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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

Making Music with Matriarchal Consciousness

by Batya Weinbaum

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    Most composers develop theoretical ideas in the process of making music. I'd like to explain some of mine here. I do this out of dedication to all women who are struggling to learn music.

    How many women have had difficulties studying music in traditional schools? Music schools are usually structured with men on the top teaching ideas and composition, and the women on the bottom teaching technique (how to interpret and render with exactitude the ideas of great men). There is also the style of teaching, a style dedicated to preserving tradition and convention, and handing down forms to be replicated, rather than nurturing sounds from within.1

    Many stories of origin exist showing that women were here first.2 So for years women creators, writers and artists have looked to pre-patriarchal times for strength -- not just in the contemporary feminist period, but earlier, by literary greats such as Virginia Woolf and HD, concurrent with an earlier wave of feminism.3

    hen we look at pre-partriarchal times, we see women were the originators of music and music-making instruments, although some feminist anthropologists criticize the reclamation of these "myths", saying those stories show women as wild, animalistic and primitive, as a justification for the need of taming by men to curb their destructiveness. Or, that these myths glorified women as ephemeral muses. And, there is the large discussion of whether these myths through which we view pre-partriarchal times are real, or projections of consciousness.

    Nevertheless, it is possible to discern that making music with matriarchal consciousness meant making music and art as the basis for community-creation ritual. This is the reverse of today's music, which is made largely alone by specialists on machines in studios and played individually on Walkmans to "open up space" in an individual's head while walking down the street or in a confined situation.

    I assume most of you reading this are concerned with creating social change. Did you know that the kind of music put out affects and even reorganizes culture? Are you familiar with the Basta movement in Jamaica? Well, the oppressed "natives" there put out a reggae sound that fed into and created waves of revolution throughout the culture. It is well known to hunters in India that if they put out a certain sound the deer would jump out of the woods even if that meant to their slaughter; the same was true in Jamaica for blacks -- only it meant out of imposed white civilization into a movement for liberation.

    What does this have to do with the significance of making music with matriarchal consciousness? Well, the universe is created of vibrating waves that only appear to be settled to the bottom of the ground, or into particles, because we can't see the waves of vibration. And male vibrations are actually heavier, or denser, than female vibrations, using the metaphor of sand and the ocean. Female energy is like the ocean, and male energy like silt that has condensed or settled. This is portrayed in Western culture by women's bodies being lithe and light and lifted into the air by men with their feet on the ground in ballet.4 Women's grounding rituals and even their own land hence become important to counterbalance a phenomenon which is manifest in the arms race, where men make bombs to fight wars and protect the particle of land they happened to have condensed on.

    And so, this brings us back to music, or organization of sound. Sound waves can actually part matter, particles, society, the earth, according to wave theory of the universe. So what is matriarchal music-making? What kind of sound can help us get our feet back on the ground?

    First of all, it's making music with what Eric Neumann and other scholars have called matriarchal consciousness.5 Matriarchal consciousness involved the notion that the universe is abundant and nurturing and plentiful, even though, in this culture, where resources are controlled by men and the patriarchy, individual men may be generous with money when so choosing whereas women (mothers), having less access, may be more controlling and stringent. But through early art we see the abundant, giving imagery of matriarchal consciousness, such as the date palm goddess offering food to the surrounding environ.

    Likewise, making music with matriarchal consciousness meant singing to the earth, to return love to her, to encourage her to keep providing with life-sustaining growth. It's making music with inspiration from nature, the moon, and the earth -- rather than making music that takes off on the use of tools.

    Nature-consciousness versus tool-consciousness is a dichotomy which first many anthropologists and later many feminists posed as a dichotomy between men and women.

    But, there have been periods in white Western music history when males, like Romantic composers, have done their work this way.6 And even now, the Windham Hill recording artists are doing it ... and Paul Winter, who takes his instrumentalists and even his recording studio down the Grand Canyon in a raft. This is making music with matriarchal consciousness too, returning to the earth to hear her original music. Beethoven did it, as well: returning to the earth. He took his notebooks to nature and sketched what he heard there, much as the Impressionists took their studios outside to paint. It meant the music would be held together by the lyric, the force, and the sway of the visual imagery that would derive from painting the scenery in sound.

    It's also called poetic consciousness. That's why Ezra Pound, a male poet, got to music later in life. He found that his descriptive poetic images rode the waves of sound. Similarly, he was frustrated with the writing down of music according to grids, harmony and keys. The latter evolved as the masculine tools emerged,7 to fix the feminine swirl of energy: to make it concrete and stably tied to the ground. Only in his music criticism, he wasn't cognizant of the fact that these grids and lines were male tools, and he was quite sexist in his critiques of women musicians of his time.8

    Secondly, making music with matriarchal consciousness is not just jamming. Tribal organizations that lived closer to the earth in which we find more remnants of matriarchal consciousness (as we do with poets, Romantics and Impressionists) had very structured music and dance rituals. In Hawaii, where I studied, one was not invited by the kuma hula teacher or master to chant or drum -- e.g., to make music -- until one had studied in the halau or dance school for 15 years.

    Third, making music with matriarchal consciousness does not mean simply reversing the patriarchy by putting women in the same slots, as those with little or no exposure to feminist culture tend to think. Nor does it mean anti-authoritarian, free form, democratic or "collective". That's making a modern definition of matriarchy to be a kind of knee-jerk to patriarchy. The shamans, or music makers, would go on voyages or visionary quests and return to the group or tribe where they were fed, taken care of, given shelter and listened to for the images of the other world or the messages of spirit they would collect. These were not "processed" or watered down with inputs. These were symbols provided through music and sound to form the consciousness of the community. And traveling musicians, organized to perform at specialized events, only developed when we had dissolution of tribes and the rise of cities, nations and territorialized states, which broke up the way it had been when visions through music would cohere and even decide the location of the group.9

    Fourth, matriarchal music is not cut, pasted and ordered, especially with regard to time. A good metaphor to keep in mind would be that of Susan Griffin, who wrote "Woman and Nature".10 She wrote of the way the wildness of the forest was killed by the ordering, classifying drive of patriarchal civilization that veered towards breaking everything up into categories and boxes. This is also reflected in how music became mensurate, or timed, and delineated down to the nth degree in notation -- sort of a male harnessing of vibrant swirling raw cycling feminine energy, as in a stick and a grid to pin everything down.

    Fifth, the sound of matriarchal music is primitive in the positive sense, or simple.11 Your classical composition teacher would call it minimalist.

    But the matriarchal music-making perspective would say, you don't criticize "OM" for being repetitive; you appreciate it for what it is, and for what it does, which is to clarify the surrounding environmental vibration. Minimal music sounds like a put-down, as if the politics of going back to the simple were not important to reduce an overbureaucratized culture which conceals the fact that quite simply taxes support wars. Making a simple uncomplicated sound can be important to reduce a culture back to harmonious values, as when the Chinese emperor used to send musicians out across the land to collect sounds, to listen them all, and to compose new sound to send out as a way to affect the politics of the state. Although the Confucian state which did that was already patriarchal, we can call this a left-over matriarchal use of sound, as the Chinese in matriarchal times used to have rituals where all would sing and dance and go down to the river to make waves of love to keep the peace before the rise of the state.12

    Another matriarchal element of music-making would be to include hearing the sound of the instrument in front of you, rather than imposing a sound by tuning. A tuning, after all, is developed by a certain culture. There are at least 99 tunings I have at home from all over the world, each of them attached to or common in a specific nation-state or culture, all of which are patriarchal or male-dominated at this time. But there is evidence from myth all over the world, here again using myth as evidence without a lengthy discussion of what myth is, of women who used to walk through the woods and by the waters and ponds and hear the sounds of the reeds and the leaves, and let their music flow from there.13

    In other words, you don't conquer or impose: you listen. An old piano that is deserted in the woods, or occupies an abandoned congregationalist church overlooking the ocean on the Big Island in Maui, may have a sound it wants to communicate to you or through you. It is one's duty as a matriarchal music-maker to discover that sound or particular historic soul vibration, rather than approach the instrument with frequently outmoded fixated frameworks. The "gaps" in the keyboard which usually have functioning keys you are accustomed to playing might even force you to stretch into a new improvisation, or to find and create a new key and in doing so make your music-making more original, more in line with evolution.

    Another aspect of matriarchal sound would be to make do with what you've got. This is making music with what Claude Levi-Strauss and other anthropologists would call bricoleur consciousness.14 This would also be opposed to the civilizing instrumentalist tool-minded consciousness mentioned earlier. (Grids and lines and notation and keys are to be tools, not inhibitors, punitive weapons or punishers as in the work ethic consciousness which dominates music today.15) If we adopt the Eastern, non-Western, perspective that the performer is there to cleanse the group soul of all who are present, there has got to be some alignment of the music depending on the instrument, the player, the time, the hall and the audience. If we stick to the strictly written form, we do not allow for this form of readjustment and realignment; we make "mistakes".

    Black consciousness, which by some black feminist scholars has been opposed to white civilizing consciousness, as has "primitive", "women's" and "matriarchal" consciousness, also has this bricoleur aspect. If you don't have instruments, or tools, you play your thighs; you "make do". And if you don't have access to a concert hall, you "make do" with performing your rap on the streets.

    Making music with matriarchal consciousness is also visual.16 Although a violinist I worked with once had classical training, she got into the flow by looking at my hands as I played the keys. I often play by what the patterns of the keys look like together, and I teach that way too. I use a synaesthetic sense of mixing colors of light that I can perceive, which might be broken down from an original landscape I had been looking at preparing to do a painting. And, I have had the experience of actually painting in sound. "Primitive" minds used to go from a flow of all these senses, too.17 What we are discussing here is a synaesthetic versus abstract grid reality, using a different portion of the brain to see a cove, or colors as a focus, and, the receptors thus being cleared, letting a sound come through. Most cultural critiques have recognized the damaging, depersonalizing effect of the reduction to black and white in Western culture. Some composers, such as Scriabin and Edgard Varese, have revolted against this sterile reality and returned to the use of color, and hence matriarchal reality, in composition, too.

    I have referred to the similarity between matriarchal-ness in music-making and both New Age and Eastern music. Perhaps it comes down to nature versus nurture: do women really make music differently than men, out of our nature, or do we merely suffer from lack of nurturance, or active discouragement, in our own culture?

    The discrimination against women in both black and white Western music culture has been documented, both in the form of active discouragement and then in the form of burial by ignoral.18 But it might be more interesting here to note that the resurgence of interest in Eastern forms of music-making is really a return to matriarchal consciousness. Kay Gardner, a woman composer widely researched in this area, speaks of women making music which is constructed differently than that of male composers altogether.19 It tends to begin with a gesture, she says, and to build gradually, adding one note or gesture at a time.

    Ethnomusicology research shows that Eastern musicians do the same. Further, her descriptions of what she calls women's music sound like what Peter Hamel describes as magical, as opposed to mythical or mental, modes of music.20 I have concluded that this is because the cultures he writes about utilizing this other kind of mode have more goddesses present in their deitic panopticon and hence more cosmic mother, matriarchal consciousness dominating.

    So, similar to New Age or Eastern, primitive music, the compositions which follow come from going to nature and capturing what is there. Not all matriarchal elements are contained within each piece. "Howl Brook" and "Rhode Island Cove 1" were written by going with my instrument of composition, a piano, to the site in a truck. "Rhode Island 2" was written on the principle of "make do with what you've got", for women's instruments: vacuum cleaner, broom, blender, knitting needles. "The Ancestors" playfully adds the instrument of breath, of both players and audience, to remind us that all music begins in the music of the body, and to break down the arbitrary audience/performer division, to recapture moments of our ancestral musical times when music was centered in a communing ritual. An instrument from nature, a feather, is used, to remind us that (mother) nature made instruments and tools before man did; and the breath is playfully scored and conducted with this feather to buffoon the notion that the basic sound of the universe would not operate free of the score anyway. "The Peace of Vermont in the Wintertime" derives from visual imagery of the player, trying to capture the essence of creation of primitive sound which comes from singing of favorite places and reveling in appreciation for the universe.

    This essay was prepared for delivery at the "Waves for Peace" performance of the composer's work, Northampton Center for the Arts, December 8, 1987, and revised for the New England Women's Musical Retreat, 1988. The composer thanks Oak, Peggy, Jesse, Laurie, Nancy Wiegersma, Sharon Leder, Karen Tarlow, Silvia, Aro and others for support, research, talk and discussion. More copies of this essay or recorded tapes of the music (Music of the Sea, Movement for the Ancestors) can be obtained from the composer at Box 101, Worcester, Vermont 05682. Thanks also to the National and New York Women's Studies Association for providing a forum to present this essay, and Women's Studies at SUNY BUF for funding the research.


  1. See Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice and Mind, Mary Belensky, et al. (Basic Books, 1988), for male vs. female style.
  2. See for example Susan Cavin, Lesbian Origins, (Ism Press, 1985); or Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother (Harper and Row, 1986).
  3. Private conversations with Pat Kramer, Ellen Jacobs. See for example Jane Harrison's Ancient Ritual into Art (Holt, 1913), which inspired many; or HD's Helen in Egypt, a poetic journey.
  4. Of course much of this is cultural. In Hawaiian chant and dance, often the women chanters are larger, their voices are deeper, and small wiry men chant in falsetto and dance hula in block. This developed in response to imperialism which outlawed women dancing.
  5. See Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype (Princeton University Press, 1964), the best of this genre.
  6. For example, Great Orchestral Music: A Treasury of Program Notes, Collier Books, New York, discusses Beethoven as having an "instinct" or "intuition" which kept him from allowing "mere delineation" to become his ideal. In the Sixth Symphony is "the eternal charm of the country, the deathless voice the composer heard in brook and breeze, in wind and brook. He too, in Andante Molto Mosso (B-flat, 12/8), expressed 'true nature,' imitating sights and sounds of the rippling brook. He laughed at the idea of 'a musical painting' but much of his music is like that."
  7. Culminating in the end of the baton -- where "everything is concentrated, if the conductor is good" -- writes Philip Hart in Conductors, A New Generation (Hart, 1979). Is it any wonder that musicopsychologists discuss the conductor as father figure? And so we are omitted by the form male music takes.
  8. See Pound on Music, ed. by Schaeffer. From his music criticism for The New Age in London.
  9. From Shamanism to Show Business, by Rogan Taylor.
  10. Griffin, The Roaring Inside Her (Harper and Row, 1979).
  11. Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization (Transaction Books, 1987), takes all the colonialism out of this term.
  12. Sukie Colgrave, Spirit of the Valley: The Masculine and Feminine in the Human Psyche (JP Torch, Los Angeles, 1981).
  13. Listen to women entertaining themselves through full moon dancing and self-created music in, for example, Women's Music from Ghana, Folkways Records album #FE 4257 (1981). 43 West 61st Street, New York, New York 10023.
  14. See Claude Levi-Strauss, Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1968).
  15. Here's an example of anti-matriarchal music, Hans von Bulow, cited in The Piano in America, 1890-1940, Craig Rowell, (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill), chapter 1, page 8: "I crucify, like a good Christ, the flesh of my fingers, in order to make them obedient, submissive machines to the mind, as a pianist must." This was part of the Victorian work ethic, in which (page 9) "The piano was to be conquered by the most forceful means..." Scale studies and exercises had to be practiced "with power and energy" several hours a day. This is opposed to the effortless matriarchal music, for example, in which Pele and Hiiaka walked from island to island in A Myth from Hawaii by Nathaniel Emerson (Charles Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont, 1978), singing to make the ocean give rise to fish and men to bridges and in general to achieve greater atunement in life.
  16. It could also be considered right-brain as opposed to left-brain. Teaching for the Two-Sided Mind (A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York) by Linda Verlee Williams, highlights left- and right-brain characteristics we might also call partriarchal and matriarchal in music. The left, she says, is analytical and linear like a computer, sequential, working step-by-step, while the right goes for patterns and wholes, and deals more in visuo-spatial capacities, more like a kaleidoscope, simultaneously combining its parts to create a rich variety of patterns, reshuffling and reassembling pieces in different relation to each other.
  17. See Rudolf Steiner, Cosmic Consciousness, on the evolution and interchangeability of what we think of as separated sense perceptions.
  18. On the burial of women in music, in Unsung: A History of Women in American Music (Greenwood Press, 1980), Christine Ammer writes that "indeed women have been writing and performing msusic for as long as men have. But owing to the social climate of earlier times, their work went unnoticed, unpublished, unperformed, and was quickly forgotten." For discouragement, see several articles in Women in Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present, edited by Carol Neuls-Bates (Harper and Row, 1982), particularly the section on "The Woman Composer Question" and "Should Women Perform in the Same Orchestra as Men?" She points out the active discouragement, that some instruments were considered unfeminine (introduction). Some have documented how this burial and active discouragement affected black women specifically. See Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras (Scarecrow, 1981) and Sally Placksin, American Women in Jazz, 1900 to the Present (Seaview, New York, 1982).
  19. See interview in Gayle Kimball, Women's Cultural Renaissance of the 70's (Metuchen, New Jersey, 1981).
  20. [note unavailable]