Music Monday: Corigliano: Symphony No. 1

Come back when your screams aren't so raw around the edges. Edward Rothstein didn't actually write those words in his New York Times review of the New York première of John Corigliano's first symphony (written in 1988 in response to the AIDS crisis), but it's a sentiment that seems to be lurking everywhere beneath the surface. He opines that the piece "is extraordinarily aggressive: to show anger and pain, it shouts and screams and harangues in triple-forte range. These outbursts seem almost tantrums, they are so raw and musically unmotivated.". Later, he calls such gestures "vulgar"; he compares them unfavorably with other "musically sophisticated works" and complains that they "[rely] upon prepackaged emotional baggage" and fail to "enlarge the listener's perceptions". Could you mourn your dead in a way that's a bit more tasteful?

"Of Rage and Remembrance" is the work's subtitle, and that is very much its substance. It begins with rage, insistent strings bursting forth into snarling, dissonant brass chords. As these fade away, an off-stage piano taps out an old transcription of an Isaac Albeniz tango, a piece much loved by one of Corigliano's pianist friends who died of AIDS. The music lives in this reflective space for a while, but the loss becomes overwhelming and another furious onslaught ensues. A wild tarantella follows, depicting a certain music executive's descent into dementia while suffering from the disease. Patches of frenetic dancing alternate with yawning chasms of disorientation, as tho the music has found itself in a psychedelic dance club with death haunting its every step, trying to cover up the terror of unknown destruction with ever more desperate attempts to enjoy an increasingly horrifying present. (In the excellent and extensive program note on his website, Corigliano describes the end of this movement as "a brutal scream". It is not an understatement.)

Remembrance takes center stage in the extensive Chaconne (Giulio's Song). Giulio was an amateur cellist Corigliano had known since college, and several of the key motives in this movement are drawn from a recording of his improvisations made in 1962, well before he died. Eventually, a second cello joins in — representing Giulio's teacher, who also died of AIDS — and this ushers in a tapestry of remembrance, little themes and motives dissolving in and out of the texture, each representing a friend lost to the disease. Here, too, the burden of loss becomes overwhelming, and after a relentless funeral march, the music dissolves into another anguished attack on the senselessness of it all. A brief epilogue follows, in which waves of gentle brass chords suggest the timelessness of the open ocean, and the work ends in something approaching peaceful repose.

It was premature. More than 16,000 people died of AIDS in the United States in 1988, but that number would only continue to rise, peaking at nearly 41,700 in 1995. These were the years of "SILENCE = DEATH", when institutionalized homophobia* led to inaction and the infection of thousands. (President Reagan did not publicly utter the word "AIDS" until four years into the crisis, after more than 1,300 people had died. Behind closed doors, physicians opined that "if [AIDS] kills a few [homosexuals] off, it will make society a better place.". []**) In the face of such indifference, there was nothing to do but scream, scream and rage and hope that if you were loud enough you could make them hear you, make them treat you like human beings. This is the context of John Corigliano's first symphony; it is a piece written by a gay man watching his community be torn apart by a disease it took years for medical and political institutions to pay attention to, watching thousands, tens of thousands of people die every year, with no end in sight. So are its outbursts vulgar? Perhaps, but no more so than a society that turns a blind eye to the sudden, horrific deaths of thousands.

Given the scale of this suffering, the depth of this fury, it may seem strange that I was almost completely oblivious to it until college. But in some ways, that's what it means to be queer. We are born apart, a perpetual diaspora. We find each other, in dance parties, at theatre club meetings, on online message boards, and we help each other figure out who and what we are. This is a horizontal learning — very few of us have parents who are queer; very few of us learn our history from early childhood from the stories our families tell. We have to learn our history from each other — we don't grow up with it — and that generational split is an aching severance. For people like me, AIDS was a distant bugaboo, a presence that haunted "how to come out to your family" guides as something your mother might be unreasonably afraid of. It wasn't, as it was for many queer people in my parent's generation, something that left their community in tatters.

Like everyone else who took his US Gay and Lesbian history class, I will never forget George Chauncey's lecture on AIDS. There were, of course, lectures and readings geared to situate the disease and its effects on queer politics and community in their historical contexts, but then there was the lecture where, instead of trying to get us to understand it intellectually, he tried to get us to feel it. He asked us not to take notes, just to listen. He put up a small collage of images on the screen, yearbook candids, that sort of thing. "This was so-and-so." A brief biography, maybe a paragraph of who this person was, how Chauncey knew them, what made them special. "And he died." Another slide, another name, another paragraph. "And he died." "And he died." "And she died." Brilliant people, writers, scientists, politicians. Dead, dead, dead. Ordinary people, funny people, human beings, just trying to make their way thru the world like everybody else. Dead. Dead. Dead.

It is difficult to cross this gap, difficult for someone in my generation to step back into the world of the late 80s, difficult to fully grasp what it meant to be queer in that context. Often, it feels like the work of doing history, sifting thru scraps and fragments to piece together an understanding of how the world was. I know barely a handful of queer people my parents' age — I haven't inherited these stories in the way I have tales of Jewish life in New England or farming in the Pacific Northwest. These stories don't come my way; I have to seek them out. I am so hungry for them, so hungry for any scraps that can tether the beautiful queer family I'm part of to some deeper foundation, some connexion with a past to call my own. Some of them are happy scraps, brave and dauntless people sticking it to the world to live authentic lives. And some of them are awful scraps, steeped in brutality, horror, and death. I'm hungry for them all.

And that's why this symphony is so important to me, more important, than I think it otherwise would be: It's a direct and palpable link to my queer heritage in the language that I've dedicated my life to mastering. It is a raw and unapologetic scream, a proclamation that we are here, we are queer, we are dying, but we will not be forgotten. I didn't live thru the AIDS crisis***, but I'm part of a queer community that has been profoundly shaped by its course; our collective queer inheritance in this country is incomprehensible without understanding this disease. And Corigliano's first symphony is a powerful contact point in that understanding. It is a work full of anger, full of bitter, almost nihilistic despair at being abandoned by the systems that were supposed to support us. I wasn't alive when it was written, but when I listen, I partake of the remembrance. I inherit the rage.

*AIDS is not, and has never been, a disease restricted exclusively to the queer population, but gay and bisexual men have always been disproportionately affected by the disease, and in the early years of the epidemic, it was often tied exclusively to those groups in the popular imagination. 

**It would be more than a decade before the Supreme Court would rule "gay sex is icky" unconstitutional for the basis of legislation, which makes Rothstein's "vulgar" comment seem more tone-deaf than it otherwise might. I don't know enough about Rothstein to know his thoughts on homosexuality — my inclination is to chalk this up to simple oblivion, not covert malice, but it still stings more than it would if directed at a less charged work.

***I say, despite the toll the disease continues to take around the world, despite the fact that the CDC forecasts that half of college-age gay and bisexual men in this country will be HIV+ by the age of 50. AIDS is far from over.