Toward A Matriarchal Aesthetic Of Music

On a feminist theory of ‘matriarchy’ and music by Meredith Monk, Tania León and Alice Coltrane.

‘Meredith Monk – On Behalf of Nature’ by Steven Pisano. Cropped from source. Creative Commons.

      By Alexander K. Rothe

In the early 1980s—when the world seemed to be on the brink of a nuclear war—feminist authors on both sides of the Berlin Wall turned to matriarchal studies as a way of criticizing the militaristic and destructive nature of patriarchal societies. In East Germany, where there was no independent women’s movement and feminism was forbidden by the state, authors such as Christa Wolf and Irmtraud Morgner based their understanding of matriarchy on the anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen and the Marxist texts of Friedrich Engels and August Bebel.

Bachofen’s 1861 book Mother Right describes the course of human history as a transition from matriarchy to patriarchy, where the matriarchal stage is one in which kinship is matrilineal and human relations are peaceful and egalitarian. Also influenced by Bachofen, West German feminists—in particular Heide Göttner-Abendroth—had a more critical interpretation of the matriarchal theories of the past. In her 1982 book The Dancing Goddess, Göttner-Abendroth rejects the essentialism of Bachofen and his depiction of matriarchal societies as being more primitive. Instead, she views matriarchy as a ‘societal form’ with many different cultural manifestations, and it is her aim to investigate the specific socio-historical changes leading to its demise.

Although these matriarchal texts were very much a product of their time (the early 1980s), I argue that they are helpful for considering the current political and cultural climate, which is threatened by a similar sort of destructive patriarchal thinking. Even though the composers and artists discussed below did not explicitly draw on matriarchal theory—with perhaps the exception of Tania León—the matriarchal concept is nevertheless an effective tool for highlighting particular aspects of the music that are often disregarded as a result of the values underlying existing musical canons.

A matriarchal aesthetic of music de-emphasizes the composer’s role in favor of collaboration. It also interrogates different kinds of musical hierarchies (formal, genre, institutional), drawing attention to the gender inequality that is bound up with them. Such an aesthetic does not assume a timeless essence or group of style features that all female composers share in common. The matriarchal aesthetic is a historical approach that takes into account the specific cultural context. Finally, it is an approach that emphasizes the agency of female composers and artists in the creation and negotiation of social reality.

My argument is that matriarchal studies provides a new perspective for feminist music scholarship, one that explores spirituality and ways of thinking about difference that are in keeping with the difference models outlined by Ruth Solie and Olivia Bloechl and Melanie Lowe. More specifically, a matriarchal aesthetic critically interrogates those values underlying the Western art music tradition that are often falsely assumed to be universal and naturally given.

Meredith Monk’s Atlas 

Inspired by Alexandra David-Néel’s book Magic and Mystery in Tibet, Meredith Monk’s Atlas (1991) is an opera about the spiritual quest of Alexandra Daniels—a woman who is presented at three stages in her life, each performed by a different singer. In place of a conventional libretto, the text consists of mainly non-verbal vocalizations.

Drawing on Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, Renée Cox Lorraine investigates the possibility of a musical kind of écriture féminine (‘feminine writing’) —a mode of composing that refers back to the ‘rhythmic, presymbolic play of mother-infant communication in the infant’s preoedipal stage of fusion with the mother.’ In 1976 Monk discussed her treatment of the voice in similar terms: ‘a tool for discovering, activating, remembering, uncovering, demonstrating primordial/prelogical consciousness.’ One could argue that Monk’s use of non-verbal vocalizations captures what Lorraine describes as jouissance (‘pleasure’)—a mode uninhibited by the patriarchal constraints of symbolic language.

There is a second way in which Monk’s Atlas reflects matriarchal thinking. At various points in the opera, Monk juxtaposes matriarchal and patriarchal societies. The scene Agricultural Community depicts a society in harmony with the earth, as conveyed by the music’s dance-like asymmetrical meters and the harmonious layering of ostinatos. In contrast, Possibility of Destruction is an apocalyptic scene of soldiers and heavy industry. The music here is highly dissonant and disorienting, with its juxtaposition of asynchronized layers of contrasting rhythmic and melodic material.

In Earth Seen from Above, Monk presents us with a vision of a matriarchal order that exists in us all as listeners. She writes in her 1989 process notes: ‘This music has the radiance and resonance that implies the existence of an invisible world that underlies what we think reality is but that we rarely notice or connect with.’ The text of this scene consists of only two syllables (‘nn’ and ‘doh’), and the music conveys the impression of bells ringing at different points in space. Composed for seven parts (SSAATTB), the piece begins with altos and sopranos alone, gradually filling in the notes of a first-inversion major triad. Variations of a simple dotted rhythm appear in each of the parts, resulting in an echo effect between the voices. The steady pulse and slowly moving harmonies give the piece a feeling of timelessness.

Finally, Monk’s collaborative process demonstrates what I take to be her matriarchal mode of production. In addition to being the composer of Atlas, Monk is a performer and contributes to the choreography and the stage and costume design. In contrast to the traditional hierarchal structure of the opera house, the members of Monk’s vocal ensemble are both soloists and ensemble singers. Moreover, Monk’s compositional process leaves room for the performers to improvise. It wasn’t until later in the collaborative process that she notated her music. Overall, her working process distributes creative responsibilities in a more egalitarian fashion.

Tania León’s Scourge of Hyacinths

Based on a radio play by the Nobel-Prize winner Wole Soyinka, Tania León’s 1994 opera Scourge of Hyacinths tells the story of Miguel Domingo, a man unjustly sentenced to death by a military regime in Nigeria. Miguel’s mother pleads with him not to escape prison, invoking the protection of the Yoruba goddess Yemanja. The water hyacinths, a potent symbol of how the military regime violates the civil rights of its people, prevent Miguel from reaching Yemanja’s sacred island. Soyinka’s play captures the tragic confrontation of a matriarchal society with a patriarchal one.

León, who was born in Cuba and is partly of West African ancestry, describes how her own mother would pray to Yemanja in the form of the Virgin Mary, since African religions were forbidden in Cuba. León recalls how she composed Oh Yemanja (‘Mother’s Prayer’) after asking her mother to sing the traditional Yemanja melody from her childhood.

Freely adapted from Soyinka’s play, Oh Yemanja is a prayer sung by Miguel’s mother to the goddess Yemanja, asking the latter for protection of her son. The prayer juxtaposes imagery of clear water, associated with the goddess’s wisdom and guidance, with that of the muddied water obstructed by the ‘fulsome hyacinths’. The clarity of Yemanja’s vision is conveyed by the diatonicism of the piano’s introductory music, which is then interrupted by a chromatic cello line—a sonic image of the muddied waters. The voice begins with a tritone motif that returns throughout the song whenever the mother sings the words Oh Yemanja. Apart from this motivic continuity, the song is through-composed, and the cello line is gradually integrated into Yemanja’s tonal world. The voice remains unresolved at the end, foreshadowing the opera’s tragic outcome. Through the mixture of declamation and lyricism in the vocal writing, we as listeners are meant to sympathize and identify with the mother’s character.

Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda

Guthrie Ramsey refers to a tradition within Afro-modernism that moves beyond the latter’s male-oriented discourse of freedom. The era of Afro-modernism (1940s through the 1970s) saw unprecedented changes for blacks across the globe, including decolonization of Africa, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Consciousness Movement. Women played a key role in this era, and this is particularly evident in the music of the time. Be that as it may, women are often excluded from historical accounts of this era, as a result of the preoccupation with the freedom of the male body and identity. Alluding to the music of Alice Coltrane and Mary Lou Williams, Ramsey points to ‘alternative epistemologies’ within Afro-modernism that go beyond the freedom discourse to address such important values as spiritual growth and community building.

After her husband John Coltrane passed away in 1967, Alice Coltrane (née McLeod) recorded a number of highly original albums that—continuing along the lines of John Coltrane—explored the possibility of using music as a pathway to spiritual enlightenment. As Tammy Kernodle points out, although women were frequently barred from participating in free jazz and avant-garde experimentation, Alice Coltrane pushed the genre in new directions that made her one of the most innovative musicians and composers of the time period.

Alice Coltrane’s outstanding creativity and spirituality are especially evident in her fourth album, Journey in Satchidananda (1971). She recorded the album after meeting Swami Satchidananda, a profound spiritual mentor who guided her study of Hinduism. Alice was particularly moved by the swami’s teachings on self-realization and universal love, themes that would frequently appear in her subsequent albums. As discussed by Franya Berkman, this was the first of Alice’s albums to explore non-Western instruments and ideas. In its title track, we hear Alice perform harp alongside Pharoah Sanders on saxophone, Cecil McBee on bass, Tulsi on tamboura, Rashied Ali on drums, and Majid Shabazz on bells and tambourine. An unusual solo instrument in jazz, the harp enabled Alice to explore new sonorities and textures. On this track, Sanders and Alice take turns soloing above the Satchidananda melody, which occurs in the bass as an ostinato figure. This melody later became a hymn when Alice founded her own spiritual center, the Sai Anantam Ashram, in California in 1983. Alice Coltrane’s music effectively breaks down the barrier between performance and ritual spaces.

A list of further reading appears at the bottom of the page.

Alexander K. Rothe is a Core Lecturer at Columbia University. His research interests are opera staging, Regieoper, Wagner Studies, and new music. He is currently working on a book project on stagings of Wagner’s Ring cycle and afterlives of 1968 in divided Germany. Visit his website for more information.

Further Reading

Berkman, Franya J. 2010. Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Bloechl, Olivia and Melanie Lowe. 2015. ‘Introduction: Rethinking Difference.’ In Rethinking Difference in Music Scholarship, edited by Olivia Bloechl, Melanie Lowe, and Jeffrey Kallberg, 1-52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Göttner-Abendroth, Heide. 1991. The Dancing Goddess: Principles of a Matriarchal Aesthetic. Translated by Maureen T. Krause. Boston: Beacon Press. (See also the original: Die tanzende Göttin: Prinzipien einer matriarchalen Ästhetik. Munich: Verlag Frauenoffensive, 1982.)

Jowitt, Deborah, ed. 1997. Meredith Monk. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Kernodle, Tammy L. 2010. ‘Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Alice Coltrane and the Redefining of the Jazz Avant-Garde.’ In John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music, edited by Leonard L. Brown, 73-98. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lorraine, Renée Cox. 1991. ‘Recovering Jouissance: Feminist Aesthetics and Music.’ In Women and Music: A History, edited by Karin Pendle, 3-20. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ramsey, Guthrie P. 2017. ‘Afro-modernism and Music: On Science, Community, and Magic in the Black Avant-Garde.’ In The Transformation of Black Music: The Rhythms, the Songs, and the Ships That Make the African Diaspora, edited by Samuel A. Floyd Jr., Melanie L. Zeck, and Guthrie P. Ramsey, 155-172. New York: Oxford University Press.

Solie, Ruth A. 1995. ‘Introduction: On ‘Difference.’ In Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, edited by Ruth A. Solie, 1-22. Berkeley: University of California Press.