what others think we are, whether or not we think so. One could run around like a chicken with her head cut off if she continued to be and think this way.
This is my vantage point: rather than nibbling on the gender aspect as the chicken in the soup, I drink it in as the stock. It’s always there, hydrating (or drowning) the rest of the ingredients, and it has caloric, if not always measurable, effects. I often refer to the “second shift”—a term that has been used to describe women’s domestic “homework,” completed after returning home from the workday. But the shifts are more than two: as “the gender” (a term a colleague applied to me once), I have a second shift in managing the chromosomal matters that come up from day to day. On the occasions when issues of equity threaten to affect my performance and/or well-being, my third shift—seeking remedy—commences. The price for all this is high. Often the dishes go unwashed. For days at a time.
I am intrigued by what you write in your 2007 essay, and I am sorry it was not embraced for more traditional publication. I especially appreciate the inward-lookingness, which is all too rare in the contexts and culture(s) you describe. Many of your stated concerns intersect with my own. Along these lines, I have been conceiving of a project to do with the intersection of ethics and the arts—perhaps less frighteningly described as values and the arts. My dream is to foster more attention to the implicit habits of mind that stock our soup and thus to the more explicit, if still unquantifiable, fruits and poisons of those habits. Perhaps there is more discussion to be had on this topic. Ironically, although gender is one of the main factors—if not the only one—that led me to reflect on values and ethics as related to artistic activity, the requirements presented by my many shifts preclude my moving forward on this endeavor at the moment. It’s too bad, because I think such a project would contribute much to the field and its culture, and I would like to make such a contribution. Maybe someday.
I remember that Paul told me about your blog when I was diagnosed with cancer, and I think we were experiencing life-threatening illness at the same time. Perhaps there is something to the notion that such an experience can clarify and distill one’s values and goals. Although that sounds cliché, for me one aspect of such reorienting may be that clichés cease to feel so clichéd; that values feel more urgent, more communal, less rarified. Of course, I do not know whether this was your experience, so I would be curious to know. For my part, I fired up the still and started on the moonshine some time before my diagnosis, so I was already under the influence of thoughts about impermanence before I met my tumors. As I get older and continue breathing, I debate whether I want to spend my remaining years stirring against the current, or whether it would be more useful to twirl over to the blender to make gazpacho instead.
You mention “the sense of protection and entitlement that leads to an unhealthy insularity.” #NotAll would choose to reflect, and openly, on this sort of privilege and its effects. I suspect we might have some similar thoughts about the current political, cultural, and academic climate. My eyes have been opened of late as I have learned more about the experiences of adjunct faculty across the country, as well as of tenure-track and tenured faculty who teach at institutions that permit less hermetic luxury. And there are the recent threats to academic freedom, which seem to be arising at regular intervals.
As a fellow presumed good egg, perhaps you will be interested to hear that such a sense of safety and ease is is largely foreign to my experience. My sense is of disenfranchisement and exposure to the elements—so much so that my saying even this much may well open me to professional risk. Even though I am a full professor with a distinguished record, I do not believe my tenure to be secure. I know that I do not have access to academic freedom. My environment is not insular; on the contrary, I travel largely on my own, outside the clubhouse. This is a shame and a shock, for such stability is one of the great perks of knocking oneself out as a junior professor (the others, of course, being able to work at home in pajamas, and having good health care if and when the overwork catches up—if that is, one thinks materialistically about such matters). And I fear not only for my job security, livelihood, and wardrobe, but for my overall well-being and my very survival. Stirring against the current takes a toll. Again, it is an unquantifiable one, but it can be deadly in various ways, both literally and metaphorically. I’m only joking about the pajamas, of course: it’s the vocation itself that draws me. And so I am sorry to find that, even after paying my proverbial dues—plus the gender tax levied on top—I am hindered from “contributing to the field,” as we say when we advocate for our mentees in all those letters of recommendation, thwarted in my efforts to share the wisdom I have gained along the way.
In the stream of your self-reflection, you write, “I could also hide behind the tired excuse: ‘I’ve already written/said/discussed this before, so why drag it out and bore everyone again?’ Been there. Done that.” That is another difference. I sweat in the heat but am denied the license to get out of the kitchen. I do not have the luxury of choosing not to be bored, or electing not to bore you. As with life-threatening illness, one cannot take a break from gender disparity and disrespect. Moreover, crafting a productive response to counterproductive circumstances is much harder than writing a dissertation or compiling a portfolio for promotion. (Hmm—perhaps we could give tax credit to junior professors for gender duty?) I’m damned if I cluck and damned if I don’t. Instead, in order to survive, I must continue to cough up eggs even as my limbs are being chopped off. How long before there are none left to sacrifice? It’s like The Giving Tree, which I cannot but call “The Tree of Codependence.” Or like the Monty Python’s disembodied knight. (He perseveres, armless, to scoff at his opponent: “Chicken!”)
I’m not exaggerating when I say that it is worse than cancer. Much worse. I strode to my mastectomy, but I trudge to the concert hall.
In regard to the nature of the concert hall and thinking outside the box, I believe this matter too to be deserving of attention and inquiry. I agree, in 2014, about the restrictions you identified in 2007. But I have to play prep cook first and ask, whose box is it? And how do those who have yet to make our way in step outside of it? (By the way, hasn’t the fantasy of “thinking outside the box” become rather boxy itself since 2007? Funny how that happens. Times have changed. Do you agree? Should we at least ask the chicken’s name and make sure she’s got room to stretch?)
Do I remember correctly that when you came to the Princeton conference some years ago you performed solo, something kind of folky? I remember having a resistance to that, in a way that will not surprise you given what you write/wrote in your essay. And that’s a good experience to have. I would not have the same response today, I bet. What might it mean that “something folky” is what puts someone off in the concert hall in the ivy? (Or perhaps that was someone else. It’s been a while.)
Fast forward to 2014, last night’s gig: I was ticket-seller for the Thursday-night Ceilidh here in Cape Breton. There is a sign at the entrance to the Sessions Lounge that says, “Beer Belly Boulevard.” Local musicians, mostly amateur, and (“and,” not “but”) supremely skilled and devoted; their music is moving and inspiring. I got a $5 tip!—from a hulking, very drunk man who called me “sweetheart.” I tried to refuse the money, suggesting he reallocate his funds to the bartender who was working for minimum wage and tips, but he firmly pushed the bill into my hand. (Given his disinhibited state, I didn’t think it would be productive to undertake a discussion on his unwanted largesse.) A fleeting moment, but neither simple nor beyondable: a physically intimidating man refused to accept that I would not accept his money and assumed license to address me with a term of infringement. I toyed with the thought of disclosing to him my salary, whether the $0 per Ceilidh I get for taking tickets or the vast sum I receive for my multiple shifts at the university. (In an immaterial sense, I am no longer sure which is more lucrative.) Instead I took the colorful fiver and bought my duo partner a Bud. Then I joined in the weekly jam session and played some jigs and reels on my bass clarinet, swimming along with the circle of generous and welcoming local virtuosi. At ease.
And now, I must take my leave. There is a very nice man across the room who has just cooked me an omelette. (It’s actually French toast, but sometimes you gotta break an egg to make sour-grape lemonade, eh? If I can’t catch a break, I’ll take poetic license. With maple syrup.)
I am curious: how have your thoughts crystallized and/or shifted since your 2007 essay? Anything new? And to the larger—here I use such a word advisedly—issue: how is your health? Good, I hope, in all ways, small and big. (And let me know if you do not self-identify as a good egg; it’s not for me to say.)
—Posted by IAmNotMakingThisUp
Thank you for this article, Susanna; I appreciate your raising important and subtle points, including the fact that there are still firsts, that ‘blind and neutral’ are not the same, and so on. There are too many points to cover, but since you mention specifics and acknowledge not having the answers, here are few thoughts:
(1) We need to take into account that men and women are socialized in ways that are suboptimal or worse for women (and for men, depending on one’s values, ethics, and goals). The inclusion of women on boards and panels and such is necessary, but not sufficient. Presence does not equate with equality; there are many more factors to consider. (For what it is worth, I have been on plenty of panels that were attentive to gender. But the imbalance continues.)
(2) You ask about role models: I am one such role model, and one for whom Judith Weir has been and continues to be an exemplary role model herself (in her role as a composer, as you say—and I have written about her work in regard to gender and other matters too). But I am sad to say that the presence of mature, experienced women is not enough either. I have been attentive to mentoring female composers, and male ones too, including but not limited to advisees interested in gender-related matters. Most of my own mentors were male, and they were and continue to be exemplary citizens in terms of gender issues and everything else. I myself am puzzled sometimes to see that there are fewer women applicants for a certain opportunity, or fewer who are likely to be considered as likely contenders.
(3) I am curious (literally) about your mention that women “lose motivation to continue studying music and musical composition, and why are they then less likely to put themselves forward”: Is that an inference from the data? Can one be sure of what is happening behind the numbers there?
(4) The ways in which decisions are made and opportunities awarded (caveat: I am in the US) can be quite informal and subjective, and the distinction between professional expertise and personal bias, in a field such as composition, is not always easy to manage.
(5) Apart from the numbers, men continue to enjoy unwarranted privilege and license; for example, how many male composers are reading this article? For how many is this topic a concern? As above, it is, for #SomeMaleComposers. Yet it continues to be the case that men are accorded license far beyond that accorded to women, and that (again, in the US), personal hunch and identification may well affect decisions. The fact that there are likely to be comments on your article that put forth blanket assertions without having worked in this area or having done any investigation to support what they say is telling. (Cue the tubas . . . ) #SomeOfUs report our experience, read books about discrimination, have discussions like this, look at data, and strategize (and worry over whether clothing is too sexy or not sexy enough, whether self-presentation is too humble or too self-important, whether manner of interaction too accommodating or too “pushy”). In response, #SomeOthers say, “Well, no, it’s really like this,” presuming to define others’ experience without having done the legwork to support their assertions. In such instances, the opinions of those how know less too often are accorded disproportionate authority. If one is not required to deal with gender on a daily basis, why would one? (The fact that some do is all the more heartening.) And if not, why consider oneself an authority on the topic? Moreover, most articles on the underrepresentation of women focus on what needs to change on the XX side of the chromosomal balance: there should be more women, why are the numbers low, what can women do. (Hence my question above about the data.) But there is much less energy being directed toward men and the changes they need to make. The frequency with which a proposal is described as “letting” women in is revealing.
(6) I am sorry to say that, as a composer with three decades’ experience now, having enjoyed opportunity, support, artistic accomplishment, and recognition, I find the persistence of gender inequity in some pockets of the composition world egregious. Another matter that that is almost never discussed is the way that women may be confronted with more, not less, discrimination as we gain wisdom and expertise, as we become elders; that has been my experience, from some quarters, I am sorry to say. I hope that my mentees and other younger composers do not encounter such resistance to their mastery. For now, being experienced and established offers no guarantee that one will be respected in the way that each one of us deserves. There is still pressure on women to deny any imbalance; we receive much positive reinforcement if we say we have not encountered challenges, that we think of ourselves “as composers first” or that we believe ourselves to have been treated fairly (great, but how could we know?). Women who acknowledge forces that work against them meet with reprisals of various sorts. (Notice the #ManyQualifiers in my discussion here; they are accurate, yet my commentary is still likely to be read as dualistic.)
(7) As some have written about in mainstream discussions of otter gender issues, again and again we are the ones who are required to adapt to circumstance. While informal, ad hoc efforts may not be effective, it is also not realistic to think that systemic/bureaucratic changes are feasible. (The amount of training that would be needed . . . ) I do not see this changing unless individuals and groups really take responsibility—a familiar term—and, more fully, unless enough of us really desire gender equity and fruitful exchange—and all the yummy fruit when the harvest comes. In order to foster a better climate for women, we need to recognize that such an endeavor is in the best interest of all, to value a community in which one individual’s success is no longer seen as another’s loss, to pay as much attention to how we do what we do as how much of it we do. I myself have been considering leaving the profession, or changing my relationship to it—in my late 40s, knowing it is my calling and that I am at the top of my creative abilities (thus far), with many more pieces in me, and devoted as ever to the next generation—specifically because the values I see espoused in so corners of the composition world have revealed themselves as abhorrent and destructive. It’s not only about gender, but it plays itself out in dishonorably gendered manner, and someone in my position must ask whether such an environment will permit one’s gifts and offerings to be of use. The fact that in saying this, I place myself, not others, at professional risk, says much. The fact that I, having been fortunate in so many ways, am still asking the question of whether it is worth persevering says more.
It is disheartening to observe how “the woman composer question” keeps flipping back to page one, without much recognition of previous chapters. I observed this in what you correctly term “the rather unedifying recent debate about women conductors.” It is encouraging that your article, despite its brevity, takes into account historical context. More frequently, though, the public discussion on this topic seems to rewind again and again to pose the first question that would open the first meeting of the first seminar in the first semester of a life’s work on being a human being and a composer. (And even, the response to that opening question may be interrupted when the kindergartners barge in and exclaim, “It’s time for recess! Where’s my cookie?”) It’s unfortunate that there is not more continuity and depth in such discussions, though it is understandable. Perhaps that is something you, in your position, could cultivate.
Is it possible to dream a world of composition and music where we place mutual respect and the greater good at the top of our priorities, where we all remember what we don’t know and remain open to one another’s experience? I would like to think so, but I have yet to see a quorum on that.
Ok, that is more than a few thoughts. Thank you again for your thoughtful and good-willed attention to the topic.
—Barbara A. White
As a result, women may be expected to show heightened sexual preferences during peak conception times for men [sic] that [sic] are able to create more complex music. (Charlton, B. D. 2014, “Menstrual cycle phase alters women’s sexual preferences for composers of more complex music,” Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 20140403, p. 1).
Let’s begin with a question: Which of these gents:
—has the best genes?
Or, moving closer to our own historical period, which of these guys:
would make the best long-term partner?
Fortunately, now we have a way of finding out. A scientific one. Benjamin Charlton has completed a penetrating and fruitful study—the first, to his knowledge—that offers “empirical support for the sexual selection hypothesis of music evolution by showing that women have sexual preferences during peak conception times for men that are able to create more complex music” (Charlton, “Menstrual cycle phase,” p.1). It’s been written up in The Atlantic, where Cody C. Delistraty builds on Charlton’s research to posit that Liszt “was arguably the first to figure out how attractive musicianship can be.”
The musical examples in Dr. Charlton’s study were created in GarageBand™ and were provided to 1465 female test subjects in MIDI format. (That is, the musical examples were in MIDI format; the subjects were in their usual analog state and were instructed to dress as they would for a night out seeking male companionship.) The first, simplest, one begins with a couple of chords in 4/4—specifically, two quarter notes of G in second inversion, doubled in right and left hands of the GarageBand™ Grand Piano—which move up, for beats 3 and 4, to F in first inversion. (Also quarter notes, also doubled, all as before.) This measure of the composition is repeated 3 more times; then, the quarter notes are augmented to half notes, and we have, therefore, a bar of G 6/4 (two half notes) followed by a bar of F6 (ditto), with an attack every two beats. Then—you might want to sit down for this—those two bars repeat. Do you follow? Are you feeling turned on yet? (By the composer, I mean—not by me!) Well, just you wait! Next, the left hand plays the G chord again, but the right hand doesn’t! It enters (hmm) a half beat later and introduces a syncopated scalar motive, ascending through an entire measure. Herewith my reduction:
Remember, we hear that alternation from G6/4 to F6 eight times, and each iteration of each chord is inverted. There is no root position chord to reassure us of our independence and stability. Moreover, as above, the rhythm changes from quarter notes to half notes. There is another very erotic rhythm at the end—NSFS, I fear. But you can see above the suggestive spacing of the final chord.
The other three, increasingly complex, levels are variations on this same material. To my ear, it is all complicated, because the compositional material remains deceptively simple even as it grows more and more complex. The material doesn’t really engage with musical syntax but is more a string of stimuli, and it becomes overwhelming in the most sexual way: it’s just like being in a club and breathing in pheromones without understanding what is being awakened in your most primitive self. How to choose? I mean, really, look at the cornucopia of breads below: which one do you think would give you the most enjoyment for an evening? And sustenance for long-term health?
(I did not notice any identification of a composer in the study, though I may have overlooked his [?] name. I could also imagine he would want to protect himself from unwanted attention now that his work has been exposed to the public.)
Anyway, it’s not until the third most complex example that we hear a root position harmony—and there are two in a row, going right from A major to F major, still doubled in both hands, so we have six fingers (three pitch classes) moving downward in the same direction—each one traversing a third! It’s pretty sly, to give us the root position, but only with “parallel everything,” as we sometimes point out to beginning students. (This is the sort of prank that got Debussy thrown out of the Conservatoire—but he showed them!) This progression creates a mix of comfortable familiarity and transgressive tension that makes one want to meet this composer and get it on. Only a stump could fail to be titillated by such a caress.
Now, continuing on, a spoiler alert: the fourth and most complex example has harmonies that rub up against one another, as a sixteenth-note A chord sounds in the right hand before the left hand catches up . . . it lingers behind, fetchingly, on G. This coy dance of darting ahead, falling behind, and occasionally coming together reminds one of those R-rated scenes in Mutual of Omaha™’s Wild Kingdom.
(A composer/performer would of course be the fittest to display this prowess, for he would know best how to pedal to show off the mischievous foreplay here.)
There is also the flirty root movement of a tritone, in regard to which I can only invoke George Bernard Shaw’s commentary on the closing to Act I of Die Walküre: the music “is brought to a point at which the conventions of out society demand the precipitate fall of the curtain.” And so, I shall keep mum for propriety’s sake. (Regrettably, there is also insufficient time and space here to investigate the unexpected and provocative appearance, after so many inverted triads, of a quartal harmony. One suspects a revisionist history of Hindemith’s private life is forthcoming.)
Following upon the by-now familiar, but (in this most tantalizing fourth example) mischievously syncopated G6/4, D6/4, G, and A, we suddenly hear this dizzyingly complex triad. It’s gripping. I misread it at first, thinking it was another D chord (with the A# an F#), moving entrancingly from second to first (!), but no—its a, well, you know—it’s that one. (Sorry, I just always feel a little funny saying it out loud.) Honestly, if I had been one of Dr. Charlton’s test subjects, I would have found it difficult to choose among all these eligible sonic stimuli. It’s a little bit like trying to decide which line in the optometrist’s chart would make the most appealing companion:
But if I am to admit to my most primal, procreative urges—which I’d better do soon, because the clock has no plan to stop ticking—I must agree that the most complex one, Bachelor No. 4, would win in the end. It’s just that—that je ne sais quoi of the A-sharp, which itself has a bit of a sophisticated Parisian tinge to it. It gives me the feeling that I’ll never understand the composer who conceived of it, and this, of course, makes him all the more alluring.
(Is it getting a little hot in here? Or is that just the clock ticking?)
It’s hard not to feel for the wallflowers toiling away at their simple music, seeing the most Lisztian composer go home each night with a new ovulating lady. But there is a silver lining for the modest: the ladies who listen, it turns out, hit on the composers of complex music for quick encounters only, aiming to breed, but not to forge long-term relationships. Thus the real usefulness in this study is for the gents—those who desire ladies and are looking for one (or more). The lesson seems to be the following:
- If you seek a fun fling, you will need to work very hard in order to develop the sort of composition chops that will attract the ladies to your DNA. But don’t expect to see her, or any resulting progeny, again; she’s just looking for a quickie and a deposit to satisfy her maternal needs. Since these will all be brief meetings, though, you will be able to re-use your portfolio and program on each lady you desire.
- If you prefer to take long walks on the beach, file joint taxes, cook lasagna for five, and snuggle, well, no need to worry so much about the working hard part. You’re already poised to attract a long-term listener/partner with your half notes. In fact, if you compose too well, you might find yourself approached by the wrong sort; and I’d hate to see you get hurt.
The two available objectives certainly sync up with the priority-setting and time-management required to foster them—which just shows that science, once again, has given music meaning and purpose.
If you would like more dating tips, you can purchase 30-day access to this study for only $29.25. (I am not making this up.) That’s thirty days, a couple of days longer than most women’s cycles, so it will give you plenty of time to bone up on your rhythm.
And if you would like a playlist to give you an idea of the typical childbearing-age lady’s—because this is all determined by our fluctuating hormones, you can count on a lot of shared interests—iPod cycle and help you warm up for your own masterpiece, see the list below.
I await further research on the use-value of my own (complex?) music. Meantime, having read the study—full disclosure: I was not at my most rational when I finished reading, as I am sure you will understand—I have begun to wonder whether experimental and analytical acumen, like compositional skill, occupy a special place in terms of sexual selection. Dr. Charlton, have you had a lot of response to your publication?
Copyright-free photos of historical composers from http://www.8notes.com.
Photo of blurry suited men courtesy of Princeton University Music Department.
Other images royalty-free from shutterstock.com.
For another response to the study and The Atlantic’s coverage, see Jonathan Bellman, “Romantic Power of Music, The.”
—Posted by Barbara A. White