The Women Composers Festival of Hartford was last week. One of the many wonderful events was the discussion titled Issues and strategies for women artists/activists in the age of Trump: an Open Discussion facilitated by Liz Wood with Liane Curtis, Tawnie Olson, and Penny Brandt.
I was pleased to discover the acronym of the initial title is ISWAAAT. Or possibly ISWAAATrump. Made me laugh.
Anyway, as the discussion began, Dr. Elizabeth Wood wondered aloud, “is anyone taking notes so that we can share this with more people somehow?” And several people turned to me. Because I’m a notorious loudmouth, I guess? Or possibly known to write about issues of art and feminism.
So! Here are the notes from that discussion, organized as best I can manage.
Overview: Mostly people felt frustrated and angry, and wanted to know what to do about the changing status of the arts, and particularly of women. Everyone seemed to feel a responsibility to use their position as an artist to be an activist, to resist, to advocate for others. We explored how we already do this, why it’s effective, and how we might want to apply this information going forward.
What we do: writing and programming/performing repertoire.
Musicologist Liane Curtis: In time of social and political crisis, it’s astounding how nimble orchestras can become! Ordinarily bastions of bureaucracy, they can respond quickly when it’s meaningful. And the visibility of women is meaningful at this moment! At the women’s March in Boston, Dr. Curtis stood with flyers in front of Amy Beech’s house. Her 400 flyers lasted 20 minutes. They informed people that a composer lived here who proved women could succeed in any field. People who had never heard of Beech were amazed. “A woman composed a symphony in 1894? How come I don’t get to hear that?!”
Festival Artistic Director Penny Brandt: It’s important to program protest music, but she doesn’t want audiences to think that’s all women write. So in order to represent women composers as they deserve, ensure diversity of emotional content.
Composer Tawnie Olson: “Just existing and creating is kicking the patriarchy in the nuts.” [Favorite note I’ve ever taken.] Yeah, music that addresses difficult subjects is disturbing, the anger in it is disturbing. Both the subject and the music itself are hard to talk about because our response comes from a primitive place.
Musicologist Elizabeth Wood: Performing this music requires using your body. That physicality engages a sense of freedom, but also risk.
And that lead us to the question of the risks of of putting our anger into our work.
Composer Krystal Folkestead Grant: Anger makes me want to compose. Joyful vs. protest is less important; What matters is that it is you. Authentic.
Composer Ashi Day: We compose what’s in us. Sometimes it playful, sometimes dark. She cited her work being performed at the festival “a song about a spooky train” as a straight up silly, fun song. And I told her (since I was conducting it) that, yes, it is fun and joyful to sing, but since it’s about a spooky train who wants to go off the rails and break all the rules and rebel, my singers definitely feel protesty when they sing it.
Marcia Killian, owner of The Foundry: Customers wanted joyful music right after the election. [I have to admit here that I, too, immediately programmed an entire concert of joyful music; for my own sanity and for the sake of giving my singers a chance to spend an hour or three a week digging into joy.]
Conductor Meredith Bowen: Yes, we want that repertoire — the joy and the protest.
Me: I programmed “March of the Women” last fall, thinking we’d be singing it in celebration of electing our first woman president. Instead, we performed it after electing a known sexual predator to the highest office in the land. When we got to the concert, I wasn’t sure how I felt, but when I heard my students singing it, it was weirdly joy and protest all in one.
Then we started talking about what sort of music we ought to be composing, and a lot of it had to do with our responsibility to others.
Ashi: With a voice as a middle aged white lady, I have access to express something meaningful and I’m trying to figure out how to use that most effectively.
Composer Jessica Rudman: as composers, we should work with young musicians as much as possible. Show them composers who wrote music of substance are men, women, all races.
Composers riffing off each other:We want to take care of the listeners. Not just show them our own personal response, but also something universal that they experience. At the same time, though, we worrying about the balance between accessibility and “art.” If it’s accessible, people worry it’s not important, not serious.
Then, later that night, Paula Matthusen quoted Pauline Oliveros, who address the importance of expressing these feelings:
Composer Pauline Oliveros, via Composer Paula Matthusen:
“Healing can occur when one’s experience is made manifest by others.”
Just meeting as we did, talking through our experiences, is helpful. Whether or not we take new or different actions to change the situation, sharing our experiences in an environment of trust and support helped soothe some of the edges worst frayed by the current climate, in which women and the arts are both facing risks that all of us had thought things of the past.