Keeping Scores: Women Writing Music

This Woman’s Work is a collection of music writing by and about women,edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson. Clare Archibald reads between the lines

Sinéad Gleeson. Photo by Brid O’Donovan

In 2019 I met with Sinéad Gleeson ahead of her Edinburgh Book Festival appearance to interview her about music in Constellations, her book of essays on and of the body. “Music,” she says in the book, “binds us together”. I felt strongly when reading it that it was in fact music that bound the book together.

I was surprised when she told me that I was the first person to say this because the pages seep sound and vibrate with the pivotal music memories that we carry in our bodies, in how we map our lives. She told me then that she was working on a project that she couldn’t reveal but was sure I would love. That project was This Woman’s Work, a collection of essays on music, edited by Gleeson with Kim Gordon, written by and about women. She was right.

Heather Leigh deftly introduces a wide-ranging book that comprises seventeen (including her own) diverse sound worlds, real and imagined, that have been built with passion, skill, and experience. Much like the two souls leaping into life with mosh-pit-blind faith in an anecdote in Maggie Nelson’s contribution ‘My Brilliant Friend’, the reader hears the songs of very different sirens that are deeply individual yet nonetheless in dialogue, building an unseen polyphony throughout the book, pulling us in multiple directions across time, space, language and life. The open brief given to the essayists by the editors allows for the multi-faceted nature of each writers engagement with music to be revealed. Each writer reveals something of the building of their own craft in their choice of subject and how they engage with it.

The movement across words and music builds new multidisciplinary, multiskilled spaces occupied with resounding aplomb. Fatima Bhutto says, “there is liberty in musical dissonance. And where there is liberty there will be mutiny.”

Gleeson spoke to me in 2019 of being young and alone on crutches at a Fugazi gig and the wall of sweat she gripped onto with joy. Kim Gordon writes of delighting in seeing Yoshimi P-We play and the architecture of the place being replaced with dissonance and chaos. Lesley Jamison discovered, “just how liberating it can be to move beyond words and live in the sound instead.” Nelson tells of the wall gripped when overcome with grief. By inhabiting the sound worlds these women create, we get to engage with a vast range of ideas, to consider profound concepts of liberty and oppression, of joy and terror. Always there are the notes between, of the unexpected, the nuanced, the bold. If we want to we can contemplate deeply philosophical questions of art and artistic practice, such as in Juliana Huxtable’s ‘Praise Poem to Linda [Sharrock]’ in which her questioning of the assumed balance of vocals versus instrumentation in terms of status pulses with so many questions, of the mind, of the body, of the intersection of definition and history. This book speaks to me of movement across disciplines with intent.

Then there are the sound worlds that come from actual movement in a specific place, the geopolitics and psychogeography of enforced migration, politics, and poverty. Countries, cities, towns, offices, venues, shared spaces. The bath in Rachel Kushner’s essay where Wanda Jackson sings to let her mother know she has not drowned. In sometimes seemingly everyday examples, the significance of the sung, the recorded, is decoded. Ottessa Moshfegh sings and her mother knows her otherwise silent child is happy. Yiyun Li sings solo and realises that “what I heard was an unfamiliar voice – I rarely sing solo, even in the shower, and I had never until then sung solo those songs from the past.” A revelation of voice, of self, also felt by Wanda Jackson when hearing her recorded voice on the radio for the first time, the imagined made real. Zakia Sewell gaining some understanding of the voices heard by her mother in her past and in the present, and what this means in ancestral and ongoing terms.

Kim Gordon. Photo: David Black

Other places being accessed via sound: the Pakistan of Bhutto’s family in exile, the music returning them home like carrier pigeon. Megan Jasper writing of the stuffing of the very packages that Gleeson spoke to me of receiving from the Sub Pop Singles Club. Music bends time and place as much as its pitch is malleable and all seventeen writers demonstrate this in unique ways.

They also raise important questions of artistic rights, access and legacy. Gleeson would love for the legacy of Wendy Carlos to endure whilst recognising Carlos might feel differently. When we met she spoke to me of the difficulty of lyric clearance for books and other industry walls. Bhutto writes of songs being preserved and messages communicated only because gigs were secretly recorded and smuggled out. Sis Cunningham in Liz Pelly’s essay is prey to political witch-hunts yet a full set still exists of Broadside, the magazine she founded in 1962. How do we document, archive, preserve, and access, especially that which we do not know or is endangered? This book is one answer.

It could also be a learning manual: of the technical terms of electronic music making, the sharing of what it means to make music – practically, spiritually, emotionally – to work in music, write about it, be it. I saw Free Kitten in a Leicester pub in the mid 90s and had I read then what Yoshimi P-We explains of her creative process here, I’m certain I would have started experimenting with sound much sooner.

This Woman’s Work is an important collage of tenses, disciplines, perspectives, borders and experiences. Mira Calix, multidisciplinary artist and composer who died in March said recently, “this is inevitably a new moment in history where collage is once more an essential tool to our creative future”. I feel she sure would have loved Simone White’s essay. We should listen to women more in their lifetimes.

This Woman’s Work edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson is published by White Rabbit Books in UK. In the USA, the book will be published by Hachette on 3 May

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