May 16, 2019
Challenging Inequality by Sharing Voices of our Past and Present
By Sam Bergman, Minnesota Orchestra violist and host of "Sam and Sarah" concerts
Earlier this spring, conductor Sarah Hicks and I had the privilege of presenting an evening devoted to composer Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony, a major work of American orchestral music that deserves far wider exposure and acclaim than it has been given in the 123 years since it was premiered by the Boston Symphony. It’s a marvelous piece, and Beach’s story of essentially teaching herself to compose at the highest level at a time when women could not have been less encouraged to take on such a profession is an inspirational one by any measure.
But of course, when you’re researching a career like Beach’s, you run into a fair bit of disquieting information - not only her struggles for legitimacy and exposure as a woman working in a male-dominated field, but the callous and seemingly deliberate way in which her music was dropped completely out of view by the wider music world once she herself was no longer around to advocate for it. And that got Sarah and me thinking about the myriad challenges faced by women in music – not just the big headline-grabbing instances of abuse and harassment, but the small, insidious, everyday interactions which almost never seem to happen to men.
If you’ve ever been to what our audience has come to call a “Sam and Sarah” concert, you know that we take a lot of care in crafting the highly scripted narratives we present, and in this case, we wanted to find a visceral way to drive home this point about what women in music have faced across the centuries and in our own time. It’s one thing to say that sexism exists, but quite another to experience it yourself, and 50% of the population (my 50%) just doesn’t see or hear a large amount of what women are actually subjected to.
So we decided to take up a collection of sorts from the women of today’s classical music world. A few weeks before our Beach concert, I posted a simple question on Twitter asking for examples of low-level sexism that women in our industry have experienced. The responses flooded in from across the country and around the world, and within a few days, we had literally hundreds of comments to sort through. It was horrifying stuff to read, but also cathartic, and the women who responded were supporting and celebrating each other every way they could even as they shared some of their darkest moments.
The next step was to record the voices of some of the women of our orchestra reading three dozen or so of the responses we received and mix them together into a single piece of audio we could play at the concert to give our audience a sense of the weight of being on the receiving end of such things. Even the recording process was fraught with emotion – more than one of our volunteer readers found her voice catching in her throat at the callousness and cruelty of some of the comments.
But in the end, we wound up with a segment that I think captured some of the impact of sexism and inequality in our music world, whether we’re talking about Amy Beach’s time or our own. It took us about 8 minutes from start to finish, which was less than 20% of the overall length of the scripted portion of the evening. But it was a powerful centerpiece, and afterwards, we had multiple requests from those in attendance to hear it again, so we’ve pulled the audio together for you below. The segment begins as I’m speaking about the school of prominent New England composers that was emerging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – we do a quick comic bit about Beach’s Massachusetts contemporary, Rebecca Clarke, and then turn serious…
That clip of women’s voices reading dozens of very real and damaging comments is difficult to listen to, and Sarah and I could see the effects of such denigration reflected back at us in the faces of our audience that evening. This concert series we host with the Minnesota Orchestra is quite often light-hearted, and our audience is used to plenty of jokes and gags from the stage as we go about our business. I even saw a few people in the audience laugh softly at a few of the more ridiculous sexist assertions early on in our montage. But as the barrage continued (and a barrage is exactly what we wanted it to be,) faces darkened and no one was smiling anymore. Which was, of course, the point. As Sarah says in her speech after the recording ends, no one’s career was ended by these comments, but every one of them made an impact, and every one made someone’s career in music just that much more difficult. And as we all grapple with the widespread traumas that the #MeToo movement has helped bring to the surface, we must also remember that the small-scale aggressions need stamping out as much as the large-scale traumas.
We ended the narrative portion of our Amy Beach concert that night on a hopeful note, because how could you not after hearing her extraordinary music? Here are the last few minutes before intermission…
We are so grateful to every woman who contributed to our call for these difficult experiences, and I’m sorry that we only had time to include a small percentage of them in the concert itself. (We aren’t naming the women whose selections we did use because some were submitted anonymously and we promised to protect everyone’s privacy.) Thanks as well to the women of the Minnesota Orchestra who volunteered to read for this project: Susie Park, Ellen Smith, Kathryn Nettleman, Sarah Grimes, Cecilia Belcher, Valerie Little, Pitnarry Shin, Rebecca Corruccini, Maureen Conroy, Marcia Peck, and Julie Gramolini Williams.