In a previous blog entry, Gender Implications and the Marimba-Part 1, I briefly introduced a paper I had recently written. I would now like to explore two of the items I mentioned. One, the connection of the marimba to a lineage of other instruments that have been culturally gendered female, and two, to understand how performances by women may be framed in sexual terms.
SO. I believe that it is pretty safe to say that the marimba is similar to other instruments associated with women, particularly the keyboard. After all, they’ve both got two manuals (naturals and accidentals). All aspects of sound creation occurs out side of the body (we play these instruments with our hands).
In America, women have been directed towards keyboard percussion since the early 20thc as male teachers and critics were concerned that women lacked the physical strength required to play the instruments. I referenced this in the earlier entry by calling back to the 1923 quotation from percussionist George Lawrence Stone who, in an attempt not to be entirely dismissive of women, wrote that their weakness “should not discourage them by any means from the profession of drumming, for there are many other engagements open which are a good deal easier from a physical standpoint.” He went on to say that marimba performance was on the more appropriate open engagements for women in percussion.
According to Heather Hadlock in her essay about the glass harmonica, another highly gendered instrument in our lineage, this notion of the woman needing to remain attractive at all times is a very old one. Indeed one can go all the way back to the ancient Greek goddess Athena who, upon creating a wind instrument, the aulos, tossed it away “when she realized how playing it would distort her face and compromise her dignity.” The similarities regarding women between the armonica and the marimba at the time of its entrance into popular American culture are illuminative. Although by the time the marimba had become popular in America in the late 1920s, the armonica had long been out of style, the approach to women at the instruments in Western societies were remarkably similar.
For the armonica, part of the appeal of the instrument was the seeming ease with which a young woman could learn to play it. Hadlock writes,
“The armonica also promised instant proficiency for any young lady, offering a shortcut through the awkward early stages of musical training. While other instruments, even such “feminine” favorites as the harp and harpsichord, required a certain strength and dexterity, merely resting one’s hands on this instrument would make music.”
And then there’s the advertisement I mentioned in the earlier post as well from1931 for Deagan, one of the first marimba manufacturers:
“This impressive stage setting featuring thirteen Deagan Xylophones is the finale of ‘Tune Types.’ Critics pronounced it one of the most striking and entertaining finales of the year. Thousands of Chicago theater-goers were thrilled by the spectacular tonal effect of a 13-piece Xylophone band—yet these twelve Abbott girls spent only five and a half hours in practice. Could any proof be more convincing that the Xylophone is the easiest of all musical instruments to play?”
Such discourse associated the instruments with both women and a kind of “professional amateurism,” where the instrument seems to play itself. Which begs us to consider, when we applaud such performances are we really just applauding the disciplining of women? Just a thought.
I was planning on saving this for a later entry, but it seems now is the time..
That pesky “all-girl” aspect of the marimba’s presence in American culture early on is something that really must be discussed.
So Clair Omar Musser and his marimba bands…
Musser was arguably the “single most influential marimbist, marimba composer, and marimba designer in the history of the instrument.” That fact is not something I wish to dispute. Musser did a tremendous amount for the marimba regarding innovations for the instrument, popularizing it in America, technique advancements, and composing some of the first original pieces for the instrument. However, I do not feel that those things should protect him and his work from critical review. His extensive use of female ensembles in the 1920s and 30s, I believe, played a significant role in marginalizing the marimba as a “woman’s instrument.”
In 1929 he formed one of the first “All Girl” marimba ensembles. Musser produced the 25-member ensemble for a performance at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. He also formed the 12 Abbot Girls, with Musser himself as the soloist. One of his most popular groups was a touring quartet of co-eds from Northwestern University where he taught. While all-girl ensembles of this kind might be considered ground-breaking, it has typically been framed more as novelty, thereby weakening its cultural prestige. Furthermore, such displays of women performing might invite appreciation more of their bodies than of their music. Considering that many of these ensembles, and the 4 Marimba Co-eds specifically, were created for entertainment on military tours where their audience was likely to be entirely male, those implications are even more relevant.
The physicality required to play the marimba puts the body on display in ways that are more “appropriate” culturally for women.
To help us understand how women’s performances might be framed in sexual terms, I turn to film theorist Laura Mulvey, who coined the term “The Male Gaze” in her 1973 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Her discussion of film audiences is easily applicable to those for music performances. She describes the darkness of the audience in contrast with the light of the screen, as well as how the audience separated from the drama of the film, that occurs in a “sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience.” This description is remarkably similar to the “4th wall” experience of performing live music. Most importantly, however, she describes how we’ve culturally constructed roles for men and women in performance scenarios: men look, while women are to be looked at.
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure, which is styled accordingly.”
I assert that Musser, and especially Reg Kehoe, shaped the stage and female performers to the style in which they, as men, would most like to view.
Perhaps more famous in the public sphere, but not hailed so unequivocally as Musser was “Reg Kehoe and his Marimba Queens.” Kehoe formed a variety show of sorts, combining live marimba performances alongside comedy skits, dancing and singing. Kehoe himself attributed the success of the ensemble to “smart, good-looking girls, who can play real good music and, at the same time, display good figures and bare legs.”
(How could I pass up using that amazing evidence again?)
In my next entry regarding the marimba and gender, I intend to consider Paul Creston’s 1940 Concertino for Marimba and Orchestra. It was the first piece of its kind (a concerto for marimba), and like many such canonical works, it has remained above scrutiny. Taking a closer look at this work, however, might illuminate the continued gendered makeup of the field, especially because its first performers were women. Its original performers may be the reason that this work was critically maligned at first.
I do belive that is enough food for thought for one day in the life of this bog.
Quickly, I want to say that I had the pleasure of presenting and discussing this research at the National Conference on Percussion Pedagogy in San Antonio, Tx last month. That experience was a hoot and a half. As my “entrance into academia,” (as I’ve come to think of the whole experience in my mind) it certainly lived up to, and surpassed my expectations of what presenting research could be. It was one of the, shall I saw most lively discussions I have had the opportunity to witness, which left me feeling that my work is valid. There were intense supporters, and a few loud naysayers, and on the whole the experience was amazing. I sparked a discussion. Which really, is my end game with all of this…it’s a never ending end game. I understand I can’t change every individual’s mind. However, if I can open the floor (in as many circumstances as possible) to discussion on gender related issues then I am doing a good job.
“Clair Omar Musser.” Percussive Notes 37 No. 2 (April 1999): 6-17.
Eyler, David P.. “Development of the Marimba Ensemble in North American During the 1930’s.” Percussive Notes 34, No.1 (February 1996): 66-71.
Hadlock, Heather. “Women and the Glass Harmonica.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 53, No.3 (Autumn 2000): 507-542.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Visual and Other Pleasures, 14-26. Houndmills, Basingstoke,Hampshire: Macmillan, 1989.
Stone, George Lawrence. “For Ladies Only.” Jacobs Orchestra Monthly 8 (1923): 91-92.