FEMININITY: Ownership & Power
A Multimedia Exhibition
Welcome to the interactive map of Aleyna Brown's M.A. Thesis Exhibition, taking place LIVE on October 23, 2021 at the University of North Texas College of Music.
Introduction & Scope
1.1 Artist and Thesis Mission
Art tells stories with a depth and grace unknown to any other medium. Interwoven with research, commentary, context, and the artist herself, my art tells the story of my relationship with femininity and modern American feminism. The scope of my research extends to American women’s suffrage, the ongoing feminist movement, intersectionality of gender, race, and class, the gender gap in music technology—specifically computer music—and provides an autoethnographic narrative arc of my own experiences as a millennial American woman in music academia, commercial music, and in modern society. This research is embedded in programmatic elements of my music composition as well as collaborative multimedia elements including dance, film, and digital painting. My commentary and activism shines through with music technology exhibits demonstrating the value of female representation in computer music spaces. The overall goal of my work is an immersive and provocative artistic experience calling to action the recontextualization of femininity through ownership and empowerment.
The autobiographical lens through which I approach my music composition is one of a 25 year-old American white cis-gender heterosexual female. I acknowledge that my identity places me at an intersection of both privilege as a white person and oppression as a woman. When discussing intersections, I am referring to the concept of “intersectionality” authored by Kimberlé Crenshaw as a means to describe the compounding effect of bias and oppression on individuals with multiple minorities and/or social and cultural marginalizations. In my research and collaboration, I broaden my scope to include intersections of marginalized races and ethnicities to honor the intersectionality of feminism and the individual identities of my artistic co-creators. I echo the sentiments of Mikki Kendall, author of Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women a Movement Forgot, who asserts that “the language surrounding whatever issues feminists choose to focus on should reflect an understanding of how the issue’s impact varies for women in different socioeconomic positions” (Kendall). I seek to present my feminist commentary through the art created in this thesis with an understanding that the while the scope of my autobiographical lens is limited to my own experience and identity, I have actively sought input and collaboration from artists at intersections different than my own. In doing so, my mission as a feminist artist becomes more aware and actionable on the grounds of a deeper, holistic, and far-reaching women’s rights activism.
Another pillar of my compositional and feminist commentary draws upon my experiences as a woman in music technology spaces, particularly in the university setting. This includes curriculum, programs, and resources relating to the study and profession of computer music, audio engineering, and music production. My personal experience as the only woman in many of these specialized and advanced classes and programs, supported by my research into the gender gap in university music composition programs from the mid-20th century to today, motivated the creation of my #pinkcode mission and the inclusion of other electronics and multimedia art in my thesis exhibition. The passive exclusionary practices, lack of women-focused support, and the male-centric language of computer programming did not stop me in my pursuit of higher education in music composition and technology, but is undoubtedly the cause of lack of female participation in these spaces. My #pinkcode exhibit as well as my multimedia and electroacoustic pieces are the embodiment of taking ownership of my femininity and using it as an empowering tool to both encourage women to pursue computer music and demand the acknowledgement and respect for contributions made by women to this field. To situate my work and substantiate my research on the gender gap in computer music, I draw upon the contributions of the women pioneers and practitioners of computer music from the mid-20th century to my 21st-century contemporaries and provide demographic research data that demonstrates the need for this type of activism, both in my program and in my field as a whole.
This thesis research, composition, and collaboration has been undertaken throughout the course of my dual-masters study at the University of North Texas College of Music. The writing of this thesis and its music has taken on an autoethnographic layer, being that autoethnography “draws on and analyzes or interprets the lived experience of the author and connects researcher insights to self-identity, cultural rules and resources, communication practices, traditions, premises, symbols, rules, shared meaning, emotions, values, and larger social, cultural, and political issues” (Poulos). The autoethnographic nature of my writing is provided by my own autobiographical perspectives as a member of the community I am studying—women in music technology and academia—and its larger cultural and sociopolitical narrative and commentary—intersectional feminism in music.
The thesis exhibition, taking place on October 23, 2021, showcases eight pieces I composed between 2020 and 2021, two of which being the live world premiere. The compositions vary in medium and instrumentation, providing a demonstration of a variety of my tools as a contemporary cross-genre composer and audio engineer. From fixed media to solo viola, mixed ensemble to live electronics, dance to virtual reality—this 150-minute event immerses the audience in art and activism in a multisensory and provocative experience. Several musical ideas can be traced throughout the eight works. One of the most noticeable connections between the works in this showcase is the use of spoken word in fixed media components of my music. I incorporate recorded spoken word via text samples of poetry, literature, interviews, and individual quotes from feminist authors and poets. I layer and extract fragments of this recorded text to find speech patterns, rhythms, and inflections I find compelling. I combine recitations from varying individuals into a chorus of voices, while overlapping with the same words, none said in the exact same way, creating a sense of solidarity, yet honoring the individuality of each speaker. This recording, editing, and composition practice can be heard in “I See You,” “Dust,” and “At My Intersection,” the text and process for which is detailed in each respective chapter in this thesis.
Another musical line traced throughout the works presented in this thesis is the use of flute, voice, and guitar. Being that I approached these pieces, and the inspiration behind them, from an autobiographical lens, I incorporate my own performance background and identity as a flutist, vocalist, and guitarist into several of these pieces. When included in the fixed media, it is myself performing each part, layering many times, creating a chorus or ensemble of my multi-instrumentalism. The audience may not know it is my voice, my flute, or my dad’s old Fender acoustic guitar embedded in the DNA of these pieces, but it adds to the depth of the autobiographical connection these pieces have to one another and to me.
1.2 Pioneers, Practitioners, and Me
To write of the damaging effects of ignoring women’s contributions to computer music and fail to include such acknowledgement would be a detriment to my research and context for situating my research and creative work into contemporary feminst art practice. It is upon the foundation built by these pioneers that my work exists.
Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire were electronic music composers and sound artists in the mid-20th century at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). “Oram was the driving force behind the creation of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1957, a white hot crucible of electronic music innovation throughout the 1960s, which has been a huge influence on any number of artists in any number of genres” (Governor, James). Derbyshire joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1960 and later turned towards “film, theatre, ‘happenings’ and original electronic music events, as well as pop music and avant garde psychedelia" (Governor).
Several women composers of the same era were key figures in the establishment of computer music research centers and studios in United States institutions. Composer and technologist Laurie Spiegel contributed to computer music software development at Bell Labs in the 1970s and founded the New York University Computer Music Studio. Jean Eichelberger Ivey and Emma Lou Diemer founded electronic music studios at Peabody and the University of California Santa Barbara, respectively.
The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (CPEMC) in the 1970’s included women composers and researchers Alice Shields and Pril Smiley, yet they fall in the shadow of the recognition of their male counterparts at the CPEMC—Milton Babbitt, Otto Luening, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and Mario Davidovsky. Despite Shields and Smiley serving as “two of the four primary instructors in electronic music” at the center, and being “prolific, accomplished, award-winning composers of electronic music, [...] they never received the status and pay their work at the center warranted, and they are seldom mentioned in the standard narratives of the history of electronic music in the United States” (Columbia University).
At last, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, now the Computer Music Center (CMC), has begun to recognize the contributions of the women at the Center, including Shields and Smiley. The CMC held a symposium in April of 2021 called Unsung Stories: Women at Columbia’s Computer Music Center with a series of panel discussions, a new podcast series, and a concert of works by women who have studied and worked at the Center. Their goals for this series includes “examining how institutional networks and intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, national origin, and other identifications impacted the daily work, modes of interaction, and visibility of women composers at the CPEMC/CMC historically and in the field more broadly" (Columbia University).
The mere fact that Columbia’s series needed to be titled, “Unsung Stories,” is a reflection of the systematic neglect in recognition of women’s contributions to the field. Even writings on computer music which claim to encompass a comprehensive history of figures and works neglect the female figures. Margaret Schedel, reviewer of Chris Salter’s Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance, for a 2011 edition of the Computer Music Journal had a revelation of sorts when confronted with this disparity of recognition. “I know that women are underrepresented in our field, but I was struck when reading the chapter how few women are mentioned.” Schedel performed her own data-based study on the content of Salter’s chapter on sound by counting all the names mentioned with regard to sound art, performance, composition, engineering, and programming. Her results showed 152 men to 13 women. To this finding, she writes in her review, “I know how hard it is to condense 150 years’ worth of music into one chapter, but this is the third book in a row I’ve been asked to review which purports to take an encompassing view of the field [...] and, in my opinion, fails to do service to the women in computer music. I acknowledge it can be more difficult to find sources for women’s contributions, but this problem will continue to be self-replicating until authors take on this challenge” (Schedel). I take responsibility for my research and authorship to include the aforementioned women pioneers of computer music in an effort to begin to undo the decades of neglect to the recognition of these women.
As it stands, I am not revolutionary. My research and art does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it is woven from the threads of my experiences encountering and interacting with music, art, feminism, and academia, as well as the artists and pioneers who have shaped the field for what it has become today. There are women who have paved the way before me, and there are women who surround me, doing the creative, innovative, and provocative work that I am doing.
My current artist influences and research role models include Fernanda Navarro, Eve Beglarian, Elizabeth Hoffman, Sungji Hong, Elainie Lillios, Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner, and Tara Rodgers. Fernanda Navarro, in particular, is a contemporary composer of a similar multimedia feminist art style in which I am also engaging. “She is interested in sound, in the idiosyncratic relationship between the corporeality of the performers and the physicality of their instruments, in the exploration between music and language, in collaborative processes, and in the transformational power that experimental music can exert on issues related to feminism and social otherness” (Fernanda Navarro). I met Navarro while attending Florida State University for my Bachelor’s of Music in Composition. She was one of the first composers who suggested that I need not adhere to the expectations or constrictions of writing ‘feminine’ music just because I was the only woman in my class of undergraduate composition students. From that point, I began to unpack the semiotics of feminine musical language, which eventually led to the writing of this thesis as my platform for challenging those very connotations.
1.3 Data on the Gender Gap in Electroacoustic Music
Despite the increase in recognition of women pioneers and practitioners of computer music and the very presence of my own role models and influences, the gender gap remains glaring in the genre and scope of opportunities for composers even today.
Composer, researcher, and author of one of my most pertinent sources, Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States: Crossing the Line, Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner, is a member of our own University of North Texas community. Her work highlights statistics on the state of women in computer music from the 1970s to the date of its publication in 2006. Currently, Hinkle-Turner is the Board Designated Diversity Officer for the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS). 2019 marked one full year of SEAMUS’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. The June 2019 report regarding the SEAMUS national conference and the organization’s membership demographics highlights the female representation on conference and adjudication panels as well as the recent SEAMUS CD volume, however admits that “a close look at our overall membership data shows that our fervent desire is not matched by our demographics. This may signal that though SEAMUS does not actively exclude diverse genders, races, and aesthetics, the organization is possibly practicing passive exclusion, setting boundaries and barriers that create a space where someone may ‘peek through the door and think, ‘Nope! I don’t want to or I cannot go in there.’’” In the following chapter as well as in Chapter 5: #pinkcode, I detail my own experiences with boundaries and barriers in the study and practice of electroacoustic music.
The Report of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee continues with percentage breakdowns of SEAMUS membership in stating, “75 percent of SEAMUS membership identifies as cisgender male,” and “the majority of our members come from professions in academia” (Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States). This reinforces that the root of the disparity of women in computer music as a field can be traced back to academic institutions, steeped in patriarchal legacy that persists today.
Further data demonstrated that participation in the SEAMUS national conference, which is “one major opportunity for performance, networking, and collegiality is significantly taken advantage of by our Caucasian, tenured/tenured-track, cisgender male SEAMUS members.” If the biggest opportunity for meeting the other contributors to the field of electroacoustic music has such a disparity in gender and diversity inclusion, it is no wonder that disparity trickles down to the demographics of the students of computer music centers in academic institutions in the United States.
However, SEAMUS’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, spearheaded by our very own Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner, is striving for more inclusive practices, for which I commend them. Additionally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the institutes and organizations who serve the goal of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in these spheres. The Institute for Composer Diversity, based out of the School of Music at the State University of New York at Fredonia, exists to provide demographic analytics for concert programming in the United States and searchable databases for diverse composers and works. I have recently become accepted as a composer in their database.
Furthermore, the International Alliance for Women in Music “advocate[s] for women in music around the globe and promote[s] their music through concerts, competitions, conferences, and grants.” Publishing houses like Hildegard Publishing Company promote works by women composers, both historical and living, with a goal of increasing accessibility to music by historically overlooked and undervalued composers. Finally, as a flutist myself, I am proud to see the National Flute Association incorporating new resources on the pedagogy and performance of flute repertoire by underrepresented composers via links to databases and a video-blog by members and guests of their new Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
M.A. Thesis Committee
Committee Chair, Major Professor
Related Field Professor, Contemporary Music Performance
Committee Member, College of Visual Arts and Design, Professor of Art History
Committee Member, College of Music, Professor of Composition
Hannah Ottinger, photographer and digital artist
Eboni Johnson, filmmaker and virtual reality designer
Elijah J. Thomas, co-composer and improviser
Cami Holman, choreographer
Miranda Zapata, choreographer
Amanda Hamilton, viola
Carrie Tollett, harp
Elijah J. Thomas, alto flute
Adrienne Reed, flute
Chase Banks, cajón
Ross Hussong, vibraphone
Uma Menon, poem “The Universe, A Woman”
Safia Elhillo, poem “origin stories” from The January Children
Audre Lorde, poem “A Woman Speaks” from The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde
Jennifer Brown, Eva Amsler, Ayça Çetin, Julia Lauren Baumanis, Eboni Johnson, Tse Nok Kiu, Adele Fuqua, Jordan N. C. Morrison, Anne Dearth Maker, Anne Linebarger, Rachel Lanik Whelan, Elizabeth McNutt, Alexandra Taggart, Jamie Leacock, Libby Reeder, Hannah Ottinger, Morgan Wareing, Christina Emanuel , Alaina Clarice, Miranda Zapata, Cami Holman, Maya Evans, T’Keyah Cleveland, Andrew Tovar, Esmeralda Ledesma