Music at its finest moments is often described as transcendent. The word transcendence means to move beyond the binary concepts with which the human mind all so often uses to understand and categorize reality as we perceive it. The eternal, for example, is the way time transcends the binary concepts so often used to describe it: "new and old" or "past and future." These terms only have meaning in a relative sense, whereas something becomes transcendent once it takes on absolute meaning. The "soul" or "spirit" is a transcending of the mind-body duality. And gender too, which is to be the topic of this essay, is transcended in the idea of the human, which dissolves the binary opposition of female and male.
We all know that music strives for the universal and the best music actually achieves it. Yet the path to achieve this is anything but free of gender bias. Aspiring musicians, particularly in the world of jazz and improvised music, are often taught that playing well means playing in a masculine way. For example, it is not an uncommon criticism regarding an unconfident performance that it "has no balls." This comment is dealt out to male and female musicians alike. The overt meaning of this is that good music sounds masculine, and this runs contrary to our idea that good music achieves the universal. A female musician hearing such a criticism is being told that her sex organs somehow put her at a disadvantage for playing good music. Conversely, a male musician hearing this is being told that there is something wrong with his sexuality, that they have the proper machinery but somehow the apparatus is defunct. In either case, music teachers who resort to such are giving no constructive criticism about a person's playing and one wonders how they came to be teachers in the first place. But let us be generous for a moment and overlook the blatant misogyny behind the phrase "playing with balls." Even if we consider it only to be a figure of speech, the implication is that confidence are aspects of the masculine. This association, however, is arbitrary; when one examines passion and confidence in their abstracted form, one cannot discern any intrinsic gender value attached to them. Passion and confidence are considered aspects of good playing not because they are inherently masculine, but because they necessary skills for expressing the human, which moves beyond the gender dichotomy.
Free improvisation is a kind of music we play completely out of nothing, with no pre-established form or structure, and with no reliance on the contrivances of genre. This makes it distinct from jazz or other kinds of music where improvisation is a salient feature. In other kinds of music an idea of what the music sounds like already exists before the performers play it, and this draws one's attention outward. In this way, we can say that much music making is extroverted. Free improvisation, however, often requires an intense inward looking, for the only place you will find musical material is within yourself and who you are in relation to the others you are playing with. It is little wonder that many improvisers describe the experience of playing music to be spiritual, because it is intrinsically meditative. And the fact that one must look inward to discover the place in the outer world is a chief aspect of the mystical experience. To play improvised music well you need to know yourself, and knowledge of oneself requires selflessness. The self transcends its particularity, which means it transcends its gender as well. Being female or male is a particular aspect of the more generalized state of being human.
So how does our sex relate to the music we create? We must be aware of it in order to transcend it. This, we think, could be done in two possible ways. One way is that an aspiring musician could be aware of the inherent genderlessness of music and aim to overcome their ego, whether it be a male or female ego, in their performance. Alternatively, one could cultivate the masculine and feminine of their playing so that they are in balance. Right now, in both music education and performance, there is much cultivation of the masculine ego and much disregard for the feminine, a practice encouraged in both male and female performers alike, as we have discussed. If the feminine was cultivated more to balance out the masculine, then, in perfect balance, the music would dissolve the ego of performer and audience member alike. We are sexless before the sublime even if we are very much gendered in the quotidian. Music is the gateway to the sublime, and we must be prepared to shed the garb of our gender if we are to enter through its majestic gate.
Co-written by Yukari and Sean Ali