Saturday, April 21, 2012

Discussion: Susan McClary on feminist musicology and the state of the field

In the course of a library online catalog search – sadly, it turns out that Susan McClary’s new book on divine love in the 17th century is not yet available to me – I discovered that McClary had written an article for a fairly recently collection of essays entitled True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School, edited by Susan Gubar of The Madwoman in the Attic fame. I was intrigued by the concept, as I am shortly headed into graduate school accompanied by both feminist ideals and naivete, and interested to find out what she would write for a book that was not directed at an audience of musicologists. McClary’s essay was short, but brought up several interesting ideas. I would like to use this space as a forum to discuss a few of them. Please do comment if you have anything to add to my thoughts.
1) While some of these essays discuss personal reflections, childhood memories, or anecdotes of specific pivotal moments in the careers of these varied academics, McClary’s essay “The Making of a Feminist Musicologist” explores her experiences as a graduate student and young professor, charting the course toward her eventual integration of feminist theory with musicological work. There is a slight tension between the title and her writing – the pronoun in the title implies that she is one of many, yet her essay implies that she opened the field of musicology to feminist theory single-handedly. I don’t know enough of the history of feminist and queer studies entering musicology – was she the only one? I know that her book Feminine Endings caused a great deal of controversy. Was anyone else doing this sort of work before that pivotal work was published? She also makes the claim that the introduction of feminism to musicology is singlehandedly responsible for the field opening up to interpretation based on or at least grounded in historical context. I don’t know enough history of the discipline to comment upon this argument, but I would love to hear from someone who does.
2) Similarly, I knew that the music research of the mid-20th-century used to be much more formalist and less interested in engaging with interpretation and historical context, but I didn’t know why. McClary offers a fascinating and plausible explanation: “Yet what has always seemed to me a self-evident endeavor – the critical engagement with music – was virtually prohibited in postwar musicology. Memories of Hitler’s and Stalin’s policing of music and the other arts had made interpretation of any stripe politically incorrect” (303). My understanding of wartime Russian music was that the possibility of multiple interpretations was displeasing to the authorities. Music and the other arts became tools for propaganda; thus the emphasis on folk songs and the music of the common people. Overly academic music, that of the serialists, was regarded as unpatriotic. It seems to me that the response of the American academy should have been to encourage interpretation of every kind, in order to oppose the obligatory sameness of Russian and German music. And yet, it seems that the exact opposite occurred. What am I missing?
3) In McClary’s experience as a graduate student, the act of performing music was illicit for music scholars. Her language really drives home the sexualization of the physical act of playing an instrument. She implies that her pleasure in practice rooms was derived largely from its forbidden nature, and explicitly likens her time at the piano to masturbation. I wonder if McClary is known for her nearly constant use of provocative language. In almost everything I’ve read, she deliberately chooses words and phrases that serve as double entendres. It works well – she is, after all, known as the scholar of gender and sexual desire – but I also find myself wishing she had other tools from which to select when writing. Is this just me? Has anyone else noticed this?
4) Over the course of this essay, McClary switches back and forth between what seem like two contradictory arguments: “I was discriminated against because I was female” and “I was discriminated against because I worked in an unpopular subdiscipline.” Both of these sources for the difficulties against which she struggled (eventually, happily, succeeding) are institutionalized, but I find it difficult to argue that working in a subfield that does not currently hold much interest for most scholars shouldn’t be a detriment to one’s career. Choosing to write a dissertation that won’t receive much interest just seems like poor planning to me. The fact that gender should not impact one’s career chances, on the other hand, is an ongoing and important battle.
5) In the 1980s, thanks to a few influential colleagues, McClary began reading feminist theory and recognized its potential in her own musicological research. She wrote, “suddenly it became possible to discuss matters such as bodies, motions, genders, and sexualities – not as infantile pleasures or subjective impressions, but as crucial contributions to the leading intellectual current” (306). I applaud this intellectual leap, but I am left questioning her choice of words (thanks in large part to my anthropologist husband). Is it enough to question how body, gender, and sexuality impacted intellectual currents, or must one consider how these ideas impacted culture at large? Particularly since music can be and certainly was both created and performed throughout history by not only members of the intellectual elite, but also by people less trained in “the leading intellectual current.”
6) I quite enjoyed reading the story of McClary’s play, and this anecdote, like the others, brought up some questions. “I composed my play Susannah Does the Elders nearly overnight. I had only to extract and translate parts of the oratorio that best revealed its misogyny and stage them in ways that laid bare their meanings. By representing Stradella’s music and lyrics intact but through a feminist staging, I invited the oratorio to deconstruct and indict itself” (308). I wonder: if McClary had to extract and restage excerpts from Stradella’s oratorio, is this interpretation or a complete reimagining of the work? Must one be able to discern things for feminist critique in the original work for the critique to be valid? Can one eliminate aspects and still arrive at a logical, reasonable conclusion of the work as a whole?

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