Thursday, October 7, 2010

Living in the Wilderness

Over these past few weeks I've resisted blogging about the renewed attention given to suicides by queer kids. It's a question of not wanting to use this very-public blog to talk about a very personal subject, but also because it is just a hard subject to talk about. I have mixed feelings about Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, similar to those of Tavia's thoughtful post on the subject. And I do not in the least share the "string them up!" mentality some in the community have taken towards the so-called "bullies" at Rutgers, both because the facts are certainly not clear in that case and also because in my experience, retribution rarely makes you feel better. I have a similar discomfort with hate crimes legislation, along the lines of that voiced by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. I could go on, but luckily Richard Kim (as usual!) knows exactly what to say, and I hope you'll read his piece in The Nation.

The personal experience here is that I have spent a lot of time working with queer kids on these issues, starting in the mid-1990s when I was one myself and continuing on through college. Our approach then was to lead workshops in high schools, with the goal not of training the homophobia out of straight students, but in hopes of letting the queer and proto-queer amongst them see the existence of role models out there in the world. Not so different from "It Get's Better," come to think of it, although the personal contact and attempt to find speakers rooted in the same community made it a little different. I hope we did good, although there were certainly tragedies along the way. I'm glad that there is renewed attention to the issue, but I also know that these few recent suicides are a drop in the bucket.

So what's a musicologist to do? I don't know. But I did find some comfort in class today. I was doing a brief unit on the English Reformation, and therefore on William Byrd. I'm not a specialist in this area, and so I tend to crib from the scholarship of others for teaching. In this case my source was Joseph Kerman's essay on Bryd and English Catholicism in Write All These Down. Byrd, as you know, was a recusant Catholic who straddled the line between great public success as a composer of Anglican church music and his own underground and highly-persecuted beliefs. One of Kerman's musical examples was the Ne Irascaris Domine from 1589:

The text, especially the second half, speaks to the feeling of being alone in a wilderness, in obvious metaphor for the situation in England for a Catholic like Byrd.
Be not angry, O Lord,
and remember our iniquity no more.
Behold, we are all your people.

Your holy city has become a wilderness.
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem has been made desolate.

One of the most affecting moments is the setting of "Zion has become a wilderness," which begins at about 6:10 in this YouTube video of the Hilliard Ensemble's performance. The polyphony stops in favor of a slow, homorhythmic passage that sets the words in what Kerman calls "unforgettably bleak and hollow" harmonies and textures. This is important in Kerman's argument because it is an early example of Byrd's expressive style that put him ahead of his English contemporaries. But listening to it with my class, I couldn't help but think of those who for various reasons find themselves alone in a desolate wilderness. Just last week, a high school classmate of mine killed herself. I hadn't been in touch with her since high school except as friends on Facebook, and it is continually heart-rending to see the wall posts in my newsfeed as people belatedly tell Jennie they love her and miss her.

Listening to a piece of music like Ne irascaris domine should theoretically be depressing. But the semi-mystical nature of performance makes it different, as we all know. This is performance as what Richard Schechner famously called "twice-behaved behavior," or in his more evocative words, "Performance means: never for the first time." Or, more simply, performance is knowing that at some point somebody else once felt the same way. That is comforting indeed.

But also: most of us who read this blog are educators, and I hope we'll remember Richard Kim's advice to love queer kids, even if it occasionally costs us something.

1 comment:

Erik said...

"Listening to a piece of music like Ne irascaris domine should theoretically be depressing"

---listening to Byrd should never be theoretically depressing :)

"unforgettably bleak and hollow harmonies"

---maybe texturally simple, but not bleak or hollow; maybe hopeful and serene; this is Byrd stopping time, pausing, gazing, all earthly motion halting. It is certainly an unforgettable moment; but certainly not bleak and hollow.