Anyone who’s seen how heated trans people can get over the presence or absence of an asterisk will be unsurprised to learn that our feelings towards the Transgender Day of Remembrance are fractious, to say the least. Held annually since 1999 on November 20, TDoR is a day to memorialize trans people who have been murdered over the last year, with many remembrance ceremonies also memorializing trans people who have committed suicide. Arguments abound over the utility and observance of the occasion. Some trans people find the focus on violent death pointlessly upsetting; some rebrand the day as one of resilience, resistance, or rage; some would rather celebrate the living. Some question the prominence of white trans people in commemorative ceremonies, since the brunt of the violence falls on trans women of color. Some resent formulaic posts from cis purported allies who are otherwise completely silent on issues of trans liberation. And some just want cis folks to buy us pizza.
Small wonder, then, that in a concert of music by trans composers to mark the occasion at Juilliard on Tuesday, no two composers took the same approach to translating their experiences into music.
Maeve King offered two snapshots of her transition, Moonflower (2016) from the beginning and Quiescent (2018) from the aftermath of coming out. Quiescent came first of the two on the program, a nocturnal meditation for clarinet and piano. Full of angular lines and keening glissandi in the clarinet’s upper register, the overall mood was one of somber searching. But there were also moments of tenderness and warmth, as in a playfully imitative exchange between the clarinet and piano.
Moonflower, a setting of King’s own text for soprano and piano, began with a nostalgic passage of devastating simplicity. Perhaps the most striking section came towards the middle of the piece, after soprano Emily Thorner sang “I am leaf after leaf after leaf—/bloom, moonflower bloom” and the piano opened up into a self-assured interlude that carried itself with a dignity and confidence that the work had been searching for up to that moment. Moonflower ended with an optimistic vision of a vibrant future; the emotion was genuine, but it felt naïve, a child’s vision of adulthood that would be tarnished and tattered on the journey to Quietude.
Rather than providing snapshots, Amelia Brey’s Three Songs to Joannes – the evening’s only world premiere – captured the process of transition itself. The fragmentary, imagistic text comprises excerpts from a longer work by Mina Loy, telling the story of a breakup with a male lover in surreal, erotically charged terms. It’s good that the text was printed in the program, as Thorner’s soprano was sometimes swallowed by Lucy Yao’s piano (an issue that also plagued their performance of Moonflower), and when Thorner was audible, she often seemed stuck in a monochromatic mood of portentous declamation.
Brey’s music did little to offset the effect, offering a strangely inert underpinning to lines that spoke of “the impact of lighted bodies/Knocking sparks off each other/In chaos.” Still, there were moments of haunting beauty throughout, and the exhausted, hollow decay of the ending had a deep, disquieting power.
inti figgis-vizueta’s a bridge between starshine and clay (2018) also dealt with the process of transition, albeit in a more abstract, metaphorical way. Their program note describes oppositional binaries that are dissolved by being brought into contact with one another, and their piece was all turbulence, like two rivers meeting and eddying against each other before each is finally so embroiled in the other that only a new, larger river remains.
The first and last pieces on the program – The Divine Lorraine’s flute sonata (2017) and Quinn Emrys Brown’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (2015), respectively – had nothing to do with their composers’ genders. Lorraine’s sonata was episodic and playful, making heavy and exquisite use of the alto flute to travel from a gestural opening to a cheeky ending equally indebted to the effervescence of Parisian neoclassicism and the raucous single-entendre of underground drag.
Brown scored his take on Wallace Stevens’s iconic poem for string quartet, with a narrator reading each stanza before the corresponding movement. It’s a common choice for musical approaches to the poem, but the spoken moments interrupted the flow of the music, cutting short the forward momentum of Brown’s deliciously crunchy harmonies, gleeful hocket games, and psychedelically melting Appalachian fiddle tunes.
After Brown’s piece ended, we all stood in a circle with electronic candles and heard the names of the dead. A long silence followed. No disagreements, no varied approaches; just the quiet sounds of breath and concentration. And then the moment passed and we went out into the cold night air—each and every one of us, for the moment, alive.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.