Obscurantanism and Patriarchy in Computer Music?

March 10 & 11, 2003

Georgina Born's book, _Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical
Avant-Garde_, was published in 1995 and argues that there is strong gender bias at IRCAM.

Even though that was eight years ago we are still seeing all-male French festivals of computer music. Ircam is hardly alone. For example, I recently did an m/f count of CCRMA's concert programs (the computer music center at Stanford) for recent years and found that only about 12% of the works were by women. 

This raises interesting questions. Is it enough for women's advocates to simply point out bias, or are other efforts also needed? What would those other efforts be?

[The next day.]

Georgina Born has another article out about Ircam. Among other things, it discusses some of the mechanisms that allowed Ircam to establish such a wide and powerful network within the field of computer music. The reasons include even the architecture of its building:

"Computer software as a medium: textuality, orality and sociality in an artificial intelligence research culture" Banks, Marcus and Howard Morphy, _ Rethinking visual anthropology_ . New Haven ; London: Yale University Press. (1997).

It is online at:

Elizabeth mentions my remark that gender bias shapes the programming at CCRMA. She points out that women just aren't submitting works. (Actually, most of the concerts are of CCRMA's students and, in fact, the 12% ratio corresponds to the number of women students they have.) 

There is nothing at CCRMA so simply linear as people there saying "we don't like women" or anything remotely like that. It is much more that the whole culture of computer music has a very subtle and complex masculinist character, which is further embedded in a society that has created a masculinist form of science and technology in general. Under these circumstances, who can be surprised that women aren't submitting works or that they represent only 12% of the students? 

Slowly some research is evolving that might help us look at this problem more closely. In its calls for participation for the ICMC 2000, the organization said that, "Computer music is neither a style nor a genre." Not all agree that they ICMC is so neutral. Two musicologists from Denmark, Ingeborg Okkels and Anders Conrad, presented a paper that suggested the ICMC does have an aesthetic bias. They feel it leans toward "academic computer music" that focuses on abstract sound created by the latest engineering technologies. Okkels and Anders feel these "engineer composers" are given preference over other groups, such as those following the American tradition of experimental music (e.g. John Osterwald and John Zorn) who often use low-tech instruments such as samplers to collage cultural artifacts. They said that by focusing on tools used, the ICMC declares tacit aesthetic decisions. 

It was apparent that technology is sometimes given more status than musical quality, and that this occasionally causes composers to "hype" their works as more technological than they really are. The technological focus also causes the ICMC to sometimes erase its own history, since musically valuable low-tech electro-acoustic works are seldom presented. Karlheinz Stockhausen, for example, who has left an enormous legacy to electro-acoustic music, was not presented or present at the ICMC 2000 conference which was held in Berlin (those their might have been other reasons.) Okkels and Conrad suggested that the price to be paid for favoring "engineer composers" is "that the 'engineer way', is extending serial music's compartmentalization as expert culture into computer music. "

Could one expand on this idea by pointing out that "engineer composers" inevitably reflect the masculinist culture of engineering as a whole? Does an ethos of elitism lean toward the patriarchal because the inclusion of women is automatically coded as less elite? Isn't the "engineer composer" a carry over from the elitist and patriarchal ideals of modernism? These questions hint at how gender ideologies might influence computer music.

Wasn't there a dense, almost psuedo-intellectuallity to some serial music which seemed less concerned with musical expression than saying "gee-mom-look-at-what-a-musical-mathematical-genius-I-am"? The patriarchal elitism of the engineer composer is nothing new. The ethos was also reflected in the dense psuedo-intellectual bilge that so often appeared in _Perspectives of New Music_. Luciano Berio's Norton Lectures were also a good example, and so ridiculously turgid that even the New York Times ridiculed them. The ideas expressed did not at all require such opaque language. The density was merely the signifier of superiority. And it had a strongly patriarchal character. 

This same form of elitist, modernist, obscurantism was carried directly over to the "engineer composers" of computer music. There is a passage from the above mentioned article by Born which could illustrate this point. She quotes from her diary when she was studying at Ircam:

"We're working with the Chant Manual on 'user subroutines' - sections of the program amenable to user manipulation. WOW [the teacher] writes up a new kind of syntax on the board, and before we've written it down he rubs it out! Everyone gasps, laughs, looks baffled. 'Leave it up till we've copied it down!' But WOW has moved on already. Stagiaire VT protests: 'But you've written it in Fortran! How can we learn how to use Fortran so quickly? It's impossible.' WOW explains that we need to know Fortran to use some Chant subroutines. This is the first we've heard. Comment: WOW baffles us by giving us too much to take in, a completely new language, and rubs it out before we've even taken it down, as though aware that it's impossible for us to learn this level of control."

The key observation: "...as though aware that it's impossible for us to learn...."

Such poor pedagogy (which is not untypical in some situations) is often obviously little more than the teacher illustrating his own superiority and reinforcing an ethos of elitism that "engineer composers" feel gives them a special authenticity. As a result, we have ended up with instruments that are often almost impossible for musicians to use because they are created from an ethos of geekish elitism that makes them unnecessarily opaque and poorly documented. This unnecessary obscurity *very consciously* reinforces a male oriented, insider atmosphere that allows for the creation of an elite group of computer music Brahmans. Since both elitism and technology contain a masculinist foundation, the situation for women is very negative. And worse, women are subjected to this generalized ethos from the day they are born.

So gee, what a surprise that only 12% of the students at CCRMA are women.

Knowledge is power. And knowledge kept exclusive through obscurantism and masculinism preserves and demonstrates power. 

William Osborne