Tuesday, January 27, 2015

We Still Have Work To Do!

An Open Letter to Young Musicologists

by Amy C. Beal

Did positivism end before women really made it into the history books? I've been wondering that a lot lately.

Carla Bley (2012)
photo Michael Hoefner
A few years ago, while writing a book about the composer Carla Bley, I received from Norton a complimentary copy of the first edition of Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddins's new book titled Jazz (2009). Given my then-current research interests, I eagerly looked for Bley's name in the book's index. I did not find her there, despite the fact that she has been an important and prolific, internationally-recognized, prize-winning composer, arranger, and performer since about 1959. That's fifty-six years worth of innovative and influential work. Frustration and disappointment overwhelmed me. Bley has (to date) released 27 recordings under her own name, as well as many other recordings for which she served as the primary arranger, including the entire output of the late Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. She has worked with some of the world's greatest musicians, many of whom have performed and recorded her compositions—including Gary Burton, Don Cherry, Art Farmer, Jimmy Giuffre, Charlie Haden, Keith Jarrett, Paul Motian, George Russell, and Tony Williams, all of whom do appear in the pages of Jazz.

It really made me wonder what one has to do in order to be included in the historical record represented with such authority by textbooks such as this. Later I found Bley hidden in a list appearing at the back of the book: selected "Composers/Arrangers/Leaders." Her birthdate was incorrect.

My agenda is not to pick on DeVeaux and Giddins, who are accomplished scholars, and I am aware that it is easy to identify and bemoan omissions in any survey. But it is worth noting that this invisibility and exclusion is not an anomaly.

My essay is not just a rant by an embittered author whose subject was unjustly excluded. Rather, it is a plea to younger musicologists to continue the work started by pioneering scholars like Adrienne Fried Block, Judith Tick, and many others—and younger scholars like Sherrie Tucker and Tammy Kernodle (and many others)—to document and narrate women's lives in music, and to continue getting them on the radar of our students, our colleagues, our editors and publishers, and our concert venues. We need to get as close to the facts as we can, so we can present their work next to the work of their well-documented brothers. We need to stop being lazy about canons. Maybe Johanna Beyer's dissonant counterpoint is more interesting than—or: just as interesting as—Henry Cowell's. Why is she not included in books on modern music theory? Questions like this are just small examples of a much larger problem. But we need to continue asking them, and reformulating our historical narratives. It's not revisionist history. It's history.

Yesterday I received in the mail from Norton a complimentary copy of the second edition of Jazz. (This unexpected, second confrontation with this particular book prompted me to finally put these thoughts into words.) Again, I turned to the index. Again, Bley was not to be found there. She still appears on the list of "Composers/Arrangers/Leaders." Her incorrect birthdate has not been corrected (she was born in 1936, not 1938), even though my biography on Bley was published nearly four years ago. There is still no mention of her formidable oeuvre in the book.

Myra Melford
photo Bryan Murray
And while we're at it, why include John Zorn on the list of "Composers/Arrangers/Leaders" but not Myra Melford, another award-winning, internationally-acclaimed composer-improviser? Why has Vijay Iyer entered the canon while Melford has not? Why guitarist Charlie Hunter and not guitarist Mary Halvorson? We need to answer these questions. We also need to move beyond entrenched biases in the discipline and take better care of the historical record. And all of this has been said before.

P.S.: An aspiring musicologist I supervise in the Ph.D. program at UC Santa Cruz, Madison Heying, has taken it upon herself to learn several computer programming languages in order to more deeply understand the music of women composers and performers who embrace technology (Maggi Payne, Carla Scaletti, Laurie Spiegel, others). This effort demonstrates a commitment to the work itself—a careful understanding of the composer's intentions, techniques, and methods. How do these composers answer the musical questions that interest them most? I think this deeper understanding is a path we should encourage our students to take—in the study of all music, but especially in pioneering attempts to document and explain yet-unexplored music by women.

Amy C. Beal is Professor of Music at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is the author of three books: New Music, New Allies: American Experimental Music in West Germany from the Zero Hour to Reunification (UC Press, 2006); Carla Bley (Illinois, 2011); and Johanna Beyer (Illinois, 2015). She serves on the boards of the AMS Committee on the Publication of American Music, New World Records, and Tempo magazine.

1 comment:

  1. Amy, thank you for this wonderful "open letter"! You are formidably brilliant and insightful, as I've known you to be since your student days, and it is wonderful to see you speaking out on the injustice of overlooking substantial accomplishments of musicians who happen to be women. You are right, "...all of this has been said before," and "we still have work to do." I hope many musicians, both men and women, will read what you've written, take it to heart, and do their part to discover, reveal, acknowledge, and celebrate the noteworthy role that so many women have had and continue to have in our field.