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Gender and social relations in New Music: Tackling the octopus

Juliana Hodkinson interviews anthropologist / cultural theorist Georgina Born on gender and other social relations in contemporary music.
Interview with cultural theorist Georgina Born
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In 2016, composer Ashley Fure and anthropologist / cultural theorist Georgina Born let an octopus out of the bag at Darmstadt, which immediately raised the temperature under the seats of individuals and organisations alike, and spawned both debate and activity on gender and other social relations in contemporary music. A year later, Juliana Hodkinson interviewed Georgina Born, to hear where the initiative is heading, and how it ties in with the music scene in Denmark.

Starting up a network for gender relations
Juliana Hodkinson: With Ashley Fure, you have been stimulating a wide debate on gender in contemporary music, first at Darmstadt 2016 and then at MaerzMusik 2017, with the working group  Gender Relations in Darmstadt/New Music (GRID1/GRINM2). The sessions of the group are available online as vimeos, notes, a manifesto, and various other resources, and GRINM has spawned some coverage on the BBC and elsewhere. Have there already been any breakthroughs? I’m sure there’s been plenty of provocation and challenge. Have there been any clear and uncomplicated steps forward, where somebody has pledged to create concrete change in a way that makes one think: “success!”

»Each of these festival directors is to some degree committed to reconsidering their future practice on gender«

Georgina Born: What I say will have to be tentative: we are in the early days of cultivating relationships with five European new music festivals, the directors3 of which have all committed to taking forward some kind of progressive programme to do with enhancing diversity and related issues, with gender very central to these developments. That seems to me extraordinary – that each of these festival directors is to some degree committed to reconsidering their future practice on these matters. But in terms of concrete steps forward, apart from the dialogue, I would say: not quite yet. What happened is that at Darmstadt last August, Ashley and I presented some research material and conceptual ideas on gender. On the basis of access to the Darmstadt archives, she’d made an analysis of the historical statistics about women’s presence and contributions, invitations and commissions at Darmstadt; she had a research assistant run all those numbers, and then she presented an analysis of this material. We’d been in dialogue a few months previously, trying to think of a format that would be effective, and I’d been invited to give a lecture. So I made part of my lecture address questions of gender, while making a broader statement about the need for a post-Adornian sociology of music, which I think is deeply overdue, particularly in Germany and the German-influenced countries. That’s something I’ve been working on throughout my career really, since my first book, Rationalizing Culture, and perhaps with more obvious focus in the last twelve years since my 2005 article, ’On musical mediation’4. In a sense, the whole of my career has been building up this kind of framework, which I know has been met ambivalently by colleagues. I included this dimension on gender, and I’d be interested to tell you more about that framework. 

And then we went straight into a panel of eight people from different areas of activity in new music – Sam Salem, director of an ensemble, the producer Arnbjörg Danielsen, the critic, curator and journalist Anne-Hilde Neset, Thomas Schäfer, Darmstadt’s director, as well as the composer Jennifer Walshe, the electronic music activist Susanne Kirchmayr from Female:Pressure, and the composer Neele Hülcker, who read out perhaps the most powerful statement. That statement began: ‘Talking about diversity and inequality of representation, in 2016, requires that transgender and intersex identities would be included as a part of our group as composers, musicians, thinkers and artists.’ In this way Neele and her co-authors put issues of sexual identity fully on the agenda for GRID, and I admit that for me this aspect was a learning experience. Each participant added a vital perspective on the gender issue, and it worked extremely well: the room was full, the audience was attentive and enthusiastic, and it seemed to really take off as an energizing event. There’s this Open Space format at Darmstadt in recent years, a less centrally organised space for discussions, workshops, gatherings, less determined from the top, and daily meetings began mobilised by Ashley in which a group of students and interested people met to workshop the gender issue. I wasn’t really aware this was happening, that Ashley was doing this, for a few days, and then I heard about it and began to go along and put my spade in too, and it became a very interesting and important moment. What was lovely was that there were a lot of young and older men there, who were just as passionate and committed as the women and trans participants. 

»A post-Adornian sociology of music … is deeply overdue, particularly in Germany«

The other fascinating thing was that this was a mobile group, so some people came and others went, and it was productively in flux. One day an elderly guy turned up and sat there rather quietly and towards the end came up and talked. It turned out that he was a performance teacher at Darmstadt, in his mid 50s, and he was as passionately committed to the need to move towards and achieve greater equality and diversity on gender as anyone else. So it became very obvious to us that this was taking-off, and we had very interesting political discussions about how to do this. I’m glad I was there, because as an older person who was involved in a wave of activism on music and politics much earlier in my career, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, and my sense is that there are certain styles of activism that aren’t very effective. So we determined as a group to be cooperative in our approach, to try to engender a collaboration with Thomas Schäfer, and we eventually invited him to talk to us on day 9. He came along and had obviously been thinking himself, and he said: ‘well, what shall we do, how can we take this forward?’. Thomas had been talking to three other festival directors, from Donaueschingen, Ultima and MaerzMusik, and reported to us that they were all interested too in bringing about changes in some way. And so this began to roll. 

Ashley and I were invited to compose a document, a kind of statement, for the think-tank or ‘post mortem’ that Darmstadt holds a few weeks after the end of the festival in order to take stock and begin planning for the next festival, which will be in 2018. Drawing on the discussions we had as GRID in the Open Space meetings, we rapidly wrote together what I see as a very strong and important statement of basic principles, at that time addressed directly to Darmstadt, with both very practical and very high-level ideas in it. I call it a manifesto, although Ashley is not sure that is the right term for it. That has germinated quite a lot of discussion. And so it rolled along. Since then, the four festival directors have approached the German public funding agency, the Kulturstiftung, for their own joint project, called ‘Defragmentation’, in which the gender and diversity commitments are one core element, and we are waiting to hear the outcome. We believe that funding will be forthcoming to support their plans to effect change in their future editions. But it’s all uncertain and unconfirmed at present and the response hasn’t yet been received. And as you can see, while they have slotted gender and diversity issues into their joint project, they have not made this the only theme, and quite what they intend to do practically is as yet unclear. Certainly, they have our think tank manifesto from which to draw concrete ideas, but as yet it seems unclear quite what change strategies they will pursue. So much is still to play for.

Portrait of Georgina Born

Defragmentation: a concrete initiative with festivals
In particular, quite what will be the relationship, if any, between GRID and ‘Defragmentation’ is unclear. Meanwhile, I have been in dialogue with Thomas Schafer and he asked me early this year to become an advisor to his own planning for Darmstadt’s future, in which he sees changes on gender and diversity to be absolutely central. I suggested we also bring in the distinguished African-American composer George Lewis as another advisor, who is head of the composition department at Columbia University, and George joined us in March with enthusiasm and conviction. So Darmstadt’s commitment is real and we are currently discussing ideas for the 2018 programme.

We had a meeting of the ‘Defragmentation’ project just before MaerzMusik in mid-March this year, at which we all came together for the first time, with myself and George Lewis present. I guess this means that George and I have a kind of go-between role between the movement and the festivals’ initiative; as well as George and I, there were some other advisers too, and we were sitting with the four directors for our first three or four hours of discussion on the issues. I would say that at present this is all in process, but halting. 

Meanwhile, I was in Poland last September at a meeting of jazz festival directors, to give a talk. Graham MacKenzie from Huddersfield happened to be there and he heard my lecture, and that was a good thing and opened an important dialogue between us. I’d been doing fieldwork at Huddersfield in recent years for my current research, and once I was surreptitiously recording a concert, and Graham tapped me on the shoulder and wasn’t very happy! But now we’ve developed a very good relationship, and he is asking me to help him in his own project of making Huddersfield more responsive to issues of gender and diversity, to make a real transition, starting now. In fact we met just last week, and Graham is developing some strong goals. It seems likely he will develop this independently of the other festivals, although of course they are in touch.

So these are some of the developments since last August. I have been involved, as you see, and of course I have an interest in the activist core; but in the end I am an older person, I am not a composer or active as a musician these days. I think my role as an academic/theorist is nevertheless important, and also my capacity to advise and reflect on political strategies. But I am also constantly learning. My son is involved in housing politics in Britain and is writing a PhD on precarious and informal housing. He is involved in a grassroots movement to create a renters’ union, and they are having to invent the nature and form of their politics, their interventions. And the same is true for GRID/GRINM. So there’s a lot of new thinking, of political experimentation, to be done.

It was at MaerzMusik in March this year that, thanks to the invitation of Berno Polzer, GRID met again for a workshop, which brought together about thirty people, many of them new, including Ashley and I and a group of interesting composers, curators, musicians and educators. By this point it became obvious that this should be a wider movement than addressed solely to Darmstadt. So we renamed it GRINM: Gender Relations in New Music. The workshop was productive, and a number of strategies were thought up and logged for taking the movement forward. But I have to say it has been a challenge to build on that momentum.

»How we reconcile engaging in cultural politics, on the one hand, with attempting to achieve rigorous and reasonably independent research?«

Keeping research independent
JH: I’m pleased to hear all of that, because one of my questions is: how do we avoid the movers and shakers just exhibiting a form of tokenism, nodding to various debates that only take place off-stage within festivals? What you say here sounds like a much bigger commitment, it sounds like a pledge, which is what is really needed. So you’ve joined ‘the mission’, to some extent, and to another extent you have your autonomy as someone outside concert life. Is it OK for a sociologist to be ‘on a mission’ and to get her hands dirty in this way, to be allied with one side or the other of a contentious issue? How does that work?

GB: A good question, but yes, I think it is OK, if done with care. If you read the body of my work it’s always been traversing this challenge to some extent: the question of how we reconcile engaging in cultural politics, on the one hand, with attempting to achieve rigorous and reasonably independent research, on the other hand. This is a core question in my work. And in fact, the two sometimes go hand in hand. For example, I’ve championed the view that diversity in the production community, diversity among those making culture, whether it’s in television or new media or music, does have effects, and beneficial effects, on the diversity of the work that we see, and on the degree of invention and experimentation in that work. At the same time, I’ve always wanted to demur from any crude determinism: there’s no simple relationship there. But when we look historically, at particular periods, we can see that the entry of non-standard folk into what is usually a tremendously restricted and closed-down community of producers – whether in music or television – can have very interesting effects and can be allied with new, sometimes experimental aesthetic directions. To take an example from my work on television, in the decade from the mid 1990s through to the mid 2000s, notably my book on the BBC5: there’s a central chapter on labour and employment at the BBC, and – I hope with humour, but also with edge – it charts what a soon-to-be Director General, Greg Dyke, called the ‘hideously white’ nature of the BBC’s workforce and culture. So through my empirical work I document not only what in Britain we call institutional racism in the BBC, but also a lot of institutionalised sexism. OK, the structural sexism at the BBC has been mitigated by the fact that they have had policies for decades to promote women in all areas, and that’s been reasonably successful. Yet just recently, the radically unequal salaries being paid to the corporation’s top men and women was made public, somewhat tarnishing that image. So here is a good example of empirical findings in my ethnography of the BBC that had direct political implications: the two are inseparable. And although I did little political work on the BBC, since my sense was mid-career (rightly or wrongly) that it was more effective for me to be seen as an authoritative Cambridge academic who had come up with this irrefutable analysis, I did do some policy-oriented and political work, and I tried to do more – but those efforts were blocked by the leading New Labour think tanks, IPPR and Demos, who, when I approached them, wanted me to present different findings and tried to control my work! Amazing: gender dynamics again, but here in the guise of supposedly left-leaning policy think tanks not allowing me to publish what I wanted to publish.

If we return to diversity and its positive effects in cultural production: the best example is Channel Four Television, which is our second public broadcaster in Britain. Channel Four was created in 1982 on a remit to boost the diversity of people going into production, as well as to promote innovation in the form and content of programming. This was designed as a reaction and an alternative to what had become by the 1970s the excessively middle-brow, centre-ground nature of the BBC and British commercial television. Channel Four was cleverly designed to exploit loopholes in union agreements in the film and TV industries so as to allow the creation of training workshops of various kinds aimed at under-represented groups: in the north of England, to train northern working-class communities; to train young black people, to train women. The result of the workshop movement was to feed a whole wave of new formats and genres and experimental film into Channel Four throughout the 1980s. The effect was astonishing, if much debated. This lasted until the Channel took a more commercial direction, which it did already by the late 80s. I and many others have written about this period of C4 and how incredibly significant it was, not least because – to employ a standard measure – it develooped individual talents like Isaac Julien, now a tremendously important film-maker and video artist, as well a leading queer black voice in cultural theory and cultural politics. 

»Through my empirical work I document not only what in Britain we call institutional racism, but also a lot of institutionalised sexism«

So this whole question of the diversity of the production community having potentially powerful beneficial effects on what is made, and the aesthetic diversity that we hear and see, seems to me unequivocal; it’s an argument I’ve always made because of the evidence. But to return to your good question – is it OK for a sociologist to ’get her hands dirty’ by not only doing independent research but also taking a stand on some aspect of it: it’s certainly tricky, and to be honest I’ve never before done the kind of thing I’m in process of discussing with the festival directors, so it’s new ground for me. What we are thinking about (I haven’t yet committed to taking it forward) is to try and raise a major grant to enable me to study the festivals as they are in process of transformation. And the directors appear keen, they say they want me to do that. We’ve now had direct exchanges about the fact that if I do this research project, on the one hand I would have a position as an advisor or interlocutor, and on the other hand I would have to be there as a disinterested observer. This is helped by the fact that I am not involved at all in the new music scene. I’ve reminded them, moreover, that I’d have to be free to write as I see it, critically if necessary. And thus far, the directors have signed up to this, although who knows how it will work in practice. At another level, I have to say this is new to me and it disturbs me that our own Arts and Humanities Research Council (I don’t know about the Danish equivalent) is now requiring us, when we apply for research grants, to do it in partnership with arts organisations. In other words, they’re enjoining us to do this kind of applied, ’impactful’ research – which is all very well, and I’m delighted to work with the festivals, but I insist also on the significance of my independence and my right to write autonomously, as I see it. So we’re in a very strange period for independent academic research on the arts, a transition to this partnership or collaboration model which has both obvious strengths but also potential pitfalls, of the kind you’re raising. And whether it’s possible in practice to be so close to one’s research subjects – the festival directors and others involved – and to retain the necessary autonomy to do critical work, we will have to see.

»We are being enjoined to do applied, ’impactful’ research –  but I insist also on the significance of my independence and my right to write autonomously«

Audiences and marketing
JH: I’m thinking, as I’m listening to you, that no matter whether these festival directors individually are new in their jobs or have sat in the same jobs for a long time, each of those festivals that you name bears a large responsibility for their own gender imbalance of course. It’s an incredible step to have the heads of those festivals moving forward and saying they now accept responsibility for creating change. You describe a paradigm in which arts and the media are closely linked, and indeed each of these festivals is more or less linked to one or another broadcasting organisation. Each of these public service bodies, in turn, is coming under more and more pressure to serve a mainstream population’s tastes rather than driving cultural development, and so the idea of being experimental or diverse in that context is an exhausting thought. I’ve been taking part in a working group at the Danish Radio ostensibly seeking ways to rejuvenate the coverage of contemporary music and the sonic arts in public-service broadcasting, and trying to find a space or a format that could do that. Similar to other institutions you described in your Darmstadt lecture, DR suffers critically from having come under the sway of neoliberalism and its attendant legitimising concepts, such that its task to create public-service value for the population stands in a circular relation to the population’s political opinions, as reflected in the government of the day, with which DR negotiates its public-service contract. The extent to which DR producers feel obliged to provide statistical evidence that the music they broadcast is proven to appeal to a large number of people - in the case of new commissions, before it’s even been written - is a perverse situation. So I’m thinking that this ingrained erosion of everything that could create new experimental work – whether by women or men, but in any case under a banner of diversity and new impulses – seems so irreversible. With public broadcasting in such a tight place, how do you imagine that, internally or externally, we can have a diversifying influence there? 

GB: That’s a very important question. But let’s separate out two issues. First, very crudely, women can be as populist as men in their music! Any why not? Quite frankly, why should only male composers garner big audiences and easy commissions? Who are we to stand against women who choose to work in larger, established or commercial markets for music? Why shouldn’t some women benefit from these same structures of opportunity as men? So in this sense, questions of equality in employment, commissioning and pay are to some extent separate from the question of what is made, it seems to me. 

The second question, which is the problem of the marketisation of culture, of the increasing tyranny of market research and of the notion of ’what audiences want’ in broadcasting institutions: well, take a look at Chapter 7 of my BBC book, called ’Knowing the audience’6. This chapter is all about the rise of new kinds of intensive market research in the BBC in the 90s and 2000s. But the book as a whole charts the effects of the marketisation of the BBC and how this impacts on the nature of commissions and programming. The book has been there now for over ten years. I started looking at this in the mid 90s through the influential example of the BBC – which, as you probably know, is always a model for DR – and this is still the landscape we’re in. To use a metaphor: I’m climbing up a steep mountain or a cliff, and lots of rocks and stones keep falling down; the rocks and stones falling down are all the concessions constantly being made to the neoliberal market mindset. And the concessions to the market mindset continue in art-music programming on the BBC, as no doubt you know. To be honest, after the mid 2000s I had to step out of this area of work to keep sane, because basically it’s a full-time profession keeping up with what’s happening in broadcasting – and, like the think tanks, they don’t see academics as important interlocutors, as offering anything they can learn from, compared to the big commercial consultancies. In fact it took ten years for my book to be read by a very senior BBC executive, a former Labour government minister of culture, who wrote to me in 2015 saying how important my book was and began a dialogue with me. 

»Why shouldn’t some women benefit from these same structures of opportunity as men?«

 Nonetheless we have something in Europe, it seems to me – thankfully I can still speak of Europe for a couple of years – which still understands something about the basic structure of how the arts proceed or even progress. And that’s what I think is the inhibiting factor. There seems to be, even amongst senior executives of the broadcasting and the arts world, an awareness that you need some experimental spaceship out there doing stuff that might eventually hit good ground and, in this way, feed back into the whole universe of contemporary music. In other words, there is a commitment to the principle that we have to cultivate and support that space of experimentation in music, the arts, culture and media. And by using that term I don’t mean to invoke any particular understanding of experimental aesthetics. That is why on the BBC we still do have, late night or in the middle of the night, and on the edges of the Proms, on the edges of programming – but increasingly not so much at the edges too – we have a commitment to areas of new music that remain reasonably healthy. If we had Graham Mackenzie here, no doubt he’d be telling you about the major cuts to his budget from the Arts Council, and I do understand that there is a tipping point, that we may genuinely be tipping into a situation in which the funding is just not there any more. Certainly I don’t get that feeling yet. 

»You need some experimental spaceship out there doing stuff that might eventually hit good ground and, in this way, feed back into the whole universe of contemporary music«

In other words, I don’t think the war is completely lost yet; and what I hope is that it’s not any longer solely through a belief in the sanctity of the Second Viennese School and the great tradition of German music in the 20th century, but out of a different understanding of how culture proceeds and evolves. That argument is very simple (and I’ve made it many times in my work): it is that, contrary to the neoliberal metaphysics of infallible audiences, production and the imaginative interventions and commitments of artists, musicians, producers comes before audiences. Production precedes consumption, and what is made also creates the conditions for consumption. Which is to say, audiences can only engage with what they’re given, put very crudely. It’s a complete mistake to think – and I personally find in my research that most CEOs and managing directors of arts organizations and broadcasters understand this point – that audiences come with fully formed, ready-made tastes. Those tastes are constantly being formed and evolved through the process of what audiences receive and what they are enjoined to engage with. And that is the role of the big mediators like the broadcasting and arts organisations: as long as they understand that we have to have new stuff coming in and to liberate the composers, musicians, artists that produce that vital material, and that audience tastes are fickle and parasitic and are bound to evolve, then that is a generative self-understanding.

But at the moment, to put it bluntly, in British new music we don’t yet have the ’next big thing’, we don’t know it will be! Indeed, I’m in process of finishing the book coming out of my research project on digital music, from the last six years, in which I’m going to suggest that what we’re seeing in Britain now is a huge pluralisation of what counts as new music.And that is long overdue, and welcome; it’s about a silent or not-so-silent toppling of the 20th-century understanding of the great German or European tradition, and an opening out that will eventually yield some important new musical directions. I can’t adjudicate between them now, I can’t tell you what they are; but the fact of the eclipse of the hegemony of a certain understanding is in itself significant. So I think, yes, we’re certainly witnessing the tyranny of this audience-driven marketisation in public service broadcasting and in music and the arts, but we’re also seeing a great wave of opening up, at the level of what is made and what counts in new music festivals, and this is very hopeful. And it’s something eventually that the A&R7 people, the taste monitors from the BBC or DR can’t ignore; they're going out to these places, they’re listening to what gets musicians and others excited.  

Resistance to change
JH: This sounds very much more optimistic than I’ve heard anyone say in a long time. There just seems to be a huge time-lag on this toppling that you describe, but I hear you say it’s on its way, hopefully. 

GB: With one caveat. There’s a generation of musicologists who are committed to shoring up that edifice, that conception of 20th century music. It’s a problem, because these people are teaching the musicians, curators, BBC and DR executives and critics of today and tomorrow. These are European musicologists of a certain generation and in some cases their whole careers are bound up in the defence of well-known canonic figures. And for them this defence is experienced – wrongly – as a defence of culture itself, in that old ’culture versus barbarism’ mentality. These people tend to denounce me as a populist, an anti-elitist; they mistakenly accuse me of being sociologically reductive, when the core of my work has always been the challenge of analysing the links between musical or aesthetic and social developments – one could say, of improving on this aspect of Adorno. If they think I am anti-modernist, they should listen to the music I played professionally and read more of my work!

JH: So it’s not pure paranoia and conspiracy theory if one feels that there is a huge resistance to change? Things won’t just improve over time, of themselves?


»Yes, we’re witnessing the tyranny of this audience-driven marketisation in public service broadcasting and in music and the arts, but we’re also seeing a great wave of opening«

GB: No. Because the current state of historical musicology is generally divorced from present day developments, and how this necessitates a re-assessment of the last century, and this affects music criticism – they are sometimes the same people. However, there is a group of younger musicologists, mainly Americans but some Brits and Europeans too, for example some close colleagues from Aarhus, who are revisiting the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and beginning to reassess and alter our understanding of this crucial period of history, the post-War decades8. This work will fuel our changing understanding of what counts today, and where fresh currents are coming from. 

Four predicates on quality vs. equality
JH: So, in order to dismantle this hegemony from the mid- and late-20th century, it’s not enough just to progress into the future; we have to continue to understand and critique how that came to be. A few minutes ago on your way to talking about producers and their responsibilities, you grouped together commissioning and equality in employment. I often meet the resistance that commissioning has to do with quality; that it’s got nothing to do with equality. So it’s nothing to do with equal opportunities for employment. Commissioning has to do with presenting ‘the best’. So we’ve got quality and equality cancelling each other out. How can one place equality in employment at the heart of commissioning as a responsibility and also as an opportunity, as a quality in itself that might in turn produce interesting work – even ‘the best’, maybe? 

GB: I think I discussed this in an earlier answer, saying two things. One, that equality and diversity are increasingly recognised in themselves in the public sphere, including in the public service broadcasting debate, as highly significant, and as aspirations with real potential for finding new talent, even if as yet little realised. A number of major institutions have made commitments to these principles and it seems to be accelerating. Of course, we know from the decades gap between gender equality legislation and real change that such commitments cannot be assumed to bring about change by themselves, which is why GRINM and similar pressure movements remain necessary. And two, and to your main point: the quality argument is of course a way of finessing these commitments. There’s no easy answer to the perceived ’quality versus equality’ impasse, and the answer that I’ve been developing is not a half sentence or a one-liner. It goes like this, in four stages: Predicate 1: there is actually a surfeit of talent out there – much more than has ever been recognized by the standard channels of commissioning, performances and so on. Predicate 2: at the same time, we see a large amount of relatively unsuccessful work (often composed by men, given gender imbalances) being awarded commissions and performances. Predicate 3: ergo, any claim that there’s a perfect match between current commissioning strategies and quality is itself problematic and unscrutinised. Predicate 4: so if it’s the case that there’s always a surfeit of talent, of those whose work is promising and who merit, on quality grounds, commissions and performances, then it’s in the fine tuning of judgements of who will be given those opportunities that arguments for equality and diversity can come in. I don’t think I can put it any clearer than that.

»There is actually a surfeit of talent out there – much more than has ever been recognized by the standard channels of commissioning and performances«

Judgments of talent
JH: So when we think of talent, we think of a pyramid structure with lots of raw, untapped potential among many people (possibly younger) at the bottom, before differences in training and background begin to bite, and then they get filtered away as we get to just a few geniuses at the top, with experience, knowledge and exposure. How can we turn that around and direct attention to the bottom of the pyramid, to how talent is developed, furthered and encouraged, in a different way, and affecting also with what spectacles commisioning people use to look for talent?

GB: For a start, I don’t think it’s so much about a pyramid with top and bottom, but more about the muddy middle. When I started to talk about these issues with my colleague and friend George Lewis, who is Chair of the composition department of Columbia University, New York, and one of the very few Black American musicians and composers to have broken through the many barriers to the recognition of his musical and intellectual achievements, George  insisted on the need to start working on these problems at the level of training. He was talking about the fact that for decades at Columbia, there was an exclusively white male intake into their composition program, and that it’s only with a great deal of work and care that he and others have been able to curate the entry into that program so as to make it much more diverse, with many more young women, more African-Americans and other ethnic minorities entering the program and being trained as composers. So what we’ve been talking about is the significance of the whole recruitment process into influential composition Masters’ and PhD programs, and how that influences who gets out into the key networks.

But another angle on this comes from one theme of the research program I’ve been directing for the last six years9, which arose in the studies we undertook on electronic and computer music trainings in the universities today in the UK and Montreal. Bringing my research together with other existing studies that looked at every stage of education, you see a systematic drop-off of girls’ and young women’s engagement with electronic and computer music. In these particular music fields, the gendering is compounded of course by the strong technological element10.

»There is actually a surfeit of talent out there – much more than has ever been recognized by the standard channels of commissioning and performances«

Yet even in acoustic composition, something is going on, judgements of relative ’talent’ are being made, with the effect that there’s a continual drop-off of young women’s capacity to move through the training process. So what I’m saying is: there’s no simple answer, once again, and in fact among the four festival directors and in GRINM we have begun to think, with some dismay, that the task is like an octopus: it moves in all directions at once. It’s necessary to concern ourselves with entry into, and the substance of, composition programs in the universities and the big music schools, at Masters’ and PhD level; with composition teachers’ and musicologists’ ideologies of talent; of course, it’s also necessary to concern oneself with the faculty make-up of composition departments. I won’t name names, but I am aware of composition departments in Scandinavia and elsewhere that are almost entirely, if not entirely, male. What message does that send out to women composers and aspiring composers? How can it be justified, especially in Scandinavia with its avowed commitment to advancing gender equality?  

JH: I don’t think there’s ever been any teacher of composition regularly employed on a fixed contract in Denmark that was a woman. 

GB: That’s deeply disturbing, isn’t it? In our work in Canada, my colleague and researcher Patrick Valiquet did excellent research on the history and current state of electroacoustic music in Montreal – which is of course a tremendously prominent and important school of electroacoustic composition11.  Patrick found that some influential women composers who founded the key studios and trained the next generation have largely been written out of the histories of the Montreal school12!

»Any claim that there’s a perfect match between current commissioning strategies and quality is itself problematic and unscrutinised«

So we have to work on multiple levels, and one reason I was proud of the initial brainstorm that Ashley Fure and I had in the GRID think-tank document is because we said to the festival director Thomas Schäfer: this work has to occur on several levels at once. It has to do with the faculty being employed to teach composition; it has to do with the make-up of the student body; it has to do with diversity in the ensembles and performing groups that are hired, and with their commitment to selecting women composers to perform; and it has to do with revising what has become an established, canonic history of Darmstadt, with looking back and revising that history, addressing its exclusions as well as inclusions. One of our projects is to seek to create interest among a new generation of musicologists to write their Masters’ and PhD theses on women composers who’ve been lost from the Darmstadt history, to go back and look without prejudice. Some of these people may not be particularly interesting, but some may be very interesting. So working on a number of fronts at once has to be the way that a gender politics of composition must proceed. Revising history, revising who teaches, revising the repertoire that’s taught, revising the student body. But back to your question: I was very struck by George Lewis saying that one of the key places we have to begin is with the judgements of talent that are made at the very point of entry into PhD programs for composers.

The bigger picture
JH: That would be a huge step forward, this ‘octopus’ approach. Moving on all fronts at the same time seems crucial to me also because it eliminates the possibility of people in one chair saying the problem is over in another room. It says that everyone has to take responsibility for the chair they’re sitting on, together with the others. Then what I hear you say concerns the work of revising canons: not only the idea of a canon but also its contents; proposing alternative candidates to go into the canon, or into an enlarged canon, is also key. I wonder if you could imagine all these initiatives advancing to a level where they would become a paradigm, in a climate where there are so many cuts in education, the arts and public service? All the avenues that people have for personal development and for entering into degrees, so long as they still exist, are now under pressure.


»It has to do with revising what has become an established, canonic history, with looking back and revising that history, addressing its exclusions as well as inclusions«

GB: Absolutely, I hear you, the stakes are very high. On the other hand, we have to struggle with whatever we have, whichever further education or arts funding or public service broadcasting system survives. That’s an obvious point, and particularly if we think globally, things can look grim. The giant strides being made by a misogynist, patriarchal so-called populism, whether in the States – just last night we heard of the resignation of the right-wing pundit, Bill O’Reilly, from Fox News, who has had to pay out USD13 million in compensation for sexual harassment cases. I mean, what more do we need to know about the forces currently at stake and the wars being waged for and against patriarchy? I have to say that one of the most depressing things for me, as an ageing woman, is to see what’s at stake for my own daughter, for her generation and your generation. When I was 14 or 15, and at a great all-girls school, I thought I could see an open vista of progress. Because luckily I was given that sense of confidence about my own right to exist, to grow, to develop my talent and my intellect, to intervene, to take up positions. Actually, it was powerfully thwarted within academia in mid career, but that’s another story. So that’s what I thought when I was young. Then I met a generation of students around the late 1990s, when I was teaching sociology and anthropology at Cambridge University, who didn’t recognize or had contempt for the very term feminism. What do you do with that? Then you come to a new generation, now, who are interested in something they call feminism, but of course it occupies a different terrain to the second-wave feminism of the 1970s and 1980s that I grew up with. That’s fine. But the point is that for those of us interested in the progress of women and other genders, we can’t ever assume that things aren’t reversible, because they always are. That’s the depressing truth. That’s why, whatever we have to work with, we have to work with: it can get better, but it also shows signs of potentially getting worse. Even if the neoliberalisation of education proceeds apace, as it does in the UK, with ever-increasing student fees, ever-increasing student debts, it’s terrible, it demands a fight; but people are still going to university, people are still learning music and becoming composers, and we have to work with that, with whatever we have. In fact, the fight for greater equality also among academic faculty is almost more important under these conditions – to register these wider politics within the academy, within the university. So that’s why I answer: we still have to work with this.

Aesthetics and anthropology
JH: That sums it up in a nutshell, both for the pessimists and the optimists! I have one final question, which might be a throwaway question which you answer with a ‘no’, or you might have something to say about it. For me, trying to work up a feminist aesthetics, and realizing that you can’t do that without politics and other subjects – the number of subjects in which I’m not competent grow, but they all have to be taken in somehow – I’ve been very inspired by Erin Manning’s Politics of Touch, Elisabeth Grosz on vibration, and other writers. I wonder – if we’re just concentrating on feminism – whether you have any recommendations for the contemporary music milieu that we could be inspired by? You mentioned Tia DeNora in Darmstadt. I wonder if there’s anyone you’re reading at the moment that you think is relevant for this situation, or whether you find there’s an absolute dearth of writing that could ever have to do with feminism and the sonic arts today?

»Every time we listen to music or make music, we are at the same time creating social relations or socialities«

GB: Well, I myself have a suspicion of attempts to develop a universal feminist philosophy, including a feminist aesthetics. That’s natural for an anthropologist, because social and cultural differences are always important for anthropologists! When I meet younger colleagues who want to say, ’let’s talk about the body, let’s talk about the senses’, it’s fine with me, though there are other ways to think about a feminist aesthetics. So I’m interested in affect theory, indeed I’ve written a bit about it13; I’m also following the turn to the senses – itself influenced by sensory anthropology – and who could be against the concern with the body and embodied experience? I’m certainly interested in Erin Manning’s work, and in particular I very much like her recent book with Brian Massumi, where they’re arguing for an intimate relationship between the development of philosophical ideas and embodied experimentation in the arts14. That’s very interesting, because it’s an attempt to show the very grounds of the production of philosophical knowledge in a way that is exciting, lurching away from both individualistic and Cartesian mentalist models of how philosophy develops. So that’s great. My big beef with the whole wave of work on the body, the senses and affect – which I’m very happy to acknowledge the interest of – is that it doesn’t tend to concern itself with social or collective processes in interesting ways. There are important exceptions, and here my key reference would be the book Collective Imaginings by Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd, an extraordinary work of neo-Spinozean feminist philosophy that beautifully charts the significance of the movement between individuation and collectivity, posing this as an inescapable facet of human experience15. I see this as potentially central to both feminist politics and feminist aesthetics. Here, let me give you a characteristic powerful passage: ’For Spinoza, there are collective dimensions to individual selfhood. For him there is no possibility of selfhood in isolation. To be an individual—a determinate self—at all is to be embedded in wider social wholes in which the power of bodies is strengthened or impeded. To be an individual self is to be inserted into economies of affect and imagination which bind us to others in relations of joy and sadness, love and hate, co-operation and antagonism’16

Check out GRID: Gender Relations in Darmstadt: https://griddarmstadt.wordpress.com/

Music and social processes
I think music is enmeshed in various ways in social processes and social practices, and of course I’m not alone in thinking this; but that’s where my work tries to come in and offer a new, I hope refreshing set of ideas. On the one hand, one can recognise the ways in which music is conditioned by social institutions and organisations: the BBC, DR, IRCAM, Bell Labs, Darmstadt, concert organisations, the Proms, not to mention record labels, publishing houses and so on – I’ve written quite a lot about this, as you know. On the other hand, and equally, I’ve pointed out that every time we listen to music or make music, we are at the same time creating social relations or socialities – among the members of the performing or improvising ensemble, through the relationships between performers and audiences in live performance, and relationships among audience members in the same situations. I have a wonderful PhD student, Christabel Stirling, who is currently studying audiences in just these terms, especially their social dynamics across three or four different genres, and the affective dimensions of those social dynamics17. So we have these immediate, face-to-face musical microsocialities – although increasingly, through the net, they can be technologically-mediated microsocialities.


»What would music-making –  look and sound like if the undercurrent social realities were organised differently?«

We also have musically-imagined communities, collectivities brought together solely by their common passion for music, in this way creating what might be called musical publics. These are both types of sociality that are animated purely by music. But in addition, two further kinds of social relations immanent in music have to be recognised and considered; in both cases they amount to pre-existing, wider, non-musical formations that ’get into’ music – in other words, that mediate and are mediated by music. On the one hand, the existence of gender relations and relations of class, ethnicity, religious difference and other markers of social identity that get into music in numerous ways. This has been the core of our discussion today, and it’s the meat of GRID/GRINM: how wider social relations of gender, and the inequalities and injustices they entail, get played out in music through gendered music education, gendered ideologies of talent, the institutionalisation of composition in the academy and conservatoire, the way canons form and consolidate through their constitutive exclusions of women and other Others, and so on.

On the other hand, and finally, all those macro-social institutions mentioned before powerfully condition and influence what is composed and performed, as well as what gets recorded and published: the specialist music research centres, universities, public and commercial broadcasters, labels, publishers – indeed, late capitalism itself gets into music, as well as itself being transformed by music, as is dramatically clear in the crisis of copyright capitalism in which music has played such a leading role. So there are at least these four distinctive dimensions of how music is social, each of them to some degree autonomous, each of them highly significant for how we experience music18. And if they are influential in how we experience music, then it follows that they participate in what we call the aesthetic. 

There are, then, at least these four dimensions in the way that music enlivens social processes or is itself conditioned by social processes. And my suggestion is that we – and especially all of you as composers, practitioners, performers, curators – should become more conscious of them. This would enable you to be more reflexive about these social dimensions of music, and thereby to take greater reflexive control over them and to work imaginatively with, and indeed to compose, these social dimensions of music – in performance or rehearsal, in the way that members of a music ensemble act in relation to themselves or an audience, or in the relationship with commissioning bodies and other such institutions. Just one of the things this makes possible is to bring gender, race, class and other aspects into the foreground of our consciousness about how music proceeds, and in this way it also makes it possible to experiment with and potentially to transform the ways in which music is social – including the ways in which differences of class, ethnicity, race and gender are played out in music. The challenge posed is to take responsibility for these undercurrent realities, that are so rarely acknowledged: what would music-making – concert life, performance, the influential canons – look and sound like if they were organised differently in these regards?

That’s my contribution to a new kind of aesthetics. And in fact I’ve just co-edited a book called Improvisation and Social Aesthetics19 in which we’re trying to say that we should increasingly think of the aesthetic as something that is itself immanently social – a stance that has for centuries been unthinkable in philosophical aesthetics. There are a number of ways to do this, as we show in the book: we should be pluralistic when rethinking how the aesthetic is entangled in social processes. At the same time, let me affirm that the contributions of major women thinkers of our time – Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Chantal Mouffe, Marilyn Strathern, Anna Tsing, Jane Bennett, Erin Manning, to name a few – are also very precious, and we must use their work. I’m sure they bear on what you do as a composer; I know they inform what Ashley does as a composer. That’s also tremendously important. 

JH: That’s a good summary of the homework that we all have to do and it’s instantly usable!

This text is the edited transcript of a conversation by Skype on 20th April 2017 between Georgina Born in Cambridge, and Juliana Hodkinson in Berlin.

  • 1. https://griddarmstadt.wordpress.com
  • 2. https://voicerepublic.com/talks/gender-relations-in-new-music-workshop-presentation https://www.berlinerfestspiele.de/en/aktuell/festivals/maerzmusik/programm_mm/mm17_programm_gesamt/mm17_veranstaltungsdetail_195989.php
  • 3. Thomas Schäfer (Darmstädter Ferienkurse), Björn Gottstein (Donaueschingen Musiktage), Lars Petter Hagen (outgoing director of Ultima, Oslo), Berno Odo Polzer (MaerzMusik, Berlin), and Graham Mackenzie (hcmf, UK).
  • 4. Born, Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1995); Born, ‘On musical mediation: Ontology, technology and creativity’, twentieth century music, 2, 1 (2005).
  • 5. Born, Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke, and the Reinvention of the BBC (London: Vintage, 2005).
  • 6. Born, Uncertain Vision.
  • 7. A&R: Artists and Repertoire.
  • 8. See the work of, inter alia, Amy Beal, Gasia Ouzounian, Beate Kutschke, Amy Cimini, Amy Bauer, Robert Adlington, Ben Piekut, Eric Drott, Sumanth Gopinath and Martin Scherzinger.
  • 9. See the European Research Council funded research program ’Music, Digitisation, Mediation: Towards Interdisciplinary Music Studies’: http://musdig.music.ox.ac.uk.
  • 10. See Georgina Born and Kyle Devine, ‘Music technology, gender and class: Digitization, educational and social change in Britain’, twentieth century music, 12, 2 (2015): 135-172; and for wider discussion of the gendering of electronic music, see the special issue of the Contemporary Music Review, 35, 1 (2016) entitled Gender, Creativity and Education in Digital Musics and Sound Art, eds. Georgina Born and Kyle Devine.
  • 11. See http://musdig.music.ox.ac.uk/ethnographies/montreal/. See also Patrick Valiquet, ‘Technologies of genre: Digital distinctions in Montreal’, in S. Emmerson (ed.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Electronic Music (London: Routledge, forthcoming); Valiquet, ‘Le numérique est partout: Locating the digital in Montreal's contemporary music and sound art scenes’ (2015): public report for the research program, ‘Music, Digitisation, Mediation: Towards Interdisciplinary Music Studies’. http://musdig.music.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Valiquet-Montreal-report-AS-WEBSITE-150515.pdf.
  • 12. Valiquet argues that several women composers and educators appear to have been sidelined in the received history of electroacoustic music in Montreal. The most prominent is Marcelle Deschênes who, after training at the University of Montreal and then with Francois Bayle, Guy Reibel and others from the Groupe de Recherche Musicales in Paris, returned to take up a research position at Laval University in Quebec City, and then became the first professor of electroacoustic composition at the University of Montreal. When Deschênes was in Paris in 1968-69 she studied alongside Micheline Coulombe-Saint-Marcoux, who went on to establish electroacoustic teaching at the Montreal Conservatoire, but died prematurely in 1985. A 1991 survey by former UdeM musicology professor Marie-Thérèse Lefebvre includes entries on several other women of this generation, and demonstrates that when electroacoustic technology was first taken up by composers in Quebec it was understood by many as an inherently feminine medium. See Patrick Valiquet, ‘Animating the object: Marcelle Deschênes and acousmatic education in Quebec’, Organised Sound, 22, 3 (forthcoming); Marie-Thérèse Lefebvre, La Création musicale des femmes au Québec (Montreal: Les éditions du remue-ménage, 1991): 76-88.
  • 13. Georgina Born, ‘Music and the materialization of identities’, Jnl of Material Culture, 16, 4 (2011): 1-13.
  • 14. Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2014).
  • 15. Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd, Collective Imaginings: Spinoza, Past and Present (London: Routledge, 1999).
  • 16. Gatens and Lloyd op cit., p. 73.
  • 17. See Christabel Stirling, ‘Sound art / street life: Tracing the social and political effects of sound installations in London’, Jnl of Sonic Studies, 11 (2015); ‘”Beyond the dance floor”? Gendered publics and creative practices in electronic dance music’, Contemporary Music Review, 35, 1 (2016): 130-149.
  • 18. On this framework see Born, ‘Music and the materialization of identities’; Born, ‘Music and the social’, in M. Clayton, T. Herbert & R. Middleton (eds.), The Cultural Study of Music (2nd ed.) (London: Routledge, 2012): 261-274; and Born, ‘After relational aesthetics: Improvised music, the social, and (re)theorising the aesthetic’, in Born, E. Lewis & W. Straw (eds.), Improvisation and Social Aesthetics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017): 32-58.
  • 19. Born, Lewis and Straw (eds.), Improvisation and Social Aesthetics.