UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 10 Summer 19 Library
Bonnie Gordon

Bonnie Gordon on Feminist Noise

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At this year’s national meeting of the American Musicological Society (AMS), held in San Antonio, UVA’s Bonnie Gordon gave the Endowed Lecture sponsored by the AMS Committee on Women and Gender. We sat down with Dr. Gordon to talk about her lecture and the state of gender studies in music.

Gordon’s talk, Feminist Noise, highlighted some of Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic field work. If you didn’t know, Hurston was an ethnomusicologist, it’s probably because her contributions to music scholarship have been heavily marginalized. As Gordon confirmed, “A lot of music scholars don’t know Hurston’s story or don’t think of her as a musicologist. I wanted to tell a story that was relevant to the field and wanted to do something that would resonate in the moment.”

Gordon, whose research has focused on early modern Italy and Thomas Jefferson, knew she wanted her talk to center on women. She quipped, “I was finishing a book on castrati and researching a lot on testicles, and I thought, ‘I cannot talk any more about testicles!’” While she is not known as a Hurston scholar, Gordon leaned into her non-expertise, encouraging risk-taking and discomfort. “I have been teaching on Zora Neale Hurston for years,” she stated. “But teaching something doesn’t make you an expert in something, so I wanted to talk about something that makes you a little uncomfortable. We teach a lot of things we don't write about, so I wanted to make this public in a sense.”

Gordon’s talk was followed by two respondents, Sindhumathi Revuluri (Harvard) and Deborah Wong (University of California, Riverside), whom she selected. She explained, “I thought it was important to have respondents that brought a different voice to the AMS. Both were women of color. One hadn’t been to an AMS conference in twenty years. I picked the respondents first, and once I had picked them, I wanted to do [a topic] they could engage with.”

Both Revuluri and Wong grappled with figures who, like Hurston, often receive little recognition in music scholarship. Revuluri commented: “Hurston’s work deserves respectful debate—something we obviously cannot engage with if we don’t know the work in the first place. […] We cannot simply elevate forgotten voices to take the place of canonic figures and expect our work to be done. Doing so simply perpetuates the power structure of our field, of the way we make and value knowledge, and of what we believe about ‘truth’ and progress.”

Wong described the Critical Practices Challenge—spearheaded by Indigenous Studies and Critical Ethnic Studies scholars Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang, and Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández—that challenges scholars to cite marginalized thinkers. One facet: “Reflect on the way you approach referencing the work of others in your own writing, presenting and thinking. […] Who are you citing, and why do you cite them (and not others)?”

Dr. Gordon also used her lecture to talk about how living in Charlottesville has changed her scholarship. Gordon has been an outspoken activist in Charlottesville and published a reflection on the sounds of “Unite the Right” on the official AMS blog, Musicology NowShe told us, “Where you are, it just determines what you do, and I just wanted the rest of the field to see that.” She continued, “You very rarely get the floor. You don’t get the floor very many times in your life in the field. [The field] is very small and it doesn’t fight Nazis, but it’s the world we’re in.”

When asked about the future she saw for her lecture, as well as the state of gender studies in music, Gordon was hopeful that the speaker who would follow her would be a woman of color and someone who is engaged in intersectional work. She was also confident that gender would remain an important topic of study for musicologists: “I think gender is not done. I hope the scholarly angle gives people the tools to understand their world. […] I think that would be the hope.”

- Aldona Dye and Stephanie Gunst 

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