Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States: Crossing the Line

By Keathley, Elizabeth L. | Women & Music, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States: Crossing the Line


Keathley, Elizabeth L., Women & Music


Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States: Crossing the Line. By Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006. 301 pp., including discography, bibliography, list of Web sites with access to recorded music, and index of proper names.

On my computer desktop is a photo of the faculty and staff of the famous Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, circa 1970. The six individuals posing for the camera are arrayed in a kind of hierarchy: Milton Babbitt and Otto Luening occupy the foreground, with Vladimir Ussachevsky just behind them, and Mario Davidovsky occupies the middle ground. In the background, right of center, two young women stand close together, looking formal and modest despite the long hair and short skirts typical of the era. The women are Alice Shields and Pril Smiley, who worked in the center as teachers, technicians, experimenters, and collaborators; during the center's most productive period they were two of the four primary instructors in electronic music. Both are prolific, accomplished, award-winning composers of electronic music, yet they never received the status and pay their work at the center warranted, and they are seldom mentioned in the standard narratives of the history of electronic music in the United States, as Joel Chadabe's Electric Sound bears witness. (1) This neglect is hardly surprising: women have worked "in the background" for a common goal in so very many roles and fields, yet for historical and cultural reasons men have commanded the "foreground" and are thus the subjects of history. Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner's greatest achievement in Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States: Crossing the Line is to shift background and foreground so that women like Smiley and Shields become the historical subjects and their male colleagues play supporting roles. This perspective shift makes Hinkle-Turner's book more than a compensatory history, adding women to a male narrative; rather, it is a women's narrative, attending to the ways that the particularities of these composers' lives as gendered beings intertwine with their careers, creativity, and community. The volume is the first of a series on women and electroacoustic music Hinkle-Turner plans to write for Ashgate; future volumes will address women in Europe, Australasia, and Latin America.

No one is better qualified to write such a book: a composer herself, Hinkle-Turner is also a university computing professional and longtime advocate of women in music. These conditions give Hinkle-Turner not only the technical savvy and broad knowledge of the field required for this type of study but also awareness of and access to the composers who are the subjects of her research. She draws primarily on her own interviews with living composers and her analyses of electronic music for much of the material of the book. But she also brings to the table her feminist sensibilities and knowledge of feminist musicology, which is particularly evident in the book's introduction.

Of the six chapters that follow the introduction, three are devoted to women composers in academic settings (chapters 2-4), while two are more topical, concerning women and technology in popular music (chapter 5) and women in multimedia (chapter 6); the final chapter provides a trenchant assessment of the current status of women in electroacoustic music. This concluding chapter is the most theoretical of the book, for here Hinkle-Turner grapples with the reality that, after seventy or so years of breaking down barriers, forming alliances, networking, mentoring, and achieving success, women composers of electronic music find that younger generations of women are not following in their footsteps. Rather, the numbers of female students in university electronic music composition programs have actually decreased in recent years (247), and their female predecessors doubt their own influence as role models (253). Hinkle-Turner airs several theories to explain this phenomenon, including cultural constructions of femininity, the "aggressive jargon" of the computer world, and U. …

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