Diversity and Debate at the Feminist Music and Theory 7 Conference

A group of scholars, musicians, and composers descended upon Bowling Green, Ohio, last month to participate in three days packed with papers, panel discussions, concerts, and socializing as part of the Feminist Theory and Music 7 conference. The theme of the conference, which is held every two years, was Crossing Cultures – Crossing Disciplines, and the range of scholarship was impressive, viewing popular, classical, avant-garde, and world music through the lens of feminist and queer theory.

Although this year’s conference was hosted by Bowling Green State University, Marilyn Shrude, who organized the performance element of the event, points out that the offerings at this conference often stray from straight-ahead academia. “The topics vary widely—Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Alban Berg. What better place to try out such ideas than an academic institution? We should not hesitate to forge into what might be less comfortable territory.”

For Ellen Koskoff, this year’s keynote speaker, the conference is a rare opportunity for scholars of “separate music disciplines who are interested in theorizing the intersection of gender and music to come together.” With no official organization sponsoring the event, the conference is a grass-roots effort that encourages great diversity of thought.

“The venue is important for the presentation of a cross-section of research on women’s music and feminist theory,” notes Shrude. “Women will always have a bit of an uphill battle. Dealing with the cultural ‘baggage’ can be difficult—society’s impression of who and what we are.”

This year’s programs focused heavily on ethnomusicology and how relationships between gender and music are affected by cultural variables. Particular sections focused on Islam, Gender, and Music, ethnographies of music in Boston Society, Turkey, and Sweden, various Asian musics, and a discussion of feminist ethnographic practices, chaired by Koskoff. Admitting her prejudice for ethnomusicology, Koskoff relates that “this year’s conference was unusually powerful for me. There were a number of really good papers, especially from ethnomusicologists who are still trying to teach our musicology colleagues just what we do—on intersubjectivity as a more or less feminist project and how this helps in fieldwork or library research.”

Other topics covered more purely musicological studies of sound, sociological perspectives of women in music, and historical analyses. For a complete list of abstracts, you can visit the FTM7 site. Concerts in the evenings featured compositions and improvisatory work by Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner, Elainie Lillios, Chin-Chin Chen, Monique Buzzarté, Kristen Nordeval, Pauline Oliveros, Tomie Hahn, Katherine Hoover, Jennifer Higdon, Rebecca Clarke, and Shrude.

And while an intensive three days dedicated to this subject may indicate an increased awareness of the significant contributions women have made to music, Koskoff sees a long road ahead. “As long as we continue to send double messages to young girls (and boys) about the boundaries of their own gender/sexuality identities through media, etc, while at the same time telling them they all have equal opportunities, we will be in for a confusing, and ultimately, frustrating time.

“We really need to mean it when we say that it’s ok for women to be composers, play the drums, etc., and that it’s ok for men to play the harp and to teach elementary school, rather than continuing to also send underlying messages with more powerful but less overt ones that say the opposite,” she continues. “I don’t know if this can be totally fixed—most cultures, including our own, are pretty rigid in terms of gender roles and identity construction—not much wiggle room there. Lots has to change before these ideas can have real currency.”

And while for Shrude the diversity represented through the conference was a highlight, debate on the International Alliance for Women in Music listserv indicates that even in the midst of a supportive community some old grievances, particularly the conflict between popular and classical/electronic music, have arisen. Composer Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner, who presented a paper at the conference as well as having one of her works performed, was concerned with the lack of research presented on concert music. She claimed that her main caveat with the conference was “the preponderance of great research about crappy music!…If you have people applying queer theory to the B-52’s and not to Pierre Boulez and John Cage (who are/were gay); If you have people applying queer and feminist theory to Tracy Chapman and not Pauline Oliveros….well, well – we’ve got a problem.”

In response, Roberta Lamb, from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, who’s also the listowner of GRIME, the Gender Research in Music Education, blew the whistle on high/low art designations. “I would not want to judge that one kind of music per se is better than another. Popular music studies have a place in music scholarship. And I would not want us to limit our studies to the “good” music & musicians of any genre—that’s how women were eliminated from the picture in the past.”

However, according to Hinkle-Turner, one attendee wasn’t familiar with the name Alice Shields. But she certainly is now, which seems to be a great indication that the conference was successful in providing a forum for the sharing of knowledge and exchange of ideas by different facets of the music community. Monique Buzzarté, a trombonist and composer who attended the conference this year, sums it up, writing, “As conferences go I believe that the FTM, however flawed, does a better job than others I’ve attended of mixing up scholars with composers and educators and performers and activists—and people who wear several of these hats.” The next conference will be in two years.