Comments on Common Complaints

by Laurie Spiegel

Note: Published in EAR Magazine, Vol. 6 #3 "Women and Music", April-May, 1981 (slightly revised)

Though I may be accused, by some women colleagues, of undermining "our cause," my desire, upon being asked to write something for this Women-in-Music issue, is not to write about my own work or experience, but to question some of the statements I've heard women composers make. I feel that ideas which they incorporate can stand in the way of the social- and self-awareness necessary for each of us to really do our best possible work.

These generalizations tend to substitute predefinied external cuases (sex discrimination) for examination of complex dynamically changing situations, either particular to individuals or general to composers. Some statements assumed to be particular to women's problems are actually common to all composers (or even all creative artists). Others may substitute resentment at not getting a bigger share of a small inadequate pie for the search for understanding, and for solutions sharable by all. Statements which blame external cuases may not only diminish the individual's sense of control and personal responsibility, but can entrench resignation to bad situations which are seen as "out of one's hands." These statements, by and large, are negative rather than constructive and general rather than specific.

Unlike other types of workers, composers (musicians, artists) are not equally-interchangeable members of a large work force. If we are wanted, it's probably for our unique individual contributions. Apart from sex discrimination, the character, style, medium, quality, timing or mode of presentation of a work may cause problems. Some situations can be improved after specific evaluation. Others may really be wrong for us, individually.

I firmly believe that the way women will establish ourselves best is, ultimately, simply, to make the best possible music we can, as individuals. So here are the statements:

"I had a hard time because I didn't know there had even been or could be women composers."

Every composer of any degree of accomplishment has had to do things for the first time, to figure out alone how to do things that have never been done before and can't be learned from teachers. Other composers can provide precedents for some aspects of our work, but never for all aspects. The individual composer's uniqueness means isolation, being alone, having to go first in some way.

"My work has suffered because I haven't had a female role model."

Composing is an activity, something one does, not something one is or isn't. As experience - process rather than person - music is neuter. It can be irresistable, fascinating, and when we've been caught up in it, trying to understand how it works, affects us, is put together, when we are trying to make it for ourselves, because we actually have been composing, we may find ourselves described as "composers". Just forget about the noun and (self-) image of it. Concentrate on the process of doing it.

"I've been told I can't do it."

Who hasn't? Whether they think you can or not, no one can stop you from trying, writing it anyway, even if it sits on the shelf for years, as many masterpieces have. If you believe them instead of in yourself, you have an important problem to solve, because there will always be people who see things differently from how you do, underestimate your ability, disapprove of you or of what you like, fail to perceive or to understand. Unless you know, trust and like yourself and your work more than you trust others' opinions, how will you be able to publicly expose your own peculiar identity in your music? Our own belief in our work also affects how others respond to it. All creative artists must learn not to be overly influenced by others, and this isn't easy. Granted, women are often brought up to be extremely self-conscious and easily intimidated, but that problem is neither unique to women nor the fault of men musicians.

"People won't perform or deal with my music because I'm a woman."

There are far more pieces written at any time than can be played, published or recorded, and most new pieces by men are qually neglected for the same reasons as women's pieces. The new music audience is small, funds are limited, performers are afraid of new works... While there certainly have been many instances of sexual (and other) prejudice, the music itself - style, quality, level of difficulty, appropriateness to a specific audience - will probably determine whether someone wants it far more than the composer's sex. This is especially true now that including works by women is commonplace, as are women performers. Good performers, publishers, etc., want to work with the best music they can find, and know that their careers will benefit more from putting out superior music than from working only with the music of men (or any other non-musical classification). They will each have their own tastes and interests, and probably put more effort into producing music they really like or appreciate, or by people they like to work with. Beethoven seems to have been a thoroughly difficult person writing outlandish stuff. People dealt with him anyway. Was it because his music was really strong? Because he stood up for it? Because his work benefited them? How does any music find its outlet?

"Women don't have access to the 'old boy' political network."

Women study music in the same schools as men, play in the same performance ensembles, and have opportunities to make the same "political" contacts men do. We aren't cloistered in a segregated parallel musical community. How the available contacts are used is another questions, and is up to the inidivual. Well-handled interpersonal relationships are not the sole province of either gender.

"I was never told that is was acceptable socially for me to be a composer."

Actually, it's probally less acceptable for men to be composers than for women. Men are supposed to have strong macho occupations with high earning power and rock-solid financial security, and to keep such perceptions as emotions to themselves. It's relatively OK by traditional values for women to work in the arts, to earn less than is needed to support a family of 4, and to indulge in certain types of self-expression. Everyone who has persevered in music in this uptight money-and-materialism-oriented society has bucked disapproval. All composers, of either sex, who have sat there alone for the long hours year after year doing the work, deserve the respect and support of their colleagues, nor reverse prejudice. There are really relatively few men composers, too, vis a vis the whole population. It's not an easy life for them either.

"Because composer are in competition for such limited resources, women need to form special interest subgroups for our protection."

In this most individualistic of areas of endeavor, in what ways does it really make more sense to be grouped with other composers by sex, race, religion, or any non-musical classification than by aesthetic orientation or common interest as expressed in the music itself, to segregate ourselves by this same problematic category, to minimize communication with composers who share our musical affinities and problems, isolating ourselves across a non-musical boundary? Looking at other groups that have used a segregationist approach, in what kinds of situations and for what kinds of problems has it really helped?

"Women help women more than men do."

Not always. Many people are fiercely competitive with their own sex but relaxed about colleagues of the opposite sex. Psychologists have described a "syndrome" among highly established successful women who've "made it in a men's world" of feeling superior to, and prejudiced against, other women who have not yet attained the same status. Because their position is more unique than that of men who have attained similar recognition, they often feel more threatened by other women than by men, and act more supportively toward men that toward other women, or more destructively toward other women than men might toward other men in similar situations. Unfortunate, but statistically documented.

"I'm not getting anywhere because society won't let me."

Psychologists also note a tendency for people who are successful to take personal credit for their success, while people who fail (or feel they've failed) tend to place the blame outside of themselves. Feeling successful as a composer in this society is neither common nor easy, so outside factors are often used to explain this situation. Men and sexism are easily available scapegoats, useful to protect the ego, to avoid personal responsibility and real appraisal of self, of one's music, and of complex situations. It's much harder to work out unique specific solutions (and composers' roads to satisfaction or "success" are as different as our musics) than to resort to common generalizations. These explanations may also perpetuate the "failure" they "explain" by externalizing it beyond our control.

"The problem of women's place in music requires a general solution which will be best achieved by an organized mass movement."

Music is to such an extent a function of the individual's personal creativity that "women's place in music" will best be clarified as an accumulation of specifics, ex post facto, a result of each of us just doing our best work for ourselves in our own ways. A few really good strong works are worth more than thousands of articles about why there haven't been more of them.

Composing music is not like driving a fork lift, soldering, or carpentry, not something most people could be shown how to do, could learn unless prevented. It is inexplicable, virtually unteachable, almost unlearnable, and absolutely based on unpredictable characteristics of unique individuals, some of which are negatively viewed and socially discouraged (preoccupation or obsession, fantasy, social withdrawal into work, non-standard lifestyles and life-support methods...).

Can the effects of gender, or any general category, on musical opportunity or achievement really be evaluated when we still can't explain why some composers persevere while others give up, why some pieces are performed widely and others never, why different composers are loved, respected, hated, or ignored, how some people become famous, how it may change them, and why others may despise them for it, why some are secretive or shy while others are communicative or assertive, why some music enjoys immediate popularity while other music is only appreciated much later, what makes a piece a pleasure to play or hear, why people so often play and listen to music they don't like, or why some individuals rebel against cultural conditioning from early childhood or seem somehow immune to it, others transcend it later, and some seem to be wholly and permanently formed by it?

Copyright © 1981 Laurie Spiegel. All rights reserved.
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