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26.10.04

Pentatonic Scale? So Gay!

In an article (What's So Gay About American Music?, October 24) for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini has posed some good questions about the latest salvo from the Queer Theory ("Queory" could be catchy) wing of musicology, a new book by Nadine Hubbs, who teaches music and women's studies at the University of Michigan (The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music and National Identity, University of California Press). Tommasini, you may recall, wrote a book on the life of Virgil Thomson (Virgil Thomson: Composer On The Aisle, published by W. W. Norton in 1997), one of the gay composers Prof. Hubbs cites as having created the American sound. Terry Teachout has already responded to the article at About Last Night, as did Alex Ross at The Rest Is Noise, and both had excellent thoughts. Both of them were thinking of writing reviews of the book themselves.

My take on this sort of musicological research—feminist and queer studies—is no different than the way I assess any other viewpoint. I think it's very helpful to learn about the lives of composers, male or female, gay or straight. It's interesting to know about the gay dynamics of the group of Forster-Pears-Britten while they were working on Billy Budd and arguing about what sort of love aria to have Claggart sing to Billy, just as our understanding of Kát'a Kabanová is improved by knowing something about Janáček's unhappy marriage and his affair with the woman to whom the opera is dedicated. You don't need to know these things to enjoy either opera, of course, but it is illuminating. You can usually tell when that sort of research crosses the line into something more purely speculative. I am not surprised at Tommasini's assessment of the book, that the author "is least convincing when discussing the particulars of the music in question." Right.

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