Sugar, Spice & All Things Nice, koncert Formy Żeńskie, fot. Joanna Gałuszka (KBF)

Break the Silence

Nina Fukuoka / 11 lut 2022

Audrey Lorde, a New Yorker, black feminist, lesbian and mother, said during one of her speeches: „The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken”.1 Associated with silence is the fear of being ostracized, ridiculed or deemed unworthy of belief, loss of opportunity, and repetition of traumatic situations. Sugar, Spice & All Things Nice is a piece about sexism; about sexual harassment, comments between words, and offensive jokes based on gender stereotypes. The piece contains stories from people I know personally; it is a collective story, as most of these situations could have happened to any of us. The statements I collected have remained almost completely unchanged. In my music I prefer a multiplicity of meanings and interweaving of themes, but in the case of Sugar, Spice… the immediacy of the message was important.2

Excerpt from the score to Sugar, Spice & All Things Nice, p. 5, from the composer’s collection

Part of working on the piece was collecting texts. I asked my female colleagues in the field, mostly composers and performers, to personally or anonymously send me short texts describing their experiences with indirect sexism. When I received the responses, I was surprised to find them more shocking than I expected. I realized two things. First, how hard it is to notice the microaggressions that we face every day. Sometimes they are so insidiously subtle that only writing them down allows us to glue them back together with reality. Often, we put ourselves in the role of defenders; we think „maybe (s)he had other intentions”, „maybe it is not related to my gender”. This doesn’t change the fact that inner frustration, anger and embarrassment or resignation are real; the upset triggers a defensive reflex of wanting to forget about the issue and move on.

Second, sexism manifests itself across the spectrum of behavior and it is difficult to isolate direct aggression from indirect aggression. Sometimes we are victims of both at the same time. As someone who identifies as coming from two different racial backgrounds, I have sometimes found it difficult to recognize the type of discrimination I experienced because the different types of oppression so often overlap. Although – like most of us – I cannot recall everything, I have been able to avoid the extremely traumatic incidents in my academic and professional environment that so many other women have unfortunately experienced.

When I started studying music theory at the Academy of Music in Łódź as an eighteen-year-old, I had a group role model in my slightly older female composition students and professors, who – apart from the fun I had composing with Professor Bronisław Kazimierz Przybylski – certainly gave me the courage to decide to study composition. During my Erasmus exchange and later master’s studies at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels, the majority of the students in my professor’s class were women, and in one year there was not a single man. There I met Kasia Głowicka, who told me how the principles of gender equality were actually implemented at the conservatory. The director of the conservatory openly encouraged female lecturers, albeit in the gender minority, to speak up during staff deliberations because their opinion is important and passive presence (tokenism) only gives the illusion of change.

I had a very difficult experience working with a conductor of an ensemble. The musicians were all wonderful; however, the conductor seemed to take issue with me from the very beginning. As the only woman composer in the group, I started to suspect it was a gender-related issue. He proceeded to shame and humiliate me in front of the entire ensemble for writing a challenging piece. Some days after that somewhat traumatizing first rehearsal, my professor reached out to me to ask me what happened. He said the conductor called him to complain about my „arrogance”. It became clear to me that even though my behavior was really no different than the other male composers’ in the room, I was expected, as a woman, to behave more submissively towards the conductor. That submission was not only expected in terms of my behavior, but also in terms of my music – how complex it was or was not allowed to be.3

As musicologist Susan McClary recalls,4 her musicological demands have repeatedly provoked outrage simply because she has challenged the status quo as a woman. The fear of tearing down the existing order is understandable, though unfounded. It stems from the fear of losing power (or having to share it). The defensive reaction reveals itself as protectionism and disregard for women; „concern”, „fear” and „care”, which in extreme cases end in incapacitation. Such was the fate of actress Frances Farmer, to whom I refer in my piece The Final Girl for harp, electronics and video. In the 1940s, at the height of her Hollywood career, she fell into alcoholism and was repeatedly arrested, then misdiagnosed in a mental hospital and subjected to questionable treatments, including – allegedly – a lobotomy. She never regained her former life and personal freedom. This drastic example shows how stigmatization of women, especially those with mental disorders, can destroy their lives. It also points to the inequality of treatment, since a man’s behavior in a similar situation would probably be treated as eccentric, excessive, typical of a certain (any) age, etc.

The Final Girl – for female harpist, live electronics, and video  (Nina Fukuoka)

The majority of Polish society has not kept up with the progress of feminist thought, but also with the concepts of social justice, civil rights, and the rights of sexual and gender minorities. This is due to a lack of education and avoidance of constructive discussions on these issues in the public forum. In private conversations with some men, I encounter a defensive attitude: If you criticize patriarchal structures, you criticize me. Meanwhile, men are also victims of the patriarchal system. They often feel lost as a result of changing values that have not been replaced by a new gender identity, a new kind of masculinity liberated from patriarchy. In my piece how to jouïssance for harpsichord, video and electronics, I address the problem of hikikomori, a type of social withdrawal in adults that affects mostly men with an average age of 31. This mental disorder, which affects hundreds of thousands of people, is mainly related to the pressure of the very strict hierarchical structures of Japanese society and the inability to live up to these demands – the stereotype of a man as the head of the family and a hard-working citizen. The clear separation of gender roles can therefore, in some cases, have particularly destructive effects on society.

howto jouïssance (Nina Fukuoka)

A professor insinuated that my piece was chosen to be programmed because the director of the ensemble wanted to sleep with me. The same professor also made numerous comments about my physical appearance, sometimes during class in front of other (male) students. I doubted my talent as an artist, wondering if my appearance was carrying me forward, and I excused highly inappropriate comments which only enforced this belief because they were „compliments.” I regret not defending myself by calling him out, but I was young, just in the very beginning of my career, and he was my first real mentor. The insidious nature of these comments is that you believe their lies just like everyone else; they make you complicit.

Women taking up courses stereotypically assigned to men, such as composition, conducting, or (depending on the country) music theory or musicology, have only seemingly equal chances in the same professional field as their male colleagues. The recruitment process itself, even if it is gender-neutral in theory, in practice targets specific qualities and skills, which is in itself exclusionary (gatekeeping). According to a NORC study, only 20 percent of PhDs in music theory and composition in the U.S. were awarded to women, the lowest percentage among the humanities in the country.5 Pretending that the problem doesn’t exist is also a form of discrimination, as is believing that success in our industry is achieved solely through meritocratic means, unrelated to gender or sex. Few people openly admit that they want to stop or discourage women from composing, conducting, or working in academia.

Sugar, Spice & All Things Nice, koncert Formy Żeńskie, fot. Joanna Gałuszka (KBF)

A high-profile example in the classical music world was the 2013 scandal that resulted from an interview for France Musique with Bruno Mantovani, then director of the Paris National Conservatory. When asked why there was a shortage of female conductors at his university, he mentioned the physical and fitness limitations that female conductors potentially have to face, and then referred to the hardships of motherhood and the situation in which a woman has to raise a child at a distance. Music critic Alex Ross in the New Yorker cited statements by two conductors in a similar vein. Vasily Petrenko thought that a woman conductor distracts the performers, while according to Yuri Temirkanov, the essence of being a conductor is strength – while the essence of being a woman is weakness. The analogical stereotype is projected onto female pianists – there are repeated claims that some of the repertoire requires „male” strength or „male” interpretation. Similar opinions, though not always so bluntly and publicly expressed, are still deeply ingrained in the mindset and pervasive in the culture.

I met with a representative of my country’s embassy to talk about the possibility of funding a concert I wanted to organize. He insisted on talking it through over dinner. He listened to me for an hour but I noticed early on that he was not interested in music but rather my appearance. At some point he started pressuring me to let him hold my hand. He was turned on by the fact that I needed his help, and that I needed to go with him anyway to get my backpack, which I had left in his car.

One of the main problems stemming from patriarchal thinking and creating space for sexist behavior is perceiving women as an aesthetic pleasure. This view preemptively derails the possibility of being treated equally, receiving constructive feedback, and – if a woman gets better results than her male colleagues – raises the accusation that it is a matter of appearance rather than commitment and work. Combined with power, it can escalate into sexual harassment, where unwanted physical contact is just one of the many possible types of aggression. A comment made after a concert, a private remark in a class or masterclass can also serve a similar function. These unwanted comments may be received quite differently by men. Since they are the ones who are usually in control of the situation, they may take a comment with sexual overtones as a joke. Women and people of other genders in the same circumstances will feel at least uncomfortable and even threatened and will try at all costs not to provoke such situations. Women, most often in private, pass on knowledge of music professors or artists of ill repute. Unfortunately, there are many of them and they are often protected by silence. Other men also know about them, although they mostly seem to ignore this information for various reasons – usually a question of the „artistic qualities” of the abuser. However, even the highest level of artistry should not exempt anyone from the consequences of their actions. Without this, it will be impossible to create any space for change.

I’ve been told that I should smile more after a performance because it makes me look prettier and more approachable. I’ve also been told that I should look happier because I’m lucky to be in this position (whatever that position was at the time).

In the book The Second Sound, whose authors Julia Eckhardt and Leen De Graeve collected dozens of statements about gender perceptions in music, we read that „A lot of the discrimination felt by women is latent or indirect, which often makes it more harmful, as it can be difficult to pinpoint and thus difficult to fight. This latent and indirect discrimination includes jokes, condescending remarks, remarks about others, culturally coded stereotypes etc. Deliberate exclusion, as well as being ignored or overlooked can have profoundly destabilizing and unsettling effects.”6 The authors also comment on the position of women in the industry. „Women can often hold a difficult and unclear position in this artistic field. Unlike other-gendered artists, women form an integral component to the male paradigm – that of the confirming opposite.”7 Women are thus placed in an ambiguous situation where they attempt to simultaneously be „the same” (to be one of them), but also to be the so-called „opposite” („other”). We often observe this in the case of female composers of the older generation who do not want to be identified as „women composers”, preferring to separate their profession from their gender and be called „composers”.

howto jouïssance, fot. Nieuwe Noten

I do not know if I would have been a composer if I hadn’t received support and, above all, trust from teachers, curators, conductors, performers: men and women. I have been semi-consciously composing since I was a child: writing down ideas, arranging songs. I wouldn’t have thought I could be a professional in the field if I hadn’t started wondering in music school why there were no women composers. I asked my music history teacher if there were female composers. She did mention Hildegard von Bingen, but we never studied her work in class. The canon of classical and contemporary music at universities is mostly men. I didn’t learn about Maria Szymanowska’s work until a year ago while looking for a presentation topic for a class on tonal analysis at Columbia University in New York; a work that female scholars of Polish descent study in the U.S.; a work that lacked the love we so readily give to her successor, Chopin. Grażyna Bacewicz, the only woman to patronize a higher music institution in Poland, must share that patronage with her brother Kiejstut. Opportunity comes from believing that we can indeed do what we dream of and be who we want to be. „You cannot become someone you cannot see in your mind, materialize”. A feminist pedagogy in music and a revision of the male-dominated canon is needed to permanently change consciousness.

A student colleague of mine was making what seemed to be innocent jokes with a group of men during a class break. I walked up to the group to hear him joking about raping one of my female colleagues. After expressing my disgust for and outrage at his behavior, he told me that I shouldn’t worry since he would never rape me because he considered me too „masculine.” After recounting the incident to my professors, they told me that I should settle this issue on my own since it was not the institution’s responsibility. It didn’t take long for me to feel ostracized by the majority of male students there.

One of the most important aspects of trying to level the playing field is to involve all parties, not just women or non-binary people. The issue of gender inequality in the music world came to light thanks to women, but it needs to be addressed by everyone. In her statement for the 50:50 in 2030 panel discussion, composer Clara Ianotta points out that after the Darmstadt courses and festival in 2016, the underrepresentation of women became a hot topic, although „Until now, it has been overwhelmingly women who have had to take a break from composing in favor of writing statements, articles, and discussions that address issues that – unfortunately – are still questionable to some.”8 And although „Sharing our experiences is important to at least try to awaken awareness of male privilege and gender injustice, and to build solidarity with our female colleagues and let them know that they are not the only ones struggling with these difficulties, it would be worthwhile to gather a group of men and ask them how they are working [for the cause – NF] and how they can change the current situation. After all, most artistic directors, professors, and in general – most people with power – are men.”9

We need to carefully observe and listen to what is happening around us; to recognize problems and catch oppressive patterns, and then to eliminate and replace them with new, informed, and empathetic solutions. Eliminating discrimination against women will help identify and address other problems, because different forms of oppression (such as sexism, classism, and racism) intersect, interact, and stem from similar sources. We need tools to listen, to talk, and to try to understand problems that not everyone will experience empirically. Only through education can feminist epistemology enter the language of every Polish woman and man. And while discussions are a good start, we cannot forget the goal, which is a safe and inclusive society for everyone. The world of classical and contemporary music should keep up with the changes in morals, and men in a position of power should not be afraid to take a public stand on the issue.

  1.  Audre Lorde, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, in: Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, Trumansburg 1984, p. 44.  

  2.  The text deals with the issues contained in my piece Sugar, Spice & All Things Nice, which was a part of the concert Female Forms (Formy Żeńskie):  

  3.  All quotes come from the statements collected in my piece Sugar, Spice & All Things Nice.  

  4.  Susan McClary, Lives in Musicology: A Life in Musicology—Stradella and Me, „Acta Musicologica, vol. 91, no. 1, 2019, p. 5-20.  

  5.  Ellie M. Hisama, Getting to Count, „Music Theory Spectrum”, vol. 43, issue 2, 2021, p. 349–363.  

  6.  Julia Eckhardt, Laurent De Graeve, The Second Sound – Conversations on Gender and Music, Umland, Bruxelles 2017, p. 27.  

  7.   Ibid.  

  8.  Clara Iannotta, statement delivered at a panel discussion titled 50:50 in 2030Women in Music Related Professions as a part of Wien Modern 2019, Institut für Kulturmanagement und Gender Studies in Vienna, Vienna, 2019,  

  9.   Ibid.