© Laura Toxværd

»My pregnant body changed things – composing with the process«

Sounding Women's Work | In a situation where the gender balance is skewed in favor of men, it takes action to change the balance so no one has a special advantage, says composer, saxophonist and author Laura Toxværd. 
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My pregnant body changed things. The nausea that was best alleviated by the fact that I ate all the time, and the abdominal muscles that moved on, and being short of breath. I was in the process of recording my debut album for my alto saxophone and preparing for my graduation concert at the Conservatory of Music, and I was busy rehearsing and playing concerts with various bands. 

At first, only my boyfriend knew I was pregnant. A little later, my loved ones heard about it. But I would not tell it to my surroundings until I was well into my pregnancy. When my mother gave birth to my little brother, it was after her fifth pregnancy, two of whom had not succeeded. Four days later it was May 1st and we were having breakfast at. 6 in the voters' association’ s premises with my little brother in  a pram. I was a 6 year old girl and learned that working class women did not let themselves be defined and hindered by pregnancy and childbirth. 

The baby I was expecting myself, I deeply wanted, and if I had an involuntary abortion, I thought it would be easier to get over it if the pregnancy had not been known by others. I felt that it would be unmanageable to have to tell people that my pregnancy had been interrupted. The thought of having to face the comfort and care of the outside world in that situation made me very uncomfortable. But at the same time, it meant I could not explain to people why I did not think I could live up to my usual level on the saxophone because it had become so physically hard to play. 

I kept going, for my impression was that the working women of my family had handled their pregnancies and births without complaining

I play my saxophone in a way that involves intense, powerful sounds, and it was difficult for me to do when I was short of breath, lacked the strength of my abdominal muscles, and had nausea. Still, I kept going, for my impression was that the working women of my family had handled their pregnancies and births without complaining. My job was to be a saxophonist, which I pretty much always had been, and I needed to make money. 

»Well, so you're the singer«

The saxophone works as a kind of technology in my composition business. When I see the saxophone as a kind of technological component in my composition process, it's because I do not use the saxophone to compose music, as a result of ideas I produce. Rather, I will explain it in such a way that my work of composing is in the process of becoming in entanglements with the saxophone; as a diffraction in contrast to the static relationship between ideas and music, and in inseparable intra-actions understood as opposed to interactions where separate entities exist prior to the interaction. 

An example could be that over a long period of time, maybe a year, I design graphic notations that I play on my saxophone for concerts with other musicians. I constantly change the graphic notations based on the music of the concerts. This is how I worked a few years ago at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory with the artistic research project 'Composition of graphic and sonic works through the improvisers' co-creation”, which is available as a peer reviewed exhibition on the conservatory's portal at researchcatalogue.net

Another example could be that I am in a certain room with some people and say my thoughts out loud and try things out on my saxophone, regarding a piece of music I come up with, while I move around among the people in space. Finally, I play the piece of music. I have used this way of working in the PhD project that I am working on at the University of Agder in Norway.

When I was expecting the next child, I decided not to play. In fact, I was about to stop playing altogether because I found that it was not only difficult to have a pregnant and subsequent breastfeeding body; the music world's unstable labor market without any insurance in case of accident and illness, made me worried about the safety of children. To keep expenses down when the kids were little, I did not have my own rehearsal room or study. 

I have practiced on my saxophone and composed in connection with teaching at conservatories, and when I did not, I worked in the living room or bedroom or went out to my parents' house in Herlev. Today, 18 years later, I am grateful that I have still managed to keep playing and working with music, but that things changed by my then pregnant body still have effects that reach both forward and backward in time. 

As a very young person, when I started moving into the professional rhythmic music scene in the 1990s, I remember people often asking, »Are you a singer?«. And when I arrived at a venue where I was going to perform and I was talking to the crew or to the audience before the concert, they said »well, so you're the singer«. I think they asked because I'm a woman. At the time, it was typical of the rhythmic music scene that women sang and that men played instruments. 

From the beginning, I experienced that what I did was surprising to my surroundings. I became aware that when I started playing my saxophone, people would not only see and hear someone playing the saxophone; they would inevitably see and hear a woman playing the saxophone – a woman they had initially thought was a singer. It still annoys me  that I have not been able to free myself from seeing myself that way. 

However, working on composing has helped me look at myself differently. Basically, I have not felt very comfortable trying to step into a tradition of composers that I perceived was historically defined by men. But along the way, I have found ways to compose music that shift my focus from being the central individual composing. Instead, I am preoccupied with how music and its composition happen and what it does to us and the world. I try to move a little away from myself and look at what things do and what effects it has. 

You could probably say that I now have a room of my own

Two music albums are included in my current PhD.-project. On one album, Calling, I improvise with Maria Faust on alto saxophone and Jacob Anderskov on prepared piano based on a graphic notation that I have written down in advance. The second album, The Winds, is a recording of my improvisations with Julie Kjær on alto saxophone, Peter Friis Nielsen on electric bass and Marilyn Mazur on drums and percussion. On these music albums, the saxophone has been crucial in my composition work and in my improvisation encounters with different musicians, including two different saxophonists who are women like myself. 

Categories as power grabs

As I develop my work of composing, I have become better at seeing my work in the context of the work of others, and I understand how I work on the basis of different traditions that are not only defined by men, but by a diversity of origins. At the same time, I gradually feel comfortable in this imaginary composition space that I work in, and you could probably say that I now have a room of my own.

Before I got pregnant, I did not like categories that I had to fit into. Categories I perceived as power grabs to normalize us and make us alike. I also did not like being categorized as a woman. Since then, I have learned about women as the second sex, and I have considered whether there is a misogyny associated with the fact that I have not played very much with women. Throughout my career, women have been underrepresented in my field, so that may be one reason why when I have met people that I wanted to play with, it has most often been men. 

I entered the music scene at a time when the abuse of power and the sexism that we are dealing with today were widespread. I thought it was wrong then, but I wanted to advance in the world, and my own solution was to avoid the most hazardous places. With a working class background where I had experienced that my parents and grandparents had dreamed of education and artistic work but had not been able to realize it due to financial constraints, I was, as previously mentioned, grateful that I was given the opportunity to create a life first as a musician and later also as a composer. 

In a situation where the gender balance is skewed in favor of men, you must act to change the balance such that no one has a particular advantage. I want to do my part to create a better balance. Before I got pregnant, I did not want to be categorized as a woman, and it had the effect that I did not relate to the issue of under-representation, but when my pregnant body changed things, the woman became completely present to me. Today, the effect of the present body of my pregnancies is that, as I said, I want to do something. I try to investigate the issue when I play music and when I do research, while trying to avoid relating to womanhood as a limiting category.

Laura Toxværd, April 2022


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