Academic journal article Hecate

'You're a Woman and Our Orchestra Just Won't Have You': The Politics of Otherness in the Conducting Profession

Academic journal article Hecate

'You're a Woman and Our Orchestra Just Won't Have You': The Politics of Otherness in the Conducting Profession

Article excerpt


In the musical profession of conducting, men have had the power to construct and cultivate customs and traditions and, as a result, the role of the conductor has been imbued with so-called 'masculine traits.' While the role has historically been subjected to continuous changes - linked to the rise and fall of musical institutions, the sociology of music, and the expansion of musical composition - its modern-day incarnation has remained deeply entrenched in nineteenth-century ideology and concepts of patriarchy.1 Its current position at the height of the orchestral hierarchy has kept it largely 'untouchable', and protected from any drastic changes. While contemporary conductors have been allowed a degree of individual expression on the podium, they have also been expected to comply with the role's sacrosanct rituals and traditions in order to succeed.

Women conductors' inescapable difference from the male norm defines them as Other; disruptive figures that challenges dominant social and professional norms with their presence on the podium. Hence, women have faced the problematic task of adapting their dress, gestures, behaviour, leadership, and familial commitments to conform to this male-oriented paradigm. No matter how successful women might be in assuming this male-defined role, their difference always remains markedly visible. Judgments of a woman conductor's musicianship and abilities are often made in relation to her gender.

In spite of the burgeoning of feminist scholarship in musicology, little attention has been given to this field, and women conductors' stories have scarcely permeated the seminal discourses of both the conducting and musicological professions. A brief look at current statistics worldwide certainly shows the extent of their minority status today. According to the American Symphony Orchestra League, five out of their 122 member orchestras (that is, 4.10%) with artistic budgets of over one million dollars (US) have a female as Music Director or Principal Conductor (see Table 1 in Appendix). Twenty-nine out of their 389 member orchestras (that is, 7.46%) with artistic budgets between $130,000 and $880,000 (US) have a female as Music Director or Principal Conductor (see Table 2 in Appendix). Despite women's long ancestry in conducting - which can be traced back to the Renaissance figure of Tarquinia Molza2 - they have continued to remain a small and silent minority group. Even the growing success of contemporary women conductors has been accompanied by a curious silence about the pain and pleasures they have experienced on the podium.3

Intrigued by the absence of women conductors' voices and untold stories, I undertook an ethnographic study with seventeen professional women conductors across the US, UK and Australia, from 2000-2004.4 This research was simultaneously political and personal; as a young woman conductor I wanted to produce a counter-hegemonic discourse in my profession, which openly acknowledged women's experiences on the podium. My research revealed a number of issues, which related to the profession's nineteenth-century ideology and women conductors' bodies, gestures, power, leadership, relationships, motherhood, education, and opportunities. During my research into each of these, the repercussions of women conductors' Otherness surfaced repeatedly. The women's individual stories of difficulties and discrimination, coupled with the alarmingly low number of female conductors, all pointed towards the notion that women are still marginalised and positioned as the Other in this profession, defined as they are by their difference.

Outlining the Ethnographic Approach

This article reflects the cooperative and contextualised ethnographic methodology that was utilised in my research. Because an ethnographic approach focuses on openness and reciprocal exchange, with its point of departure being the lived experiences of the researched, it was necessary for me to come face-to-face with the women conductors themselves. …

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