Recomposing Gender: A Musical Note

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I tend to be relatively predictable with the subject matter I post about: current political events regarding issues of gender, sexuality, race, social justice, etc. Today, for one reason or another, it feels necessary to write myself out of a groove, no matter how important or comfortable that groove might be.

Luckily, the new groove I’m momentarily writing myself into is, quite literally, a musical one. Almost four years ago I was in a bike-car accident that left me with some significant permanent nerve damage in my left arm, hand, and fingers. Anyone who has seriously studied violin (or any instrument, really) knows what a devastation this was. After playing violin nearly every day for over 13 years – and continuing to play regularly even after receiving a degree in Music – I have since struggled with my relationship to music. I have even gone long periods of time being unable to even listen to music without becoming uncomfortable.

In the past six months, I have realized that my brain really doesn’t work without music. Having had violin lessons, orchestra rehearsals, music classes, individual practice, and chamber music read-throughs form such large parts of my non-school time (and eventually entering my school time in undergraduate), my growing brain was saturated with musical thought in a way I cannot disentangle from any other form of thought I have today. Language is musical. Street sounds are musical. There is rhythm to everything, even the unpredictable arhythms of jolting, roiling urban landscapes, aleatoric in their creative collisions of people and place, time and space.

As I move into dissertation work academically, studying Education, I’m realizing that part of this work involves digging deep within myself to find what it is I really stand for, what I want to invest this much time and energy in, and discovering what feeds me to do my best work. I was a musician before I was an activist, an advocate, a scholar, or an educator. As I find more focused and ‘productive’ writing grooves, I’m discovering that having a music flow in my daily life is important for waking up my mind and getting the creativity flowing. I make different intellectual connections.

A piece of music I’ve been aurally exploring recently is Max Richter’s Recomposed, which is a post-minimalist, neo-classical work that takes Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as its point of departure, and “recomposes” it. If you are unfamiliar with Vivaldi’s work, I suggest listening to it first, and then listening to Richter. Most people will discover that they have been listening to Vivaldi for years perhaps without ever noticing it. It has gotten to the point that I had even stopped listening to the Four Seasons because I have it memorized – no need for external speakers when my mind-speakers can carry the tune. And that is precisely why Richter decided to recompose the canonical (not in the musical sense! Haha…bad music joke) work. He did it in order that we might listen to it anew.

Richter was incredibly successful in this. I noticed myself listening so very carefully to Recomposed in order to catch all the small and large differences. My ears were perked, eager, excited about the unexpected and new. While listening to Recomposed, I also started drawing connections to how I think about gender, both in the scholarly sense, in the world, and in the work I do with youth around issues of violence prevention.

As Richter has discarded 75% of Vivaldi’s original work, I feel I’ve discarded about 75% of normative ideas about gender. While we’ve both hung onto roughly 25% because of the needs for recognizability (Richter for his own reasons, and for myself, to be seen as somewhat human), the other 75% of our work is that of creative reinterpretation, refusal, juxtaposition, distillation. It’s unfortunate when people only interpret me based on the 25% they recognize, instead of listening more carefully to how I recompose gender right in front of their eyes.

In the more literal sense, music and gender operate in unique ways in my life. While I understand that different music communities provide different possibilities – and that sexism is still so prevalent in the classical music world – I also must share that participating in classical music communities has shaped my perceptions of how men could be differently gendered: passionate, focused, attuned to others, playful, supportive, curious, expressive, driven, leaderly and followerly in seamless transition, collaborative, and more. This collection of traits stands in stark contrast to the normative models of masculinity that pervaded life growing up in Fresno, California. As someone raised as a girl child who has had to figure out what kind of man-appearing-person I want to be, drawing upon these possibilities in my gender memory has been freeing and exciting.

In the past, I’ve been hesitant (and remain so) to write about my personal relationships to genders because I worry that people might think I take my ideas to be prescriptive of others. I think that is part of the problem in many settings: we think others ought to share our relationship to genders. What if we understand genders to be multiple – that everyone does gender differently moment-to-moment. And how we relate to and practice gender is shaped by who is around us. Which men do other men “peacock” around? Which women feel compelled to compliment which other women about their clothing, hair, or make-up? Does a father make the same jokes around his small children as he does around his friends at the bar? Does a genderqueer person behave in exactly the same ways in a women’s restroom versus a men’s restroom?

We are all shape-shifters, to one degree or another. I’m sure some people are much less fluid than others, but I have a hard time believing that transgender or gender non-comforming people are the only people who are not the same kind of man or the same kind of woman in every single moment across their lives. Our genders are quite possibly, in this regard, much less individuated than we think they are. Gender is not only multiple, but it is likely also very, very relational. This is why it is incredibly challenging for me to conceive of gender-as-identity, though I’m not here to discount or denigrate those who do perceive gender as an inner truth. Like I said above, I’m not here to write your groove, or to tune your fiddle. I think it’s best I leave your recomposing to you. Thanks for listening. 

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