Liebeslied Gets Political

Last Saturday, Liebeslied got its third performance, courtesy of Jenna Lyle and the Chicago Composers Orchestra. Turns out the piece changed its meaning while I wasn’t looking. When Mellissa Hughes premiered it last fall, she emphasized the glamorous side of the 1950s pop songs that it pays tribute to and critiques, and Jenna’s first performance of it last spring took a similar approach. But at some point during the rehearsals for this most recent performance, Jenna compared the piece’s protagonist to a Stepford wife. I’d never thought of it that way before, but it totally works, and it Changes Everything: now the ultra-Hollywood first section and Caspar-David-Friedrichy second section seem like elaborate daydreams, while the spare, fragmented ending, in which the singer finds herself lost in a maze of dark corridors, seems like a revelation of the terrible truth. Jenna described her look for the performance as “Beautiful Hair; Dead Eyes.” (Also: “I slept in sponge rollers last night. See you in half an hour. You will be terrified.”) Suddenly the piece was a comment on actual gender inequality in the 1950s rather than a comment on a particular musical tradition. It’s such an obvious interpretation in retrospect that I can’t believe I didn’t do it on purpose!

To be clear, I don’t favor one interpretation over the other. I love the fact that different performances can bring out different sides of a piece. But realizing that I accidentally wrote a piece that can be interpreted as political makes me want to write political music on purpose. Nothing strident or heavy-handed, but something that approaches political issues obliquely, through personal stories, surrealism and distorted iconography. The last few pieces I’ve written — Party at the Last Resort, Thick Line, and World — all engage with musical and cultural history, but they do it in a playful, light-hearted way, and they don’t make any claims about, or by means of, the material they’re alluding to. I think they’re good pieces and I have no regrets about writing them, but I feel like it’s time for something different.

In particular, I’ve been trying for years to figure out how I could address trans issues in my work. A huge amount of the queer art I’ve seen doesn’t appeal to me: too much catharsis and self-empowerment, not enough mystery and beauty. A few years ago I wrote a piece for Ensemble de Sade about a magical gender-transformation ritual performed by a BDSM cult, but there was something about it that didn’t quite work, even after many revisions (despite the awesomeness of Mellissa delivering over-the-top cult ideology in punk screams toward the end), and eventually I came to feel uneasy about the type of gendered imagery that I had used in it, which was based more on erotic literature than reality. Recently I’ve started to grope toward an idea of how to address trans experience in a way that’s more emotionally true-to-life, while at the same time not being overly literal, or confessional, or even obviously about trans experience at all. But it’s still pretty vague.

By the way, speaking of trans issues, I just updated the “note on gender” at the end of my About page. Take a look!

Finally: I just discovered that Liebeslied has two anonymous admirers. The second one describes the piece as “hilarious,” which took me by surprise — although it probably shouldn’t have, given how blurry the line between humor and horror so often is, especially in dreams.

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