- The Queer Composition of America’s Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity
Nadine Hubbs' recent contribution to the ongoing conversation about the relationship between sexuality and music draws on musicology, feminist and queer theory, and American cultural history in its consideration of "the interrelations of national, social and sexual, cultural and musical identity in twentieth-century America" and "their meanings within U.S. musical modernism" (pp. 3–4). Hubbs, a professor of music and women's studies at the University of Michigan and an acknowledged leader in the area of gender and sexuality studies in classical and popular music, focuses in The Queer Composition of America's Sound on a circle of Manhattan-based gay composers who created a distinct American sound in concert music during the first half of the twentieth century—Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Paul Bowles, David Diamond, and Ned Rorem. She pays particular attention to Thomson and Copland and the period 1934–1954. Hubbs's introduction contains a number of statements of purpose that highlight different aspects of her exploration. "A central project of this book is to illumine the specifically queer lineaments of a musical idiom that serves as one of the most potent and recognizable cultural emblems of Americanness—a sonic representation of American vastness and rugged, simple beauty primarily associated with Aaron Copland" (p. 10). In addition, "the book examines the conditions that underlay networking activity among queer artists and its abundant productivity in this period of U.S. cultural life" and "seeks to enrich and complicate our understanding of the role of queer artists in conceiving and producing American cultural identity ..."(p. 15). "More broadly, this book explores the sites of U.S. gay modernist composers' individual and collective achievements to account for the ways in which queer lives and culture have shaped American musical, and larger, life and culture" (p. 17).
Chapter 1, "Modernist Abstraction and the Abstract Art: Four Saints and the Queer Composition of America's Sound," opens on 7 February 1934 with the premiere of Gertrude Stein and Thomson's opera Four Saints in Three Acts, received by many as "a glorious and redemptive birth—of nothing less than the national culture" (p. 19). Hubbs's examination of this "landmark collaborative creation of U.S. modernist artists engaged in early-twentieth-century efforts to establish a distinctly and genuinely American voice" (p. 22) raises issues addressed throughout the book—abstraction and identification; national, artistic, and sexual identity; and the key role played by gay composers in the creation of a recognizable American musical voice. Hubbs also tackles the meaning of modernism in this chapter, highlighting characteristics such [End Page 395] as abstraction, emphasizing form over content, opposition to Romanticism, and valuing the inner experience of the spectator, listener, or reader over narrative representation. In chapter 2, "Being Musical: Gender, Sexuality, and Musical Identity in Twentieth-Century America," she addresses the concept of musical modernism directly, noting that since World War II modernism in music has typically denoted "hypermasculine, antifeminine impulses" (p. 82) associated with atonal, dissonant, and/or experimental music, e.g., Italian futurism, Schoenberg's atonality, Ives' experiments with dissonance, and the serialism of Boulez, Babbitt, and others. The composers on whom Hubbs focuses wrote tonal, consonant, and/or neoclassical music, but considered their work modernist, as does Hubbs. She notes that anti-Romanticism was a characteristic of the "kinder, gentler" musical modernists, who particularly rejected German Romanticism in favor of French ideals. In fact, many of the Thomson-Copland circle studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.
The title of chapter 2, "Being Musical," is a play on the early twentieth-century queer coding of "musical" for "homosexual." In addition to discussing musical modernism, this chapter explores the variety of meanings of "being musical" in twentieth-century America, paying particular attention to "how gendered, sexual, and musical identities interacted and intersected, inflected and informed one...