Over the last week or two I’ve been rereading Susan McClary’s landmark Feminine Endings. I first dove into this enormously influential collection of strategies for mounting a feminist critique of Western music several years ago, but I never quite felt that I’d given it the attention it deserved: Even though I was (and remain) very sympathetic to McClary’s theses, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder and was mostly interested in quibbling with details and finding fault; critical thinking, they call it. But now that I’m coming around to it again—maybe it’s the intervening exposure to Robin Lakoff and other sociolinguists—I don’t feel like I need to pick at the seams, for some reason; I can just enjoy McClary’s arguments.
When I read Feminine Endings for the first time, it struck me that many of her arguments have less to do with music than with discourse. At the time, I felt this was a weakness, obscuring the gripping case McClary makes when she writes about scores and performances rather than about lingo and libretti. But now, when I read passages like
Yet when musicians describe a compelling performance, they commonly describe it as “balls-to-the-wall” or say that it had “thrust,” and they accompany these words with the gesture of the jabbing clenched fist and the facial grimace usually reserved for purposes of connoting male sexual aggression. (130)two things happen: I caution myself never to use such terms as “balls-to-the-wall” or indulge in an orgasmic rictus while describing compelling performances, and I feel better about the way I write music. This has been the real takeaway with Feminine Endings the second time around: My music “worked” better in 2007 than it does today; it had more “thrust,” more teleological propulsion. However, the assumptions about how we experience musical time that informed my pieces a few years ago I now believe to be false. It took me a little while to figure it out, but I suspect that any piece vulnerable to the structural accusations leveled by McClary—that is to say, a piece conforming to a conventional tension-release model—is probably also ripe for critique for reasons unrelated to its legibility with respect to gender and sexuality. A big dramatic buildup and a huge cadence (in the loose sense) at the end are features that not only fit McClary’s criteria for masculinism but also assume that a moment of consummation and closure after a period of struggling and being made to wait is a listening experience that’s meaningful. It may be—but it’s also an experience that could have been, and indeed was, described by the music of the early 1800s, which is an equally good reason (as good as its homology to violence, that is) not to ape it.
I’m willing to accept that a piece that’s “shaped” like Beethoven’s Ninth is homologous to an act of sexual violence. That’s a startling finding and one whose implications should be taken seriously. But what McClary, a musicologist, doesn’t have to deal with in Feminine Endings is the possibility that her discovery is another form of evidence as well: evidence that such a piece is also homologous to a whole lot of experiences that don’t speak particularly strongly about 21st-century life. The payoff of the Ninth is inconceivably utopian and naïve in 2010, and anything that offers such a complete and breathlessly forthright return on its investment must be lying to you.
Way back during the G. H. W. Bush administration, I doubt very much that Susan McClary was worried about what white male heteronormative composers from the future would think of Feminine Endings. But I hope she appreciates that arriving at a fundamentally new way of apprehending music is a major advancement whose ramifications can’t help but radiate, even nearly twenty years later, to places that may be quite far from their source.