Building Musical Alliances with Mellon Public Scholar Hannah Adamy

Portrait of Hannah Adamy
Hannah Adamy

Hannah Adamy, a 2019 Mellon Public Scholar, spent her summer creating spaces for women and gender-expansive musicians in Sacramento to come together and jam. As a Ph.D. candidate in Music with an emphasis on ethnomusicology, Adamy’s scholarship has, over the years, attended to women singers—such as the experimental vocalist Tanya Tagaq—and her work as a Mellon Public Scholar in 2019 extended that research to a very local group. Adamy’s research into the music scene allowed her to get out of her books and offered a chance to “integrate [herself] into the Sacramento music scene as a musician and performer.” 

For her Mellon project, Building Alliances Among Women and Gender-Expansive Musicians in Sacramento, Adamy created circumstances for women and gender-expansive musicians in Sacramento to come together and play music of any kind. Sacramento, Adamy explained, has a very active funk, soul, and R&B scene. It also has a “robust punk contingent, classic rock, bluegrass, and folk contingent; singer-songwriters,” as well as conservatory-trained jazz musicians.

Adamy began her project by asking, “What does it mean for women and gender-expansive musicians to come together and jam when they come from so many different places?” And what does it sound like when they do so? Her goal was to create interdisciplinary musical scholarship and make sure participants were “speaking the same language,” yet “as is the way of public scholarship, [that goal] morphed and changed.” 

In the search to bring people together as jam participants, Adamy learned about the different needs of different musicians and the practical challenges of musical spaces. Some of these difficulties related to gender identity, and how personal identification might conflict with the musician's professional image. Some musicians had more professional needs, such as high-quality sound equipment, whereas others were happy to perform without sound equipment. And while some musicians were content with the lack of division between performers and audience that the structure of the jam presents, others found this counter to what they had spent their careers working so hard to achieve. These conflicts between gender identity and professional identity as well as between the musician’s desire for prestige and recognition informed how they conceived of and consequently participated in a “jam.” 

Unlike most musical spaces available to rent, the jam “has a logic where everyone participates, whether you play an instrument or not,” Adamy explained. Performing on a stage suggests that the performer must be good to be heard; but Adamy sought to collapse the distinction between those who make music and those who listen to it. However, musicians’ livelihoods can depend on that distinction. “This is especially crucial for women musicians, who have to sound good. Especially for older women musicians who had to cut it with the men—you had to be on your game all the time; you could not let your guard down,” Adamy said. Being respected in a field dominated by men has historically meant, for women and gender-expansive musicians, demonstrating one’s abilities constantly. It has also precluded a freedom to break the rules of visible musical success. However, working through a jam session sensibility requires asking musicians to break the rules of professional musicianship by working in relation to one another rather than to present a product to an audience.

These difficulties, however expansive, were also opportunities to conceptualize the jam as a relational practice. In the jam, you always have to think about how you are in relation to everyone else: to the people who are keeping the rhythm, or who are participating in whatever way they can participate. Adamy explained that the jam “may sound consonant, or more like noise. The fun and the meaning-making is [in the] participating.” In deepening her theoretical and practical conceptualization of ‘the jam session,’ Adamy drew on her established network with Girls Rock Sacramento, which teaches youth how to play rock band instruments through their summer camp. Focusing on the jam as a community-building space, Adamy found a symmetry between what the girls were learning at the camp and what she found in the local scene of women and gender-expansive musicians: the difficulties faced in organizing jam sessions actually opened up possibilities for new relationships and collaborations not available through traditional performance set-ups. 
 

Girls playing a variety of instruments and singing in a jam session at Girls Rock Sacramento Teen Camp, July 2019
Jam session at Girls Rock Sacramento Teen Camp, July 2019


The attempts to orchestrate jams opened up two areas of concern for Adamy. First, she  recognized that thinking about traditions within music performance also means thinking about racial and class aspects of music. Second, Adamy became concerned with questions of capacity and access in community-building work. She asked, “How do you not spread the network too thin so that you still have meaningful interpersonal relationships, but also not depend just on one person?” Adamy’s attempts to respond to this question grew into her project of mapping the Sacramento music scene through a directory, song archive, and podcast in a project she named Amplify Sacramento.” Its aim, she states, is “[c]reating community and celebrating the work of women and gender expansive musicians.” The project is ongoing, and  participation in it might, she suggests, be understood as a practice of knowledge and a mode of scholarship accomplished outside of the world of books. Adamy invites women and gender-expansive musicians in the Sacramento area to join the network! 

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