Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tap Dancing Drummers and Other Female Percussionists (Part I)

Tap/drum/percussa-what?* Isn't this is supposed to be a blog about moving images? Yes. And more generally, it's a blog about the sometimes harmonious, sometimes contentious relationship between things audio and things visual, and how they function in the world around them. I think this post might check all of the above boxes -- and a few more while we're at it.

The history of women in western percussion is relatively sparse. There certainly have been some notable women percussionists -- Evelyn Glennie, for example.

Or Sheila E., whose arrival on the pop music scene in the 80's was quite a relief to young female percussionists like me who liked playing but felt a bit awkward in the role. Before Sheila E. there was Karen Carpenter of brother-and-sister pop duo The Carpenters, whose family-friendly 1976 TV special attempted to explain to America what a nice girl like Karen would be doing playing the drums. (Karen Carpenter really did get started playing glockenspiel in high school marching band, as did I. Though real life, neither of us kissed someone in order to be allowed to switch to drums. But I'm curious how many other female percussionists got into percussion through the more acceptable-for-girls glockenspiel or other keyboard percussion instruments.)

So twentieth century percussion certainly did include prominent women performers in various genres. But overall, modern Western percussion has historically been mostly a man's world. (Ancient Mediterranean percussion? Another story entirely.)

As with many fields where women have been discouraged or excluded, women drummers were even more of a rarity before the feminist movement of the 1960's and 1970's. In the late 1800's and early 1900's American marching bands and brass bands were beginning to move indoors. By the 1920's the drum set had evolved as a means of reducing space and labor requirements in small indoor performances spaces: one performer could play several percussion instruments at the same time. By the 1920's and 30's jazz had emerged as a popular style; but as with earlier styles, jazz drumming was seen as a man's job. If women managed to find a way in, it was sometimes as much for their looks as for their sound. Meghan Aube writes of California-based jazz drummer Dottie Dodgion, who began her career in the 1950's :

Often gender was used by promoters as a device to sell records and gain audiences, and [Dodgion] found that as she aged gigs became even scarcer: "There is no gimmick for selling an old lady. If you’re a young woman and have a decent figure, they can sell you like mad."

And that brings us to one way many women participated in jazz percussion anyway: tap dance. Tap dance is of course a type of dance, with a rich history in that context. And I imagine that most tap dancers over the years got into it for that reason: to dance. But in the early twentieth century, tap dance also inadvertently functioned as a form of percussion performance -- one that afforded women the opportunity to participate while remaining in traditional women's domains: looking good and dancing. If you really listen to a tap dancer, what you're doing is listening to a percussion performance performed entirely with the legs. Of course there have been plenty of male tap dancers too, who should also be recognized for their work as percussionists. As should performers of tap's percussive ancestors, like clog dancing and Irish step dance.

As folk dances, clogging and Irish step dance are often performed in a social group context. Tap, in contrast, tends to be performed solo or by a small group of performers; it's typically associated with more traditional stage performance. Tap has garnered mass audiences over the years: It was a staple of 1930's and 40's Hollywood musical films, and its popularity spilled into American television variety shows for several decades afterward. Tap's popularity and its mass media emergence alongside jazz and drum set performance is one reason it sparked my interest in relation to female percussion history: "Everyone" (who viewed American popular media) watched and heard women performing tap's complex percussive routines onscreen for decades -- yet at the same time, "everyone" presumed that "women don't play drums." So I'm focusing on female tap artists to point out that more women have performed as percussionists than are generally acknowledged, because the areas of performance in which they found acceptance were often not regarded as percussion -- even though the performances sometimes had a high degree of public visibility. Clog dancing, Irish step dance and related step dances are similarly percussive and have long histories of performance spread among many countries and cultures. Like tap, they too seem to have largely slipped under the radar of what's thought of as percussion performance.

While most tap dancers haven't presented themselves as percussionists, some have made the connection abundantly clear:

Although many people's mental image of tap dance comes from movies, tap existed long before cinema. Its roots can be traced to a complex interweaving of Irish step dance with slavery-era African-American folk dance, among other things. Its popularity grew when Vaudeville came along, and, like other types of Vaudeville performance, it spilled over into the movies of the 1930's and 1940's. Although many people presumably purchased the films' soundtrack albums and listened to the recordings of the tap dance numbers, it's hard to imagine the tap-centric recordings having much of an audience had they existed on their own. As with other forms of dance, visuals have always had primacy when it comes to tap performance.

Part II - Onward to the present...

* Throughout this text, I may seem to use the terms “drummer” and “percussionist” interchangably. Most percussionists consider “drummers” to be a subset of “percussionists.” In the context of this text, the two groups’ concerns tend to overlap more than they differ. I have tried, however, to use the term I considered to be the more applicable one in each case throughout the text.

Tap Dancing Drummers and Other Female Percussionists (Part II)

So cinema of the thirties and forties provides us with collective memory of these women performers, but also with a presumption of them as dancers, as visual performers -- but not as percussionists. Fast forward seventy years: Most cinema viewing now takes place in online venues like YouTube. On YouTube, much as in Vaudeville, users not only produce the content, they also determine marketing strategies -- for example, whether and how to try to make a video go "viral." In July 2013, Coalition Drum Shop in Wisconsin posted YouTube video of a white-haired woman sitting at one of the store’s drum kits performing “Wipe Out,” complete with drumstick twirls. The video, which the drum shop had given the unabashedly ageist title “Grandma Drummer,” quickly went viral, garnering millions of views and extensive media coverage.

“Grandma” was soon identified as Mary Hvizda, a local woman who had been stopping into the drum shop periodically to play the kits. Hvizda, it turns out, is a former professional rock drummer -- but not a grandmother. “It’s different,” Hvizda mused, when asked about her new moniker by a local TV station. “I can’t get used to being called Grandma.” At sixty-three, Hvizda is the same age Karen Carpenter would be if she were alive today, and she is six years younger than 1960’s Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker. Dottie Dodgion might be surprised to see how things have turned out -- there is a "gimmick for selling an old lady" drummer after all: viral video. Although the public has become accustomed to watching video of older men drumming, the image of an older woman playing rock drums still strikes us as novelty.

Since I began this post with "Tap Dancing Drummers," and we've now brought it around to online media: What comes up these days when you Google "tap dancing drummer?" Several of the top hits are for Los Angeles band "He's My Brother, She's My Sister." The band includes a female percussionist, Lauren Brown, who both plays drums and tap dances -- with the performative focus on percussion rather than dance. Her performance may initially read as novelty, and the uncommon visual of a woman dancing on a bass drum no doubt contributes to the band's popularity. But when you listen to the music, the tap integrates musically with the rest of the band. Sometimes you don't notice it at all. In other words, unlike most of the swing-era Hollywood tap dance movies, the tap percussion is primarily there to be heard.

Of course, most percussionists aren’t stars of viral videos or successful indie rock bands. There are many more percussionists performing in the “real world.” But in addition to helping make “stars,” online video has given female percussionists in general more exposure -- not only as individual performers, but as critical mass that inevitably gains the attention of corporate sponsors. The pros and cons of that being what they are, it is at least an indicator of and a contributor to the visibility of female drummers as a subset of drummers, rather than as individual novelty acts.

So female percussionists are, one hopes, increasingly heard as well as seen, and social media may help accelerate this phenomenon. But as any user of YouTube or Facebook knows, bias does not evaporate online. As do women in any traditionally-male field, female percussionists still struggle to be taken seriously. Despite the mainstream familiarity of drummers like Meg White of The White Stripes, young women still lack role models, which contributes to self-doubt as to whether they can ever be “as good as the guys.” And female drummers are subject to public perceptions that a conflict exists between drumming and femininity -- a perception which they themselves may share. In a 2004 article for The Guardian on drummer and author Helene Stapinski, Clare Longrigg wrote:

To most of us, it is baffling that a woman would want to play drums in the first place. The image of a drummer is of a geeky bloke in shorts with arms like a weightlifter. Nobody pays attention to drummers - except other drummers. “A girly girl would not want to play the drums," Stapinski concedes.

Meanwhile, teen female drummers engage in online discussions about their struggles for acceptance as percussionists and challenges to their gender image. The discussions provide a window into the perpetuation of stereotypes to which the teens are subjected. But they also function as support networks, which hopefully help the young women recognize that their choice of musical instrument isn’t really all that baffling.

Speaking of teens -- whatever happened to that awkward teen with the mallets? Though I’ve performed percussion-influenced live visuals in festivals and clubs for many years, I haven’t performed drums or sonic percussion publicly since college (except for this). But in the past few years, I’ve gotten back into playing recreationally. People now seem to be even more surprised than they were back then to learn that I play. Perhaps I’ve become more of a girly girl over the years? Perhaps in my middle age I’ve become so genteel that I no longer resemble the stereotypical drummer? I wonder how people would react if I instead claimed to tap dance...

It may be many years before playing a particular musical instrument -- or taking up a particular type of dance --- is understood as simply an artistic interest, not a gender trait. For percussionists, it’s probably going to take a lot of women and a lot of paradiddles. But let's look forward to the day when no percussionist feels the need to explain whether she is a girly girl -- and no percussionist feels the need to explain whether she is a grandma.

Back to Part I....

Amy Alexander is a media, computing, and audiovisual performance artist and Associate Professor of Visual Arts at UC San Diego. She has also made films, worked on TV shows, written software, worked as a Unix systems administrator, managed record stores, and a few other things middle age entitles her to forget. Besides percussion, she’s played violin, guitar, bass, piano, and tuba. She has never tap danced.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Phillip Island Chocolate Factory's 3D Zoetrope (in Chocovision....)

Ok, so I made up the term Chocovision. Anyway, the 3D Zoetrope phenomenon is kind of interesting. Very old cinema (zoetropes) with that contemporary 3D-everything twist. Seems very neo-expanded cinema to me.  (Also neo-expanded waistline with that chocolate one... er, never mind...) Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to get back to developing my latest invention, the 4K Truffletrope...

Monday, May 13, 2013

That Peter Greenaway video...

At least 15,707 of you have already watched Peter Greenaway's lecture, "New Possibilities: Cinema is Dead, Long Live Cinema" on Youtube. But in case you're one of the remaining 7,085,030,953 who haven't seen it, it's worth a watch. Greenaway brings up a number of ideas that relate to how the moving image might be re-imagined in the not-too-distant future.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

First Post!

Howdy, I'm Amy Alexander, an Associate Professor in Visual Arts at UC San Diego.
Thought I'd set up a new blog for updates on my current research and projects centered on "Re-imaging the (Moving) Image."

If you're at UCSD or in the neighborhood and would like to chat, collaborate, or  get me to turn down the music, please give me a shout.

I'll post more soon - meanwhile, you can catch up with Violent Movies Unraveled (re-spatialized cinema)  and PIGS (various gestural approaches to assembling images) at my website.   PIGS has come a long way since January - actually I've completely redesigned/rewritten it. It should soon take a variety of visual / sonic inputs to allow for hopefully-intuitive real-time assembly of images.  There's a much different approach to the sources from which the images are assembled too.  Well enough blabbing, back to coding... meanwhile, here's a clip from the Violent Movies Unraveled "apartment art" in LA. (Much easier to see and shuttle through if you follow the link to watch it on YouTube, however.)