Wednesday, July 30, 2008

In Polite Company

Politics, religion, sex: the three things worth talking about.

Politics, religion, sex: the three things you're not supposed to talk about in polite company.

Politics, religion, sex: by any measure, we (new, experimental, avant-garde etc.) composers, don't deal too much with these three topics directly in our music; for ostensible radicals, we do tend to be polite (not to mention prudent and purient) company. Sure, some of us handle one theme or another, even specializing in it, but when we deal with one, we just as steadfastly avoid the others. Even when we write words, we might wade with caution into one or another of these topics, but never all three. In part, this is because our art form does deal -- and richly -- with matters internal to music and its technique, and is thus prone to abstraction, and in part because the intensity of training in music leaves little time or energy for deep immersion in the complexities of other fields, so we defer to experts, but aren't we citizens as well? And isn't it possible that the musical experience can also bring some expertise -- practical, social, technical, aesthetic -- to the greater discussions in our communities?

Politics, religion, sex: There have been, by my count, three major composers who dealt with all three themes in a major way. That's right, three: Handel, Mozart and Verdi. (Okay, four, if you want to throw in Wagner, but during music blog sweeps season, that'd seem like pandering). Other composers can handle one or maybe two (Ives and Cage (politics, and, loosely, religion), Messiaen and Stockhausen (religion and -- however modestly -- sex)).

Politics, religion, sex: I suspect most composers, most of the time, play just enough politics and religious politics in order to get their music made and insure a reasonable life-style. I assume that sex is part of that reasonable life-style, but we're polite company, and we don't talk about it.


Marc Chan said...


I'm on the same page. For whatever reason, sexless composers seem to be the norm. Didn't Jan Swafford's Brahms book get panned by European critics for imagining Brahms' sex life, Madonna-Whore complex and all?

Sometimes I envy visual artists for whom sex seems to be a part of the whole package, where it's worn proudly along with their work, part of life and so (inevitably) part of their art.

Sexless composers - who knew? Though everyone who's been through 4 years of conservatory life knows that that's just SO far from the truth. :)

Thanks for the post!


PS: I focused on sex. I suppose it's only polite if I add by way of footnote: "ditto religion and politics". :)

sfmike said...

I've been supering in a very gifted young cast's "Don Giovanni" for the last three weeks of daily rehearsal in San Francisco. It's being directed by Catherine Malfitano, the legendary diva famous for her movement-filled performances, and it's been an extraordinary master class in stagecraft about how to layer a performance both individually and as an ensemble.

The production is traditional, simple, swift and abstract, but it tells the story clearly and beautifully, and that story is Sex, Politics, and Religion in all its permutations. Thanks for the confirmation.

And I don't put Wagner in the holiest operatic circle of Handel, Mozart, and Verdi either, but that's just a matter of taste. I'd put Britten in the holy circle too but you would deny it to your last days.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Daniel, L'incoronazione di Poppea deals with sex and politics, and depending on how you view Seneca in the opera, religion/philosophy. I'd put Monteverdi up there with the holy trio.