Music Monday: Temple: Behind the Wallpaper

There may not have been enough of these posts yet to say we've really established a comfortable groove, but today we're stepping away from the midcentury waters we've been swimming thru the past two weeks for something a bit more recent. And by "a bit more recent", I mean "written last year".

Even tho we both went thru Yale's undergraduate composition program in the last decade, I had never heard of Alex Temple until reading a piece that she* published last summer in New Music Box about being a transgender/genderqueer composer. It's an article that's well worth the read, both for a nonbinary perspective on the topic of gender differences among composers and for the explanation of how she hopes to make genderqueer music. Since she's still very much alive and writing music (and since today an "emerging composer" seems to be anyone under their mid-forties), it's obviously not possible to evaluate her life's work or talk about its impact on subsequent generations, but I'm very excited to see where she goes and what she does. I know nonbinary classical musicians who find themselves in the abstract ecstasies of Mahler, but I'm all for having more explicit and deliberate avenues of representation. The piece that's the feature of today's post, Behind the Wallpaper, is one such piece.

Movement one (the link is to the piece page on Temple's website, where you can find all four movements as well as a link to a PDF of the lyrics; as with most very recent concert music, the options for listening are somewhat limited) sounds like shadows condensed into sound, a soft, quiet, intimate music, but ragged, scrappy, and with hidden corners that are always on the verge of turning threatening. As it gathers motion, it slips into a more sultry style, perhaps with a nod to Kurt Weill or the expressionist swooning of film noir soundtracks. The second movement leaves nighttime behind for a giddy, daylight swirl, but there's something off about it, something, well, unnatural. It refuses to settle into a regular groove, but flits and darts with anxious energy.

Picking up on this out-of-place unease, the third movement sets a disquieting text to music that is, on the whole, sunny and warm. At moments, however, this façade slips, and darker currents become audible underneath. It's not clear what they mean; the mystery is what makes the discomfort tick. And that mystery is ultimately what the last movement leaves us with. It's a tired movement, weary and static, with brief flourishes seeming to come only with immense effort before fading away just as quickly. There aren't any answers, only resignation, a sense that this, whatever it is, will have to do.

*A note on pronouns: In the New Music Box article, Temple says that she's comfortable with either "she" or "they". I'm going with "she/her/hers" not out of any issue with singular they (which I'm very down with) but because that's what she uses in the biography section of her website.  I am all for normalizing the usage of "they/them/theirs" pronouns, but it feels wrong to do so when a given individual doesn't use that pronoun set in their public writings about themself, even if they've said they're OK with it.