Raising her noise: The Voices Absent in New Music
One of Europe's most important contemporary music festivals, Darmstadt's International Summer Course for New Music grapples with the future of gender equality in new music, with the release of composer Ashley Fure's archival data on women's role in the festival's past and present.
"Your dress is super cute!" the sole comment on my critique card read. I cannot remember what I wore that day, standing before my colleagues post- performance, adrenaline still coursing. No doubt it was an innocuous comment, but the lack of comment on my musical technique gave my performance a slightly bitter cadence.
Among musicians at Darmstadt's biannual International Summer Course for New Music, historically a bastion of experimental music and modernism, similar experiences abound. Stories posted on the community sharing board in the Lichtenbergschule lobby range from careless, insensitive comments to serious cases of gender discrimination. A musician reflects on a comment she received in a masterclass, "You don't want to play like a woman, do you?"
Another recalls, "I was in a public masterclass when I was 19, one of maybe 5 females in a room of 30 or more men, and he asked me how I could write such cold and austere music when I was such a warm and pretty girl."
For the first time in Darmstadt's history, a collective of panelists, artists, and festival participants are stitching together a multifaceted view of the challenges faced by cis women, trans women, and genderqueer musicians, curators, and composers. Spearheading the GRID (Gender Relations in Darmstadt) project, composer Ashley Fure revealed statistics from the Darmstadt archives that show women have been and still are significantly underrepresented at the summer festival. A supportive audience of young and passionate performers and composers made time among a full schedule of rehearsals and concert, to hear a presentation on August 3rd by seven panelists representing many facets of the experimental music scene. Ashley is animated and focused; she answers my questions between greetings from colleagues and trollies rumbling down the narrow street. Regarding her goal for GRID, Fure says, "I was hoping [the data] would spark a collective self-reflection on who we are as a community...[and] lead outward from that binary gender construction into a broader conversation."
Over the seventy years of the summer course, the stories and personal experiences of women at Darmstadt have largely been lost to us. Statistics can however give us a hint.
- Only 7% of 4409 total works programmed have been by female composers.
- There were 14 festivals where no female composers were represented, and 12 festivals with only 1 female composer
- Only 18% of the highly-sought-after Kranichsteiner Musikpreis have gone to women.
The advancement of gender equality in the new music scene can feel at once radically progressive and impossibly slow. Panelist Susanne Krichmayr's network and online database, female:pressure, features the names of marginalized women and female-identifying artists who work in electronic music and digital art. Music festival director Anne Hilde Neset spoke of Her Noise, an archive of interviews and features on female sound artists, a project she began with Lina Dzuverovic in 2005. Meanwhile, composer Jennifer Walshe spoke unabashedly about inequity in the new music industry and called for transparency and accountability. Yet, the numbers presented are unsurprising— more than outliers, they are reflective of an industry which reveres the white male-dominated western canon, commissions men more often and at higher pay, and promotes male curation. As each panelist spoke, it became clear that resolving the gender gap is a mission that we all must undertake, a personal goal that Fure has struggled to balance with her creative output. "I definitely carry a sense of obligation or ethical responsibility, but I do it gingerly for this very reason — the thing I have to protect most is my work. There's a risk to speaking out, a risk for pushing this issue. It's a very delicate negotiation, on an energy level and on a career level."
Just as Darmstadt asks musicians, composers, and theorists to challenge the status quo, festival attendees are asking themselves and the institution to rethink the way curators are chosen and music is programmed. After the panel discussion, Darmstadt participants are continuing the conversation through Open Space programming, a stage for people to share their projects outside of official festival events.
At Open Space GRID sessions, the atmosphere is strumming with optimistic energy as festival participants gather in small group discussions and brainstorm ideas for Darmstadt's future. While the available data from the archives can only offer a binary gender perspective, Open Space provides room for more voices to be heard at sessions well-attended by men and women of all ages and backgrounds.
The conversations are at once utopian dreams for Darmstadt's future and ideas for practical policies that will hopefully transform the structure of new music festivals. From suggestions for a quota system borrowed from Silicon Valley to written declarations calling for promises of change, participants are answering Fure's call for bottom up change.
While some questions in the question and answer session revealed there is still resistance to highlighting gender imbalance at Darmstadt, the rousing and provocative discourse is a sign that we are asking the right questions. Digging up the facts from the archive is an impulse to awaken our collective awareness about the mechanisms in the music industry that marginalize women and genderqueer voices, to keep the names of female composers and artists afloat in our consciousness.
In Fure's words, "Change needs to spread like wildfire. It needs to be crowdsourced. We can't wait for the institutional powers that be to change things, and we can't leave it to one person. The only way this is going to work is if everybody takes the reins."