Gender Imbalance

Blue Heron is a high-endy early music-oriented vocal ensemble based in Boston whose members have sung with the likes of Sequentia and Chanticleer and whose work has been written up by Alex Ross in The New Yorker.

But, even though Blue Heron employs some beautiful singers (notably the iridescent tenor Jason McToots and the beveled-edged baritone-bass Paul Guttry) the group’s makeup confuses me.

It’s mixed gender, but only three of its 12 members are women. I listened hard at a concert of works from 15th century France, Burgundy and Cyprus last night at a billowy church in Cambridge, MA to see if the gender imbalance created something special for the sound.

But I drew a blank on that front.

Though the ensemble worked hard to achieve a good balance and blend, and succeeded on the whole, countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf’s timbre, though lovely, stuck out of the mix. I’m guessing that this happened because the other three high voices in the ensemble are supplied by female vocalists — Daniela Tosic, Pamela Dellal an Jennifer Ashe.

Still, the concert, which felt rather long, had some great moments. The most extraordinary was a quartet of men performing the French-born composer Johannes Ciconia’s “Gloria Spiritus at alme,” a piece which modulates in such bizarre ways and whose “Amen” coda is so tonally unsettling, that it caused some audience members to titter. I loved it.

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  1. Neil McGowan says

    Gender imbalance???

    Ecclesiastical polyphony of the C12th to C18th was written for an all-male ensemble. The top line only (out of between 4-8 parts in total) was sung by boys. Leaving the remaining 4-7 tines to be sung by men.

    Learn what you are even TALKING about, before writing a blog about it – f’chrissake???

      • MWnyc says

        Well, as I mentioned, most top-level ensembles that do the music on that particular program don’t use women. (There are a few all-female groups, such as Anonymous 4, Trio Medieval and Discantus, who sing that rep sometimes; they transpose the music up.)

        Why would Blue Heron use women singers at all in this music? Presumably because they believe in the principle that if a given professional can do the job in question, it would be wrong not to hire that professional because she is female. And many people fought hard for many years to establish that principle.

        So why was there a gender imbalance in this concert anyway? Because the music has more tenor and bass parts than alto parts, and there don’t seem to be many female early music specialists who have tenor or bass voices.

        (Sure, they could have hired Mavis Staples, but she really doesn’t have any feeling for 15th-century style, ya know? And Blue Heron probably can’t afford her fee.)

  2. MWnyc says

    Neil’s insulting tone is out of line. But I am a little surprised at this post, Chloe, as you’re not a complete stranger to the medieval and Renaissance repertoire.

    Calling out Blue Heron for gender imbalance on the basis of this particular program really isn’t fair. Vocal music in the 15th-century francosphere (which, during this period, included Cyprus) is generally scored ATB or ATTB, give or take an extra tenor or bass. That rep is sung by all-male ensembles much more often than not. Under these particular circumstances, three females out of twelve singers seems pretty fair to me. (Unless one wanted to transpose the music up for the sake of gender parity, but I don’t think that’s what you’re suggesting.)

    I clicked on your link to Blue Heron’s website and looked at the complete roster of the group’s musicians. Out of 17 singers, 6 are women – just over one-third. The rep in which Blue Heron would perform at full strength, 16th-century English Catholic sacred music, is generally scored SATTB (again, give or take an extra tenor or bass). Again, under those circumstances, Blue Heron’s gender balance seems to me to be fair.

    When considering gender balance in an early music group, it may be fairer to look at the instrumentalists, since the gender of the performers isn’t constrained by the scoring. On Blue Heron’s instrumentalist roster, leaving aside the group’s director himself, five instrumentalists out of seven are women. (In my experience generally, the gender balance among instrumentalists in the early music sphere is pretty even.)

    I’m glad you enjoyed the concert. Blue Heron is an excellent group, and we in NYC are lucky that they come to visit a couple of times a year.

    • says

      i completely take your point and thanks for writing
      i don’t think it’s unfair to call Blue Heron out for the gender imbalance on this one program
      blue heron is an excellent group, by all accounts
      and i am certainly not criticizing the gender imbalance for all their work
      i am merely responding to the experience of one concert

      • MWnyc says

        What I don’t understand is this: If you’re calling out Blue Heron for gender imbalance in this particular program, how are they supposed to address your complaint?

        Transpose the music up from the pitch at which it was written. only for the purpose of achieving gender parity? Assign women to sing tenor or bass parts whether or not they have tenor or bass voices? Avoid the repertoire altogether because it doesn’t allow for gender parity as written?

      • Neil McGowan says

        Your suggestion that correcting ‘gender imbalance’ (ie putting in more women into the group, despite there being no lines for them to sing) is more important than a faithful performance of the music is, frankly, laughable and wrong.