The Gendered and Sexual Politics of Music Metaphors
Sometimes we produced sounds that lasted over an hour. If it was a loud sound my ears would often not regain their normal hearing for several hours, and when my hearing slowly did come back it was almost as much a new experience as when I had first begun to hear the sound. These experiences were very rewarding and perhaps help to explain what I mean when I say, as I often do, that I like to get inside of a sound.—La Monte Young
In 1960, La Monte Young delivered a lecture to Ann Halprin’s dance class in Kentfield, California. Young argued that each sound becomes its own world, a world that can only be experienced “through our own bodies.” It must be inhabited, he thought. His Dream House installation has been compared to a “womb” by many of its visitors; the work is one of the longest-running minimalist compositions of all time, having bombarded visitors with the same arrangement of sine waves for the past 25 years. Young’s focus on entering sound is typical of the way new music and sound studies tend to conceive of their subject in deeply gendered ways. Ironically, despite his well-known aversion to recordings of his work and sound “reproduction,” Young is thought of as a father figure in the avant-garde music scene. Brian Eno famously referred to him as “the daddy of us all.”
Young is not the only straight, cis-gender man who has been accorded the capacity to spawn an entire “generation” of cis male musicians without the aid of a “mommy” counterpart. Genealogies of musical genre abound in the prevalent discourses surrounding histories of music and sound, manifesting in the form of stylistic “family trees” in which male composers and musicians are described as fathers, uncles, brothers, and sons. These sorts of genealogies frequently ignore the contributions of women even as they perpetuate heteronormative language in their description of lineages of style and sound. Discussions about the “birth” of musical minimalism unquestioningly refer to Young as the genre’s dear old dad while typically neglecting even to mention early minimalist works by women such as Pauline Oliveros, Annea Lockwood, and Yoko Ono, who collaborated with Young in the 1950s and 1960s, and has since hinted that “daddy” took more credit than was his due. Musical family trees illustrate the creation of male musical progeny on the part of male musicians, erasing the musical contributions of women as well as their role in the very process of reproduction. Female composers and musicians are separated off, never part of the family but rather constituting a different category altogether: that of the “lady composer.”
“And Don’t Call Them Lady Composers,” one of Young’s contemporaries, Pauline Oliveros, admonished in 1970. Oliveros railed against the patronizing label of “lady composer” because “it effectively separates women’s efforts from the mainstream…What critic today speaks of a ‘gentleman composer?’” (I indeed use the term “man composer” in hope of illustrating the utter bullshit of the category “woman composer.” I encourage other music critics to do the same.) Oliveros also rejected the simplification of sound into a womb-like world, instead acknowledging the fluidities, unknowabilities, and necessary collaboration involved in the listening experience. A masculinist mode of listening, even as it craves the sort of immersion provided by “getting inside the sound,” simultaneously fears its own dissolution within our essentially formless, unknowable environment—composers and scholars have sought to control and contain these sounds, as Young put it, “in our own terms.” In her practice of Deep Listening, Oliveros advocated an immersive and fully embodied listening experience: instead of “getting inside the sound,” one interacts with sound in such a way as to “receive music and also actively penetrate it, not to mention all the other finer variations.” This questioning of the listening experience allows for an ambiguity that Young and his male colleagues resisted as they insisted upon not only inhabiting but micromanaging their sound worlds.
Composers like Young and John Cage emphasized the importance not only of “getting inside the sound” but in avoiding the reproduction of musical events or processes in the form of sound recordings. Cage proclaimed that “records ruin the landscape” and argued that “a record is not faithful to the nature of music” because it “make[s] people think that they’re engaging in a musical activity when they’re actually not.” A record reduces a musical experience to a literal, external object; it transforms an indeterminate score into a single, unchanging rendition that Cage might argue leads to a sensation of false representation. When asked in an interview why there weren’t more recordings available of his works, Young replied, “Some people just want to put out a CD—but for me it’s a waste of time, because I’m only interested in putting out masterpieces.” Within this sonic economy, a “masterpiece” can only be experienced in real time. And composers like Cage and Young aren’t the only ones who perpetuate this language. Journalistic and scholarly discourses of sound reproduction, even while desexualizing the biological concept, resort to gendered language to describe it.
These conceptions of sound recording underline musician and historian Tara Rodgers’ assertion that “while the medium of sound reproduction is necessary for male subjects to certify their relationship and fidelity to an imagined origin, male claims to creation are asserted through masterful control and/or erasure of this medium.” These conceptions of sound recording also hinge on definitions of reproduction centered around the replication of “an original” in the creation of copies. They disregard the word’s other primary definition, e.g. the creation of offspring through a biological process. Even while relying on paternalistic concepts of musical lineages and heritage (Young as “the daddy of us all”), these composers perpetuate a dismissive concept of sonic reproduction. A certain condescension towards the idea of reproduction is found not only in compositional discourse but in musicological and sound studies discourses as well. The language of sound reproduction—even the “promiscuity” of the mp3 format—are common among the father figures of sound studies, one of whom wrote an entire book chapter on the “birth” of a particular type of music technology while managing not to mention a single female-identifying musician or technician by name.
Musical works by woman-identifying composers and musicians offer a stark contrast to the approach taken by Young and Cage. They make it clear that a sonic reproduction can easily be more than a mere copy; it can also become something new or unique. In Yoko Ono’s song “Baby’s Heartbeat,” the listener can hear the amplified heartbeat of Ono’s fetus, which she miscarried shortly afterwards. The song was recorded in November of 1968 and released in 1969 on the album “Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions.” Five minutes of the fetus’s rapid heartbeat are preceded by laughter and conversation between Ono and her male partner John Lennon; the amplified heartbeat makes sound into life, even in the face of infant mortality. Éliane Radigue’s 20-minute drone piece “Biogenesis” was recorded in 1973; we hear the sounds of overlapping human heartbeats. Radigue composed the piece while her daughter was pregnant with what would become Radigue’s first grandchild; she created the piece using a stethoscope, a microphone plugged into one of the stethoscope’s branches, and her ARP synthesizer. Radigue describes the piece as a “hymn to the perpetuation of life.” With these sound recordings, Ono and Radigue make direct reference to biological processes. In creating a sonic reproduction of human reproduction, they reject the common idea that a reproduction is a mere shadow of an original masterpiece—created by a man.
Often, genealogies of music rely on straight lines that move in a single direction. They communicate in the language of biological metaphors even as they separate women off into the category of “lady composers” on the very basis of their biology. A more accurate language would interrupt the straight lines of lineage narratives and send them askew; it would allow for reorientations, mixed orientations, and the intersections resulting from wonky lines, going off in multiple directions. Musical influence is as subjective as the act of listening itself. As feminist killjoy Sara Ahmed wrote, “a queer genealogy would be full of ordinary proximities.” These ordinary proximities can be more fully experienced when we refuse the heteronormative language of “parentage” and reproduction that are common in musical scholarship and speech. In musicology and beyond, metaphors for biological processes, such as birth and reproduction, are so prevalent in discussions surrounding matters of sound production and recording that they have become ubiquitous and unquestioned.
Concepts of queer family formation go hand in hand with queer concepts of sound itself. Doing away with the gendered and sexualized language of musical genre allows for influence to be felt and heard in radically different and more equitable ways. We might consider the “finer variations” of listening mentioned by Oliveros. Within the Deep Listening framework, it’s not a matter only of “getting inside the sound” or, alternatively, letting the sound get inside us. Instead, Oliveros theorized a concept of sound that didn’t rely on gendered stereotypes. Along these (crooked) lines, musicologist Suzanne Cusick has described her lesbian relationship with music, and advocates for thinking and hearing “outside the phallic economy.” She argues for a “receptive posture” in listening to music, for listening flat on our backs, and for conceptualizing “the ear as a sex organ”—but rather than conceptualizing sound as a masculinized force penetrating the ear-as-sex-organ, Cusick imagines sound as “a(nother) woman.” The queer hearings put forth by Oliveros and Cusick not only disrupt the dominant and exclusionary language of heteronormativity so prevalent in contemporary music, but invite and encourage more equitable and inclusive modes of listening and being in the world.
My ear is an acoustic universe
sending and receiving
My ear also sounds
Where are the receivers for these tiny, mysterious signals?
—Pauline Oliveros, “The Earth Worm Also Sings” ¶