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FTM History

How Did This All Start?
Toward a History of the Feminist Theory and Music Phenomenon
Lydia Hamessley
Hamilton College

 As we prepare to meet again, some have suggested that we take a look back at our inaugural meeting in Minneapolis, MN in June of 1991.  You can see the cover for our original brochure here.

The genesis of the first FTM can be traced to the AMS annual meeting in Baltimore, MD in 1988. At that conference, there was an unprecedented critical mass of panels and papers that focused on “women in music.” I recall meeting or hearing for the first time Jane Bowers, Marcia Citron, Susan Cook, Suzanne Cusick, Adrienne Fried Block, Nancy Reich, Ruth Solie, Judith Tick, and Liz Wood, among many others. Suzanne Cusick shared with us her first thoughts about Francesca Caccini’s music. In a standing-room-only ballroom, Susan McClary gave a talk on Monteverdi’s women, singing the part of Eurydice and accompanying herself on the piano. At a Committee on the Status of Women meeting, Rosemary Killam rose in anger when a male audience member (I absolutely cannot remember who it was) suggested that it wasn’t his problem if his female students couldn’t work late in the library because they feared walking across campus late at night. “Oh yes it is, sir; yes it is!” she shouted. Philip Brett hosted his “no-host” gay and lesbian (as it was then called) cocktail party.

Many of us revisited these heady feelings at the next AMS meeting in Austin, TX in 1989. Philip Brett not only hosted a party, but he put together a panel on gay and lesbian issues. The current LGBTQ Study Group came into being right there during the Q&A. Also at that annual meeting about 30 people met in what I recall was a brainstorming session on feminist issues in music. Following the surfeit of panels in Baltimore, people felt somewhat let down by the Austin meeting, and many spoke about their isolation in the home departments. (It was this sense of isolation that led us later to subtitle the conference “Toward a Common Language” – we longed to have something in common with one another and to talk about it.) Before long the word conference arose: wouldn’t it be great if we could all get together for an entire meeting? All eyes looked to Susan McClary…. However, Susan’s busy schedule made her reluctant to take on such a project, and no one else volunteered. As the session broke up, I found myself standing near Suzanne Cusick. As we eyed each other’s name tags (just names and towns; no institutional affiliations for either us then) we realized that we lived within 90 miles of each other. We also realized that we were the ones with the time to devote to putting on a conference: Susan could provide the institutional affiliation such an endeavor would need; we would do the planning. And so we started.

Suzanne and I met one evening about a month later to begin. We formulated guiding questions for the conference, and we discussed whether we wanted a meeting that mirrored the typical academic conference or a one where we all sat around on the floor in our jeans. (You can see our guiding questions and goals in the image of the conference brochure included here).  We couldn’t imagine more than about 25-30 people in attendance, so our earliest thoughts were toward the latter; we initially envisioned no concurrent sessions and a free and comfortable give and take between presenters and audience members.  We expected few formal papers in favor of innovative presentations and participatory workshops.  The final design of the conference, however, was more academic in format, though, I’m happy to say, not in feeling. There was an amazing response to the call for presentations – most, however, in the form of papers.  Ultimately, the program committee opted to accept more papers, even though that would mean concurrent sessions.  In the end, the conference included sixty papers, six plenary sessions, and two concerts.  (You can see the program schedule with session titles in the image of the conference brochure included here).

At that first planning meeting, Suzanne also gave me the good news (for her) that she had just been awarded an NEH grant to work on her new Caccini project, and so she would be unable to work on conference planning with me. Although for a while I felt that I was really on my own, I soon realized that I was in the virtual company of a good number of colleagues who lent me their advice, support, and even names. Philip Brett, Marcia Citron, Susan Cook, Ellen Koskoff, Susan McClary, Ruth Solie, and Elizabeth Wood all agreed to attend the conference and to present at plenary sessions. Thus, I was able to include their names in the early announcements for the conference and the call for papers. Who wouldn’t want to attend such a gathering?

After 18 months of planning in those pre-email/internet days (I learned and used a mail merge program at the corporation where I worked part time packing sales materials), 184 people attended the conference from 25 states, Canada, England, Germany, and the Netherlands. We formed alliances and friendships, we witnessed the first versions of what have become touchstone works (Suzanne’s “On a Lesbian Relationship With Music” is perhaps the most notable), and, yes, we even fought with one another. Uneasy tensions between the men and women surfaced, and the last morning’s plenary wrap-up session brought out festering irritations and offences. Nonetheless, everyone was energized and excited. And we wanted to do it again! On that last day of the conference, we had no idea if there would be another conference, and we certainly didn’t know who would take it on since the conference had no institutional or societal home. But, as has happened now every two years, some brave person or group of people have volunteered their time, energy, and institution. Subsequent FTMs have differed; each has its own feel. There have been more ethnomusicology, theory, and music education sessions; more panels on race, ethnicities, sexualities, popular music, and new music; and more composers and performers in recital (all of which had been original, but unmet goals of ours for FTM1). There has also been a steady stream of new participants, and the demographics of presenters and attendees have shifted to include more people of color. I miss seeing so many names from the past, but I am always excited to learn from the new presenters I look forward to meeting at each new conference.

These musings don’t begin to capture so much of what happened at FTM1. As I went back through my files, I re-discovered snail mail letters from participants, actual hard copies of all the abstracts submitted for inclusion (on dot-matrix printers), budget sheets (we made money!), and the unsuccessful NEH proposal for conference support. One NEH reader actually said, “I was persuaded that this was not the group to address this issue – it included none of the well-established scholars in the field.” Looking back on it, perhaps names like Brett, Citron, Cook, Cusick, Koskoff, McClary, Solie, and Wood were not well-established when FTM started. That we now know and build on their work and that of so many, many others is one of the legacies of the Feminist Theory and Music conferences.

©Lydia Hamessley, 2009, 2015

 Previous FTM Conferences:

FTM12: Clinton, NY (2013)
FTM11: Tempe, AZ (2011)
FTM10: Greensboro, NC (2009)
FTM9: Montreal, ON (2007)
FTM8: New York, NY (2005)
FTM7: Bowling Green, OH (2003)
FTM6: Boise, ID (2001)
FTM5: London, UK (1999)
FTM4: Charlottesville, VA (1997)
FTM3: Riverside, CA (1995)
FTM2: Rochester, NY (1993)
FTM1: Minneapolis, MN (1991)


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