Friday, April 15, 2011

On Queer and Questioning

For GLSEN's Day of Silence to draw attention to oppression of sexuality & gender minority youth (not linked because I bear a methodological grudge against the national organization), I have a message to voice.

I first came out not as lesbian when I dated girls in high school nor as transgender or genderqueer when I finally gave up trying to fit in, but as Questioning. That means I'm willing to own that I'm "questioning" my identity, but more importantly, I'm refusing to let you put your label on me. Queer and Questioning are identities of refusal. They deny the ultimate denier, dominant society and culture, which silences or appropriates our myriad ways of being.

So to those who, through silence or voice, self-identify as Questioning, I raise a coffeecup toast.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Curtis Symphony Orchestra: Turangalila-symphonie

On Tuesday I had the too-rare privilege of attending a performance I knew I would thoroughly enjoy. Olivier Messiaen's epic work demands not only unfaltering virtuosity from all performers but a unique instrumentation. I once saw this piece struck from a university program because it calls for the electronic keyboard instrument ondes Martenot in addition to the composer's customary arsenal of percussion.

What do I love about this piece? Of course Messiaen leaves a legacy of color, but that means little on its own. He creates in each piece a fantasy world: laws of materials physics reinvented, transitions as dramatic as scenes cut in film, mammoth layers of soundcraft like fine masonry; the brass Statue Theme, the full-ensemble Joie that bursts out singing and dancing, the Garden of Sleeping Lovers, and his masterful blocks of contrasting textures and themes. I think most of all I admire the "ten thousand worlds" of passions and tenderness it holds as a mortal's expression of the infinity and contradiction of divine love. Love is simple. How one arrives at its power -- through life and the troubling world that shapes ours -- is complex.

Some describe the Turangalila-symphonie as a piano concerto; I think of it as a double concerto for ondes Martenot as well. Although the ondes Martenot produces only one voice, the part is wildly expressive and varied. It was curious to watch Thomas Bloch's quiet poise through the piece. For years I have giggled at extravagant gestures by Western string players -- it's refreshing to examine options for stage presence developed by theater, folk, experimental, noise, and pop artists.

Another memorable moment was the closing of movement 5, Joie du sang des etoiles (though I'd have to check the score), when pianist Di Wu* lit fireworks of chords in enormous leaps and rapid succession all over the keyboard. My seat was two tiers up but quite close to the orchestra so my eyes feasted on her lightning placements.

I should mention eight years ago the Swarthmore College gamelan opened for the Philadelphia Orchestra when they gave this piece. Christoph Eschenbach conducted those performances as well, and though my ears are something else now I dare say the Curtis Orchestra was at least as tight. From my seat the glockenspiel (sometimes two doubling!) and remainder of the orchestra usually overpowered the piano solos. That may be an artifact of many hearings of recordings with balance adjusted, but I hesitate to fault the composer.

Before the feature, Curtis Institute of Music faculty member Alan Morrison gave brief introductions to organ pieces by Messiaen's contemporaries Louis Vierne and Charles Tournemire. I found it unfortunate they programmed Curtis student Bryan Anderson to play Messiaen's organ pieces after the symphony, when my head was exploding from spent neurotransmitters and the hall rapidly emptied. Yes, I want to hear that music, but at the time, my ears could only hold ambience.

*[EDIT 4/22] This post helped me frame the question: can an East Asian woman wear her hair permed without being accused of assimilation? Conversely, can one avoid being offered a perm every time she enters a salon?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Educational Bodies Conference

I returned yesterday from the aforementioned conference with something of a new head.

My host's second-floor flat in Cambridge has a unique sound world I freshly re-experienced upon arrival Thursday afternoon. The house is adjacent a city park and across the street from a public school. Its construction filters sound in a quite warm yet distant way. Dozens or kids were playing outside and a couple of times marching band drum practice struck up a pattern briefly. Their youthful shouts, the dull smacks of balls, and cheers filled the sunlit room. Upstairs neighbors added a rare, even slower, duller thud here and there. My host sat across the room in a matching easy chair silently pivoting her bare feet on the edge of a shaft of sunlight and irregularly touching off a battery of Mac laptop keyboard clicks. She slurped coffee now and again, then once more quietly, holding it on her tongue for a breath before swallowing wetly in the ensuing silence. I breathed my coffee the way the moon fills a bay with the tide. I listened to my own breaths -- higher overtones on the inhale than the exhale, a bit more labored than usual. Closer, sharper, charged.

I wish I could say I existed in the sound world with such fervor throughout the visit. But I have no idea what to expect from an academic conference. My most memorable moments were meeting co-panelists Pavlos Kountouriotis, Matthew Cumbie, and Amanda Jackson; staring at Rachel Taranta's "quasi-monochromatic illumination" of brightly painted squiggles; chatting about the impossibility of young immigrant passing in academic and professional America with Andy Reyes; experiencing Jill Sigman's mummification-hot wax-inscriptions THE MACHINE and talking about it after the conference; and of course performing full-contact violin.

Found onstage, crumpled into a tiny ball at the end of the performance:
That, and my first hustle making music. My attention deteriorated more rapidly than after any other type of performance. The needles are a fine engine for me to transcend the myth of performance so I can be myself with the instrument, but I don't come back to my rational self before a good night's sleep. That I finally got last night and I woke up lit "like a pinball machine." The Muse can make a fine lover even though she's batshit insane most of the time.

So I thank the fine presenters and audience and welcome questions and remarks.

EDIT 4/15: I've uploaded some audio selections from the performance to my SoundCloud page (right).

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Cambridge Performance of Gender & Sexuality in Academia

The next performance of full-contact violin will be here. You have my permission to giggle at the abstract.

Yenching Auditorium, 2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA
13:30 – 14:30 Panel 2: Perverse Bodies

Matt Cumbie and Amanda Jackson
Qian Li
Andrés Castro Samayoa