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Nat Jobbins on playing with gender and music

When Virginia Woolf hand-sewed the bindings of over a thousand copies of Orlandoin 1928, she stood unflinchingly in front of The Canon and looked it square between the eyes. It was a bold move, an act of trickery, to smuggle a transsexual main character right onto heteronormative English bookshelves. And, willingly deceived, the English reading public relished the trick – Orlandoteased them with masculinity in a corset and femininity flaunting a cutlass. Her inversions of gender were saucy and taboo. The Canon did not crack, but Virginia Woolf certainly left it a little disgruntled.

I am not very saucy or taboo, and to my knowledge have not disgruntled any canons. In fact I do not think that has ever been my plan, for both the literary and musical canons have moved me in enormous and humbling ways. I owe them, and to blacklist canonised artists in order to make room for the art of those whose identities have been systematically excluded from history does not seem like a solution to underrepresentation to me. There is always room for more art.

And yet in 2019 we need a Female Composers Festival. I would engage open-mindedly with anyone who approaches me to dispute this but I am almost certain I would walk away from the chat with the same belief. It is so deeply necessary it is almost terrifying. The lines along which inequalities are marked out are still in sharp focus: notions of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, disability (to suggest a non-exhaustive list) are well-absorbed into our experience of being. Even when these lines are purposefully blurred, the act of doing so reminds us that a boundary exists, and that we have crossed it. They permeate our legal systems, our health service, our international policy – and, most bizarrely, our individual sense of identity.

I remember being a child – a child, not a girl. A lot of the time, I was a pirate; sometimes I was a dog. My accomplices were two tiny painted plaster bears named Horris and Fishycare. Horris wore a pink dress, Fishycare blue dungarees. Our most pioneering adventures were up trees and on the beach, and I believe Fishycare once sustained minor injuries when a tea towel parachute failed to open on time. Then school began teaching half the children ballet and the other half football, and whilst I quite liked the CD minuet compilation I felt distinctly ridiculous in a pastel leotard.

The change from experiencing life as a child to life as a girl was drip-feed slow. Over a span of years, the line separating ballet-dancers from footballers appeared, at first almost invisible, then with more definition, and eventually as a groove – the Grand Canyon maybe! – that was simply impossible to miss. Other lines have appeared too, mapping out the differences of the world in increasingly scrupulous detail – they have been engraved into the mechanism through which I perceivethe world. There are sensory cues that conventionally inform me of the gender of a person, and it requires an active disregard for these cues in order to leave a judgment of gender unrealised. It was assumed, for instance, that I am eligible to take part in a Female Composers Festival. I often wonder if the blueprint for inequality is the assumption of difference.

How to proceed, then? Disruption, dislocation, revolt? Sensitive, open-minded discussions? A five-minute Ted Talk to turn everyone into an instant expert on gender equality?

It is hard to tell. The picture is too multi-dimensional, and any point of entry will predicate an approach that seems at once entirely appropriate from the angle at which the picture is viewed and entirely nonsensical from other angles. In Iceland, primary school children are separated by a gender binary for half of the school day, in a government effort to foster and normalise traditionally masculine behaviours in girls and feminine behaviours in boys. In the UK, discrimination laws have undergone serious revision since the first Equal Pay Act, to debatable success. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sexis to this day still worth a read.

This may be bleak, optimistic or perplexing. I do not know which it is, but I do know this: empowerment is a strange word. Empowerment means being thrown a rope across the Grand Canyon when you were busy sculpting a beautiful bridge. It would be ludicrous to refuse the rope if it were a gesture of welcome from the other side of the canyon, and the people on the other side might not like the imposition of a bridge anyway. But a bridge could have stayed in place and been crossed by anyone, in any direction, and would leave no one reliant on being thrown a rope. If it is empowerment underpinning an effort towards equality, we should not be surprised when the results seem unsustainable.

It relieves me that music can involve more bridge-building than rope-throwing. This is not always the case, and indeed it is an inconvenient truth that every time I sit down at the piano in a jazz orchestra or a small band, I ask myself whether I am here because of my ability, or because of my gender. It is an exhausting question, and one that I am likely not alone in asking, but it is a question I feel a responsibility, reasonably or not, to ask. Nevertheless, it is through music that I have seen the lines mapping out inequality most effectively bent, pushed around, played with – for challenges can be playful! – and it is through music that I have found the most clarity in my own thoughts on marked identities.

Jazz in particular, I have found, is a complicated map. Its history does not begin in western Europe, and the translations, transformations and appropriations of a black Atlantic music whose modern amalgam is the rich and varied European and American jazz scene thriving today were not free from conflict or unrest. Even now, there is a perpetual tug-of-war between the urge to gain institutional credibility and the importance of preserving an inclusive, ground-up space in which the music can be made. Its interactions, too, with hip hop, blues, popular music, classical music, and the myriad dubious geographical categories of the “world music” monolith, become sites for playing with identity.

For it is playingwith identity that keeps the map reshuffling! Kicking up the dust every time it settles, scattering the mosaic whenever it starts to form a picture. Play was the word for my adventures with Horris and Fishycare when the world was not gendered, and play, too, can unravel the gendered world.

I play, I play, I play. Music, with music, with identity in music. With an identity. It is very difficult to open a Female Composers Festival without assuming the identity of a female composer, but it is at least possible to play with femaleness, to play with what it means to be a composer and not simply to do composition, to play with what composing is.

And to play piano. The act of making music on an instrument is an act of playing. I find this most joyful because it is the same play that once allowed me to be a pirate most of the time and a dog sometimes – it needs no reason and all imagination. Virginia Woolf played words and with words, and I often wonder if she was ever a pirate or a dog. I might not play anything with the brilliance of Orlando, or come anywhere close to disgruntling a canon, but for as long as play can probe and shuffle and scatter markers of identity, I think I will give it a go.


Nat will be giving a Jazz recital alongside members of the Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra on 26th January in Jesus College Chapel at 9.30pm.

Free admission, with a collection for Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre

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