A good piece by Tony Tommasini on Nadine Hubbs' new book The Queer Composition of America's Sound, an attempt to analyze Copland, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, and other mid-century American composers in terms borrowed from contemporary gay studies. I've been grappling with the book myself, and I share many of Tony's frustrations. It's great to have a study that celebrates these composers' sexuality instead of cloaking it in euphemism. Yet Hubbs goes astray in trying to connect musical style to sexual politics. The fact that so many of these composers embraced tonality does not, I think, have much to do with the fact that they were gay, nor does it have much to do with how they were publicly received, scattered bits of in-house gossip aside. Where did Copland get that wide-interval open-prairie sound? From Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments, not from Thomson's alleged camp aesthetic. Meanwhile, experimental, non-tonal sounds ran rampant in the work of gay composers Henry Cowell, John Cage, Harry Partch, and Lou Harrison — Partch and Harrison with their alternative scales and systems of tuning; Cowell with his violently dissonant "cluster chords"; Cage with his chance procedures. Why couldn't these outlandish sonorities be considered an authentic expression of outsider sexuality? Several scholars have argued as much, and it's hard to reconcile their work with Hubbs'. She doesn't deny that gay composers made all different sounds, but she talks herself in circles trying to maintain that tonality and gayness have some special relationship:
The careers of Cage, Harrison, and even the eccentric Partch (a longtime member of gay hobo subculture) flourished in the viciously homophobic Cold War era. We might surmise that this was because 1) their (mostly nonserial) music — perceived as internationalist, advanced, and cerebral — aligned well with prevailing masculinist and imperialist values; and 2) their homosexuality, whether or not rumored, remained deniable.
These are two very problematic sentences. First, it's weird to suggest that Harrison and Partch "flourished" in the fifties. Both men were far outside mainstream musical life. Second, I'm unaware of any extant commentary that categorized their music as "internationalist" or "cerebral." The published philosophies of each artist pointed in exactly the opposite direction. Cage, a composer of international repute, was a different case, but I'd be interested to know what "masculinist and imperialist values" he was ever said to have embodied. Finally, it's insulting to the memory of the great Lou Harrison to suggest that he ever denied his sexuality. From an early age, he matter-of-factly announced it to everyone he met. A full account of homosexuality in American composition will need to pay more attention to the facts and more respect to each composer's individuality.
A final irony: Hubbs models her methodology on the work of Michel Foucault. Is she aware that for some time Foucault's lover was the impeccably atonal composer Jean Barraqué? And that Foucault once said: "If my memory does not deceive me, then I got the greatest cultural shock from the French representatives of serial music and 12-tone music — from Boulez and Barraqué, with whom I was acquainted. It was they who first tore me from the dialectical universe in which I had lived until then"? I get nervous whenever people try to put sexuality in a conceptual box, even when they do it with the best intentions. It doesn't get us any closer to freedom.