Sunday, October 26, 2008

Queer Handel

“Was George Frederic Handel Gay?” asks Gary C. Thomas in one of the most influential and revealing essays on musicology and queer theory. The answer, at best, can only be inferred from primary sources since Handel never openly admitted that he was gay, and for an obvious historical reason too: the origin of the word “homosexual” (prior to its subsequent conflations with the word “gay”) dates back only to 1868 , more than 100 years after Handel died. Even so, the polarisation of “heterosexual/homosexual” did not come to signify a specific medical distinction until the 1890s, while its modern accretion of political values only crystallised during the first half of the 21st century . Quite simply, even when faced with inquiry, Handel could not have subscribed to a position or an identity that has come to signify under various contemporary social, cultural and political forces, since Handel’s own discursive fields of activity (i.e. activities that we might deem as homosexual today) would have lacked a unifying discourse, indeed a name.

Despite these historical incongruities in definition, Handel’s alleged queerness continued to egg musicologists, historians and biographers, who had the “duty to reveal the whole truth about the subject’s life with at least a modicum of dispassionate objectivity”. For these historians, the lack of clear-cut biographical data that signalled Handel’s deviance from the heterosexual norm came to signify not a subjective silence, but an epistemological silence. The final word on Handel’s sexuality was seen to be a lacuna in “the whole truth”, a niggling foreclosure that consequently recast Handel’s sexuality as a hotbed of academic contestations. For Biographers, Handel’s tendency to evade inquiries on women and sexuality seemed to fare poorly against the bulwark of empirical evidence that suggested Handel’s participation in sexually deviant activities.

A revealing manifestation of this historical deadlock finds form in Louis-Francois Roubiliac’s monumental sculpture of Handel, currently residing at the “Poet’s Corner” in Wesminster Abbey (see Fig. 1 below) . Perched atop a marbled pedestal, the composer is represented classically in scholarly gown, elbow balanced on a table bearing a copy of Handel’s most lauded Oratorio “The Messiah”. Despite these predictable elements, Roubiliac’s sculpture invites us to ponder upon more curious elements of his portrayal. For example, a large double-bass beneath the clutter of the table is partially obscured by a large foulard, held by Handel’s right hand. Noticing these details, the eye is drawn to another feature that mirror’s the curtain-like partial revelation of the bass – to the left, Handel’s own scholarly gown is garishly pulled to one side, granting the viewer a full gaze of Handel’s nether-regions. Of course, this is purely suggestive, as Handel is safely fully garbed beneath his robe; however, the viewer is left with as sense of curiosity as to what invisible force might be tugging (disrobing) the figure of Handel. With this peculiarity in mind, our previous interpretation of Handel’s ‘revealing’ of the double-bass is thrown into question: is Handel’s right hand engaged in an act of disclosure, or is it foreclosure?

I am not claiming any authoritative interpretation of Roubiliac’s sculpture; although Roubiliac was acquainted with Handel, as far as I am aware, there is no conclusive evidence that Roubiliac was a “social deviant” nor that he possessed intimate knowledge of Handel’s non-normative dealings. However, Roubiliac’s sculpture so charged with the obsessive gaze of the spectator offers us a reading into the epistemological nature of Handel’s interlocutors in their attempt to “disrobe” Handel. After all, one reading that Handel’s monument offers us is the mystery of the invisible hand that pries at Handel’s robe: aren’t these forces literally the enactments of Handel’s biographers (who mediate our received realities of Handel through their scholarly research and interpretations) on Handel, literally their desires to “unveil” or “disrobe” the truth ossified into stone for the eye of the public? Our desiring, disrobing gaze, it seems, is greeted with disappointment as Handel ‘hides’ the instrument from our reach that would allow us to solve the mystery once and for all; namely, the sweet instrumental melodies of a confessional.

Alternatively, Roubaliac’s sculpture so precisely ossifies the epistemological impasse of Handel scholarship into stone, and can be read as not a surface representation of Handel himself, but a sculptural manifestation of an epistemological structure (so ridden with the desire to disclose) that has replaced the actual subject of Handel himself. This epistemological impasse, Thomas brilliantly calls our attention to, is none other than what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls the “Epistemology of the Closet”. In short, to borrow a phrase of Marshall McLuhan’s, “the medium is the message” when it comes to discussing matters of Handel’s sexuality – more specifically, the structuring of the question “Was Handel Gay?” is predicated on the heterosexual/homosexual binary that enables the question in the first place, such that any attempt to “answer” the question becomes an act of epistemological reification. For Thomson,

“The question of Handel’s homosexuality ... is constantly generated, not as a present surface of knowledge, but rather as an absent surfeit of it [in terms of silence]; a lack becomes an ‘excess’ – knowledge is produced in ‘excess’ of what is spoken ... [The] closet is that space where silences speak, obfuscations reveal, absences signify, and negations posit.” (My emphasis)

“Silence” as an epistemological phenomenon within the logic of the Closet is therefore not a mere lacuna. What Sedgwick and Thomas both acknowledge is the way in which “silences” are performative within a given social context, and can therefore be interpreted by various bodies. Thus, the interpretation of “silence” in Handel’s case is already a hermeneutic strategy with which to impose the logic of the Closet binary. Within this structural logic, “silence” is recast as an “open secret” (remember the old saying “silence is consent”?), condemning Handel’s slippery “queerness” to the legible legions of foreclosed knowledge. As D.A. Miller suggests, the “open secret” functions “not to conceal knowledge, as much as to conceal the knowledge of the knowledge.” Even as our politically-sated desiring eyes gaze upon Handel’s disrobing, it would be good to remember that the instrument which Handel’s queer silence fore/discloses is an instrument of our own making – the instrument of the Closet logic which enables and justifies Handel’s disrobing in the first place, the instrument upon which the representation of Handel which we consume seems to rest (sit) upon.

Even if we recognize our locatedness as spectators and participants in historical reconstruction, to what extent should we acknowledge Handel’s implicit queerness in biographies? For Thomas, biographic revision along the lines of a “gay” Handel risks essentializing (or re-centering) a historical version on Handel which “responds to the terms in which the struggles for gay liberation are being waged at this (our) moment in history.” Rather than permitting Handel to exist as “a site of dialectical tensions and relations in culture”, what Thomas cautions is the way in which a “gay” Handel may be structured, even celebrated, to reflect our own contemporary history of GLBT politics. Indeed, as Edward Said pointed out, the construction of text is essentially a political act; no text can be completely free our ‘outside’ the realm of cultural, social, economic and political networks it is engaged with, nor can it claim to opine upon the sphere of the contemporary discourses without ultimately participating in them.

Thus “silence”, when interpreted as a “closeted” silence risks shoehorning a queer Handel into a celebrated spokesperson for left-wing gay rights sloganists. Worse still, defending a silent Handel against the order of queerness would be to blatantly ignore glaring historical details, not to mention risk being blamed for acts of proscriptive canonicity that only permits the Western heterosexual male into its order. It is to this effect that Gary Thomas proposes what he calls a “(homo)textual Handel”, an internally diffracted historical subject that is not beholden to the 20th Century’s obsession with Closet binary logic. But even this definition runs into rocky terrain when it suggests that the (homo)textual Handel be read as “a whole field of social relations and discourses that participate in a complex and open-ended historical conversation” – is this not already the condition of all historical textuality? Thomas’ own definition sounds suspiciously close to anthropologist Michael Taussig’s “Colonial Mirror of Reproduction” condition in which colonizers project their intrinsic savagery onto the colonized “other” which is then physically and symbolically dominated. The subaltern cannot speak, nor can historical Handel, who happens to sit on many a ventriloquists’ lap.

However, there is a “third-way” to attend to silence (and not merely ignore it or treat it as an exclusion or an absence); that is, to conceive of silence not as a mode of consent, but as a strategy of resistance. In a creative exploration of music, McCarthy cold war politics and queer history, Jonathan Katz conceives John Cage’s “silence” on his sexuality a recurring compositional strategy to explore an ethics of listening. Analysing Cage’s infamous “Lecture on Nothing”, Katz opines:
“For Cage, then, communication, which is a form of expression, burdens the listener. It is an attempt to sway, to "impose" a discourse. In substituting "conversation" for "communication," Cage seeks to replace a desire for mastery or control with the open-ended free play of ideas. [...] Meaning in Cage, now replaced by a policy of non-interference, was freed from any dependence on such logos, for it was logos, after all, which had marked him, as a gay man, as disturbed, marginal and unworthy in the first place. Discriminations of meaning or value were, Cage argues here, inherently discriminatory.”

Silent resistance on the part of the composer also helped to shape an aesthetic of self-awareness both for John Cage (and his dealings with Zen philosophy) as well as his audience. Referring to Cage’s notorious 4’33’’, Katz points out that:

“Silent music inaugurated a process of reading that at least potentially moved the listener from an unselfconscious complicity with dominant forms of expression (forms wherein the expressive is passively registered as inherent in the music) towards a degree of self-consciousness about one’s role as a listener or maker of meaning.” (My emphasis)

Cage’s “queering” silences thus revealed the complicity of the listener in reifying predetermined or inherited norms of musical expression and expectation, as well as situating the music in meaning. Paradoxically, by revealing these same structures, Cage’s silent aesthetic simultaneously offers to re-empower the listener by returning agency to the listener as creative collaborator in the composition and master of self-meaning. And what better way to sidestep the problematic terrain of a (homo)textualized Handel than to start listening to Handel as resistive silence – in other words, let Handel remain eternally queer by remembering that it is ultimately Handel’s music that we have come to valorise beyond issues of sexuality and canonicity. By embracing an aesthetic (and ethic) of listening, Handel’s dissonant “locatedness” in contemporary culture becomes “silenced”, literally drowned out by the music itself. And perhaps by doing so, we become more aware of the harmonies that exist between Handel’s “disclosed” instruments, and our own instruments of entraining that, too, sometimes exist hidden beyond our knowledge.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Schenker goes to America

Heinrich Schenker never visited America. In fact, Schenker himself once dismissed inhabitants of the New World, convinced that these musical underlings would never “attain the intellectual and moral qualifications” required to achieve a “higher goal for humanity” . Ironically enough, nearly 50 years after Schenker’s own passing in 1935, the first American Symposium on Heinrich Schenker was held at the Mannes College of Music (New York) in March 1985, celebrating the originality and creativity of Schenker’s contributions to Music Theory. Not only did the symposium symbolize the accretion of interest in Schenker’s theories as laboriously worked out between 1906 and 1935 , it audaciously sought to re-imagine Schenker’s system, stretching its parameters to include analyses of music beyond Schenker’s constricted Teutonic canon . To blindly assume that Schenker’s trans-Atlantic success was a symptom of American academic hospitality, however, would to be to grossly misunderstand the very nature of Schenkerian transmission in America from the 1930s to the 1980s.

Schenker’s body of theoretical thought reached America’s shores in the early 1930s and 40s through Hans Weiss, Ernst Oster, Oswald Jonas and Felix Salzer, first generation pupils who established themselves in conservatories or universities primarily in the North American region. Jonas, for example, assumed a position at the Roosevelt University in Chicago while Weisse resided at the Mannes School of music , which was, for many years, the only American University to conduct courses based on Schenkerian Analysis . What proceeded their emigration from an increasingly war-bent nation, however, was a silence – perhaps even an embarrassed one. Despite their unequivocal devotion to their master’s passionate theoretical inclinations, there existed the possibility that their silence was precisely predicated on Schenker’s rhetoric being overly-passionate for the predilections of their new neighbours.

As William Rothstein explains in his reflection “The Americanization of Heinrich Schenker”, the temperament that dominated the American intellectual scene was one based on exactly the opposite: a lack of passion for any singular principle truth, favouring a climate that cherished democratic ideals of (academic) plurality . For Rothstein (who studied under Ernst Oster in the 1970s), Schenker’s imported system contained certain radical “unassimilable elements” such as the latter’s “pan-German nationalism” and “unbending absolutism” as well as his “hatred of twentieth-century music” . Instead, Schenker was whispered amidst the hallowed halls of musicological history, framed as that German zealot who exclaimed: “Strauss, Pfitzner, Humperdinck, Mahler, Reger – such poverty!”

If music theorists in the 1930s to the 60s failed to pay any real attention to Schenker, then exactly what were they preoccupied with? Therein lies the difficulty in understanding Schenkerian transmission as a theoretical discipline, for the precise bearings of music theory in America had not yet been established. One recent debate that has arisen out of ‘New’ Musicology surrounds what Lydia Goehr famously attacked as the “work concept”. The crux of Goehr’s argument is that the autonomous “musical work” as we know it was essentially a 19th Century construction; thus any reference to pre-19th century music using the epistemological framework of a “work” is essentially an act of “conceptual imperialisation” by contemporary researchers . Likewise, trying to understand the transmission of Schenker as a “theory” in musical-theoretical circles would be forgetting that the entire discipline of music theory (co-existent with the ideologies enabling the idea of the professional music theorist) was nonexistent in the 1930s.

Long before Joseph Kerman’s biting critique on “positivist” musicology was published , music theory was subsumed under a much larger umbrella of academic categorization, namely that of “analysis” which was, crudely speaking, a muscle which the discipline of musicology flexed. Mostly a product of 19th century thought, theory’s wedding to analysis found its primary use in musicological examples which subjected “musical masterpieces” to “technical operations, descriptions, reductions and demonstrations purporting to show how they ‘work’” . Guido Adler, long considered as a founding father of modern musicology (Musikwissenschaft) subsumed the study and research of aesthetics, theory (psychology and acoustics) and pedagogy under the arm of ‘systematic’ musicology, as contrasted with ‘historical’ musicology . By doing so, Adler simultaneously helped to define the discursive space within which music “theory” would operate: not independently from musical-historical issues, but in tandem with, even connected to, three other arms of musical thinking. As Bruno Nettl notes, Adler’s assertions meant that “all types of scholarship in music are, and properly ought to be, part of musicology” . American colleges followed suit, much to the tune of Paul Henry Lang’s statement in the 1930s that Musicology rightfully “unites in its domains all the sciences which deal with the production, appearance and application of the physical phenomenon called sound” .

A landmark in the institutionalisation of Musicology as an academic discipline finally came in the 1934 with the founding of the American Musicological Society (AMS), primarily driven by the efforts of Charles Seeger which finally paved the way for the professionalization of the American musicologist (less music theorist), whose production of knowledge was, in turn, defined by the institutional constraints of the Society. According to the 1955 AMS report of the Committee on Graduate Studies, the following definition of the field was elaborated as:

“... a field of knowledge, having as its object the investigation of music as a physical, psychological, aesthetic and cultural phenomenon. The musicologist is a research scholar and he aims primarily at knowledge about music. With this primacy he differs from the composer ... and the performer.”

By 1955, then, either theoretical studies in music had been erased from the list of the professional musicologists’ duties, or had been absorbed into “physical, psychological, aesthetic and cultural phenomenon”. But for the first time in American musicological history, the “research scholar” occupied a position independent to the “composer ... and the performer”. Schenker’s scions, therefore, were either to be absorbed by the academic institution as a researcher (and risk the difficult business of defining Schenker’s systems on the terms enumerated by the AMS), or choose monkhood in the refuge of conservatories where composers and performers were churned out. However, by the late 1950s, Alder and Seeger’s utopian unified musicological formulae had begun to turn sour. In 1955, the Society for Ethnomusicology was formed (also spearheaded by Seeger), giving palpable form to the fissures inherent in the dominant musicological doctrine. These fissures, as Joseph Kerman points out, were not merely topical ones but also fissures predicated on differing “philosophies and ideologies” . Indeed, ethnomusicology ventured and assumed the disciplinary principles of anthropology first laid out by Carl Stumpf in 1886 while musicologists with an inclination towards theory watched on enviously.

All this inner dissent was finally assuaged with the founding of the Journal of Music Theory (JMT) in 1957, merely 2 years after the ethnomusicological divorce. In the foreword to the first volume, David Kraehenbuehl enthusiastically proclaimed the journal’s new stake in the field of musical scholarship as a “restoration of music theory as more than a didactic convenience, more than a necessary discipline, as, in fact, a mode of creative thought” . For many closeted theorists, JMT answered prayers by remedying “the lack of any available forum” for “musicians who have maintained the classic concept of a creative music theory” , although it wasn’t met without some initial reservation . Despite the initially lukewarm reception to submissions, most of the letters to the editor confirmed that there was a genuine desire for a discursive sphere outside the reach of ‘traditional musicology’. More than provide burgeoning theorists with a sphere of discourse, JMT had to justify its self-distancing from either musicology or ethnomusicology by reformulating a certain inherited ideology of music theory. In other words, JMT had to produce music theory’s “difference” in order to “restore a common sense to our activities as music theorists” . This was partially answered by Kraehenbeuhl who sought to establish creative vigour in a “general operation” oriented by scientific principles such as “hypothesis” and “testing” . In short, Kraehenbeuhl envisioned music theory’s liberation in science, much in the way ethnomusicology rode out into the sunset on anthropology’s back.

With the sphere of discourse finally established by JMT, the closeted theorist finally found a name for the “operations” he was interested in, unified by a set of principles in a tangible material manifestation of a Journal. JMT therefore also structured an epistemological framework of identification which, by active participation (such as reading, submitting articles or participating in forums), one could subscribe to and draw authority from its legitimacy as a scholarly journal. Above all, as Patrick McCreless lucidly points out, the establishment of JMT within the network of scholarly research represented a shift in the dynamics of knowledge/power relation with ethnomusicology and musicology, ultimately allowing for the formation of Foucauldian “docile bodies” – albeit, the formation of the professional musical theorist .

With the structuring of power/knowledge relationships, a clearing emerged from the hubris of previous definitions (or lack thereof) that granted the hypothetical music theorist certain legitimacy (therefore power) in (re)producing the discourse as regulated by the JMT (also acting as a disciplinary body). Within the next few issues of JMT, a forum on “The Professional Music Theorist” emerged with Kraehenbuehl bearing the polemical torch, arguing for “an increasing and carefully trained corps of professional music theorists” to improve the “curricula” in schools . And it was not long before Schenker quickly rose to the Urliene of theoretical debate. Following a bitter argument between Howard Boatwright and Allen Forte over the former’s review of the latter’s book “Contemporary Tone-Structures”, Forte’s dissatisfaction over Boatwright’s blatant dismissal of his use of Schenkerian analysis prompted him to write an article in the third issue of JMT entitled “Schenker’s Conception of Musical Structure” .

Himself a professor at the Mannes College of Music where Hans Weiss taught, Forte’s article singlehandedly launched Schenker’s system to such heights of publicity it had never received before – not even by any of Schenker’s students nor Felix Salzer’s 1952 publication of “Structural Hearing”: an early (but gentle) attempt to spread the Schenkerian gospel . Not only did Forte’s article introduce an entire nation of identity-crisis-ridden music theorists to Schenker for the first time , Forte also preached the future of music theory through Schenker’s eyes by laying a project of possible theoretical applications . 1959 also marked the appointment of Allen Forte to the Yale music program, where he “proclaimed an ideological commitment to Schenker and a program of work which was to make that university into the world centre for the dissemination and extension of the Austrian theorists’ thought. ” The longevity of Schenker in JMT was further ensured when Forte took on the reins of editor to the journal in the 1960s.

As we have seen, it was primarily through the construction of the professional music theorist as legitimized by JMT that allowed for a sphere of discourse of Schenker to ultimately emerge. If we peer through the lens of history via our received notions of the modern music theorist, Schenker’s reception in the United States would be grossly misunderstood. Similarly, if we exchange positions of perspective and assume that Schenker arrived on American theoretical shores hook line and sinker, we would be forgetting that inasmuch as the concept of the professional musical theorist had to exist as a productive receptacle for Schenkerian thought, Schenkerian thought had to be coloured by the rose-tinted spectacles of this newfangled music theorist in order to reflect the ideologies and philosophy of the disciplinary system which, in turn, defined and empowered the theorist. Indeed the ghost of Schenker paid a heavy price when he sought intellectual refuge in America; as Rothstein observes: “Schenker had become so fashionable that he was being paid the ultimate American compliment: he was being vulgarized” .

Even as Forte’s article pressured the intellectual community for the need of translations of Schenker’s work, editors eventually faced a disturbing challenge with balancing honest representation and democratic ideals. For all the furore Schenker’s system had raised, Schenker’s writing remained strongly passionate, and vehemently offensive to the American theorist. In a famous example, either Oswald Jonas or Ernst Oster excised offending passages from Schenker’s “Free Composition”, exiling them under a 5 page long “appendix 4”. The decision to publish the appendix, according to Rothstein, was “a matter of intense controversy” for they foregrounded Schenker as an inhospitably ardent foul-mouth who rejected “both communism and Western-style democracy” and espoused an “elitist, aristocratic culture . Although eventually published, these products serve as historical documents, material relics infused with the ideological traces of their making.

Today, music theory has called a truce with Schenker; in exchange of incorporation and invested scholarly research, theory has carefully removed the Schenkerian sting where theorists felt it was superfluous to ‘the theory itself’. This de-contextualized Schenker enjoyed particularly good health under the pseudonym “neo-Schenkerianism” , finding itself in numerous analytical and theoretical applications, even in the study of non-Western music cultures. However, it would be useful to pay heed to Rothstein’s warning that “Schenker can no more be exempt from the history of ideas than any other thinker” , implying the need for a broader socio-cultural-political examination of Schenker’s theories and their geneses. Most recently, Nicholas Cook’s brilliant book “The Schenker Project” (2007) has accomplished this task formidably (cleverly avoiding the trappings of attempting to construct an intellectual history), framing Schenker as “a reluctant modernist” resisting the anti-modernist impulses of fin-de-siecle Vienna. Schenker would never had guessed that nearly 50 years since he left this world, he would also become a reluctant American.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Terrible History!

It's funny how you perceive with much horror and trepedition the "gesamt" musik program that Oxford seems to pride itself on, only to saunter into a postgraduate seminar and realise that everyone rattles on the same slates of anxiety as you did. Dr Leach commenced the table session by inviting us to voice our loopholes, as it were, in our own musical education. Although by practice, my jarring episode of lack (I have not even finished my undergraduate course), I felt much better prepared to discuss issues of disciplinary reflexivity in musicology. Most avoided was talk on Baroque music (for more than philological reasons), and most scholars present at the table pointed out their inadequecy at many historical topics. Quickly it became clear to me that even at the collegiate level, great leaps in scholarship were being taken as students struggled, in their undergraduate years, to compile a course of study that would be most rewarding. The quick remedy, of course, would be a recourse to a musical historical survey.


Today I flipped open the first of the breathtaking work "The Oxford History of Western Music" stunningly penned by single author Richard Taruskin - a sort of a enfant terrible in the musicological community. Mr Taruskin has been known for his fascist insistence in a particular brand of history, namely his own, striking out harsh and usually effective at seminars and symposiums, of which he quite regularly attends. There, in the introduction, was the troublesome indication which I had been suspicious of. Confidently, Taruskin wrote himself into a teleological lineage, a straight line of inheritance if you will, originating in Hobbes (I think, let me check my sources). With florid rhetorical ease, Taruskin proudly announces that he is, finally, writing a "true history".

Anyone even vaguely familiar with poststructuralism and the "linguistic turn" in philosophy would reel at Taruskin's audacity. Such arrogance! Such ignorance! Such blithe dismissal of years of corrective reflexivity! And amongst the critics, Cook and Tomlinson have been quick to retort with their slew of accusations agains the man chattering "true history". But the thing is, Taruskin goes on to possess his entire encyclopedia with a forceful notion of cause-and-effect, with broad overarching metanarratives including a preference for selfmade catchwords like "absolutism", regarding developments in the 20th century. It is as if Taruskin is saying: As long as we fancy ourselves with the semantic implications of "absolutism" as a concept, we have successfully grasped the lynchpin, the dynamo of 20th Century narratology. But we risk mixing hierarchical structures in our hermeneutical endeavours, obfuscating mere categorical initiatives of convenience with categories of essence. And no, Mr Taruskin, categories of essence are not universally strategic essentialism, although it may be a formidable strategy of Taruskin to terrorize those underserving scions of "New" Musicology into a kind of sublated reverence for the ancien regime.