This is a bit out of character for a blog that is mostly talking about my own music practices, but I’m so dang excited about this that I was inspired to get a few thoughts down. Please note that in the great tradition of blogging this is rapidly written and fairly poorly cited, throwing a together a collection of ideas I’ve mused upon without always being sure where I’ve come across them. It’s also worth noting, before I continue, that sex organs do not a gender make. They do, however, provide powerful symbolic imagery on which ideas might come to play. I’d be very interested to hear how others might respond to what I have written here, particular trans, non-binary, and/or intersex folks – please feel free to comment.
Wind instruments are made to resemble the male and female sexual organs. The phallic shape of flutes, which are played exclusively by men in many cultures, is self-evident. Instruments reserved for women are often round or curved and may bear associations with the moon or water.
Until the mid-twentieth century it was considered vulgar for women to play the European concert flute, and probably also the recorder, due to its phallic shape. This is something that might surprise anyone who hasn’t thought about it a great deal, despite the fact that it has served as material for some very crude and obvious jokes (American Pie). The flute is these days generally considered to be a ‘feminine’ instrument, played predominantly by women and girls, to the extent that any young boys playing the instrument (particularly in Australia) can sadly expect to meet with homophobic bullying.
Flutes have fallen a bit out of favour when it comes to contemporary music styles (especially jazz and popular musics) over the last few decades. I can only imagine that this has much to do with the feminisation of the instrument. The masculinisation of jazz, and particularly of jazz improvisation, might be considered a pushback against the ‘femininity’ of improvisation in classical music: perceived as undisciplined, chaotic, and unanswerable to the voice of the great ‘master’ (the composer, the score, the Work). This is something Sherrie Tucker has written about quite a bit:
The gender of sound may signify differently across time, but the tendency for sounds associated with masculinity to be more highly valued than those that signify femininity is relatively predictable. “Free jazz,” like other musical practices, may be feminized in periods when it holds less prestige, and masculinized when it holds more prestige.
—Sherrie Tucker, Bordering on Community (an article in The Other Side of Nowhere)
These might seem like abstract musings, but these tendencies have real-world consequences. If flutes are scorned for their femininisation, while also being instruments played mostly by women, it means less women in professional music performance, less women getting paid gigs. Which of course is just part of the vicious cycles that mean less women on the bill as performers, composers, musical leaders, thinkers, creators.
It’s about time that we reclaim the power – feminine or otherwise – of the flute.
Björk’s previous album, Vulnicura of 2015, is a deeply personal and powerful documentation of her break-up with longtime partner Matthew Barney. Its cover image features a gaping vaginal gash in the centre of her chest: a powerful symbolic ownership of her pain and its rendering as distinctly feminine.
Utopia, Björk’s victorious follow-up to Vulnicura, is due to be released later this month. So far, we’ve seen a video of the first single – the gate – a collaboration with director Andrew Thomas Huang, and already we can see that there is a continuation of imagery and ideas. Sitting on a hillside at either dawn or sunset in a light breeze, Björk is serenading several cyborg-esque critters who coo along, two of whom have vertical vulva-shaped openings in their fronts. Björk’s own dress has been stitched up along her sternum, a healing shut of the Vulnicura wound. When she turns her head we can see her face is transformed, decorated with a mix of genitalia-like forms across her forehead and down the bridge of her nose. After this introduction, we see Björk dancing and writhing along with a holographic, incomplete figure, to whom she sends glowing projections of her love and receives in kind. My feeling is that the figure is an extension of herself, with her declarations of “I will care for you, care for you” voicing her commitment to self-care.
‘The Gate’ is essentially a love song, but I say ‘love’ in a more transcendent way. Vulnicura was about a very personal loss, and I think this new album is about a love that’s even greater. It’s about rediscovering love – but in a spiritual way, for lack of a better word.
—Andrew Thomas Huang in an interview for Dazed Digital
Similar sex-organ imagery is clear on the cover of the upcoming album:
No longer a gaping wound, Björk now wears an open vulva on her forehead with a glistening pearl at its centre.
But! There are also flutes!!!
Vulnicura is lush with string arrangements – there is even an acoustic version of the album released with string accompaniment only. A cinematic wash of string instruments to express her pain and emotional turmoil. Now, in Utopia, Björk has formed a twelve piece Icelandic female flute orchestra for the album, which she arranged for and conducted. The opening to the gate features her playing a small flute. The flute, with all its mixed and changing genderings, its phallic shape and feminised dismissal, is the perfect tool for expressing a woman’s self-determination and power and creative vision.
There are also further promotional images featuring Björk and her flutes:
Apart from being breathtakingly beautiful and weird (I’ll leave a little shout-out to Mark Fisher here for the time being), the third of these images brazenly features an ornate strap-on in the same colour as her wooden recorder. Björk herself is not explicitly sexualised in these images, so the strap-on appears as somewhat surprising and perhaps out of place. Björk is well-known as a lover of RuPaul’s Drag Race, so is likely engaging in her own hyper-exaggerated gender play, but I would argue that with all the flutes around this might already be present. The strap-on serves an augmentation of the flutes’ phallic potential.
As I’ve said, these are some initial thoughts by someone who continues to grapple with the gender politics of flute playing and of music making in general, and may not have anything to do with Björk’s own feelings on the matter. She could just be referencing her own childhood recorder playing.
For more amazing images of Björk and some of her own thoughts ahead of Utopia‘s release, check out this article in Dazed Digital.