Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Aoxomoxoa, Or, Gay is "American" is Gay

Do American gays compose classical music in a recognizable American “feminine”style? Read on.

Scott Cantrell wrote a book review/column for the Dallas Morning News on July 2 where he first refers to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and their July 4 programs, Fanfare for the Common Man, Lincoln Portrait, Outdoor Overture, and Billy the Kid, then reviews a book that’s been out for some time that focuses on Copland and other homo/hetero sexual composers, masculine and feminine if you will; the thesis being that American gay composers have composed “signature American music.

Mr. Cantrell writes, “Ironically, these (July 4th) celebrations of outdoorsy, big-sky Americana, and of WASP home and hearth, were created by a homosexual Jew from Brooklyn… Copland was one of a group of composers who, starting in the 1930s, cultivated a new nationalist – or at least populist modernist – style. And most of them were gay, including Virgil Thomson, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, David Diamond, Lou Harrison, Paul Bowles, Marc Blitzstein and Ned Rorem (who) helped define in sound what it means to be an American.”

At this point Mr. Cantrell shifts to excerpting from Dr. Nadine Hubbs, a University of Michigan professor whose book, The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity (University of California Press, 2004), explores how these composers, “together with certain cultural trends, created those distinctively American sounds.”

If you are unfamiliar with Prof. Hubbs book, what follows is a selective synopsis. By the 1930s, she says, “tonality and atonality had acquired sexual identities, even if they weren't yet widely expressed as such. Homosexual composers probably felt freer to defy the dictates of the avant-garde priesthood precisely because they already felt alienated from the dominant culture. Having less compulsion to prove macho bravery, maybe these gay men felt freer to cultivate a nurturing ‘feminine’ side.”

Mr. Cantrell comments: “They wanted to create an American music recognizably new, yet rooted in history, something fresh rather than frightening. Call that "feminine" if you will; it reached enthusiastic audiences that would never warm to the asperities of Elliott Carter.” Dr. Hubbs continues, “As the country worked its way out of the Depression and into World War II, Copland penned his classic essays in Americana: Billy the Kid (1938); Fanfare for the Common Man, Lincoln Portrait and Rodeo (all 1942); and Appalachian Spring (1944). Thomson got on the Americana bandwagon even before Copland, with his scores for the ballet Filling Station and the films The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River. Copland was a more sophisticated composer, but Thomson, also a hugely influential music critic, was there earlier.

"It was a masculine decade, during the Cold War," Dr. Hubbs writes. "We were quite threatened by the Soviet scare, so we were flexing our muscles. Our musical culture was masculinized by the influx of all those Germans, whose aesthetic ideals were of that sort that Copland and Thomson had arrayed themselves against. But the softer side of modernism flowered in American operas of the 1950s, in works by gay composers including Barber and his lover Gian Carlo Menotti and the heterosexual Robert Ward and Carlisle Floyd. It's still very much in evidence in Mr. Floyd's 2000 opera Cold Sassy Tree.”

Mr. Cantrell observes: “Dr. Hubbs doesn't much venture into more recent decades, but it's still true that many of the most successful classical composers are gay or lesbian, among them John Corigliano, Lowell Liebermann and Jennifer Higdon. By contrast, most of the pricklier modernists, including Charles Ives, Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions, were straight. The openly homophobic Ives chided hostile listeners to stand up and take dissonance "like a man." Indeed, Ives seems to have set up a kind of socio-cultural war between the edgier modernist composers, most of whom were straight, and the "softer" modernists (Copland et al.), most of whom were gay.

“The divide wasn't, and isn't, definitive, but it's surprising how easy it is to line up a dichotomy. By the middle of the 20th century, Schoenbergian serialism was the heterosexual high road. Mathematical rigor made music respectable to the mid-century cult of scientific progress. "Experimentalism and dissonance, precisely because they didn't taste so good – they were a more bitter medicine – were seen as more masculine and bold and daring," Dr. Hubbs says. "Tonality was feminized." Copland and Thomson, conversely, sparked a new vogue for studying in France. "Even now," she says, " 'French' has a connotation of queer, hyper-elegant, sissy." And their pivotal teacher there wasn't a man, but Nadia Boulanger.

“If the more aggressive modernists such as Mr. Carter and Milton Babbitt were the hunter-gatherers of modern music, Copland and company were the nurturers. If one side of the divide was intellectual, the other was sensual. One camp favored abstract internationalism, the other, personalized nationalism. One posited scientific argument; the other cultivated the elegant epigram.”

“Dr. Hubbs tends to interpret this divide as a matter of sexual politics”, Mr. Cantrell opines, “and that certainly played a role. But she also points out the exceptions, the avant-garde camp including Henry Cowell, who was jailed for sodomy, and John Cage, longtime lover of choreographer Merce Cunningham. The ranks of populist modernists included the heterosexual Roy Harris, Walter Piston and William Schuman. And the development of populist modernism in music had much to do with economic and political developments that get short shrift in the book.

"Copland's music is the echo of the American flag. No wonder we'll be hearing a lot of him this (4th of July) weekend,” concludes Cantrell.

It seems to me that the argument flounders. To suggest that a certain idiom is somehow “American” is flawed. Open sonority? Wide chord spacings? Folk tunes? Athletic rhythms? These could be applied to any number of American heterosexual composers. And to suggest that it was Thompson and Copland who created this style is silly. OK, Copland has an identifiable sound. So does any other composer of worth.

Prof. Hubbs is riding the wave of a sexually obsessed society who will rally to anything that smacks of peeping -even of classical composers. Some musicologists, having exhausted their traditional research areas, have been delving into musico-sexuality. Anthony Tommasini thinks they are pioneers. I think they are academic opportunists who must publish or perish. So far the studies have proved little, but conjectured much. This book is an example. There is, as yet, nor will there likely be, a solid connection between the sexuality of a composer and the music. I reject out of hand the suggestion that music is somehow masculine or feminine, depending on its composer’s sexual preference. My pulse also jumps at the notion that a clique of gay composers (1930-1950) has defined “American” music.

The music remains. While biographical details can aid our understanding of a composer’s music, they can also take us into an intellectual quagmire. What’s next? Looking for references to androphilia in Copland's chamber and orchestral compositions? How about looking into Hubb’s work to see if there is a hidden, suppressed, or open code that might identify her as whatever? And what about critics or performers? Will an assistant professor soon write on Masculine Traits in the Later Performances of Three Scarlatti Sonatas As Performed by Mark Kroll? Can a gay properly interpret a straight “masculine”composition, say, of Ives? Oops! Ives wrote with open spacing sometimes. Maybe he too was an androphile. “This is unmusical, politico-sexual reductionism,” fumes Terry Teachout.

“…music moves us in powerful but indistinct ways. It's the one thing that cannot be analyzed or deconstructed for its expressive content, and thank goodness for that.” Tony Tommasini

Igor Stravinsky said that music expresses itself. “That’s why we love it, and never more so than in an age increasingly dominated by aesthetic politicians. It's too blessedly slippery for such misguided folk as Nadine Hubbs to put it in a box and nail the lid shut.” Terry Teachout.

“Gay or straight, black or white, male or female, the challenges are the same: try to understand and appreciate the rich musical values in the work itself, add a healthy dose of individual insight and interpretation, and then give it the most beautiful and intelligent performance possible. That is the responsibility of every performer, and what music is all about.” Mark Kroll (But not for musicologists like Dr. Hubbs).


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