The Gendered Relationship Between Technicians and Composers

June 24, 2001

Wave List

Thanks to Lindsay for the additional information about CCRMA. I can sympathize with her attempts to view the situation at CCRMA from a positive angle. Among other things, it keeps up one's spirits and allows one to be proactive, which is very, very important. And when I was on the CEC list I noticed she was not shy about straightening the gentlemen out upon occasion.

In some cases, I think that there are people on this list who might agree with some, or even most of my comments, but that they cannot speak out for fear of jeopardizing the development or maintenance of their careers. It is not overstated to say that they could face at least subtle retaliation when it comes to discussing the specifics of gender bias in computer music.

Lindsay mentions that women represent around 12.5% of the composition students at CCRMA and happily notes that this is equal to women's representation on the school's concert programs. The low representation of women students is not unusual. Even though Mills College only admits women undergraduates, its grad school is co-ed where men comprise over 90% of the students in the music department. If there are ninety percent men at a women's college you can imagine what other institutions might be like. Two of the faculty members at Mills, Fred Frith and Pauline Oliveros, have been working to solve this problem and will publish an article about their efforts in a coming issue of _Musikworks_.

I looked at the websites Lindsay gave for Eleanor Selfridge-Field and Marina Bosi. The information is very interesting, but a little too limited for me to determine the extent of their roles at CRRMA. Selfridge-Field is listed as a "consulting professor" and Bosi as working for the company that produces Dolby, but who remains a "staff member" at CCRMA. Selfridge-Field's work is musicological (the use of computers in musicology and the history of computer music) and Bosi's is in low bit data transfer (MPEG), so their role as music-makers at CCRMA might be limited.

Lindsay mentions that she watched the representation of women in an undergraduate electro-acoustic class at Stanford drop from 33% to 0% within three years. Can CCRMA and similar graduate institutions simply ignore this problem, or do they have an obligation to help solve it? Are they given all that money and prestige to simply pass the buck on such important social problems that directly involve their pedagogical activities? Which professors at CCRMA have said, this is a serious problem, we have studied it, and this is how we are going to help solve it? Maybe it's an idea worth pursuing.

In explaining the lack of women composers, Lindsay mentions that CCRMA tends to attract students more interested in scientific research. And she adds that she knew a female composition student who turned down CCRMA's PhD program this year to go somewhere where composition was more prominent.

I wonder if it isn't time for composers to insist on a more central role in some of the computer music institutions. Even a typical MIDI instrument now has more power than the old Columbia/Princeton studio or Stockhausen's studio at the West German State Radio. So one might provocatively ask, where's the music? Where are the new works that might equal compositions such as Kontakte, Gesang der Junglinge, Time's Econium (which won a Pulitzer), Wild Bulls, Silver Apples of the Moon, or the works of Varese and Xenakis? Or am I being too critical and subjective in my judgements?

Some of the institutions do not seem to be bridging the gap between the composer and the engineer. Often we even see scientists and engineers writing the music. Doesn't a formal musical education make a difference? Don't all those years studying music history, its literature and its theories increase one's aesthetic comprehension? Doesn't it help to have studied how the human mind has organized abstract sound for the last four or five hundred years and how it has contributed deeply to the development of our human identity? Doesn't rigorous performance training contribute to cognitive structures important, and perhaps even essential, to musical meaning? Can these things be learned over at the school of engineering? 

I think that IRCAM, which was founded by a composer and focuses on composers (and which is perhaps the most sexist of all the institutions,) has done the best job of creating effective liaisons between artists and scientists. Perhaps that it is becoming so dominant in the field, at least here in Europe.

I toss out this thought. I think it should be discussed, especially by women like Lindsay, even though I now have to sink back into silence. I am at a critical stage in a new work and can't afford to wire myself to the world at this point.... 

All my best,

William Osborne