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Musicality and sexuality
Music historian Lloyd Whitesell was aiming to become a professional pianist, but an injury made him realize how fragile a career in performance could be. Fortunately, great teachers fed his academic passions and good advisors pointed him to grad schools open to his diverse interests: cross-disciplinary aesthetics, literature, film, theories of audience and perception, and queer theory.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
Hired last year by the Faculty of Music, Whitesell was confident that McGill would be open-minded to his vanguard scholarship. "They told me right away in the interview we have a lot of demand with our grad students for queer seminars - the first time I ever had that happen.... More often it's like tippy-toe around the CV," he laughs.
Music history isn't like other fields such as literature that are "big enough to have liberal, progressive or radical groups," Whitesell explains. In the '80s a debate arose around what was called "new musicology," a rallying cry for musicologists to "shape up" and acknowledge post-modern academic discourse in their profession.
Whitesell can count on his piano keys the number of scholars doing newer critical methodologies. Queer musicology came out of the closet in 1977 when British-born Berkeley professor Philip Brett presented a paper on "Benjamin Britten's music in terms of gay identity" at the North American Musicology conference. In 1994, Brett put out the book Queering the Pitch: the new gay and lesbian musicology. It was a "big flag-waving thing, very exciting," according to Whitesell, "the first big manifesto." Whitesell builds on this literature with his and co-editor Sophie Fuller's book Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity, a compilation of essays on gender, sexuality and music from 1870-1950, just out this summer courtesy of University of Illinois Press. Fuller is a lecturer at University of Reading, England.
Postmodern knowledge means "you have to put yourself in the picture," Whitesell says, which goes against the notion of universality. Whitesell recalls his reaction to a teacher stating the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn as being the canon we all come back to. "I don't! It was obvious to me he was taking his own taste and making it universal, trying to transfer that on to the next generation."
Whitesell guesses that one reason why music studies are conservative is because of the ineffable nature of music itself. If it's important to scholars that music symbolizes the transcendent, the pure aesthetic experience, they're "not going to want to have anyone bring in race or gender because it brings it back into a complicated social struggle."
Whitesell sees the stumbling block of universality in plenty of fields, like with authors of colour. "Toni Morrison - apparently early reviews said she had to broaden out from writing about black people. Does anyone ever say that to a white author: 'You should write about more than just white people? I don't think it's universal enough.' Which is so silly - you're not giving the readers credit. We don't want to hear a universal story. We want to hear someone's story."
Traditional history often ignores the true story. Whitesell mentions 18th century composer "Handel and all the contortions people have gone through to link him up with various women. There's a story that's not being told here, and it's prejudice that's affecting the history." Sensitive historical research calls for a different kind of interpretation and evidence, "because of the censorship and the social stigma." You can engage in "closer readings of operas or certain works looking for gay or lesbian themes. How private concerns of an author can be expressed in a coded way."
Whitesell's queer seminar last term was "like archeology; digging through and doing historical work. Trying to find the lost biographies, the lost meeting places, the lost lesbian-based musical salons."
Other than getting the historical facts straight, so to speak, the queer meanings of music should be available to all. Renowned gay composer Benjamin Britten falls prey to waffling program notes. His opera Death in Venice, about a man falling in love with a boy, still has producers denying its homosexuality.
Currently, Whitesell is looking at deviant presences in Britten's operas, in which there is often an encounter between a familiar protagonist and a deviant outsider who acts as an initiation figure. "There's some kind of deviant knowledge that gets imparted that totally freaks out and disorients the protagonist and they go through some kind of personal transformation.... They end up relating in a different way to the stranger. So you can see how you might have to rethink through your own perspective."
The queer meaning is interesting for those who want to know about it, but what do other listeners do with that knowledge? "That's why I'm coming at it from a different perspective, saying, well, the music itself is inviting you. It's not specifically forcing anything, but it's forcing you in a different way of thinking. So that's for all listeners in a way.
"What happens when we listen, what does it mean to say we are subjects of this symphony or opera. How do we position ourselves to relate to the singer of a song cycle?" Whitesell says. "What's the gender of the performer, of the lyric persona, of the audience. If you have a male-authored song with a male persona sung by a woman listened to by a woman, that's interesting. How do you identify with that, and what kind of different meanings might that bring up?"
Whitesell says he and Fuller want their book to be a bridge of sorts. "This is where we're coming from, but it should also parallel whatever sexual interests you have or whatever sexual experience you have or whatever gender experience."
He finds some of the book's stories quite moving. One is about the love letters a musicologist found between singer Marie Fillunger and Eugenie Schumann, daughter of Clara and Robert Schumann. Another is the piece on 1940s women's jazz groups (an oft-ignored history). The author of the latter examines her own hopes and motives during her research, in which none of her subjects admitted to being lesbians although she had off-the-record affirmation. "These women had to deal with disguise and had to have different accommodations. So she comes out with a positive way of thinking about the closet, as a resistance space. As silence that can be used for political gain or personal comfort."
Whitesell's own essay is on Maurice Ravel, "whom a lot of people suspect of being gay, but there's really no evidence, no smoking gun. He's very private to the point of being closeted, you could say, but we don't know closeted of what."
McGill's music faculty is conservatory style - teaching for the service of students in performance, Whitesell says. "We do have exciting people and we're open-minded. You can really explore whatever you want to do."