Academic journal article Women & Music

Queer Relationships with Music and an Experiential Hermeneutics for Musical Meaning

Academic journal article Women & Music

Queer Relationships with Music and an Experiential Hermeneutics for Musical Meaning

Article excerpt

The 1990s saw the emergence of a queer musicology that employed the slippages and transgressions of queer experience--those authentic to our JL experience, and those ascribed to it in sociohistorical discourse--as tools in the construction of a framework for apprehending the sprawling category of "musical meaning." There emerged a queer way of experiencing musical works, structures, and performances and a queer way of identifying music's intersections with social structures of power. Together, these approaches ultimately gave rise to queer forms of relationship with music modeled on relationships between queer people. Musical meanings were found via processes that mirrored the body interactions, affective states, and interpretative practices that shape queer ways of being with other queers and being in the world. (1)

More than two decades on, queer musicology's radical interventions retain immense salience, mapping a path through one of our discipline's longest-standing and most complex dilemmas: How might we reconcile immediate, embodied musical experience with hermeneutics, criticism, and analysis? From the beginning, musicology has sought to balance feelings with facts, magic with science, responsive passion with analytical precision in the hope that such balance will afford a clear-eyed perspective on musical truth and musical meaning. Guido Adler's vintage instruction is, after all, directed toward the scholar who is also the "true friend" of music, the scientist who must bring all of his or her empirical faculties to bear upon the near-holy task of preserving music's beauty and power. (2)

Adler's charge reads as a poetic communion of experience and interpretation, yet the subsequent unfolding of musicology in theory and practice has been shaped in large measure by a tension between these categories. Thus does contemporary musicology find itself in the position of having to articulate music's sociopolitical functions and significations while frequently running up against the term "ineffable" in attempting to describe music. We intuit that music's power somehow transcends its contexts and defies logic or categorization and that we are fundamentally missing something when we try to pin down musical meaning. At the same time, as Carolyn Abbate writes, a musicology grounded in immediacy "is to be suspected because it can become a pretext for excluding certain political understandings of music." (3) As humanists, we desire a responsible, socially engaged discipline: we want music, and musicology, to matter in the world.

Amidst this shaky state of affairs, this seeming unease between the bare vitality of experience and the necessary but limiting excursus of criticism and hermeneutics, a queer relationship with music represents a "both/and" approach in which experience and interpretation are coconstitutive of each other. Queer uses of the body, queer social improvisation, and aroused queer interactions enact and articulate musical meanings that are not souvenirs of, reflections upon, or translations of immediate musical experience. Instead, a queer relationship with music reveals musical meaning as the ever-shifting dynamic interface between multiple social objects on a field of social power.

What does a queer relationship with music look like, feel like, sound like? What are the particulars of queer relationality that facilitate an experiential hermeneutics for musical meaning? How might scholars engage queerly with music as we go about our work; and what are the promises and pitfalls of such engagement? This article aims to address such questions if not answer them in full. I begin by teasing out some of the crosscutting themes of queer musicology, reading them alongside other perspectives on queerness and on music, and, from this material, proposing the systematic fundamentals of a queer relationship with music. Next, I ground these fundamentals in the case study of my own ethnomusicological fieldwork with Boston-area drag and gender performers. …

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