Thursday, September 17, 2015

Female Composers

Unless you are parroting the standard position of The Narrative, i.e. that there have been lots of great women composers in history and the only reason we don't hear more about them is because of patriarchal oppression or something, it is very dangerous to talk about female composers.

The first thing to take into account is that, just as with The Narrative regarding all the other designated victim groups: poor people, black people, native people such as North, Central and South American Indians, Australian aborigines, people from the Middle East (except Jews) and all other visible minorities (except Japanese, Chinese and Koreans), the source of this political strategy is Karl Marx via the Frankfurt School and people like Antonio Gramsci. While the error of this has long been clear, it remains so useful to anyone seeking political power that it simply refuses to die and, along with the nonsensical economic theories of these same people, continues to plague modern societies. Every ambitious politician finds that every time he stands up and tells people that they are being treated unjustly and that he can fix it, he wins increased support. Whether it is true or not is simply irrelevant. Sadly, one of the many problems with democracy is that we allow even massively deluded people to vote...

So, bearing all that in mind, let's have a look at an article in The Spectator that commentator Marc drew to my attention: "There's a good reason why there are no great female composers." The author of that essay is Damian Thompson and it is likely that as soon as it is discovered there will rise up a tsunami of tweets savaging him for daring to say the unsayable:
A delicate question lies at the heart of the subject of female composers, and it’s not ‘Why are they so criminally underrepresented in the classical canon?’ It’s ‘How good is their music compared with that of male composers?’
Yes, I'm afraid that is the question. He goes on:
[Clara Schumann's] G minor Piano Sonata ... isn’t a success. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it ‘repugnant’ (Clara’s verdict on Tristan) or ‘horrible’ (her description of Bruckner’s Seventh), but it’s embarrassingly banal.
Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix [also] wrote a G minor Piano Sonata and it’s bloody awful. Whether it’s worse than Clara’s sonata I can’t say, because that would mean listening to them again. But we can be pretty sure that neither of them would have been recorded if they had been composed by a man.
Let's have a listen to both of these pieces. First Clara Schumann:

That sounds great, doesn't it? Well, only if you don't compare it to an actually great piano sonata. Melodically, rhythmically and harmonically it is banal and routine. Accomplished without being imaginative or charming. Now Fanny Mendelssohn's sonata:

That sounds like very, very bad Liszt (and I'm not too fond of him either). Loud diminished chords are a cliché of 19th century virtuoso piano music, not a virtue.

Mr. Thompson goes through a long list of female composers and concludes that there are no great composers among them. His list includes Judith Weir:
Judith Weir (born 1954) is a minor figure whose ‘stark’ scores sound as if crucial instrumental parts have gone missing. Her opera Miss Fortune received such a savaging at Covent Garden in 2012 that the Santa Fe Opera dropped its plans to stage it. Last year she was appointed Master of the Queen’s Music.
He mentions a recent discovery of mine, Elizabeth Maconchy:
The 13 string quartets of Elizabeth Maconchy (1907–1994), for example, are distinctively knotty — but when they turn spiky you think of Bartok and her bleaker moments sound like Shostakovich. Again, the phrase ‘well-crafted’ comes to mind...
Yes, that was my impression as well, though I also thought of Alban Berg. I quite liked her quartets, but perhaps they are not on the same level as Berg, Bartók  or Shostakovich.

Here are a couple of observations: while it may seem admirable that female composers receive more recognition, is it a good thing? Mr. Thompson's essay begins with what started this:
Last week a 17-year-old girl forced the Edexcel exam board to change its A-level music syllabus to include the work of women composers. Jessy McCabe, a sixth former at Twyford Church of England High School in London, started a petition after studying gender inequality. Good for her, you might think. But is it good for A-level students?
If we are concerned about justice then we have to ask, is it fair to either the composer or to students that a significant male composer be pushed aside so that a lesser female composer can be acknowledged? If we believe that there are as many great female composers as male ones--probably a cardinal assumption of The Narrative--then yes. But if we listen to the two composers, we are likely to say no.

One last point, a recurring problem in the mass media, even the Spectator, is that the headlines are chosen, not by the author, but by an editor. What this essay plainly does not do is tell us "why there are no great female composers." So I put the question to my readers. First of all, do you think that there are female composers who are as great as the male composers we categorize as great? You might take the list in the New York Times of the ten greatest composers as your guideline. Second, if you do think so, could you give examples and explain why? If you don't think so, then could you offer an explanation as to why? There really seems no obvious reason why there are not as many great female composers as male ones.

Just to clear your palate, here is a truly great piano sonata by, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven, who identifies as male:

UPDATE: I should add this clarification. The fundamental error in the approach of the Marxist-inspired theories about justice relates to the "is-ought" problem that has been discussed here previously. You can't get from an "is" to an "ought" as David Hume observed. All affirmative action and disparate impact policies in the US are founded on this error. IF a workplace has fewer women or blacks or hispanics than are present in the general population THEN this is grounds for legal action because of fundamental injustice. Let's take an extreme case to show the illogic here. Let's suppose that we are looking for instances of economic injustice, groups of people earning or possessing fewer assets than are the norm (however you determine that!). Suppose we run across a Franciscan monastery where all the residents have taken a vow of poverty. Should we be forcing them to all have a median income or something? Obviously not. But the same logic applies to forcing Marine combat groups to admit or include a certain proportion of women because they are women. Or making cities hire a certain proportion of women firefighters. Or any other rule based on a determination that any variance from the proportions in the population as a whole is some form of injustice. If this were truly a universal rule, which it is not, then we would be looking to solve the problem that 96% of workplace fatalities are suffered by men by insisting that an equal proportion of women be killed to even it out. It is hard to believe that this insane logic has been, not only accepted, but become so ingrained that pointing out its error can result in being fired from a job in government or academia, as Larry Summers discovered. Justice has nothing to do with membership in an identifiable group such as women or visible racial groups. Justice means being treated according to your individual merits and nothing else.

We now return to our regularly scheduled music programing.


Christine Lacroix said...

Bryan, are you trying to say you're opposed to affirmative action?

So here's my attempt to explain why there aren't as many great female composers as male.
When I was in high school the sports teams only played other high schools of about the same size. I assume it was because the larger the pool of potential athletes the greater the chances of finding talent. It was an attempt to level the playing field.Maybe the pool of potential female composers has been smaller in varying degrees throughout history due to societal reasons (is that English?)

Bryan Townsend said...

As one Supreme Court justice once said, the way to stop discriminating based on race is to stop discriminating based on race.

Could be. I honestly don't have the answer. But it is not the case that there are fewer great female composers than male. It seems to be the case that there are a few great male composers and no great female composers (though there certainly seem to be some great female poets).

Rickard Dahl said...

Affirmative action is discrimination against groups who don't receive it. It's based on characteristics that often can't be change instead of the merit/skills a person has. Actually even East Asians in the US get discriminated against due to affirmative action at universities since they tend to work harder and achieve better results:

Note especially the paragraph from the article saying:
"The complaint says the schools with neutral-race admissions processes have much higher rates of Asian-American enrollment. Friday's complaint comes just months after a group called Students for Fair Admission argued in a federal lawsuit that Harvard creates a specific racial balance in its enrollment."

It is simply punishing people who work hard and elevates people who don't work as hard and who probably aren't suited for the positions anyways.

Now as for the topic with female composers. Probably the only one I can think of who could classify among a list of top composers is Hildegaard von Bingen but maybe in the top 30 or in even larger lists. Either way, my hypothesis is that the reason there are so few (great) female composers is a combination of a few things:

1. Less interest in pursuing music for various reasons. It could be the same situation as with politics or with STEM subjects, simply that fewer women than men have interest to pursue these things. 2. In the past some women may have been discouraged to pursue a musical career. But on the other hand some men were probably also discouraged to some degree and realistically it was a risky thing back then and still remains a risky path to take. Anyways, this point is much less of an issue nowadays. 3. There was less incentive (and still is) less incentive for women to work. Men are valued by what they do but women are often seen as having more inherent value. This means it is often possible for them to become stay-at-home mothers supported by men. The other way around (stay-at-home fathers supported by women) rarely works (since there are few women who want this). The point is that many women don't have to develop their mind, build new skills etc. to be valued by men since women's value to men is most often tied to their youth and beauty (which also explains why women tend to do things to artificially improve their looks, such as make-up and why feminists see sexual objectification as such a big issue). Maybe men are also more competitive compared with women? 4. Various sex differences. There is actually a different IQ distribution between men and women. Women tend to have more average IQ while men tend to have more varied IQ. This means that there is a larger percentage of men with low IQ but also a larger percentage of men with high IQ (geniuses). It would explain quite a bit, of course given the assumption that IQ is a valid/good way to measure intelligence.

Now, the question becomes how much each of the factors listed above (if the hypothesis is valid) contribute to the situation. I don't know, maybe I'm way off in my hypothesis.

Now, ending on an unrelated note: I wish there would be more pitched percussion instruments with bass note ranges. The thing is that lower pitched percussion sounds very interesting on a digital piano but it seems like instruments with these low notes don't exist. I would love to for instance see celestas and xylophones with extended ranges for the bass. I wonder why these variants don't exist (or exist in rare quantities). Maybe there hasn't been enough incentive to develop them or maybe it is just very expensive or technically demanding to develop. Either way, I started my master in communication engineering this year but I plan on taking three acoustics courses during my second year so maybe I will find out more (generally about acoustics at least).

Bryan Townsend said...

I can answer your question about bass pitched percussion instruments: Harry Partch invented a couple of them, the bass marimba and the marimba eroica. I believe that his bamboo marimbas, called Boo I and Boo II are also pretty low-pitched. Look here:

It'sAllTooMuch said...

Sometimes women's efforts aren't attributed to them. Many of Carl Orff's Schulwerk pieces were composed or arranged by Gunild Keetman, including the famous arrangement of Gassenhauer.

Bryan Townsend said...

Perhaps that is true, but Carl Orff hardly qualifies as a great composer.

Christine Lacroix said...

Very brave of you Rickard to wade into the murky and controversial subject of IQ and use it to support your argument about female composers. I can see there aren't many women reading this blog or you would have been swamped with outraged comments. Are the other men on the blog just keeping a low profile?

Bryan Townsend said...

Occasionally we get some pushback, but it has been more from men than women in the past. This crime of noticing a difference in the distribution of high and low IQ between men and women was what got Larry Summers fired as President of Harvard University. One of his supporters was Steven Pinker. But it seems to me that this firing of Larry Summers, rather than reflecting poorly on him, rather reflects poorly on Harvard.

Rickard Dahl said...

Thanks. I expected a negative reaction to what I said. I would probably get a negative reaction if I would say it publicly, especially if I would be a public figure. Then the whole witch hunt would begin. It is really sad to see what some extreme leftists will do to bring someone down. Look up shirtgate and Tim Hunt's comments about women in labs. Both of these events (Matt Taylor wearing the incorrect shirt and Tim Hunt jokingly making some remarks about women in labs) brought a hate mob against them. They may be two of the greatest living scientists and representing great achievements of humanity but to the extreme leftists they weren't PC enough.

I was going to link this excellent video by Sargon of Akkad but forgot: It explains the differences between liberals (left libertarians) and progressives/marxists (left authoritarians). It is a long video but it is certainly worth a watch (or maybe just listening in the background).

Christine Lacroix said...

Bryan of course I was joking about you being against affirmative action since it's so obvious in your comments. I'm also opposed to it. It demeans the groups supposedly benefitting from it.

Don't play the victim Rickard, nobody is starting a witch hunt against you. I simply found your comments about women's IQ offensive. No one seems to know for sure what if anything IQ measures and finding a correlation between IQ test results and performance in any area hasn't been easy to prove. Intelligence, talent, ability, the human spirit can't yet be reduced to a number. I'm not a feminist by the way. The subject just doesn't interest me. And someone will have to explain to me what being a leftist, Marxist, liberal or conservative has to do with the subject.

Rickard Dahl said...

Huh? I'm confused. I mentioned the modern day witch hunt as a thing that happens to people who go against the narrative since you brought up the topic of outrage. In fact, I didn't know you got offended (not that it matters in any sort of discussion (which I believe Hitchens correctly pointed out (not that I agree with him on most things))). I interpreted your comment as positive because: 1. You complemented me (I guess now I know it's ironically/sarcastically, I interpreted it as that's it's good/interesting that I explored the idea). 2. You point out that people would usually get outraged by it (which I interpreted as implying that you didn't). So, no, I didn't play the victim as I didn't even know I had the choice to be a victim (not that I would play a victim anyways).

Also, I've mentioned in my comment that it's under the assumption that IQ is a valid measurement, which implies that I know there's an uncertainty. It is not 100% known what role IQ or other things play in one's intelligence (as you pointed out).

Furthermore the video I linked is unrelated to anything you said in the comment thread. It was something I planned to include in my original comment but forgot. If directed to anyone, it was directed towards Bryan as simply an interesting thing to watch.

But just to be sure, I will repeat the steps of the IQ argument I've presented above: 1. The assumption is that IQ is a valid measurement of intelligence (once again, it is an assumption with an built-in uncertainty). 2. The IQ curve is visualized through a Gaussian distribution (due to the data of the test results) where the mean of 100 IQ is in the middle. However the big difference is that the distribution's variance is higher for men, meaning the IQ curve for men is broader which in turn means there's a larger number of men who have IQs in both the lower and upper parts of the distribution, as shown here: 3. Given point number one it naturally follows that IQ is a good way to measure genius (or stupidity for that matter), since according to the Oxford dictionary, genius is defined as: "Exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability" or "An exceptionally intelligent person or one with exceptional skill in a particular area of activity". 4. Point one to three thus imply that there are more male geniuses. 5. Composition (especially of highly creative type) is usually associated with high intelligence or genius. 6. Therefore it follows that there are more genius male composers compared with genius female composers.

Marc Puckett said...

Bryan, I wonder whether the assertion that 'justice means being treated according to your individual merits and nothing else' is in fact true: it is that 'and nothing else' that I think is disputable. The Catholic moral tradition distinguishes commutative and distributive justice-- not that I personally know much about this-- the former being concerned with e.g. the robber who steals and the victim stolen from and the latter being concerned with a 'just' (acceptable or equitable or...?) distribution of goods in society (more or less). The Angelic Doctor treats this distinction in q. 62 of his Summa. I suppose that in contemporary terms, it is e.g. health care or education: it can be argued ad infinitum how society ought to subsidise those goods-- that's a long series of questions of fact and prudence (politics) etc etc, whereas one knows immediately that the robber robs and the victim suffers loss of his possession. Although I'm entirely in agreement with you re the rest of your post; and in fact, if I read Thomas aright, he specifically rejects (following the Philosopher in his Ethics) the notion that distributive justice has to do with an equal distribution/possession of 'goods' variously understood.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have a vague recollection of the Angelic Doctor saying somewhere that justice is defined as receiving your due as an individual. But I also recall the terms commutative and distributive justice--though I am pretty sure that by the latter he did not intend anything like what Bernie Saunders proposes!!

Christine Lacroix said...

Hello Rickard

Yes it's easy to have misunderstandings when we are communicating this way. I'm sorry if I overreacted but you must realize that your comments about IQ might offend women? Even with a disclaimer about uncertainty? Nature vs nurture, the impact of environment and society vs heredity are complicated and if we were face to face we might be able to have an interesting discussion on the subject. But in short notes posted in the comment section I don't think we're going to get very far. Bryan raised an interesting question. But maybe one that for now doesn't have an answer for now. No hard feelings?

Bryan Townsend said...

Christine, thanks for this well-phrased response.