If you want some LGBTQ classical music this Pride month in New York City, you have plenty of options to choose from. Fancy the sound of voices singing in harmony? The New York City Gay Men’s Chorus has you covered. Prefer orchestral music? Check out the Queer Urban Orchestra. Opera more your style? OperaRox is right this way. But what if you’d rather have a spot of chamber music?
In previous years, there might have been scattered one-off concerts, but now there’s a new organization hoping to become a hub for queer chamber music year in and year out. Meet ChamberQUEER, a plucky new group dedicated to unstraightening the smaller musical spaces that fill this city. The organization will present two concerts this weekend at Brooklyn Arts Exchange in Park Slope: the first, on June 21 at 8pm, includes music by Caroline Shaw, Jessica Meyer, inti figgis-vizueta, Pauline Oliveros, Ethel Smyth, and Arcangelo Corelli; and the second, on June 23 at 8pm, features Shaw, Meyer, Saunder Choi, and Hildegard von Bingen, as well as madrigals by Gesualdo, Monteverdi, and Tallis, and performances by Grey Mcmurray. Each event includes pre-concert activities at 7pm. ChamberQUEER also hosts an open-mic night on June 22 at 6pm, at Branded Salooon in Prospect Heights.
National Sawdust Log recently sat down with two ChamberQUEER co-founders, Danielle Buonaiuto [she/her] and Andrew Yee [they/them], to talk about their plans for the current year and beyond. (The conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Thanks so much for making the time to sit down with me! I wonder if you could tell me a bit about how ChamberQUEER came to be.
ANDREW YEE: I met Julia Biber [one of the other co-founders] at a concert, and we got along really well. We got to talking about the invisibility of queerness in chamber music and how it wasn’t really a thing that was celebrated, and we wanted to do something about that. And I was like “Oh, I think I saw on Facebook, there’s this amazing singer who I met once who talks a lot about queerness in general. Let me reach out to her and see if she’s interested!” So I reached out asking if she wanted to do a thing, and she – this was Danielle – writes back saying “I’m planning a thing with my friend Brian [Mummert]!!!” And so we all got together for a meal and talked about what was important to us, and there was so much overlap it seemed crazy not to pursue it.
DANIELLE BUONAIUTO: Meanwhile, from my perspective, I was in a period of inertia-induced depression. Like, “What am I doing? Nothing I’m doing feels important to me personally.” I was splayed across a table in a coffee shop talking to Brian, and Brian asked what I wanted to do with my life. I said “Well, I want to make a queer chamber music series.” And he was like, “OK, tell me about that!” And we threw some thoughts around, and I went home feeling better, but sort of thinking that was it—you know, maybe one day we’ll do it. And then three days later Andrew messaged me!
But anyway, at the end of that first meeting, I asked the group whether they thought I should try to write a Brooklyn Arts Fund grant, even though the deadline was in a week. And they were like “Well, yeah, I dunno, do it!” So I did, and they gave us money! More than half of our ask, for a first-time applicant with zero previous history? Somebody believes in us and what we’re doing. And so it was like, “OK, I guess we’re doing this!”
Congratulations! So what makes a ChamberQUEER event queer? Is it just that you’re queer musicians playing music by queer composers, or is there more to it than that?
DB: We’re trying to release people from their expectations, and that extends to the entire concert format. We want it to be what it needs to be for the people who are there. So our events aren’t in concert halls. Our June concerts are in a multi-purpose arts complex, and our first two events were at a bar and a co-working space.
AY: We’re going to have signature cocktails!
DB: Yeah, there’s a social aspect, you could say. Or we could call it community-building. On Friday night, we’re going to kick things off with a mixer where you can drink or not drink, you can talk to people, you can read the program, you can hang out with us—it’ll be a fairly informal vibe. The performers will be wearing what they feel like wearing; no one is in concert black unless they chose to be.
There’s also an element of interchange between audience and players. At the workshop in February, we had the audience sing a drone at the beginning while we chanted a piece by Hildegard, as kind of a way to ease them into the idea, and by the end we had them doing Tuning Meditation by Pauline Oliveros with us. We gave out little slips of paper with the score written in a way such that if you had no musical vocabulary at all, you could still join in, and people did! And some just listened, but that’s part of Tuning Meditation too.
In our June concerts we’re going to be doing more pieces like that, to continue that invitation to the audience to engage physically. That’s important to us: not just to have a performance, but also engagement. Everyone in the room is present in the way that chamber music asks us to be.
On a more pragmatic level, we’re working hard to keep things affordable, and we have a policy that no one will be turned away for lack of funds.
You mentioned Hildegard, and that obviously raises one of the Big Questions that’s in the air with looking into the past for queer representation. Since people in previous generations didn’t have the language that we now have for these identities, how do we go about looking for our forebears without forcing terms on them that they never used?
DB: It’s an interesting question! I mean, in some cases we do have fairly clear evidence, but in a lot of cases we may not totally know. There are certainly many people for whom we are not able to speak, but what they were doing was so outside the norms of their society that we feel them as part of our lineage. And again, sometimes it is explicit! We’re gonna play Ethel Smyth—she was a suffragette and she was bisexual, we know that. Or you have people like Julius Eastman, who made it a point to be explicit about that part of their identity. But as you go further and further back into history, it gets harder and harder. Like Hildegard von Bingen. Are we gonna reclaim her as some kind of proto-lesbian?
DB: It’s very vaginal. [Laughs] We jest, but even as we’re trying not to label in a way that would be inappropriate, we also want to make a point to make visible what has been hidden over the years.
[Author’s note: The term heterosexual was only coined in 1892, and was not in widespread use until the 1960s; as careful as we should be about retrojecting contemporary queer identities, we should be careful about retrojecting contemporary straight ones as well.]
You’re still quite young as an organization, but have you received any pushback to the idea of centering queerness so explicitly?
AY: I think it goes along with how people view queerness in society. The overriding thought used to be that it was called your private life for a reason. I could see what we’re doing as running up against that kind of thought, but I think that time has passed. Obviously it is personal – you can make it as public or as private as you like – every single human being has that right. We’re not forcing anyone to be a part of this; we’re just creating a center where you can either come in and stand with us or not.
DB: We’ve had some light conversations, especially around the role of allies in the space, but I wouldn’t really call it pushback. Interrogation, maybe, or discussion, which we welcome! I’m so glad to be able to have these conversations. But I wonder if we will get pushback. There’s always the haters, you know? I mean, will the concert get picketed? I hope not!
AY: I hope so! Think of the publicity!
Assuming that everything goes well this month, what are your long-term goals for ChamberQUEER?
DB: I’ve been thinking a lot about the image of turning outward, not just to our community, but to how we’re received by the wider NYC arts community, turning outward and asking “What do you want to see more of?” So the answer to that question isn’t only with us.
AY: But also, one of the big reasons that I’m here doing this now is that when we were growing up, we didn’t really have role models, and so creating a space where kids growing up now can see queer artists not just getting some gigs, but actually being leaders is something that would’ve been really meaningful to me growing up. When the string quartet I play in goes around to universities, the trans and queer kids all flock to me. It means so much.
DB: Yeah, and I’ve had experiences like that, too. I think it does mean a lot, and I think we really can create a world that’s different than when we were growing up. I feel like there’s a lot of potential here, and it could be built into something really amazing.
ChamberQUEER will present concerts on June 21 and 23 at 8pm at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and and an open-mic night on June 22 at Branded Saloon; chamberqueer.org
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.