Naomi Sullivan on women, the saxophone and questions answered by composer, Clare Loveday.
A guest blog post by Naomi Sullivan, first published on the Illuminate Women's Music blog.
Part 1 ——-
The blockbuster-worthy life and work of Adolphe Sax is brilliantly documented and it’s easy to while away hours down the internet rabbit hole, sketching together the story of the saxophone’s evolution.
And along the way, whilst many in the world still seemed to accept woman as the second sex, there were a number of trailblazing women saxophonists and composers, offering other ways to tell the same old story. In 1876, Etta Morgan was billed by the Olympia Theatre in New York as, “the only lady saxophone player in the world”.
Bessie Mecklem began her performing career in 1890 and appeared on numerous programmes on the entertainment circuit. In 1892, Bessie recorded twelve Edison cylinders, Unfortunately, all have been lost, but they are thought to be the first saxophone recording made on a phonograph.
Elise Hall, of the
Boston Orchestral Club, performed from 1900 to 1920, and commissioned over 22 works for
saxophone, managing to get a saxophone concerto out of a reluctant and
crotchety Debussy, who somewhat gracelessly referred to Elise Hall as an “old
bat who dresses like an umbrella.”
There are many more women saxophonists shooting from the hip from 1970s onwards.
Part 2 ———
The majority of my chamber music experience has involved playing music written by male composers and with male musicians. I’ve enjoyed it hugely. I absolutely love playing chamber music and feel extremely lucky to have worked with some incredible musicians.
And now I’m looking forwards to playing new and old repertoire by women composers with the pianist, Yshani Perinpanayagam. Again, I feel extremely lucky to work with these incredible musicians.
So why do we need to be
so gender specific? Music is sound, transportation, communication. Sex comes
pretty far down the list, on the whole.
And there are horrific,
horrific violent atrocities happening across the world to women - and let’s be
honest - the majority of victims will not be white women.
So why? How can this
project be relevant?
And here I must
introduce the composer Clare Loveday. Full of crystal clear thoughts, quick wit
and shrewd first-hand observations of inequality of both gender and race in the
beautiful but complicated lands of South Africa.
On a Wednesday afternoon
in June, we zoomed from a rainy Crystal Palace to a wintery Johannesburg to
catch up. She told me that after the lockdown alcohol ban in Johannesburg was
lifted there were 11 reported rapes in just 48 hours. That sexism and racism is
so deeply tangled into patriarchal society that be raising awareness is an open
invitation to make yourself extremely unpopular.
I remembered a quote
Clare shared once by Susie
Orchbach, best known for her book Fat is a
Feminist Issue. Orbach writes about passivity: "Surely activity is
more pleasurable and rewarding than passivity? Not necessarily. For a variety
of reasons, passivity has become the psychological result of the internalisation
of the messages about self-identity. It happens rather like this: a pattern has
become established in which a person's original initiatives were disregarded;
this happens to all of us some of the time without being troublesome, but the
continual thwarting, misreading and ridiculing of initiative creates a sense
inside a person that what they produce, that what emanates from them, is
somehow not quite right. They may present themselves and their desires
differently and, if they are still not heard or seen, they may get angry, they
may withdraw, they may comply and look as though they are not in trouble; they
will have absorbed the message that it is better not to show."
Clare Loveday continues
to say: “The sexism and violence towards women in this country permeates every
aspect of life. The woman in our story has led a relatively contained life but
has been a victim of violence. Her friends have been raped, beaten, are almost
routinely humiliated. The tiny pockets of immense privilege may protect a few
lovely young women for a short while, but the reality of the outside world is
beating at the windows. This violence is not only physical; it manifests in a
thousand ways. And this little story is just a small sample of a much much
bigger picture. We should never fool ourselves into thinking that ignoring a
woman shouting to be heard, or ignoring her revulsion at your sexist comment,
is not an act of violence on her. For what is the purpose of violence if it is
not to silence.”
I admitted I’m lucky. I
struggle with ‘white guilt’. I live on a cosy if quite complicated Island. I
could complain, but don’t need too. I’m lucky. Clare replied,
“White guilt is, for me,
about my extraordinary good fortune at having been born white into a system that
powerfully advantaged those with white skins. The effects of this are long,
complicated and inescapable.
I feel zip white guilt
in the UK. I shouted at beggars in Oxford. I was a monster white person.
I'm always astonished by how white the UK is and how I can just blend into the
pale background. You (Naomi) don't come from a stinking rich and privileged
background. You work harder than anyone I know and any born privilege you've
had comes from being born British (like being able to travel without visas,
grrrrr) rather than white.
Yes, the UK is cosy, up
to a point. It isn't ridden with crime, or desperate poverty, or the vestige of
colonialism (it _should_ have a vestige of colonialism but has managed to dodge
that one neatly by very British denial). It is rich, really rich. But it's hard
too, as you well know - I don't have to detail that for you”.
So I asked her: How can
this project, Illuminate, be relevant?
“Because, whether we
like to admit it or not, colonialism still resonates powerfully. In countries
like South Africa, the western-derived arts, like art music composition,
measure themselves with the European arts, while at the
same time being strongly isolated from them and seeking to find a South African voice.
So what happens in the UK makes a difference. It means
that woman composers such as myself can say to our
profoundly patriarchal systems: Look what's happening in the UK. Why
aren't we valuing our women composers like this? What about doing a similar
Projects like this can also expand out of themselves and link up with women's organisations elsewhere, offer suggestions, lessons learnt from mistakes etc. Organisations from South Africa have a wealth of diversity and new musical knowledge unknown in the metropol. Such links benefit all equally”
During a time that makes it difficult to look forwards, creating new music – with Yshani, Angela, Lara, Nina and Rachel – whilst looking back and learning from the past seems a luxurious lockdown pastime. And whilst I try to untangle loop pedals and pre-amps, it’s comforting to look back and think about ends and beginnings. And realise that never before have I appreciated my musical comrades so much. Here is to seeing you again soon and making some real noise.
Clare Loveday’s City
of Venus https://soundcloud.com/naomisullivan/venus-naomi-stereo