November 15, 2009

Sylvano Bussotti


It certainly feels sad to be reminded that Benjamin Britten's obituaries made no mention of his life-long relationship with Peter Pears.  Not that such matters ought to be mentioned.  But in so far as we are made aware of Bach's wives, Liszt's romantic conquests, Bruckner's asexual existence, or Artur Rubinstein's taking up with a much younger woman at the end of his long life - there surely was no reason (other than genteel homophobia) for suppressing any mention of long-term homosexual relationships in the lives of important musicians, scientists, writers, and artists.

Needless to say, I think that historical and biographical corrections of such lamentable examples of past prejudice are most welcome.  Yet I find it hard not to laugh at some of the offerings from queer theorists of music, whose analyses of compositions by gay (or allegedly gay) composers claim to identify homosexuality in their music!  For these music theorists, modulations reveal flexible or ambiguous sense of self (or of sexuality), increasingly chromatic stretching of tonality is identified with longing for freedom from the constraints of heterosexual tyranny, bi- or polytonality speaks strongly of embracing bi- or polysexuality, and so on.  (Lest you think I jest, check out what Susan McClary - the queer theory guru -  has to say in her article "Constructions of Subjectivity in Schubert's Music".)

What makes such queer-theoretic musical analyses hysterically funny is that they all sound like a Monty Pythonesque parody of the charlatanish 'research' which flows like a mighty river from so many humanities departments. No wonder those nerdy types with pocket protectors - who actually do something useful for a living, like teaching calculus or designing new molecules - think so little of so much of the recent research in the humanities. 

All this brings me to Sylvano Bussotti - one of the most openly gay composers of the 20th century - whose music I have been exploring recently.   I shudder when I think about what queer theorists might have identified in Bussotti's flamboyant, highly expressionist, occasionally unabashedly erotic, and often blindingly colorful music.  Would they tell us that the suspended, haunting intervals in Rara Requiem express the charged anticipation of anonymous sex while cruising rest areas along the motorway between Milan and Florence?  Would they describe those dense and gritty atonal textures in Lorenzaccio Symphony as a musical memory of two bearded faces rubbing against each other?  I hope we will never find out...

November 1, 2009

What it takes to "get" contemporary music...


Suppose I don't "get" the above painting: no matter how much time I spend viewing it, this painting does not "speak" to me, and the emotional response it elicits from me is no richer than what I feel when looking at a brick wall.  Now lets imagine that one day it is discovered that Rothko secretly studied optics - and not just at the high school level, but all the way down to the most advanced quantum mechanics and electrodynamics of his time.  (He kept his superior mathematical talents in secret from the rest of the world.)  To everyone's astonishment it is revealed that Rothko's paintings (including the one pictured above) exploit previously unknown macroscopic effects of certain quantum mechanical properties of light - the properties which can be understood only with the help of very abstract mathematical constructs.   Fortunately, I happen to know enough about this stuff to dig into Rothko's amazing investigations until I uncover that at the heart of Rothko's discovery lie very clever applications of theorems from operator algebra and non-commutative geometry.
     Upon grasping this deep, abstract truth behind Rothko's Orange and Yellow painting, I lean back in my chair, light up a cigarette, close my eyes, and (with a knowing smile on my lips) whisper "I got it"  ...   And then it dawns on me (and hopefully on you too, if you've read this far) that whatever it is that I "got", I still didn't "get" that painting!