Making Statements: An Interview With Abbie Conant

We are thrilled to have been able to conduct an interview with the fabulous Abbie Conant. Abbie famously fought the Munich Philharmonic for 11 years in court to be solo trombone and now performs groundbreaking multidisciplinary works. She has been a pleasure to work with on this interview!

About Abbie Conant

abbie clearAward-winning Performance artist and Juilliard-trained trombonist Abbie Conant is somewhat of a legend in the international orchestral brass world. The story of her epic fight and ultimate victory against egregious gender discrimination in the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, where she won the position for principal trombone at a screened audition in 1980, inspired author Malcolm Gladwell to write the NY Times Bestseller, Blink, where Ms. Conant’s story is detailed in the last chapter. The 11-year-long court battle was documented by composer/musicologist/activist, William Osborne, in an article entitled “You Sound Like a Ladies’ Orchestra.” The document is supported by actual court records and experiences in the orchestra with 89 footnotes. This source document has generated countless newspaper and magazine article (Der Spiegel, {the German analog to Time Magazine}, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, etc.) as well as a documentary film, (Abbie Conant, Alone Among Men by Brenda Parkerson), a play produced at the Landestheater Linz, Austria by Award-winning British playwright, Tamssin Oglesby called, Der (eingebildeter) Frauenfeind, (The [Concieted] Misogynist) and a screen play for a feature film in the works by Canadian writer/producer Dale Wolf.

After winning her lengthy court case, Ms. Conant won a full-tenured Professorship at the University of Music in Trossingen, Germany and left the orchestra in 1993. Abbie Conant has performed instrumental music theater works with surround sound electronics in over 150 different cities around the world. She has given masterclasses in as many esteemed music institution such as The Juilliard School, The Eastman School, New England Conservatory, Yale School of Music, Indiana University, Royal Northern College of Music, the Academy of Music and Drama in Gothenburg, Sweden, DePaul, CalArts, McGill, Oberlin and many others. In collaboration with composer/husband William Osborne, the pair has created a new genre of chamber music theater. They have produced five evening-length chamber operas for singing/acting trombonist.

Interview

1. Your story of battling sexism and discrimination in the orchestra world with the Munich Philharmonic is unbelievable, yet your strength and determination (and great playing of course!) paved the way for many discussions and policies on sexism in the brass world. Have your thoughts on that experience changed in any way? Especially in light of recent events in classical music and political culture with harassment and this kind of behavior being less tolerated in the public eye?

My thoughts about my experience in the Munich Philharmonic haven’t changed. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, the treatment I received seemed unthinkable and of another era. It is common for women to expect decent, fair treatment in the workplace and find out that their male – and sometimes female – co-workers aren’t very conscious about these issues. Once people learn to recognize the behavioral patterns of sexism, racism and other forms of bigotry, the problems and their sources become clear. Action can then be taken. This wasn’t the case in the MPhil. The atmosphere was like the 1950s. The women musicians, all 7 of them at the time I entered in 1980, wore dresses to rehearsals with long sleeves and conservative necklines.  If a woman’s concert gown showed too much skin, a self-appointed, stone-faced, elderly and creepy cellist would sidle up to her and warn her to cover up.  Nowadays, that simply wouldn’t happen. But to me, back then, it was appalling that a man would have anything to say about what we wore.

Men in groups still need to change their views about women and women need to develop zero tolerance for sexual harassment, sexual abuse and discrimination in any form. It doesn’t mean we have to become aggressive, necessarily, but we do have to expect to be treated with decency and professionalism at school and in the workplace. Basic respect is not a difficult behavior to master. Everyone knows what it is, what it feels like and how it creates harmony and brings out the highest potential of any group of humans working together. When I look back at my Munich experience, it is sometimes hard for me to believe that I survived the concentric aggression of that institution.  You describe my experience as a battle, and it certainly was, but not in the sense that immediately comes to mind – a sort of tumultuous, even messy, series of aggressive, angry confrontations. It was more like being on an ice floe without a coat in the middle of a vast ocean with no land in sight. Oddly, I was well-liked and was always congenial with my colleagues. So it confused me when a few of them seemed to want to destroy me. It was a deep, cold hatred of women who were, in their minds, “out of place.” This is a matter of human evolution and the raising of consciousness.

2. Tell us about your work as a soloist with music theater pieces. Playing trombone, singing, and acting all in the same performance is incredibly inspiring and changes the game in creating a whole new body of repertoire and responsibilities for a performer.

In 1983, my husband, composer William Osborne completed a 45 minute work for acting soprano/trombonist with piano accompaniment using text from the play, Happy Days, by the great existentialist playwright Samuel Beckett.  William auditioned several operatic sopranos and decided that he needed a different kind of text delivery than the florid, bel canto park and bark tradition. He told me OK, you have a year to learn to sing.  At a music festival, I met a dramatic soprano in the dorm who happened to live in Munich who said she could teach me to sing. I believed her even though I couldn’t imagine myself singing a score like Winnie. It was all over the place, the tessitura, the tricky intervals, the span of the piece, let alone the acting!  We set to work sometimes scheduling 2 to 3 lessons a week. On top of that I had Alexander Technique lessons which helped immensely with poise and vocal production. In short, I premiered William Osborne’s Winnie at a festival in Rome, Italy.  

During that same year I took workshops in pantomime, clowning, modern dance and mask work with great people. I had had some basic training as an undergrad at Temple University in mime which was incredibly helpful for defining stage movement. The score had dozens of specific movements timed to the music that had to be utterly precise and yet be natural looking and convincing. William directed me and we worked out basic principles of acting through observation and books.

William set two additional Beckett works for me to create an evening length trilogy comprised of Winnie, Act Without Words I, and Rockaby.  Act Without Words I is a work for pantomime, and is a tour de force in terms of athletic, almost acrobatic movement, as well as rope climbing.

The next piece was the Miriam Trilogy which was a direct artistic and emotional response to what I had been going through in the Munich Philharmonic. This was a 90 minute, non-stop work in three parts: The Mirror, The Chair, and The River.

When we began work on the piece, the emotions in it were so intense and close to the bone for me that it took several hours to feel normal again. It is challenging to go into such a devastating place every rehearsal of the piece! The Mirror is pure mime, mask work and trombone playing. Miriam is trying to find her identity as an artist, as a woman. At the end she tries to take her own life by swallowing a lot of pills.  In the second part of the trilogy, The Chair, she is restrained in a large chair. There are clamps that snap down when she becomes too agitated. The whole thing looks like a cross between a child’s high chair made for an adult and a sort of torture chair. When the clamps release her hands, she reaches for her trombone and plays what words cannot express. There is a demo video that gives one an idea of what I do:

http://www.osborne-conant.org/Miriam.htm

Our next work was Street Scene for the Last Soprano which is about a homeless woman living in a dumpster who thinks she has an audition for the Met the next day.

Then came Cybeline, a work about a cyborg who is trying to prove to scientists that she is human by being a talk show host. I perform along with a video using hundreds of cartoons I drew. The images represent the inside of my cyborg mind. The work explores the relationship between women, nature, and technology. Its pretty whacky.

After that came Alethia with which we will tour for two months in the Northeastern USA from mid-February to mid-April, 2018.

Now to answer your question!  I believe that musicians of the future will be trained in a holistic and comprehensive way that not only demands the highest standards of instrumental performance but also vocal production, movement training, acting, diction, directing, set design, lighting, production, video, sound design, text writing and composition.  All of these elements of music theater directly relate to and enhance brass performance. Just standing there with a music stand in front of you like a shield in some sort of battle simply won’t be enough. It already isn’t enough.  We can make bigger, more total statements of great relevance and power. Of course, it takes time and effort to learn these other skills, but it imbues one’s playing with breadth and depth of expression.

3. Do you see any specific challenges for musicians in today’s climate? How do you mitigate those on your own or when teaching?

The challenges are mighty these days!  Orchestras are being defunded if they haven’t already vanished due to lack of arts funding. Teaching jobs are tremendously competitive and require a doctorate, which can plunge a young person into serious debt before they have even begun to earn money. There are some successful chamber groups out there, but most members still have to have a teaching job to support their chamber music habit. There is a deterioration of the ability to focus in general. The addictive quality of smartphones and tablets can undo the most disciplined individual. It is as if we are being trained to be scattered and perhaps a bit jaded by all the virtual stimulation and interaction…and our world appears to be in a massive tumult!

I observed that many students have little moral support in general. They see their teacher once or twice a week and they have their friends, but no one is teaching them survival tactics or common-sense strategies to survive in the world they will be tossed out into!  I have developed a class at my university called Evolving as an Artist.  We work on learning tools for artistic, emotional, mental and physical well-being. The class itself becomes a supportive community for each of its members. At the same time, they learn how to deal with difficult people, how to clear their minds, how to stay creative and self-loving no matter what, how to present themselves, how to practice more efficiently, how to create and achieve goals and much more. So I feel I am doing my part to help them cope with this rather shape-shifting world.

4. Is there anything you wish you had known as a student or young professional that you know now? Any advice that you’d like to share with younger female musicians?

I learned that being in school is not at all like being out of school. I wish I had had a course in how to deal with difficult people. People who want to harm you. People who like to make trouble for the entertainment value it brings to their empty lives and souls. I needed to know that just because you are a nice person doesn’t vaccinate you against sadists, psychopaths, and the envious and jealous. There is nothing quite like sitting next to a passive-aggressive person in an ensemble for several decades to challenge your mental strength! It is the rotten apple in the barrel of great, kind and lovely people who can destroy your peace of mind, sense of safety, and self-confidence. And I just happen to know of a great book for dealing with these issues: Pulling Your Own Strings by Dr. Wayne Dyer. It may be out-of-print but this book helped me more than anything in terms of handling my monsters. 

5. Any resources you recommend? Books, podcasts, recordings that changed your life, etc.

Some books I love:

The Art of Trombone Playing by Edward Kleinhammer

Trombone Technique by Denis Wick

Anything by Philip Farkas

Legacy of a Master by Dee Stewart

Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs by Bruce Nelson

The Caruso Method Videos by Julie Landsman

To name a few…

Literature for rekindling Noble Sentiments and Lofty Thoughts:

The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse

Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Through the Flower by Judy Chicago

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Films that Inspire or Evoke Depth of Feeling

To Kill a Mockingbird

Days of Heaven

Virgin Spring by Ingmar Bergman

Death in Venice by Luchino Visconti

Blade Runner

Seymour: An Introduction

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Dances with Wolves

Babette’s Feast

Fly Away Home

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