Conference Report: Third International Conference on Women’s Work in Music

Following its first two international conferences on women’s work in music (2017, 2019), Bangor University for the third time provided a platform to showcase current research on women’s musical activities in all their historical, social, cultural, political, and artistic contexts. The conference took place online, 1–3 September 2021. That this field of study continues to flourish both in Britain and internationally, was evidenced by the sheer volume of submitted papers (85), due to which the originally planned two-day event got extended to three, with usually up to four sessions running parallel. Although due to the COVID-19 pandemic the conference was held online, the organizers tried their best to simulate the immediacy and intimacy of an in-person event – for instance by running a virtual meeting room where the participants could talk more informally throughout the conference, and by offering to help arrange additional smaller-group meeting rooms when requested. Marking the centenary of the Department of Music at Bangor University, the programme also included an online concert at which acclaimed mezzo-soprano Sioned Terry and pianist Iwan Llewelyn-Jones performed songs by female Welsh composers of the 20th and 21st century.

Researching women’s musical activities, especially from the past, often includes re-discovering (half-) forgotten figures, histories, and repertoires. Marking the 200th anniversary of the virtuosa composer and performer Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), the keynote lecture by Florence Launay, a leading researcher on French nineteenth-century female musicians, used Viardot as a case study demonstrating the mechanisms of exclusion of women from musical histories and canons. As Launay argued, these are twofold. During their lives, the scope of women’s musical activities is often limited by societal norms which, for example, prevented Viardot from becoming a successful opera composer despite her undoubted talent. After their death, even if they are not completely omitted by scholarly study, music historiography can often obliterate the full range of their activities, such as when Viardot was portrayed primarily as a virtuosa singer in early 20th-century musicological writing, with her compositional work overlooked or belittled.

Several papers focused on histories of female pioneers in historically male-dominated musical professions. Inês Thomas Almeida (Universidade Nova de Lisboa / FCSH / INET-md) drew a fascinating portrait of Prussian-Jewish writer Esther Bernard, focusing on the strategies she employed to claim space in the editorial world in order to make her witty observations on Portuguese musical culture heard. Charlotte Purkis (University of Winchester) examined contributions of early 20th-century female British music critics to the musical culture of the time through analysing their unique writing styles and perspectives. Attention was paid to performers as well, for example in papers on the reception on 19th-century American violin prodigy Camilla Urso (Maeve Nagel-Frazel, University of Denver), or on the ways in which 20th-century female trumpet players were pushing boundaries in American music and in which they have been forging paths for their successors through focused action and mentorship (Wendy K. Matthews, Kent State University). Rachel Adelstein (independent scholar) then explored the rising presence of women composers in synagogal music and their role in shaping Jewish conceptions of tradition, prayer, and national identity.

That women’s musical activities and careers have been shaped by multiple identity layers and not just gender, was pointed out, among others, in an illuminating paper by Susanna Välimäki (University of Helsinki) who discussed the employment of queer methodologies in her biographical research on Finnish women musicians leading non- hetero- and non-cis-normative lives.

An important part of the conference programme was the introduction of The Routledge Handbook of Women’s Work in Music, a 6-part collective monograph edited by the conference’s director, Rhiannon Mathias, which sprang from Bangor’s first conference on women in music in 2017. While it presents a major achievement in reflecting the thematic and methodological breadth of the current state of research on women in music, it was noted that new topics and perspectives are swiftly emerging; for instance, this year’s conference saw an unprecedented amount of papers on women in jazz and in electronic and electroacoustic music, and there was a richer geographical variety of topics as well. It was therefore no wonder that speculations about a possible second volume promptly arose.

I was fortunate enough to participate at the 2nd Bangor WWM conference two years ago, which, in pre-Covid times, was held in picturesque Bangor. What made the strongest impression on me then, was the uniquely enthusiastic and supportive atmosphere. A conference of this scale will always necessarily present at times markedly different methodologies and perspectives (not least because it is open not only to musicologists, but also to practice-based researchers, performers, educators, musical leaders, and so on). However, all participants seemed to be fundamentally connected through the shared goal – to work, through research and professional practice, towards a better understanding of women’s diverse modes of participation in music, whether it be as composers, song-writers, performers, organizers, writers or educators, and to use the new knowledge to ensure that they are no longer underrepresented not only in historiography, but also in present-day and future music industries, scenes, repertories, institutions, and decision-making bodies.

This year’s conference did not fall short of conjuring up this unique sense of togetherness, community, and solidarity. The hands-on dimension of the conference was perhaps best reflected in the panel “Reclaiming Women’s Work in Music: Reflections After a Global Pandemic”, in which Deborah Annetts (Incorporated Society of Musicians), Michelle Escoffery (PRS Members’ Council), Deborah Keyser (Ty Cerdd Music Centre Wales) and composer Errollyn Wallen CBE discussed ways in which institutions can support musicians whose careers have recently suffered an unprecedented blow. Some of the strategies discussed included educating artists about their rights to prevent exploitation, encouraging women to apply for posts by making them recognize they possess sufficient skillsets, or strictly demanding fair representation of minority groups. The second keynote speaker, conductor and film and video game composer Eímear Noone then raised the issues of care on a personal level. Recognizing that artistic and scholarly work can often make it difficult to separate between professional and personal life, she shared some of her tips to avoid undue stress and anxiety – recognizing that everyone’s musical development is different, building community, and shaking off the pressure to be perfect.

I am looking forward to seeing all interested in the 4th International Conference on Women’s Work in Music at Bangor University in 2023.

Barbora Vacková

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