Musical Gender in Performance

By Moisala, Pirkko | Women & Music, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

Musical Gender in Performance


Moisala, Pirkko, Women & Music


AS A UNIQUE HUMAN EXPRESSION THAT combines our bodily and cultural identity with idiosyncratic creativity, music provides an interesting setting for gender performance and negotiation in all sociohistorical and cultural contexts. In this article I will discuss the relevance of five ontological stances to the study of gender negotiation in musical performance. My aim is to put forth an analytical concept, "musical gender," that emphasizes music as a specific site and context for gender performance and analysis. I claim that music, in its creation and performance, provides new perspectives for the study of gender.

The ontological stances to music that I discuss here are primarily based on cross-cultural, ethnomusicological literature. They are: (1) music is, like language, a primary modeling system, that is, a system that guides or forms our perceptions of the world or a system on which we model the world around us; (2) music is a bodily art; (3) music is most often publicly performed and, thus, subject to social control; (4) music exists only in performance, even though the norms of performativity are brought to bear on the performer (see note 36); and (5) music has the ability to alter one's state of mind. Naturally, these are not the only characteristics one could propose about music. As all ethnomusicologists know, the conceptualization of music--that is, which kinds of sounds are regarded as music and which are thought to be the effects and functions of music--vary greatly from one culture to another.

The ideas presented in this article have arisen from gender-based field studies I have made in two different cultures: Nepal and Finland. In Finland, the country where I have lived and worked most of my life, I have studied three different musical subcultures focusing on gender issues: (1) the career and public reception of the composer Kaija Saariaho, (2) all-male music making at the Finnish front during the Second World War, and (3) musical life stories collected from students of music and musicology.(1) In Nepal I have lived and worked mainly among the Gurung people who live in the mountains of central Nepal.(2)

To readers working in musicology who are not familiar with ethnomusicological scholarship, it may appear strange to see such a variety of examples--two distinct cultures, an all-male spontaneous music-making situation, students of music, and a female composer of Western art music along with village women from the Himalayas--within the same article. This cross-cultural perspective, however, is needed in order to emphasize the context-sensitivity of gender performance in music. The examples given in this article are not unique; one can find similar examples in many other cultures and contexts. To study different aspects of "musical gender" in a culturally sensitive and contextualized way while maintaining awareness of one's own gender position is a great challenge. I do not present the following as perfect examples of this kind of study. Instead, they should be regarded as illustrations for a methodological discussion that will introduce the concept of "musical gender."

Because the Finnish gender system is the system I have grown up with, it is also a part of me and my position in gender analysis. My closeness to the Finnish gender system has made it a challenge for me to find the distance needed for analytical observations. Theoretical, mainly feminist, literature on gender as well as longer visits to other countries, such as Nepal, England, the United States, and Canada, have helped me in distancing myself from the gender system of my own surroundings and in becoming aware of my own position.(3) I also want to point out that the Finnish gender system includes several subsystems; one can notice aspects of the mainstream gender system when observing regional, generational, and cultural variations of it. For instance, different musical genres support different gender codes. In this article, however, space does not permit me to delve into this issue more deeply. …

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