Author: Imani Mosley

Out of the Box: Plus C’est La Même Chose

Imani Mosley Out of the Box

[Ed. note: Last November, New Music USA marked its 10th anniversary. While we are continuing to celebrate all of the remarkable new music that has been created over the last ten years and our relationship to it throughout the coming months, we also want to start our second decade by imagining what the landscape for new music will be ten years from now. To that end, we are asking a group of deep musical thinkers to ponder this question. We aim for this series to spark important discussions in our community as well as to raise important journalistic voices from all around the country. Our first contributor is University of Florida-based musicologist and bassoonist Dr. Imani Mosley.-FJO]

Anthony Tommasini, in his final article as chief classical music critic for The New York Times, asks “so what things about classical music shouldn’t change?” It’s an interesting thought exercise that he unfurls throughout the article, reminding readers of things possibly slipping away: the sound of live acoustics, the exhilaration of risky playing, the generational work of artists and institutions. I don’t particularly have a qualm with the exercise or its examples — it’s a way, in a sense, of grounding classical music in a space and time that currently feels so unhinged, unembodied, unpracticed. But I am struck by the binary presented (even if it is to take apart a particular “problem”): that we in classical music-land are either asking what should change or what should remain the same. In approaching an essay such as this one that I was tasked with writing — what will new music look like ten years from now — I find myself running into that same binary. It is the idea that in order to assess or predict the new music landscape, one must be forced to face the conflict of change and stasis; not that things will change as most things inevitably do, but that change is not definite; stasis is.

This binary becomes murky both in theory and practice. One could say that art music throughout the twentieth century was based on change and the refutation of past practices. But as composers and performers shifted from style to style, medium to medium, our institutions became museumified, creating a dichotomy of either/or. The urge to be static rose concurrently with the urge to change. And so, in the twenty-first century, we’re presented with a choice: to look ahead or to look down. Not back or backwards, not into the past (because pastness cannot be and is not always equated with stasis), but down: down at our idle hands, down and away from our communities, down and buried in the sand. Had I been approached with discussing the future of new music two years ago, I probably would have answered differently; that our desire to look ahead would always be countered with our desire to look down. But as we enter the third year of a global pandemic, my view has shifted ever so slightly. Looking down is no longer a feasible or viable business model. It has become “look ahead or cease to exist.” And while I do not want to tie this piece so explicitly to current events, I don’t think it is possible for me to talk about the future without acknowledging what is happening in the here and now.

  • As composers and performers shifted from style to style, medium to medium, our institutions became museumified, creating a dichotomy of either/or.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • Looking down is no longer a feasible or viable business model.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • It has only been until very recently that the idea of space and place has been limited to the tangible.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • That shift away from liveness (something that I believe was on its way) is a huge step in the future of new music.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • As someone who is ensconced within the world of living composers, never have I felt as much access to them and their works as I have in the last few years.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • Looking ahead may be the only feasible way forward, the only way we will have created for ourselves.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley

Music is indelibly linked to space and place. Those elements can shape, structure, and define our listening and performance practices. The rigid acoustics of a European concert hall, the grand solemnity of a cathedral, the vast possibilities of a soundwalk—these are all ways in which music moves from the theoretical to the experiential. Music thrives on the performance of the experiential, on the real. The real, dependent upon physical space and presence, has been valorized above other kinds of performance often by listeners and performers. Whereas other types of music and performing media may thrive within recordings, art music relies upon the live. This is not disputing the long history of classical music recording, but rather positioning it within a synchronous history of live performance practice. Recording obfuscates authenticity because it has to be imbued in order to be believed, as explained by Philip Auslander: “[T]he music industry specifically sets out to endow its products with the necessary signs of authenticity.” Even Pierre Boulez expressed concern about the fidelity of recording, where “the so-called techniques of reproduction are acquiring an irrepressible tendency to become autonomous and to impress their own image of existing music, and less and less concerned to reproduce as faithfully as possible the conditions of direct audition.” For a genre that existed before recording technology, its authenticity lay within the visage of liveness (one only has to look to arguments around amplification to see this concept at work); liveness becomes the real. It has only been until very recently that the idea of space and place has been limited to the tangible. Philip Auslander and Jonathan Sterne discuss a shift that occurred in the 1990s, but the advance of the internet has accelerated that shift. Space and place could become virtual, mediated, otherworldly. The late 2000s saw Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir as well as the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, emphasizing that a virtual space could still be experiential, authentic, real.

So, what happens when physical space and place are no longer available to you? The COVID-19 pandemic posed this question to musicians, composers, and institutions. What about your precious real now? Many organizations opted to make already filmed material available to a wider public, following the already existing models created by the Berlin Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and Glyndebourne. But others saw this as an untapped creative space: Opera Philadelphia created a streaming channel with new works by composers such as Caroline Shaw, Angélica Negrón, Tyshawn Sorey, and Melissa Dunphy. These composers created works within a virtual space, decidedly unreal in a sense, to make a multifaceted multimedia object, one that uses all available tools to build something unique. Like the television opera/opera on television divide, these works exist in this mediated way first, much like Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave or Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Their authenticity is not predicated on some kind of prescribed and imagined liveness; they are not meant to be experienced in that way. And more than anything, that shift away from liveness (something that I believe was on its way) is a huge step in the future of new music. This is more than just using media, electronics, and technology as tools; this is about restructuring foundational elements of art music.

I am loathe to cite this pandemic as a breaking open of anything. Music’s relationship to this moment is varied and I find the “Newton’s Annus mirabilis” approach to these last few years as demoralizing and unapt. But decisions will be made and I wonder if in ten years hence, we’ll look back at now and see those decisions as being tectonic for new music. There is an immediacy that exists in a way that has seldom been seen and with that immediacy comes freedom: freedom to create new music without the shackles of place, space, and institution. The freedom that signifies the taking back of creative power and control. As someone who is ensconced within the world of living composers, never have I felt as much access to them and their works as I have in the last few years. And I cannot imagine anyone wanting to give that up. With the virtuality of space and place comes a kind of equalizing; yes, there will always be funders, donors, money, connection, and privilege. But virtual space is limitless. I’m reminded of composer Garrett Schumann’s “I’m a composer and I wrote this music” TikToks, maximizing the medium’s penchant for virality, its visibility and algorithmic pervasiveness to introduce his music, new music to the world. And as we’re forced to turn to those virtual spaces to have as close to real musical experiences as we can get, the more we reify that aforementioned power. I do not foresee a looking down after this moment ends.

So, what does that mean for the future of new music? What happens in that next decade? I personally can’t speak to musical and stylistic changes, that’s anyone’s guess. But as a musicologist and historian who specializes in how people have reacted to music in specific cultural moments, I can guess as to how the moment will be presented to us. In schools, in our major institutions, and with individuals, we will have assessed what to let go, what will change, and what will remain static. Looking ahead may be the only feasible way forward, the only way we will have created for ourselves. Tommasini ends his article noting that he wants to “protect it [classical music], as well as shake it up.” This reads as that forced binary appearing once again and this moment now suggests that that binary may no longer be viable. We may experience another moment when we will have to let things go because they have been taken from us. And instead of approaching that moment as a deficiency, let us approach it as an abundance, as so many composers and performers are doing now. Creation not in spite of but out of a desire to. A future where change is definite.

Nebal Maysaud: Rumored “Death” of Classical Music Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

[Ed. note: It has been a little over a year since the publication of Nebal Maysaud’s “It’s Time To Let Classical Music Die,” which is the most widely read article in the history of NewMusicBox. Many readers were drawn to its polemical title, which unfortunately was all that some people noticed rather than the concepts Nebal discussed in the article. One year later, Nebal reexamines these ideas in a candid one-on-one conversation with musicologist and University of Florida Assistant Professor Imani Mosley, discussing the relevance of classical music in 21st century America – and how to nurture a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable community that creates, performs, and appreciates such music. – FJO]

 

 

Imani Mosley: Thanks so much for this. I’m happy to get a chance to talk to you – and talk about this piece and contextualize it, and hear more about your thoughts on the piece itself and everything after. So before we talk about the piece, I’d like to talk about the response. Do you feel that your article was met the way you thought people would react to it? Did you find yourself surprised about dialogue that came about afterwards? Tell me about your reactions to how the piece was received and how people were talking about it.

Nebal Maysaud: I was expecting to receive almost no support – but not as much pushback either. I was expecting fewer people to even read it.

So in my first article I detailed a list of ways white people or people in power respond to marginalized individuals and people of color speaking out. So I was actually surprised initially to find a lot more support than I expected. I still do believe, just from what I’ve seen, that classical music as a field does still have a lot of conservative and neoliberal values.

But what I’ve seen also indicates that, while our structures and power structures reinforce these racial hierarchies of white supremacy, there are a lot of individuals who are aware of that and want to make a change in that power structure; and are not content with how we’re abusing people of color in the field of classical music.

So I was very happy to see that it received support. I was thrilled to get messages from people with varying degrees of interest, and who are in various stages in their careers as musicians. I heard back from some folks who studied classical music in college but left the field because of these systemic barriers.

It was really validating to get statements of support saying I’m not the only one who experienced what I experienced.

There was a great positive response. There were also, of course, negative responses – particularly once it started reaching conservative media, propagating it to a bunch of conservative sources.

One thing as a community I feel like we could and should be doing better is publicly expressing our support for writers who speak out – because a lot of the support faded away, but harassment didn’t. They calmed down quite a bit, but every so often, some conservative influencer shares it on Twitter and, you know, I get a few random messages. They can be hilarious: one time someone messaged me, “Screw you. I’m going to listen to Beethoven!” – and [at the time] I was listening to Beethoven.

IM: [laughs] I definitely can understand and empathize with that particular situation, as it’s one I find myself in fairly often. And there’s a lot to be said critically about those who take more left-leaning positions, as you say, about how their support and allyship manifests in these spaces. That’s a real and necessary conversation that definitely needs to be had. So I completely understand what you’re saying, and I’m sorry for the harassment. Unfortunately it comes with the territory but it’s obviously not something anybody should have to endure.

Since you kind of brought this up, I want to dig a little bit into larger ideas that we can break apart – and talk about those things have manifested in the past year. When you talk about classical music as a field, what exactly do you mean by that terminology. Are you talking about a framework, are you talking about institutions, pedagogy, works? When you use the terminology Western classical music, what is it standing in shorthand for?

NM: That’s a great question, and probably the biggest source of confusion for a lot of folks. My ideas and thoughts on this are constantly evolving. I said Western classical music; nowadays I’m trying to be more specific and say European classical music. But either way I am thinking of it less as a set of repertoire: so I am not going after anyone’s vinyl copy of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or anything like that; everyone’s welcome to listen to any kind of music you want; I am not advocating for any book burning or CD burning or score burning or anything like that.

  • At the end of the day, music is malleable enough for us to understand and interpret and reinterpret.

    Nebal Maysaud, composer
  • We are connected to white supremacy; our field is a tool for white supremacy; and it’s not separate, and you can’t separate it.

    Nebal Maysaud, composer

Instead what I’m actually more focused on is the community and the tradition – and the power structures within that community. I’m barely talking about the music at all. Although the music can support those power structures it also doesn’t have to. At the end of the day, music is malleable enough for us to understand and interpret and reinterpret – to a degree: there are some pieces that have a racial slur in the title or are appropriative; obviously there are inherent problems with pieces like that – but say Bach’s work: what inherently about Bach’s music is racist?

It’s not so much about the music, but it’s how we position the music and how we play the music and specifically the idea that Bach is some sort of prophet, or his music is a gift from god. It’s what Evan Williams writes about in his series of articles on the myth of the composer genius. And it’s really a power structure that uses this myth of the composer genius to reinforce white supremacy in the field. It’s also a power structure that keeps people of color from being seen and treated as equals amongst anyone who wishes to practice the music or traditions established by these European musicians and composers.

IM: This is what I want to pull apart here. I can definitely understand why people would have this general confusion: there’s definitely this surface level desire to read any type of critique as saying “Let’s get rid of all music; let’s not listen to composers or what have you.” But what I want to pull apart here is: how does what you’re describing differentiate from white supremacy as a framework?

For me, the concern is that Western classical music is a tool that works within a white supremacist framework. I have a harder time allying myself with the argument that “Western classical music” (in scarequotes) is itself the white supremacy, rather than being used as a tool within a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist framework.

All of the structures which you’re asserting, they exist outside of classical music; they exist within cultural networks that are infused and tangled with whiteness. So do you separate this idea of classical music as tool versus “classical music as an idea is equivalent to, or analog to, an idea of white supremacy?”

NM: That’s a great question. And that’s also, I think, a position I’ve sort of evolved on. As I learn more about how white supremacy works, and how racial hierarchies work within white supremacy, I would agree that classical music is a tool for white supremacy. I’d say that classical music ended up developing into a tool for both capitalism and white supremacy – which in some ways are almost synonymous, or they work together.

IM: They work together.

NM: Part of a solution I proposed, which is really to try to minimize the effect of racism with classical music; we can’t get rid of racism entirely within this field, unless we get rid of white supremacy in general, and that can’t happen unless we get rid of capitalism.

True liberation means that we have to be united in our communities in every field, and every way. The only thing I want to push back against is this idea that classical music – or European classical music I should say, because there are many different types of classical music – and it’s a belief I’ve seen, that European classical music is separate from “these political ideas.”

Obviously to these folks, our lives are political apparently; but they’re political because we have a political system that dehumanizes us into products of labor.

We are connected to white supremacy; our field is a tool for white supremacy; and it’s not separate, and you can’t separate it.

So I definitely do not see Western or European classical music as a unique entity of white supremacy that’s different from any other field.


This is just the beginning of the conversation between Imani Mosley and Nebal Maysaud. To hear the full conversation, listen on Soundcloud.

Queer and Loathing in Las Vegas: Performing Community in Hagen’s Vera

Vera of Las Vegas
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

Opera is not readily known for portraying inclusion; while many works perform some kind of exoticism seen mostly through colonialist lenses, the locales reflect a mostly Western world and the characters are generally confined to some kind of heteronormative, European sameness. Opera does have its moments; othering, mis-gendering, and bodily discrepancies do appear, mostly in the guise of the otherworldly or magical, in the strange bodies of the castrato or the playful deceit of the trouser role. However, these attempts at difference do not look to address inclusion. If anything, these bodies and voices are isolated and marginalized, if even human. Aside from these instances, the typical operatic character framework does not present difference of a sexual, gendered, or racial kind.

New stories are being told and the medium by which composers can often portray the non-heteronormative, the queer, the ethnic, and otherwise unseen is through the voice.

The first half of the 20th century saw the demise of the great operatic heroine and out of the fracture arose a focus on male roles, ensemble casts, and female roles singing in a completely new way. And as opera became a more racially integrated affair, new disconnects emerged while similarly allowing for new audiences to see their bodies presented as operatic vehicles. The combination of extended vocal techniques, technology, and radical staging stood as an operatic representation of a seemingly more progressive society. Opera and contemporary culture, for example, have come drastically close to each other in works like Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, and Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna. New stories are being told and the medium by which composers can often portray the non-heteronormative, the queer, the ethnic, and otherwise unseen is through the voice.

Shequida Hall

Shequida Hall (Vera); Center for Contemporary Opera, New York City. Photo by Mel Rosenthal

Daron Hagen’s 2003 opera Vera of Las Vegas stands as a meeting of both character and vocal difference set in the underbelly of Las Vegas—a world of strippers, drag queens, INS agents, and gamblers. The opera is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-lite, recalling the structure of Weill’s Mahagonny-Singspiel. The eponymous character is sung by a countertenor, a voice type that is still integrating itself into current performance practice and repertoire. The operatic countertenor is a construct of the late 20th century, one that is now synonymous with historically informed operatic performance practice. Recent operas that use countertenors, such as those by Glass, Adès, and Benjamin, exploit the fantastical, comic, and regal attributes associated with countertenor performance—a recalling of those otherworldly bodies from 18th-century Italian opera. In Hagen’s opera, however, we see something quite different. Here, a male countertenor sings in drag, performing a kind of inverse trouser role. This is most notable when examining the opera’s premiere which featured opera singer and drag artist Shequida singing the role of Vera Allemagne.

Vera herself is a drag queen, complicating matters further as the type of drag vocal performance to which we might be accustomed—where a drag queen either lip syncs or sings “as a woman”—does not seem to translate onto the operatic stage. The Lacanian disassociation of voice from body that often happens by audiences attending opera is further removed here: not only do we not recognize the voice, we do not recognize the body from which it comes. Just as Strauss’s Octavian makes us question exactly who we are listening to in Der Rosenkavalier, Vera’s many gendered levels obfuscates any attempt at locating an Ur-voice or Ur-body. The character of Vera is African-American, an important aspect to the narrative of the story. The singers who have performed Vera have been primarily countertenors of color including Brian Asawa and Eduardo Lopez de Casas, and in his program notes, Hagen compares Vera to Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, conjuring up images of black bodies performing a kind of transcendent yet palpable otherness. While all of these bodily markers may seem defining, the separation that still occurs with the presentation of the high male voice gives the role an emptiness onto which several bodies can be mapped. Hagen notes that this quality made the role “viable for many more audiences.”[1]

Vera and Doll

Brian Azawa (Vera), Heidi Moss (Doll); West Edge Opera; Oakland, CA. Photo by J Buschbaum

Visibly and dramatically, there is always that flash of maleness, both for the characters within the opera and for the audience as well. We know that Vera is more than she seems. But what some would call the inherent vocal drag nature of the countertenor—a term that musicologist Jelena Novak applies to the castrato—locks the character into a state of femininity, however altered that state might be. This is reinforced dramatically when Vera participates in the act of heteronormative marriage, where she stands in as a bride wed to a male groom. The groom’s awareness of Vera’s double self seems of little issue, reinforcing the female role in this performative marital act for the audience. But despite this final act, Vera’s character is different, and she proclaims as much in her last aria. Her references to Aschenbach and Tadzio, Abelard and Héloïse, display the types of love stories in which Vera recognizes herself, much to her chagrin. The plausibly more well-known relationship of Aschenbach and Tadzio from Thomas Mann’s novella Der Tod in Venedig and popularized in Benjamin Britten’s opera Death in Venice, recalls to those in the know complicated constructions of desire, masculinity, and ephebophilia. For Abelard, the 12th-century French philosopher, and Héloïse, the young French girl of letters, the reference conjures up the secret and illicit, the sacred, profane, mystical, as well as tragic. Vera’s previous encounters with men have placed her in the role of Tadzio and Héloïse, an image she actively denounces while fighting against the realization that this might indeed be part of her truth. She is both normative and non-normative, male and female, empowered and marginalized. And just as those names carry meaning for both Vera and the listening audience, so does her own, as pointed out by John Redmond.[2] Her surname, Loman, connects her back to Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman; she is both the seller and the experience to be sold. She exists as the liminality through which anything is possible.

Catchalls

Catchalls; Opera Theater Ireland, Dublin. Photo courtesy Opera Theater

The ability of contemporary opera to portray radical bodily performances, rather than use race, gender, and voice to uphold ingrained operatic tropes, allows access for underrepresented groups to see themselves depicted on stage. And though, like Mahagonny, Vera presents underbelly and camp, the work is an operatic offshoot of other theatrical arts that present counterculture performance. Vera is a somewhat extreme example—one can look to the male homosociality of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick as another example of the performing of hidden communities—but it identifies the power of the voice-body construct in opera and its ability to make opera a mirror of a more contemporary audience.


Imani Mosley

Imani Mosley is a bassoonist and Ph.D. student in musicology at Duke University, specializing in mid-20th century British and American Music, opera, and the music of Benjamin Britten. Her dissertation focuses on the queering of heteronormative operatic tropes in Britten’s mid-century operas and the reception history surrounding their premieres.



1. Daron Hagen, “Vera of Las Vegas: Evolution of a Cult Opera,” https://youtu.be/hGGp5Ko8vRo.


2. John Redmond, “Distrusting the Self,” The Poetry Ireland Review, 71 (2001), 52-57. “For Vera Loman, a cross-dressing lapdancer, nomen est omen … Vera is a seller, in this case of his gender. He/she, like the opera’s setting, embodies the consumerism at the heart of American society; his is a character available for consumption by the other characters; his is an absence of identity, an emptiness reflected by the kitsch casino environment.” (first italics Redmond’s, second italics mine)