February 19, 1995
Feminism and Musicology:
The Reception of Susan McClary's Feminine Endings
When it appeared in 1991, Susan McClary's book Feminine Endings had a profound impact on the study of music, both in musicology (which has traditionally concerned itself with the history and formal analysis of European classical music), and in those interdisciplinary fields which can include music among their objects of study: American Studies, Popular Culture, Cultural Studies, and Women's Studies. In this essay, I will analyze the reception of Feminine Endings by examining the reviews it has received in the academic journals representing each of these fields.
The impact of this book can perhaps be best compared to that of Kate Millet's Sexual Politics in the late `60s. McClary, like Millet, brought feminist concerns into a field accustomed to thinking of art as abstract and universal, insisting not only on the analysis of the representation of women in canonical works and the appreciation of women composers, but also on the gendered nature of the processes of musical signification themselves. In this way, McClary's work clearly draws on, and is comparable in importance to, Laura Mulvey's work on film and Elaine Showalter's "gynocriticism."
Millet, Mulvey, and Showalter are hardly revolutionary figures in the `90s. However, it is vital to acknowledge the backwardness of musicology with regard to cultural and feminist theory, especially in comparison to literary, film, and performance studies. This problem is recognized by all but the most conservative critics of McClary, and she and others have written about it at length (for example: McClary and Walser, McClary 1991: 3-34, Kerman). Without going into detail, I think it is easy to see how instrumental music can appear to be nonrepresentational, a type of pure abstraction detached from the social, in a way that literature and film, except maybe at their most experimental, cannot. This has enabled the survival of large pieces of nineteenth century aesthetic theory in musicology and the philosophy of music. There hasn't been a New Criticism in music studies.
McClary works mainly with "masterpieces:" Carmen. Beethoven's Ninth, Tchaikovsky's Fourth, etc., showing how their "greatness" is produced by socially constructed, gendered systems of codes. The last three chapters of Feminine Endings however, present three contemporary women composers who McClary sees as resisting and deconstructing these codes: Janika Vandervelde, Laurie Anderson, and Madonna. Vandervelde is the least familiar of these three; I do not believe she has had her music issued on a nationally distributed label. Despite her obscurity, McClary praises her music the most. From the score excerpts provided, she appears to be a minimalist like Philip Glass or John Adams, but without their attachment to diatonic key centers and the resultant teleological narrative drive for closure. In the decentered, rhythmic cycling of Vandervelde's piece Genesis II, McClary finds not only a profound representation of the intended programmatic content (childbirth is the "Genesis" of the title) but also a model for feminine embodiment, "being-in-the-world," and eroticism.
This equation of femininity with embodiment, childbirth, and therefore nature, nurturance, etc. raises the familiar problem of essentialism or biological determinism. McClary recognizes this, but sees her reading of Vandervelde as more exploratory than exemplary. The extent to which McClary's reading of Vandervelde is seen as successful is an important distinguishing feature of the various reviews, since it is seen as the marker of the sophistication of her background in recent feminist theory.
My goal for this paper was to use the reception of McClary's work to explore problems of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. Unfortunately, the reviews I was able to find were almost all by musicologists. However, the debates among these musicologists raise some very important questions about what a feminist musicology could and should be. I will get to these debates by means of the criticism that did appear in interdisciplinary journals.
First, one would expect McClary's work to be taken up by scholars who specialize in popular music, since one of her major arguments in Feminine Endings and elsewhere (McClary and Walser) is for the significance of the music in popular music, i.e. the relation between the chord progression and vocal melody in a song contributes as much or more to the production of meaning in that song as the lyrical or video content. Of the two journals devoted to popular music studies: Popular Music and Popular Music and Society. Popular Music and Society did not review McClary's book, which is not that surprising given their hostility to politically engaged and theoretically involved modes of criticism.
Popular Music, on the other hand, printed a brief, but basically positive review by George Biddlecombe. He criticizes McClary primarily on the incompleteness of her semiotic theory. McClary recognizes the need for a theory of musical signification, but her own efforts are not adequate. She claims that classic cartoon soundtrack music, for example, foregrounds music as code while high-art concert music attempts to efface it, though both rely on the same code. She does not explain how this same set of codes can operate differently in these differing contexts (374). Furthermore, she fails to recognize that the same signs can, in different idioms, represent differently, as in her reading of the harmonic mechanisms in Madonna's "Like a Prayer." McClary does not recognize that Madonna's music may work within a different system of musical encoding than that of, say, Tchaikovsky (375).
Biddlecombe may be basing this criticism on knowledge of the elaborate efforts towards a semiology of popular music by Richard Middleton and Philip Tagg, both of whom have published in Popular Music but whose books are not available in the US. and who McClary does not cite in Feminine Endings (though both are cited extensively in McClary and Walser and in Walser's own book, leading one to suspect that he is the one more familiar with their work.). This critique is, at least in part, a territorial move by Popular Music, peeved that McClary did not sufficiently scan their back issues before writing her book.
The Popular Music review of Feminine Endings is basically positive, despite these criticisms. McClary is seen as making an important, though surely not definitive, statement on the application of feminist theory to popular music studies.
Biddlecombe's point about the inadequacy of McClary's semiotics is echoed by Tia DeNora in Contemporary Sociology. DeNora focuses on McClary's insistence on the signifying character of music rather than the feminist direction of this insistence. She praises the book, but notes that its theory of signification misses several crucial and related elements: it fails to account for differences amongst listeners and it assumes the universality and singularity of the system of musical coding. DeNora points out that not only are coding and decoding systems finite and multiple, they also can overlap, with a single musical sign having several, potentially contradictory, meanings. Furthermore, she is not satisfied with McClary's account of how musical codes are learned. However, DeNora's disciplinary bias shows when she suggests that McClary could improve her future work by engaging with interactionist approaches, in other words: this is a really good book, if only it was more like sociology (117).
Lesley Ferris' "Absent Bodies, Dancing Bodies, Broken Dishes: Feminist Theory, Postmodernism, and the Visual Arts," in Signs, is the only review of Feminine Endings in a journal devoted specifically to Women's Studies. Unfortunately, it receives very short notice, being the last of ten books covered in as many pages. Ferris is entirely celebratory. Her review simply identifies musicology as the last field of cultural scholarship still dominated by the idea of Absolute, value-free art, and rejoices in the potential of McClary's work to bring this into crisis (171-172).
However, issues directly pertaining to feminist theory appeared almost immediately in the reception of Feminine Endings in musicology journals. Pieter van der Toorn published the first review in The Journal of Musicology, actually a long essay entitled "Politics, Feminism, and Contemporary Music Theory." The title of this essay makes it sound much more sophisticated than it is. What van den Toorn does here can only be compared to Norman Mailer's response to Kate Millet, though van den Toorn lacks the wit, self-consciousness, and talent that make Mailer entertaining even when he's completely wrong. Van den Toorn rehearses every argument of traditional musicology as it is now constituted, from the aesthetics of Hanslick and Dalhaus (which have been hybridized with object-relations psychology to give them a longer shelf-life), to the charts and graphs of Schenkerian analysis, as if maybe this time McClary (a talented student, but misguided) will catch on to what musicology really is. I don't know enough about 19th century German philosophy to work through his argument point by point, but it basically makes a case for the experience of art as simultaneously wholly individual and fundamentally universal. That is, it is everything except social/cultural (275-280).
Eight pages into the essay, van der Toorn loses control of his argument and starts lashing out at "today's officially sponsored ideologies of inter-, cross-, and multi-everything," "today's me-generation," and identifying McClary as "severely separatist" for suggesting that female sexuality may be less concerned with closure than that of men (283-284). This is a somewhat essentialist point, but not a fundamentally separatist one.
It is his concluding section in which van der Toorn evokes Mailer in his desperation and incomprehension. In case the reader has been confused by his criticism of McClary, he fills in some needed background: the definitive definition of feminism. Feminism is the desire of women to receive special treatment in legal and employment situations and to avoid childbearing in order to pursue their selfish ambitions. Women aim to secure this advantage by claiming to be constantly threatened by the MSD (his abbreviation for male sex drive) which is hopelessly predatory and objectifying. What feminism wants is not substantially different from the history of Christian moralism: to contain the MSD (295-299). Van der Toorn's source for all this? "Several informal meetings with feminist graduate students at Yale." (298). For him, feminist cultural criticism is simply a Trojan Horse with this odd, selfish agenda concealed inside.
In the next issue of The Journal of Musicology, feminist musicologist Ruth Solie published her response to van der Toorn. It is not really necessary to summarize this essay since I have already incorporated many of her points into my description of his; it was much too tempting not to do so. More important than her objections to his work are her observations about what reviewers actually should be looking at in McClary's book: the relationship between male and female as they are present in the music system and as they are present in other representational systems, the degree to which McClary successfully avoids essentialism, and the necessity and utility of her connections between representation and sexuality (407, 410).
Solie later published her own review of Feminine Endings in The Journal of Modern History. She goes one step beyond DeNora and does not see any theory of how codes are learned in McClary. Though the constructedness of these codes is constantly stressed in Feminine Endings, it is never show how this works; there are no examples (576).
Solie is also not convinced by McClary's disavowals of essentialism, after all, her most extended reading of a feminist composer, Janika Vandervelde, celebrates her representation of childbirth, as I have previously noted. Beyond this biologistic reduction of female being, Solie claims that sexual intercourse is also essentialized in McClary. It is always hostile and heterosexual. According to Solie, this bleak vision of sexuality, regardless of its possible truth, is over-used by McClary as the ultimate ground of every human expression. She writes: "pace Sigmund Freud, life is not all about sex (For that matter, I myself am resistant to the implication that feminism is all about sex.)" (576-577).
I am not familiar with the Journal of Modern History but, judging from Solie's response to van der Toorn and her recent anthology Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, I think it's safe to see her as more thoroughly grounded in recent feminist literary and cultural theory than McClary, who tends to jump around from theorist to theorist, taking what she needs without worrying to much about the possible incoherence of her position. While Solie acknowledges the enormous influence of McClary's articles when they first appeared, beginning in 1987, she implies that the field has rapidly assimilated theory (though she doesn't name names), to the point that McClary's works, now collected in book form, are dated (577).
Another attempt to evaluate the initial furor over McClary's work (best exemplified by the van der Toorn/Solie exchange) is that of Paula Higgins, in 19th Century Music. Higgins' reading of McClary appears much harsher than it is. Though she ends up seeing McClary's project as beneficial to the field, she has some important reservations. Like Solie, she is a feminist musicologist and has a solid grasp of literary theory.
First, like others, she is dubious about McClary's reduction of all bodily experience to sex, at one point writing "It seems needlessly arbitrary to reduce music to only one of the multivalent sensory pathways by which it can act on our physical bodies..." and "...by seeming to advocate the reduction of the musical narrative strategies of 300 years to uniform reenactments of the sex act, McClary invites accusations of fetishism." (184).
Second, she claims that McClary's work is flawed by her reluctance to acknowledge prior feminist musicology. According to Higgins, McClary sees the analysis of music as the highest, and maybe the only true purpose of musicology (175). Researching the lives and works of composers and performers, compiling biographies, editions of scores, etc. are not as musicological, or possibly not musicological at all, partaking more of the discipline of history (175-177). This assumption is carried over unquestioningly from traditional musicology, with its emphasis on formal analysis and total avoidance of the social and historical. It leads McClary to disregard the work of feminist scholars before her, since they were almost without exception working on the recovery of past women composers (177-178, 187-192).However, Higgins does not condemn McClary for her oversight or unsisterly-ness (and McClary has since, in an essay in Feminist Studies, more thoruoghly acknowledged her predecessors). Instead, she locates both McClary and the earlier feminist musicologists within an outline of feminist literary criticism used by Annette Kolodny and Elaine Showalter. As previously noted, this model consists of three phases: the critique of representations of women in canonical works, the recovery and promotion of works by women along with the literary theories that can be drawn from these works, and the analysis of relations between gender and representation and their construction in works by women and men. No one of these phases is valued over another, and Higgins is critical of McClary for devaluing the second (191-192).As she writes, in her most pointed observation: "Where are the women in this `feminist' criticism of music?" (187).
Higgins is blunt in her treatment of McClary's attempts to offer some women as exemplary feminist composers: the commentary on Diamanda Galás in Feminine Endings is apparently too short and non-technical to warrant attention, while that on Laurie Anderson and Madonna earns her praise only in that it focuses on the visual and verbal aspects of their work. Only the chapter on Janika Vandervelde merits serious analysis, and it is buried under Higgins' objections: it presumes that women's art is intrinsically personal/autobiographical, it argues from intent, and it really demands consideration of the idea of écriture féminine, which McClary does not provide, though she cites Cixous elsewhere (186). The principal problem for Solie: that Vandervelde's composition assumes childbirth as the ultimate, essential, feminine experience, is not invoked. Higgins has more than enough other material to use.
I want to conclude by discussing the most recent controversy involving McClary's work. Although Elaine Barkin's "either/other" defies the issues of disciplinarity which I've used to construct this essay, I think it illustrates a potential risk in mixing identity politics with aesthetic theory. This piece appeared in Perspectives in New Music, along with a response from McClary.
To give some context, this journal is the major American organ for avant-garde classical composition and its analysis. Two schools of thought dominate its pages. The first could be called the serial/academic/anal-retentive school. Their models are composers like Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez, and they publish articles full of charts and graphs, using phrases like "pitch-set analysis" and "stochiastic composition." (This group could be called Modernists, but this should not be taken to imply that the other group are postmodernists.) The other group prefer words like "chance," "improvisation," "meditation," and "silence." They're interested in John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Their publications tend to be autobiographical and poetic. Elaine Barkin definitely belongs to the second group, but pays the rent working at UCLA, teaching people how to act like members of the first group.
Susan McClary doesn't like the first group at all. Her essay "Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition" (published in Cultural Critique) argues that post-serial composition is not only elitist but misogynist, drawing on Andreas Huyssen's equation of high Modernism with masculinity and mass culture with femininity. Against the mathematical abstraction of Milton Babbitt, who denies that his work refers to anything except the application of certain mathematical procedures to the organization of sound even when that sound is the voice of a woman singing a narrative poem, McClary advocates the funk of Earth, Wind, and Fire, which she sees as addressing the lived body.
Barkin's essay is more of a rant than a formal argument. Basically, she considers the implications of McClary's work fascist. She sees her limiting the ways in which she is allowed to listen to and compose music and disrespecting the experimental tradition she comes from. McClary sees the world only in terms of gender, and Barkin claims that there are other vectors of oppression. This is not entirely fair to McClary, since she is highly conscious of issues of race and colonialism, especially in her readings of Carmen, but Barkin is after something broader.
When I played with Elaine in 1988, it was clear to me that what she was trying to do was to move from what Jacques Attali, in his brilliant book Noise: The Political Economy of Music calls "repetition" to what he calls "composition." Under the regime of repetition, which roughly corresponds to the period of modernity, music is made material in recordings and functions as an object of capitialist exchange and accumulation. The period of composition, on the other hand, is Attali's utopia, in which music would be made by people for their own satisfaction, as a kind of ritual, meditation, or party game. Composition is the communism after the capitalism of repetition. The Experimenatal Music Ensemble course Barkin has taught at UCLA is an example of this, since it is a space for total improvisation and exploration, music which has no interest or value within our current systems of exchange: concerts, recordings, scores, etc. This is entirely different from McClary's criticism of the academic avant-garde and offers a more profound challenge, Barkin argues, to systems of domination (221-222, 224).
It is the threat of domination in McClary's work which Barkin finds most offensive. She derives this mainly from McClary's advocacy of Janika Vandervelde, which, as I've shown, has been problematic for many critics. First, Barkin resents being told by Vandervelde or McClary what she is supposed to be thinking about when she listens to music (220). Because McClary's work does not take into account the possibility that systems of signification can be multiple, contradictory, and overlapping (and here I am thinking about the French semiologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez as I am about Stuart Hall), the critic risks becoming a censor. As Higgins also notes, must we burn Beethoven now that McClary has identified the first movement as a rape narrative (Higgins 183)? Barkin, speaking of the anti-semitism of Wagner, Strauss, and Furtwängler, writes: "To continue to listen to such music with these awarenesses [of how it is caught up in terrible systems of power] is far more demanding than to cease." (214-215).
Following closely from this is the possibility that McClary's work towards a feminine or feminist musical aesthetic can become prescriptive, that someone can use her theory to listen to a piece of music and judge the composer's politics by the music's structure, or that one could dismiss a wide variety of compositional forms and techniques as simply "not feminist." Imagine if the result of Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" had been to completely restrict politically engaged women from making films with linear narratives. Barkin demands access to "the entire range of the semiotic code she has inheritied," not simply to that part which McClary has identified as appropriate for women (215-216, 223).
I want to be very clear that Barkin's advocacy of an anarchist/post-Marxist/immedatist (see Hakim Bey on immediatism) program definitely does not preclude a systematic critique of patriarchy. Her own feminist credentials are impeccable. The principal question raised by "either/other" is simply about the possible logical extensions of feminist aesthetics and narratology: if analysis reveals misogyny as the fundamental ground of a work like the Ninth, how can we continue to enjoy the work? and might these sorts of judgements not have a chilling effect on future composers? Barkin insists on the indeterminacy of the production of meaning by composers and listeners (Hall's encoding/decoding, Nattiez's tripartition).
Finally, in this spirit of critique, it is important to recognize the importance of McClary's contribution. Although this essay has dwelled on her critics, It was mainly her work which inspired me to pursue a career as a popular music scholar. While Solie and Higgins are definitely correct in their pointing out the reductive and essentialist elements of her approach, McClary is still the first musicologist to link desire and form in any extended or politicized way.
This is especially valuable in the study of popular music, which has been overwhelmingly dominated by lyric (and more recently video) analysis. Feminine Endings is an important beginning, an expansion of her and Robert Walser's work in "Start Making Sense: Musicology Wrestles with Rock" to bring the tools of musicology into Cultural Studies and the concerns of Cultural Studies into musicology.
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