Musicians and academics try to understand and define music’s queer side
I am not musically literate, so to speak, but my day rarely goes by without a song playing somewhere within the peripheries of my living or working space. Naturally then, when I glanced upon an event in Birmingham Weekender’s itinerary with the mention of queer sound, my interest piqued. It was a fortunately warm afternoon in Birmingham and the gathering at the Lower Bar in the city’s town hall was no different. Organised by the Fluid Festival which aims to discuss and celebrate several aspects of queerness and gender fluidity.
Five panelists took to the speaking area. Rebekah Ubuntu- a London-based electronic musician and producer, Henry McPherson- a composer and performer based in Glasgow, Darryl Bullock, an author and publisher from Bristol, CN Lester- a trans-musician and writer from London, Rolf Hind- a pianist and composer from London and Michael Wolters- composer and faculty at the newly opened Birmingham Conservatoire. Here’s the full text of what the speakers have to say:
Keep up with all the exciting stuff the Fluid Festival is upto here: http://www.fluidfestival.org/
Q.1: What does “queer” sound like?
Rebekah Ubuntu: 98% of people studying music are men and about 98% of the student body studying and working on their voice are women. So naturally, the first question I’m asked is if I am a vocalist and that’s an unfortunate assumption. Queer in music, therefore, is about breaking down those assumptions. People are surprised that I know my technology and that I produce, mix and master. Queerness is more than your sexual orientation. Your music will sound like the components of your personality and queer is about dismantling structures that have handicapped our understanding of art.
Queerness is a call to protest, to resist. There is always something that has to be challenged – Rebekah Ubuntu
Darryl Bullock: Queer has been the sound of a century of people making music. You have opinion leaders in each genre of music. Lot of people assume that homosexuality began in the 60’s and associate the history of queer sound also with that timeline. As a community, we’re making records for about hundred years now. We are creating music and empowering people.
Check out his book, David Bowie made me gay, here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/David-Bowie-Made-Me-Gay/dp/0715651927
Queer is empowerment and comfort. Queer sound is about someone putting an arm around you and telling you that no matter how shitty your life is, things will get better- Darryl Bullock
Rolf Hind: A lot of people who I happen to know very well in classical music questioned the need to have a discussion like this. Music is often abstract so people wonder what’s so queer about that. The 19th century impression of western music is very structural and patriarchal in a sense. There’s an expression in music called feminine ending. We are trying to go at it bit by bit and break those structures.
So the question really is, Is there a way to make queer about the sound rather than the agenda?- Rolf Hind
Henry McPherson: Within our tradition, people don’t consider it necessary to address queerness. Classical music has been used by politics, spirituality. But sometimes music written by a woman or by a queer person isn’t given as much importance for a number of strange reasons. Queer stands for silence within the classical music tradition for me. People at the top of music have invariably been white and men. And we hear people say, oh that composer is gay, we can make that out in his sound/music. So the challenge is to fight the system from within without coming off as abrasive. Discussing queer issues or other issues is considered distracting. “Why is it important to bring this in”, people ask. Our identities are obviously going to come out in your work, through your work and your gender presentation.
Queer, for me, stands for silence but hopefully not for long- Henry McPherson
Michael Wolters: I’m a gay German artiste. I think I can best describe queer for me, by looking back at when gay marriage was legalized. In the 60’s, we were fighting to be different. I haven’t been waiting for the moment for someone to allow me to marry. For me, it’s important to continue to say that what I do and who I am is different and not lose that narrative. My pieces were always different, the hardest piece in the set. That difference could be because of skill, or whatever else. I don’t like working with established ensembles because you don’t difference in structure. I find it important to challenge composers to find solutions that are not confirmed to rules and norms, to create new structures and constantly keep creating. Rigidity is an issue.
For me, it’s important to be different. I am not waiting for a moment for establishments to tell me that I am finally allowed to do something – Michael Wolters
To me the embodiment of being a queer artiste isn’t silence but to be silenced- CN Lester
Q.2 : How does one teach queer sound?
Rebekah: I have been socialized explicitly and implicitly that music production isn’t for women. People can be patronizing and that socialization with men (that’s a whole issue by itself; let’s not go into that) needs a change. Your music school has a majority of men. It can be quite intimidating. At the workshops, often you have to silently find people like you to collaborate. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You’re not disconnecting from structure or convention, merely finding your own way of fitting in.
I love classical music but I don’t feel represented by that music, especially in this country- Rebekah
CN: I do a little teaching myself. I have dealt with voice types that go against set traditions- like women who wanted to try baritone or men who wanted to try soprano. The challenge is to present it to people who have no knowledge of this presentation, especially when some cannot afford a mismatch in their presentations. Teaching queer sound is an ongoing process. There’s not too many solutions but it’s a very progressive process. One major problem, however, is lack of supply of teachers who you can actually approach and tap your identity and sound without affecting the other.
Michael: The world of composition is tiny, conventional and maybe even a little fascist space. There needs to be the space to discuss and improvise on pieces. The ultimate aim is to better the piece and that’s something we need to take forward.
Q.3: Where does money go in art grants? Where does queerness play a role?
Rebekah:I feel like things have aligned for me well. British institute of modern music has a very modern and liberal program centering around the interest and identity of the student. I’ve been doing research about the pioneers of African futurism. It brings today my gender fluidity with my blackness. I got a good budget, total creative freedom( when does that ever happen) and went around to do my thing. Because of colonialism and those structures, and subsequent white guilt, I just think a lot of people need to die off. Maybe then we will see some fresh air, see some existing structures being broken.
Henry: In Glasgow we have one conservatoire that is for the entire of Scotland. Despite the various identities, despite the intersectional nature of the body, there are still struggles. We don’t see where the money is going and don’t think student ventures are as well funded. The conservatoire has been quick to put its name on somethings and shy away from some others. I’m white, gay and they can handle it as long as I don’t talk about it. But others who have inter-crossing identities have it harder, including just getting access to that education. The queer scene has always been underground so how do you get it out for someone to associate their name and backing on it?
Q.4: Invisibility has been a survival tool for queers. Today, that’s one of the main barriers. How does one overcome it?
Rebekah: There have been a whole host of underground queer and Queer of Color nights in London. These get a lot of media attention as well, so much so that Victoria and Albert museum and their associated media wings have also paid attention. So that’s a traditionalist imperial conservative power brushing shoulders with people looking to go beyond boundaries. I don’t feel isolated, personally. So I feel lucky. People need to make their own spaces but that happens only if they feel welcome to create these spaces. I had it easy but there’s a lot of work to do. Lot of festivals have empowered people. Those institutions didn’t make the people it’s vice versa. But we can’t rely on them. There is a constant need to keep creating.
Darryl: The internet and social media are critical here to make these kind of spaces. For more flexible musical genres, their own rooms and their own spaces are being used in ways like never before. Maybe people don’t have resources or confidence, but these platforms are making a difference and empowering musicians.
Henry: Social media can be great to connect but also completely isolating. Social media can be a huge force for good but it can also create alienating pockets. Everything can become exclusionary but the internet so far has been positive.
- Almost every narrative of a queer artiste is so much about people who have a lot of power and influence deciding to give you a chance, besides other part of their struggle, and that’s as scary as inspiring
- The queer concept moulded itself as a deliberately vague one where anyone who felt like they didn’t belong anywhere else, be it axis of impressions, politics or social scenarios would have a place to belong.
- Queer became about going beyond categorical descriptions, binaries. Being queer eventually became about going against this sense of purity around structures, irrespective of the field in question.