- Rufus Wainwright by Katherine Williams
Rufus Wainwright is an unusual choice of subject for a monograph published in a series entitled Popular Music History. Wainwright’s musical output has consistently straddled the divide between so-called “popular music” and Western art music. Williams studies Wainwright’s output through his 2012 album, Out of the Game. These works might represent his most significant artistic achievements; they include an eponymous debut album characterized [End Page 737] by rich orchestral layers, an opera (Prima Donna) initially commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and a song cycle (All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu). Is he a popular music artist, or a Western art composer with minimal training? No one can agree, not even Wainwright.
One issue that becomes clear almost immediately in Williams’s book is the complexity inherent in writing about popular music from an art music perspective. That the intended audience for the book series is unclear only compounds this complexity. The publisher, Equinox, describes the series as “books that challenge established orthodoxies in popular music studies, examine the formation and dissolution of canons, interrogate histories of genres, focus on previously neglected forms, or engage in archaeologies of popular music” (https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/popular-music-history/; accessed 20 January 2017). Nothing in that description suggests that the lay reader, rather than the music scholar, is the intended audience; however, Williams repeatedly attempts to appeal to readers who lack a classical musical education. These attempts are uneven. Termi nology is inconsistently defined; for example, Williams gives considerable attention to describing homophonic texture but uses the phrase “subdominant suspensions” without explanation. She also devotes half a page to the concept of crowdfunding, a mechanism so pervasive that it requires no explanation. There is much to learn about Rufus Wainwright and his music in this book, but some readers may find the process to be needlessly difficult.
Williams takes an interesting approach to her examination of Wainwright’s music, which she organizes into five sections: “Family”; “Western Art Music and Pop: Conflict and Coherence”; “Opera, Gender and Sexuality”; “Place and Space”; and “The Voice.” In each section, she interpolates musical analysis of specific songs into the biographical and thematic narratives. This approach works very well in chapter 1, where she creates the context for Wainwright’s music and career. He is the son of two established folk musicians, Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. The Wainwright and McGarrigle families had long histories of addressing one another through song, especially as relationships became strained or significant distances separated them. Williams offers meaningful suggestions on how to interpret Wainwright’s lyrics and insights into the underlying musical structures of these songs.
This format of interpolation is carried throughout the book, with mixed success. Williams concentrates the main substance of the book in chapters 2 and 3, where she delves into the complicated issue of the categorization of Wainwright’s musical style. Chapter 2 looks at Wainwright’s refusal to follow a strict path toward Western art music. He enrolled in the undergraduate music program at McGill University in Montréal but quit after eighteen months. Despite this setback, he maintained an interest in classical music and composers, such as Giuseppe Verdi. He also repeatedly gravitated toward projects that involved established classical composers and musicians, the largest of which was the commissioned opera, Prima Donna.
In regard to the opera, Williams is not quite sure where she stands on her subject. Assessment of Prima Donna in the mainstream art music press was harsh, citing Wainwright’s rudimentary understanding of the genre. Williams quotes this negative feedback with little comment. She seems far more comfortable in chapter 3, in which she examines the operatic and classical music elements that Wainwright brought into his songwriting. She focuses heavily on the connection between Wainwright’s sexuality and opera, basing this understanding on a statement Wainwright made about his simultaneous realization that he was gay and his appreciative discovery of Verdi’s music. This chapter reveals a few...