Giving birth to sound: women in creative music

Renate Da Rin, William Parker (editors)
Buddy Knife Publications

By Ken Waxman

When six-year-old piano student Alexandra Grimal wrote her first composition, her teacher refused to believe her, angrily insisting her older brother must have written it. Now a saxophonist, Grimal had a similar experience when she was 13 and premiered her first jazz piece for a friend’s mother. That woman too refused to believe it was original.

Anecdotes such as these in part illustrate the difficulty women have being accepted as serious composers and performers – even in so-called creative music. Giving birth to sound examines these circumstances through the first-person experiences of 48 musicians. Residing in Europe or the United States, the respondents are involved with improvised, notated, electronic and world music and remarkably candid about their musical lives. Still the volume is neither academic study nor practical hand book. The interviewees answered 20 questions and their replies are printed without comment. However, since the queries are as pointed “has being a women held you back in the development of your musical career” and “do you think you paid a price being an artist” or as broad as “what is magic” the worth of each entry varies. Some are direct and to-the-point; others lapse into generalities; a couple even detour into fables. Typos and imprecise language are left unchanged. Plus printing paragraphs in various colors and using an assortment of type sizes and styles for emphasis often irritates rather than illuminates.

What is most important about the recollections is that each woman found a way to overcome obstacles. As singer Jay Clayton states “Being a woman didn’t hold me back, it just made it harder.” Almost without exception they reject the concept of specific “male” or “female” musical roles, frequently citing male inspirations. As saxophonist Angelika Niescier states about her career: “… my own insecurities were holding me back … not by the fact of being female, but by the fact of trying to grow as a musician…” Almost all had an unfettered childhood, playing imaginative games. Whether encouraged or not by parents their exposure to sound was almost magical. For instance the first piano notes Jessica Williams sounded as a child she describes as being “a yellow ball of color” and this sense of wonder and necessity to create is constant in these women’s lives. One anomaly is that while most report that musicians value instrumentalists over singers, more women experiment with voice. That situation exists, explains electronic musician Pamela Z, because women are conditioned to be more expressive with their voices than men. One aside: a large number of the respondents have become teachers, ensuring a consistent income.

Women also give birth, and while the creation of art is often compared to producing offspring, the majority of women here chose not to have children. As singer Fay Victor says: “To compose and to be a mother, both need you full time, and what would the child do then..?” Adds composer/vocalist Lisa Sokolov: “If I had to choose between my [young] kids and a gig, my kids won out… That was not the same for my partner. Is that gender, cultural norms or personality?”

So why are women drawn to creative sounds? Probably because they literally have no choice if they want to remain fulfilled and content. Plus cooperation and patience are supposedly ingrained in women’s temperament. “I compare… a musical improvisation to a piece of fabric whose weft take place over time,” notes trombonist Christine Bopp. “Yarns are made of memory time, ‘musical feeds’… from personal history and culture. These yarns are combined in new associations.” More simply says bassist Joëlle Léandre: “Music is my life.”

This volume provides insights on how and why women pursue this difficult path.

—For MusicWorks #123 Fall 2015