Cultural Nationalism and Gender
in European New Music
October 11, 2005
In an email to the IAWM list, Mary Jane Leach mentioned that the Ensemble Sospeso is very Eurocentric. I noticed that too. In fact, when I first stumbled across their website I had to double check to make sure it was even an American ensemble. Their programs look like the standard fare one gets here in Germany. I thought that perhaps it was a European ensemble doing a guest performance in New York.
This Eurocentric focus might be one reason Sospeso programs so few women. Women composers are still somewhat less supported in Europe than in the States. And perhaps even more, there is a very strong masculinist ethos in the "internationalist" style of "modernism" that still dominates European new music.
Perhaps I should define the "international style" since some might not be familiar with the term (or at least my use of it.) Generally speaking, it is usually a relatively atonal and coloristic music developed through theoretical systems the composer creates specifically for the piece, such as set theory, rhythmic formulas, and patterns for the development of timbre. Works in the international style are often orchestral. The best practitioner in America is probably Augusta Read Thomas. The international style is far more common in Europe than America, and the mainstay of many of Europe's most important festivals, such as Donaueschingen.
Even if the international style seems almost generic in Europe's large festivals, it is still deeply imbued with forms of cultural nationalism. This is almost inevitable, since cultural nationalism strongly informs the ethos of many, if not most, of the larger new music institutions funded by European governments, such as Ircam, ZKM, the Gaudeamus Foundation, and Ensemble Modern. These institutions are seen as cultural diplomats for their countries. They are symbols of their nation's creative identity and cultural pride. The hidden ethos sometimes even reflects A slight sense of cultural superiority. At the very least, new music is still thought to represent the cultural and moral strength of its nation of origin.
From this patriarchal perspective, composers like Marco Stroppa, Wolfgang Rhim, Jurgen von Bose, Pascal Dusapin, and Magnus Lindberg are perceived and promoted as symbolic embodiments of the creative power of their countries -- as were the previous generation of composers such as Boulez, Berio, and Stockhausen. In an almost imperceptible way, it is expected that their music reflect a virility and masculine gravitas appropriate to their status as symbols of national identity. They are also often representatives of state-owned and -funded cultural institutions that are embued with an ethos of cultural nationalism. The elitist, formal, modernist nature of the international style is well-suited to this patriarchal function. (This image of masculine gravitas is also seen quite clearly in the expected demeanor of conductors, who must clearly embody the nationalistic and patrician rituals of classical music and the symphony orchestra.)
The few women who are allowed into these upper echelons of classical music, such as Kaija Sariaho, must find their own way of appropriating and reflecting the modernist gravitas of cultural nationalism and patrician elitism. Kaija's press photos, for example, stress the chiseled features of an aristocratic and aloof woman -- even though she does not seem to be like that as a person.
As I mentioned, from a purely stylistic perspective, the music of Augusta Read Thomas would fit perfectly among the festivals of Europe. She is, however, a rather down-to-earth woman who maintains a youthful, open, casual demeanor even as she grows older. She doesn't fit the proper European image of the composer as a somewhat grave, masculine, national icon. Another composer whose music might fit would be Joan Tower. She is not as close to the international style as Augusta, but her music often fits the elitist, patrician rituals that surround the symphony orchestra. Nevertheless, regardless of how "august and towering" their music might be, these women will have difficulty becoming established in Europe. Even a woman with Ms. Tower's more severe appearance and demeanor cannot readily fit the accepted European image of the composer as virile, masculine, national icon.
This European view of the composer, and the modernist international style, stands in increasing conflict with the low-brow, hip, commercial, and increasingly feminist nature of postmodern American music. While European new music discretely reflects an ethos of cultural and national superiority, American music increasingly questions classical music's elitism and patriarchy as a self-serving ritual that reinforces a system of class, gender, and nationalistic hegemony. Europeans, who actually invented postmodern theory, often view much of America's postmodern music as superficial, provincial eclecticism infected with social ideologies.
The masculinism of the European new music ethos is clearly demonstrated by Germany's Ensemble Modern. It has produced 46 CDs, but not a single woman composer has been included! [See: http://www.ensemble-modern.com] It should be clearly noted that this is not the result of an older generation's stilted, outdated views. The group was founded, and is maintained, by young people. The average age of the ensemble's members since its inception has been around 30 -- though they are gradually aging.
It is also not that Ensemble Modern has consciously excluded women. Recording a woman has simply not occurred to them, because women are not part of the discretely virile, masculinist cultural nationalism that shapes the world view of continental Europe's new music establishment. In short, composers like Ms. Thomas and Ms. Tower lack the proper gender identity to serve as accepted national images in Europe. This is one of many reasons women lack the positions they deserve in the continent's musical life. It might also be why the Eurocentric Ensemble Sopeso neglects women -- a little of old Europe in New York City.