Womb Envy: Recording Studios, Man Caves and Rehearsal Spaces as Modern Flute Houses

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Dr. Charles Keil is a radical sociomusicologist, an idealist and realist who learned drums from John Phillip Sousa’s bass drummer, booked Malcolm X’s first academic debate, wrote the genre-shattering book Urban Blues in 1966 while only 24-years-old, and has since been taking jabs at the status-quo of academic and popular thinking about music, politics, social structure and more for over fifty years.

Keil has a theory about why men dominate instrumental music making — be it playing, recording or otherwise — and it’s not a comforting or comfortable theory. In a nutshell, Keil’s theory says that males of most species tend to dominate the “sounding,” and human males are not unique among species in this way. Keil goes on to note that human male domination of music is by no means a recent phenomenon, and that it may have been evolutionarily built into our species from the git-go.

But Keil’s ideas get more difficult and more uncomfortable when we start to think beyond biologically determined evolutionary strategies that we humans may share with other species and start to think about human culture, intentionally shaped and sustained by-us-and-for-us for millennia. It’s one thing to suggest that we are not unique among species or that we developed certain sex-based behavioral patterns as part of our evolution (instincts); it’s another thing to suggest that our culture sustains male domination of music making (intentions). More importantly: Why do we continue to sustain a culture in which men dominate musical activity (and by default recordmaking)?  Answering this question is where Keil’s theory gets interesting as he draws on his five decades of anthropological fieldwork and cultural studies to offer a still more discomforting, yet hopeful hypothesis: because patriarchy, class, hierarchy, militarism and fascism have their root in men’s womb envy, it may be that resocializing boys to dance and girls to drum – or reversing any number of gender roles – will enable children to sing-dance-drum-toot their way to a culturally rediversified, decentralized, resensitized, happy, peaceful and very creative future.

If you want to avoid feeling a little uncomfortable the next time you end up in a studio full of guys huddled around the-stuff-that-makes-sounds, you might not want to read this.  If, like me, you seek a bit of discomfort by considering the studio-bro-down in anthropological terms, then read on.

I will jump in here and there with comments in order to hopefully add a bit of clarity. I have also added all statements about the recording studio, which Keil hadn’t included in his now-fifteen-plus-year-old draft (I assume this is partially because recording technology has proliferated so robustly in this century).

So, let’s get uncomfortable with Keil as he takes us on a journey into our deep history, across cultures and into our present-day military-industrial complex.

– Allen Farmelo
Most of the time I am writing to persuade, to win people to a position that I can articulate in a few clear sentences. Here I don’t hope to persuade so much.  I’m just puzzling over a few facts and some cultural patterns that don’t fit with the politically correct positions held around sex and gender.  I’m also revealing some deep, essential assumptions I’ve accumulated over the years and affirming what I dimly understand to be necessary for survival of our species and all species.

So let’s call this a brief “contemplation” of males and instrumental musicking. Just thinking about it, ruminating, musing, wondering, over-viewing, why males of most species make the most noise, do the most sounding, and why it is men with tubes, slit-logs, bull-roarers, drums, voice-disguisers in otherwise classless societies and men, for sure, in all tech-obsessed class societies, who monopolize the instrumental music and, now more than ever, the recording of that music.
Let’s be clear in the first place about the prevailing monopoly. It’s not really a “tending toward monopoly” or a “near monopoly”; males rule a certain complex, extended, repetitive, ritualized sound channel. Only male humpback whales “sing” the inexplicably long solo “song” repeatedly in the breeding/birthing season, and they will not be interrupted. Nor will they blend voices, even though “the song” of the season is nearly the same for all singers. (My hypothesis is that the dads are enculturating the newborns to humpback whaleness, though we don’t know; could be just ‘boasting and toasting’, a sonic ‘flipping us the fluke”.) Male birds (the descendants of flying dinosaurs) get the brightest colors and chirp loudest proclaiming territory and finding mates. In the sea, in the air, on land, in most trees, the sounding that matters most seems to be male across 99% of the vertebrate speciation (exception: in some gibbon species females hoot more than males and initiate some sweet dueting). And in human societies the pattern is continuous, from the most primal jam sessions through all the contemporary styles, the instruments, batons, charts, the big moments and meaningful changes, nearly everything that matters in instrumental music is typically in the hands of men. Beethoven and Bach could not have been women. Charlie Parker may have been bird, but not a chick. The Beatles, Stones and Grateful Dead could not have been girls. In every style and on every instrument I can think of around the world, the movers and shakers, the “greatest,” are men. (A conceivable exception: courtesans plucking zithers in some Japanese, Chinese or Korean eras?) In sum, males in general and we human men in particular control sound in a way that females in general and human women in particular do not.

We guys do it well. Some of the wildest huffing and puffing, interlocked horn hocketing, dijiridoing, flute hooting, squatting and tooting, is done by guys across the spectrum of primitive (from pygmy molimos to Australian corroborees, from the flute houses of Papua New Guineans to those of the Amazonians) and not so prime societies (from those red hat Nyingmapa sessions in Tibet — what you get if the peasants bring enough grain so that you can practice morning and night for many centuries — to the very similar traffic-jam cacophonies of the Ayler brothers’ vanguard marches in 1960s lower Manhattan). These are the most “smoking” and “primordial” performances I’ve heard on this planet. They are primordial, ur, getting down into the inner lizard movement brain and paleomammalian emotional or limbic brain and uniting these deeper layers with the fabled and fabulous cortex: evo and devo simultaneously.

Keil is talking about evolution toward more complex brain structures and devolution back into our primordial brain layers, claiming that musical participation unties these two. This uniting is central to his quasi-feminist theory here, so read on with this in mind. -AF 

Men making music together is very phatic, assertive, socially interactive communication. We are here. We are whole. We are sounding. We are bonding. We are relating to everything within 360 degrees of this tonal center.  I, the blower, integrate my triune-brain-as-embodied, bond with my fellow blowers, bond with the human, natural and supernatural worlds consubstantially, sacramentally and simultaneously. Dig it!
Myths and stories say that way back when the wind blew the flutes, or they blew themselves, or nature’s soundings were enough, or women tended to fluting.  But then for one reason or another men begged, borrowed or stole the flutes and it has been the most mysterious work men do, ever since. When, in otherwise classless or very egalitarian societies across the planet, men go off and construct a flute house where they will initiate boys into the secrets of manhood and punish any woman or child who learns the secrets, a whole complex of culture “traits” emerges that looks and sounds a lot like the beginnings of patriarchy.  “Women make babies, men play flutes.” says a very old Wogeo proverb (the Wogeo are a classless society in Paupa New Guinea). This is a division of labor along the gender line that appears ready to sprout into full-on male domination of certain cultural areas (like music, like economics) and the relegation of women to domestic duties. Add modern, stratified, technological, global economies and mass culture and this seemingly benign proverb starts to look like the seeds of humans destroying the planet by way of our way-too-late-capitalism and our way-too-dominant patriarchy.

Now we are at the center of this contemplation, and I don’t want to get lost in the ethnographic data. There is plenty of it. I could go on and on citing the anthropological record well beyond the Wogeo. But we do have to focus on the human sex-n-gender-problem when men turn to the flute house and what they find there that might be part of the solution to that problem. Is the male domination of music a gender balancing cultural move, or does it lead to patriarchy, or both simultaneously?
Whatever we understand about this male power over the sound channel needs to be understood within the current unfolding and deepening crisis we are in: the ecocatastrophe (destroying our planet) and the echocatastrophe (the profusion of mediated culture that keeps us distracted as the planet smolders). Think about where the only home we have is headed: ever speedier computers comprehending and replicating each other, ever easier gene splicing, vast vertical and horizontal integrations of corporations, the plasticity and adaptability of human consciousness, radiation levels boosting mutation rates, airborn AIDS-type viruses on the horizon, prions lurking in the meat, population explosion and global economy gobbling up resources at unsustainable pace, ever quicker “fixes” for ever deeper, underlying problems, humanity (or “enhanced” humanity or “us as borg”) churning along way past the carrying capacity cliff, just like Wiley Coyote on a really bad elusive road-runner day.

And then there is the echocatastrophe, the reassuring soundtrack for all this production and consumption, the constant feedback or echo of human productions, creations, expressions, reverberating in the five or six hours of “meditation” before the tube each day, the hours looking into personal computer screens, every single influential, decision-making, privileged, voting person spending MOST of their waking hours immersed in mediated “information,” “entertainment,” “infotainment,” “knowledge,” i.e. alienated experience (Jaron Lanier), from early childhood to old age.

Maybe “us guys” should spend more and more time blowing down the tubes in the flute house, more time bonding with each other while giving birth to something in the man-cave, the recording studio, the rehearsal space. Face to face. Organ to organ. Connecting to each other and to the natural world.  Less time in labs. Less time seeking profit. Less time breeding. Less time reading. Less time lost in mediated la-la land and more time found in the flute house.
Or is the flute house where all this trouble starts? Why did we build the flute houses in the first place? What was missing? What did we find there we couldn’t find at home?  Our cute little penises get the babies started, why spend hours and hours puffing on a big phallus with a bunch of other guys?

And here I stumble toward the hypothesis of womb envy.  Freud did not get it right.  Penis-envy — no big problem.  Castration anxiety — way over-rated.  Womb envy — expulsion from the polymetered, polyrhythmic womb drum after the final three months of gestation-saturation-grooviness that programs the fetal brain, and men’s envy of the women who contain such an ultimate instrument and are so obviously successful and necessary in perpetuating the species with it — this womb envy is as deep and permanent as the tomb.

Women grow big with child.  Amazing.  Men try bizarre “couvade” tricks to help out the birthing (Editor’s note: a couvade is when a man stands in water up to his armpits as the tide comes in, or lays in bed and pretends to be physically effected by the birth of his child).  Women bleed monthly. Energy and life-blood to spare. Papua New Guinea’s Wogeo men go down to the river and cut their penises regularly in the futile effort to get some bleeding parity. Back when anthropology was a serious discipline grad students used to faint watching films of “subincision” ceremonies.  I’ll bet genital mutilation of all kinds across all cultures can be traced psychologically to men’s womb envy. Women give milk. Breast worship, breast fetishism, has reached epic proportions over time (Editor’s note: see my article Show Us Your Racks). In the minds of womb enviers everywhere and throughout history, women are nature and women are nurture too. What a real and fantastic combo. What is left for men to be or do? How do men merge with the wonderment of creation after an unprotected quicky brings a swift end to our only truly necessary role? Is womb envy why we went to the flute house? Is womb envy why we gather in man-caves and recording studios?

The cause of womb envy is being born. The cure is full and deep participation in some immersive experience, somehow capable of connecting the alienated individual back to a larger undivided whole (self, social, environmental and beyond). Easier for women who have wombs, bleed, give milk, are equipped with a life-giving, life-affirming, natural and nurturant process. Harder for men who have to invent something that will never be quite as amazing, involving, inevitable, necessary, for perpetuating the species.

We’ve arrived at the main thesis: men gather together without women and children to make music in order to experience a connectedness to creation that they’re missing by virtue of not-being-women (and the connections between cortex and the ‘old mammal’ and lizard brains that are engendered during musicking lies at the center of these connected experiences — the allure of the deep jam where we just let it all go and reconnect). In summary, male-only musicking is one cultural compensation among many for not being female.

Ed. note: Keil is missing the possibility that all-male musicking is all about making a big deal out of our small contribution to creation (the unprotected quicky) by way of amplifying and broadcasting the male’s mating calls. A lot of noise gets made showing off virility, and there’s no question that much of musical performance is a display of sexual prowess (real or imagined). A Darwinian might argue that men making a lot of noise together are essentially sending this message: “Hey look! We can attract all kinds of attention in the middle of a dangerous forest and still survive, so we’re super fit, so you should mate with us!” Allowing women or children into the flute house, the rehearsal space, the studio would confuse and, ultimately, negate that message. -AF
Few will quarrel with the idea of more parties, more jamming, more losing ourselves through musical ritual and merging with the bigger bigness, but as men we need to be very clear about why we are doing this. We need a womb of our own, a place that reverberates with polymetric, polyrhythmic creativity, a sound-surround that increases security, connectedness, intelligence, participation and eliminates fear.

The two great male oppressions, war (being told that killing and being killed are good and manly, especially when in uniform) and excessive work (bringing home more and more bacon), have really made the world quite horrible for everyone. All the work that the Pentagon pays millions of dollars a minute for doesn’t need to be done.  Men devote ever more resources to killing each other all over the world.  Bringing women and gays into the military might be correct as an equitable policy, but enlisting any more humans into the military-states-of-manhood is NOT a way to achieve meaningful equality, gender symmetry or a sustainable world. Bringing men out of work and the military and back to fooling around in the flute house (or the recording studio – AF) is at least one way to go.

Is the drive to merge in male-dominated organizations like armies and corporations really just a permutation of the drive to merge in the flute house? This is a frightening but possible interpretation of what all-male musicking led to: no women allowed, men bonding in sequestered spaces where they hoard certain cultural means. Is womb envy at the root of the modern industrial-military complex? Is our late-capitalist, planet-fucking patriarchy just a wildly over-developed extension of that impulse to shove women out and take control of creative forces (or at least sonic representations of them)?

This is why men have to be careful about why they’re coming together to bond.  We have to be able to make a big, easily discernible distinction between two kinds of “participatory consciousness” — state fascism and watershed tribalism. State fascism –NO!, Watershed tribalism – YES!  Male bonding can be a great, anti-alienation reconnection to our selves, each other and our environment, but men must consciously resist the strong tendency toward fascism inherent in all state formations.

The studio bro-down itself isn’t killing anyone, of course, but the tendency to come together without women or children, to bond and “produce” might spring from the same deep needs that motivate and sustain the military-industrial-congressional complex. Vigilance is needed to be sure we male-bonders don’t cross that line into fascism. – AF

Clear distinctions between macro-fascism and micro-tribalism can not be taken entirely for granted. Erich Fromm (1900-1980), “great psychologist and lover of the human race” near the very end of his life was asking, “Why is it, . . .  that the human race prefers necrophilia to biophilia?” and it is still one of the toughest questions on the global table. Hopefully, most of us today can tell the difference between love-of-life and love-of-death in theory and figure out how to support the will-to-party over the will-to-power in practice. Every sane person knows that parties are fun and wars are no fun at all; happiness makes us proud to be human while atrocities diminish us, make us ashamed and sad.

Whenever I get to the next questions — Can “the party” prevent, preempt, immunize againt the atrocties, “cleansings”, wars? Give people so much ecstatic “us-ness” and affirmative in-group solidarity that they couldn’t possibly want a lot of power-over and scapegoating of others? Will more local musicking bring regional and global peace? If we dance enough locally we won’t have to run militaristic drills nationally? Will watershed tribalism push aside or wither away state fascism over time?  I conclude that these are hopes, goals, a wish list. Making music can direct our deep needs for unity away from global-scale fascism and toward small-radius, sustainable, benevolent, communion with each other and our environment; wishful thinking, an hypothesis that needs testing by skeptics. Yet, perhaps more bonding, more polyrhythmic, polymetered immersion in the sound surround wombs of our own making will be a big part of our salvation as a species.
The BaMbuti of the Ituri forest of the Congo, as reported by anthropologist Colin Turnbull in the 1950s, have long been the good paradigm to keep in mind for egalitarian musicking (see The Forest People). The BaMbuti give men special roles with the tube and instruments while not losing gender balance and symmetry. They gave everyone a womb of their own, satisfying womb envy while not letting the male bonding spin out of control into militaristic patriarchy. In his detailed summary of how it is that newborns grow into one larger womb after another from hut to hearth to camp to play area to forest, Turnbull shows us a range of Mbuti events characterized by balance: in the “greater molimo” ceremony where adult men sing, keep rhythms, blow down the tube night after night from dusk to dawn to wake up the forest after a death, it is the senior woman who binds the men in vines, kicks apart the fire, brings the waking to an official end; in the elima or initiation ceremony for girls it is the young men who forcibly enter the women’s house and signal a conclusion; in the “lesser molimo” process young men carry the horn around the perimeter of the settlement scaring people who have displeased them or caused disharmony in the group; displeased young people can also “veto” the hunt by not starting the ritual fire at a base of a tree; a tug of war starts with men vs. women, but then people change sides and behaviors to keep the tugging balanced until women’s parodies of men pulling and men’s parodies of women pulling dissolve the group into laughter; children are autonomous in their play area and adults who dare enter there to complain about noise or whatever are hazed, jeered, told to disappear.  Get the idea?  Gender and generational differences, balances, points of inclusion and stylized closures keep social life equal and open, conflicts aired out, processes returning to equilibrium.  This is also a society with a perfectly equal “2 hour work day” for men and women so that men have much more time for fully nurturing babies and children. In sum, this society has found many ways for men to compensate and decrease womb envy, to merge with nature and nuturance, to give women key and often controlling roles. We can not return to small scale classless societies, at least not any time soon, but we can learn a lot from them.
When we think of men gathered in a recording studio or a rehearsal space today, what do we see?  How do we interpret our all-male gatherings into the man-caves, the treehouse, the forts, the studios? Are these our flute houses? Is the exclusion of women — intentional or not — an extension of that old impulse to sequester ourselves and make music in order to satisfy our deep womb envy?

There is little question that men create their own womb-like environments when they create studios: lights are often low, colors warm and immersive, spaces filled with gadgets to create the polyrhythmic, polymetered, immersive sound surround. Why do we talk about “warm tones” so much? Why do we so frequently dim the lights, turn on glowing lava lamps, light candles to create a vibe (late-term fetuses see a warm orange glow though their mother’s belly) and immerse ourselves in rhythms hovering around the human heart-rate? Are studios the place where we can connect ourselves to each other, a larger whole, a larger sense of creative power. Is the studio the womb over which we finally have creative power and control?

Or is the studio the birthing room? Studios are male-dominated spaces in which something gestates, is nurtured and then gets “released” into the world. The time between albums tends to be a year or more, almost on schedule with the nine-month gestation, rest and then making of another baby – and today we space those albums a bit further and make fewer, just as families tend to do now with children. People speak of their records and their songs as their babies, their children, of releasing them into the world where they must walk on their own. Prior to recording technology, these comparisons were hardly as poignant. There was no “thing” that men were making, just a bunch of real-time sound in the flute house. Now we can “deliver” an actual object, and take pride in its success in the world, embarrassment over its failures. Records are extensions of ourselves, outliving us, reaching beyond what we can do personally and taking on a life of their own.

Perhaps Keil is right; perhaps we are just reaching for some kind of fulfillment of our inability to connect more directly to creation. Maybe we are all just hugely envious of the womb, and perhaps women don’t flock to recording studios because, quite simply, they aren’t missing the thing studios have been designed to fulfill.

Author: Charles Keil
First Publication: Pink Noise
Publication Date: 11-14-14