Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ensembles, Programming, and Pandering

Over at listen 101, a reader of Steve Hicken's raises interesting questions about the makeup of an ensemble and the works they program; ACD chimes in as you might expect.

I think this is a complex issue.

I would not take a small, and venerable, chamber music ensemble like the Juilliard Quartet to task for being all white men. Look at the makeup of American string quartets formed within the last 30 years - which are all white men, again? The Emersons, and who else? As recently as the 1970s, most major orchestras had just a few women in them. I think at that time Doriot Dwyer of the Boston Symphony may have been the only woman playing principal anything in the majors. Today, look at the roster of any professional orchestra. You'll find the list is about half women.

As far as ACD's commented on pandering goes, programming classical music is complicated, and plenty of pandering of various types already goes on. Mostly, there's pandering to the perceived old/conservative audience that supposedly sees classical music as a museum and supposedly is not interested in new music. Those people are often major donors, and upsetting them with "radical" programming can have serious financial consequences for an organization. Note, for example, the lawsuit by the estate or foundation of Sybil Harrington over the use of her money to fund the current Met Tristan und Isolde. The production is by no means radical or unusual, except that it wasn't what the lawsuit terms "traditional" and so not a suitable use of her money.

Music directors and artistic administrators make programming decisions with all sorts of interests in mind: which soloists are available, an organization's commitment to performing new or 20th century music, the size of the venue that's available, whether enough rehearsal time can be scheduled to learn 5 rather than 3 works new to the ensemble, und so weiter.

Which composers to program is just one more decision of that type. I would wager that everyone reading this blog has a list of composers who ought to be played more often, from acknowledged masters such as Hadyn, Bartok, and Dufay to underrated and underplayed women composers such as Ruth Crawford. Everyone has their own bugaboos about programming. You can find a number of my rants about programming at the San Francisco Symphony elswhere on this blog, for example.

Honestly, you might as well program a season with lots of rarely-heard women and minority composers. There'd be some terrific music, and some dreck. That's what happens any time you're programming unfamiliar or new music.

I really ought to rant more about the omission of women composers. Elaine Fine had a few things to say about The Rest is Noise today, and certainly the emergence of important women composers in the second half of the 20th century is a huge story.

At the same time, I'm not going to skip a program of interesting music by living composers because the ensemble didn't program any music by women composers. I'm reminded of a friend of mine who, for a long time, and maybe still, would not read books by dead white men. I thought that was just as silly and arbitrary as only reading books by dead white men.


Elaine Fine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elaine Fine said...

I'm really interested in what you have to say about the odd absence of women composers of 20th century music in The Rest is Noise, as well as the dearth or women who participate in the musical blogosphere who are not primarily performing musicians.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I haven't read Noise yet - except the Sibelius chapter - but I think Alex made choices about who was important and who he would cover that marginalize women composers. The line of thinking would be that women became truly important as composers only at the end of the century, and since he's interested in how the whole century unfolded....See Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing. I'd be interested in what he has to say about this.

Regarding women in the blogosphere, I expect it's similar to why there are fewer women on usenet or participating visibly on the Well, one of my hangouts. Priorities; discomfort with sharp arguments; abusive behavior from men (or fear of such); thinking their opinions aren't important; discomfort with self-promotion.

Anonymous said...

I'm still only about 100 pages into Noise but I believe what you and Elaine Fine are saying, and it's definitely a flaw in what's supposed to be a broad survey of 20th century composition, including its suppressions (cf. his chapter "Invisible Men," which talks about Will Marion Cook and other African-American composers but is resolutely about invisible MEN.)

I think Ross would be open to the suggestion that he revisit this subject for the paperback edition, and subsequent cloth editions too, especially as I suspect Noise will be widely used as a teaching source.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I don't think Noise was supposed to be a broad survey. Agree, though, that if he's covering invisible men, he can cover invisible women.

Anonymous said...

At one Kansas City Symphony concert last year, a work requiring adding some players, and one that did not engross my entire attention, I started counting players and noting sex ratios in the various sections. The violins were large majority women, more men in the violas, a majority men in the cellos, and all but one of the 6 or 7 basses were men. Flute section: one man and 2 women, clarinets 3 out of 4 men, oboes 2 out of 3 women, same for bassoons, horns majority women, other brass all men. Percussion all men, 5 with extras. Is this the general run of things?


Lisa Hirsch said...

Something like that, yes. In the large orchestra I've seen recently, violins & violas are around 50% women, cellos maybe 30% on average? I haven't seen a woman playing bass. Woodwinds typically 50%, though this varies: most of the LAPhil's woodwinds are women, probably 80%. Brass, usually a woman or two in the horn section (horns majority women, which you saw, is unusual). SFS's keyboard player is male, LA Phil's is a woman.

Elaine Fine said...

About half the bass players in my neck of the midwestern woods are women.

Rebecca said...

Great post, Lisa. I think we will have reached true equality when all music is judged by its own merit, removed from the niches of "women composer," "gay composer," or even "church composer." I'm sympathetic to the reason why those categories exist, but I think there is a danger in giving too much credibility to the us vs. them mentality, even in the name of advocacy.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I disagree with you, although it's possible I disagree with something you are not actually saying. I'll blog about it within the next 24 hours or so.