Behind the music

What the program notes won't tell you.

Consider the following two lists of 20th-century American male composers:

List A: Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Henry Cowell, David Diamond, George Gershwin, Charles Griffes, Lou Harrison, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Ned Rorem, Stephen Sondheim, Virgil Thomson

List B: Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Andrew Imbrie, Charles Ives, George Perle, Carl Ruggles, Gunther Schuller, Roger Sessions, Ralph Shapey, Edgard Var賥

Between A and B, major aesthetic differences exist. The music by composers on List A, in general, is more accessible, more conservative, and more broadly popular; most of them have been famously involved with the stage. In the music of Cage, Cowell, and Harrison, an Eastern influence can be heard. The music of List B composers is, on the whole, more complex, more difficult, and embraces atonal dissonance.

Difference number two: Everyone in List A is gay. Everyone in List B is straight (or married, at any rate). As a gay composer, I think it would require a certain amount of denial to believe this is sheer coincidence. The question is just how these two criteria, sexual and aesthetic orientation, might relate. (To be fair, a few straight List A composers—John Adams, Howard Hanson, Alan Hovhaness—do come to mind. As for gay List B composers—well, one hears rumors about two very prominent ones, but if the rumors are true neither of them are publicly out, which tells you something right there.)

One's sexual history is part of one's inner life, which is in turn where art comes from. If you reject sexual preference as having any influence on a composer's music, you also reject being in love, religious faith, closeness to nature, the experience of tragedy and loss, or any of the other emotional states that have been traditionally considered fuel for art. This issue is raised occasionally in the concert hall. Earlier this month, an all-gay-composer chamber-music concert by City Music brought together a striking trio: Schubert, Cowell, and contemporary composer Kenneth Frazelle. A couple years back Seattle Baroque presented a controversial "Queer Baroque" concert (Handel, Corelli, Lully); one intention, keyboardist Byron Schenkman says, was to explore the connection between social context and performance practice. Schenkman sees in the two baroque giants Bach and Handel a surprising parallel to the two aesthetics outlined in the above lists: Simply put, Bach "starts from a cerebral and spiritual place," whereas Handel "spent his life in showbiz."

A recent Seattle Pro Musica concert at St. James Cathedral presented one possible key to the intersection of gay identity and composition. On the program, which featured all music by women, were two movements from the 1893 Mass in D by Ethel Smyth. It was a thrilling, magnificent work, with an ecstatic sweep and humane grandiosity that was closest, perhaps, to the choral music of Berlioz. It brought to mind a contemporaneous but very different work, also for choir, organ, and orchestra: the Requiem of Gabriel Faur鬠equally serene and reflective.

Both works refuted the turn of the century's masculine/feminine stereotypes, especially as regards what was labeled "women's music": pretty, shallow, sentimental, fit for the parlor but never the concert hall or church. This was not Smyth's way. With her mass she triumphantly claimed a public space, a public role, that women before her were almost never allowed; she soared over skepticism and proved to the doubters of her time what women composers were capable of.

Then again, to a certain extent Smyth was constrained, not directly by prejudice, but by the need to prove herself. If she had chosen to write a gentle, Faur魥sque mass, it undoubtedly would have been dismissed as salon music. Thus, in part, the difference between the two works ends up being gender-based after all: It's not only that a man could have written Faur駳 Requiem, but that a man could have gotten away with writing it. Whether a woman composer of Smyth's time accepted or rejected her culture's expectations of "women's music," those expectations still influenced the art produced.

Something analogous happens when a gay composer makes music today: The results are influenced by the broader role of gay men in our society. Women composers were denied access to artistic endeavor in ways gay men never were; on the other hand, being a woman was never invisible in the way being gay has been. (I won't speak for lesbian composers.) What gay composers were/are denied is recognition and acceptance of our sexuality, that whole region of ourselves. In other words: Women composers might feel compelled to prove themselves as women composers, but gay composers have to prove themselves as gay composers.

And it seems plausible that there is some subconscious connection between this need for acceptance and the List A composers' tendencies to write, to put it broadly, likable music. Alienation, differentness, otherness: These concepts are not as much a part of the straight psyche, the straight worldview, as they are of the gay psyche. Suppose, then, that when gay composers sit down to write music, some instinct deep down advises us not to make the problem any worse than it already is? Play nice, don't offend, be liked. And maybe straight composers, a shade less sensitive to alienation, are a shade more assertive about writing any kind of music they damn well please.

So we gravitate toward opera and away from, say, electronic music; toward tonality and away from atonality; toward the concert hall and away from the academy. Do I need to add (yes, I suppose I do) that sexuality is one of countless factors influencing artistic output, and that the unfathomable mysteries of both sex and art obviously can't be reduced to any formula? Nothing's predetermined. But the search for insight into the curious two-list phenomenon might begin with a consideration of the place of gay men in our culture as a whole.

 
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