Gender & Music: ‘In Our Different Rhythms Together’
By Maggie Nicols
Maybe one day, there will no longer be the need for special features on gender; a post Patriarchal Capitalist society will experience genuine diversity & humankind’s multidimensional difference will be what unifies us. Until then, I’m happy to grapple with the contradictions of gender & music in our time.
Is there such a thing, outside cultural conditioning, as feminine or masculine music? I can only write from the limited perspective of history, personal political experience & the times we live in now.
So many of my most precious musical moments are shared with other women now that sometimes I forget what it was like before the women’s liberation movement when meaning & value was defined predominantly by men. Literature, music, religion, politics, you name it; men battled ideas amongst themselves & women were mainly their muses, an influence behind the scenes: “behind every great man,” etc.
When I first started listening to jazz, I naively believed that men were more biologically suited to playing instruments. It was what I saw; female singers & male instrumentalists. The pop music I listened & danced to; soul, rock ‘n roll, all the same. Of course there were also male singers in all those musics but very few female instrumentalists. It was a few years before I saw saxophonist Vi Redd down Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Gerard Street. Even then, it was said she played like a man.
I yearned to be part of the wonderful music I heard. I was in love with music of all kinds but particularly jazz. Unfortunately many male musicians mistook my love
of music for a willingness to be manipulated or even coerced into giving them sexual favours. Male acceptance & approval was everything to me which left me vulnerable to my own romantic notions about their beautiful souls & a prey to casual sexism. I was sweet sixteen & hungry to be a musician, which, given what I knew, meant being a singer. I got my first break singing in a strip club & later was taken under the wing of the brilliant pioneer of bebop in Britain, trumpeter & pianist Dennis Rose, who played in North London pubs.
In the jazz world there was an ambivalence if not downright dislike towards all but the most established female singers ; an assumption that they would be rubbish & / or a resentment of their place at the centre of the audience’s attention. However, male front line instrumentalists rarely came in for the same hostility even though some of them were perfectly capable of completely ignoring their supporting rhythm sections when they took a solo.
My need to be accepted as a bona fide practitioner of a music that moved & inspired me so profoundly was probably one of the major if unconscious driving forces behind my developing my voice as an instrument. It was also intensive listening to a huge diversity of brilliantly expressive instrumentalists even if they were all male.
Dennis started me on the road to legitimacy as a musician. Through my work with him I got to sing with other musicians & then there came a time when I basked in their praise & approval. I was better than those other ‘chick singers’; my low self esteem fed a feeling of false superiority to my singing sisters.
Later, as I grew in confidence, I occasionally took delight in going along to jam
sessions where I wasn’t known & seeing the conspiratorial rolled eyes & the low expectations of a female singer turn to respect & amazement once I started singing.
Confidence is the operative word here cos even now with all my experience, I can suddenly feel like I don’t deserve to be in the hallowed company of ‘real musicians’ (men); can doubt my musicianship & feel shriveled up & small, especially around musicians who knew me a long time ago. It doesn’t happen so often now but enough to want to do all I can to support other women starting out. I’m saddened to hear that so many are still getting a hard time.
There was another man that I learnt a lot from & started singing with in 1968 when I was twenty. Drummer & free improvisation innovator & enabler John Stevens
honoured & adored the female voice. He was one of the first musicians I knew to fully integrate the human voice into his ensembles; we weren’t just occasionally decorative or floating ethereally on top. We were another equal but distinctive colour in the overall sound like the difference between a trombone & a trumpet or guitar. Even in free improvisation this was radical stuff.
John turned everything upside down for everyone, women & men alike. He was a
pioneer of a collective approach to music which also liberated individuality. Even in the midst of a profoundly sexist music scene I have to give credit to those men whose humanity sometimes managed to transcend gender stereotypes and oppression. There were & are many men who I consider as part of the wonderful extended family of musicians that I am so blessed to be a part of but for a while, as the only woman, I had a period where I became ‘one of the boys’. Like many other female musicians, before we met each other, I did a pretty good job of it, raving with the best of them, & it was great cos at least I was respected as a ‘fellow’ musician. I still needed that male approval.
Apart from with singer Julie Tippetts one of my dearest musical soul mates, & in the revelatory voice workshops I started running in 1969, most of my intimate musical experiences had been with men. Then came my exposure to the women’s liberation movement in the mid seventies & everything changed again! After mainly being the only woman in all male ensembles, I was now immersed in an all female world. I fell in love with women. I started to understand that what had happened to me wasn’t just personal, it was political. I came out as a lesbian & I wanted to sing with other female musicians. The Feminist Improvising Group was born & although we’re in danger of being written out of history, we had a huge impact on the improvised music scene. We were loved & hated. We were provocative & perversely diverse in class, sexuality, race, disability & musical background & technique. It was my first experience of singing with women instrumentalists & it was wonderful.
We didn’t set out to call ourselves FIG but when I got us our first gig at a ‘Music for Socialism’ event, as the Women’s Improvising Group, the leaflets came out with the ‘F’ word & we took that name on board & really ran with it! I don’t think the organisers realised what they’d unleashed. We rose to the occasion in ways which both delighted & threatened.
The difference that our gender made to me was in the intimacy we shared before & after as well as during the music. It was in the heady early days of sisterhood before the inevitable realisation that identity also contains difference. We were discovering our shared experience of isolation & discrimination as women in a male dominated world. We were anarchic & unapologetic about overturning many of the assumptions about technique. In the beginning it was an open pool of improvisers open to all women, mixed ability in the conventional sense but each woman crucial to the overall social virtuosity that our performances expressed. It was truly liberating to stop worrying, for a while at least, about what men thought of us. We laughed when over & over we were asked ‘why only women’? as if it had escaped the notice of the various questioners that the majority of ensembles were all male. The listening, the interaction, the humour, the politics, the hanging out. I was finally one of the women not one of the boys.
FIG opened the door into a whole new world of creative empowerment & many of us went on to play with each other in different combinations & still do to this day. Corine Liensol & I started ‘Contradictions’ with Irene Schweizer & dancer Roberta Garrison which I later developed as an open women’s workshop performance group, involving both improvised & written music, theatre, visuals & dance. Irene Schweizer founded E.W.I.G (European Women’s Group) which brought in new women like bassist Joelle Leandre & singer Annick Nozati. One of my favourite group experiences was the first women’s improvised music festival ‘Canaille’ organised by Dutch trombonist Anne Marie Roelofs (also an ex FIG member) in Frankfurt. We played in different combinations & the enthusiasm for each group as we cheered each other proudly from the side of the stage, was totally uplifting & everyone excelled even more because of it; great music & inspired performances.
Women playing together & promoting each other against all the odds brought on the era of more mixed gender groups. I remember cellist Martin Altena saying how much he preferred playing in groups that were not exclusively male. The joy I experience when surrendering to the Muse & trusting myself, the music, the other musicians & each unfolding moment, happens with men too but it happens more often with women or when there are other women present (Maybe my gender influences the music even when I’m the only woman in the group).
I have just come back from a wonderful experience singing with trombonist Gail Brand & a Belgian pianist Marjolaine Charbin that Gail & I had never met before. We did two gigs – the first one was sheer magic, a multiplicity of twists & turns. There was a free flow of different & sometimes simultaneously different dynamics a kind of musical multi orgasmic multi- tasking. A singer called Martha in the audience said listening to us as women was different to listening to men, not better, different.
The second gig was harder because of a grim venue literally divided in two by a concrete wall. The music was still strong but constructed more of struggle rather than trust & it was great to be able to share our feelings about the challenging personal processes we’d just gone through; less analytical than some discussions I’ve had or read about the music but no less insightful & certainly less divisive.
There is a deliriously divine combination of sensitivity & anarchic wildness I experience with women when we let ourselves be fearless & let go of needing to prove ourselves in a still predominantly male music scene. Is it a socialised ability to surrender to flow & wander & meander that is harder for men who are maybe more socialised to stay in control?
I cannot generalise too much about gender & music though because there are men who can be possessed by the music & women who put up barriers, but in my experience those multidimensional moods that I love so much in free improvisation are something I associate most with all the wonderful women I work with. Even in bands where we play tunes, there is a particular dynamic in rehearsals that makes me feel easier in my skin when I work with women or at least with men that love & respect women’s presence & musicianship.
There was one group of male musicians however where I found a similar openness & freshness; the improvisers I met in the former DDR (East Germany). They hadn’t been overdosed with the Western stimuli that had made many of our male artists jaded & cynical & striving to come up with ever cleverer concepts. Although due to different circumstances, the East German musicians, like women, had not been a major part of the Western music scene, so shared a similar sense of adventure & exploring new territory that can come from being excluded. When I heard guitarist Joe Sachse & trombonist Hanes Bauer for the first time I felt like I was enjoying a thriller. I was on the edge of my seat. It was not stylistic, it could go anywhere.
I’ve noticed that certain male musicians & some of the female musicians who associate with them often identify themselves with one particular concept or approach –minimalism, deliberately contrasting, etc – whereas women de-ideologised go where they please. Both have their strengths & weaknesses but I prefer the open ended approach unless it’s a workshop or I’m exploring freedom through specific pieces which initially limit or focus the attention in a particular direction like some of John Stevens’ pieces do.
Women are known for multi-tasking, men for single-minded focus. Are both genders capable of either? Yes, surely in the music we can all shape shift & focus. In the end, let it be down to preference rather than gender.
For me, free improvisation still promises the most freedom from gender biased limitations; women lead & focus as well as follow & surrender & vice versa for men, but no-one is a permanent leader or follower. This is certainly the case with the Gathering which I started hosting twenty years ago. It meets weekly in London & monthly in West Wales & has recently started in Liverpool.
“The Gathering is a space, place and time where we can build up confidence in our creativity; where we can sit in silence, sing, play an instrument, draw, be poetic; prophetic; we could talk in tongues, talk to each other, to ourselves, talk to voices. We can listen, make sounds; melodies and noise, soft and loud; leave space, fill it up; explore rhythm and time, chaos and rhyme; lullabies and laments; shyly and boldly be in our different rhythms together.”
I believe that men who associate with & are willing to learn from women as we have from men for so long, are discovering new ways to express their creativity. Ultimately, the mix of gender, culture, race, class, age & different abilities can enthrall & liberate us all.