Sarah Weiss
Precarious Resistance: On Women Singing Transgression in Ritual Contexts

In some cultural contexts, even in those that are most restrictive and closed, women can be observed to exploit the ambiguity generated by performance in ritual contexts – whether weddings, funerals, or the fulfillment of personal vows – to express their opinions or to do things they would not normally be allowed to do. Through lamentation, mockery, or the embodied defiance of normative behaviors, women performers generate (an ephemeral) agency for themselves through the articulation and mastery of their emotions in and through their performance. Using case studies from India, Greece, Iran, and Italy, in this presentation I will suggest that expressing these kinds of transgressive sentiments through the performance of music and dance ameliorates the disturbances that might otherwise be caused by the articulation of such words and actions alone. Different from performances for entertainment in these same cultures, the music and dance in these ritually sanctioned contexts shield women from the opprobrium that might normally be heaped on them for expressing themselves in public, visible not only to women but also to men. The protection occurs precisely because the performative moments are temporary and contained by the liminality of the cultural moment. In these contexts, the limited nature of the performative moment actually provides additional freedom for the performers to communicate much more than they would normally be allowed to do in daily life. Any ambiguities about their character or propriety that might otherwise be generated by their performing music and dance on stage or in public, without the shepherding presence of their male family members, are, ironically, ameliorated by the performance itself. The fragility of this kind of performed agency is precisely what makes it powerful. 

Privatdozentin Dr. Sarah Weiss (PhD, MA – New York University, BA – University of Rochester/ Eastman School of Music) is a scholar working in Southeast Asian cultures and performance, gender studies, postcoloniality, and hybridity studies. She has recently (2018) finished a term as Associate Professor in the Humanities and Inaugural Rector of Saga Residential College at Yale-NUS College, a new liberal arts and sciences college in Singapore. She joined the Institute for Ethnomusicology at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz as a senior faculty member and researcher in March 2018. She completed her habilitation in January 2019 with a new book entitled, Ritual Soundings: Women Performers and World Religions published in 2019 by the University of Illinois Press in their New Perspectives on Gender and Music Series. Her earlier and continuing research focuses on the cultural and musical analysis of Javanese gamelan performance, in particular old-style wayang. She has been leading Javanese Gamelan Nyai Rara Saraswati at Kunstuniversität Graz since September 2018.