The International Women’s Brass Conference and the Price of Sisterhood

Have you ever gone to something expecting to have a reasonably good time and come out of it with your life forever changed? I’m not talking about I-went-and-got-another-degree; no, I mean the kind of thing where you come out with unexpected new inspirations, role models, and routes of exploration, the kind of thing that makes you get out of bed at a reasonable (or maybe even unreasonably early) time because you can’t just stay still when there’s so much to do, the kind of thing that stays with you in ways you don’t expect.

It’s been awhile since I had one of those experiences (I think the last thing that even comes close was when I premiered He Probably Just Likes You), but I spent this past week at the International Women’s Brass Conference, where I presented two of my own works and a solo set. After just six days, I’m a different person. Like, my hair is still (blissfully) purple and I still need to practice for approximately forever, but I’ve got new paths dangling in front of me that I desperately want to explore. But first, I wanted to talk a little bit about what it took to get here.

For starters, since I’m sure a couple of you are new to my work and me generally, let’s get a couple things straight: at time of writing, I’m twenty-three years old, and I have a BM in Theory and Composition from ASU and a Performer-Composer MFA from CalArts. I like writing and playing new music and free improvisation, I am generally somewhat fond but quite wary (though after this week, less so) of Jazz with a capital J, and I think experimentalism is the shit even though the skill sets are obnoxiously hard to acquire at times. I like playing with electronics, I mostly suck at coding, and I like making works for people whose performance preferences and habits I can get to know intimately. My work centers around characters and relationships and exists on both sides of the fourth wall. And this year, 2019, was my first IWBC experience.

As exciting new things go, it was a pretty great trip—I got to see my alma mater and a bunch of the local friends I’m coming back to in the fall (spoiler alert, I’m moving back to Phoenix), and I made so many new friends with experiences and stories so similar to mine. I received approximately fifty million compliments on my hair and had at least a dozen moments of “oh my god, I follow you on Instagram!” (which is one of the few places the female and gender-marginalized brass contingent is able to maintain a community). I got to meet people I’d talked to online but never actually seen in person, and I had great conversations with women at different stages of their careers. Everyone was there to have a good time, but with the new and strengthened friendships came the stories.

I learned about teachers at various schools who have made their female students pervasively uncomfortable, who caused those students to go without lessons for a semester or more, and who are still teaching and winning jobs with minimal repercussions. I learned about women who had to start a degree over at another school, mere credits from completion, because their primary teachers sexually harassed or assaulted them and they had no recourse. I heard women asking themselves and others if it was worth it to take these powerful men to court when their own lives would be negatively impacted for years and their own careers could be the ones burnt to a crisp.

And that, I think, is important to mention: that the majority of us, if not all of us, have had these experiences with teachers or peers or colleagues, and most of us have opted to sideline our own justice in the hopes of both warning others and maintaining a grasp on the life we want. For those of you who think handsy, misogynist, or otherwise abusive teachers are an artifact of the last century, they are still here. And it’s not just the old guys—I heard stories about high-profile performers and teachers who I’d describe as mid-career at the latest. It did not end with the last generation, because the last generation taught their students the same internalized misogyny that they held within themselves, and now those guys are winning and keeping jobs at institutions we deeply care about. If we do not develop reporting systems and response methods that work within artistic contexts, we will see repeats of James Levine and Massimo La Rosa. And my siblings and I will shake our heads because the people we tried to warn did not listen and did not act.

But despite all that, the presenters at IWBC are making essential, timely, urgent art. Women composers were well-represented at the conference, which made me happy, and there was an increased focus on the physicality of performance and how to maintain our bodies to keep them doing what we’d like them to for as long as possible. There were socially-conscious recitals and performances pushing (some of) the limits of what we can do with our instruments. There were pedal boards and graphic scores, discussions about gender performance and parenthood, and a horde of extremely skilled musicians going above and beyond for the conference and the community it begets. Among the absolute highlights was the Athena Brass Band, aka the only all-female brass band you’ll probably see in the US. I cried. A lot.

The frustrating thing about IWBC, though, is that it’s among the only opportunities of its kind for women in brass to congregate and get to know each other while celebrating the work we’re doing. Getting there and doing the conference costs close to a thousand dollars, but it’s more if you’re traveling internationally. Men are welcome to come to the conference (which is fine and welcome) and participate in the solo and excerpt competitions (which is less fine), but the vast majority of them came to compete, then they left. And while I know ITEC overlapped with IWBC this year, which undoubtedly drew some folks away early, it’s downright insulting that so many of our male peers came to try to win money at a women’s brass conference and then left without bothering to acknowledge and witness the work others are doing not only for gender-marginalized people but for our field as a whole. But more gut-wrenching than anything else is the realization that not enough of us make it through high school and undergrad and the grad degrees we want or need to be able to just have a hang without having a conference to facilitate it. Not enough of us make it through to having a career (or a vested interest in academia) to have a community that’s large enough to be local.

In the wake of the conference and the experiences I had in the past week, I’ve got a lot of ideas to unpack. We need to do more writing and talking about abusive teaching and its misogynist and transmisogynist impact, about toxic masculinity and its intersections with platonic/queerplatonic intimacy and Otherness in male spaces, about the differences between manifestations of misogyny in classical and jazz circles, and about putting work by women (composers and performers alike) into the public consciousness more consistently. I’m going to spend time unpacking these things to the best of my ability this summer, but for now I want to end with a little anecdote.

One of my teachers and friends, Tim Feeney, closed out my last semester at CalArts by paraphrasing one of his mentors (which I’m further paraphrasing here): “In this line of work, your heroes become your friends.” In the wake of my experiences at ASU and CalArts, that’s been overwhelmingly true, but because of the lack of access to gender-marginalized teachers and role models in my fields, I think it only consistently applies to men. And in the wake of IWBC, where I met so many amazing women and then went to their recitals and presentations and realized the weight of what they do, I’m arguing that for us, within our female circles, the reverse is true: your friends become your heroes. So here I am, freshly inspired, consistently angry, and ready to write a bunch of music for and with the performers I met this week, and I’ve got one thing to say:

You’re not ready for what’s coming. ♦

Thanks for reading! If you like what I do and would like to see more of it, come back every Saturday at 8pm. To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.