Academic journal article Intersections

Musical Washing Machines, Composer-Performers, and Other Blurring Boundaries: How Women Make a Difference in Electroacoustic Music1

Academic journal article Intersections

Musical Washing Machines, Composer-Performers, and Other Blurring Boundaries: How Women Make a Difference in Electroacoustic Music1

Article excerpt

Can we define a "women's music" in the field of electroacoustic composition? While Joke Dame (1994,23-25) notes that feminist musicology is at an impasse regarding the questions of the specific femininity of women's compositions and of the difference between compositions by women and men, she also suggests the possibility of an ecriture feminine musicale, that shows resemblances with the French literary movement of ecriture feminine.2 In this essay I examine ecriture feminine musicale in relation to electroacoustic music, considering several studies of women composers in the field.

But how important is the gender of the composer? Listeners' response theory (Dame 1994, 45-65) does away with the authority of the composer, following Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author," to make room for interpretations that do not seek to follow the intentions of the composer. Such an attitude results in a wealth of interesting alternative analyses and interpretations of (often metaphorical) "feminine voices" in canonical musical works by male composers (e.g., Abbate 1993, Dame 1994), but at the risk of continuing the negligence of musical works created by women. How to search for women's music while taking into account the de-centralization of the author?

In this paper, I discuss and critique ideas of "women's music" while looking for feminine and feminist tendencies in electro-acoustic music. I point to some of the consequent problems of such ways of working and offer a concrete suggestion for preserving such music while simultaneously opening it up for reinterpretation and wider dissemination.


The idea of a specific "women's music" is by no means new. Marcia Citron's overview of ideas about women's music by several composers and theorists refers to gender differences in genre, style, and compositional process (1993, 120-132, 159-164). For example, she notes that small-scale chamber or salon works have historically been gendered feminine, while complex, large-scale works such as symphonies and operas have been gendered masculine. Similarly, she describes a feminine approach to style (the use of organic, evolving material, more fluid, lyrical and non-hierarchical heterophony) and compositional process (such as a fascination with process rather than a fetishization of originality, and flexibility instead of a reliance on systems). In his 1977 compilation of electroacoustic recordings of women composers (re-released on CD in 1997, CRI 728), Charles Amirkhanian suggested that there was a relation between the emergence of women composers and the rise of an open, "free-wheeling," more "listenable," and non-academic avant-garde electronic music, with a mix of media and sonic materials and a sense of humor, a style that is influenced by non-western and popular music as well as by extra-musical concerns. Beverly Grigsby (1984) stresses the great variety of approaches by North American women composers of electroacoustic music, but discerns a common aesthetic among many: a movement away from academia toward a more accessible or communicative style through participatory pieces or commercial work; inspiration by nature, as well as healing practices and meditation involving an interest in timbral changes; and the combination of electronics with other media.3 Finally, Hinkle-Turner finds that women often use sound technology in order to compose with natural and environmental sounds as well as texts, and that they often work with multimedia (2006, 250). Hinkle-Turner notes "a dichotomy of 'boys with their toys' and girls with their tools'": women use technology because it enables them to realize their compositional ideas, men more often play with technology for its own sake4 (250-1).

In "Recovering Jouissance: An Introduction to Feminist Musical Aesthetics," Renee Cox proposes that the literary style of ecriture feminine could serve as a model for the development of a "women's music," that is "expressive of women's experience" (1991, 333). …

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