Saturday, May 23, 2009

Gender and the Classical Music World

While making my morning espresso, I did what I so often do: listen to NPR. This morning featured Scott Simon's interview with composer Jennifer Higdon and conductor Marin Aslop. Give the interview, and the sample recording of their music, a listen. Simon planned the interview to celebrate the fact that next month, Higdon's Violin Composition will be performed by Hillary Hahn with Aslop conducting her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: female composer, performer and conductor. No mean feat in the male-dominated classical music world. Obviously, Simon saw this performance as both a reason to celebrate women's achievements in the classical music world and an opportunity to discuss why such achievements are so few and far between.

Yet, Simon was quite surprised to discover that Aslop and Higdon, long-time friends, had never explicitly discussed issues of gender in the classical music world--a fact that I, too, found shocking. Aslop insisted on this point, stating that "the interview Jennifer and I did with NPR's Scott Simon was the first time we'd talked seriously about women in the music industry. I think we did so only because we expected others to be curious about it." While Aslop did clarify that they both "examined the issue, especially in our positions as mentors to the next generation of women coming up through the ranks," she also insisted that gender rarely enters her mind when she works because she is simply too busy focusing on the music itself.

I'm sure Aslop's position is common among artists of all genders. Who wants to be thinking consciously about politics, more specifically the politics of discrimination, when brandishing that conductor's baton, paintbrush, or pen? On the other hand, I firmly believe that, unless the artist lives in an isolationist bubble, politics necessarily inform art, both consciously and unconsciously. Must not a female musician feel the impact of a professional world where few women work as conductors? Where few compositions created by women are performed by major orchestras? Where women rarely fill the roles of conductor, composer, and soloist all in one evening? Given this belief, I cannot help but be skeptical when women express such hesitancy to discuss how their work is informed by feminism and the gender biases it works to combat. Now let's be clear: classical music is a subject of which I know very little. Most of what I do know has been culled from interviews like this one. My thoughts here are not about their music, which I appreciate from my particular perspective as a total classical music philistine. What I would like to comment on, however, is Higdon and Aslop's seeming desire to distance themselves from feminism.

In my own professional life as a professor, I often heard my female students deny that their gender has every substantially interfered with their own ability to succeed. Such remarks often leave me amazed, thinking are you really living in the same world I occupy? I'll admit to feeling some small bit of jealousy for their ability to live their lives free from confronting the heady and often-frustrating issues at the heart of the feminist cause. On the other hand, I wonder if they are deliberately distancing themselves from a blatant feminist message for fear of being branded whiners? Or do they really believe that there is simply no room (or need) for feminism in their lives? I frequently have to convince my students that gender biases still exist, that feminism is not a dirty word, that one doesn't have to be a bitter, man-hating woman (usually the assumption is lesbian, of course) in order to be invested in the feminist cause, that having discussions about feminist issues can be worthwhile and productive. I wonder: would either Aslop or Higdon call themselves feminists? Their statements and their art make it clear to me that, even if they are hesitant to adopt the label, they fit the definition to a T.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Victims by Choice?

I read this article the other day by conservative radio host, Phil Valentine. Honestly, I had never heard of the guy but the title of the article, “Some members of society just want to be victims”, was so captivating, I could help myself ( He discussed the findings of a recent American Journal of Public Health study of 5th graders that links racism to mental health. Now, being the awesome journalist that he is, Mr. Valentine doesn’t just report on the study. He also gives his readers insight to his thoughts on how “these people” are taught to be victims, walk around with a chip on their shoulder, and are always looking for a way to be offended—his example being the paranoia that springs up when “they” are passed over for a promotion or not given party invitations. He goes on to say that kids will be picked on for one thing or another. For example, he was 4’11” as a high school freshman and although he got bullied, he learned a valuable lesson through those years—never let anyone define you!

Well, as one of “those people” he speaks of in his article, I must say that Mr. Valentine is amazing—a white male comparing the racism to being short. Seriously?! There are so many things wrong with that argument. It’s something I face everyday and I don’t need people reminding me of it, but they can’t seem to help themselves. As a minority and depending on the way I dress (as ridiculous as it is), I am judged as soon as I am seen.

Those judgments may be a careful glance my way as they grab their purse tighter; a cashier who drops the change in my hand as if she can “catch” my color; or random people who ask me why “you people voted for him…”

I’ll take it one step further and tell you as a minority woman, the criticism or judgment I receive is far worse than anything a bully could ever have done to Mr. Valentine in the 9th grade. This touches every part of life—social situations, work environments, you name it. It’s a constant adjustment on my part because as soon as you think you’ve got it down, somebody comes along and you have to find a new way to fend off the foolishness. It is easy to tell someone not to let anyone else define you—it’s another to make you understand that I have been defined since the day I was born by my race and gender.

Look, there will always be those who choose to play the “victim” role. However, they may be of any race, any gender, any ethnicity, etc. so, it is totally unfair to classify the entire group as “victims”—we all make our own choices and react to things differently. I believe it is up to us to encourage openness and understanding. There are more resources out there that will help you understand a culture than hate it. And even if you don’t understand or agree with something, respect it. At the end of the day, we have got to figure out how to live amongst one another without judgments and criticisms that divide us because honestly, we’re more alike than different. It just sucks that there are people that would rather ignore that fact and fight to remain ignorant.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Children are our future...but which future?


...and its antidote...

(Respective H/Ts to Feministing and Britni)

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fling: Chocolate for Women (redux)

Just so ya'll don't think I'm hopelessly passé, not following trends in the blogosphere and stuff, I wrote a post on the new Mars chocolate bar for women over at The Hathor month and a half ago, before NPR's recent coverage. Just sayin'. :-)

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Films You Should Watch

With summer imminent, my partner and I have been trying to catch up on our Netflix cue. And, hence, I bring you my list of great 2008 films with strong female characters that you really should check out as you relax with an iced tea (or Long Island iced tea) in the summer months. I'm only including films that are already out on DVD, for your renting ease. Please add your suggestions in the comments!

Four 2008 Films You Should Rent This Summer
(in no particular order)

1. Let the Right One In

If you like stark, beautiful, bloody vampire films set during the dark, snowy Norwegian winter, then you'll love this film. It's gorgeously shot, smartly executed and features amazing performances by two 12-year-old actors: Kåre Hedebrant, who plays Oskar, a boy plagued by school bullies, and Lina Leandersson as Eli, the vampire stuck in a child's body who befriends him.

2. Happy Go Lucky

There's good reason this film was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar and that Sally Hawkins won a Golden Globe for her role in this charming, sharp vehicle about a woman named Poppy and her incurable optimism. But Happy-Go-Lucky isn't just your run-of-the-mill playful comedy; it's also a thoughtful exploration of the human psyche and much more complex than it's cheerful title might suggest. Happiness, like all things, is in the eye of the beholder. And besides the joy of watching a smart comedy, I also really loved the heartfelt and completely uninhibited friendship between Poppy and her best friend/roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman).

3. I've Loved You So Long

Kristin Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein will take your breath away in this poignant French drama about two estranged sisters who were separated by a horrible tragedy and reconnect after fifteen years. A truly phenomenal actor, Kristin Scott Thomas only gets better and better, and I think this might be one of her most stunning performances to date. She and Zylberstein will break your heart and then slowly put it back together as their characters reconcile their shared history and come to terms with the traumas of the past.

4. Rachel Getting Married

I never gave Anne Hathaway much thought before I saw this film and now...I absolutely adore her. She's really quite brilliant as the black sheep, home from rehab to attend her sister's wedding. The film is equal parts heartrending drama and familial comedy, betrayal and forgiveness, guilt and redemption. Touching and clever and full of music (TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe guest stars as the groom), it's no small wonder that Anne Hathaway was nominated for an Oscar and the film came out to critical acclaim this past summer.

But those are just some films I've enjoyed? What would you recommend I watch this summer?

(PS: Isn't it funny how all the film posters/DVD covers seem to favor the same basic layout--i.e. the face of the leading lady offset to the right and surrounded by text and critics' praise? Interesting...)

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Rock, Race, Hip-hop, and Why I Like Music

There's an interesting post up on Feministe titled "Asher Roth, Hip Hop, and Rockism, Or Why Doesn’t My Kid Like Hip Hop?".

I'm not going to talk about Asher Roth anymore; he's just an idiot. I do want to talk about the other half of the article. So why doesn't her kid like Hip-Hop? And more importantly, what's all this about Rockism?

Rockism, of course, is simply one of the youngest names in the grand old tradition of Art snobism. I personally used to be a classicist - if it wasn't written either: A. before 1930 and/or B. In a conservatory, I didn't want to hear it. Vocalists who needed microphones to sing weren't real singers, and I found the electric guitar to be thoroughly disgusting. And the Great (and not incidentally always white and male) Masters had the last word on everything.

By this standard, Rockism looks downright tame!

I got better. Do note, though: I didn't stop being a classicist because I suddenly realized that my prior ideas were racist, sexist and wrong. I stopped because I actually listened to all that other music, and liked it. I'll come back to this.

But Rockism. The Times article liked in the Feministe post makes some good points, but it honestly doesn't go far enough. It's not that rock music is 'white' and hip-hop is 'black'. It's that Hip-Hop is 'new', and rock music is 'old'. Let me explain:

Around 110 years ago, all the kids were listening to a new kind of music called Ragtime. They played it in the bars and clubs, they danced to it, it was exciting and rebellious and their parents were scandalized. Critics mostly ignored it, preferring to focus on 'real music' like Opera. Note that the greatest rag composer was a Black man named Scott Joplin.

Now, mentally switch (Modern) Hip-Hop with Ragtime, Rock with Opera, and Eminem with Joplin. Not an exact analogy, but fairly close.

Fast forward to today. What has happened to Ragtime? Simply put, it has become classical music, right along with Mozart, Wagner and the rest. White Art snob culture has co-opted it, and it has become part of the 'Canon', if you will. It's just the same with Jazz. And it's happening to Rock now, too - enough now that Rock is seen as 'white', despite its history! (Bo Diddley, anyone?) The patriarchy likes very much to utilize the 'if you can't beat them, join them' strategy, and so always takes credit for the accomplishments of the less privileged. And why stop now? Perhaps Asher Roth is simply the beginning of the end for Hip-Hop. Black culture will move on to the next new genre, and the cycle will continue.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps we can stop making it about which sort of music is 'better', and actually get around to listening to it.

You see, here's my criteria for whether music is 'good': I listen to it. If I get a shiver down my spine, it's good music. If my body is enveloped by an orgasmic feeling of delight, it's great music. It's a visceral, almost purely physical reaction, and as far as I can tell, it's quite genre agnostic.

Which brings me to Lauren's son. None of the nine-year-olds I know have even heard of Kurt Cobain or Elton John, let alone want to listen to them; this makes me think he really likes it! (Then again, he could be rebelling against his parent's music choices!) Perhaps it is racial - but perhaps he just hasn't hear the right Hip-Hop yet. Or, perhaps he would like some of the Black rock stars (is Hendrix close enough to Cobain?) With any luck, he'll be able to really appreciate music.

Some people want to rebel. Some people want to be snobs. Some people (Rockists) want to be snobs about rebelling! But really, music should be about feelings, and about meaning, and about choices, and about people.

(Curious counter-argument to everything I just said: is my insistence on criticizing music separately from its surrounding culture an artifact of my Art snobbishness?)

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Feminist Flashback #37

Some of you have probably heard of Artemisia Gentileschi; her work and life are usually taught in intro art history classes and, sometimes, intro women's studies classes. The Italian daughter of the well-known-in-his-day painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia was born in 1593 (d. 1652/53) and worked as an artist during the Baroque period, when very few women were painters. Her work is especially notable because she painted historical and allegorical subjects, instead of just painting the still-life and portrait work traditionally deemed appropriate for the 'fairer sex.'

She began painting as a teenager (she painted Susanna and the Elders, which I've posted below, when she was 17). Her life-story is pretty rocky: she was raped by her tutor, the painter Agostino Tassi, and subjected to an extensive and very public trial (during which she was tortured while being questioned in order to "verify" her accusations). A compelling (if questionably accurate) film was made about Artemisia's life in 1997; it's called, simply, Artemisia.

For more information, check out Mary D. Garrad's book Artemisia Gentileschi.

I absolutely adore Artemisia Gentileschi's work--always have; her use of chiaroscuro (contrasting light and dark) is nothing short of brilliant and her paintings radiate a confident and beautiful style that's really quite unique.

Some of my favorites below the cut:

Susanna and the Elders, 1610

Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1612-13

Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1625

Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, c. 1630

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