Friday, December 10, 2010

in which there are No Women

American Composers Forum just hosted a master class this afternoon at International House on UPenn campus. Vincent Royer gave an astonishing lecture and demo of spectral viola music and Alex Waterman followed with his take on exploring extended technique by controlling "risky" sounds like harmonics with changing partials, wolf tones (inaccurate, but check out the similarity between mute and eliminator), and flutter fingering*. Not only was it inspiring and educational, a wealth for my ears, but I will never hear and touch my violin the same way again. Five stars on content, four on presentation.

Ready for the two-star part?

As the title indicates, all the organizers, participants, and guests were men. Most were white; the three student composers whose works were read were white and Japanese. I'm glad they were there, but it doesn't temper my disappointment that a socially progressive-branded organization like ACF failed to attract a more diverse audience. The timing was problematic and likely a function of when the guests were available before a show tonight: early Friday afternoon during finals. If it were my event, I would have explicitly invited women and composers of color at least to find out why they couldn't participate.

Another administrative discomfiture for me started the moment I walked in the master class and worsened as the program progressed. No one clued me in on what was going on when the program didn't start until 15 mins after the advertised time; participants trickled in silently and eventually, after I wandered out and in again, James introduced himself to check me off the guest list. There were no more than ten participants but there was no attempt to invite conversation or even to introduce the student composers. Maybe I'm spoiled from my time at piano master classes and Rob Kyr's composer symposium, but at a master class I expect copies of scores for the audience to follow along. This was a prime opportunity for young composers to support one another, and it could have used more facilitation.

It's unfair to compare my story to the experience of women in male-dominated fields and a sexist world. I'm sharing it simply to emphasize the perilous state in which I find arts participation. What is at stake when we create environments over and over wherein a female** participant looks around and sees only men? In middle school, I had a passion for engineering: building model boats and carbon dioxide canister race cars, power tools, lots of moving and clicking parts. My two male teachers were ecstatic about my progress and encouraged me to join the technology club. I loved it until, insecure as I had become about fitting in, I looked around the club and suddenly realized there were only boys. I never went back, and to this day, I don't know how to wire a light switch. How powerful that fear of stigma must have been to turn me away from an instinctive creative practice!

* I forget the foreign term he used for this method of producing a flutter of artificial harmonics.
** Or any oppressed group

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