A Conference on Women in Music: A Progress Report

October 1, 1982

A conference on women in music was sponsored by the School of Music of the University of Michigan under the aegis of Professor Marilyn Mason on March 12-14, 1982. The program committee was made up of three members of the University of Michigan faculty: Joyce Conley, chair, Catherine Nadon-Gabrion and Rosemary Russell. About 200 participants, almost all women, were offered thirty-odd sessions, starting with an anacrusis the evening of March 11—a recital of music by women working in the composition program of the University. It was an important anacrusis, for it emphasized the music itself, and in that sense it set the tone of the Conference more truly than the keynote speech which officially opened the program the next morning.

National meetings have in general taken on a character defined in large part by necessity and by scientific modularity. The necessity is that of increasing the number of participants, whose schools will pay travel expenses only for scholars presenting papers; as their numbers have increased, so has the number of panel presentations—four or five people in place of a single lecturer. The modular programing stems directly from the profusion of participants, and results in an intricate scheduled grid of simultaneous sessions that at best comprises an embarras de richesse and at worst an exhausting informational superfluity. My own response has been to become increasingly active in the more intimate regional meetings.

The benefits of the large meetings are obvious: the large number of participants assures attendance, while also providing a guarantee of a scope of presentation that will make attendance worthwhile. As an exchange center, a place where a multiplicity of ideas can be projected into the academic marketplace, they are efficient and forceful.

The explosion of information which characterizes this academic generation is felt tenfold in the newly emerging disciplines of women's studies. The International Congress on Women in Music has recognized this explosion in its programs, providing the vehicle for an impressive number of participants to speak on an amazing scope of subjects. The schedule for the Second International Congress (at the University of Southern California, April 2-4) presented over twice the number of sessions as the Ann Arbor meeting, in fewer hours, and with 18 panels, ten of them in one day.

Thus the Ann Arbor Conference was small, but the women who performed came from 15 states—Maine to Saskatchewan, Texas to Virginia—and it must be called a national meeting in the fullest sense. The meetings were held in the Rackham building, whose lovely concert hall provided an ambience of serenity and beauty and allowed the meetings a physical and symbolic focus. No two events were scheduled at the same time, the emphasis was clearly on the music, and although there were a few research papers, there was but one panel, at the end, set off by its subject matter and by its placement in the small amphitheater on the fourth floor of the Rackham building. A recital closed the Conference, in the Concert Hall, replying to the opening recital of newly-composed works by presenting the oldest music heard at the meetings: works by Isabella Leonarda and Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre.

The meat of the conference was the performance of music by sixty women composers, most of it from the last 150 years. All performances were live and the standard was high in both technique and in the respect and enthusiasm which characterized the attitude of the participants, who were neither condescending nor defensive, but above all else genuine.

Contemporary music was treated like the rest, neither segregated (except in the "anacrusis" concert of student composers) nor lionized in ipso. In such a context the not-quite-new can appear with honor, as can conservative composers in general; this was an unexpected bonus of the Conference. It is an interesting irony of our times that although the composers of the past now given cult status as "great" were not notable for the invention of musical materials, but created valid musical ideas within the language of their own day, we now tend to sort out composers, like so many strawberries, as inventive (good) or traditional (bad) in the use of materials, without reference to the quality of idea. By such a criterion Carroll's Jabberwocky is "greater" than any sonnet by Shakespeare.

Thus Lili Boulanger could speak on equal terms with Ruth Crawford, Dorothy James with Paule Maurice, Clara Wieck Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel with Elizabeth Luytens and Jean Eichelberger Ivey, Teresa Carreno with Grazyna Bacewicz, Mary Howe with Germaine Tailleferre, Jean Coulthard with Varvara Andrianova Gaigerova—a splendid geographical, temporal, and stylistic display that most concert programers could learn from.

An unusual defining force of the Conference was the use of a single speaker for both the kick-off and the banquet speech. As one of the older generation at a meeting attended in large part by the young, I was offered the opportunity of presenting ideas about women in music in this unique format; I chose to speak of the past in an opening lecture that sought to challenge entrenched musical anti-feminism, and of the future at the banquet in a conciliatory resolution.

Because so much talk of women composers is abstract, I tried to particularize and energize the issues by beginning with my own experiences as a young woman facing brick walls as a composer. Then I analyzed the mental processes of those who prejudge women's work; it seems to me that musical agents have constructed a scaffolding of "great music" which is hierarchical, narrow, and almost suicidally exclusive—excluding not only women but all "ethnic" musicians, Americans, "popular" music composers—almost everybody, come to think of it. A lot of effort has been wasted in attempts to hoist women (and other condemned types) into this exclusive group, but it seems wiser to build a new scaffolding. This would not do away with the music of the hierarchical cult, but would enable listeners to respond to music unselfconsciously, without being told what they were supposed to like; at best, obedient response is a joyless orthodoxy.

Reminding the members of the Conference that it is the whole point of music that it be freely savored, the hope for the future which was a main element of the banquet speech, may have provided a focus for the Conference—it would be pleasant to think so. The Conference did develop an exhilarating esprit de corps, more likely a coalescence of the concentration of the program as a whole, its high standard, and the joy already there for the participants before they arrived.

The esprit de corps was a vital element in the Conference, which, one member wrote to me afterwards, "proved to be the most stimulating and productive such gathering I've ever attended." Another wrote that she left Ann Arbor "floating on air."

The serendipities of the programs differed for everyone who attended, I am sure. For me, becoming acquainted with works new to me held many surprises (the stunning Chaminade piano sonata, for example), and these seemed keyed to the single-track programing, for had there been four simultaneous sessions, I probably would have been somewhere else.

The one discussion of scholarship (the panel that comprised the penultimate item of the Conference) was stimulating, but served as a cautionary demonstration of the danger of the theoretical claiming to be more important than the actual. Their brunt is sociological, sometimes political, but seldom musical. They must remember that their studies are peripheral, and that, to paraphrase Alexander Pope, the proper study of music is music. Some scholars of the computer methodology have persuaded themselves that no other methodology presents any reality, and even that they are the "pioneers" of women in music. In that case they must acknowledge the "explorers" who preceded them: women like Louise Cuyler and Helen Hewitt. Those women worked within a methodology defined in their own generation and the younger scholars are doing the same. It has always been the province of the young to believe that they have invented the world, and it has always been the duty of their bemused elders to inform them that, on the contrary, the world, though forever new, is also old. Certainly the new methodology will produce results important in musicological disciplines and we shall hope for more from these scholars.

The eight scholarly papers of the Conference covered a wide variety of subjects, from women musicians in ancient Greece, women as singers in Renaissance Italy and women in French Renaissance song lyrics, to studies of individual women (Ethel Smyth, Hazel Lucille Harrison, Olga Samaroff). At the banquet Professor Marilyn Mason announced the publication of a Proceedings of the Conference, which will be valuable. It is too bad that a record album cannot be issued as well.

Also at the banquet Dean Paul Boylan of the School of Music of the University of Michigan pledged that the Conference will continue in the future. No news could have been more enthusiastically welcomed by those at the Conference. A yearly meeting tied to a university rather than to an organization—that is, with a steady locus and avuncular sponsorship—this Conference has the potential to move ahead in unique and significant ways. One hopes that the excellence of the music presented in 1982 will encourage the university to commit a greater scope of performing personnel to the presentation of larger works, perhaps one each year.

The essential character of the initiating 1982 meeting, with its sense of unity, even of intimacy, has set an excellent precedent. The limitation of subjects, which is the replying sacrifice of one-track programing, in itself presented an unforeseen benefit: the spacious sense that the barrel has not been scraped, that there is plenty more where that came from, that one need not try to do everything at one meeting. In another year a string quartet, a chamber opera group, or a woodwind quartet could in a single concert provide a musical focus. The use of a featured speaker as catalyst was successful and could well continue.

The news that the University of Michigan has acquired the Ethel Smyth archive, which is good news to us all, puts that institution in the forefront of leadership.

Marilyn Mason and the program committee are to be congratulated on a rare good meeting. Everyone who was there—including the men, whose participation must certainly increase with time—left buoyed by the reaffirmation that there is a lot more women's music to be heard than anyone had imagined, and that it can stand proudly as the equal of any.

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