Friday, February 12, 2010

Blinding Us with Science.


Recently I saw a commercial, and I actually paid attention to it -- mostly because it was so creepy. It was about how America "will dominate once again," and how the way to ensure America's return to the top of the world order is to focus on training America's youth in math, science, and technology.

Mildly panicked, I thought, "But wait, surely not at the expense of arts education!" I had a flashback to my middle and high school years. To my competing, but equally fervent interests in creative writing and forensic medicine. To being told by my incredibly ineffective, mean-spirited eighth grade science teacher that I wasn't really 'cut out for science', and how it kept me from going to a prestigious science high school even though I aced the qualifying examination. To how I joined orchestra in high school, and how it was the only thing I really liked about school. To how I had a brief affair with physics junior year, but didn't have the self-esteem to really work at it, or the confidence to even admit that I loved it.

In the United States, and maybe the whole Western world, we're given this dichotomy of art and humanities versus science and math. As if it's unnatural to be good at both, or even enjoy both. More troubling is the needlessly gendered view that girls are supposed to enjoy the humanities, and that boys are supposed to prefer science and math, and that girls and boys who deviate from this standard are somehow gender deviant.

Unbelievably, not long after I saw that commercial (gah, I wish I could find it, if anyone knows what the hell I'm talking about, please say something, I don't even remember what the commercial was for!), I got a call from my BFF, who was upset after a long day of 'technical difficulties' with her computer's recording software. She's an experienced musician, who's recorded a staggering number of her own songs, but she claims that she still feels frustrated and upset by her limited technical understanding of digital audio recording.

I wondered how many girls out there, like my BFF, are buying and using digital recording software and equipment, despite not completely 'understanding' it. As I was admiring these young women and their gumption, I thought: "Wow -- music, even a lo-fi genre of it like punk -- is seriously built on a lot of 'science and technology', huh?" On top of the biology of playing an instrument, and the neuroscience of how our brains process audio and visual signals, there's the more obvious science of amplification, recording, and acoustic design.

I want to highlight the science of music and music performance for a couple reasons. First, I want girls (well, and boys too) who play music to recognize that even if they don't completely 'understand' the technology and science of the music, they are actively engaged with both, and that as a result, they possess a unique intelligence that I think most of mainstream society can't appreciate.

Second, there's an entire side of the music business that's based on technology, one that women have been effectively been shut out of for a long time. While it seems it's slowly changing, the reality is that there aren't enough women in audio production, engineering, live sound, or the development of musical technologies. And I wonder if women don't go into the field in larger numbers because they, like my eighth grade self, were somehow discouraged from pursuing it, either by an unsupportive individual or society's broader messages.

The only way to fix this is to heighten our awareness of the technology that makes music possible, and also the technology that enables the documentation of music and performance. We feminist musicians need to reject this dichotomy that not only separates art from science, but also the assumption that science is somehow 'superior', as well as the instinct to flip that dichotomy and say that art is superior instead. Instead of resisting technology and the sexism that can sometimes come with it, we need to embrace it, learn to harness it, and use it to make ourselves better musicians. And then we need to learn to share that knowledge, and use it to educate and empower future generations of feminist musicians.

2 comments:

Bad Idea Potluck said...

As someone who has dabbled in a little live sound and radio, I can say there is a huge difference between trying to learn something when your teacher has high expectations for you than when they clearly have their doubts. It's a lot better with the high expectations. It's also a lot easier when it's in a fun situation too. Which makes me think, are there many Girls Rock Camps with audio production workshops? I bet some girls would be into that.

jamie said...

"It's a lot better with the high expectations."

That is such a sharp observation...I think that was a big part of why I liked physics so much, because my teacher pushed us, and wouldn't let my prissy, grades-obsessed, secretly lazy, white-glove type classmates walk all over him. (I also liked that he walked around during exams and helped you if he saw that you were really struggling.)

It's funny that you should ask about audio production workshops! I know that the Willie Mae in Brooklyn has a workshop on recording every session. And last year, the introduced an audio engineering 'major' -- i.e., campers could elect to study recording and engineering all week, instead of picking an instrument to learn.

I wonder if they're going to continue it this summer, and if other camps are offering something similar.