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Feminist to the Core with Ellie Hisama

March 18, 2016

by Victoria Wiet, English and Comparative Literature, PhD ’17 and 2015 – 16 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

On March 2, Ellie Hisama delivered the latest installment of IRWGS “Feminist to the Core” with her presentation on teaching Music Humanities. Hisama is Professor of Music as well as Director of Graduate Studies at IRWGS.

Hisama opened by suggesting how feminist critique compliments the goals of Music Humanities. If Music Hum aims to teach students how to practice “critical listening,” then feminist questions and provocations can expand and refine our sense of what it means to listen critically and actively. One way to do this is to consider how the choices made by the syllabus—what works to include and which to exclude—shape our understanding of the history of Western music, specifically with regard to the criteria which establishes a composer as worthy as representing a coordinate on the timeline of music history.

The first composer Hisama discussed was Franz Schubert (1797-1828), who already ranks among Music Hum’s required composers. Hisama singled out Schubert’s “Heidenröslein,” a lieder (or song) which sets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem “Rose on the Heath” to music. Unlike the later works Hisama introduced, “Heidenröslein” has had a formidable place in music education: it is often used to teach ear training and is common in recitals. Yet, for Hisama, a feminist teaching of this song wouldn’t consider Schubert’s music in isolation from the words of Goethe’s poem, which details a coercive and violent encounter between a little boy and a beautiful rose which attempts to resist the boy’s plucking. How might recent discussions of campus sexual assault prompt us to listen to this song differently?

A specialist in 20th century American music, Hisama then considered what two later composers, Julius Eastman and Ruth Crawford Seeger, would add to the Music Hum syllabus. Absent from both music history at large as well as histories of black and African-American music, Julius Eastman (1940-1990) was nonetheless a central figure in the downtown New York experimental music scene in the 1970s. Eastman provides us with the opportunity to consider the relation between form and personhood as a black gay man: he saw his controversial, improvised music—unapologetically given titles like “Gay Guerilla”—as a vehicle for self-understanding, writing that “it’s through art that I can search for the self.”

Hisama then turned to the case of Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953), whose career allows us to reevaluate the gendering of American musical modernism and our designation of what musical genres fit under the banner of “modernist.” Hisama’s point of departure was the shape of Seeger’s career. A composer of incredibly “forward looking” modernist pieces in the 20s and 30s, Seeger retired from composition after having a family but continued to collect and arrange folk music. In what ways, then, can we consider arrangement an act of composition, Seeger’s later career as arranger of folk music thus seen as an extension of her earlier work as a modernist composer? And what place does folk and traditional music have in making the canon of musical history, especially given how widely reproduced and circulated Seeger’s folk arrangements had?   

Hisama’s last example was hip-hop singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill. Hip hop pieces like Hill’s would enable students to analyze music in precise, technical ways without requiring them to know how to read music, given how hip hop’s emphasis on rhythm provokes us to think critically about how and why beats align with certain lyrics. Hip hop also opens up discussion of race, gender, sexuality, and the relation between art and power and to view “contributions [to musical history] beyond the canons of the greats.” In her concluding remarks, Hisama prompted us to reflect critically about what criteria govern who gets taught in the Core.  She also urged her audience to interrogate the division between popular and classical music, as well as to think about teaching the history of musical practices (such as 18th century opera divas or the circulation of Seeger’s folk arrangements) as key sites of feminist intervention into teaching Music Humanities.