Female composers and “the new complexity”

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation on Twitter about the representation of female composers under the banner of “new complexity”. Or, rather, why it’s hard to think of any and who decides these things anyway.

This is not, I should add, a conversation about the artistic merits of complexism, or about its usefulness as a historical category. Those are valid arguments, but they can be had elsewhere. It starts from the premise that “new complexity” is a term that music historians use – for good or bad – and notes that it seems to intersect quite dramatically with gender.

The conversation threw up some interesting ideas, so I compiled the whole thing into a Storify thread.

WordPress.com doesn’t allow Storify embedding, but you can read the whole thing here. Further contributions are welcome, either on Twitter or in the comments below.


17 thoughts on “Female composers and “the new complexity”

  1. I’m still not entirely clear why you exclude Lim and Czernowin (and don’t even mention Mary Bellamy) and yet include Parra? Do you just mean “loud NC”?

    And, isn’t it an age thing? Czernowin a contemporary of Barrett and Dench – allowing for differences of temperament, cannot common attitudes to the first generation NC composers be heard? And Bellamy and Lim over twenty years younger than Ferneyhough and Finnissy (and 10 years younger than Barrett) : aren’t their responses to that Music what we’d expect from creative minds to Music that “old”?

    In other words, it’s not so much that “New Complexity” is a specifically Male means of communication, but that the earliest practitioners happened (because that’s how things worked in the early sixties) to be men. The greater number of women composers that have emerged internationally since the 1970s reacted to the Music of the NCs just as composers always react to what’s around them – they took what excited them and transformed it into something with its origins in what existed but which changed it – taking it in new directions and avenues of expression.

    Is there a hint of a suggestion that behind the question “Where are the NC Women composers?” lurks “Why are there no derivative women composers?”

  2. “I’m still not entirely clear why you exclude Lim and Czernowin (and don’t even mention Mary Bellamy) and yet include Parra?”

    I’m not entirely sure why I do either, or whether I should, but even if one does include them I’m interested in finding out where the (still) younger generation might be.

    Not mentioning Mary Bellamy is a simple matter of oversight on my part – thank you for the correction.

    “Is there a hint of a suggestion that behind the question “Where are the NC Women composers?” lurks “Why are there no derivative women composers?””

    Good point.

  3. I’ve never been that interested in joining a club but I do recognise that part of what you’re deconstructing Tim is the way lineages for artistic achievement are typically understood through ‘patrilineal’ transmission. I find the way certain terms pop up in the ‘storify’ you put together quite interesting – the comments about ‘purity’ in particular because that speaks to the gatekeeping function of lineages which seek to protect the work of the progenitor from contamination from applications and appropriations that stray too far away. Then of course there’s the weird relation that occurs if a woman seeks to be legitimised through a male innovator in order be accepted in a ‘canon’ – those things read rather negatively (I think) for a female artist in ways which they simply don’t for a male artist. complicated eh? I remember feeling astonished hearing Hector Parra talking at hcmf// and at the ease with which he situated himself in relation to Ferneyhough and Harvey’s work and claimed his place within their legacies and thinking that that would be quite an alien thing for me to do. That is not a criticism of Hector at all btw but it did strike me at the time as a point of difference that was highly gendered.

      1. next to the ‘purity’ question is Nigel’s word ‘derivative’ and all up that creates a bit of a tightrope so a woman artist that belongs to a lineage might be branded negatively as ‘derivative’ [thinking of Unsuk Chin/Ligeti here] whereas in the Parra/Ferneyhough/Harvey example above, there might be the positive branding of being the ‘inheritor’.

      2. Much of the rhetoric about canon formation is overblown, and the ‘new complexity’ is far too marginal a force for those to count for much in the bigger scheme of things. Canons are teaching tools (there’s never time to teach everything, so you make selections) and mostly the outcomes of discerning relationships between bodies of musical work.

      3. The rhetoric of being derivative has certainly been used to describe some composers influenced by Ferneyhough, not least Mahnkopf.

  4. ‘New complexity’ really needs a strong definition in order to ascertain processes of inclusion or exclusion. I’m not really sure why various works of Finnissy, Dillon or Dench would fit such a category, but can also see works of Alwynne Pritchard or Patrícia Almeida doing so.

    1. strong definition: elitist, pretentious, pseudo-random, mathematically-constructed, non-intuitive, ugly, …

      How’s that for a start.

  5. @Ian. well, sure. I don’t find NC as such a particularly interesting case and Dillon, Barrett, Dench have tried to distance themselves from that label ever since the Toop article. I agree that ‘canon formation’ might be too heavy handed a term to use but couldn’t think of another term for that kind of allocation of a narrative of ‘transmission through a master’ (whether or not ‘real’/wanted/constructed) that creates credentials even in these marginal territories.

  6. I can’t think of any ‘historical movement’ (as defined by male musicologists) that isn’t historiographed as centering men. Even in ‘movements’ where women have been present from the very beginning (e.g. electroacoustic music) they tend to be sidelined, or only discussed in connection with an Important Man™ of some kind. This applies to every musical movement though, not just marginal ones such as NC (I’m thinking about jazz, rock and gospel for instance).

    There’s an unconscious enforcement of maleness as ‘default’ obviously… as everywhere in our society… and in the classical music world a lot of assertiveness is necessary, not only in positioning oneself relative to the canonical Masters (as above) but also in constructing narratives around one’s work and believing strongly in its values. Often women are socialised from very young to question themselves, and as children their work (musical and otherwise) is not valued as highly as that of their male peers.

    For NC specifically I think its history centers on a particular male archetype, the ‘genius’—a lot of classical music movements get this kind of historical treatment. A few rugged individual geniuses, working against the tide of popular opinion, meeting little approval from their peers, being blunt and socially disagreeable (I know this isn’t true, but Ferneyhough and Dillon certainly perpetuate the image… or at least their interviews are framed in such a way as to perpetuate the image)… finally triumphing against all odds… etc… etc. This is an archetype women are excluded from. The ‘narrative’ has room for women to be sure, but not as the pioneers, or the geniuses, or anything else that requires them to give up their femininity, which is mutually exclusive with being rugged or individual or blunt. (Ever notice how there’s only one famous female serialist, and every time she’s brought up someone is always on hand to point out how ‘unfeminine’ she is?) Also people sort of assume that women are ‘too sensible’ (i.e. too ‘intuitive’) to compose music that involves lots of number-crunching and mechanical decision-making, even when that’s obviously not true. It’s not really a surprise that women who’ve come out of NC are sort of… ignored, taken less seriously, or not given the encouragement and support necessary to develop, to an even higher level than women in other classical music movements

    Random late night thoughts lol, sorry if this doesn’t always make sense

  7. I’m not quite sure.

    First, there is no such movement as “new complexity”. It’s just a bunch of composers who still uphold the old modernist ideals. There have been classicist composers well into the 19th century, and romantic composers well into the 20th century, they aren’t called “new classicists” or “new romanticists” either. If anything, it’s a euphemism or advertising slogan by its adherents, who of course hope for a revival of modernist complexity amidst what they consider postmodern schlock or neotonal kitsch.

    Second, while the few New Complexity composers whose work I know are men (I’m not as erudite as some people on this site), I’ve never thought of it as a typically male movement. I may have been trained to be gender blind in that respect, or it just didn’t strike me because most composers are still men. On the other hand, what I did notice is that its key figures are British. And unlike NC as a typically male movement, this does make sense to me. England has for a very long time remained a bastion of tonal composition. Whereas the slightest hint of tonality made you a fascist in the eyes of the (continental) European avant-garde, English composers were more than happy to please their audiences with euphonious tunes and harmonies. People like Ferneyhough and Finnissy may feel they have yet to break with the past, whereas avant-garde is hopelessly passé both on the continent and in the US (even though we have such figures as Helmut Lachenmann).

    Of course we can theorise that women, either by nature or by nurture, are more inclined to communicate with the audience and less inclined to speak in their own incomprehensible tongues, but I don’t see why that’s necessary. After all, we have had modernist women composers such as Laura Karpman, and top performers such as Cathy Berberian and Barbara Hannigan who were/are more than happy to sing modernist works.

  8. I was a Ferneyhough student and classmate of Chaya Czernowin. Seem like one important property of the New Complexity is an emphasis on parametric construction or algorithm-y rules for generating new material. Chaya was interested in the superficial sound of complexity, but not in the way it’s built. She was just as influenced by Scelsi and his very intuitive manner of composing. Chaya played the Big Boys game very well–I recall her talk on her composition Manoalchadia throwing out jargon and philosophy, but she never once mentioned what the composition was really about–her being heartbroken over a love triangle between a man Dino and his wife Alma (see what she did there with the title?). Two women wailing over a bass flute. Get it? Has she ever revealed that? She might have other reasons for hiding that program, but it sure struck me that the New Complexity people at Darmstadt then (Barrett, Ferneyhough, et al) had little interest in portraying emotions in music.

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