How does gender affect your music? Ursel Schlicht

How does gender affect your music? Ursel Schlicht

Photo by Joerg Steinmetz

Gender has definitely had an effect on my compositional voice—which I only came to realize gradually in conjunction with my research about women composers in jazz.

What becomes the “mainstream” in jazz—and virtually all other kinds of music—has primarily been determined by men. Women and men tend to be guided towards different socially predetermined choices of instruments and musical styles. Often, women musicians grow into jazz without a peer group and are not encouraged to explore professional careers outside of classical music. This places many women outside the mainstream. It also tends to encourage other—and often very interesting—forms of artistic expression, adding significantly to the multiple forms of jazz-based music played today. The concept of a mainstream seems to shift towards a multitude of musical expression, reflecting today’s broader understanding of gender. We have moved from the classic dichotomy of maleness and femaleness towards a variety of ways women and men identify with gender.

While I was growing up in Oldenburg, Germany, the music education available to me took the form of classical lessons. Trained on the recorder and then piano, I dropped those lessons at age 15 and began studying the music I was more attracted to—at first, folk and rock; later jazz and other forms of improvisation. Local musicians who played in rock or jazz bands around town told me that you “can’t learn how to improvise.” Fascinated by the school rock band, it didn’t even occur to me that I—as a girl—could have sat down at that drum set. Listening to Jethro Tull, I started to learn the flute, playing along with Ian Anderson’s solos on the record. But without any context (like a band or a workshop), I eventually stopped doing it.

When I was 21, a jazz workshop with pianist Ann Ballester and guitarist Mimi Lorenzini in southern France opened up whole new musical worlds for me. I realized there actually were methods to learn how to play jazz. Having a woman pianist as my instructor added significantly to my new enthusiasm.

I subsequently studied music education in Kassel, Germany, one of the few universities to offer a broad range of classes, including a big band and group improvisation. There was only one jazz harmony/arrangement class available and I was the only student to finish an entire big band arrangement. However, it was never performed by the big band and I was not encouraged to continue writing. I felt that this absence of support had to do with my being a woman. Giving my work public exposure would have meant taking me seriously as a musician. The university environment didn’t seem to be ready to do that.

Several years later, I studied with Joanne Brackeen in New York. I had long been fascinated by her music and it was my first time studying with a woman musician since my experience in France. Her initial assignment was to have me finish some musical drafts and a week later I had completed two jazz compositions that are still being played today. I wrote a series of original pieces and then Brackeen recommended that I practice more “traditional” writing and do a “standard-type tune.” I couldn’t do it to my satisfaction. What came out was a harmonically modern piece in standard A-A-B-A form. Anything closer to a jazz standard felt like a clichÈ—stealing, copying, plagiarizing music that I didn’t consider my own no matter how much I loved it.

While working on my dissertation, “It’s Gotta Be Music First: Zur Bedeutung, Rezeption und Arbeitssituation von Jazzmusikerinnen” (“On the Impact, Perception and Working Situation of Women Jazz Musicians,” now published by Coda, 2000), I studied other women’s biographies, their approaches to music and composition. Many women instrumentalists play instruments less common in jazz: high woodwinds and strings instead of rhythm section and brass instruments.

It has been my observation that a high percentage of women composers have developed strong individual voices and incorporated a variety of stylistic elements. For example, a number of big bands composers, such as Toshiko Akiyoshi, Carla Bley, Maria Schneider, Anita Brown, or the United Women’s Orchestra in Europe, have each developed very distinct sounds. This seems to indicate that lacking peer groups, traditions, or a mainstream can lead to different artistic results.

In my own approach to improvisation and composition, this realization opened up a new set of choices. Like many women musicians, I felt that not having grown up with jazz from an early age presented a strong musical disadvantage and catching up on musical experience and technical skills seemed almost impossible. Instead, feeling that it’s “okay” not to become a mainstream player, finding a lot of music outside of the mainstream and significant contributions by women has helped to free me from the initial pressure to ground my work exclusively in the jazz tradition.

Today, my music is informed by a larger set of role models, inspirations, and settings than during my first years studying jazz. I experiment with different styles of jazz, including European and American forms of free improvised music, and listen to various contemporary composers and improvisers from both the “downtown” and the “uptown” scenes. Currently, my compositions tend to use frameworks for improvisation other than jazz tunes written for specific ensembles.

For example, at the Music OMI artists’ residency last summer, I did a conceptual piece for sixteen musicians which played to everybody’s strengths ranging from jazz to computer music, including a theremin, tabla, and turntables. At the moment, I am writing some pieces for an upcoming recording session on the CIMP label for my quartet, a group that largely plays free improvised music, and am also preparing music for a trio performance with piano, synthesizers, live electronics, and voice. During this year’s documenta, the world’s largest avant-garde art exhibition in Kassel, Germany, I curated an international collaboration between eight musicians of very different musical backgrounds from the U.S., Germany, Eritrea, India, and Afghanistan. Although I use different settings and concepts, my background as a jazz player is always an integral part of both my improvisation and my compositions.

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