Universally Gay

Earlier this week, a group of contemporary classical music types put out a zine called How to be a Good Ally and Create Safer Spaces in New Music [PDF]. For those of you who are already well versed in issues of social justice, there won’t be anything groundbreaking in it, but it’s still a decent introductory primer, and I highly recommend it to those who are newer to thinking about these issues, especially the sections on affirmative action and cultural appropriation. (Quick! How many concert series can you think of that even approach gender parity or proportional racial representation? I’ll wait.) Given the limited space available in the zine, the authors don’t have room to really go in depth on all of the ground they cover, and today I want to expand on one area that they touch on briefly, specifically how to balance focus on an artist’s marginalized identity against focus on the art they make. (For me, this means I’m going to be talking about the interaction between my sexual orientation and my composition. Other individuals will obviously have other specifics.)

Before I dive in in earnest, tho, I need to make one thing very clear: I am only speaking for myself. Composition is an intimately personal affair, as is sexuality, and combining them doesn’t make them any less so. I have some pretty strong preferences when it comes to how I want these issues to be handled with respect to me and my art, but other LGBT musicians (not to mention musicians facing other/additional marginalizations) may come down in completely different places. They aren’t wrong to do so. Despite the title of this post, universal statements aren’t really possible here.

In putting the zine together, the authors surveyed a small group of marginalized musicians, and the results of the survey make up the first part of the zine. One of the questions asked what people in power could do to better support marginalized musicians, and several respondents reported wishing that people would focus more on the work that they do and less on the marginalized aspects of their identities. Don’t ask me about what it’s like to be a queer composer, in other words, just talk to me about my music.

I’m pretty sympathetic to this position. Take my bassoon sonata [YouTube], for example. Sure, it was written by a queer composer, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with queerness. There’s nothing in the musical language to mark it out as “inherently queer music” as opposed to the kind of music written by my cishet peers. (I suppose you could make the (dismally soporific) argument that my fluid approach to meter somehow reflects my “fluid sexuality”. This is a bad argument. You should not make it. If you hear anyone making it, you should roll your eyes at them aggressively.) Even my musical [YouTube] isn’t really about queerness. Like, sure, there’s a same-sex couple and they sing love songs at each other, but their arc is really about commitment, jealousy, and forgiveness, not being gay/bi per se. I suppose it counts as queer art in that it’s got queer characters in it, but I don’t think it really explores and illuminates that territory in any meaningful way. If you ask me how my queerness relates to the music that I write, leaving any attendant words aside, my honest answer would have to be “It doesn’t.”.

And yet.

I want absolutely everyone to know that I am queer. I do not want anyone being left with the impression that I’m a straight man. Even when it comes to my most abstract concert works, I want everyone to know that they were written by a flaming gay. In part, that’s because my sexuality is an important part of who I am and I want to burn assumptions of heterosexuality and cis-ness to the ground, but there’s more to it than that.

When we write about, say Vincent Persichetti’s Parable IX* [YouTube], we don’t interrogate the composer’s straightness. We don’t ask how the music reflects heterosexuality, or put it in a box marked “Music About Not Being Gay”. We just treat it as . . . music. It’s on an abstract plane, dealing with what some would call the universal human experience. Cishet white men get to write unmarked music, while everyone else only gets to write gay music, or female music, or black music, or any other difference from that arbitrary standard. Focusing on the marginalized aspects of composers’ identities re-enforces this odious double standard; it strengthens the spurious notion that only non-marginalized composers can write “neutral” music. 

I’m not alone in being skeptical of a singular universal human experience, and I do want to destroy the idea that the cishet white male position is a neutral default, but I don’t think the way to do that is to insist that every composer somehow encodes every aspect of their identity into their music. I want to be a visibly queer composer because I want to make it clear that marginalized people can have access to these abstract, “universal” musical spaces too. This isn’t an assimilationist vision whereby marginalized composers gain access to this abstract plane by carefully hiding all of the things that mark us as different; I want to lay claim to this space without having to round off or soften any of the aspects of my identity that are at odds with prevailing hierarchies of systemic privilege. Rotational Games has nothing to do with being queer, but it was still written by a queer composer, and I want people to know that.

So yes. If we’re having a conversation about my music, leave it at that. Don’t insist that everything I write is “inherently queer” and thus different in its fundamental nature from “neutral” art made by straight people. (Seriously, if you insist that my proclivities for mixed meter and third relations have something to do with who I like to make out with, I’m never talking to you again.) But don’t erase my queerness to do that. Don’t pretend I’m just like the straights. I am a composer who sometimes writes abstract concert music. I am also queer. I shouldn’t have to choose between those two.

*I know Vincent Persichetti is not the most famous of composers in the grand scheme of things, but given how different our current conceptualizations of sexuality are from the ones that were in play even a century ago, I’m very wary of using someone from before the twentieth century, and a truly preposterous number of twentieth-century composers are not straight, so here we are. If I’m in error about Persichetti’s sexuality (I haven’t actually found any sources where he explicitly identifies as straight, tho that’s . . . not exactly surprising given the times he lived in), let me know, and I’ll scrounge around for an actually heterosexual twentieth-century composer.