Masculinism and Tokenism In Computer Music

June 15, 2005


I saw Mara Helmuth's notice about the concert of computer music that will take place at Columbia as part of FTM8.  The concert is correlated with Session 7 of the conference -- a panel discussion entitled "Roundtable on Gender and Computer Music: Tracing Change."  I am reluctant to send yet another long post to the list, but I think there are very interesting correlations between this panel, women in computer music, and our recent discussions about masculinism and tokenism.  I can't cover all of the considerations in an email, but I would like to address a few fragmented points.



The Membership of the FTM8 Panel


The FTM8's panel on women in computer music is notable because all the participants are closely associated with the International Computer Music Association.  As the abstract for the session notes, the panel consists of a former President, three Array editors past and present,  and an active female member.  (Array is the journal of the ICMA.)


The panel's membership thus creates an interesting internal dynamic.  All the participants highly value their status within the ICMA, and yet they are being placed in a position where they might have to subject the organization to a feminist critique.  Will there be an inherent conflict between the desire to criticize and the desire to integrate?  To what extent will this conflict necessarily temper what the participants might say?  On one hand, the panel will be especially valuable because the perspectives will come from insiders very knowledgable about the organization.  Mary Simoni, for example, is a former ICMA President and has done considerable research on the status of women in music technology.   But it would also be naive to think that the participants need give no consideration to how their statements and views might affect their careers.  Will this limit forms of dissent and criticism that might be valuable?  How will the forces of tokenism and masculinism affect this panel?



The ICMA At the Tipping Point


Women represent about 8% of the ICMA's membership.  This places them near the tipping point between tokenism and the early stages of the transitional period that begins to move toward parity.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, in the token stage of integration (0-10%,) there is very little animosity between the minority and the majority. The main goal of the minority is assimilation. The minority does not have sufficient numbers within the group to formulate a group identity, and the majority does not see them as a threat. In the transitional stage (11-40%), the minority begins to formulate a group identity, compare experiences, and struggle for greater equity. It also gains the numbers to create a genuine threat to the status quo.


Since women in the ICMA are near the threshold between these two stages, one is left wondering which way the panel will tip?  Will they follow the patterns of tokenism and for the most part be apologists for the ICMA?  Or will they express a new-found sense of group identity as women in music technology and formulate new demands, professional, social and aesthetic?  If I had to guess, I would say it will be a combination of both stages, and reflect the dual perspectives of a social tipping point.



Alternate Voices for Future Panels?


For the sake of perspective, it might be helpful to briefly consider a few alternative views for future panels about gender and music technology.  Linda Seltzer is known and respected for her very independent, cogent and often acerbic criticisms of sexism and patriarchy in music technology.  She is not especially influenced by an insider status in the academic computer music world.  Linda is a Doctoral student in computer music at Princeton , but perhaps what makes her most unusual, is that she has an engineering degree from UC Berkeley and works full-time in a corporation developing digital signal processing.  The panel is also notable because some of the women who have completed very well-known, large-scale research projects on women in music technology are not included, such as Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner and Andra McCartney.  They could also be good members for future panels.


The panel also leans (at least slightly) toward the academic computer music with which the ICMA is closely associated.  Will this create a narrowed perspective that leaves many women's voices in computer music under-represented?  A notable proponent of a different aesthetic might be Kitty Brazelton, whose music combines Downtown alt-rock and classical in very corporeal performances that appeal to a strongly vernacular, non-academic sensibility.  (The musical vernaculars of New York City are the central theme of the FTM8.)  Ms. Brazelton's approach might not be everyone's cup of tea, but she represents what quite a number of women composers are doing Downtown, especially in regard to re-incorporating the body back into music technology.  [See her website, which even includes a photo of her wildly dancing in her bra (or something that looks very similar) on the stage of a Downtown venue:


Dr. Brazelton is also a full-time professor at Bennington , and a resident artist at Columbia 's electronic music studio.


The roundtable "Tracing Change" will be invaluable for inside perspectives of the ICMA, but perhaps we should also remember it might not represent the full spectrum of thought about gender in computer music.  Hopefully these panels will continue and cover a wide range of topics and perspectives.



The Future of Gender of Music Technology


These thoughts lead one to speculate about what will happen in 20 or 30 years when women might represent 30 or 35% of the ICMA.   To what extent will they challenge the masculinist aesthetic values of composition, science and engineering? 


Human identity is increasingly defined in terms of its relationship to computers.  There is a growing sense that our future will be somehow cyborgian.  So one might reasonably ask:  What does a fifty-year-old structure of silicon have to teach a five billion year old structure of carbon?  Will the masculinist nature of science and engineering affect the future identity of women? Or could a form of cultural feminism evolve that reshapes the very nature of science and technology?  (These questions have been very much on my mind, since they are themes Abbie and I address in our newest music theater work.  For photos, video, and a long, rather philosophic essay about it see:  )


Maybe one goal for women in art and science is not integration, but subversion.  Maybe art should lead us to a science that is less dualistic and bi-polar, less reductive, less certain about "natural law," a science that doesn't live in the vectoral, phallic world of plus and minus, a science that embraces and protects the endless, incomprehensible complexities of the universe as if they were deeply intertwined with the nature of mind itself.


Will women gain equality with men only when we have created aesthetic frameworks that "allow" for their equality?  At this point, we can hardly imagine a world in which the feminine aspects of the universe are given respect equal to the masculine.  When we do it will change our science, our governments, our religions, our philosophies, our established art forms, and every other aspect of reality.  Obviously, artists play a central role in transforming the aesthetic foundations of cultures.  Through art we create new consciousness, and this can allow for the creation of a more just and truthful world.  Humanity creates art and art creates humanity.


These social forces will bring to an end the masculinist character of our culture.  There is much to be covered in future panels. 


William Osborne