Tunes in to Different Ways of Considering Music
if, a few centuries ago, when Western music scales were being
forged into their modern, tempered patterns, women, instead
of men, were calibrating the tones and intervals that would
combine to become the basis of most music we hear today.
Jillian Flexner ’11 doing
what she loves: analyzing music scores.
What would music be like? What
impact would the difference make on society, the arts, human
If, as some theories suggest,
music was originally derived from speech and vocal patterns,
then musical structures invented by women would presumably
be much different from those created by men.
It’s a subject that intrigues the academic curiosity of Jillian Flexner ’12,
a music major focusing on music theory, composition and what she calls feminist
“I can’t think of any field that’s been more male-dominated than music,” said
Flexner recently. “Men chose our modern scales. What would music be like if women
chose those scales?”
With that in mind, Flexner recently
analyzed women’s speech patterns to form
the basis of available tones for a piece she composed, for vocal soprano with
string quartet, using the text of a poem, Who, by Sylvia Plath (Smith Class of
1955). Flexner will perform the piece as part of her senior recital program on
April 30, 2011.
A difficult analysis—a
work for soprano, musical saw, harp and electric
piano by contemporary composer George Crumb.
Flexner, who plays the bassoon,
became interested in music theory and, as she says, alternative
ways of looking at music, when she took a theory class in
her final year of high school. She entered Smith planning
to study chemistry, but changed her mind, settling on a music
major, after taking a first-year composition seminar with
Eric Wubbels at Amherst College. She has studied mostly with
Smith composers Donald Wheelock, professor emeritus of music,
and Raphael Atlas, professor of music.
Flexner’s preferences tend toward the composers of the Second Viennese
School, a movement led by the iconic modernist Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951),
who blazed new musical paths with his atonal and 12-tone structures that minimized
the tonal centers of conventional music.
“I’m absolutely obsessed with that man,” she says of Schoenberg, an interest
that deepened when she spent her Junior Year Abroad last year in Vienna. “But
I really like all music. I try to find something I like in everything I listen
to. If you look more into the theory of music, you see the connections between
Flexner plans to pursue music
theory into graduate school and beyond, possibly teaching
eventually. Music, after all, she explains, is among the
most ancient and universal forms of art.
“A lot of people don’t like music theory,” she says, “but for me that’s the interesting
part of music: looking at an entire piece to see how it fits together—asking, ‘what
does that choice contribute to what the composer’s trying to say?’ When you look
closely, you learn about things you wouldn’t otherwise notice.”