Victoria Armstrong (St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London)

When ‘Good’ Work Turns ‘Bad’: Creative Labour and the Working Lives of Female Classical Musicians

The recent cultural turn in the examination of creative labour has resulted in binaristic perspectives which are either over-celebratory viewing this type of work as flexible, pleasurable, and affording high levels of autonomy, or characterised in negative terms because of the likelihood of it resulting in (self)exploitation, precariousness, and requiring the ‘gifting’ of free labour. Consequently, Hesmondhalgh (2010: 234) asks the question, is creative labour barely disguised ‘bad’ work?  Drawing on his concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ work, this paper will offer a critical analysis of the subjective experience of women’s labour from the perspectives of female classical musicians – how they experience their musical lives, and the factors which circumscribe the choices and decisions they make about their musical and non-musical lives. As Hesmondhalgh (2010: 235) notes ‘total autonomy in any sphere of life – whether artistic, scientific or ethical – is an impossible ideal, because there is not life without constraints and determinants’.  The challenge is mediating between overly deterministic and overly voluntaristic accounts of subjectivity for these workers. I argue that creative labour is largely perceived as ‘good’ work by my participants but can become ‘bad’ work when it impacts on artistic quality, self esteem and confidence. I draw attention to a number of factors which may contribute to this shift, arguing that these are highly gendered. The data presented are drawn from an on-going research project involving twenty four female classical musicians based in the UK, ranging in age from their mid-twenties to mid-50s, and working as composers, conductors and performers.  Over a five week period, each participant compiled a personal ‘digital diary’ comprising information about their musical and non-musical lives. The content of the diaries was not analysed but, using a form of photo elicitation, the women wove narratives around their data which allowed themes around the nature of work to emerge and be explored. This enabled me to ‘demarginalise’ the voice of respondents in these accounts (Murthy, 2008: 839) as the authority of the subject is central to the study’s concerns.

Victoria Armstrong, PhD is Director of Education and Social Science at St. Mary’s University, London. She originally trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and worked as a freelance singer specialising in contemporary music. As a sociologist of music, her academic interests focus on issues relating to gender, social justice and inclusion in education and within the music industry. She regularly presents her work at conferences in the UK, Europe and the US. She recently contributed a chapter entitled ‘Gendered Perspectives’ to the Routledge Companion to Music, Technology and Education. She is the author of Technology and the Gendering of Music Education and is currently working on a second monograph, Women’s Musical Lives based on the ethnographies of female professional musicians exploring the gendered dimensions of labour in cultural work. She serves on the editorial board of Music Education Research.


Cecilia Björck (University of Gothenburg)

Music, Gender and Social Change – Contemporary Debates, Directions and Challenges

For decades, various efforts have been made to counteract the effects of male-dominated and/or sexist music cultures and to balance the number of women in areas and positions where they are underrepresented. In popular music, such efforts have often been channelled into creating alternative women- and girls-only spaces, offering opportunities to network, to perform, and to develop technical and artistic skills in a supportive environment (Björck, 2013), for example through rock camps for girls. The recent #metoo movement, which has shaken various professional sectors during the fall of 2017 including the music industry, indicates that different forms of power misuse in popular (and also classical) music remain. In Sweden, the #metoo critique is situated in an ongoing arts and culture debate about the benefits and risks of gender equality policy goals in relation to artistic freedom and quality. In a larger and global context, the critique also relates to negotiations on how democracy and equality are to be understood and carried into action in contemporary society. This presentation will map central issues currently discussed in music practice and research and show examples of ongoing gender-equality efforts in music, today applying to a broad range of genres and musical activities. I will also discuss how ideas about gender equality in music relate to themes such as freedom/limitation, visibility/invisibility, and neoliberal/social justice discourses, and also how gender-equality work is complicated by calls for intersectional perspectives.

Cecilia Björck holds a position as senior lecturer in Education at University of Gothenburg. Her research interest is focused on norms and discourses concerning popular culture and gender equality. Her PhD thesis in Music Education (2011) discusses the use of spatial metaphors in discourses on gender, popular music, and social change; in particular, the argument that women must “claim space” in order to participate in popular music practice. Cecilia’s ongoing researching includes music organizations’ equality work, music and emotion in feminist activism, and young Swedes’ interest in Japanese popular culture.


Astrid Kvalbein (Norwegian Academy of Music)

Forever Exceptional?  On Women Who Compose Music

What histories do we tell about women who compose music now, and those who composed music in the past? And what stories do female composers tell through their works? Drawing on examples from western art music from the 19th century until today, I will ask how feminist musicology might move beyond descriptions that emphasize the limitations that women composers have been and still are subject to due to their sex – or have overcome despite all odds.  Therefore, the question that emerges is: how do we re-examine the criteria for artistic quality, success and significance in art music – that still lean heavily on concepts of the genius, the autonomous art work and the importance of technological mastery? And might new definitions open up to women’s contributions in new ways?  I will draw upon my doctoral work on the Norwegian composer and critic Pauline Hall (1890-1969) where I studied how gender came forward as an aspect in many different discourses, for instance on nationality, high and low culture, and even musical form and structure. Subsequently, I will discuss if the dissolving of traditional tonalities and work concepts in modernist and avant-garde music might release tensions between so-called masculine and feminine opposites in music and its social contexts. Or was male power simply re-established in new forms in the 1960s? Finally, three Nordic works from the 2000s and 2010s open up for new questions: what kind of statements are being made when female composers in the postmodern era include their children’s babbling, Beyoncé’s baroque feminist postures and Robert Schumann’s idealizing “Frauenliebe und Leben” (Love and Life of a Woman) in their works?  The lecture will include live performance.

Astrid Kvalbein specializes in Norwegian and Nordic music history from the 1900s to the 2000s, and is editor of the book Musikk og kjønn – i utakt? (Norsk Kulturråd 2008). She wrote her PhD thesis (2013) on Pauline Hall (1890-1969) a profiled composer, music critic and founder of the Norwegian section of the International Society for Contemporary Music, Ny Musikk. As a postdoc, Kvalbein has studied the modernist composer Fartein Valen (1897-1952), focusing on the international reception of his music (see “Frå den sorte gryte og ut i verda – Pauline Hall og Fartein Valen i ISCM”, Studia Musicologica Norvegica 42/2016). Kvalbein has also written two chapters for the book series A Cultural History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries (vol. II 1925-1950 and vol. IV 1975-2000, Brill 2018), including one on the Ultima festival of contemporary music. Currently she is a researcher and manager of a project on the history of the Norwegian Academy of Music. Kvalbein is also a freelance writer and singer with a particular interest in contemporary music.