The (Music) World (Still) Isn’t Flat (Yet)

Attending the Feminist Theory and Music 10 Conference at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro this past May was a welcome, rejuvenating experience. Directed by Elizabeth Keathley, the conference incorporated an extraordinary mix of scholarship and performance. It provided a rare opportunity to think intensely about music while experiencing a range of performances.

For instance, I had never heard of Anna Bon (c.1740-c.1767), a composer whose patron was Margravine Wilhelmine in Bayreuth (sister of Frederick the Great), or of the Pinko Communoids—to illustrate the range of offerings on the concerts. One keynote focused on Mary Lou Williams’s impact on jazz at Duke University. Another discussed Mexican-American women and the ranchera, a compelling popular song form. Former members of the UNCG all-woman big band, The Darlinettes, reminisced about life as young band members in the 1950s. Paper sessions with titles like “Opera In and Out of the Closet” and “Whiteness, Gender, and Sexuality” stimulated rich conversations over meals.

I relaxed being in a community of mostly women, too. Women’s accomplishments in the music world were the “buzz” at this conference: women of color, historical figures, contemporary women, lesbians, and transgendered women—how we compose, how we perform, how we listen, how we are received. What was surprising, and also revealing, was how empowering it was to be in conversation where women in music were at the center, rather than on the margins of the discussion.

My music is hardly in the mainstream, so in this way I choose to operate in the margins of contemporary musical life. But composing as a woman is not a choice, and there is no question that we are still a distinct minority. Attending FTM 10 brought that fact into relief. At the final plenary session, Lydia Hamessley, the organizer of the first FTM 20 years ago, noted that at its inception, she anticipated only 2 or 3 biennial conferences would be necessary. In her vision, the kind of scholarship presented at FTM would become mainstream, making the conference redundant in 5 or 6 years. Unfortunately, she was overly optimistic. Despite the disappointment that women in music have not yet reached parity, I left Greensboro grateful for the dedication of the scholars and musicians who steadfastly strive to achieve that goal.

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