In which someone notices I’m a man

(Cross-posted at Sociologique)

Yesterday morning, Ariela and I were up at the crack of, no, actually we were up before dawn, racing down to WORT 89.9 fm in downtown Madison for a show of Other Voices. from 5-8 AM Ariela was playing some classical music performed by and/or conducted by women. This was, after all, a show intended to highlight the contributions of women to classical music.

You can listen to the show online here at this link, but it is not available to be downloaded as an mp3. (This will be available from now through May 4th 2008 – on May 5th next week’s show will record over it)

For the first hour and forty-five minutes, Ariela went solo, playing music performed by women, and its good stuff if you want to listen to it. At the 105 minute mark (you can skip ahead if you want to), Ariela cut the music that was playing to introduce the next topic: Holst’s The Planets, and some of its influence on science fiction film music. Let me tell you a little about its genesis, and what happened off the air during the show.

First of all, I’ve got a huge SciFi soundtrack collection “unthinkable” was the word Ariela used to describe it on the air. Basically, I have enough full soundtracks that I could play one per week on my show and never play from the same album for over a year. I have a couple dozen other soundtracks that are incomplete. There are a lot more tracks to get out there, but I think you get the idea.

As a consequence of playing and listening to all of these soundtracks, I have come to notice quite a few patterns in the genre, and pick out some major influences. (Also, I might add, I’ve found places where some big-name composers have been cheap and re-used the same themes in later pieces. Even John Williams.) Two of the biggest influences are The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Planets.

Before we left Davis, Ariela and I put together a combo show on her show, Ariela’s Appassionata, to play Gustav Holst’s The Planets, and connect it to science fiction music. We did pretty well, although we didn’t get to all the pieces because her show was only an hour long.

Here in Madison, Ariela got on Other Voices a few months ago, and started the challenging process of searching for classical music that heavily involves women. She’s played Hildegard von Bingen, Nixon in China (libretto was written by a woman), and more. She’s gotten a lot of complimentary calls from listeners, and only one complaint…

Yes she got one complaint from someone who is believed to have been a founder of Other Voices, who called when Ariela played Nixon in China the last time she was on the show. The opera had prominent female performers, and the libretto, or story, was written by a woman. But this person who called complained that it was not ‘woman enough’ for the show. The person, who was a woman, said that the operatic piece was inappropriate for Other Voices. True, Ariela did not say very much about the librettist, because she just introduced the opera and played it. So Ariela said that she would say more about the women involved, highlighting their roles. But the material was perfectly appropriate for the show.

So while Ariela was looking for more music to play, searching through the WORT library and picking out albums highlighted “woman!” she came across a version of Holst’s The Planets. As I mentioned before, it had a woman’s chorus, and a woman conductor, and so she decided to play it. And then she asked me if I would be willing to get up with her in the morning and do a Holst and SciFi show with her again, and I agreed. Before we did this, Ariela asked the other two women who trade off with Ariela each week whether or not it was appropriate. “As long as it’s educational” was her answer, and it was.

So with clearance from the other two people doing the show, and a date picked out, I prepared my tracks and what I wanted to highlight in the pieces, and got ready to get up early in the morning to do the show. I was really busy the night before, so I only got a couple hours of sleep (which I made up for last night), but I think I was energetic enough on the air for the little I said. I joked in a previous post about being a man and playing some male-written music on a show that focuses on women in classical music, and thought, I wonder if that lady will call to complain?

Oh yeah, she did. Apparently, as we hear from the other women who do this show, and even other folks at WORT, she calls in a lot to complain about the music not being gynocentric enough. The thing is, there are very few women in prominent positions in classical music, and it is extremely hard to find anything of theirs to play. When women are involved, the other roles in the pieces are filled by men, obviously. So you’ll find pieces performed by women but written by men. The chorus could be women but conducted by a man, or a piece may be composed by a woman but conducted by a man, etc. There are very few pieces solely put together by women in classical music.

In science fiction music, it’s all male composers. Actually, it’s almost just six composers: John Williams, Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith, Cliff Eidelman, James Horner, Howard Shore, right off the top of my head. I have found a female composer who has helped out with some of the Batman cartoon soundtracks. I haven’t checked conductors, but usually for films the composer is the conductor.

So the pieces I had from science fiction soundtracks were written by men (oh noes!), but The Planets had a prominent woman involved. But here’s an interesting thought – there are a lot of female performers in classical music. A huge number of strings – violins, violas, cellos, are played by women. Flutes Oboes, Clarinets, harps (have you ever seen a male harpist?) are played by women. But that doesn’t count, does it? Only women in the ‘top tier’ positions seem to count, so what is being set up here is a class issue within the gender issue. Women in “lower” positions in an orchestra are being ignored in favor of women in “upper” positions in the production of the piece, like soloists, conductors, and composers. Just a thought to mull over when you think about women in classical music.

Anyway, so we’re in the studio playing The Planets, and mentioning connections to science fiction film music, and playing a few tracks and clips of that. Ariela received a complimentary call from a listener that liked the selection this morning. And then she called. She immediately started complaining about the content of the show, the “male focus” of the show, and Ariela informed her that she had been playing very heavily-female works for the first 2/3 of the show, which this person never seems to be up early enough to hear, conveniently. Oh but what she was hearing on the radio now wasn’t quite feminine enough – this territory was visited between them before two weeks ago, so Ariela was about to hang up on the conversation. But then came the kicker – plus you have a MAN on the show. So she handed the phone to me!

I was a little unprepared to speak to her, even though I had joked about her when Ariela told me about her first call two weeks ago. So I just happily said ‘hello?’ and she went quiet. Our conversation was about a minute and a half long, and mostly characterized by long pauses as she didn’t know what to say to me.

She did start by complaining about my “male focus” since the pieces of scifi music were all written by men, and that I was emphasizing men. As I explained to her, I didn’t feel I was emphasizing the men, I was only saying who wrote them – which is standard practice when you play tracks on the radio. Ariela explained Holst’s The Planets, but also highlighted and repeatedly mentioned the roles of women in the production.

There was a little silence, and the woman on the phone expressed puzzlement as to why the phone was handed to me, she seemed to get the idea that Ariela did not want to talk to her. Course she didn’t. I didn’t. So I went further, explaining to this person that whenever you have women involved in classical music, there are probably going to be men involved somehow.

It was less than 20 seconds until the end of a piece, so I told her if she wanted to continue to complain she could call back when the music is playing, however, we had to go. She wanted me to tell Ariela that she was displeased with this morning’s selection. Well DUH.

But she has been the only one who has called in to complain. In fact, this lady blowhard calls all the new people who join Other Voices in their first few shows to complain about the show not being ‘gyno enough’ (as Ariela put it) until she gets told off. What gives?

As a probable founder of the show, I can imagine where she’s coming from. She thinks she owns the show, she obviously has a personal stake in it. So does the current incarnation of hosts, and so do the listeners. Again, there’s been no complaint from the other hosts, and the listeners either, so it would seem that there’s a problem with her.

This is the problem, as I see it. Women do not get enough attention in a variety of fields. There’s a series going right now in my department about women in plant breeding, to emphasize their contribution to the next generation. Such things are very helpful in providing connections between students and their future peers, and helping them feel that they can succeed in the field. In the area of classical music, women have made few inroads, and the show was probably started to emphasize the role of women for that very reason.

But, a lot of time has passed, and things have changed a little bit. There are probably a bunch of pieces performed and written by women that get played on the air, and there are starting to be a few more composers popping up that are female. So a strict, got-to-be-all-women approach, which may have been important in the beginning of this show, may not be as important today. Times change, but sometimes people don’t.

Another thing has changed about classical music – Asians. There’s a stereotype that Asian children in this country all have to learn piano or violin, and to some extent it is true that they are pushed by their parents to learn these and other classical instruments. “Inculcating social capital” is the term my sociology-educated fiancée calls it. As a result, there are a lot of skilled performers in classical music that are Asian, some of whom have already been played on Ariela’s show. Who’s missing?

If you want to talk about “other voices,” how about Latinos? Africans? Homosexuals? Transgenders? (Actually, we found one transgender she could play…!) What about religious minorities such as Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Atheists? There aren’t any shows on WORT focusing on any of these groups in classical music. Perhaps Other Voices could someday be expanded to focus on any underrepresented group, not just women? Otherwise it’s a misnomer.

Anyhow, the blowhard didn’t call back, and won’t get much of a reception if she ever does. I mean, questioning a man even being on the show! I joked toward the end of the show, that socially speaking, I’m probably more a ‘woman’ than she is – I can out-cook and out-sew most women out there! (An old lady in the room behind me said, ‘hey I’m here’ and I said ‘present company excluded of course!’ I did say most, BTW)

I understand her position, but I think she gives feminists a bad name. She remains to this date, the only “feminazi” I have ever met – the only person I know of who could ever fit Rush Limbaugh’s political pejorative. My mother was a civil engineer back when women didn’t even try – that’s feminism of deeds, not words. This blowhard did something feminist in deed by helping to start this show, but now it is just words. That’s not to devalue words, but when Ariela asked her for suggestions of where to look for female-oriented classical music she said she had no idea. Strange, if she was doing this show before, you’d think she had some idea where to look.

Myself, I’m a feminist. I see it as one aspect, however, of a broader approach to social issues, that being that I’m also a Humanist. Feminism is the radical notion that women are people too, and Humanism is the radical notion that humans are people too. (And that we can use knowledge, compassion, logic, and science to arrive at a morality that best applies to our species and other sentient beings.) Feminism, properly applied, allows you to notice and understand situations where women are given the short end of the stick so you can correct those situations. Improperly applied, produces a lens, through which you can only see anything male as being wrong – some ‘feminist’ scholars even question LOGIC as being wrong because it is ‘male!’

So that’s my social two cents over this. Have a listen, we cut three of the Holst pieces short for time, and I dropped a Harry Potter track I had. It was pretty good, but we think we can do better. We’re planning to produce our own Holst-and Sci-Fi show with our equipment at home and upload it for everyone to enjoy. Maybe we’ll do that this summer.

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

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