Review by Liz Dexter
This is a collection of writing by women about music, mainly about women in music, put together by visual artist, musician and writer Kim Gordon and music journalist, author and anthology editor Sinéad Gleeson, specifically to challenge the prevailing narrative of male writers writing about male musicians. In it you’ll find a lively group of essays pushing and jostling for attention, and covering every area from making music on your own or together to learning an instrument to being a gushing fan, to reclaiming lost stories and bringing them into the light.
In the introduction, musician Heather Leigh shares that although she doesn’t have the same background as any of the contributors, each piece evokes a memory from her own life in some way, as she expertly negotiates the variety of essays we find here and weaves them through with her own story. Author Anne Enright opens the collection with a bang and a twist when talking about fandom and musician Laurie Anderson, setting the tone for a set of pieces that mix the personal and confiding with the brave and bold stories of mainly female musicians. There are differences, though, too: Enright stresses that her musical experience is a lone experience, not one of fellowship and mutuality; this differs strongly from the community underlined by some of the other contributors.
There’s politics here, too – with a small and a large p. Fatima Bhutto’s essay about the effect of music on her and her father in exile, and the political effects of music on a larger scale, was both informative and moving: “What is it about song that threatens dictators so much?” she asks. Leslie Jamison’s piece, centred around eight mix tapes she’s encountered through her life, looks at gender politics through tapes made for her by men, then ending up with one she made herself of women artists during lockdown, inspiringly.
Kim Gordon’s interview with Yoshimi Yokota, her collaborator but also drummer and mainstay of several other groups, was fascinating, telling about her different approaches to making music and, perhaps most, her grandma’s reaction to going to one of her gigs, standing on a chair, screaming and having the most fun. Sinéad Gleeson takes a deep dive into the experimental pioneer Wendy Carlos’ life and creativity, just as she almost slips into obscurity; her music is not available anywhere and take-downs are issued if anything is shared. Gleeson reclaims her early work with Bob Moog (yes, of synthesiser fame) which helped with the synthesisers’ early development, as she could do things with them that Moog himself was unable to. Looking at the practice of music in a different way, Ottessa Moshfegh shares memories of her piano teacher, Valentina: although she didn’t become a professional pianist, she says without Valentina, “I don’t know if I would have become a writer”.
My favourite piece might have been Megan Jasper’s essay about her time working at the Sub Pop record label, working her way up from “girl who answered the phones” to CEO, probably because this one did chime most with my own music experience, many of the bands I loved in my 20s and early 30s being on the label. It was wonderful to get that insider’s perspective and stories.
As with any collection, there are going to be some pieces that chime more and some that are less personally accessible. I struggled a little with the piece on grime and drill music, which was a shame, as I wanted to find out more about these genres; the fault is entirely my own. I enjoyed reading about half-known and little known musicians as well as reading about ones I knew well, and there’s bound to be a treat for everyone. I read an advanced reader’s copy, so the very short quotations might not be accurate to the eventual publication.
Liz Dexter loves to read about music, as well as loving reading and music. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.
Kim Gordon and Sinead Gleeson (eds.), This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music (White Rabbit, 2022). 978-0857829078, 272 pp., hardback.
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