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by Stellan Veloce, Rosanna Lovell, Lucien Danzeisen

FEM*_ MUSIC*_ : Collective Feminist Activism Within and Beyond the University

If music and musical practice are to be considered current as an institutionally recognizable art form, it is precisely these institutions (from music schools to university music departments and conservatoriums) that have to deal with the society in which we live, by which we are deeply influenced and which we help to shape. Artists must be active agents in shaping the world we live in.[1]

A feminist approach is for all genders and is not only about quotas and representation, but it is also about how we think about ourselves as composers and ensemble players and organizers and helps to rethink the way we interact with each other.[2]

FEM*_ MUSIC*_ is a participatory and non-hierarchical project which began in 2016 and which deals with the topic of feminism in contemporary music production from various perspectives. FEM*_ MUSIC*_ was born out of a collaboration between faculty, employees, and students of the Berlin University of the Arts and the “Hanns Eisler” School of Music Berlin. In its current form, the group consists of alumnae*i as well as students enrolled at the university.

FEM*_ MUSIC*_ functions as an open collective with a relatively stable core group, which new people can join at any time for as long as they wish. The levels of involvement within the collective can vary from taking part in a seminar for one or more semesters, to proposing new directions for FEM*_MUSIC*_ or getting involved in organising future activities. Since we see our activities as a service for the whole institution, we make sure that organisational and coordination work in the group is compensated, even if only minimally, by resources allocated through university funding.

Since 2017, FEM*_ MUSIC*_ has offered various kinds of meetings, activities and group events within the university framework. The simple goal of FEM*_ MUSIC*_ has been to give space and visibility to issues around gender diversity and music, while simultaneously maintaining a feminist-oriented option within the range of seminars offered by the music departments at Berlin universities.

This modus operandi has consolidated over time, mostly due to very practical reasons: operating inside an institution has real benefits regarding the use of space and access to resources. Our activities are offered as official seminars that students can receive credit for, which gives us a certain credibility within the university structure. Also, the university itself can be considered as a closed society and in this way provides a finite sense to the scope of the activism which we undertake. For example, a possible goal of the group could be “trans inclusive paperwork for students” instead of “equal gender representation in the German new music scene”. The first one appears as a much more realistic goal for a group such as FEM*_MUSIC*_, and its implementation could contribute to a situation where the establishment of the second is more attainable.

As alumnae*i we have direct experience and therefore understand the context of the institutions in which we are working, as well as knowing what we would like to change or have found to be missing in the institutions during our own studies there. While being supported by and represented in the university, it is very important for us to keep our events open to everyone who is interested, not just those already involved in the academic context or who have institutional access through their studies. We operate in quite an independent way and our courses are offered as electives, so in this way external participants can easily take part. It remains a challenge to invite others through diverse channels and to reach out to a greater variety of potentially interested people. This said, we are very pleased that since the beginning, FEM*_MUSIC*_ has welcomed external practitioners and musicians as well as students from other faculties of the university to our events and seminars.

The first event organised by FEM*_ MUSIC*_ was a discussion series which included four panels, focusing on the topics of collectives, activist field work, musical practices and working with the archive. It took place at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler, and included guests such as Jennifer Walshe, Kaffe Matthews, Holly Herndon, Kirsten Reese, Julia Eckhardt and others.[3] This series brought together professionals, students, teachers and those interested in music from beyond the university. The discussions that took place during these meetings highlighted issues that had already become clear in other critical music circles in regard to education and professional activity. Topics included the often raised and hotly debated argument around notions of quality and the exclusionary formation of the musical canon.

The following FEM*_ MUSIC*_ activities have mostly focused on research and open reading groups. In the summer semester of 2018, we pursued our questions around the canon and music history in the seminar FEM*_ MUSIC*_ARCHIVE. This was followed by FEM*_ MUSIC*_PLAY, a collaboration project between the group and stage design student Lea Aigner. We developed a model of a concert hall, which included a stage with both a piano and an archive of women composers from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The model is amplified through recordings of works by the composers which could be heard through speakers and headphones. It was exhibited during MEHRLICHT!MUSIK 2018, and for each festival event we curated a different concert program, accompanied by a printed program in which we also positioned the work:

We understand the model, similar to an architectural design, as a concept that points to the future and at the same time reveals gaps in the current concert canon, as well as in instrumental teaching, the examination of music within research and academia and the archiving of art and knowledge.[4]

The model, as a visual installation which made tangible the representation of key issues within contemporary music practice, proved to be a popular format which garnered much attention and continues to be exhibited in different settings.

In the two subsequent semesters, we followed our desire to spend more time working with texts and developed a reading group with FEM*_ MUSIC*_ READ and FEM*_ MUSIC*_ReREAD. Anybody interested could join, with the group choosing what to read and what to listen to together. In order to make the selection of texts easier for the group, the core group would bring a list of possible texts connected with queer and feminist perspectives in music to the seminar. Out of this, we developed a bibliography or reading list of key texts. We think a lot of interesting, inspiring voices are forgotten or excluded from the curriculum and that a lot of knowledge is not passed on within the institution, instead favouring a self-reproducing model of musical practice, one which is supported by established literature. We wish to expand the kinds of texts and ideas that music students come into contact with during their studies to include more diverse approaches.

In 2019, we released a publication to document what FEM*_ MUSIC*_ had achieved. This was made possible by our successful application to the funding program DIVAversity from the Women's Office of the Berlin University of the Arts. The book includes texts by former guests as well as members of the group and provides a summary of our three years of activity, including notes and photos as well as a reading list. This was important to us, considering how activism can be connected to one generation and that information and activities such as these have the tendency to be forgotten and therefore not be passed on to future generations. We wanted to make our work visible and accessible to those who were not able to take part, as well as to enter it into the official archive of the university by having a book in the library. We also hope that it serves to inspire further work around feminism in music departments in other universities.

We continue in 2020 and have planned a week-long meeting called FEM*_ MUSIC*_: Gather. With this project, we want to host a camp-like meeting to give space to music making, as well as give time to new projects and ideas from the participants. Those involved include students from music and other departments along with music professionals, musicians and others interested in feminism. In order to put together a program in the least hierarchical way possible, we have decided to implement an online platform developed by BLATT 3000’s Andreas Dzialocha called Hoffnung3000. We think that self-organising and decentralizing decentralising decisions regarding the program can be a great first step in order to foster in all participants a sense of caring about the event and to help make everybody feel actively involved in the prosperity of the gathering. People of all genders are welcome to join, as feminism is an issue everyone should be involved in.

Academia continues to be the main space in which the canon of contemporary music is imparted to composers and instrumentalists. A university degree seems to be the most tangible divide between those who are likely to be programmed by curators of contemporary music and those who are not. Universities are therefore important institutions when thinking about future music compositions; not only who composed them, but who they will be performed by, and for whom. We hope that by creating an open space centred in the university, and by also inviting in those who are not enrolled or teaching, we can slowly help to crack this open. Moreover, we think it is incredibly important to include trans-feminist and queer perspectives in discussions on and in musical practice within the formative period of higher education, which shapes future practitioners and therefore the music that we hear.

Stellan Veloce is a Sardinian composer, performer and cellist living and working in Berlin. They compose pieces for acoustic instrumental ensembles as well as working on installations or performance pieces focusing on timbre, repetition and sound densities. Veloce works or has worked with collaborators from different disciplines like composer Neo Hülcker, dancer/choreographer Sheena McGrandles, visual artist Kyle Bellucci Johanson among others. Occasionally they work as a touring band member or in the studio in the pop music sphere. Most recently with Peaches and before with Kat Frankie, Dear Reader, Kenichi among others. They are co-founder of the collective and online platform Y-E-S.org and part of the group Fem*_Music*_. After completing a degree in cello performance, Veloce studied composition at the Universität der Künste Berlin and at the California Institute of the Arts.

Rosanna Lovell is a musician, educator, performer and radio maker from Australia who has been living and working in Berlin since 2009. In 2018, she completed a Master’s at the Institute for Art in Context, Berlin University of the Arts. Her practice focuses on feminist and postcolonial perspectives in classical and new music which she explores through performance, intervention, sound and research. She develops workshops and projects and teaches music. She is part of Freie Radios Berlin-Brandenburg, where she focuses on topics such as music, gender and accessibility in and through radio. She is part of the collectives GRiNM and Fem*_Music*_ which both deal with questions of gender and diversity in music.

Lucien Danzeisen is a composer and artist. Lucien took part in ‘The Young Composers Project’ (Künstlerhaus Boswil) and completed their bachelor’s degree in composition (Josef Kost, Michel Roth, Bettina Skrzypczak) and piano (Yvonne Lang, Marc Hunziker) with a minor in harpsichord (Bettina Seeliger) at the Hochschule für Musik Luzern in the Department of Classical Music. From 2012-2014, they were based in Basel. They completed their master’s degree in composition at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler Berlin with Hanspeter Kyburz in 2018. They are currently teaching at the UdK Berlin as part of FEM_*MUSIC*_, and are a member of the Insubordination Meta Orchestra in Geneva. Lucien has given concerts in Switzerland, Germany, Finland, Poland, France, and the Czech Republic, and focuses on composition and free improvisation.


[1] Lucien Danzeisen, “Über FEM*_MUSIC*_” (About FEM*_MUSIC*_), in FEM*_ MUSIC*_, eds.  Merle Krefeld, Lucien Danzeisen, Rosanna Lovell, Evelyn Saylor, Stellan Veloce (Berlin: Verlag Universität der Künste, 2019), 20.

[2] Stellan Veloce, “Feminist samples for my past self, a student of composition (remix),” in FEM*_ MUSIC*_, eds. Merle Krafeld, Lucien Danzeisen, Rosanna Lovell, Evelyn Saylor, Stellan Veloce (Berlin: Verlag Universität der Künste, 2019), 21.

[3] A more detailed description of the four events and the panellists who took part can be found in our publication and on our website, http://femmusic.eu.

[4] Merle Krafeld, “Programmheft”, in FEM*_ MUSIC*_ eds. Merle Krafeld, Lucien Danzeisen, Rosanna Lovell, Evelyn Saylor, Stellan Veloce (Berlin: Verlag Universität der Künste, 2019), 61.

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