J. Dunbar, Women, Music, Culture: An Introduction

This book is peripheral for us, mainly because it has very little to do with improvisation (in any sense of the word). After a promising start with a glimpse of Pauline Oliveros (p. 3), this important composer is later considered in detail only in the context of her electronic works (p. 291). Yoko Ono's appearance (p. 315) is not focused on open scores either, but it's in the chapter of the mass music market. Both cases might be sad from our point of view, but the chosen material fits the purpose/method of the book, which is rather to present the diverse roles and circumstances women endured in the history of music.

Scope of the book

The book spends most of the time with "art music" tradition, from Middle Ages, to contemporary. On the way, the Baroque section recorded one of the few mentions of composition during the performance in the form of soloing over basso continuo (p. 89) (a basis for Cantus Firmus mini-game). But considerable attention is given also to popular music and jazz, with jazz having an interesting singing-game provenience suggested:

The foot stomping and hand-patting of antebellum-period singing games and dances such as the juba were directly transformed into the rag tradition and subsequently impacted jazz. In piano works, for example, the "stomping" juba rhythm can be seen in the left-hand part, while the right hand took over the syncopated fiddle and banjo melodies. (p. 264)

In connection to text's broad scope, at the start, the book shows a commendable level of distance towards the evaluation of presented material. Introductory chapters address topics of (re)building a canon, controlling of the narratives, and also the fact that the notion of "good music" is arbitrary…

Judgemental remarks

#Proficiency paradigm

Good music can't be done by anyone. Only the leaders among hard-working professionals acquire sufficient skill. If perfection is easily achieved, it's cheating.

…later though, on a few occasions (e.g. p. 187), the author complains about popular singers' "pitch inconsistency" (as if that "objectively" matters), placing the book's quality paradigm in the "proficiency" area.

Two more motives worthy of (critical) note are on pages 196-197. Firstly, a delivery of "music as universal language" renunciation — a typical talking point of modern musicology. The cliché statement in question can definitely be construed as false, but that's especially if classical music is considered an important point of reference. If one operates with the broadest understanding of music (and of language), it might as well fall into "universal" (in some sense). Still, as the "culture" is in the title of the book, the specific, localized understanding of "music" is appropriate.

#Tradition paradigm

You form a community with past generations of musicians. Dive into all the gathered wisdom to master it, and then properly make what you attain from your musical ancestors into a sound reality.

Then, a quote: "Even today, some people cite physical strength and size as reasons why women cannot effectively play the tuba or the Japanese taiko drum. As women prove skeptics wrong, however, it becomes apparent that control of tradition might be underlying concern." On the other hand, there could be an important feminist insight that instruments were designed and made by men, for men.1 By treating affordances and demands of currently used instruments as a given, some level of traditionalism is on display in the very statement intended to criticize it.

Nevertheless, all the nitpicking above puts light on the absolute minimum of conservative tendencies, probably only the necessary amount just to be considered by an "academic" publisher…

Close details

At the end of chapter 11, which is focused on large-scale works, there is an interesting note on Thea Musgrave (p. 237)

Musgrave has explored a wide variety of compositional techniques, including serialism, electroacoustic techniques, and a style she calls dramatic-abstract, in which instruments take on personages and perform dramatically without a program. In these works, the players have a freedom of expression in which they cue one another and are sometimes asked to stand during performance.

This is the nearest the book gets to a description of a game-like activity, in this case it's something close to Conversations. It's telling that it's not even a full paragraph, but we just haven't been the part of any of the stories told.

By topic, the closest chapter to the field of music games is number 12, Old Genres, New Sounds. Contemporary Music and Experimental Voices. It profiles Elilsabeth Lutyens, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Meredith Monk, Joan Tower, Shulamit Ran, and Barbara Kolb.

Firstly the terminology. Our experimental vs avant-garde solution differs here greatly, but Julie Dunbar decided to equate these two terms. "The experimental composer, Arnold Schoenberg" might be a surprise if you are used to distinguishing these subgenres of "new music". Again, for the contents of the book, the distinction is indeed irrelevant.

From the personal list, Meredith Monk (p. 255…) might be the only "experimentalist" in a narrow sense. For her bio, an interesting mention is an influence of her studying Dalcroze eurythmics. Chronicler's duty is to recognize also her theatre piece The Games, even if in fact unrelated, or even used as a negative metaphor.


The experimental music chapter might have been the biggest "disappointment" (again, in subjective terms, from the narrow music gaming point of view). But the book's author is conscious of the broader potential of this part, saying that "in no other portion of the text have so many worthy composers been left unmentioned." (p. 258) As noted earlier, some were also presented elsewhere in a different context.

Needless to say, the book is not about music games, but successfully discusses women, music, and culture. To end on an aphoristic note within the actual topic of the book, this neat quote may serve as an observation about why such a book is needed:

As long as “woman” remains an adjective rather than a noun in instrumental music, it seems that we have a topic that is worthy of investigation. (p. 196)

Unless stated otherwise Content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License. See licensing details