Tag Archives: Women’s studies

Louisa May Alcott’s musical leitmotif

Louisa May Alcott effectively depicted collective musical performances to affirm community in Little women; but more significantly, she used music to represent the feminine sphere as she and the culture of her time defined it.

Each sister’s acceptance of or entry into that domain is depicted through scenes of musical performance: “No one but Beth could get much music out of the old piano; but she had a way of softly touching the yellow keys and making a pleasant accompaniment to the simple songs they sang. Meg had a voice like a flute, and she and her mother led the little choir. Amy chirped like a cricket, and Jo wandered through the airs at her own sweet will, always coming out at the wrong place with a croak or a quaver that spoilt the most pensive tune.”

Laurie, the rich boy next door, who is a talented pianist, must take the opposite path on his journey; his attainment of manhood is symbolically represented through the silencing of his musical voice.

In these and more ways, the musical leitmotif in Little Women tells us much about gender roles in American culture and about the limited choices facing both nineteenth-century American women and nineteenth-century American men.

This according to “Music as leitmotif in Louisa May Alcott’s Little women” by Colleen Reardon (Children’s literature XXIV [1996] 74-85; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1996-26449).

Today is Alcott’s 190th birthday! Below, Beth’s Christmas scene from the 1994 film.

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Filed under Literature, Women's studies

Women and gramophones

A letter published in the June 1925 issue of Gramophone noted the magazine’s general absence of women correspondents: “are the sweet little things too shy, or what?” A response published in August of that year dismissed the idea of women enjoying the gramophone: “ladies…want to be seen and also to see. They don’t want to listen. That will never interest them.”

The October issue included a letter from a woman reader who noted that women have less money at their disposal for entertainment than men, and that when she attends concerts she sees many women, including poor ones, listening attentively. “I can only conclude,” she wrote, “that certain of your correspondents have been singularly unfortunate in the circle of women they have drawn about them.”

The letters are reprinted in Music, sound, and technology in America: A documentary history of early phonograph, cinema, and radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2012-7059). Below, a gramophone recording by the incomparable Josephine Baker.

Related article: Gramophone ethics

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Filed under Curiosities, Mass media, Reception, Women's studies

The female accordion

The first concertinas to arrive in County Clare, Ireland, were inexpensive German instruments, a far cry from the elegant parlor instrument invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1829 and popularized among the social elite of Victorian England. They were disseminated by traveling peddlers and local and more distant shops—and probably by maritime traffic, given Clare’s position at the mouth of the Shannon estuary, the last port of call for tall ships about to cross the Atlantic.

By the end of the nineteenth century the concertina had all but replaced the uilleann pipes in popularity there, and Clare had already developed a reputation as a treasure-trove of concertina music and the home of some of the instrument’s finest players. After its completion in 1892 the West Clare Railway carried concertinas into formerly inaccessible rural areas, and before World War II the instrument became particularly popular among women musicians, earning it the nickname bean-cháirdin (female accordion).

This according to “Clare: Heartland of the Irish concertina” by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin (Papers of the International Concertina Association III [2006] pp. 1–19; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2006-5495).

Above, the legendary Elizabeth Crotty; below, Kate McNamara plays Sergeant Early’s dream and The plough and the stars.

BONUS: Read about the gendering of another traditional Irish instrument in The female harp.

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Filed under Europe, Instruments, World music

Rap as Mexican women’s protest

Mexico is not officially at war, yet violence is pervasive, and young Mexican women increasingly use rap music to protest the ubiquity of homicides, systematic violence, and widespread impunity in their country.

Non-activist rap songs encouraging introspection can be as political as explicitly activist ones, and the aim of both can be to shift people’s understandings and promote change. This is significant because it is only by attending to distinct actors’ positionalities, to their similarities and differences, that negotiation can be collectively enabled to fight violence in Mexico.

This according to “Contesting resistance, protesting violence: Women, war, and hip hop in Mexico” by Hettie Malcomson (Music and arts in action VII/1 [2019] 46–63; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2019-20968).

Above and below, the Oaxaca-based activist Mare Advertencia Lírika, one of the artists discussed in the article (photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0).

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Filed under Popular music, Women's studies

Germaine Tailleferre and 1920s feminism

In 1923 Germaine Tailleferre completed Le marchand d’oiseaux for the Ballets Suédois, with a scenario, costumes, and set designs by the artist and poet Hélène Perdriat.

While the (male) critics generally praised the ballet, they primarily commented on it as the work of two women; for example, one wrote “here is something that will certainly please the feminists”, while another drew comparisons to the equally male-dominated field of sport: “Nervous and supple like the manner of these female tennis champions, who triumph so easily over the raw brutality of hard masculine wrists…Mme Hélène Perdriat…has imagined the affabulation [sic]…with a sprig of perversity….These candid and malicious games are exactly to the taste of the lovely Muse who dictates to Mlle Germaine Tailleferre her better inspirations.”

Despite this patronizing reception of Le marchand d’oiseaux as a female work, there is nothing feminist in the dramatic action or the music. The ballet is a neoclassical creation that may be seen in the context of a wider trend within interwar modernism, and Tailleferre may be understood as contributing to the development and propagation of this musical style.

A product of two female artists whose immense talents allowed them to overcome the misogynistic social tendencies of their time and achieve success on the Parisian ballet stage, Le marchand d’oiseaux demonstrated that despite all of the French government’s best attempts to suppress the voices of women, with sufficient talent and determination they could still succeed and be recognized as contemporary creative artists.

This according to “Germaine Tailleferre and Hélène Perdriat’s Le marchand d’oiseaux (1923): French feminist ballet?” by Laura Hamer (Studies in musical theatre IV/1 [2010] 113–20; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2010-14319).

Today is Tailleferre’s 130th birthday! Above, the composer as photographed by Man Ray around the time of the ballet’s premiere; below, Tailleferre’s score for the work.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Reception, Women's studies

Wrapping llamas in song

llama+woman

The women herders of ayllu Qaqachaka in highland Bolivia sing to their llamas in various ceremonial occasions during the year, and also on a more pragmatic daily basis to accompany their herding activities.

But their songs have other, more magical functions, involving the increase of the flocks, when they become a part of the body-centered knowledge and practices that comprise a female aesthetics and poetics of creation that parallels men’s more destructive activities in war.

Many of the principal singers are elderly midwives, and in a lifetime of learning they practice the art of wrapping their animals in song. This wrapping in song also serves to transform and domesticate the spirits of dead enemies, embodied in the animals, and to rebirth them into human society.

Key concepts such as jawi, that glosses as both fleece and river, are ontological expressions of flowing musical sound in woven substance. A mating song for the female llamas, a marking song for the ewes, and a song of blessing for the female llamas reveal how specific musical and lyrical structures express the women’s preoccupations with the generation of beautiful fleece and its weaving into sung wrappings.

This according to “Midwife singers: Llama-human obstetrics in some songs to the animals by Andean women” by Denise Y. Arnold, an essay included in Quechua verbal artistry: The inscription of Andean voices/Arte expresivo Quechua: La inscripción de voces andinas (Aachen: Shaker media, 2004, pp. 145–179).

Below, a visiting delegation passes through Chucura.

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Joyce’s musical sirens

In the “Sirens” episode of Ulysses James Joyce made words represent music by playing with or even overcoming certain conventional features of language. Particularly notable are Joyce’s representation of polyphony, melody, rhythm, and of music’s traditional absence of conventional meaning.

The essence of Joycean onomatopoeia in “Sirens” is not that it represents music iconically, but that it makes music linguistically. Joycean onomatopoeia is not the natural union of meaning and form, of signified and signifier—it is the signifier freeing itself from the link with the signified.

“Sirens” is a step toward absolute form and abstraction; it breaks with the representational conventions of naturalistic and realistic fiction and points the way toward modernism.

This according to “Strange words, strange music: The verbal music of ‘Sirens’” by Andreas Fischer, an essay included in Bronze by gold: The music of James Joyce (New York: General Music, 1999).

Ulysses was first published 100 years ago today! Above, Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s wife and muse, on their wedding day in 1931; the novel takes place on the day they met in 1904. Below, Cathy Berberian reads an excerpt from the “Sirens” episode.

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Filed under Literature, Women's studies

Taarab and mpasho

The Swahili word mpasho is related to the verb -pasha, “to cause to get”, and it refers to someone “getting the message”.

In the popular genre taarab, mpasho performances involve sending and receiving powerful communications—often competetive and antagonistic in nature—through song texts. The subject may be an individual, an organization, or social group, any of which may respond with their own mpasho performance. The phenomenon arose among women singers, most notably Siti binti Saad (above).

This according to “Hot kabisa! The mpasho phenomenon and taarab in Zanzibar” by Janet Topp Fargion, an essay included in Mashindano! Competitive music performance in East Africa (Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 2000; 39–53). Below, Siti binti Saad’s Wewe paka (You are a cat, 1930) sends a message about unwanted sexual advances that would resonate with today’s #MeToo movement.

Related article: Taarab redux

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Women's studies

Ethel Smyth: Serenade in D

In 2021 A-R Editions issued a new critical edition of Ethel Smyth’s Serenade in D major for orchestra (1889 and possibly early 1890). Premiered at a Crystal Palace concert on 26 April 1890, the work was received well by the audience and garnered positive notices in the press.

Dame Ethel Mary Smyth was a member of the women’s suffrage movement, and was alternately praised and panned for writing music that was considered too masculine for a “lady composer”; yet when she produced more delicate compositions they were criticized for not measuring up to the standard of her male counterparts. She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1922, becoming the first woman composer to be awarded a damehood.

This critical edition is based on a photocopy of the autograph manuscript, now in the Royal College of Music Library, with reference also to a fair copy of the score, now in the British Library. The extensive critical notes by John L, Snyder document the changes made by the composer, as well as editorial and performance suggestions made by both the composer and August Manns, who conducted the premiere.

Below, a performance of the work from 2018.

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Filed under New editions, Romantic era, Women's studies

Beyoncé and the politics of looking

A close reading of Beyoncé’s Video phone illuminates the strategic interplay of subjectivities in a video that essentially disrupts and complicates heteronormative notions of viewing.

In this analysis, the workings of female power versus the male gaze lead to a theoretical conception of gender that contextualizes masculinity and hegemonic femininity. Ultimately, it is in the aestheticized landscape of Video phone that a counter-argument to mainstream heterosexual male imaginary emerges, one where the posthuman figure, in all its hyperreality, is musicalized in a way that defies all conventions.

This according to “Gender, sexuality and the politics of looking in Beyoncé’s Video phone (featuring Lady Gaga)” by Lori Burns and Marc Lafrance, an essay included in The Routledge research companion to popular music and gender (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017, pp. 102–16).

Today is Beyoncé’s 40th birthday! Above and below, the video in question.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Women's studies