Fighting the Good Fight

There is so much work left to do…

That is what I think when I hear about or read about or see an example of ignorance in one form or another about the state of contemporary concert music today. It is the reason why I started a radio show back when I lived in Oklahoma, and it’s the reason why I decided to interview 50 composers and edit their words into something that both laymen and professionals can find both entertaining and informative. It is what I have been reminded of by a confused and confusing newspaper article and what compels me to respond.

Recently the Guardian‘s Fiona Maddocks gave to the world “Women composers: Notes from the musical margins,” an article that both decries the lack of female composers in today’s musical world and provides vivid examples of the exact attitude that has made it so difficult for composers of both genders to gain a foothold in that world. For most of the article Maddock seems as if she’s going to speak truth to power with regard to the lack of mainstream composers who are women (albeit with a severely European view). And then she closes with this:

So now that the alibis and inequalities have gone, all doors are open. Still we cannot escape the unanswered, unfashionable and, certainly, uncomfortable question: for all the many good, even excellent women composers, why has there not yet been a great one? Where is the possessed, wild-eyed, crackpot female answer to Beethoven, who battled on throught [sic] deafness, loneliness, financial worry and disease to create timeless masterpieces?

The answer, and I run for cover even raising the matter, may lie in biology or even psychopathology.

With these few, misguided words, Maddocks eviscerates any chance that anyone could or should take her seriously on the subject of contemporary composers—not only women, but of any contemporary composer. She reflects the lazy fetishism of “glorious Ludwig Van” that seems to still run through the veins of so many in the music community by equating what was one man’s life history (no doubt through the filter of spin-doctor-biographers, as is often the case) with what all composers should have to experience.

Most people don’t know what composers’ lives are like today—deafness and disease might not be rampant, but I don’t know many composers who don’t have to fight off financial worry or loneliness at some level—and that lack of knowledge obviously isn’t helping the situation. Perhaps Ms. Maddocks would want to read this fine (and prescient) response-a-month-before-it-happened by Laura Schwendinger for starters on the gender issue…and a few of my interviews (once they’re published) might help to de-mysticize that whole “wild-eyed masterpiece” hang-up. The more we all can do to fight these stereotypes and show our world for what it is, the better.

There is so much work left to do…

7 thoughts on “Fighting the Good Fight

  1. TimR-J

    Actually, the bigger problem with that article is simply that several of the composers Maddocks points to just simply aren’t very good. And she fails to mention most of those who are…

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  2. Armando

    Well, the cult of the masterpiece is one that even some composers–okay, who am I kidding? I–have to deal with still, at least in our generation, Rob. I got into music in part because I was introduced to “glorious Ludwig van” (and why does that phrase make me want to hear Purcell on a Moog? Oh, yeah…) and my sense of what success as a composer means has been, through the years, largely tied to the notions of Beethoven not as a person or a working composer, but as a myth.

    Thankfully, I think we’re slowly moving out of this mindset, writing music that we WANT to write and hear and not worrying so much about the linear development of our craft. I find I sleep better when I remember that there have been many princes, but there will only ever be one Beethoven, to paraphrase the man himself, and that the development of music as an art will take care of itself. As I’ve said in another context, the music of the future will take care of itself, and the past is there to be learned from, but is past. I’m more concerned about writing the music of the (my) present.

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  3. Rob Deemer

    Totally understandable, Armando…the whole masterpiece/”great composer” thing has been around for a very long time and it’s had an enormous impact on both the rise and fall of concert/classical music’s popularity (and the subsequent positive & negative influence in both directions on composers) over the past 100+ years. So has the lack of concert music on television over the past 30 years. And public radio’s infatuation with a relatively narrow sampling of the repertoire.

    Dealing with the situation is something we all have to do, and it’s up to each one of us to decide whether or not we swim with the current, fight against it, or attempt to strike a balance between the two (something I know you’ve been doing with your own work and your programming with the Great Noise Ensemble).

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  4. Ratzo B. Harris

    I agree that Maddox’s article shoots itself in the foot. It’s always great to learn about obscure names of influential individuals in music (for me: Unsuk Chin, Lili Boulanger, Dame Ethel Smyth, Barbara Hepworth, Tracey Emin, Elizabeth Maconchy, Minna Keal, Elena Kats-Chernin, Sue Perkins, Joycelyn Pook, and David Drummond), but it helps to look outside the European paradigm to include worthy contemporary Americans (Carla Bley, Anita Brown, Noah Ain) or (gasp) African-Americans (Mary Lou Williams, Blanche Calloway, Bernice Johnson Reagon) and Native Americans (Joy Harjo, Buffy St. Marie). After all, isn’t there more to great music than the piano and orchestra?

    I also agree that looking to Beethoven as an example of climbing into greatness ignores the fact that he was made-in-the-shade in his life. He was very popular as a composer when he was alive (would a contemporary correlate be Maria Schneider, who — as far as I know — is the only person to win a Grammy for a self-produced and released album not available in a store?). Maddox might have made a stronger argument for J.S. Bach. His compositions were fairly consistently under-appreciated during his lifetime until Fanny Mendelssohn’s brother cashed in on him.

    Contrary to your argument, though, I think Maddox might have something in the answer lying in biology. It is a white-male supremacist dominated industry that controls the content of the historiographies that has guided the contemporary canon of music. Women have been, for whatever reasons one must give, largely relegated to homemakering and, occasionally, the role of superior sovereign. All the while, the nuts and bolts are designed by the kind of man who holds the ideal of maleness on his pedestal. I sometimes wonder what music history would look like if Lucrezia Borgia, and not Lully, had been advising The Sun King.

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  5. Elena

    Where is the possessed, wild-eyed, crackpot female answer to Beethoven, who battled on throught [sic] deafness, loneliness, financial worry and disease to create timeless masterpieces?

    Maddocks seems to be writing a specific personality and life profile for the next female masterpiece-writer. No one should expect a great composer to match the qualities that other influential writers had. And why must artists be expected to have difficult, troublesome lives? It is certainly true that a lot of composers who have gone through terrible times in their lives produce great music because of it, and it’s fortunate that something beautiful can come out of those periods (Shostakovich, Schubert, Chopin, Mozart…), but there are also composers who have had the privilege of not suffering from incredibly tough lives (that one can tell), and they can produce great music as well. And, like you mentioned, Rob, suffering has changed through the years and will probably never be the same type of suffering that Beethoven went through.
    Maddocks has a point that there hasn’t been a mainstream-recognized female version of Beethoven, but I don’t think anyone can expect that or think it is necessary. Like Armando said, “there will only ever be one Beethoven…” Composers hopefully are not concerned with living up to the expectations that history or Beethoven have supposedly set up; they should, also like Armando mentioned, be “writing music that we WANT to write…”
    It’s also sometimes hard to distinguish “masterpieces” as they are being premiered. One will never know what is going to become the stand-out work of the era or what will fall into the masses (like mentioned before by Ratzo B. Harris, Bach was never commended as the god of music he is today during his time). Perhaps there is a “female Beethoven” lurking among us, and some of her compositions probably are masterpieces, but Maddocks and other might have not recognized her yet.

    -Elena

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  6. holbrooke

    Good discussion. Although I do encourage you all to open up a little bit and consider for a moment that you might be making this tragic oversight: The greatest female composers of recent history did not make music in the forms, venues, institutions, styles, etc. of the great old white males. Do you not take Nina Simone, Elizabeth Cotten, or Sister Rosetta Tharpe seriously? I do.
    To those of us who care about this music, these women, and their culture, their greatness (in terms of both musical contribution and mythical stature) is on par with the old European masters.

    Reply

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