“If you’re doing a program about sex, you can hardly avoid a piece by me,” says David Del Tredici. The American Modern Ensemble certainly didn’t take a pass in putting together their “XXX” concert on Sunday (5/1) at the Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn. Along with Del Tredici, the program also features music of Jacob Druckman, Robert Paterson, John Cage and Glenn Crytzer.
Del Tredici will be represented with “Wondrous the Merge,” a 20-minute piece for string quartet and baritone. Because of the text, by the late gay poet James Broughton, the 2003 premiere almost didn’t happen, but chopping out about two-thirds of the poem allowed things to proceed. Thus, Sunday’s performance is of the “uncensored” version. Robert Frankenberry will be the narrator and singer.
“Wondrous the Merge” belongs to an ongoing body of works explicitly about gay life that Del Tredici began around 2000. “Gay Life” is, in fact, the title of an orchestral song cycle, premiered by the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas in spring 2001, that pretty much opened the new and prodigious chapter in Del Tredici’s musical output.
“I’ve created a body of ‘Alice’ works and now a body of gay works,” said Del Tredici in a recent discussion.
Not everything in the gay series is vocal music. There are lots of piano works, including “Ballad in Lavender,” “S/M Ballad” and “Mandango.” But just as Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” writings sparked Del Tredici’s famous, neo-Romantic forays into wonderland, gay poetry, from Rumi to Ginsberg, has inspired a substantial new body of song literature. The gayish cycles include “Gay Life,” “My Favorite Penis Poems,” “Love Addiction,” “A Field Manual,” to poems of Edward Field, and “Brother” a set of eight songs that have been dramatized and performed to acclaim by the performance artist John Kelly.
“Wondrous the Merge” fits somewhere in between the instrumental and vocal categories. The bulk of the piece is for string quartet with narration. In the finale, the narrator bursts into song. It’s the singing that’s really about the sex, but ironically only the singing – no narration – happened at the controversial June 2002 premiere.
“We told them it had a gay text and they were fine with that,” recalls Del Tredici. “But a week before the concert, they said that it’s not acceptable to our people.”
The commissioning ensemble was the Elements String Quartet (since disbanded according to Del Tredici) with support from the Koussevitzky Foundation. The objecting party was the venue, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival in southeastern Michigan. According to its web site, a triple whammy of local churches – Catholic, Jewish and Protestant – established and support the festival. Del Tredici never learned from where or who the real objections came, but it wasn’t hard to figure out what were the offending aspects of his work.
The poem “Wondrous the Merge” is Broughton’s autobiographical recounting of how, at age 61, he was seduced by a male student to ultimately leave a wife and life of respectability.
He said I held the key to his existence
He said he knew when he first saw me
that I was the reason for his birth…
This is preposterous I said
I have a wife in the suburbs
I have mortgages children in-laws…
Are you mad? I said. You are half my age
Are you frightened of your fate? said He
At Beck’s Motel on the 7th of April
we went to bed for three days
disheveled the king size sheets
never changed the Do Not Disturb
ate only the fruits of discovery
drank semen and laughter and sweat
“It’s the right-wing’s worst nightmare,” says Del Tredici. “They knew enough not to say it was because it was gay. Instead it was ‘we have children at our concerts and it has words we don’t want them to hear.’ But it actually has no dirty words.”
On the switch from spoken to sung words, Del Tredici continues, “There are some things only song can do and that’s express sexual joy. He talks into an orgasm, ‘Yes yes yes,’ and I made it burst into song at that point. Then there’s talking again and they’re off into the sunset, happily ever after.”
I severed my respectabilities
and bought a yellow mobile home
in an unlikely neighborhood
He moved in his toaster his camera
and his eagerness to become
my courier seed-carrier and consort
Above all he brought the flying carpet
that upholsters his boundless embrace
Year after year he takes me soaring
out to the ecstacies of the cosmos
that await all beings in love
One day we shall not bother to return
Previously on MyBigGayEars: