[Smt-talk] Female theorists in history

Daniel Sonenberg daniel.sonenberg at maine.edu
Sun Oct 16 15:38:18 PDT 2011

I will only slightly take the bait on this one. 

The notion that only the gender-blind strength of a theorist's (or for that matter, a composer's) work merits study in institutions of higher learning pulls us into a kind of self-perpetuating re-canonization of the great masters, whoever they may be in a given discipline. The idea that a feminine perspective on music theory might be different is not new (indeed, it's an entire sub-discipline), and the desire of a student to seek out historical precedents, and in so doing, perhaps find a voice that has not been admitted to the music theoretical pantheon, yet one that still offers insight, is to be encouraged. Whether this theorist is "brilliant," or "right-on," of course will depend on who the theorist is, but that she was neglected by a perennially patriarchally oppressive discipline is - you're right - hardly in question. 

At my school, I wondered often why there are so few female student composers. Then, I considered repertoire I taught in my undergraduate theory classes, and noticed how I just never had time to get to the work of female composers because I was too focused on allotting time to the composers who simply could not be left out, the Schoenbergs, Bartoks, Debussys, Stravinskys, et al. The result is that my theory students came away from studying theory understanding composition to be an exclusively male endeavor - it shouldn't really be a surprise. I have begun to change my ways, because whether music by female composers is at its core different than music by male composers is, at very least, a worthy topic for discussion, and there is plenty of good music to choose from. For my final paper in 20th/21st century theory, I require the students to write a paper about a 20th or 21st century female composer, and I give them a list to choose from. How can I accept a paper about a composer based solely on gender? Well, I don't. The students tend not to spend ANY time writing about gender per se, except, often, to express delight that such a fine composer - one never discussed in the textbook - could be a woman. That such a fact could be a surprise (and often, this surprise is expressed by female students) bespeaks the necessity of the assignment, about which no student has ever complained. 

Daniel Sonenberg
Associate Professor and Resident Composer
University of Southern Maine
37 College Ave
Gorham, ME 04038
dsonenberg at usm.maine.edu
On Oct 16, 2011, at 9:44 AM, Michael Morse wrote:

> Why would you accept a paper about a theorist solely based on their gender? The setup is especially egregious, as the student doesn't even know which theorist they want to discuss, nor what their ideas might be, only that the subject of a music theory paper should be based on the (to be determined) theorist's gender.  Isn't the conclusion already written? The theorist-to-be-named is a. brilliant of course and a right-on sister; b. deliberately neglected or obscure because of patriarchal oppression.
> Do you really want to collude in this self deformation?
> MW Morse
> Trent University
> Peterborough, Oshawa
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