Deconstructing McClary: Narrative, Feminine Sexuality, and Feminism in Susan McClary's Feminine Endings
Deconstructing McClary: Narrative, Feminine Sexuality, and Feminism in Susan McClary's Feminine Endings1
The frustration and excitement of reading Kristeva's writings makes my own relationship to them similar to what she describes as the relation to the abject mother. I am both attracted to and repelled by her writings at the same time. Like the abject mother, her writings are both sublime and repulsive. And I am fascinated by them. I am drawn to them in a struggle to control them by interpreting them, by understanding them, by making sense out of them. What you will read is the result of my struggle to understand and interpret Kristeva's writings.2
One only needs to substitute "McClary" for "Kristeva" in the quote above, and it captures perfectly my experience of reading Feminine Endings—both exasperating and exhilarating, frustrating but compelling. I could not put it down, except for the times I was throwing it at the wall. What follows is my examination of this reaction; it is my struggle to interpret, understand, and make sense out of McClary's work.
Since the early 1970s, the analytic techniques developed by feminists have gained wide acceptance in many fields, including literary criticism, biology, art history, anthropology, and film criticism. While some scholars have used feminist theory to engage popular culture, including popular music, and other musicologists have begun the historical excavation of the lost tradition of women's compositions and musical roles in society, Susan McClary declares her book, Feminine Endings, to be the first work explicitly dedicated to a feminist critique of music, especially as it functions in the traditional academic disciplines of musicology and music theory.3
McClary's work has spawned a storm of discussion and new research in the field. But despite a few early reactions to her book, only now are critical responses beginning to emerge, especially from theorists. I will not attempt a comprehensive review of Feminine Endings; others have already done so.4 Instead, I will focus on the interaction and tension between McClary's work and other feminist theories, including those she acknowledges and those she does not, especially in relation to her theory of narrative, and the issues of feminine/masculine sexuality and authority. To this end, I hope this article will be a contribution to what one reviewer has called a "long overdue dialogue."5
Especially because of its appeal to non-musicians, its engagement of popular music, and its accessible writing style, Feminine Endings' influence and methods have spread rapidly. But this quick acceptance has its difficulties as well. As Paula Higgins puts it, "Feminine Endings risks becoming one of those books that one can presume to know without having actually read it."6 That is, some scholars (especially those who either do not write on feminism and music or are new to the field) take McClary's work, or what they have heard about McClary's work, as the Truth of The Feminist Theory of Music.7 Some embrace her views quickly and apply them to broad repertoires; others dismiss them just as quickly, often without a careful reading of the text on either side. As the phrase "Susan McClary has shown" becomes more and more prevalent in the literature of this field and others, it becomes crucial to ask just what McClary has shown. McClary has performed a valuable service by forcing mainstream music scholarship to respond to feminism, but we need to examine what her "grounding" assumptions are, both explicit and implicit, especially those borrowed from literary criticism and feminist theories. What are the results of uncritically accepting these assumptions?
One of McClary's central arguments is that Western, common practice tonal music relies on transmitting semiotic codes of gender, sexuality, and sexual activity itself to produce its effects on the listening audience. She writes:
Tonality itself—with its process of instilling expectations and subsequently withholding promised fulfillment until climax—is the principal musical means during the period from 1600 to 1900 for arousing and channeling desire . . . . [T]onal compositions . . . whip up torrents of libidinal energy that are variously thwarted or permitted to gush.8
Because music influences and "even constitute[s] the ways listeners experience and define some of their own most intimate feelings, [it] participates actively in the social organization of sexuality."9 And, because the social constructions of sexuality, gender, and desire are crucial to the maintenance of patriarchal, hegemonic structures, music is political. This gives rise to a set of familiar feminist questions: How is gender being constructed? What is the listener being invited to desire, and why?10
McClary answers these questions (in the case of sonata form anyway) through the use of narrative. Although other analysts have used narrative, McClary draws her use from Teresa de Lauretis' application to film of one of the feminist revisions of traditional structural narrative. It is not the purpose of this article to argue whether or not narrative theory "works" for music, or to discuss the problems inherent in narrative in general.11 My purpose is to examine the effect that McClary's use of narrative has on the possibilities for feminist theories of music. In her reading of de Lauretis, McClary writes: "regardless of the manifest content of particular stories, . . . two functions [male-hero/female-obstacle] interact in accordance with a schema already established in advance—the masculine protagonist makes contact with but must eventually subjugate (domesticate or purge) the designated (feminine) Other in order for identity to be consolidated, for the sake of satisfactory narrative closure."12
For McClary, this narrative is crucial to the formal conventions of 'absolute' music in that "the sonata procedure that comes to characterize instrumental music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries" realizes this scheme, with the first theme/key area in the position of the protagonist, and the "less dynamic" second theme/key area in the position of the feminine Other.13 McClary appeals to the authority of the score by insisting that she always focuses "on the music itself."14 But in this case, she is instead describing a nineteenth-century conception of sonata form.
As McClary acknowledges, it is not until A.B. Marx in the mid-nineteenth century that the well-known theoretical description of masculine and feminine themes is formulated. But for McClary, "the fact that themes were not referred to in this fashion until the mid-nineteenth century does not mean that earlier pieces are free of gendered marking: the themes of many an eighteenth-century sonata movement draw upon the semiotics of "masculinity" and "femininity" as they were constructed on the operatic stage, and thus are readily recognizable in their respective positions within the musical narratives [italics mine]."15
Yet in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when writing about the form of sonatas, Abbé Vogler (1749-1814) calls musical passages "second themes," but these are not the second themes of the traditional "sonata form" taught in music appreciation class.16 Rather, the eighteenth-century ideal of unity in diversity seemed apparent, or was sought anyway, in much music. Thus in most cases, when Vogler describes a first "strong" theme followed by a second "gentle" theme, he was describing what we would today call a two-part first group, both in the same key. Certainly these descriptions by Vogler can be seen to draw on the binary distinctions between male and female in music, with the female being the gentle contrast/complement to the male. Marx also retains this gender coding, but it is not until his description (and the music that he describes) that this opposition becomes structural in the sense that McClary needs it to be in order to fulfill the requirements of this particular narrative. Thus in early sonatas, "gentle" feminine moments were likely used as immediate local contrast in the same key, not as "structural" elements.17 This kind of "theme" can not serve as the "feminine Other," because it is never "conquered," or brought back to the original key; it occupies the same functional space or slot as the "masculine theme."
Of course, it is possible to argue that the second key area, no matter what the "gendered" content, is morphologically female simply as the second narrative slot (as McClary later does). In fact, if this is true, then the idea that the gendered content of the first "male" and second "female" narrative positions changes over time seems to be more interesting than requiring a unitary formula for all sonata form (a tactic that McClary seems to despise in conventional theory and analysis). Thus McClary's theoretical presentation of narrative as a static structure flattens out difference (something feminist theory has sought to avoid). Moreover, it actually closes off a rich field of feminist inquiry, one that would support a multi-disciplinary link between changing views of "the feminine" in society, philosophy, and music.
Having said that, there is an interesting tension between McClary's theoretical formulation of narrative in the introduction to her book, and her application of it to music elsewhere.18 When she analyzes Tchaikovsky's Fourth and Brahms's Third Symphonies (in a later article in Musicology and Difference), she looks at how the pieces are differentin Brahms's Third, this narrative acts only as a "sub-plot," and the "real" conflict in the piece is between the pitches A and A-flat.19 That McClary feels at some level that she needs a monolithic structure illustrates how seductive these kinds of theories can be. It also shows how problematic they can be, because it leads her to set up an implicit normal/deviant binary. Tchaikovsky's narrative deviates because of his homosexuality; in fact, as Kallick has also pointed out, McClary stresses the importance of ferreting out more straight narratives with which to compare gay narratives, thereby reinforcing the gay/straight binary that much gay criticism has focussed on deconstructing.20 This also uncritically reproduces the normal/deviant dualism that has been historically mapped onto male/female, and that much feminist thought has tried to deconstruct as well.
Just because feminist thought has tried to deconstruct binaries does not mean that we can ignore their existence. The Western world still tends to organize itself in terms of male/female, black/white, gay/straight, normal/deviant. But there is a real difference between pointing out that these binaries existed as a basis for theories about music, and building new theoretical structures that require and replicate these same binaries. Do we need to teach ourselves to hear/analyze/understand in this way, even if the music was originally produced in such an environment? That is, there can be a difference between historical criticism, reception/spectator theory, and "the music itself," and that boundary is not always clear.
As I have argued, this need for a totalizing theory also leads her to overlook the different implementations of gender-coding in earlier sonata forms. McClary herself seems uncomfortable applying this formulation of narrative to early and "classical" sonata forms, at one time writing that composers such as Haydn and Mozart invested their second themes with great sympathy, so that we regret their domination;21 later she writes that Haydn's and Handel's stories don't demand sadism at all.22 Yet de Lauretis is quite clear on this point: "[S]adism demands a story or story demands sadism, however one prefers to have it."23 (This is also inescapable from following to its logical conclusion McClary's later mapping of male sexuality onto tonality. If tonality is a map of male sexual activity, and this same tonality requires subjugation, submission, or purging of the Other for closure/resolution/sexual pleasure, then all tonal music that follows these patterns is sadistic.) Are Mozart, Haydn, and Handel to be seen as deviant as well? If so, what is left?
This is not to deny that some music may embody McClary's narrative scheme. In fact, some of what is left is the Beethoven that McClary points out. Why our society chooses to venerate that part of the canon, to hold up those specific works of Beethoven that McClary finds violence in while de-emphasizing other pieces in Beethoven's output is an interesting question, as is, of course, questioning McClary's choice of these pieces from Beethoven's repertoire; both of these issues are open to feminist inquiry.
McClary's use of feminist narrative may tell more about theoretical and musicological conceptions of sonata form in the nineteenth century, and our time and culture's reconstruction of it, than about tonal sonata form and tonality "itself" as a uniform structure from 1700-1900. It may also tell more about McClary's position as a female, feminist musicologist in the 1990s who was musically "brought up" in a structuralist and materialist tradition, and whose stated purpose is to find "evidence that the overwhelming responses I experience with music are not just in my own head, but rather are shared."24 McClary states that "in the world of traditional narrative, there are no 'feminine endings.'"25 This leads her to consider what a "feminine ending" could be, how a woman would compose outside of the "phallic economy" of tonality, and how a woman would write as a gendered being. This also leads us to an even thornier discussion of the nature of McClary's vision of feminine/female sexuality.
Not only does classical tonal music utilize a narrative of a male protagonist conquering a feminine Other, but for McClary it also "presents a wide range of competing images and models of sexuality." Specifically, she is again "especially concerned with deconstructing the Master Narrative of 'Absolute Music,'" which describes male sexual experience.26 In order to understand McClary's analyses, it is crucial to understand her view of male and female sexuality/ies. And since McClary defines female sexuality as something outside of male sexuality, it is first necessary to examine what this "phallic economy" entails.
McClary draws on two different versions of the erotic from the seventeenth century, desire and pleasure, for her categories of male and female sexuality. (It is clear here that McClary is describing constructed sexualities as opposed to essential ones. As we shall see, when the emphasis shifts from descriptive to prescriptive, this distinction begins to blur.) The image of desire, which postpones gratification of a need until the climax/ejaculation, is the model of male sexuality in tonal music. McClary's view of male sexuality is scattered throughout the book, and is often contradictory, but how she maps male sexual activity onto a piece of music is clear from the following passage (from her description of Janika Vandervelde's Jack and the Beanstalk):
The music depicting the beanstalk's erection and penetration [of the clouds] is a highly venerable gesture—one that marks the heroic climax of many a tonal composition. A kind of pitch ceiling consolidates, against which melodic motives begin to push as though against a palpable obstacle. As frustration mounts, the urgency of the motivic salvos increases; they move in shorter and shorter time spans, until they succeed finally in bursting through the barrier with a spasm of ejaculatory release. This musical gesture occurs prominently in many of our favorite repertories . . . which mysteriously becomes our own experience of libidinal satisfaction.27
Thus the model for male sexual behavior can be generally understood as erection-penetration-climax-closure. This has political consequences beyond the concert hall, because this form of male erotic pleasure
. . . is most concerned with the exclusive control of sexuality by the male . . . . [T]he omnipresence of this formal pattern in literature and music is part of a larger cultural tendency to organize sexuality in terms of the phallus, to devalue or even to deny other erotic sensibilities (especially that of the female), to impose and maintain a hierarchy of power based on gender.28
Thus the sexual stories told by music are not only constructed by but participate in the formation of political, social and cultural institutions. McClary is sometimes careful to distinguish between this socially-constructed public male sexuality and potential male sexuality, and to avoid masculine essentialist stereotypes; but in other instances it seems that McClary believes there is such a thing as a single male sexuality that is a common experience for all males—and it is not always clear that she believes it is culturally constructed.
Female sexuality is posited as the opposite of male sexuality. In contrast to desire, the image of pleasure, coded feminine, was a timeless, suspended hovering, and was often portrayed, and hence produced, through the use of ostinato or modal ambiguities. Music of this type creates "pitch-worlds in which the point is to prolong a kind of pleasure/pain until it melts away in exhaustion."29 According to McClary, the opposite image of desire, identified with males, demonstrated male "rationality, their rhetorical prowess, their ability to set and achieve long-term goals."30 It is this image that wins historically; this explains the success of tonal music, and the disappearance of female "voluptuous pain/pleasure images" after the seventeenth century. McClary provides the requisite disclaimers, such as:
For even though our obsession for classifying all music stylistically might make us want to jump impulsively at the chance to codify the distinctive characteristics of a 'women's music,' there can be no such single thing, just as there is no universal male experience or essence.31
But it does appear that there is some kind of essential feminine sexuality that is preferable to male sexuality. I do not want to use the label of "essentialism" as an objection in itself (which has become a very fashionable way for some feminists to dismiss a lot of important work); instead, I want to point out the difficulties that arise if we accept this appearance of it.
Female sexuality/pleasure is identified with music that is circular, non-tonal, and non-coercive; for McClary, this can be found in pre-17th-century music.32 McClary identifies tonality as the dominant discourse; thus this feminine music occupies a pre-discursive position. However, McClary believes it is possible to recover this type of feminine sexuality in music by women composers. This nostalgia for pre-discursive "women's music" is very similar to the positions of several French feminists as their ideas were imported to America at the time McClary was writing.33 Both Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray desire to return to a female essence that is "before the law"/pre-Oedipal/pre-discursive/pre-language. For Kristeva, it is a return to a pre-repressed/pre-Oedipal maternal essence; for Irigaray, it is a return to a pre-discursive, woman-identified womanhood. Irigaray describes feminine sexuality in terms surprisingly similar to McClary's: "the movement of the sea, the coming and going, the continual flux. [It] seems to me quite close to my jouissance as a woman, completely foreign to an economy of erection and tumescence."34 In fact, both Hélène Cixous and Irigaray use the metaphor of the sea, with its cyclic, unceasing motion, as the location of the subversive, feminine "elsewhere." That McClary is thinking along these lines is especially apparent in her description of students' responses to pieces of music. I quote her presentation of her students' reactions to Genesis II by Janika Vandervelde, which begins with a "clockwork" ostinato. (McClary's choice of this piece, which, according to the composer presents a sonic image of childbirth, as an example of "writing as a woman," raises several problematic and complex issues of tying the maternal to feminine pleasure, especially concerning Kristeva. Similarly, McClary relies heavily on the notion of woman as Other in her use of narrative, but she then postulates a feminine sexuality outside of the phallus, which requires recognizing the binary of self and Other as phallically constrained; thus the feminine becomes the unrepresentable rather than Other. I think these problems can be productively engaged, even reconciled, but it is interesting to note that McClary either does not recognize these issues, or chooses to silence them.)
Interestingly, many women students recognize in the clockwork an image of female erotic pleasure . . . pleasure that permits confident, free, and open interchange with others. They also recoil in horror when the clockwork is subjected to the assault of the violent string parts. By contrast, many of the men in the classes often report having heard the clockwork as a "void," and they tend to be relieved when the strings rush in to "make something happen." Usually the two groups gaze at one another in bleak disbelief, as though they have just discovered that they are irreconcilably of different species. 35
And again, when describing reactions to Langue D'Amour by Laurie Anderson:
When I play this piece, male students often complain that it makes no sense, that nothing happens in it, that it is creepy and vague. In short, it lacks narrative. But the women tend to beam at each other in recognition of something they have never heard formulated in music and yet feel they have always known.36
The language that McClary chooses is very revealing. Her "women students recognize in the clockwork an image of female erotic pleasure." They do not merely hear that it is circular and might map onto a particular version of female sexuality: Female erotic pleasure is in the clockwork, and women recognize it simply because they are women. Men identify with the thrusting string parts simply because they are men. Similarly, women "beam at each other in recognition of something [feminine sexual pleasure] they have never heard formulated in music and yet feel they have always known [my italics]." The biggest question is, how do women recognize this pleasure? How do they know, if they have never heard it before? If, as McClary asserts, we are inundated with and come to identify with and desire the male phallic economy in music from the time we start watching cartoons as children, then there are two possible answers. The first is that women go through a personal discovery of the "true" feminine self while listening to this music—and this self is the same, or at least recognizable, for all women. This true self would be reflected in pre-discursive, pre-tonal music, as well as pre-non-phallic sexual experience. There are several problems with this naturalization of essentialism.37 One is the feasibility of returning to a pre-discursive sexual/musical reality. The second is the use of "woman" as a universal category.
Judith Butler has pointed out that the utopian notion of sex freed from a phallic construct, a popular idea among some lesbian feminists as well, "fail[s] to acknowledge the ways in which power relations continue to construct sexuality for women even within the terms of a 'liberated' heterosexuality or lesbianism. The same criticism is waged against the notion of a specifically feminine sexual pleasure that is radically differentiated from phallic sexuality."38 Rather, "sexuality is always constructed within the terms of discourse and power, where power is partially understood in terms of heterosexual and phallic cultural conventions . . . . [T]he postulation of a normative sexuality that is 'before,' 'outside,' or 'beyond' power is a cultural impossibility and politically impractical dream, one that postpones the concrete and contemporary task of rethinking subversive possibilities and identity within the terms of power itself."39 Similarly, although McClary often cites Foucault, including his History of Sexuality, her analyses tend to essentialize sex in the same way that Foucault, as read by Butler, warns against:
"One way in which power is both perpetuated and concealed is though the establishment of an external or arbitrary relation between power, conceived as repression or domination, and sex, conceived as a brave but thwarted energy waiting for release or authentic self-expression. [T]his . . . presumes that . . . power always and only works to subdue or liberate a sex which is fundamentally intact, self-sufficient, and other than power itself.40
This leads to the second problem, that of using woman as a universal category. McClary consistently uses the term "woman" to refer to all women, which should be problematic for any feminist theorist. As Butler writes, "If one 'is' a woman, that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pre-gendered 'person' transcends the specific paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts."41 While it is of course not possible to describe all the complex intersections of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and so on in a 220-page book, this use of "woman" simply adds to the impression of a uniform, essential feminine sexuality. Added to this is the complication that McClary's use of "woman," especially in its exclusive binary relation to "man," works only within a heterosexual matrix.42
If we reject the idea that McClary's female students discovered their "true" feminine selves while listening to this music, the other possible answer is that all sexuality, male and female, is constructed, not natural or essential. Thus the female students would recognize feminine erotic experience because it is what our culture expects a woman to be (for example, women have often been associated with the moon, and considered cyclical, which would explain the women's association with a repetitive clock motive). This has several implications for McClary's analysis of Vandervelde's Genesis II.
McClary reads Vandervelde's piece as a sonic clockwork image of birth and feminine sexuality in general, against which a traditional, violent "male" string section plays. After the strings collapse, the static feminine clockwork continues (a true feminine ending). Although McClary points out that there may be problems with the premises of Genesis (for example, it can be seen as merely reversing the old "masculine/feminine theme" binary, or encouraging essentialist readings), she asserts that Vandervelde's major accomplishment "is an approach to composition that permits her—expressly as a woman—to inhabit a traditional discourse, to call into question its gestures and procedures from the inside, and to imagine from that vantage point the possibility of other narrative schemata."43
If it is indeed possible to call into question phallic music, what are the alternatives? If we accept McClary's premise of phallically-organized tonal music, no matter how many new ways a woman composer sets out to write "as a woman," she will be defining herself in terms of what she is not—a phallically-focussed male composer. Thus it is not just a question of the "danger" of essentialist readings such as mapping femininity onto nature and cycles (as McClary does in her analysis of Vandervelde's Genesis II). Instead, if a piece merely points out musical codes that are phallic/male, or sets out to be "feminine" in comparison to a "masculine" piece, or shows that a phallic piece is "bad" compared to a "feminine" one (and McClary clearly thinks feminine erotic pleasure is better than that of males), it only serves to reinscribe the old male-female binary that constructions of gender depend on; instead of being subversive, it simply invents a new category of opposition and therefore upholds the patriarchal structure based on that binary. In fact, most of her discussion of male and female sexuality is dependent on this heterosexual framework. Every time I read her descriptions of students' reactions, I find myself wondering: Were there no lesbians or gay men in the class? Is feminine heterosexual sexuality the same as lesbian sexuality? Does the opposition of feminine and masculine sexuality that dominates the book hold up?44 These issues are simply not addressed.
One of the best examples of how hard it is to get outside of the phallic economy is McClary's conclusion to the chapter on Laurie Anderson. After retelling the myth of Tiresias, who was struck blind for revealing that woman's sexual pleasure was seven times that of man, she writes:45
Think of it. Think of it as. Think of it as a new way. Think of it as a new way of structuring time.
This is meant to be feminine, but it seems to me a perfect way to withhold climax, and build tension until the final resolution and completion of the sentence, both visually and verbally.
Given that setting up a "feminine" musical structure actually supports that patriarchal structure that has kept women out of music for so long, what are the alternatives? One way to be truly subversive is through what Judith Butler calls subversive repetition.46 Gender, being masculine or feminine, is not a naturally given status, and does not necessarily align with one's anatomical sex (although sex is already, in a sense, gendered). It can be seen rather as a series of repeated performative acts that together tend to establish normative behavior that over time becomes understood as "natural." These acts can only be performed with the discursive materials that are available, that is, with the semiotic codes that are circulating in a society. Thus, one way to subvert masculinist discourse and produce truly "liberatory" music is to create pieces that reveal the constructed nature of any and all binaries, whether they be male/female, masculine/feminine, homosexual/heterosexual, or nature/civilization. McClary's positing of an alternative female sexuality merely serves to uphold the male/female binary she and feminism seek to overthrow.
There is a common thread that runs through McClary's discussions of both narrative and of sexuality—she relies "on the music itself." Her narrative is inherent in the structure of sonata form; male sexuality is in tonal music; her students recognize and respond to models of male and female sexuality in the music. That is, as a socially- and culturally-bound 20th-century female musician, McClary does not impose her gendered analyses on a work; she discovers them.47 This can also be seen as what Hayden White calls the difference between narrating, "a discourse that openly adopts a perspective that looks out on the world and reports it," and narrativizing, "a discourse that feigns to make the world speak itself and speak itself as a story."48 McClary narrativizes.49 In fact, McClary's analyses involve (at least) three interdependent levels of narrative: the historical narrative (social and cultural conditions at the time of composition); the narrative of her students' (as well as her own) perceptions; and McClary's own narrativizing about music. But for McClary's theories to work, each narrative level must not only be simply interdependent with the others; each level must also be singular and coherent in and of itself, and each level must be reconciled and mapped directly onto all the others. In other words, McClary focuses on creating a single coherent narrative out of the three different levels. (For example: Tchaikovsky was gay, the society in which he lived was repressive of homosexuality, therefore he was struggling against the main/malestream heterosexual musical economy when he wrote his Fourth Symphony, and therefore when we listen to the Fourth Symphony, we hear the aggressive "frenzied striving" of the trapped protagonist.")50
But much recent feminist theory, especially in the area of ethnography, has begun to question the one-to-one correspondence between historical narratives, other texts produced at the same time, and their reception and analysis. For example, the historical narrative itself, often treated as "truth," is itself constantly mediated by a multiplicity of factors, including the context of relating the narrative, the questions asked and not asked, the position of the subject, unconscious factors, and so on.51 This does not mean that there cannot be direct correspondences between the three; there is a difference between creating narrative and creating fiction. But if we can not be sure what a single level of narrative "is," what is being concealed/created by reconciling all levels?
Condensing these three different narrative aspects leaves little room for real people's, especially real women's, responses to music. Like some feminist film spectatorship theory, there are only two possible spectatorship positions to be occupied in McClary's theory—male and female "slots."52 Because meaning is inherent in the structure of tonality and the narrative of sonata form, the only way for a woman to enjoy this music is to identify with the masculine position of the protagonist, or to masochistically identify with the feminine Other and its domination. Men, of course, identify with the masculine position without questioning the implications. But for both men and women, the only way to enjoy this music is as dupes of the patriarchy.53
But even when relating her students' reactions to non-classically tonal music, McClary retains these two adversarial spectator positions, reporting only those student reactions that fit into her categories of male and female (sexuality/narrative). But one of McClary's main contributions is bringing the body, emotion, and meaning back into analysis (topics usually coded feminine). Perhaps this could be extended further. Similar to recent revisions of feminist film theory, instead of viewing the music as creating two oppositional spectator positions, why not open up many spectator positions to correspond to real spectators? Jackie Stacie writes that spectatorship can be used as a tool to dismantle the omnipresence of the male gaze: "If 'spectatorship' is simply a textual position, there may only be a masculine or a feminine option; however, if spectatorship refers to members of the cinema audience . . . the possible positionings multiply."54 McClary writes that "Many women . . . " and "Many of the men . . . " heard Genesis II from the feminine and masculine slot respectively. What did the others (not the many) hear? What is/are their position(s)? Similarly, why does Paula Higgins view Bizet's Carmen as "an agent and architect of her own destiny," while McClary views her as a victim?55 Both are women. Must we treat Higgins as "colonized" viewer/listener, or do we recognize her experience as legitimate, and expand feminist analyses beyond textual determinism? This is a direction that many of McClary's observations open up, but that her theoretical formulations seem to preclude.
McClary is very sensitive to how language is used, especially how discourse about music is gendered, and rightly so. But it is just as important to examine how McClary uses discourse and language, and what the results of that use are.
Jenny Kallick has written that McClary "never fail[s] to explain a new theoretical construct before advancing a specific argument."56 I would argue to the contrary. In addition to throwing in words like "jouissance" without any explanation, McClary uses verbal constructions such as "always already" and "nothing but" that have specific philosophical connotations and histories, without acknowledging them. She even writes that feminism "makes it possible for us to proceed without having to define ex nihilo gender, sexuality, and femininity. We are able . . . to arrive at our tasks with a sophisticated theoretical apparatus already at hand."57 We may not have to define these terms ex nihilo but they still must be defined. McClary gives the impression that feminism has already worked through all the tough questions, and has the answers in the form of a sophisticated theoretical apparatus, which is simply waiting to be adapted to music. In fact, feminist theory is littered with contested and conflicting definitions of gender, sexuality, and femininity; and in the last decade, feminism has been increasingly concerned with redefining theory itself. McClary elevates feminist theory as a stable, united, uncontested entity, in order to invest her own discourse with its authority. In other words, she conceals her own mode of production, a tactic that feminism has long fought against.
Below are a few examples of McClary's specific use of language:
" . . . [T]he fact that gender or arousal is at stake is reasonably clear."58 (Note that it is a fact that is uncovered, that it exists; it is not something that McClary hypothesizes.)
" . . . [T]he gender connotations of the opening "Mannheim rockets" or "hammerstrokes" and the sighing second themes in Stamitz symphonies are so obvious as to border on the cartoonish."59
"Indeed, any five-year-old has sufficient experience from watching Saturday morning cartoons to verify most of the signs I will need."60
"[Musicology is] a field otherwise noteworthy for its absence and suspicion of intellectual activity."61
" . . . [M]ost men would not perceive that there was a problem in the standard narrative, would not enact struggles that involve resistance to purging the alien element [feminine Other]."62
Thus to oppose or disagree with any of McClary's assertions runs several risks: of ignoring the "facts," of being less musical, or less "in tune" than a five-year-old, of being an anti-intellectual, or worst of all, being too much like a man. Thus with her language, McClary tends to discourage any dialogue with her own work (which is perhaps why a critical response has taken so long to occur). Marilyn Frye has written that when a feminist speaks, once she has assumed the authority to speak, it is most likely to be in the only voice that she has heard with authority—the voice of the white male speaking. "A likely disaster is that she will not speak in a new voice of her own but in her father's voice . . . . [T]his voice is one in which nothing useful can be said (useful, that is, to any purpose but that of oppression), even when its utterances apparently 'fit the facts.' This is the voice whose nomination is domination . . . . [T]here is no separation of what is expressed and the mode of expression."63 That is, according to Frye, it is not possible to write a feminist work in the voice of the Father (authority), which McClary uses.
I must point out, however, that this is not a tone that McClary always uses.64 And it may be because of this voice of authority that McClary's work has received so much attention, whether negative or positive, and generated so much change, while much other, earlier feminist music scholarship has remained at the margins. This is an issue that all feminists must deal with: does one write a self-reflexive, complex discourse that is sensitive to difference if it means that the work may remain marginalized; or must one break in by assuming the voice of authority and forcing the mainstream to confront issues that are more veiled by the first approach?65 It is, after all, difficult to force a mainly positivist discipline to respond to feminism(s), when feminism is a nebulous web of theories from numerous disciplines that cannot even offer a single definition of itself. But we have also seen what the costs of McClary's approach have been—the marginalization of other feminist work, the delaying of critical inquiry into her methods, the implication of a single feminist musicology. And in my case, it has often put me into the position of having to unequivocally defend McClary's work in order to defend the idea of any kind of feminist scholarship about music.
1An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of Music Theory Midwest, Bloomington, Indiana, May 1994.
2Kelly Oliver, Reading Kristeva: Unravelling the Double Bind (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 2.
3Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).
4The earliest academic review was Pieter C. van den Toorn, "Politics, Feminism, and Contemporary Music Theory," The Journal of Musicology 9, no. 3 (1991): 275-99. See also Ruth Solie's response, "What Do Feminists Want? A Reply to Pieter van den Toorn," The Journal of Musicology 9, no. 4 (1991): 399-410. More recent academic reviews include Elaine Barkin, "'either/other,'" Perspectives of New Music 30, no. 2 (1992): 206-33; see also McClary's reply, "A Response to Elaine Barkin," Perspectives of New Music 30, no. 2 (1992): 234-39; Leo Treitler, "Gender and Other Dualities of Music History," in Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, ed. Ruth A. Solie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 23-45; Paula Higgins, "Women in Music, Feminist Criticism, and Guerrilla Musicology: Reflections on Recent Polemics," 19th-Century Music XVII/2 (1993): 174-92; Jenny Kallick, "Review," Journal of Music Theory 37, no. 2 (1993): 391-402. Higgins's review is an especially thoughtful essay-by-essay response; Kallick's review is notable for situating McClary's work within the critical tradition in general and for discussing several important issues related to gay criticism.
5Higgins, "Women in Music," 179.
7In fact, there is no single feminist theory of music, as can be seen by a quick glance at the table of contents of Musicology and Difference, ed. Ruth Solie, or the very different essays in Perspectives of New Music 32, no. 1 (1994): 7-85, under the heading "Toward a Feminist Music Theory: Introduction"; including Suzanne Cusick, "Feminist Theory, Music Theory, and the Mind/Body Problem"; Marion Guck, "A Woman's (Theoretical) Work"; Marianne Kielian-Gilbert, "Of Poetics and Poiesis, Pleasure and Politics—Music Theory and the Modes of the Feminine"; and Susan McClary, "Paradigm Dissonances: Music Theory, Cultural Studies, Feminist Criticism." In addition, despite McClary's claim as the "first feminist critique," her work is only one step in a long tradition of feminist theory and music scholarship that often encompasses competing orientations and agendas. Higgins quite perceptively points out how McClary's own book marginalizes this earlier scholarship: first, by almost complete silence in the text of Feminine Endings itself; and second, by providing only authors' names instead of complete citations for feminist musicologists/theorists. Male authorities, especially from other fields, always receive full citations. Higgins provides the missing citations, as well as possible reasons for these omissions, in "Women in Music," 175, 177-78.
8McClary, Feminine Endings, 13.
11Carolyn Abbate has raised several important questions concerning narrative and music in her Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), and McClary has promised a reply.
12McClary, Feminine Endings, 14.
16See Jane R. Stevens, "Georg Joseph Vogler and the 'Second Theme' in Sonata Form: Some 18th-century Perceptions of Musical Contrast," The Journal of Musicology 2, no. 3 (1983): 278-304.
17Riepel also identified "pleasing, diverting" [=feminine] moments as "second themes," when they were part of the structural first theme group. See Stevens, "Georg Joseph Vogler," 303.
18The essays in Feminine Endings were written over a period of several years, and republished largely without revision, so this tension could be seen in part as a result of her changing thought over time. Yet McClary's most monolithic portrayal of sonata form and tonality is in the introduction to the book, which appears to be written most recently since it describes all the other articles. Similarly, her analysis of Brahms in Musicology and Difference is more recent than Feminine Endings, and engages a strong normal/deviant binary.
19Susan McClary, "Narrative Agendas in 'Absolute' Music: Identity and Difference in Brahms's Third Symphony," in Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, ed. Ruth A. Solie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
20Kallick, "Review," 398-399.
21McClary, Feminine Endings, 69.
23Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 134.
24McClary, Feminine Endings, 4.
32I should point out that in her response to Elaine Barkin, McClary denies that she thinks that pre-tonal music is somehow "more feminine." But I quote from Feminine Endings: "Before the crisis of the late sixteenth century, European culture was shaped by ideals of harmony, balance, stability. It is no coincidence that Genesis II's clockwork is reminiscent of medieval music: both are marked by relatively noncoercive modal techniques that delight in the present moment, rhythms that are grounded in the physicality and repetitiveness of the dance (119)." These are the same qualities that McClary identifies as feminine throughout the book. Even if McClary thinks that pre-tonal music is not more feminine, it is clear that she believes it contains images of feminine pleasure that "lost" when male tonality "won out," and that these images need to be recovered.
33The French feminists, by the way, are neither French nor call themselves feminists (but that is a different story). The three most influential French feminists are Hélène Cixous, a Jew who was born and raised speaking German in French-occupied Algiers; Luce Irigaray, who was born in Belgium with a Basque name; and Julia Kristeva, who was born and raised in Bulgaria, and moved to France as an exile from Soviet-Bulgarian communism. See the discussion in Oliver, Reading Kristeva, especially Chapter 7.
34Luce Irigaray, Le Corps-a-corps avec la mere (Ottawa: Editions de la pleine lune, 1981), quoted in Domna C. Stanton, "Difference on Trial: A Critique of the Maternal Metaphor in Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva," in The Poetics of Gender, ed. Nancy K. Miller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 169-70.
35McClary, Feminine Endings, 124.
36Ibid., 146. I must add that the piece doesn't lack narrative; it simply lacks the specific structural narrative that McClary has presented, somewhat misleadingly, as the only narrative.
37Not all agree that the "French feminists" are essentialist. They differ widely on many points, and at different times each writer's work seems to be essentialist to a greater or lesser degree. In many of the later works, it is becoming clearer that they view the pre-Symbolic (imaginary) as just as constructed as the Symbolic. Whether it is constructed or not, the questions remain the same: can it be recovered, and do we want to recover it? I am also guilty, of course, of lumping together all of the French feminists, when in fact there are many important differences between them. For example, Irigaray and Cixous reject the Oedipal complex; Kristeva does not. The French feminists are often even further lumped together, especially by American feminists, under the issue of "l'écriture féminine" which Kristeva explicitly rejects. See the discussions in Oliver, Reading Kristeva (especially the Introduction and Chapter 7); Ann Rosalind Jones, "Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l'Écriture féminine," in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985); and Stanton, "Difference on Trial."
38Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 29.
43McClary, Feminine Endings, 131.
44The strict separation of male and female leads to some odd analyses. McClary writes, "An earlier, taped recording [of Vandervelde's Genesis II] conveys far more successively a sonic metaphor of childbirth, in part because in refusing to accelerate to its conclusion it avoids the impression of excitement and desire." (198, n. 16). In fact, childbirth is both cyclical and teleological, accelerating from contractions every 15-20 minutes to contractions every 1-2 minutes; and it has a definite climax in birth. The need to keep the male/teleological and the female/non-teleological strictly separate requires the rewriting of actual women's experiences.
45McClary, Feminine Endings, 147.
46Butler, Gender Trouble, especially Chapters 3 and 4.
47Although McClary writes that, "Meaning is not inherent in music," she means this in the semiological sense. Just as the relationship between the signified and signifier is arbitrary (there is no "natural" reason c-a-t should refer to a small furry creature), the relationship between musical constructs and meaning is also arbitrary. And like Saussurian linguistics, McClary also seems to believe that this relationship is stable.
48Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 3; qtd. in Elizabeth Paley, "Session Response," presented at the annual meeting of Music Theory Midwest, Bloomington, Indiana, May 13, 1994. In this respect, Paley draws an interesting parallel between McClary's and Schenker's use of narrative to convey meaning.
49This strongly reinforces the subject/object split prevalent in much music analysis, although I think McClary tries to mediate this by often including her own perception of the piece being discussed.
50McClary, Feminine Endings, 77.
51See R. Ruth Linden, Making Stories, Making Selves (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1993), especially "In the Name of the House of Orange," and "Reflections on 'In the Name of the House of Orange.'"
52I am retaining the word "spectator" instead of changing it to "listener" in order to keep the analogy between film and music theory clearer. I am also leaving out the (masculine) gaze of the camera.
53This same approach can be seen in Charles Ford, Così: Sexual Politics in Mozart's Operas (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991). Ford reads Così fan tutte as a representation of Enlightenment philosophy's identification of women as the absolute otherness of nature, as opposed to the masculine realm of freedom and autonomy of consciousness. But this precludes any investigations of the "scandals" that occur both between duty/reason and feeling/nature, and those that occur within reason itself.
54Jackie Stacey, Star Gazing (London: Routledge, 1994), 29.
55Higgins, "Women in Music," 181.
56Kallick, "Review," 393.
57McClary, Feminine Endings, 7.
61Ibid., 173, n. 35.
63Marilyn Frye, Willful Virgin (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1992), 72-73.
64See, for example, McClary, "Paradigm Dissonances: Music Theory, Cultural Studies, Feminist Criticism," and "A Response to Elaine Barkin."
65I, of course, am often writing with the voice of authority. I quote other authorities, and I use words like "really," "in fact," "monolithic," "deviant," "essentialism," and "hegemonic," some of which can be seen as coercive, while others have specific feminist connotations (e.g., "monolithic" = "bad"). The issue of authority is especially difficult in feminist pedagogy, where at most colleges and universities, it is difficult to deny that a power differential exists between student and teacher. See, for example, Maureen Ryan, "Classroom and Contexts: The Challenge of Feminist Pedagogy," Feminist Teacher 4, no. 2 (1989): 39-42; and Kathryn Morgan, "The Perils and Paradoxes of Feminist Pedagogy," Resources for Feminist Research 16, no. 3 (1987): 49-52.
Elizabeth Sayrs received her B.A. in Music from Wellesley, where she graduated as the Katharine Malone Scholar. She completed her M.A. in Music Theory at the Eastman School of Music as a Sproull Fellow, and earned the Ph.D. in Music Theory from Ohio State, completing her dissertation with the assistance of a Presidential Dissertation Fellowship. Sayrs has presented her work on 19th-century music, cognitive linguistics and music, pedagogy, and gender studies and music at numerous regional and national conferences. Articles and reviews have been published in College Music Symposium, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, Music Theory Online, and Music Theory Spectrum; in addition, the book chapter "Playing the 'Science Card': Science as Metaphor in the Practice of Music Theory," with co-author Gregory Proctor, was published in "What Kind of Theory is Music Theory? Epistemological Exercises in Music Theory and Analysis," edited by Per F. Broman and Nora Engebretsen. Her e-text, "MFun: Music Fundamentals" was published by MacGAMUT Music Software International in 2012. She currently serves as the editor of the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy.
Prior to her appointment at Ohio University, Dr. Sayrs served on the faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Valparaiso University; The Ohio State University; and the University of Saskatchewan, where she was awarded the Dwaine Nelson Teaching Award. In 2007, she received the Ohio University School of Music Distinguished Teaching Award.