Interview with Ine Vanoeveren

©VISI.ON.AIR

Belgian flutist and Doctor of Musical Arts, Ine Vanoeveren is specialized in contemporary music performance. In 2017, Ine toured through the US with her solo program UN(!)limited(?) and lectured at several renowned universities, such as University of California, San Diego, New York University, City University of New York and McGill University at Montréal, Canada. As a soloist, Ine focuses on physically challenging and demanding pieces with an embodied, corporeal result. This approach also led to the creation of several performance art installations. In addition to performing, Ine is an assistant professor in contemporary music and extended flute techniques at the Royal Conservatory of Liège, artistic researcher and head of the research group ‘Creation’ at AP Plantijn Hogeschool Antwerp – Conservatory of Antwerp.

Talking about her research:

My research was about one particular work, Cassandra’s Dream song from Ferneyhough and that was because I wanted to play all of his works that he had written for flute in one single concert. Cassandra’s Dream song is his most known work and I had already played it at a master class. When I started to find more information about the work, I automatically ended up with gigantic gender discussions. The first people who played this piece were men. This is logical because in the 1970s there were demographically fewer female performers that played this kind of music. It was being said that men are very rational and play rationally and that women play hysterically and all over the place. In the 90’s Ferneyhough himself sent a quote out into the world: “The piece has a free structure and, because of that, many different interpretations. I find that many performers, especially women, make no logical aggregation between the two pages”. So, he also points out that women are not rational enough to play this work. When I confronted him about this, he said “oh, I do not remember saying such a thing”. Then there came an opposition, a feminist investigation. I found these sources very interesting to read, but I did not agree with it at all. They still had the same stereotyping and a polarization between male and female. My research is about what is attributed to female and male in terms of notation, the goal was to abandon this way of thinking and to obtain a more global conceptual interpretation. If you get an analysis lesson or a lesson in interpretation here at the Conservatory, they look deeper into classical works and you learn about the sonata form, where the first theme is the masculine one, it is cheerful and rhythmic and the second theme is female, it is more lyrical and melodic. This terminology is something we should not use anymore. So that was actually my motivation. Even when I was still living here in Belgium, I was less aware of the disguised sexism that prevails everywhere. My eyes were opened when moving to the US. There you have that really hard sexism that is in your face, like Trump. But with coming back here, I have become very frustrated. I saw how much passive and underlying sexism there actually was. And that is something that I did not know about, because we are not sufficiently aware of this as a girl and a woman. And by gaining awareness, this really shook me. I studied at UCSD and there they work towards a really positive quota. So, if you have two equal candidates there, they will choose for the woman instead of the man, which of course brings about a whole series of comments from white men who suddenly feel discriminated, which is totally not the case. You have a lot of sexism there, especially in composition. That is a very male dominated discipline. Also, in competitions where women will participate, they have to introduce themselves to an all-male panel. Here in Belgium it is still the same. Also, in the research department you still have to stand in front of a male jury. Many of my male colleagues say that it is not as bad as you think when talking about sexism in our time. To which I say: “Yes, it’s not that bad for you as a white man”. There is very little awareness. There is a clarinet competition, very internationally known, and someone sent me a picture of it. There were fifteen jurors, but none were female. I recognized one of the male jurors, who they had to fly in from China. But looking for a female juror is apparently too difficult a task. It is customary to stay within the boys’ club and if nobody goes against it, it will never change.

Fanny Mendelssohn: After one of her concerts, people would tell her she played like a man. How do you feel about this comment? I get told that a lot myself, because in contemporary music I tend to go to the physical music. And this physicality is still linked to male playing. You now also have many female composers who write very aggressively or very violently, which is then said to have a very masculine writing style. It is always the same archaic, Western characteristic to pit those two sides against each other: these are male qualities and these are female qualities. When people make this comment to me, I’m really against it. I experienced this when playing all those works by Ferneyhough, which had never been done before. What I was told then was that I was the first woman to do that. But no, I’m the first person to do this. I also played the same concert in New York and there were a lot of people in the hall, but then I took a good look and I saw that there were no women in the audience. I was standing on stage alone as a woman in front of a bunch of men. That’s really weird, but what you get from that is that Ferneyhough’s particular style of writing, which is closest to complexity, is taught to men. A style that women cannot write and cannot perform. And this is because before you can start practicing, you first have to take a page next to the score and mathematically calculate everything and women cannot do this, so to speak. When they say to a woman: “you really play like a man”, they really have to counter this. The opposite also happens. A male friend of mine is a composer. He is a very sensitive person and he brings a lot of subtleties to the surface in his music. He often gets told that he writes very feminine. But he just writes as he writes. There is a greater sexism towards women, but what I find worse, is the gender stereotyping where the characteristics of a particular gender are assigned and if you deviate from them, then you are strange. 

When and why did you decide to play the flute and making a career out of it? That came pretty early, I think when I was fourteen. I was wavering between that or being a sports journalist. In the past I even wrote my own sports reports, which is why a TV crew came down to interview me, because it was strange that a girl did this. During my first year of conservatoire I came across contemporary music, and then the choice was made fairly quickly. The choice to go for contemporary music had a more personal role for me.

What were your parents’ reaction to your choice of instrument, and your decision to make a career out of it? Always very positive. I am also an only child so that probably made it easier. My mother has always wanted to do drama but was never allowed to do it, so she told me that I could do anything I wanted to do. They have been very enthusiastic about everything. Even when I went to Switzerland and the US, they always came to see the final exam, no matter where it was. 

Did you have any pre-conceived ideas about your instrument? Yes, as a seven-year-old girl of my generation who wanted to play flute, we were all very well fed by a very popular female flute player, with video clips and a lot of Disney music. That was the typical girl’s instrument. Despite the fact that in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s the only people who continued to the professional level were men. But I never noticed this as a little girl.

Do you believe that criticism or comments about gender from male colleagues have caused you to alter some aspect of your playing, whether consciously or subconsciously? Not from students, because we were always in class with a lot of girls. But from teachers and juries, yes. Because I played very physically, and I have a more physical approach to the instrument and they would always tell me to stand still, keep my shoulders low, … When I started at the conservatoire, I did not have the knowledge and the technique to express that this was the direction I wanted to go with my interpretation. Very often it really hurt me, the laughter of men, and that I was hysterical, instead of them using the word exaggerative. At that moment, as a woman, you begin to feel insecure and less than. Older men on the jury who start speaking to you with diminutives, are also very intimidating and make you feel very small.

Have people underestimated your musical abilities on the fact that you are a woman? Yes, very often. Especially in contemporary music, because you have to be able to be strong and powerful in your playing for that. Or their amazement that so much sound can come from such a little girl. Now I’ve earned my stripes because I’m known for that now. But I have to say, because I have spent a large part of my contemporary music training in America. The thought process is different in those universities, especially in the liberal and contemporary scene, I have received less comments there than here in Europe. 

Pick a male and female role model and what are their differences, and do you think this has anything to do with their gender? If I have to choose people who have influenced me in terms of stage presence and performance, then that is Steve Schick and Claire Chase. Steve Schick is a percussionist and one of the first major contemporary musicians. When he walks on stage, he is all aura. He himself has grown into an image, with the cowboy boots, and when he walks on stage, the whole audience is immediately sucked in. He once taught us at UCSD (he is also a teacher there), and it was about consciousness on stage and what that means and your appearance when you stand on a stage. So actually, a class on image building. The female counterpart is actually Claire Chase. She is also such a great contemporary flutist who founded ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) and who is doing a fantastic job in playing very physically, but Claire herself is also a very impressive person. The first time I saw her play, I was only in California for two weeks at the Carlsbad festival. First, she played everything by heart, for which I have so much admiration, because it is not one of my personal strengths. And secondly, the physical aspect, which I now find somewhat exaggerated. The first time you see her play, this aspect is very impressive, but after a couple of times you know what the typical tricks are. So now I think it’s exaggerated, but it has had a huge impact, that you can stand on stage alone as a performer and you can really claim your territory. But there is a big difference between them, and I think that is still a big stereotyping. With Steve Schick there was a calm atmosphere on the stage and Claire Chase is a duracel rabbit. They have created a performance image, which continues in their daily lives.

What was your relationship like in comparing your male and female teachers when you were studying music? I never had a female teacher, at music school and at the conservatoire. If you look at the conservatoire and flute, there are actually a lot of men who are still teaching. There were a few master classes that I did with women teachers, but that does not have the same impact. So, I cannot really compare, because I only had male teachers. I teach in Liège and there you can see a change. The head teacher is still a man, also my former teacher, but he has three assistants and all three are women.

When you are in front of/in an orchestra, do you perceive that there is the same amount of commitment and dedication in comparing male and female musicians? Yes. What I always thought was terrible, yes of course you stick out as a flute player in the orchestra, literally, but if you have a solo, you get that gigantic group of strings that turn around and stare at you. Then you have women who keep quiet but of which you actually know that they will be making some comments behind your back. Then you have the men who start laughing and the pub talk comes out to play and I find that terrible. In certain groups you have pub talk and sexist jokes, and then you are the only woman stuck in the middle. What I found when I stood in front of the orchestra, was that it felt like a beauty pageant. That was also a part of my own insecurity, because you are there for the first time, but I also found that they were looking me up and down. What I also notice is the phenomenon of manspreading, in which the men then start to sit with their legs open out of boredom, but a woman will not let this show, even if she isn’t interested. I sometimes find that quite striking.

“The principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic has provoked outrage by claiming that orchestras “react better when they have a man in front of them” and that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things”. When conducted by a man, musicians encounter fewer erotic distractions, Vasily Petrenko claimed. “Musicians have often less sexual energy and can focus more on the music,” he said, adding that “when women have families, it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as is demanded in the business”.” What is your reaction upon hearing this? I have heard a lot of comments like this, when referring to female conductors, but this is surely one of the worse ones. Talking about the erotic energy that he mentions, that is not because of the woman, that is because of the man. If you would stop thinking too much with what is hanging down there and more with your brain, than there would be no problem at all. That is precisely the victim blaming, or when a woman was raped because she had dressed sexily. Then you also have the physical power whereby the men, so to speak, can bring about more authority because of their physical capacity, and women can’t, which is complete nonsense. Look, for example, at Barbara Hannigan, I do not know anyone who would not listen to her when she is in front of you. She is just so impressive and has such a fascinating career, a career that men could actually learn from. The part about families I think, is even more nonsense. There are also women who do not want or cannot have children, so that has nothing to do with it. And that is such a stereotypical thing to say. I think that they are really afraid of women who are ambitious. More and more fantastic female conductors are starting to emerge and suddenly they see this as a threat. When my students have to play a concert in Liège, I make sure that half of the works in the program are by female composers, because the problem is that everyone will give male works as standard repertoire. By saying, as a man, that sexism and the problem does not stand out or is not so bad, you’re only furthering the problem. We are slowly arriving a gear-changing point, where hopefully this kind of sexism will be over.

 

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