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The Unknown Inside Us – A conversation between Marcela Lucatelli and Bent Sørensen about the current state of diversity in Danish institutions

Photos by Lars Skaaning (Bent Sørensen), Øystein Thorvaldsen (Marcela Lucatelli) & Zuhal Kocan (Marcela Lucatelli) courtesy of the artists.

Bent Sørensen (BS): A few years ago, the Danish Composers’ Society (Dansk Komponistforening, DKF onwards) conducted a survey, which confirmed that opera houses, orchestras, ensembles, etc. are, in our eyes, playing far too little new music, and that female composers are grossly underrepresented. After the review was made public, I was asked in an interview whether I could hear a difference in music made by women and men—because, if there wasn’t actually a difference, then it didn’t make sense, in the eyes and ears of the interviewer, to single out or advocate for music made by women. That was, of course, a provocation, but can you point to any differences in music made by women and men?

Marcela Lucatelli (ML): In the West, it’s long been common practice to suppress, ignore and forget music composed by women. This isn’t, as some might suggest, a matter of quality, but rather because the Western world’s idea of quality is based on the illusion of a monotheistic, universal and disembodied voice, which is—in part randomly—masculine. As creators, we can’t separate ourselves from our experience of the world, which also includes our experience of and through gender. So, of course gender influences our practice, as do many other aspects of being human, like, for example, where you live or come from, what your perception of the individual and the collective is, whether you’re drunk or high, what you ate for dinner, and so on, in more or less perceptible ways. In my research on female baroque composers, for instance, I’ve noticed that their music contains all kinds of interesting, little notable idiosyncrasies compared to music from the established canon. But my point is that we will inevitably experience their music this way if we haven’t had the opportunity to listen to it as a part of a movement. Obviously, then, their music will resound differently alongside the old, lingering project of the abstract, pure and ‘‘neutral human’’, the single truth or perfect harmony. But their music calls for a cultural project that is equipped to deal with multiplicity in a way that our Western, European project simply isn’t.

I think the music world needs to think, during this period of transformation, a little more about attentive consideration and care, values which traditionally have been associated with femininity, and which are excluded by the speed of capitalism. – Marcela Lucatelli

BS: I’ve always considered myself a composer—not a “male” composer. Do you consider yourself a “female” composer? And, if so, is the difference between us, at least in terms of our identities as composers, a result of gender imbalance in the world we’re both living in?

ML: I consider myself a “composer” because I’ve been able to make that choice. Simone de Beauvoir’s words really resonate for me: “One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman.” Gender is a cultural construction, which I became aware of growing up in an openly sexist culture. Calling yourself or being called a “female” composer evidently has something to do with gender inequality, but is also, as I’ve said, related to the fact that, in our culture, the composer is male, European and white. Anyone who doesn’t fit that description is immediately exoticized and becomes problematic because they have other values that this system can’t accommodate. That said, I don’t object to being called a woman composer if it’s in the interest of gender equality.

BS: Whether or not there’s a difference between music made by men and women, gender balance amongst composers in the music industry is clearly off-track. Are there ways to change this within the music world or the Danish Composers’ Society?

ML: In my opinion, we need to be more proactive in the places and environments we have access to. I typically say that maybe we can’t tear down the wall, but we can fill its small cracks with new ideas and value systems that can precisely shed light on what, historically, has been seen as strange, oppressed and unknown, and thus weaken these ingrained structures.

I also think you are right when you say that the composition of the boards and committees in our world need to change to better represent women. However, we need to stop merely talking about this and urgently get these institutions to change, for everyone’s benefit.

Diversity policies don’t only help women, but also men, whom they give the space to see and make themselves into something other than mere stewards of the hegemony. In general, I think the music world needs to think, during this period of transformation, a little more about attentive consideration and care, values which traditionally have been associated with femininity, and which are excluded by the speed of capitalism. How many women composers can actually manage to coordinate childcare with festival performances, jobs and residencies? Western cultural life marches on the premise that children and older people shouldn’t exist. Intergenerational encounters between composers, like this interview, are also way too rare and only seem to be happening in this time of crisis. As I said recently as part of DKF’s panel on diversity, “People are complex, and we need to take all our individual nuances under a shared, collective awareness, if we don’t want to keep being seen as unilateral numbers and objects of power from the utilitarian perspective of capitalism. Silence around these complexities is also violent and produces its own consequences, which we can see through the backlash of the recent scandals in Denmark involving cases of sexual harassment and abuses of power.

ML: I want to start my question to you with a quote from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker: “Weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.” In what ways has being a Danish, white male composer held you back in your career or prevented you from doing what you wanted? Do you ever feel constrained by the thought that your work will automatically contribute to a musical canon?

BS: I’ve actually never thought of myself as a white, male composer, even though that is exactly what I am, and I’ve also never thought about my work automatically becoming part of a musical canon. My lack of reflection is probably a (latent) result of never having been described as a “man” composer, only as a “composer.” Of course, I can see how strange and discriminatory it is that some composers—including women—need to have a label attached to their work. When I was young, people also talked about doctors, priests—i.e. men—on the one hand, and “female” doctors and “female” priests on the other. Hopefully today we just say “priests” and “doctors,” and hopefully, we’ll soon just say “composers.”

I probably also haven’t reflected so much on being a male composer because I had some of the male-dominated composer world washed off me early on when I met a number of fantastic female composers from the other Nordic countries. I wasn’t only part of a lineage of classic male composers—but also part of a group of composers that included Saariarho, Rehnquist, Hedstrøm, etc.

Finally—and this is maybe the main reason I haven’t thought about my position as a white, male composer—when I retreat into my shell and disappear into my work, my age, my gender and my name disappears too. Inside that shell, there’s only my work—and in the case of my age, for instance, I’m exactly the same now as I was forty years ago. In that shell, there’s nothing apart from the limits of my own ability that can keep me from doing what I want. You could probably say there’s a kind of escapism there. Maybe a necessary kind of escape or a too-easy escape because my gender or age isn’t being questioned.

This morning, I sat down to work with your question in mind. Tried to say: “You are a white, adult man with thoughts and sketches in your head,” but then I immediately retreated into my shell and forgot all about that.

In our culture, the composer is male, European and white. Anyone who doesn’t fit that description is immediately exoticized and becomes problematic because they have other values that this system can’t accommodate. That said, I don’t object to being called a woman composer if it’s in the interest of gender equality.

ML: I recently co-organized a presentation on diversity at The Royal Danish Academy of Music (DKDM) in Copenhagen with Sine Tofte Hannibal, general manager of the Danish Composers’ Society. After my presentation, one of the teachers suggested that it was a shame I had to use my gender as a compositional motif. As if I ought to be free of the burden of being a woman so that I could work according to the premises of “universal music.” But actually, I think it’s liberating to make music that sometimes relates directly to the experience of being a woman, but also to whatever I choose or happens to shape my experience as a human.

As an outsider, I know that “universal music” is a Western construct, and I haven’t had much use of its framework—unless we’re talking about strategies to break it apart. Just as moving through the world in a female body might not immediately appeal to a male composer as a source of inspiration unless their own curiosity takes them there. And in theory, that’s completely fine, if only difference hadn’t been historically erased and forced to conform to a fixed idea of the universal. It’s the mechanism of colonialism, of everyday power imbalances and totalitarianism, enough said. With this in mind, I’d like to turn the question back to you: How can we help you make the music you want to make?

BS: I’m actually already making exactly the music that I want, and you—my colleagues, people in the music world—are already helping me by constantly challenging me, forcing me to refine my own process as a composer.

ML: I’ve had conversations with some of my colleagues, other young composers, about the antagonism we feel from an older generation of composers towards our aesthetics, whereas we don’t have anything against theirs. What do you think could be done to make diversity more appreciated as an aesthetic value in our music environment?

BS: It would be too simple to question your question and say, “It’s not like that at all.” Because I’m sure you’re right that this antagonism exists. If I had to reflect on it, I might say that this antagonism, or skepticism, has something to do with the older composer’s anxiety about losing their position or footing—a latent anxiety about being overtaken, a sense that these new forms and aesthetics are asking dangerous, sensitive questions about the older composer’s aesthetics.

I think that all composers should and need to experience some doubt about the justifications for and quality of their own music. We—in any case, us older composers—often sit alone with our own special relationships to the creation of music. “Art is the apotheosis of solitude,’’ Samuel Beckett said, and so, we are always seeking affirmation that whatever we’ve created is the most important thing. And that can be perfectly fine, but at the same time, not asking dangerous questions about your own aesthetics can also foreclose others’ aesthetics. When dealing with younger generations, this can translate to a reverse patricide, a kind of insecure infanticide.

This lack of understanding of aesthetic diversity might not only be a question of difference between generations, but also within them: conversations that don’t happen because we’re all sitting in our shells—we need to go out and seek inspiration, find fresh air in new places, with our colleagues and in collaborations. It can be difficult to force composers to be interested in the work of other composers, but we can, in DKF, maybe do something to move the conversation, and our understanding, forward. We could hold meetings and seminars where composers with different approaches could be put into pairs or groups to discuss, learn and maybe come to appreciate each other’s music and aesthetics, breaking the frames within which composers with similar aesthetics band together, and therefore dissolving the claustrophobia of aesthetic homogeneity. I would like to be part of organizing something like that, and maybe this conversation you and I are having could be a catalyst.

ML: When I think about your music, I can’t help but think about the classic notions of Weltschmerz and beauty, and I would say it’s exactly the exceptional, crystal clear chamber produced by the encounter of those two in your practice that makes your music so timely. Do you feel the weight of tradition when you’re writing music? How do you think your music contributes or doesn’t to the contemporary Western, apocalyptic perspective on reality?

BS: It feels like the older I get, the less I think about how my music fits into a certain tradition, and so the weight of tradition has disappeared too. I can’t speak to the extent to which my music contributes to a perspective on our reality, but I would also say that I don’t have big ambitions in that respect. I hope that my music falls somewhere on the scales by which beauty is weighed against monstrosity—that a little moment of beauty can offer both me and my listeners some hope and comfort, and, maybe in that sense, leave an impression on reality.

ML: A while ago, I went to one of Katrine Gislinge’s concerts [renowned Danish pianist, and also married to Bent], mainly to watch you turn pages for her. As an artist and a person, I’m interested in the borders between reality and fiction—the places where roles are swapped, there’s fragility and you can’t make heads or tails of anything. For me, something about you turning pages was exciting and touching, a kind of theatre piece in time with the music. I was watching a magnificent, national example of THE composer, on stage in a new context: where it was no longer about his own musical subjectivity, but rather about a humble act of affection in all of its integrity. I would say that I’m not alone in my fascination with “reality,” that I share this fascination with a generation that believes the European interiorization of the subject has culminated in an overly virtual, disengaged experience of the world. Many of us think our culture needs all kinds of wake-up calls: to the body, identity, pleasure. What do you think about the music that young composers are making today?

BS: I’ve taught composition pretty much since I graduated. I’ve never been able to see myself as purely a teacher; I’ve also been taught by my students. When teaching younger composers, I’ve always felt that I was following in their footsteps—in her/his/their shadows and shoes. For that reason, I’ve always seen young composers as peers and believed that we can and should be learning from one another. If I hadn’t felt that way, I don’t think that it would have made sense for me to teach. Young composers and their music are an important source of inspiration for me, and they are constantly spurring my curiosity and affecting my music and my understanding of the music world I’m part of.

Your experience of me turning pages is probably the closest I’ve been to being a performer, and I really like what you say about reality and fiction, not only about music performances, but also about the work of composing—about imprinting the subject. When I listen to your music, I can choose to listen to the parts where the music is “just” music, where everything in your music is, in its own way, a beautiful fiction, where you—the composer—are being drowned out by the music in a good way. But I can also choose to listen with you and your thought process in mind. In addition to making “pure” music, you are also a performer—you go into reality and create works in which you, on the one hand, are completely center, but which, on the other, give other voices to reality—a kind of documentarism. Do you think differently about works in which you’re the one performing and works in which you let others perform? Are the aims of these works different? And, to turn your previous question back to you: How do you think your music and performances contribute, or don’t, to the contemporary, Western apocalyptic perspective on reality?

ML: My approach to my work is actually the same whether I’m making a piece for myself or someone else. I think a lot about examining the performer or institution and finding their small, vivid points of vulnerability, the places where ambiguity and potential development might exist. Whether it’s just myself or a symphony orchestra, it’s actually in principle no different to me. By now, I’ve composed a fair number of works for myself. When I look at them now, I can see that they follow their own course of development. I can see I’ve taken more risks as I’ve gained more experience. It’s similar when I’m composing multiple pieces for the same ensemble, but that’s a rarer opportunity. In relation to the apocalyptic thinking that is so prevalent in the West right now, I’d say that the two of us meet at the “Beauty Stop.” But my role here is to challenge what beauty can be, and to show how traditional aesthetic concepts, such as beauty and the sublime, are tied up with racial, gender and class oppression. And also with “the good.” I think it is very funny and symptomatic that my music is sometimes perceived as chaotic or messy, that it is perceived as “disorder” instead of another, foreign kind of order. And that brings us to the apocalypse, to how some people are afraid of the end of the world, while others are ready to celebrate it because they didn’t feel they belonged to the old world. I probably fall into the second category. But, as we say a little ironically in South America, the world was already over when the Europeans arrived, so I think there are still many ends of the world to come.

You could probably say there’s a kind of escapism there. Maybe a necessary kind of escape or a too-easy escape because my gender or age isn’t being questioned. This morning, I sat down to work with your question in mind. Tried to say: “You are a white, adult man with thoughts and sketches in your head,” but then I immediately retreated into my shell and forgot all about that. – Bent Sørensen

BS: Even though you can’t see the future, I would still ask, considering the long history you have ahead of yourself: Do you have a sense of where your music and your project are moving? And are there things, both inside and around you, that are hindering your freedom to move in the direction you’d like? I’m also hoping that you might elaborate on the interiorization—maybe actually the glorification—of the subject, which in your and your generation’s eyes might lead to a detached experience of the world. I’m also thinking about your compelling debut concert a short while ago. I experienced your project as deeply personal, and even though you were circling around reality and worldviews in a very beautiful way, there was a strong statement of subjectivity in your performance.

ML: I don’t have any idea where my music or my project is moving, but I can feel that I’m becoming increasingly more aware of how I move. I think that is remarkable in itself. I’m writing and talking about my practice more than ever, and I’ve collected all kinds of insights about how my encounter with the world around me is happening and creating surpluses. Surplus is a really good word, because it is actually a kind of game: the broader and more complex the conditions of my practice get, the more stimulating I find it to move in. I work across genres, groups, individuals and initiatives, but together all these elements form a living network of impulses with which I constantly have to juggle and consider how and where to stretch things out. I work by creating non-teleological relationships between means and ends in the process of composition, which I imagine stretching further and further. At the same time, I’ve also noticed a tendency to draw more of my skills (sensory, vocal, instrumental, philosophical…) into various contexts, so I think this will keep happening too. In response to your question about hindrances to my freedom, I would say that these hindrances are so culturally massive and pervasive, and I’ve become so equipped to deal with them, that the only thing I would want is to be given that chance and not to be immediately censored. As an artist working with multiple media, it can be challenging to have access to the necessary financial resources to have a more tranquil workflow, especially because my work is so broad, unpredictable and independent. I also think it’s exciting to see what kinds of “freedoms” I’ll take in the future: maybe I’ll write a book or have my own music theatre space.

By the interiorization of the subject, I mean that even in its most praised postmodern forms, Western ideology remains supported by this “civilized” bundle of instincts—a machine that sells either workforce or non-work (controlled free-time), which is the privatized self, the subjectivity of the mind. This ideology is the concept of the individual as the possibility to control signification, as if the subject itself was the origin of substance—and here, we might be able to locate a potential flowering of the glorification of the subject that you mentioned. The mechanisms of control for the production, scope, consumption and character of signification exist to support an uncontested universal truth, which no longer requires legitimizing discourses (such as religion or psychoanalysis). Along those lines, I’m set on presenting strategies for aesthetic alternatives, which don’t merely state differences between themselves and the Western tradition, but also demand contact with it—alternatives that challenge and seduce. This requires a kind of “exhaustion” of the singular entity, which discloses our singularities (also mine!) on a social field, as part of a negotiation that is constantly limiting and attracting a collective attention through the movements of the game.

When you go into your shell, and when I have conversations with musicians or vocalists, magic happens. It’s not that you need to think about the fact that you’re a white, adult man or that I need to think of myself as a young Latina. But I would say that our aesthetics have always been influenced by our awareness of everything that is present, so that this magic can happen. Magic and music share a kind of language, the same quiet, secret and modulating performance of signification, the same multiplicity of space. The borders of the linearity of writing, the rationalist abstraction, the individual’s hedonistic isolation and aspiration to an ultimate understanding collide in the other, the foreign, the oppressed, the unknown. In the unknown inside us too.

Bent Sørensen (b. 1958) is a composer, recipient of the Grawemeyer Award and Nordic Council Music Prize. He studied composition with Ib Nørholm at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and with Per Nørgård at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus. Sørensen has composed in a variety of mediums, including opera, symphony orchestra, choir, chamber ensemble and solo instruments. He is the current chairperson of The Danish Composers’ Society and appointed board member of KODA.

Marcela Lucatelli (b. 1988) is a classically trained composer, vocalist, improviser and performance artist. Born in Brazil and based in Copenhagen, Lucatelli has earned international recognition for her extremely original, sensuous and politically charged works. She is a graduate of the National Danish Academy of Music with a postgraduate degree, Soloist from The Royal Danish Academy of Music. Among others she is the co-founder of SKLASH+ – an acronym for Contemporary Female Sound Creators’ Atrium for Conversation and Holocene Studies.

This interview is translated from Danish to English and was originally published by the Danish Composers’ Society in their yearly journal ANSATS.

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