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Just add a makeover: A Problematic Equation

It can be really encouraging to see attempts to raise the issue of gender inequality in high profile media. More often though, it seems that reporters somehow manage to mess it up to such an extent that whilst verging on amusing for feminists, the framing of reports is simply demonstrative of sexist presumptions and perpetrates the problems it tries to address.

Take the following article from BBC’s ‘100 Women’ in October, for example:

‘Why tech needs a makeover to attract girls’

It really caught my attention. Of course it did- it mentions makeovers and attraction, and whilst I wouldn’t normally check out the education or technology sections of BBC News, I love makeovers and all things attractive! I’d never had any interest in technology before, but to be honest if it’s associated with makeovers I don’t care what ‘it’ is! Being a girl, I also do not have my own agency, but rather rely on the pull of external forces. I would never have decided to look into technology, but I am ready and waiting to be wooed, and it’s great that the technological world might want to attract me, welcome me into their arms, summon me as with a whistle or bell. Evidently someone cottoned onto the fact that though nowhere near as majestic as the magpie, Woman too will be dazzled by something that shines, and swept off her feet will change her course of direction to find it.

Or at least, that is what someone at the BBC seems to have been hoping.

To be honest, the extent to which this one headline demonstrates the problems women face in being taken seriously in all sorts of areas, industry to academia, makes it almost funny. In fact, perhaps this is a joke, or at least an ironic critique, a parody. Somehow I don’t think so. The reduction of women to concerns of appearance and the negation of their agency and intellectual processes leading to decision making is not the only reduction made in this article. The first piece of text in the body tells us that the woman interviewed is ‘already planning the future of her unborn children’. Fair enough, she is at liberty to do that, and if that is one of her concerns that’s fine. What isn’t fine is that this is not elaborated on whatsoever. Merely the fact that she has the potential to bear children and sustain population growth is mentioned in the first paragraph of text, seemingly just to remind the reader that even if she has done great things in technology, she is aware that her primary purpose is elsewhere. Like I said, I have no problem with thinking about one’s future potential children, but to mention it like that in the first paragraph, presumably the one that most people will read, and not to elaborate seems pretty fishy to me. Pretty reductive of women, pretty heteronormative and pretty pronatalist. And despite all those ‘pretties’, I’m not won over.

Perhaps in a douse of internalised sexism, the female interviewee refers to her ‘stubborn’ nature which enabled her to succeed in STEM subjects, as opposed to choosing a more positive adjective, such as resilient. Seems unsurprisingly similar to the ‘bossy girls’ label which has led to many women growing up to feel like it is not their place to be authoritative or enter positions of leadership.

Unfortunately, there was no plot twist at the end of this article. It was more like a knife that had already been plunged in being twisted. To quote the penultimate paragraph in its entirety:

‘The fact that Mrs Lovelace was coding in an age when even few men were, shows that there is no inherent aptitude problem, thinks Ms Imafidon’

That’s right, folks. The BBC in the year 2014 have helpfully stated that someone ‘thinks’ women are not biologically unable to excel in coding. Well that is encouraging. By which I mean totally disheartening. It is simply depressing that the BBC could not write an article about women in technology (an important topic) which begun with statement of the fact that a constructed biological essentialism (claiming women’s intellectual inferiority) is perhaps the main cause of women being marginalised in technology, and also simply believing they might not be up to it, starting from a young age. The conclusion of the article, which states tentatively that biologically equal disposition towards STEM subjects is one person’s opinion/theory, seems therefore almost as ironic, or at least demonstrative of the key problems, as the title.

With this sort of sexist, reductive reporting that infantilises women and deprives them of agency from the beginning, no wonder many women want to remain distanced from the world of technology.

Sherlock and Asexuality

Many people have debated whether or not Sherlock, of BBC’s Sherlock, is asexual. Whilst this has brought asexuality to a place of public recognition, it’s also opened up discussion revealing an awful lot of public discourse. And I mean awful in both the senses. I suppose I didn’t expect much of Moffatt (Misogynist Extraordinaire) but it’s not just him, although that makes a good starting point.

So, here is the full quotation: “There’s no indication in the original stories that he was asexual or gay. He actually says he declines the attention of women because he doesn’t want the distraction. What does that tell you about him? Straightforward deduction. He wouldn’t be living with a man if he thought men were interesting…If he was asexual, there would be no tension in that, no fun in that – it’s someone who abstains who’s interesting. There’s no guarantee that he’ll stay that way in the end – maybe he marries Mrs Hudson. I don’t know!”

Point number one- I am not going to disagree, mainly because I have not read enough of them, and don’t claim to be expert. Secondly point- ouch, it’s a classic in the male ‘genius’ trope-see Beethoven for more details. From the point of view of sexuality though, whether he is asexual or not, this is problematic. Just because you may be sexually attracted to X group, does not mean that whenever you encounter a member of X group, you’re only option is to be sexually attracted to them. If this is the case, that would make life very hard, and in situations where people act as if this is the case many individuals, more often women who are objectified as representing item of potential sexual attraction. Now I’ve reached this point and reread the first statement of Moffatt’s-I don’t believe that can be true. ‘No indication’-really? Surely the beauty of much literature is multiplicity and ambiguity, and more often than not the characters for which we have enduring interest have been intentionally created to have some degree of mystery. By saying there’s ‘no indication’ of asexuality or homosexuality, Moffatt is basically saying that from adapting the books the only option is heterosexuality. And I must say, I don’t really believe that’s ever the only option for anyone, both in ‘real life’ and in the case of someone who is essentially writing a large-scale fanfic on a fiction. Whilst I have consciously decided not to discuss heteronormativity and misogyny here, they are clearly factors to bear in mind.

Bearing that in mind I’m going to skip to the ‘if he was asexual’ bit. Well, first of all that is appalling grammar, particularly from someone who makes a living by writing. It’s the subjunctive-‘if he were asexual’. Maybe Moffatt’s lack of understanding when it comes to the subjunctive makes imagining different scenarios and possibilities difficult…just a thought. Anyway, oh dear: ‘there would be no tension in that, no fun in that’. So I suppose by saying ‘no tension [in being asexual]’ he’s forgetting the massive tension between individuals who identify as asexual and the rest of the world which if not heteronormative, is very often sexualnormative. I don’t know if that’s a word, but I can’t think of a better one and I’m sure you know what I mean. If I’m wrong and there is one, please let me know! In fact, he is surely showing this conflict in his clear lack of understanding of asexuality. As well as finding the ‘no fun’ comment deeply insulting, I also reckon it’s fairly inaccurate. I think that people who may not experience sexual attraction are likely to have an altered but wonderful perspective on the world. One notices different things and even holds slightly different priorities which can surely give new insights. Perhaps he’s implying that if you’re not having sex with someone you’re not having fun? If so, that’s really quite sad, because life has so much more to offer than sex. Maybe he’s saying that if there is not the possibility that the person you are talking to may want to have sex with you you’re missing a certain spark, or element of the unknown-which leads you to missing out on fun? To be honest, if this is the tension he is discussing, I find that quite concerning, even a predatory attitude. The idea to me of thinking in these terms would probably lead to living fearfully. As the many politicians who dismiss rape by comparing it with being ‘force fed chocolate cake’ fail to notice, not all sex is good, not all sex is fun, and not everyone wants it, sexual or not.

I’m not going to spend any more energy on discussing his statement, although much more could be said, because it’s plain depressing! Naturally Benedict Cumberbatch has been questioned on the topic. For the main part I’d say he’s been relatively sensible, but the following, after saying Sherlock is not asexual, is not ok-‘Like a lot of things in his life where he’s purposely dehumanised himself, it’s do to with not wanting the stuff that is time wasting, that’s messy. That goes for certain relationships, as well as sexual intimacy’. Whilst he doesn’t say that asexuality is a form of dehumanisation, he says that choosing not to have relationships, or even sex, is a form of dehumanisation- which does reflect on  or apply to those who choose to be celibate or are asexual. Now, if we said that women weren’t really human, or black people weren’t really human, or gay people weren’t really human, that would not be ok. As we know, some people have and do make such statements, but as is being increasingly recognised, they are very, very wrong. How come Cumberbatch therefore thinks that this is ok? Maybe I’ve misinterpreted slightly, but at the moment I don’t think I have. If you have any thoughts, please do contribute, but don’t be too mean, I’m just trying to discuss a relatively undiscussed issue which I think is important.

In the media more generally we’ve also seen problematic understandings of asexuality in relation to Sherlock. Let’s look at this sentence opening the Radio Times’ piece on the matter ‘He’s seen as cold, calculating and utterly focused on the case at hand, but despite some viewers’ assumptions Sherlock is not an asexual character, says the show’s star Benedict Cumberbatch’. This seems to imply that cold, calculating and focussed = asexual. Once again, apply those terms to other groups, gender, ethnic, sexual or other, and you’d find yourself in deep water. One could even argue that the fact that there is no potential sexual impetus behind an asexual person’s relationship could make for a much more comfortable relationship than one that is ‘cold’. I don’t know, but to me that seems really harsh, and deeply non-understanding of what it means to be asexual. The way the Radio Times has arranged quotes from the actors is also problematic: ‘The actor says his “damaged” character may not be romantic but there’s definitely a sexual element to his relationship with Irene Adler’. The use of ‘damaged’ in this sentence seems to be therefore associated for the writer to the main issue of the article: asexuality. This simply reinforces belief that if you are asexual you are in some way ‘damaged’ or ‘broken’, something is missing. Once again, this takes sexuality as the norm and furthermore, if applied to another group of people would almost certainly cause offence. Whatever it is, your identity it is not a fault, and anyone who says so probably needs some help understanding things themselves.

Sources discussed:

http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2012/jan/20/steven-moffat-sherlock-doctor-who?INTCMP=SRCH

http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2012-05-06/benedict-cumberbatch-sherlock-is-a-sexual-person

Sherlock, Schumanns and Brahms

The following blog will reference Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann and Sherlock Holmes. If you want to avoid spoilers stop reading after this sentence, as I may not only spoil recent Sherlock plots for you, but also certain ideas about the lives of certain musical figures that are quite appealing, but also quite possibly not true.

I spent this evening reading what the publicly-accessible internet has to offer on Brahms C minor Piano Quartet Op. 60. It’s really quite exciting, I do like it. I was reading CD reviews, programme notes as well as journal articles about the piece online. I did all this as quickly as possible because I wanted to maximise productivity before the evening’s episode of Sherlock. For the record, I thought I enjoyed it but am so tired of the frequent casual sexism, it’s so lazy, disappointing and downright problematic. This was the second Majorly Problematic Issue I’d encountered over the course of the evening, because it turns out the Brahms Piano Quartet is highly susceptible to what I would tentatively call biographical imposition. That is, people can listen to the music, look at when he wrote it, and say ‘aha! This note/rhythm/cadence/structure reflects this emotion/event/situation’.  The fact that I’ve called this imposition suggests that I believe it is a construction of listeners and scholars, and I suppose this is what Cynical Me reckons. I think the reason I think this relates to the more problematic issue which then attracted my attention: dodgy biography.

The problem is, we all love a good story. I would say we are all also predisposed to fall slightly in love with those we admire/study/value, but perhaps this is an overstatement or generalisation. However, I believe that this happens in many instances. As it has occurred to many Sherlock fans, and perhaps even more so to non-regular viewers, the latest series has really pandered to the fans. The Sherlock/Moriarty kiss, for example, could well have been a fanfic, and probably is! The analyses of Brahms’ Piano Quartet, of varying credibility, I had been reading beforehand all began with some ‘context’.

Let’s talk about ‘context’- it’s important (but context is perhaps more important). My extended essay (Big Piece of Writing for Which I Did Lots of Work and Got Stupidly Passionate About) last year was on ‘Schumann and the Trope of Madness’. It was inspired by me quoting Schumann talking about Brahms and my tutor responded by questioning this, ‘because Schumann was mad’. Two things struck me very hard in this moment. Are we really calling people ‘mad’ in the twenty-first century- what does that mean, is it appropriate? And even if it is ‘ok’ to call someone mad, does Schumann fall into this ‘category’? Because, to me ‘not mad’ (you can quote him) and ‘mad’ (be careful trusting anything he says) seems like a bipartite method of categorisation, that even if accurate, which it possibly isn’t, probably because ‘mad’ isn’t really a very helpful or specific term and potentially fluid in definition, could cause us to actually discount a lot of very important sources. In my opinion, Schumann was a one of the key figures in the development of writing on music throughout his life, and his writing tells us an awful lot about music, society and the arts more generally at the time- which is fairly important for musicologists.

So I decided I’d investigate Schumann and ‘madness’. Where had this come from? My main observation was that writing had largely been involved with the construction of ‘madness’ in the life of Schumann. This happened in multiple ways, beginning with Schumann himself. From a young age he was obsessed with the tragic, Romantic artist figure. Byron was his personal hero in as much as he represented in archetype as in his own work. Robert actually loved writing, and before he began his first degree (in law), one can see he wrote more poetry and prose than music. His style of writing was consciously Romantic, and one could argue that the prose he wrote was always in the realms of fiction. His own autobiographical writing (he began his first autobiography as a child!) including letters and diary entries is almost painfully hyperbolic. In short, this dramatic, consciously artistic style combined with his aspirations to be seen among the likes of Byron and Hoffman, meant that his writing often provided a space for expressing his own idealistic conceptions of himself which were intentionally in the veins of a tragic hero.

(INTERLUDE: I could write about this for ages, and give plenty of examples but I’ll stop because this wasn’t the main intention of my post. If you are interested though, do ask and I can show you the full piece I wrote!)

Later, biographers trying to get a good idea of Schumann’s life had various key events to work from, with gaps in between, which could be filled by interpretations of letters, diary entries, articles etc. The key event in Schumann’s life for most biographers, was his attempted suicide in 1854. Of course, if this were a fictional story, this would be the peak of the plot, the point from which the denouement begun. The problem is, this is the way many biographers have understood it. Whether because they’ve found it juicy, interesting, dramatic and problematic or because they know readers will, this event becomes the peak of their work. A teleological approach then motivates the construction of a relatively linear narrative on their behalf that accounts for his attempted suicide. Which essentially generally boils down to: he was mad/mentally ill (depending on who you are/when you were writing), these are the signs of madness/illness we can see in his life/music bubbling up to this point. Luckily for them, Schumann’s writing can be conveniently translated and interpreted to suit this meaning. One of my favourite instances of this is when he writes to Clara initially apologising for not having written for a while. He then explains himself: ‘every day I look more visibly wasted, and shoot up into the air a spindly dry leafless beanstalk. The doctor has even forbidden me to yearn too strongly, for you to be precise, because it excites me too much. But today I tore all the bandages off my wounds and laughed in the doctor’s face when he tried to hold me back from writing, yes I threatened to attack him with the fever and to infect him, if he didn’t quietly let me have my way.’ As you can see, if taken very literally, it would indeed strike one that Schumann’s health was a serious matter for concern. If interpreted in context of his literary and artistic intentions, it is perhaps more likely that Robert hadn’t written for a while, had been unwell and decided to dress this up to transform any ill-feelings from Clara into sympathy and concern. Again, if you’re interested I can show you various varying interpretations of this passage from a number of scholars.

So, back to Brahms. Apparently, his Piano Quartet Op. 60 reflects his relationship with Clara Schumann. Robert was dying (possibly of organic brain disease, possibly of side effects of syphilis or syphilis treatment, which he may or may not have had, we actually don’t know, though various people claim that they do) and either owing to Clara’s inability to cope or the doctor’s weird regime depending on whose biography you read, Clara only saw him a couple of times and Johannes Brahms was his main visitor. During this period Brahms moved into the Schumann household and appears to have helped out with the family, whilst he and Clara battled with their desire for one another combined with sorrow and sense of betrayal of Robert for having these feelings. Apparently. Now, some biographies admit that we don’t really know if this was the case or not. Other’s don’t, and most analyses of the Piano Quartet op 60 begin by telling us that this music is about Brahms and his longing for Clara etc etc etc. (links to non-JSTOR/book articles here 1, 2, 3 obviously these aren’t the best, but they’re accessible for all). It is true that Brahms uses a transposition of Robert’s melodic spelling of ‘CLARA’ in the opening, but to be fair, I’ve studied Robert more, and know that contemporary composer culture was to do this for friends or acquaintances all the time, sometimes as a gesture of appreciation, sometimes because they wanted a favour. It wouldn’t surprise me that Brahms would do the same. I’d agree that the quartet is quite emotional, and one can certainly interpret parts as being tragic or longing or…probably most things you might choose to, to be honest.

And this brings me to my main point: I’m sure we love the idea of Clara and Johannes, struggling with the illness of Robert, supporting each other lovingly, Brahms picking up Clara out of her despair and tending for her many children when she couldn’t manage (because that fits in with some delightful gender stereotyping too). It’s easy to fall in love with the idea too that this was a secret relationship, and that they never got married because they were such good people that they wanted to retain loyalty to their dear Robert. We then get another two tragic figures, another two admirable characters who despite adversity showed deep love and honourable characteristics. Maybe they played together, looking occasionally into one another’s eyes, exchanging a look of sorrow that this could be the only consummation of their love…

Watching Sherlock I realised- this is a fanfic. I’d always been suspicious of such biographical writing which claims that such stories are true, and analyses that used these, (and then biographies that drew upon the ‘secrets of the music’ in return), but this struck me as the perfect way to articulate it. The story of Brahms and Clara is wonderful-we’d love to imagine it is true. But the likelihood is that it is a construct of biographers who would also like it to be true, and have used the extant ‘evidence’ to prove this. Because whether it’s notes or words, people will find a way. It’s almost a case of ‘if it’s too good to be true…it probably isn’t’. So, I suppose what I’m saying is, when reading this kind of thing in either a lengthy biography or as a short biographic note before an analysis, think about the sources behind it. It is there a chance it is a bit of a fanfic that adoring fans would love to be true because it’s such a good story? Or is it actually definitely A Thing?

Outside of that, I did enjoy Sherlock, but perhaps occasional viewers will begin to get ticked off if there are near constant references to kinky fan-imagined backstories in the actual show…

Please, Sir (Maxwell Davies)

I’ve just read the following article in the Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/theroyalfamily/10455346/Music-teaching-in-British-schools-is-a-disgrace-warns-Queens-composer.html) which quotes Peter Maxwell Davies’ comments on contemporary musical education. It concerns me in multiple ways. It concerns me in that it causes me anxiety and it concerns me in the way that anyone who cares about the future cares about education.

Firstly I just want to clarify that this is no blanket statement about everything Peter Maxwell Davies has said in his recent comment on the state of state school music education. I’m not trying to say he is either right or wrong, but I do want to discuss a few matters with arguably a little bit of insight that he might not have. This said, I’m not claiming to be some wondrous omniscient oracle, and I’m sure PMD knows lots of things I don’t.

To give some context of where I’m coming from, because as I hope to explain, context is what it’s all about: I was lucky enough to go to a school that was at times ‘the best state school in Newcastle’. Because the school was a faith school the catchment area was massive which I loved. I knew people from every corner of the city and from all sorts of backgrounds, socially, racially, economically, religiously, everything. I don’t know how one can give a concise evaluation of a school that no one will be offended by but I feel like it is important to clarify, going to Oxford/Cambridge/Durham/LSE/KCL/similar after A-Levels puts you in a minority at my school. We were blessed, lucky and an exception. I am not saying such universities are the main measure of success but it’s just one way of illustrating it. I thought the music department was the best thing ever, but friends who had high quality musical education outside of school disagreed with me.

I am also about to start on a scheme called ‘Schools Plus’ where I’ll be assisting teaching music in a school that has only had music back on the curriculum for one year since it was dropped a decade ago. I’ll be helping with GCSE, and I’m admittedly a little put out that none of my friends have questioned the GCSE revision guide in my room! When PMD says that the standard of music teaching in schools is a digrace, that doesn’t sit comfortably. I see a range of teachers in my mind from my school, this new school i’m working at and others I’ve visited who are doing amazing things. Whether it’s writing songs specially for kids just to interest them in actually coming to registration as something to look forward to, staying every night after school to help with choirs and bands or actually starting up a musical life from scratch then I massively applaud that. Hopefully the fact I’ve seen various schools at different ends of the country means that I’m not biased, and when I think of music teachers, I do not think of disgrace. I’d love to know, genuinely, not saracastically, which schools PMD has recently visited for either a short or sustained period of time.

This is where I stand: if a child is playing electric guitar instead of violin, that is so much better than nothing. If they know what a dominant chord is or a modulation or a melodic sequence is because they’ve analysed a popular song not a symphony then again, that’s so much better than nothing. I put it in these terms because with the current educational climate, this is where we are at. Unless PMD manages to make a set number of hours compulsory for music teaching in schools and chucks a load of money at it there is no space for (damaging) value judgements when in many places it is something or nothing for music education, something I’ll save writing about for another day!

Putting this in context of other criticisms the Telegraph cite, such as children being ‘oblivious to Shakespeare or Dickens’ we see another strain of ignorance. It is not ideal that children do not know these works of literature (and music) but it is worse that they do not have access to them based on a lack of basic skills. I’m cool with someone complaining about children not having read Great Expectations if they can tell me first about the levels of illiteracy in the UK, which to my mind is a more pressing issue, and I believe it is through these lenses we must currently look at education in the UK.

I’m going to wrap it up before I get too angry but quite simply, to those who think it is wrong that in a developed country in the year 2013 we are having looking at any substance at all in education before being able to make ideological comments and changes to education you have a good point. But this is a point that you probably need to take to Mr. Gove. And to Peter Maxwell Davies, if he manages to teach a group of 30 thirteen year-olds sonata form the congratulations, maybe I’ll listen up then. I’ll listen even more closely if he manages to make them feel that it’s relevant to them, whilst the government is busy rolling out ‘welfare reforms’ which will be causing havoc in the lives of any child who by no fault of their own has (an) ill, disabled, unemployed or low-paid parent(s).

The End.

Wor Requiem

Firstly, an explanation to non-Geordies or those unaffiliated therewith: ‘wor’ means ‘our’.

Secondly, an explanation to everyone: the above is the title for this piece because I will be writing about our (by which I mean the many variations on a theme of me, and my accomplice) thoughts about this evening’s performance of Britten’s War Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall, and yes, also because it is aurally the same and I didn’t have any punnier ideas. 

I’ve been fascinated by Britten’s War Requiem since I first studied it about six months ago- from the mocking, warped bugle calls that sounded to me like barbed wire must feel to the eerie unisons that break into strange dissonances then harmonies prompting questions of unity and autonomy. The construction of the whole work on the polarities of the tritone, taking the octave, the most natural musical phenomenon in terms of physics and ripping it in two forming the ‘devil’s’ interval to me bespeaks the atrocity and unnaturalness of war I reckon Britten was trying to convey. I wore my white ‘peace’ poppy to the concert and was slightly dismayed that red poppies were being flogged at the RAH, particularly given the recent appeal campaign featuring the children in ‘future soldier’ t-shirts (a quick google will quickly bring you up to speed if this news hasn’t yet reached you). ‘Authenticity’ and ‘composer’s intentions’ are pretty hard to gauge and pretty massive issues to engage with but I’m fairly sure that Britten would not be impressed by the association of his piece with this campaign. There are signs of this both in his own writing and speech and in ‘the music itself’, which to my mind thoroughly mocks celebratory, ‘glorious’ music and traditions surrounding war, from triumphant military band music to the deification of the sacred requiem text. Anyway, I shall set this matter aside.

Writing this review is a risk on multiple levels, primarily because there is a recording available from BBC Radio 3, secondly because I’m sure there will be many reviews of this concert to compare mine with and thirdly because I’m no expert and these are just my silly little thoughts (see title explanation, or keep reading, because you’ve already read it or aren’t actually interested). 

One important thing to note is that I was sitting in the ‘circle’ on the right hand side above the stage. this possibly should not matter as much as it does, but unfortunately the acoustics weren’t amazing and owing to this positioning I lost the majority of the male soloists lines. I could generally hear the notes but very few of the words, even though I am very familiar with them. Although this was pretty disappointing I did gain a new appreciation for the choral passages. After I stopped trying to strain to hear the tenor and baritone I decided to regard them more as a compliment to the chamber orchestra. I love the writing for the chamber orchestra and really enjoyed this performance. Despite the miniature forces, the music was as aggressive and biting as it needed to be at the relevant points. I almost wondered at one point that since the balance of the instruments seemed to be so ‘right’ whether it would almost be worth mic-ing the soloists. I can imagine there would be a snooty response to this, but to be honest if the instrumentalists are playing at the right volumes, the acoustic’s not good enough and people just can’t hear, maybe it would be worth it. Or maybe I need to get my hearing tested.

This did effect one particular aspect of the War Requiem that I had been excited about hearing live which was simply being overwhelmed by music from various directions. I think the War Requiem has a really interesting physicality owing to the different ensembles used and I suppose the placement of the boys’ choir and harmonium in the ceiling (perhaps not the technical term, but don’t worry it all look Health & Safety assured; do NOT insert lewd Britten joke ad lib.) had an effect where we were sat but everthing else just sounded… far away! Fortunately though, the points at which the music reaches its most massive dynamic and textural peaks and sort of cuts through your soul functioned fine, and the Libera Me did not leave me feeling short-changed. On that note, the soprano soloist, Sabina Cvilak, was stunning. I am often quite critical of female singers, but I can’t really complain here. The use of vibrato and equally importantly NOT vibrato was excellent. It was a powerful performance both technically and emotionally.

One issue that I know I’m not wrong to complain about because my delightful and intelligent accomplice independently verified my criticisms- the entrances of the sopranos and altos in the Dies Irae. Oh dear. They got better, but they did not at all start of well, particularly in direct comparison with the crisp, percussive tenors and basses preceding them. This slightly shattered me but my more astute accomplice retained attention and said that she thinks the responsibility for this may lie with the conductor, Seymon Bychkov. I’m sure he’s a great guy but at this point it appears he was using the circular whisking motion, not really allowing for precise plosives from a pretty large chorus. I’ll let it go, but it was a shame to let such an excellent moment go to pot. 

I feel like I definitely need to follow the above with a positive à la ‘shit sandwich’. Well I loved the percussionist for the chamber orchestra. He was excellent. I don’t know to what extent he was responsible for how perfect the part sounded but he definitely deserves commendation. I’ve already said the chamber orchestra in general were great, but I might as well reiterate that. In general the chamber orchestra were great. In fact I definitely need to make it up to the chorus. The opening was simply spectacular. Haunting, magical and quite tingly. The singers had a massive role in this, but it would be unfair not to commend my computer, whose speakers are so naff I’d never heard the hushed utterances that open the work before today.

I think I’ll stop writing now. I hope I’ve conveyed what I wanted to, which would be a great achievement considering I’m not sure what exactly that was/is. Also considering the fact that I’ve typed much of this wearing socks on my hands because they are so cold. I bemoaned the holiness of my gloves the other day and they took it personally and have now hidden themselves from me. It was never supposed to be this way. I might as well end with this short but sad anecdote as I don’t know really how you’re supposed to conclude reviews. It’s not like anyone can now book tickets to see/hear the performance and if anyone has read this as a precursor to listening to the radio recording then they’ll probably have quite a different experience as the physical aspects of the performance are annulled and allegedly the broadcast was crystal clear and perfectly balanced. So I suppose I’ll end with wishing you well and hoping that you enjoyed the above assorted ramblings.

 

BADASS WOMEN COMPOSERS

POST SCRIPT & DISCLAIMER NO 1: I have genuinely spent ages, literally hours, trying to find a different name for this post but it seems that there are no decent synonyms for ‘badass’. Nothing else seems to encapsulate what I’m trying to say quite as concisely with a such a footprint of powerful attitude. If you do have any ideas for alternate names, please do get in touch though!

I woke up this morning to the grim news that David Cameron does not know the price of a loaf of bread. Of course I shouldn’t have been too surprised but I just thought that maybe, particularly it being the day of a meeting on food banks at the tory conference, that he might have wised up a bit as to avoid such a (public) schoolboy error. But no. Even looking that info up was below him. This naturally led me to think about other standard omissions of information, such as the Most Common Flaw in a vast majority of ‘Music Histories’. Even when I’m reading musicology that seems in many other ways progressive, I feel like I’m shouting in a Monty Python style ‘ARE THERE ANY WOMEN HERE!?’. The response isn’t as comic as that of the bearded stoners (throwers of stones surely = stoners?) in The Life of Brian though. In my head it’s just a load of blokes cackling at their pretty successful attempt at erasing women from the history they have written. Then I notice a few women in the crowd at the back, winking at me through their felted Python beards as I stand, bewildered and despondent, in front of the gaggle of stoners (these are now musicologists/canonic composers, I think, please excuse sketchy image/analogy). 

A man who does not even know the price of the nation’s staple food is running the country, there must be some hope SOMEWHERE, I tell myself. So began my quest to trawl through look round those corners the musicology mainstream didn’t want to look, finding the characters that weren’t honoured by the canon. To my delight I did manage to find some truly uplifting stories about women who not only wrote some amazing music, but did a lot of other SUPER AMAZING things. Sadly, because no one really gave a toss at the time, or really since, there are mainly only fragments available of these tales of courage, creativity and composition, but I thought I’d put a some highlights of a small few in one place for your easy viewing pleasure! Hopefully this will be the first in a series.

DISCLAIMER NO 2: I have not done extensive research, these accounts are based on just a few sources. Although it’s not original research, I haven’t found anything similar to this thus far 🙂

I will start with Teresa Carreño- born in 1853 in Venezuela. She seems to have been a no-nonsense type and married three times, was offered piano lessons by Liszt but declined (that must have been a smack in the face!) and there is allegedly a crater on Venus named after her… as well as a music centre in the Venezuelan capital! She played in the Irving Hall aged just 8 and later in front of Abraham Lincoln in the White House, before touring as an opera singer in later life. Her main output was piano music but she also composed for choirs and orchestras.

Six years earlier in Brazil, Chiquinha Gonzoga was born. She had always shown a talent for music but when she was married off aged 16 her husband, eight years her senior, prohibited her education and music-making. The story could have ended there, but it didn’t. After giving birth to her third child she fled her husband and became is believed to have become the first woman ever to legally divorce in Brazil. Her father was not so impressed and declared her dead and of ‘unpronnouncable name’. I personally reckon this was a mistake. She went on to shun gender stereotypes and joined various ensembles normally reserved for men, composed her own pieces and was actively involved in politics, in particular striving for the abolition of slavery. Not bad. Oh, and her music is pretty cool. 

Augusta Holmès may strike you as a strange name. That is partially because it is sort of made up. Augusta was from Ireland but added a snazzy accent to her surname to fit in when she became a citizen of France. As with many female composers though, she felt it necessary to have a pseudonym, and fair enough, it was pretty spectacular: Hermann Zenta. Oh, ok, not quite as cool as I thought. I originally read that as Hermann ‘Zanta’. Like Santa, but with a Z, because she was that cool. Oh well, I still reckon she was pretty cool andby all means a breaker of boundaries. She found ways to have private lesson in music as she was, being a ‘she’, denied entry to the Paris Conseravtory, and as another finger up in the face of general established customs she had FIVE children, not with her husband but with her PARTNER. Imagine. She wrote a work for 1200 performers for the centennial anniversary of the French Revolution- take that Mahler! Wait, I think she wrote that before he did his biggest stuff, maybe she was leading the way hence the extra motivation to make sure that women weren’t being creative first… Anyhow, Sait-Saens made an interesting statement on her that is sort of really great but sort of downright disheartening but I guess this post is supposed to be OPTIMISTIC cos Dave doesn’t know how much bread costs, so YAY! Look at what Camille wrote in  Harmonie et Mélodie, “Like children, women have no idea of obstacles, and their willpower breaks all barriers. Mademoiselle Holmès is a woman, an extremist.” 

A Short Paragraph For Rosalind Ellicott (1827-1824): It would be great to know a bit more about Rosalind Ellicott’s music but since she was essentially forgotten about most of her music was destroyed, or at least wasn’t preserved. I’d love to know more about what Charles Parry meant when he said that “handl[ed] her brass as if [she] had been at it for twenty years”! Ominous. Suggestive. And the end. Of that paragraph, anyway.

Hedwige Chretien: now firstly what an awesome name. You only have to look at a picture of her to know that this lady was self-assured as from the sounds of it, she was simply AMAZING at what she did. Records tell us that she wrote over 150 works, from opera and ballet to chamber music and was appointed a Professor by the Paris Conservatory. We also know from the program of Concert de Chambre Hebdomadaire that in 1881 she was the first place winner in competition categories for fugue, harmony, counterpoint, piano AND composition. Unfortunately, once again, that is pretty much all that is know of her. Other than these objective sort of ‘facts’, no one seemed to have been interested enough to find out about her life and write about her at the time, or really afterwards. At least some one managed to protect her scores, and these are preserved in archives in the US.

Susie Frances Harrison, born 1859, is thought to be the first ever woman to write a string quartet in Canada. Like many female composers she began writing under a pseudonym- ‘Medusa’. I mean I reckon it must have taken confidence to send that to a publisher! Indeed some of her work was published, including the poems and novels she also wrote, but preliminary research suggest it is ALL OUT OF PRINT now. Some works were never published, and you guessed it, no one bothered preserving them. Like many other women I’ve mentioned, distinguished contemporary scholars proclaimed that she was something special, but appears that no one was listening. I for one would have thought that her two novels would have gained some attention with their subject matter apparently centring around horror, madness, aristocratic seigneurial manor houses, and decadent Catholicism…

I definitely should be cooking food for my family not because I’m being oppressed but because I am hungry as are my siblings and despite my sister’s GCSE in ‘Food Technology’ she can make various versions of a Key/Quay Lime Pie but not much else. My brother is ten an he wants to make baked potatoes filled with cheese and sausages with the remaining potato mashed on the side. This will not be happening, not because I want to restrain his culinary creativity but because we have none of the required ingredients or energy today. So, I’lll leave you with a couple more for extra goodness: Cornelie van Oosterzee was the only woman to enter Heinrich Urban’s Master School of Instrumental Composers in Berlin and to top this she was awarded Knight of Order of Oranje-Nassau in 1897. I must say I did not know that was possible, but there you go. A brief sad fact: EVEN LAURA LEMON USED A PSEUDONYM AND THAT’S AN AWESOME NAME. A brief set of happier facts: Despite travelling from Boston to Munich to study, Margaret Lang was still barred from entering the Conservatory which didn’t allow women to take counterpoint lessons until 1889, she managed to become the first woman ever to have her composition performed by an American symphony orchestra and on top of that, holds the record for the longest consecutive subscription holder at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (91 years!)

There you go! Hope you found that interesting, enjoyable and at any rate better than Davey C.