Friday, April 29, 2011

Joanna Russ

I'm sad to report that writer Joanna Russ has died, age 74. She was fierce and uncompromising in her books and in her life. Her books were vastly influential and often ahead of their time; she hadn't written much these last years because of chronic ill health.

How to Suppress Women's Writing is the book I point people to who are convinced that women's work, of all kinds, is never minimized, never defined out of existence, never ignored except for reasons of quality. It is a brilliant look at the mechanics of exclusion.

If you haven't read it, you should; I still regret not buying a copy for the professor with whom I had this discussion many years ago:
Me: I am a second year musicology grad student and I have never seen any mention of Hildegard of Bingen before this year. I rather suspect it's because she's a woman.
Prof: What would be the nature of such a conspiracy?
I was absolutely thunderstruck - and I note that the 600-page music history textbook in general use at that time mentions one female composer. (It had other glaring prejudices not visible to me at the time: Debussy and Bartok, both profound influences on the music that came after them, are brushed off as "nationalist" composers. That is, not German, thus, not interesting.)

The (male) professor I'm anonymously quoting went on to do some interesting work on gender in music history and musicology, so I believe I would not have the same conversation with him today.

Rest in peace, Joanna Russ. I honor the work you did and the words you wrote.


Henry Holland said...

the 600-page music history textbook in general use at that time mentions one female composer

Um, Ethel Smyth? :-)

Obviously, with Saariaho, Unsuk Chin, Higdon, Weir, Gubaidulina, Neuwirth, Zwillich, so many others I can't think of off the top of my head in the mainstream of composition, it's a much better situation than in the 50's/60's.

To me, the next barrier is a female princicpal conductor/music director of one of the Big US orchestras (plus LA & SF) and the LSO, Berlin, Gewandhaus, Staatskapelle's Berlin and Dresden etc. That seems it's going to be a tougher nut to crack.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Cecile Chaminade or Fanny Mendelssohn, can't remember which.

Doesn't Simone Young have a prominent gig in Europe? Hamburg Opera? Susanna Malkki will be finding her way, too. And maybe Marin Alsop has a shot at a more prominent US post than she has now.

There were more women composers before the 70s than one often hears about: Miriam Gideon, Ursula Mamlok, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Elizabeth Maconchy, Emma Lou Diemer, etc. (Mamlok and Diemer are alive and in their 80s). Thea Musgrave, Pauline Oliveros, Ruth Crawford, Johanna Beyer, etc.

Henry Holland said...

Cecile Chaminade, what a great name!

Yes, Simone Young is in Hamburg, both at the Philharmonic and the Staatsoper (same thing, in essence). From her Wikipedia page:

In November 2005, she was the first female conductor to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic

Hmmmm, pretty forward looking of the Wieners. :-(

Ms. Malkki leads the Ensemble Intercontemporain, so it's all that modern stuff, she's not a *real* conductor who does Haydn and Brahms. :-) She's conducted in Boston a few times, that would be interesting if she got Levine's old job, though her modern music leanings would give the blue-haired old ladies there the hives.

Ms. Alsop is in Baltimore until 2015 and she takes up a post in Sau Palo next year as well. She's an out lesbian, that might hurt her chances at a bigger job.

Thea Musgrave! That's who I was trying to think of last night, I have an opera of hers Mary Queen of Scots, I should give it a spin, haven't heard it in years.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Re Marin, the way being an out gay man has hurt MTT? or being an in gay man has hurt you-know-who and you-know-who?