The second sound. On gender and music – conversation with Julia Eckhardt.

Marta Beszterda / 23 Jun 2017

Read in Polish: here!

In June 2016, Julia Eckhardt (musician, curator and founding member of Q-O2 in Brussels) together with Leen De Graeve (writer and theatre maker) conducted a non-academic qualitative research on the role that sex and gender play for musicians, sound artists and composers in their artistic careers and the music they create. 155 artists of 35 different nationalities, various genders, sexual orientations, ages and with different musical backgrounds answered questions about the role of gender in their self-image, the recognition from the audience, their choice of artistic role models, creative process, characteristics of their music, mechanisms of collaboration and competition, power relations and prejudice in the industry.

The results of the query have been summarized and recently published under the title: The second sound. Conversations on gender & music.


Marta Beszterda: The original idea for your research “was developed in response to a collection of remarks, anecdotes, frustrations and questions which have been formulated by Q-O2’s artists-in-residence over recent years”[1]. What kind of remarks and frustrations have you noticed among artists?

Julia Eckhardt: Here, at the Q-O2’s workspace we have new artists-in-residence coming almost every month and I have a lot of conversations with them. Throughout the years, the topic of gender would come up very often, but at the same time it would never be addressed explicitly. Rather in half-words and half-sentences. There seemed to be some sort of taboo around it.

That said, there have been several artists who have been much more outspoken about the issue, who even incorporated reflections on gender into their artistic practice. At some point, I realized that the problem of sex and gender in music has been present, but purposely not addressed, for such a long time, that I want to do something about it.

What was very important to me about this project, was my double perspective on this issue. On the one hand, I am a curator and a programmer, but on the other hand for a long time in my life I have been mainly a performer, and I have experienced all these gender-related details personally. For example, as a female musician I was offered certain roles I was supposed to fit into, I was lacking role models, I woud often get a certain type of comments. What is more, people tend to expect more support from a woman curator. It is all about small details, but I truly believe that those details shape careers and shape the music we make. Therefore, many of the remarks people shared in this query were things to which I could deeply relate.

For this reason, the first step was to pose all the questions to myself, so I could later pose them to other artists. I realized this was not something I could do alone – I am not a writer, so I approached Leen De Graeve, the co-author of the book. She is a theatre maker and brought in a lot of valuable insights. We would joke a lot about where it is worse for women – in theatre or in music.

What I find very interesting about the participants’ answers is how carefully they address the influence of gender on music. When asked whether they believe that “life circumstances, personality, cultural codes consciously or unconsciously play a role in the process of creating”[2], most of the participants recognize the connection, but when asked specifically about whether music or sound art can be gendered, the responses are much more reserved. Is gender something that we still want to consider non-influential with regard to music, even though we have already acknowledged the influence of so many other non-musical factors?

Not exactly. I think what many of the participants meant was that the connection between artist and music is way more idiosyncratic, more personal, than simply male or female. Personally, I totally agree with them. Even more as probably no one is 100% male or 100% female, or 100% from one culture or another. There are so many gradations and all of them affect the music. So the identity one has as a musician is never simply “one or another”.

Speaking about the identity, we read in the book that in artistic field “women form an integral component to the male paradigm – that of the confirming opposite. Women in the field are thus often in an ambiguous position of both trying to be the same (one of the boys), and to be present as the other.”[3] The trap which female artists are caught into when confronting a predominantly male tradition is something addressed by Marcia Citron in her book Gender and the musical canon[4] from 1993. In a nutshell, Citron, following original ideas by Virginia Woolf, presents a concept that a female composer always has to choose between either symbolically cutting off her femaleness, or agreeing to become a second-category composer. Do you think we are at least close to finding a solution to this trap? Any third path?

What I think is essential when it comes to identity, especially a female creator’s identity, is to know one’s roots. I strongly believe that if you do not know where you are from, you cannot know where you are going. My personal identification line as a woman comes from my mother and grandmother. They both lived in the times when there existed two very clearly divided worlds: the male (public), and the female (private). I believe that if I recognize the existence of this line, I can much better situate myself in between the worlds. And I can also say with much more confidence: “these are my materials and these are my ways of working together”.

A lot has already been said in the “nature – nurture” discussion. Personally, I don’t believe that it is fully the biology, or fully the early childhood education. Instead, it is something which has been transmitted from generations to generations and as a result it is embedded in one’s system as something rather unconscious.

I believe that in order to make music which is authentic (well, it is a difficult word, but relevant), to have confidence to make music one really wants to make, one needs to be conscious of this heritage. The roots need to be known and need to be used in a very confident way.

For instance, despite the fact that there are more and more female musicians in Belgium, we still lack female directors. And I think: well, maybe that is simply not the way of working women feel comfortable with. Instead of building a pyramid, a hierarchy with just one person on the top, there is a growing phenomenon of co-directing. I know already several cultural organizations that are directed together by two or three people, including women. When I see it, I find it so obvious: it is in our history not to give orders, but to listen, discuss and negotiate instead. It might seem a little radical to say, but well, these are female qualities. And great ones – all men should learn it as well.

Even though probably no one can tell whether certain music is made by a man or by a woman just by listening to it (luckily so, that would be very boring!), as a performer I can say that I have generally enjoyed collaborating with female composers. I do prefer the collaborative style over the hierarchic one. Of course, it is not such a clear-cut division. You do have women who are bossy and men who are collaborative. But as a quality, it originates from women.

I think that this collaborative spirit could be a new important perspective, not only for the individuals to allow them to better situate themselves as musicians, but also in general to contemporary classical music as a field. I am working a lot with Eliane Radigue at the moment and she is doing this in a very extreme way. With her, before you start doing anything together, first you have to know each other and build some sort of trust. Then she communicates her pieces as an imaginary, there is nothing written down. This is also where the economic factor comes in: if there is no score with “Opus 1” on it, she is less entitled to receive a remuneration for the music. It is a very generous way of saying “I propose you something, while taking account of who you are” instead of “this is mine and this is yours, and I say how it goes”.

What possible results might those new ways of approaching music and musical industry bring?

There is one quote from the book that I particularly like, because it turns the things around and shows what benefits the female line brings to everybody. It is a classical contemporary composer from England answering the question “how having children changed your professional life?”. He is writing: “having children made me want to compose music that is more fun and approachable”[5]. I find it particularly interesting, because first of all, of course it is a privilege that he can say it without really risking his image as a serious composer – unfortunately every woman composer would most probably avoid saying it. Second – it shows how the perspectives on maleness and parenthood have shifted: I think 50 years ago a man saying something similar would be completely dismissed as ridiculous. I find this shift very positive.

Last weekend I was visiting the Intonal Festival in Malmö[6]. During the panel where I was presenting the book, I received a very concrete question: why would men ever want gender equality, if for them that means giving away their territory? It was an electronic music festival and in this environment people seem to be rather pragmatic. What matters for them is to be able to play, to get the shows. Therefore, working on gender equality literally means that less men can get a job. And for me it is not only about how many slots you have, but also about what sort of music you are allowed to make, what sort of music is possible. It would be a pity if people – men, but also women – would see it only as gaining or giving away the territory.

Do you feel like this is something which is more likely to be understood among people who are involved in experimental music and sound art, rather than people with classical background?

It is a good question… I don’t think so actually. The only differences are in the ways the problem is addressed. The field that I am coming from – contemporary classic composition – is more likely to be into reflection than the field of techno and electronic music. Over there it might be more on the level of gut feeling – people like seeing a woman on stage, but they also simply want it to be fun. In contemporary classical music world people want to ask about the causes or possible ways. Which does not necessarily make the shift easier in this field, just the reasons might be a little bit different.

Maybe we need to find a different key for every musical field?

I guess so. Women in electronic music approach the gender gap more directly. There is a platform called female:pressure[7], which originates from the DJ’s world. They simply claim their place and say “if in all international festivals there is less than 10% women, we cannot accept it”. This is what differs electronic music from classical music. For them it is not that important to, let’s say, receive a grant for a new composition, but it is more important to simply get gigs. This is why female:pressure prepares their statistics: to get their message across and to actually gain more space in the industry. Personally, I find it very important to get things going also in that direction. It would be the best to move things from both theoretical and practical side.

The field is different when you have 50% women. Everything is different – not only the people who make music, but also the music which is made, the atmosphere, the energy.

In other words – without the women’s voice we are missing something important. Is this something that the title The second sound was supposed to point out? That there is “the other culture”, which is still unfortunately the “second” culture – something which we would like to see more incorporated into an everyday perspective on music?

In a way, yes. Of course, the first reference which comes to mind is The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, although it was not my original plan.

What I wanted to emphasize by choosing this title, was the feeling of having a voice that is still in a way a “second” voice, as well as the process of discovering it. At the same time, it is also a question: is there a second voice? Is there a second sound? And what is then “first”?

So it is also about whether there exists anything we could call a “female music”?

Perhaps…but actually I would wish that there did not.

Ideally, I would want that this voice was not called “second”, but for me this is how it feels for now. I am intrigued by this second, underlying sound, by this different way of making music. And even more by the contextual ways of making music or by how music is made by people who come from completely different backgrounds.

Could we say then that the “second sound” is a term to represent the general concept of otherness in music?

Yes, and it is the otherness which I am personally embracing, and which I find much more interesting than the first musical layer I got in touch with.

Obviously, embracing otherness in music can have many different forms. For example, while working on a project in the European network called SoCCoS[8], I had an experience which made me realize how local perspectives on musical and musicological trends may differ. There were 5 main partners in the project: from Germany, Poland, Finland, Portugal and Belgium. The Polish curator Krzysztof Marciniak was determined to focus the project on sound ecology, which to me and to other artists from the West seemed rather surprising. People in the West would generally react on sound ecology with disinterest, as “they have already had that”, they “know all about it”.

Nevertheless, Krzysztof stuck to his original plan and it was only afterwards when we realized that there are many other angles to something we had already categorized a long time before. It comes from the fact that Poland has different history in music understanding and sound understanding. Sound ecology, which came from North America, was never that proliferated in Poland.

It seems like sound ecology might have a similar status as feminist/gender musicology in Poland. Feminist perspectives first appeared in Western musicology around 30 years ago. But due to different history and musical culture here in Eastern Europe we are only just getting started to address this topic, and hopefully we will soon come up with new ideas and perspectives, contingent on our experiences.

For instance, Polish female composers often mention that in communist Poland women had much more opportunities to develop a career in music than their female colleagues from Western Europe.

Yes, also in the book there are some testimonies addressing it. It seems that in terms of women’s rights, things have been actually getting worse since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There is some sort of a backlash ever since. How do you see it from the perspective of your generation?

Yes, when it comes to women’s rights, there definitely has been a backlash in post-1989 Poland. It did affect women’s situation. I perceive last 28 years as a constant struggle for raising awareness on the consequences patriarchal model of society entails in Poland, and generally for improving women’s situation in the country. At the same time, when it comes to the field of music, I find it hard to make clear-cut judgements. On the one hand, we definitely lack women conductors and composers and we still encounter prejudice or discrimination. On the other hand, musical academia in Poland seems to involve a great percentage of women, which is for instance completely not the case for fine arts. The only thing that is evident, is that we are only now starting to discuss the topic of gender in music. I believe it still needs a lot more attention than it has at the moment. Even though a lot of classical musicians in Poland work – or claim or wish to work – in a politically isolated sphere, I believe it is impossible for this sphere not to be more or less affected by political moods and beliefs of the society. And with the current political situation, I am really concerned about where the majority of society is heading, and therefore how the standards for musical community are going to be shaped.

Yes, I completely agree that art cannot be abstracted from reality. Working on The second sound has taught me a lot in that matter and I strongly believe in it. I would say even more: the art we make is always political. Of course, it does not mean that it is always activist, in a sense of purposefully trying to change things through art (I am not sure about whether it is possible, but that is another question), but art making, as any other choice in life, is related to everyday reality. Every artist has a life, every artist has a gender and is educated in certain ways. Therefore, I do not believe that art can be independent from those elements.

Do you think we can speak about an increasing interest in the topic of gender and music right now? We had Ashley Fure’s “Gender Research in Darmstadt” project in 2016[9], you also mentioned the “female:pressure” platform in DJ’s environment. Now there is your project. Do you see it as a more general phenomenon? And if yes, do you feel like it is a consequence of current political situation (i.e. growing populism and conservative mindset)?

Of course we can only speculate, but I believe that if anything, it is perhaps the other way around. An increase in self-confidence of women triggers the backlash. There have been more and more women standing up for themselves, so now certain people react in attempt to keep their territory.

For sure I can see an increasing interest in the topic. I can also clearly see that the young generation finds this problem evident and speaks about it – which is a great change.

In my generation, it looked very different. People would think “why would you speak about the feminism at all, feminism is done”, or “you have equal rights, so what is your problem?’.
If I would not receive so many engagements, I would always take it on me and believe it is because I am not talented enough. To us, it was suggested that there is no gender equality problem because seemingly we had equal rights and could do whatever we wanted.

Now, people are way more unapologetic about asking for equal treatment. The shift can basically be requested, and I like it. My generation – we waited for the inclusion. But young women right now ask for inclusion. Also, or maybe especially, if they are not geniuses, but just musicians of average talent.

Something that is also happening right now, is that very clear analyses are being made. I appreciate it a lot and I was very happy that our research fell into such a moment when people are simply curious to recognize and understand this problem.

Speaking about reception, did you receive any negative comments on this publication?

Not yet, no. Maybe it has to do with the fact that people who would have negative comments about it, do not really read it. It is a so-called problem of a “pink shelf” in bookstores, where these sorts of books are put. The publication is not targeted for the general interest, but for those who are already interested in the subject…

…which comes down to a more general problem, that of how to get the message across to a more general audience.

Exactly. There was a good question during this panel at the Intonal Festival. We all agreed that the problem of gender proportion in the field needs to be taken care of and that we need to work on it, but then came the question: “how do you curate it?”. I think this is an extremely valid question. Which spots in a festival program do you choose for male and for female artists? Where do you put the research part, a panel or a talk about this topic? How do you bring more attention to the topic of gender and not only the attention from those who are already interested?

Do you have any thoughts on this, how this could be done?

No… but that is the next thing I want to explore (laughs).

Something that could be of particular interest to a wider audience, is the imaginary conversation at the end of the book, where you compile several quotes from female musicians of all times, starting from Hildegarde von Bingen, and ending with artists such as Björk, Beyonce and Taylor Swift. I found it very surprising and refreshing: first of all, the idea of imagining the answers from female musicians from the past, and second gathering under one umbrella such different artists from so many different epochs and backgrounds.

The idea came from Leen, and I find it to be a nice example of experimental writing. For both of us it was surpriring how many women had actually composed and had been active; in all times and all fields. Therefore, they could have easily answered the questionnaire, just as any person here and now can.

This was a way for us to say: there is a history. A history in which women had something to say. Women did things, said things, experimented, encountered the same problems as their great-granddaughters do today. And some of them, like Hildegarde von Bingen or Francesca Caccini, were in fact ones of the most often played composers in their times!

The similarity between women musicians’ struggles in the past and nowadays is actually quite striking. For example: even Björk, who is as famous as she is, has experienced that in order to get anything done, a woman should not show her ego too much and sometimes needs to give her colleagues the impression that the idea is theirs and not hers.

When I was a kid, it was clear to me that a girl cannot become a composer, and the indisputable proof was that in the history there were no female composers. But of course it is not true. There were actually many of them, and good ones. It is all about how we narrate the history.


The book The second sound. Conversations on gender & music. is now out and available on and

[1] J. Eckhardt, L. De Graeve, The second sound. Conversations on gender & music, p. 11.

[2] The second sound…, p. 129.

[3] The second sound…, p. 27.

[4] M. Citron, Gender and the musical canon, Cambridge University Press 1993.

[5] The second sound…, p. 67.



[8] Read more about SoCCoS on and in: Tales of Sonic Displacement, Viseu 2016,

[9] See: and