- The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity
Nadine Hubbs has written a deceptively short book. Its 178 pages of text and 69 pages of end-notes are as dense with questions as the woods in a German opera. She draws on gender studies, queer theory, feminist cultural theory, and gay history to seed musicological scholarship about gender and music with challenging ideas.
If her questions resist definitive answers and her book is not exactly "linear," it is partly because few writers and thinkers these days claim to have answers to the kinds of questions Hubbs raises. Thus, Hubbs involves herself in some of the prominent intellectual debates of our era, among them the extent to which sexuality [End Page 113] and psychosexuality imprint themselves on and through artistic production, the nature of discrimination and compensatory group identity, and the social lexicons of critical prejudice. What do we know with respect to the impact of genetics on behavior or socialization on the brain? In any case, this book exemplifies the word "heuristic" in its exploratory methodology, and it prompted some questions that I wish to address in this brief review.
I will begin by supplying a brief description of its contents and then noting some themes of its reception, again briefly. The author states her premise as a question intended to suggest a paradox, which to me is more of an irony: "By what social, cultural, and artistic mechanisms did Copland and Thomson's circle of queer composers serve, during America's most homophobic era, as architects of its national identity?" (4). The most prominent other members of this circle include Marc Blitzstein, Paul Bowles, Leonard Bernstein, and David Diamond.
The book begins with an introduction, called "Composing Oneself," that neatly plays on the ambiguities of "composing" as an act of getting oneself together as much as writing music. It intermingles two separate issues, one of homosexuality as a civil rights issue and the second of being "gay"—or "queer"—in relation to sexual and cultural identity. Then follow four chapters. The first, "Modernist Abstraction and the Abstract Art: Four Saints and the Queer Composition of America's Sound," is intended to shed light on what Hubbs calls "an influential instance of composing oneself in twentieth-century American modernism" (27). She offers the reader some fresh insights about the structure of the opera libretto of Four Saints in Three Acts and some convincing examples of encodings of homosexual sensibilities in Thomson's music.
The second chapter, "Being Musical: Gender, Sexuality and Musical Identity in Twentieth-Century America," discusses the gendered social and critical discourse around music in American life. Here Hubbs focuses first on the scholarly literature about Charles Ives and his notorious melt-downs over "sissies" and "emasculated music." Soon she returns to Thomson and Copland and their respective roles as "dean" of music criticism and "daddy" as mentor to younger colleagues and younger lovers. Next comes "Intermezzo," a short chapter about Paul Bowles that is a tour de force. Hubbs makes the question about Bowles's erotic charm and ambiguous sexual personality relevant for a musicological narrative about modernism. Chapter 3, which links style with gay networks and gay taste, is entitled "A French Connection: Modernist Codes in the Musical Closet." Here she uses the Parisian experiences of Thomson and Copland once again as a trail into a larger discussion. The fourth and final chapter, "Queerness, Eruption, Bursting: U.S. Musical Modernism at Mid Century," extends the reach of her inquiry into the 1950s and cold war politics, relying explicitly on the pioneering work of Jennifer DeLapp, who about ten years ago linked politics to Copland's serial composition, especially the piano quartet.1
What is at stake in "neglecting and suppressing the history of queer lives and contributions in American musical modernism?" asks Hubbs (7). She describes herself as a "feminist musicologist," and many reviewers, particularly Anthony Tomassini, Rodney Lister, and Howard Pollack, Copland's biographer, acknowledge her intellectual courage.2...