Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Abbie Conant

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a talk and concert by one of the world's most accomplished and polished trombone virtuosi, Abbie Conant. She and her husband (both New Mexico natives, I might add), composer William Osborne, collaborated on a two large multimedia performance art pieces, which were presented last night here in Redlands.

The first, Cybeline, features Conant portraying a cyborg trying to assume the role of a talk show host in order to prove that she is human, and interrogates the gender-coded aspects of technology and sexual violence. It is an effective contemplation of the effects of mass media on our humanity and the "programmability of the mind". The work is vivid and immediate; Conant's own animations are projected onto a screen as the images of the cyborg's conscious and unconscious thoughts.

The second work, Music for the End of Time, is a stunning piece for trombone, quadraphonic electronic sound, and video. This "dramatic tone poem" seamlessly unfolds, not in the least part due to Conant's impeccable technique and haunting sound, providing not only some of the most violent, ominous music I've heard, but also some of the most plaintively beautiful. The last major section of the work is a true gem-- flawless in both its construction and execution.

"You know the problem, we need a man for the solo trombone.”
--Munich Philharmonic conductor Sergui Celibidache

Aside from these remarkable works, Abbie and Bill have become a strong voice for the cause of gender parity in orchestras. Upon winning the solo (principal, as we say in America) trombone spot via audition for the Munich Philharmonic in 1980 (an audition that was 'screened', meaning that the panel did not see the auditioning performers until after the process was over), Abbie was immediately demoted to second chair because she was a woman. The quote above, from the orchestra's misogynist conductor, was given as the reason.
This was in clear violation of the rules governing orchestra labor (any demotion must be clearly justified and preceded by a number of written warnings), so Conant took the orchestra to court.

In Europe, orchestras are government-funded (which makes their extreme sexism even less defensible), which caused not a small conflict of interest-- Conant was ostensibly suing the city (which "owns" the orchestra, so to speak), which also had the say in channeling the case to specific judges. In the end, Conant had to "redo" the audition for a court-appointed expert, and was put through a grueling 45-minute "re-audition". In a bizarre move disgustingly similar to the racist craniology experiments of the late 19th century, they even had her undergo medical tests regarding lung capacity and other physical traits (assuming that as a woman, she wouldn't have the same physical abilities of a man; the doctors who examined her thought she was some kind of professional athlete, based on the results).

After she eventually won her seat back (after 8 years in the orchestra playing second and six years of litigation), it was then discovered that she was being paid less than the male wind soloists-- about $800 less per month. The orchestra's management lied in subsequent litigation. Conant eventually obtained documents to prove otherwise, and won another series of court cases. This was the longest labor dispute in the state of Bavaria-- all said, Conant was involved in 13 years of litigation. Though because of the length of the court cases (much of it do to stalling at the behest of the city and orchestra management), the statute of limitations had run out on a number years of back-pay.

The whole story is here, detailed expertly by her husband, William Osborne. My cursory retelling can't really do it justice-- the extreme efforts that the orchestra's management went to in order to force her out are astounding as they are maddening.

Conant and Osborne, along with International Alliance for Women in Music, were also at the forefront of protests that forced the Vienna Philharmonic to end its policy of only having men (more specifically, white men) in the orchestra-- which only happened in 1997.

Things are better, seemingly, in American orchestras-- upwards of 40% of U.S. orchestras are women, and the trend is for the number to hopefully get closer to 50%. There still are very few female brass principals, but Conant provides a fantastic role model for female orchestral musicians here and in Europe especially, having taken a big chunk out of that particular glass ceiling.