Christine de Pisan wrote The Book of the City of Women (Le Livre de la Cité des Dames) as a reaction against the male chauvinist and misogynist writing of the day.

The book is in the form of a dialogue between herself and three allegorical figures (Reason, Rectitude, and Justice). First, the author digs the foundations for the city of women by defending women against the allegations that they lack strength, courage, intelligence and virtue. Then she builds the walls by telling the stories of dozens of women whose lives disprove all kinds of common misconceptions.

Most of us have never heard of the numerous historical figures she

refers to and whose significant work she describes. Actually, most of us have probably never heard of Christine de Pisan, despite the fact that her contemporaries compared her eloquence with that of Cicero, and her wisdom with that of Cato. De Pisan is known as “the first woman to earn a living from her pen”. She was 25 when her husband died. Alone with three children, Christine de Pisan wrote out of necessity. She published The Book of the City of Women in 1405. The City of Women 1997.

At one of the conferences the president of the Fondazione Donne in Musica, Patricia Adkins Chiti, remarked: “Why are school text books still teaching that Gregory was a great theoretician who invented, or imposed, Gregorian plain chant upon the catholic church ? And why is Hildegard von Bingen, perhaps the most prolific composer of her century, a doctor of the church, writer, philosopher and one of the most brilliant minds of her period, never mentioned? … Don’t we realise that role models are not something we come into contact with when we are in our teens, but that they come to life in our school text books during our first music lessons?”

Composer, abbess, poet, theologian, philosopher, and healer, Hildegard von Bingen was born in 1098. She composed some of the most challenging vocal music ever written. Hers is the oldest surviving by a woman composer in the western tradition.

On the occasion of her 900th anniversary the City of Women festival pays tribute to this remarkable woman. Like many other festivals, universities, and organisations from around the world, the City of Women wants to demonstrate that women, such as von Bingen or de

Pisan, are much more than historical curiosities. That the reasons why their work has been consigned to oblivion for so long have nothing to do with its intrinsic quality. Their valuable contributions to the arts and culture are beyond dispute.

Musicologist and medievalist Stevie Wishart comments on her musical education:

“Having grown up being taught by men about men, you wondered what women were doing”. And she continues by explaining how refreshing and challenging it was to discover Hildegard’s opus, whose compositions are extraordinary even by today’s standards.

To illustrate her point the City of Women has invited Stevie Wishart and her ensemble Sinfonye to perform her Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations, which is performed with members of the Oxford Girls’ Choir. Their original interpretation will also show that the link(s) between this “old” music, traditional folk, world-music, and even 20th

century avant-garde music is anything but far-fetched. Critics have even remarked that Sinfonye’s full-chested voices have a quality akin to that of Hungarian folk singers.

But Hildegard’s work will not only be “literally” present in the City of Women 1998. We’ll hear her as a source of inspiration in Wishart’s duo with “the pope of the virtual violin”, Kaffe Matthews. Or catch a glimpse of her aura in Janene Higgins’ and Zeena Parkins’ multi-media performance, Artificial Eye. It’s no surprise that Hildegard’s life caught Parkins’ attention. She has always been fascinated by the lives of “outsiders”.  As she explained in an interview for Muska, what the work of Isabelle Eberhardt, Maya Deren (who inspired some of Parkin’s earlier compositions) and Hildegard von Bingen have in common is that they “…were all operating as outsiders, rather than operating in a situation where they could really be privileged to do whatever they wanted to do. That gave them a completely different point of view.” 

Working alone, developing different points of view. It takes a lot of intelligence, strength,  and courage, because society does its best to teach us to conform. A point made by Anna Furse in her adaptation of Peter Handke’s Kaspar/ Speechtorture, a “metaphor for the way in which a society recreates itself through the individual, how the outsider is brought into the values of dominant culture”.

But there are alternative views and positions. And the City of Women festival is mainly a platform for those women who resist the mainstream, and create their own vocabulary, their own language. The four solo performances in this year’s festival, conceived by artists from four distinct contexts and disciplines, bear witness to this. Claude Wampler, Wendy Houston, Kitt Johnson and (certainly the most renowned) Marina Abramoviæ demonstrate how “different” can simply be “better”.

In a special programme on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the City of Women has invited the International Festival Films de Femmes of Créteil, near Paris, to run this year’s film programme. Like our colleagues from Créteil, we are convinced that talent and quality does not guarantee exposure, recognitionand success. You have to make a lot of noise to be heard.

City of Women 1998: Let the Drums Roll!!!

Koen Van Daele, City of Women, September 1998