Despite persistent marginalisation from the process of music-making, certain women have still managed to change the course of music throughout history. Take the 12th-century radical nun Hildegard of Bingen, who was an abbess, diplomat, writer and composer. Or child prodigy Amy Beach, who despite the repressive influence of her mother and husband became a world-famous composer and pianist in the Victorian era.
So, who are the women changing music today?
The Venezuelan classical pianist Gabriella Montero has made a name for herself by improvising live piano pieces at her concerts, often prompted by suggestions from the audience. This has created controversy among traditionalists, who still regard improvisation as trivial or circus-like. It has also upset modernists who object to Montero’s classical, non-modern style. Yet by not heeding to the expectations of either group, she has created a musical niche that is her own. The music of the past can be reworked live, with the pianist acting not merely as an interpreter of fixed and unchangeable forms, but as an explorer of their potential elaborations and hidden characteristics.
It is not only the musical role of classical pianists that Montero has challenged, but also the expectations surrounding classical musicians’ public personas. Prior to recorded music, female pianists frequently provided music in the home. While this meant they benefited from a musical education and gained some degree of control over the sound environment, the very act of performing quietens a person at social events. So when Montero emerged as a vociferous critic of Hugo Chavez, in reaction to the rapid escalation of homicides during his presidency, she broke away from the notion of the classical musician as the “quiet performer”. Her politics became further manifest in 2012 with a 15-minute lament she composed named ExPatria, which acted as a protest in sound against the violence engulfing Venezeula.
Another musician who has expanded the boundaries of a musical culture is the sitar player Anoushka Shankar, who is both a virtuoso of Indian classical music, and also a fusionist of global styles. As the daughter of the great sitarist Ravi Shankar, she is open to the accusation of having simply followed in the footsteps of her father, who controversially collaborated with Western musicians such as the Beatles and Philip Glass. But she points out, “what he was doing was sort of spreading Indian music around the world, and so even when he would work with Western musicians or Western orchestras, if you look at the music, it’s actually purely Indian music being played by different musicians and different instruments”. This is not the case with Anoushka’s music, which is clearly influenced and moulded by the cultures she collaborates with.
Esoteric and idiosyncratic
Spanish music, and flamenco in particular, comes through strongly in her music. In her piece Boy Meets Girl, an extended Spanish guitar intro is followed by the entrance of her sitar, with an effortlessness that makes it sounds as though the two stringed instruments were ancient musical partners. In another track, Fuse, she makes accessible the esoteric and idiosyncratic sound of Karnatic vocal percussion, showcasing its detailed, complex, and ornate rhythmic language, and implying a connection to Western rapping by the addition of a live drummer playing muscular scatterings of breakbeats (the quintessence of hip hop), on a dry and compressed drum kit.
The combination of modern technology and music has a long and rich history, and a contemporary musician who has added to this is the inventive Icelandic singer Björk. In 2011 she released a smartphone app called Biophilia, which remains revolutionary nearly a half-decade later and is now a part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. While the history of music recordings implied a one-way relationship with an audience, because of the nature of its largely fixed and unchangeable forms, interactive and gesture-based tablet technology has opened the door to malleable, audience-controlled creativity.
The app was partly inspired by Björk’s long-standing ambition to open a music school, but rather than that she created 10 music pieces using 10 interactive apps, each of which is intended to illuminate a specific scientific concept, with names such as “dark matter”, “lunar” and virus”. Through the apps you can create your own music, which can be accompanied by Björk’s singing, giving the user a greater sense of intimacy and collaboration with the artist. A reviewer on the iTunes website praised it by saying: “I think this app is the early 21st century equivalent of the 12” album cover. It brings the audience into the artist’s world in a way that music alone doesn’t.”
Percussive body sounds
A large challenge facing contemporary composers is maintaining relevance in a hi-tech, multicultural and globalised world. One person who has managed this is the Scottish composer Anna Meredith, who has composed orchestral, chamber and opera music, but also releases electronic music on Moshi Moshi Records. When commissioned in 2008 to write for the BBC Proms, she decided to get the National Youth Orchestra to put their instruments down to perform the premier of her piece HandsFree, which was composed purely using percussive body sounds and the human voice.
The performers’ clapping evokes aquatic sounds like rainfall and splashing, with the vocals making a combination of monastic drones and beatboxing noises, resulting in a piece that is visually and aurally fascinating. While Meredith’s composition gives a nod to Steve Reich’s seminal 1972 piece, Clapping Music, it has a greater sense of having been guided by the human hand, contrasting it to the strictly systematised and deterministic patterns that structure and drive Reich’s piece.
Her electronic releases, which are saturated in distorted synth sounds and brash drum beats, are similarly inventive. A recurrent theme is the skilful clash of two mathematically related rhythms phasing in and out of each other like the oars of rowing boats. This can be heard in her piece Nautilus, where various synth melodies create the sensation of a permanent crescendo, before the piece transforms entirely with the entrance of a drum beat that pulls at the rhythmic threads that have been established.
Women’s marginalisation from the process of music-making remains to this day. How much the situation has improved is another subject entirely, but what can be said without doubt is that despite the difficulties, women today are still changing the course of music in radical and inventive ways.
Photo of Anna Meredith, by Rob Orchard.