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The Queer Gaze in Western Art Music – a germinal opinion

A cisgender, heterosexual gaze is prevalent in Western art music. It is ingrained in our academia, and almost unquestioningly accepted in composition, performance, and listening practices. It extends into other arts and academic disciplines, and into all areas of life (this last point should, hopefully, surprise no-one). Sadly, even when the topic of ‘queerness’ is brought up, it is still discussed in binaries: male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, transgender/cisgender, portraying these terms as the sole points of interest within a vast spectrum of identities, or conflating more subtle issues into an obsolete framework.

This is a difficult topic to write about – not because there is nothing to say (what I am saying here is only the first formulations of my opinions), but because there is little to react to. Several days’ research yielded only one Western musicological discourse outside of a male/female, heterosexual/homosexual binary (apart from some opinion pieces pointing out that such a problem exists). A notable exception to this is in music education, where I have found a few case studies of teaching trans* students. While gender theory and queer theory are nominally present within music academia, for almost all cases (and certainly all the cases I have ever found), ‘gender’ can be read as ‘women’, and ‘queer’ can be read as ‘cisgender, male homosexual’ (although Pauline Oliveros does make the occasional appearance). Ethnomusicology is significantly more inclusive, but as a rule this is only true in specific cases, rather than a general outlook – for example, while discussion of Hijra music will include third gender and intersex people by necessity, a broader discussion of ‘gender’ in Indian music will confine itself to a cisgender, heteronormative male/female binary.

In some respects, this is not very surprising: even today, literature concerning women, and people of colour in music is far outweighed by the mass of literature concerning white, cisgender men. How could the more recent mainstreaming of queer discourse compete? On the other hand, the idea of queering the binary has been bubbling away for decades (arguably centuries) now, and anyone who has engaged with any queer topics, or third-wave feminism will be well aware of the concepts of spectrums, and intersectionality. Even if most people aren’t familiar with the current plethora of terminology, the basic ideas have made literal headlines. Sadly, I have also recently noticed a significant backlash in public, political, and academic spheres against so-called ‘identity politics’ (effectively the right wing’s rebranding of ‘civil rights’). Whether it is the fault of genuine commentators, or employed trolls (I suspect a combination) the comments section of any article or video on this topic is laced with comments such as ‘there are only two genders’, or ‘being gay/transgender is a mental illness’. While I am not accusing musicology of similar maliciousness, its passive apathy is little better.

I find it interesting that the questioning of gender and sexuality is not more mainstream in music practice and musicology, considering the general political environment that musicians inhabit. Musicians (indeed, most people engaged with the arts, and seemingly UK universities in general) are ostensibly left wing. The University of York music department is for the most part Labour, or further left leaning, and third or proto-third wave feminist. There is even an encouraging push to include more female creators in the syllabus (though I do feel that this push could be stronger, more insistent – this is probably the dream of a naïve idealist). However, I have not heard much in the way of queer discourse around the department. On the other hand, I have seen incidents such as deliberately incorrect pronoun usage, and hateful comments against gender nonconforming people. During the 2017 practical project the slur ‘lady-boy’ was used, and met with hysterical laughter. I was further perturbed that this was not flagged up as an issue by more people – imagine if a racial slur was casually thrown into a production! (I do hope it would cause outrage).

I can imagine the response to these ideas: ‘there are simply not enough cases of diverse queer musicians’. This is nonsense. This same argument can and has been levied against the push for greater female representation in Western art music, especially in earlier music. While there can be no argument that men vastly outnumber women in the canon, contemporary research consistently informs us that the canon is not a representation of reality. As an example, Fanny Mendelssohn was a fantastic composer in her own right (for my tastes, superior to her brother, Felix). However, she was strongly discouraged from composing and publishing by her brother and father, and some of her work was falsely attributed to her brother – I suspect this is a drop in the water! Taking these issues into account, I am convinced (or at least have convinced myself) that the numbers of male and female composers are very similar, practically equal in the 20th and 21st centuries. If one looked at the histories of Western music with a queer gaze; if one actively began the search; if one actively addressed our biases and conception of what is the default, I predict one would see a similar result.

I have seen these same anti-diversity arguments similarly appear in the other arts, the humanities, and even the sciences (though outside of musicology I cannot authoritatively say how dominant they are). The number of queer people, the variety of identities, and the impact of those identities on their output are severely underestimated. While Virginia Woolf’s bisexuality is reasonably well documented, Elizabeth Barret Browning’s bisexuality or Emily Dickinson’s homosexuality are less often discussed or acknowledged, and the impact that this had on their output is brought up even less. One should probably be more conscious of Florence Nightingale and Bertrand Russell’s sexualities’ influences on their works. Bringing this discussion back to music, being more conscious of Beethoven’s bisexuality (for example) could lead to more nuanced readings of the Western canon. Did Cage’s sexuality have no effect whatsoever on his experimental drive? Although I have not directly engaged with queer subject matter in my practice, it would be wrong to say that my gender and sexual identities (that is, agender and asexual) have not influenced my composition or performance.

These issues are not only present in musicology, but also in music practice. Intense gendering of voice parts, and the lack of explicitly queer roles in most standard theatre works can make it difficult to queer theatrical/operatic performances – for example, soprano voices are so intimately tied with femininity that to depict a classical opera lead as masculine is not something any major opera company would attempt in a hurry. The tenor role in classical opera is typically intensely masculine, and heterosexual – an exceptionally difficult psychological hurdle for female tenors. Even as these issues are becoming increasingly visible in the mainstream media, I cannot think of any music theatre piece with a trans role/written for a trans performer (though I would be happy to be corrected). The intensely abstract nature of most non-theatrical Western art music means that gender is seldom an explicit topic; however, even this becomes problematic, as critics in particular have a tendency to erroneously begin to erect male/female dichotomies (I sat through two years of analysis lectures in which the first and second themes in sonata form were labelled as masculine and feminine).

As for encouraging queer creators, there have been some promising calls for scores which have specifically highlighted binary trans and non-binary composers. Other calls for scores claim ‘inclusivity’ by targeting women composers – as laudable and beneficial as this is, an effect of this is further alienating trans and non-binary composers. A prime example of this was a master class and roundtable discussion at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival for ‘female-identifying’ composers. I was encouraged by the use of language in the advertisements, but in reality, trans women were neither represented nor mentioned at either the master class or the discussion – to say nothing of the lack of acknowledgement of trans male and non binary composers at any point.

Musicians, and every person who engages with music at any level, need to acknowledge the impact of the queer identities of composers, performers, and listeners. At the very least, the very existence of creators of all sexualities and genders should be recognized. The arts should engage with culture – every part of culture. This is not only a matter of enriching our perspectives on both historical and contemporary music, and encouraging queer creators, but also a matter of inclusion, and basic respect.

Some other articulations of this topic:

2 responses to “The Queer Gaze in Western Art Music – a germinal opinion”

  1. James Cave says:

    Thanks for this James – interesting 😉
    You might be interested to know that my opera, Returns – which formed part of the submission for my PhD in this music department (just completed) features a role written for a fantastic trans performer, CN Lester. The part is a mezzo role: the character in the play on which the opera is based was male, although in the opera the gender is left undetermined. This is an issue to which we’ll probably return in the R and D for the opera’s production which is about to start. Happy to send a pdf score if you’re interested.

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About the author

James Redelinghuys is a composer, researcher, and performer based in York, UK. They were born in Cape Town, and began their music education studying clarinet with Shannon Mowday. They continued studying clarinet with Morné van Heerden (competing at a national level), piano with Mareli Stolp and Ilse Myburgh, organ with Kevin Kraak, and composition with…

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