A Wholly Factual Account of a Failed Attempt to Transcend Gender Through Electroacoustic Musical Theatre

A Wholly Factual Account of a Failed Attempt to Transcend Gender Through Electroacoustic Musical Theatre

While music itself isn’t inherently gendered, gender can have a huge impact on how music is perceived and interpreted.

Written By

Isaac Schankler

I was excited to see that Alex Temple’s blog post, “I’m a Trans Composer. What the hell does that mean?” was reposted here at NewMusicBox. I think it’s a great article, dense with ideas—each paragraph could easily be expanded into a full article itself. And even though I’m not transgendered myself, I found a lot in Alex’s words to relate to and identify with. This part, in particular, might apply to nearly every composer who has commented on NewMusicBox:

Even though, objectively speaking, I’m an insider in the classical music world—I’ve been studying it formally since I was a kid, and I’ve been in academia for ten years—I always wind up feeling like an outsider, no matter what city or scene or university department I’m in.

For Alex, being an outsider is connected to her identification with being genderqueer, and there’s certainly a kind of metaphorical resonance between the two. And while you certainly don’t need to be genderqueer to feel like an outsider, feeling that way can give you a certain sympathetic resonance with other kinds of outsiders. At least, I’d like to think so.

Maybe this is one reason why I’ve felt a recurring need to explore or investigate issues related to gender through music. But it’s a puzzling thing. At times gender and music seem to have nothing to do with each other, while at other times they seem inseparable. Vocal music, in particular, seems inextricably bound to gender, as the history of gender-swapped roles in opera makes apparent. (Pop music, too—The Magnetic Fields’s Stephin Merritt makes gender ambiguity a near-ubiquitous trope in his music.) This is a tradition I’ve participated in from time to time. When determining roles for my opera Light and Power, librettist Jillian Burcar and I agreed that it made sense to cast Nikola Tesla as a soprano, to highlight some of his androgynous qualities and his self-professed celibacy.

Other times, my attempts to experiment with gender through music have not gone so well. When writing my piece Concerto for Mannequin Head, I was thinking a great deal about the disembodied nature of electronic music. With most live music, even if you don’t know much about musical performance, you can discern certain things about how the music is created just by watching someone perform. Electronics, on the other hand, are often a black box. There may be no easily discernible visible difference between someone playing back a recording and someone doing extremely detailed, virtuosic live performance. This is even leaving out the issue of what kind of preparations the performer has done before the performance. The synesthetic connection between the visual display of skill and the resulting sound is essentially severed. You can look at this as a problem or an opportunity. The opportunity is that this black box can be filled with essentially anything you can dream up. It is a great chance, in particular, for theatre—but theatre is a wholly different art form from music, with its own set of skills and conventions, as I learned the hard way.

My solution to the electronic music problem in Concerto for Mannequin Head was to employ a sort of intentionally shabby (is it too pretentious to call it Brechtian?) theatricality that asks the audience to suspend their disbelief in the face of a transparent fiction. The conceit that the audience is asked to buy into is that an onstage mannequin head is singing to them. Meanwhile, backstage the real performer (in this case me) sings into electronics that modulate and distort the human voice, rendering it ambiguously gendered (and dubiously human). During the cadenza, the mannequin head “malfunctions” and the human performer must come onstage to “fix” it.

In its first performance I thought the piece worked pretty well, with its campy humor and elements of surprise. The next time I performed it, however, I did not have a mannequin head handy, so I asked another composer if she would like to play the part of Mannequin Head, and she agreed. I was not at all prepared for how this would dramatically change the character and meaning of the piece. When the soloist was a genderless inanimate object, it could be a kind of stylized, androgynous projection of myself. But by changing that into an unambiguously gendered human being, suddenly the piece was less about identity and technology and more about power and control. During the performance, I started to feel profoundly uncomfortable in a creepy, Pygmalionesque way.

The lesson I learned (other than that I should probably leave theatre to the theatre kids) is that while music itself isn’t inherently gendered, gender can have a huge impact on how music is perceived and interpreted. I have also become more suspicious of claims that music can transcend gender in some way. I do think that it still has the power to say interesting things about gender, though!