The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) Blog

Difference and Music

Posted in Sally_Macarthur by iawmblog on January 26, 2010

Sabrina Pena Young’s blog (Jan 23, 2010), defending electroacoustic music, opens up important questions to do with difference. She explains that electroacoustic music is as valid an art-form as acoustic music composition and should be recognised accordingly. She highlights the fact that electroacoustic composers are undervalued and/or sidelined for the wrong reasons. The underlying point she makes is that difference is used to discriminate against the category of electroacoustic music. Young implies that electroacoustic music has been judged unfairly against an implied normative music.

The kind of difference frequently invoked for discussions to do with discrimination—such as that against electroacoustic or women’s music—is ‘categorical difference’ or as Deleuze, a philosopher in whose work I have recently become interested, puts it, ‘discrete difference’. ‘Discrete difference’ divides categories into rigid, separate, static, grid-like entities such that they become stratified. In this conception of difference, music is imagined to have hard boundaries around it. And it is the kind of difference that makes distinctions about identity in terms of various demarcations such as sex, gender, colour, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, age, ability, and so on. The list is endless. While these categories may be useful, they are limiting in the way they reduce the body (or music) to particular modes of being and interacting, and they are ultimately hierarchical. Categorical (or discrete) difference reduces music and identities to positive and negative images, and it is ultimately divisive and polarising.

Deleuze’s conception of ‘continuous difference’, which I think is a more useful way to think about difference, is based on the idea that difference is on a continuum and it is never static. Deleuze conceives of difference as a multiplicity under continuous construction. This conception of difference is based on the idea that it is internal rather than relational or external. To paraphrase Hickey Moody and Malins (in Deleuzian Encounters, 2007), the body is produced through an internal differenciation, as when cells multiply and, over time, differ from each other. The idea here is that difference keeps differing. In this conception, as I hope to elaborate over time as I deal with other Deleuzian concepts, difference is presented as positive and productive, rather than as negative and subtractive.

A Deleuzian conception of difference allows us to think about new possibilities, rather than being concerned with how one kind of music is viewed against another kind, or against some imagined standard or norm. Jenny Fowler’s recent email to the IAWM Listserv (26 Jan, 2010) encapsulates this idea. She suggests that drawing from the total pool of talent would be much more enriching to the music world than restricting the pool to particular categories or groups of composers. Of course, the total pool of talent, as I think she implies, is constantly changing and differing as new talents, and new works, including those by women (or from any other category of identity), are added to it. Thinking about the total pool of talent in a Deleuzian sense allows us to imagine endless possibilities for music, all of which would be positive. Such an idea exemplifies the concept of difference differing.

As Bronwyn Davies has written, this concept of difference, which is produced through an ongoing process of differenciation, disrupts the idea ‘of a self which is constituted through its difference to an “other”, and allows us to think of relationships between bodies as productive of (rather than reliant upon) difference.’ The value of thinking about difference in this manner, as an ongoing, productive process, allows us to shift the focus from the fixed end-product, such as the individual or the music, and from the idea that one kind of music is better than another. In Davies words, it allows us to think of difference as a constantly emerging process of becoming other-than-itself and as the ongoing production of life itself. Such an idea puts a positive spin on difference, wherever and whenever it appears.


Sally Macarthur is senior lecturer in musicology at the University of Western Sydney. She utilises feminist and poststructural theories in her work on contemporary art music and women’s new music. Her books include Feminist Aesthetics in Music (Greenwood Press, 2002) and Towards a Twenty-First Century Feminist Politics of Music (Ashgate, forthcoming).


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