Faculty Member Steve Everett Bangs the Drum for Women

by Flora B. Anthony

Steve Everett is the director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, a composer, and a professor of music at Emory. 

Everett teaching a class

While taking drumming lessons from men in the homes where he stayed in the rural state of Andhra Pradesh, India, Steve Everett noticed that the women in the house spent most of the day in the miserably hot kitchens cooking meals. In fact, he rarely saw or was allowed to interact with them. He was unable to concentrate on the lessons, but instead shifted his focus to the sounds coming from behind the kitchen doors—the rhythmic and often musical banging of pots and pans. He heard the clamor and realized that these noises were the only real voices these women possessed.

Everett recalls his early years growing up in Rome, Georgia, a place and time very rooted in the Jim Crow South, and being quite disturbed and confused by public signs that served as dividing lines between “colored” and “white.” He later went on to study musical history and theory in college. That is when he started to notice that the literature he was studying and performing consisted of music created only by white men of European descent. During the trip to South India to study drumming, Everett already was cognizant of lost voices and inequality. Hearing those women banging pots and pans was transformative for him and became the foundation for the majority of his musical compositions that he would create throughout his career.

Upon returning to the states after India, Everett created a composition called The Kitchen, part of an evening long performance he organized entitled, The Maiden Returns. This work evoked a very disturbing story in the history of Indian women - the kitchen fire suicides. In India’s history, women who were miserable in marriage and could not escape through divorce because of the social stigma attached would “accidentally perish” in a kitchen fire. Divorce was not an option for many women since it usually meant that their female children and relatives would not find spouses as a result. Today that practice has substantially vanished.

In 1993 Everett decided to apply for and received a university research grant to spend a semester studying women writers who lived in oppressive cultures. He wanted to better understand the techniques they used to express themselves. During this time he discovered an Indian poet named Vimala from Andhra Pradesh who wrote “The Kitchen,” depicting exactly what he noticed in the homes where he stayed in India. The poem was about the repetitions of rhythm, sound, and energy around food, and he put this piece to music.

He also wanted to explore gender inequities through sound and began reading the works of great feminist poets and writers. Rebecca West’s quotation—“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”—particularly resonated with him. Everett continued to wonder why women are stereotyped in the manner they are and how traditional narratives about women might be altered. In another composition “Table and Chairs” for soprano and piano, Everett set female monologues from three American plays to music to create parodies of female stereotypes. These works are simultaneously humorous and incredibly sad.

A few years later, Everett read Natasha Trethewey’s collection Bellocq’s Ophelia, which is aptly situated in early 20th century Storyville, New Orleans, a place where jazz became popular and flourished. It was here, in the more than 250 brothels, that many jazz artists were able to find steady employment. E. J. Bellocq photographed the women in these brothels. These images transfixed Trethewey, and she created a collection of poems as a sort of imaginary diary for a number of the women in the Bellocq photographs. After reading Trethewey’s volume, Everett immediately contacted her and worked with her for two years to create his chamber opera, Ophelia’s Gaze for soprano, string quartet, live electronic audio, and live video. In this work, the woman in the photograph (named “Ophelia” by Trethewey) is understood to be trapped by the gaze of everyone else in her life and her image can only reflect what others want her to be. In the end, Everett attempts to release Ophelia from her state of oppression and give her the power of the gaze herself – a pathway to her own freedom.

In the course of the interview with Everett, he kept returning to the women who played the characters, sang the songs, and wrote the poetry in his compositions. As a male whose work that primarily deals with feminist issues, he recognizes the contributions that women continue to make and the struggles they often endure in every culture. When asked about himself, he instead gave me generous detail about the way the women performers engaged with his musical material, how he knew them, and what they are working on now. He understands, it seems, that men have claimed the lion’s share of attention throughout history and seems more than happy to shift that lens toward the many strong and intelligent women he knows who are invested in helping to shape the world around them.

Flora B. Anthony is the 2012–2013 Center for Women Graduate Fellow and an Egyptology PhD candidate in Art History. Anthony previously worked with Steve Everett at the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence.