- The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music
Mills College has long been recognized as a bastion of experimental music performance and pedagogy, going all the way back to John Cage's summertime stints there in the early 1940s. (The list of former Mills students and professors includes Henry Cowell, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Darius Milhaud, Luciano Berio, Leon Kirchner, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Robert Ashley, David Rosenboom, Laurie Anderson, "Blue" Gene Tyranny, Peter Gordon, Miya Masaoka, Alvin Curran, Anthony Braxton, Fred Frith, and many more.) But did you know that Mills is a women's college? Only the graduate programs are coed. When the college's Board of Trustees decided to begin admitting male undergrads in 1990, students and staff at the institution staged a two-week strike in protest of the decision, a political action that was widely reported in the American press and that eventually led the Board to back down from its decision, preserving Mills as a single-sex undergraduate institution to the present day.
Suppose that one of these young women at Mills today was interested in composing and performing music, and suppose she opened The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music. What would she find? Would the book offer her a world of experimental music that she could imagine someday joining? Would this musical world—a world that, for whatever reason, is often considered to be an "alternative" to the mainstream concert music system—appear to be populated by strong women composers? Would women's voices be prominent or even evident among those of the theorists, critics, musicologists, and performers who enact and interpret experimental music? Would the volume describe a contemporary world far more diverse than that of the gray-suited smokers of the 1950s?
If you haven't figured it out by now, the answer to these questions is no. I thus [End Page 312] scanned the table of contents of The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music with a sense of disappointment. Although the volume does a satisfactory job of presenting an array of experimental music practices happening right now, I couldn't help but wonder: Is experimental music really the work of (white) men, commented upon by more (white) men? Maybe so, maybe so. The editor, James Saunders, has commissioned nine chapters of commentary on topics like notation, soundwalking, performance, and field recording, and adds to them fourteen interviews (by telephone and email) with current practitioners in the field. One of these—Jennifer Walshe—is a woman, and it is the context of her interview that we encounter the only overt reference to gender in the volume:
When I was lecturing at Darmstadt in 2002, I was talking about this topic, and I played one of my pieces and one of the students, a man, commented aggressively 'That piece was in the structure of a male orgasm!' He felt this because the piece had a climax. I don't have the medical training to outline the extremely similar climactic structures of the male and female orgasm here; suffice to say that for me, the male student's making that sort of ridiculous comment told me a lot more about his feelings about women composers, gender and sexuality than his musical thinking.(p. 346)
I'll return to the contents of the book in a moment, but first I'll offer a few more thoughts on this peculiar matter of gender and its disappearance from critical and scholarly texts on experimental music.
Dana Reason Myers coined the term "myth of absence" to refer to the ways in which magazines, journals, and edited volumes like this one (or, one might add, Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, eds., Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music [London: Continuum, 2006]) omit mention of women experimentalists and improvisers, thus reinforcing rather than questioning the assumption that women have not been a part of these cultural networks in the past or the present. Her dissertation goes some of the way toward...