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by Julia Eckhardt

An Ariadne Thread

In 2015, the dramaturg Leen De Graeve and I undertook research looking into the influence of gender on music and musical lives. This took place at Q-o2, an arts laboratory and workspace for experimental music and sound art in Brussels which I co-direct and where collective research into sound-related questions is one of our main endeavours.[1] The project was not only sparked by the conversations with many of our artists in residence (of various genders)—in which I was particularly intrigued by the combination of urgency and secretiveness which I sensed around these issues—but also very much by my own experiences and doubts as a woman in the field of sound and music. This research and the following project, which included a festival and two publications, fundamentally changed my perspective regarding my profession as an artist in the experimental music field, and at the same time had a considerable influence on our organisation. In hindsight, the initial survey feels like the beginning of Ariadne's thread, with many subsequent questions and insights to follow; driven by a curiosity to dissect and expose what music is really made of and about, how it is connected to its maker and the situation in which it is made, and ultimately in what way making and listening to music are political acts.

We developed a written survey which over 150 people from various corners of the musical field and the world responded to, with almost as many men as women, as well as many non-binary people taking part. The testimonies were vivid and intense and spoke about discomfort in navigating the field, but also about thoughts and doubts on the conditions of the relation between gender identities and music itself. Many interesting reflections were aired, such as art as a reproduction of a normative society represented by the notions of work and authorship; the undisputed and apparently neutral presence of the male body and connected qualities; the institutions and places in which sound art is learned and for which it is created; the spirit of the field as competitive and hierarchically structured; the confusion between culture and nature; the canon and the lack of diversity in role models. The most controversial were questions about possible connections between gender and music itself and despite the acknowledgment of a connection between music and the personality of its maker, the thought of this also extending to gender provoked a lot of confusion and resistance. The generosity and vivacity which we heard in the testimonies in general led us to the decision to make them into the imaginary conversation which became the book The Second Soundconversations on gender and music.[2]

The testimonies had revealed clear and burning questions, but showed at the same time a considerable lack of knowledge around the topics raised in the survey, which also strongly resonated within me. Consequently, I decided to continue the thread and open the notion to a larger experimental research setting about gender, voice, language, and identity. I wanted to turn to theoretical thought for answers on the one hand, and to artistic work situated at this intersection on the other, which resulted in a festival and the publication Grounds for Possible Music.[3] The book is a reflection on how the making of music is related to reality and ideologies, on which foundations musical decisions are taken, and how these factors then fall into the listeners ears. It seemed important to map out that this is a general issue of cultural representation, which does not only affect those who are excluded.

A number of theorists have helped to underpin these considerations, among them: Lucy Lippard writes about the necessity to accept the identity of the maker into the artwork and observes female artists refraining from doing this by leading a double artistic life;[4] Susan McClary develops the idea of music as a language, a currency for exchange through which a community of people chooses to communicate, and discusses how musical conventions have the power to stimulate or repress certain tendencies in such a community.[5] McClary shows how society and politics are always mirrored in its music and how historically this is an ongoing negotiation between the existing idiom at hand and the possibility to process and actualise it; Marcia Citron writes about the tremendous power of the canon, “because it creates a narrative of the past and a template for the future,”[6] where the idea of non-functionality as the highest cultural standard has existed since Enlightenment, symbolised by the author and the oeuvre; Sara Ahmed highlights the importance of orientation in a world of things and spaces, in which those for whom this phenomenological world wasn’t designed need more time to make it their home—the pay gap being only one of many annoying consequences;[7] and Hannah Arendt, for whom making art is an act of appearing in a shared world and therefore inherently political.[8] All of these writers also make clear that art and understandings of art are subject to changing times and as such are dynamic, which stands in clear contrast to the traditional self-understanding of the musical field as abstract and unpolitical, unconcerned with human interdependencies and other earthly matters.

Quality and the Responsibility of Judgment

One notion which I kept tripping over, without really noticing it at first, was the concept of quality. It stayed present yet quasi invisible all along—like a chameleon, changing colour and meaning constantly. I started to notice it as an argument which was brought up in order to deadlock requests for diversity, for example, when curators would state that a 50/50 male/female gender quota would lead to a decrease in the quality of their program. I am convinced of, and have also experienced, quite the opposite, but to date have not been able to generate a coherent argument from this subjective feeling.

At present, speaking about quality in music seems to be simply a way to divide music into categories of good and bad, without ever asking for whom, in what situation, and in what function or at what purpose? Being so indistinct, it holds the power of a myth, for which no justification is necessary. The original meaning of the word quality—character, disposition, particular property or feature, kind, relation—seems to have gotten lost, mutating from a designation of specificities to an instrument of generalised binary division.[9] This relegates any Other to the function of the confirming opposite. Replacing the thought of 'quality' with 'qualities'—in a plural sense—could be a first step in subverting this dualistic worldview: when there are at least three components, mutual relation dynamics create a fluid equilibrium.[10]

A dynamic or fluid approach to ideas of quality does not, however, mean refraining from judgment. For Hannah Arendt, “The capacity to judge is a specifically political ability […] to see things not only from one's own point of view but in the perspective of all those who happen to be present. […] Judging is one, if not the most, important activity in which this sharing-the-world-with-others comes to pass.”[11] For her, a special responsibility is incumbent upon the spectators, who in contrast to the actors, have the necessary distance from the happenings to be able to make meaning out of them. Judgment and taste are a common way in which we read the world together, and refraining from them is a manifestation of indifference, rather than of tolerance, and will therefore keep the status quo in place.

The composer Éliane Radigue made a similar reflection in an interview which I did with her for a recent publication, where she explained the importance of availability, which she keeps emphasising, when working with musicians:

Listening is the method for obtaining this availability […] which is the openness towards what sounds are telling us. […] It’s the quality of the listening one brings to sound that makes it perceptible; it’s the listening that makes it our own, according to the quality of our attention. If you open your body and your mind to listening with an active attitude, you will draw out very specific things. The condition for listening is obviously different according to the point in time, according to one’s state of mind. That’s the mirror effect, it's a reflection of one's state of mind in that moment. There exists a means of listening to any sound and making music of it.[12]

With this approach to music and its emphasis on the responsibility of the listener, it is possible to re-define the paradigms of quality through deliberate decisions—by taking into account the person behind—or better in—the music, and the situation in which it was made, by constantly questioning the criteria, and by acknowledging the importance of intuition.

What's Next: More Questions

For the organisation of Q-o2, exposing our work to the mechanisms of disparity was beneficial. It opened us up not only to a bigger variety of practitioners, but mostly also to a wider range of aesthetics, formats, and content—to many lovely discoveries. Still today, we take the 50/50+ percent gender quota to heart, using it as a fact-check, because when there is little time it is tempting to fill vacancies with those who are at hand and/or the most visible. Thinking differently has naturally also diversified the programme on other levels, along with the slow change in thinking within society. Also, for myself as a musician, knowing more has had a freeing effect. But this isn't the end of the thread—more indistinctness and unresolved questions remain as persistent blind spots in the field of experimental music in general and resonate into our relatively protected orbit at Q-o2.

Being aware about the concept of intersectionality is important, but it's often misused. In her keynote during the GRiNM Conference, Anke Charton made clear that intersectionality is foremost a concept of dynamic, and not of static, addition: parameters are in interaction, but are not exchangeable.[13] Something that is rarely mentioned, but very important for our small-scale work at Q-o2, is the parameter of geography: we have to bridge the tension which exists between international visiting artists and a local community with whom we share our daily life. On both levels, the mechanisms of in- and exclusion function differently, and consequently our world-to-share—including the diversity we seek—is different to that of a large international festival. A powerful divider between these two worlds is language. Especially with the recent increase in specialisation and academisation in the field of new music (another indistinctness...), not only the general use of English but also the way it is used can be intimidating. Sometimes I feel that a pre-emptive move may be taking place here: since space is being made for diversity within music, the power hierarchies are shifting to the discourse surrounding it.

Another important tool for in- but also exclusion is the spaces inhabited. Music is always made out of interrelations with and for social spaces, made by and for people who share a reality. And it's not easy to enter such spaces from another reality, as Sara Ahmed writes: “For bodies to arrive in spaces where they are not already at home, where they are not ‘in place’, involves hard work; indeed, it involves painstaking labor for bodies to inhabit spaces that do not extend their shape.”[14] The spaces of new music are mostly quite well subsidised, and old ideas resonate within them about why this is justified. Still, most of us in this field are both representatives of otherness as well as of the status-quo, and it seems to me important to be aware of and live with this tension, as artists as well as organisers. It is a balancing act, and I sometimes sense a vague fear: Who is the composer when s/he is a listener? How much control are we, practitioners of new music, truly ready to give away?

Julia Eckhardt is a musician and curator in the field of the sounding arts and at the intersection of composed and improvised music. She is a founding member and co-director of Q-O2 workspace in Brussels, for which she conceptualised different thematic projects such as Field Fest, Tuned City Brussels, Interpretations., the other the self, //2009//- what do you make of what I say, DoUndo/Recycling G, Abstract Adventures, De Tijd is Rond, Speling. As a performer of composed and improvised music, she has collaborated extensively with composer Éliane Radigue, alongside other artists such as Phill Niblock, Pauline Oliveros, Jennifer Walshe, Wandelweiser-composers, Rhodri Davies, Taku Sugimoto, Manfred Werder, Angharad Davies, Lucio Capece, Manu Holterbach, Anne Wellmer, Carol Robinson, several of them being represented on recordings. She has been teaching and lecturing at Lemmens Institut (Leuven), Transmedia (LUCA Brussel), and La Cambre (Brussels). She is author of The Second Sound—Conversations on Gender and Music, together with Leen De Graeve (umland), Grounds for Possible Music (Errant Bodies), The Middle Matter: sound as interstice (umland) and Éliane Radigue: Intermediary Spaces/ Espaces Intermédiaires (Q-02).


[1] www.q-o2.be.

[2] Julia Eckhardt and Leen De Graeve, The Second Sound – Conversations on Gender and Music (Brussels: umland editions, 2017).

[3] Julia Eckhardt, Grounds for Possible Music (Berlin: Errant Bodies, 2018).

[4] Lucy Lippard, The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Feminist Essays on Art (New York: The New Press, 1995).

[5] Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

[6] Marcia J. Citron, Gender and the Musical Canon (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 1.

[7] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2006).

[8] Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture,” in Between Past and Future – Six Exercises in Political Thought (New York: The Viking Press, 1961), 197-226.

[9] “Quality | Origin and meaning of quality by Online Etymology Dictionary,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed 17 June 2020, https://www.etymonline.com/word/quality.

[10] See also: Édouard Glissant, Poétique de la relation (Paris: Gallimard, 1990).

[11] Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture,” 221.

[12] Julia Eckhardt, Éliane Radigue – Intermediary Spaces/Espaces intermédiaires (Brussels: umland editions, 2019), 49.

[13] Anke Charton, “Default, Debug, Decolonize: Thoughts on Intersecionality and New Music,” in Defragmentation – Curating Contemporary Music (Darmstädter Beiträge zur Neuen Musik, vol. 24: Schott, 2016).

[14] Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 51.

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