Born in Rome in 1983, the composer Clara Iannotta is interested in “music as an existential, physical experience — music should be seen as well as heard.” Iannotta, now based in Berlin, has studied at the Milan and Paris conservatories and at Harvard University. In 2013 she was invited to serve a two-year engagement as artistic director for the Bludenzer Tage zeitgemäßer Musik (Bludenz New Music Days), an Austrian festival highly regarded by composers and performers for its tenacious support of new music.
Four years later Iannotta remains at the helm, her engagement extended at least to 2020 – and during her tenure, representation of women composers has doubled. This year’s festival, which runs Nov. 16-19, will include newly commissioned works by Pia Palme, Joanna Bailie, Yukiko Watanabe, Giulia Lorusso, and Hanna Hartman, as well as recent compositions from Elena Rykova, Anne Cleare, Liza Lim, Séverine Ballon, and Chaya Czernowin (Iannotta’s teacher at Harvard).
In advance of the festival, National Sawdust Log engaged Giulia Accornero, a PhD student in music theory at Harvard and founder of the Milan-based new-music series Sound of Wander, to discuss with Iannotta the festival’s methodology and ideology.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Social inequality affects the professional life of women composers every day. Even though many are vocal about the extent of the problem – I’m thinking, for instance, of Ashley Fure’s panel on gender relations in the new music scene during the 2016 Darmstadt New Music festival – men continue to dominate, both in terms of the number of women in positions of power and influence, and also who is choosing to enter the field. We often consider such problems as broad trends, or reductive statistics; here, I want to consider specific instantiations of this phenomenon – a micro-, rather than macro-history. Can you tell us briefly about some moments in your career that have affected you or people around you, and how these have shaped your perception of the issue?
CLARA IANNOTTA: I studied flute and composition in Italy with teachers that openly expressed their sexual desire with regard to the women around them. Once, during a masterclass, I sent a message to my professor telling him I could not go to the meeting and he replied something like, “Shame, I couldn’t wait to see you.” As a 21-year-old, I actually felt flattered by the attention from someone so important. I didn’t know what sexual harassment was, because I was living in a context in which professors chose the female exchange students based on their photo, and they had no shame in saying it.
I started to see that this was a problem when I left Italy and moved to France in 2007, where I was one of the very few women in the composition classes, and then in 2010 when I attended the IRCAM Cursus, where one of the professors, while attempting to explain what a “paradox” was, said, “It’s like a woman coming to teach at IRCAM.” I probably experienced what most female composers do, but I have also been supported by men, and women who believed in the quality of my work.
Growing up, being actively part of this community, reading and sharing experiences with other people that didn’t have the same support, or sometimes luck, helped me to realize how important it is to understand that there is a gender imbalance. Most positions of power are occupied by men, who established all criteria to operate and evaluate art. Even femininity is a concept invented by men. I think it is pretty clear that we have a problem.
This is your fourth year as artistic director at the Bludenzer Tage zeitgemäßer Musik. Every year, you commission between six and eight new pieces. I have noticed that the representation of women has been improving, rising from 30 percent in 2014 to 60 percent in the last two years. What encouraged you to reverse the trend?
I was appointed artistic director of the BTzM in the summer 2013, and I was asked to curate the festival for only two years, until 2015, which then became 2018, and then 2020.
At the beginning, I took this job as a great (and fun) opportunity to program artists I believed in, and I relied on my (in)experience to do so, also because I did not have a lot of time to program the first two editions. I did not understand right away the privilege and the responsibility that a curator has. From the soloists who program their own concerts, to the professors who write their syllabi, to the artistic directors who program small or big festivals, we shape the music scene, we give artists a platform, we create opportunities, we educate our audiences. It is a job you have to take seriously, and you cannot rely only on the names of composers you heard, or checking programs of other festivals, because if you do so you would not be able to reverse our society’s standards, which are based on exclusion.
Female composers’ lack of representation in new music is not based on quality, but on ignorance. I do a lot of research to decide who I want to commission. Of course, gender is important to me, but it is important to understand that I am not trying to be politically correct, I am not trying to put quotas in my festival, I am not attached to statistics. I am simply trying to represent, in my best possible way, the new music scene.
It is also worth knowing that each concert is the result of a joint effort. Normally I choose one composer per concert; I give them carte blanche, which means they get to decide which project to work on, including who to write for. Once they tell me which soloist or ensemble they want, I call the musicians and negotiate with them about the rest of the program. This process involves a lot of dialogue.
It is interesting to hear you say that by doing a more careful search, the representation of women has naturally improved. If I have understood correctly, you have the same modus operandi with performers, even though it is a split decision. Do you think that women undertaking a career in new-music performance suffer from problems similar to those experienced by their counterparts in composition?
I want to be able to offer composers the possibility of creating a project that otherwise would not exist, and allowing them to choose who to work with strengthens the composer–musician relationship enormously, as well as the sonic result of their collaboration. Most of the pieces we commissioned in the past years have been performed many times after their première in Bludenz — for example, Sideshow by Steven Takasugi, or OM.ON. by Pierluigi Billone, or Untitled (three part construction) by Michelle Lou, to mention a few. I believe that the continued success of these pieces is a measure of the freedom I offer composers, which helps them in fully exploring the potential for their work with musicians, producing a piece of art that thoroughly represents them.
That being said, it can also happen that I simply fall in love with an ensemble, because of their particular aesthetic or sound, and I invite them first, and choose the composers afterwards — it happened, for example, with Distractfold and Curious Chamber Players.
The female representation within performers is similar. Since you mentioned Darmstadt, you could have a look at the gender balances at concerts at the 2016 edition, and you would notice that the situation is slightly better, but not worth praising. Historically, we can see more female performers than female composers, but how many female conductors or soloists can you name?
Perceptions of gender are changing; I believe that rather than thinking masculine and feminine as absolute or essential qualities, each of us is finding out what words like “masculine” or “feminine” represent on a personal level, how these traits are configured within ourselves. Art is one the ways in which we can find answers – or create them. Music and musical discourse in particular, from staged drama to sonata form, has often worked to reinforce and – more recently, perhaps – trouble stereotyped roles. Have you ever pursued or recognized traits that you would define as feminine or masculine in your music, or in the scores you have been selecting? How can the identification of such traits escape essentialist conceptions of gender?
I will share with you some thoughts I have been working on recently. I read a lot of Virginia Woolf, last summer, and what struck me the most was when, in “Women and Fiction,” she describes how revolutionary the event of women writing about women was, introducing a completely different perspective to a subject that was until that time shaped entirely by men. I wonder whether this would be possible also in music. Like I said already, we are operating in a male-dominated field, in which not only the modus operandi, but also the standards of evaluation are created by men. I wonder whether there is a possibility to create a “minority aesthetic” or in any case to evade the present system to shape a new perspective. And when I say, “I wonder,” it is because I don’t have an answer yet, I am still working on it. Words like “masculine” or “feminine,” when used to describe art, at the moment only contribute to an already sexist environment. I have heard people using these expressions, but I think they misrepresent and reduce music to a binary interpretation.
While interviewing Chaya Czernowin, your professor in composition at Harvard University [Van magazine, Feb. 2016], you said: “I feel like composers have no role in contemporary society, and our music does not have the same meaning that it had in the past, for example, when it was possible for the premiere of Luigi Nono’s work Intolleranza to be interrupted by a group of neo-fascists.” Given that you feel as though music itself no longer impacts upon wider political discourses, does your work as an artistic director allow you to fulfill a need for social engagement? Are there other ways in which you feel you are engaged in political issues?
Music does have a political impact on society; new music doesn’t.
It is difficult for me to wake up, reading the terrible news in the newspapers, and then go to work on something that I know has zero impact on the world. I accept that as a citizen I have a more powerful role in society than I do as an artist. I admire composers who genuinely approach and challenge political matters in their works, but unfortunately it has no place in my music at the moment. Composing for me is an internal and personal exploration. Being a curator, though, is a completely different job, and I feel indeed more engaged in political conversations, although Bludenz is a very small reality.
On August 4, 2017, the Washington Post published an article on “The top 35 female composers in classical music,” written and compiled by Anne Midgette. This article proved controversial in the new-music world. In particular, Chaya Czernowin shared a public post on Facebook criticizing the list for “omit[ting] a whole category of composers who deal with very progressive music,” pointing out the “omission of a major compositional direction or thought which has been internationally recognized.” Where does this line between more or less progressive composers lie for you? Does it inform the way you select composers for your festival?
I am not a fan of lists. People are too obsessed with labels, forgetting that in order to classify something you have to reduce its qualities, so that more things can be labelled in the same way. Again, we live in a society based on exclusion, and the problem is always when you don’t identify yourself with one specific category. Saying that you are a “more or less progressive composer” implies a comparison — I am more or less progressive in relation to whom? — that hierarchizes the categories you are referring to. I am not interested in finding where the “line between more or less progressive composers lies,” but rather in what that line contains. The criteria I use to think about my own or other people’s music are not confined to categories.
We talked recently about your obsession with magnified “small sounds” – that is, sounds with a certain timbral and textural “intimate” and “fragile” quality, audible only when amplified with a microphone. What does it mean for you to write intimacy and fragility into your scores, to give voice to the ‘barely heard’?
In the program note of my latest piece, dead wasps in the jam-jar (iii), I wrote: “For a long time my music has been about creating a surface on which things move, blend, but mostly hide what is underneath them. A surface is nothing more than a reflection, and I was constantly veiling the real mirrored image, probably also because I was (and still am) not sure yet of what this image was, even though I knew what its shadow looked like.” Within the past few years, the core of my research shifted from the outside (creating a surface, a reflection) to the inside (representing the reflected object). It is a more intimate, visceral investigation, but something intimate is not necessarily fragile; it can, actually, carry an energy that you were not expecting.
As I said, for me composing is an internal exploration, it is a way of discovering myself, going as deep as possible, revealing places I am not sure of nor ready to disclose. It is exploring the intimacy of myself, and it is true that I am interested in unstable sounds (more than I am in fragile ones), but above all because sometimes they can be so weak that the physical gesture made to produce them gains a new importance, almost as though I have to give a visual component to the sound, in order to understand it completely. These unstable sonic environments also give me the chance to rediscover them every time I encounter them, because they always produce something unexpected.
Unstable sounds intrinsically escape the possibility of being turned into reproducible object. Can we think of those sounds as a form of metaphorical resistance to fixity and standardized behavior, leaving space for unpredictability or failure; a swerve from the norm that threatens to jeopardize the efficiency of a controlled system? Is there space for failure in your scores?
I have always been a control-freak — everything around me has to be simply perfect, clean, tidy. This is what I am as a person. As an artist though, I am drawn to uneasiness, dirt, imperfection, and everything that you actually cannot control. The only way I can successfully integrate these qualities into my music is by finding a way of writing something whose final result I cannot fully predict. If you look at my scores, everything is meticulously explained, but most of my sounds are so unstable (because of the techniques used to produce them) that the same passage played ten times would give as many sonic results. The energy is the same; what changes is the shade of its color. I feel that it is exactly this breach into imperfection that makes my sonic environments alive.
Speaking of sonic environments – what are we going to hear at the next festival?
The 2017 edition includes acoustic pieces, theatre music, and pure electronics. We will have 10 world premieres by Enno Poppe, Klaus Lang, Pia Palme, Joanna Bailie, Yukiko Watanabe, Alexander Chernyshkov, John Young, Andrew Greenwald, Giulia Lorusso, and Hanna Hartman, performed by NIKEL, Quartetto Maurice, Distractfold, and Séverine Ballon. When I commission a new work, I don’t know what they will write exactly, but after four years I understood that Bludenz is seen by composers as a place to experiment with new things, and this makes me happy and proud.
The Bludenzer Tage zeitgemäßer Musik will be presented Nov. 16-19 in Bludenz, Austria; for more information, see allerart-bludenz.at/btzm.
Giulia Accornero is a PhD student in music theory at Harvard University. She is currently focusing on innovations in western musical notation and the meanings they convey, with a particular focus on the Middle Ages and new music. Her writings have been published by ETS and Edizioni del Teatro alla Scala. In 2014 she founded Sound of Wander, a new music season in Milan, and continues to organize masterclasses in collaboration with them.