Can music be transgender?

Can music be transgender?


norman lebrecht

September 17, 2018

Of itself, of course not.

But when the words are as sensitive and the score as intuitive as Boaz Ben-Moshe’s Away From Me at the Israel Music Festival yesterday, we are able to imagine that music can in some way represent the most difficult and impenetrable of human conditions.

The score occupied a zone between modern and post-modern, with elements of Boulez and Tippett to the fore and a taste of where Thomas Ades appears to be these days.  Meirav Eldan was the vocalist. The audience was gripped. One of the poets, transitioning from male to female, sat intently in the shadows.

She will be the subject of a major feature at the weekend.

An all-absorbing experience. And a very Israeli one.



  • Caravaggio says:

    How did the ultra conservative orthodox react or opine? (if any attended which I doubt they did)

  • boringfileclerk says:

    It’s only impenetrable if the person is question is asexual.

  • Bruce says:

    “…we are able to imagine that music can in some way represent the most difficult and impenetrable of human conditions.”

    Surely “we” were able to imagine that already?

  • Hilary says:

    One of the earliest examples of transgender was the organist Wendy Carlos who came to fame as Walter Carlos:
    An impressive body of work garnering the interest of Stanley Kubrick and Glenn Gould.

  • Robert Groen says:

    I think Mr. Lebrecht (who, after all, is the only one of us opinionated busybodies who actually went to the performance in question) made an eloquent case for the way it affected him and the rest of the audience. From my distant perch, though, it now seems that the transgender element of Boaz Ben-Moshe’s work was in the poetry, rather than the music. Lebrecht suggests as much when he speaks of a variety of musical influences he detected: Boulez, Tippett, Ades. Nothing wrong with a bit of derivation, but recognizably transgender? Hmmm…. Maybe more a case of ‘Prima le parole, Poi la Musica’? (pace Hoffmansthal!)

  • Vovka Ashkenazy says:

    I have never yawned so much as when reading this post/blog about “the most difficult and impenetrable of human conditions.” There are certainy much more difficult and impenetrable psychoses than the one referred to in the above article.

    • Robert Groen says:

      I’ll have to take your word for that, Mr.Ashkenazy, but for me living with the certainty that I was born in the wrong body would be as difficult and impenetrable a quandary as I can imagine. Enlighten me and tell me of one worse than that.

    • Alex Davies says:

      1. You clearly haven’t even tried to imagine what being transgender may be like.

      2. Being transgender is not a kind of psychosis.

      Should you be interested, the finest work on the subject is often said to be Conundrum by Jan Morris. It is a concise and brilliant account by somebody who has lived a most extraordinary life.

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    What an ignorant statement. Music is beyond gender, and a musician has to play beyond their gender or they limit the music. But women have more trouble getting past their gender than men, or at least, it’s obvious when a man is incapable of playing expressively and with sensitivity.

  • RW2013 says:

    A lady sings Wotan

    • Robert Groen says:

      RW2013, this is sensational! For me anyway, this is completely new. And why not? If she has the voice for it, I’m willing to listen. Looking at the list of roles she has taken on I feel Wotan is not just a parlour trick, she is ready to tackle the baritone repertoire big time. This, by the way, is another glimpse of the marvellous work done in Germany by the regional opera houses. When it comes to Wagner’s Ring, there are recordings available from places like Lubeck, Mannheim, Weimar, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and now coming up Magdeburg. Considering that, as everywhere else, money is scarce in Germany, it is nothing short of miraculous what they can do there with limited means. They cannot attract the big voices that they get in Bayreuth, Munich, Paris, London etc. but the second-string vocal resources they can draw on make me, a Dutch next door neighbour, green with envy. I know this has nothing at all to do with the original subject of this post, but I just couldn’t, let’s say, curb my enthusiasm.

  • John Borstlap says:

    You can write a transgender piece if you approach music, and composition, as expressing political gender positions in a postmodern deconstructionist context. This means that strongly key-orientated music is read as a confirmation of Self, and if diatonically, it is masculine, which in our culture is an ‘always-already’; the Other is chromatically-orientated to signify otherness, i.e. non-relatedness, and the floating tonal centre is considered as the impossibility of appripriation of Otherness because it is in its transition to renewal and transgression – a ‘never-before’ and thus feminine. If you begin the piece diatonically and through a discourse of postmodern processing you get through towards the chromatically-defined Other, and end in a chromatic field without any tonal centre, you have achieved a transgendered trajectory within a dialectic framework. “The danger with this framework, no matter how nuanced the analytical insights, is that it perpetuates the dialectic of never-before and always-already. The problem is that it is impossible to relate to either. The truly never-before is absolutely inaccessible, beyond relation, while the always-already conincides, which makes relating to it equally impossible.” Thus Naomi Waltham-Smith about opus 132 of Beethoven, which has been transgendered considerably since she dealt with the piece. So, taking this as an example, you can write transgendered music and transgender existing music.

    • Robert Grolen says:

      Don’t want to be a pest, John, but can I have that in spoken English?

    • Robert Groen says:

      Can you run that by me in English, John?

    • Robert Groen says:

      John, what arwe Naomi and you doing to me? Intrigued by the extremely lucid arguments advanced by the learned lady, I today sat through the whole of Beethoven’s opus 132 to see if I could experience musical transgenderism at first hand. I thought that the key of A minor, with its absence of sharps and flats, might suggest, at the start, a sort of gender neutrality, later to wander into the realm of either diatonics (male) or chromatics (female). That, I’m afraid to say, didn’t happen. All I heard was a jolly good string quartet. I could scarcely believe my ears! The casual appearance, in the musical discourse, of the Lydian scale didn’t help either. Thinking that perhaps I had overlooked (or overlistened) a barely concealed reference to Beethoven’s own sexual Otherness I also sat through opp. 131 and 135, its predecessor and successor in the canon. Apart from some slight signs of hormonal imbalance in the Grosse Fuge, nothing. Not a sausage. Nada. Rien du tout. But, as ever, I’m willing to be persuaded. Did Naomi say anything else I should know?

      • John Borstlap says:

        Yes, you missed ALL the hidden messages in the music of Beethoven. And Naomi is the first person to dig them out, helpted by her gender which has, as we know, the ability to bypass established masculine readings of this music. For instance, she has found that the distinctive conventionality of the classical style both articulates a structure of relationality and at the same time challenges the way belonging-as-membership presupposes belonging-as-possession. This becomes clear if you transgender the music, i.e. listen to it as if you were yourself otherness so that you experience sameness as implied in the suggested otherness. Now, you never thought of that, presumably?! She draws – among other brilliant academics – on Giorgio Agamben:

        ‘…. To this structure of relationality Agamben counterpoises the figure of example or paradigm. If the exception includes what it excludes, the example is its symmetrical opposite: an exclusive inclusion.’

        This means that the inside is in the same time the outside, and when applied to a Beethoven string quartet, you suddenly hear the outside as the inside, or the other way around. And Naomi has discovered this for us all, thanks to Agamben, Derrida, Foucault. Naomi has also extensively written of the outside of things in her ‘The Sound of the Outside’ (I am not making this up). Scroll down till under ‘Peer reviewd Journal Articles’:

        She is a deconstructionist, which means: taking things apart untill nothing is left. She genders music and thus, the inside becomes the outside and the other way around.

        I explained this to Sally and she immediately got the meaning of all of this. But I think that is because of her gender.

        • Robert Groen says:

          Honestly compels me to admit that, until a few hours ago, I thought Naomi Waltham-Smith did not exist. I thought she was either a figment of your imagination, or else she appeared to you in a particularly sweaty nightmare, threatening to cut off your ears.. I even toyed with the possibility that she might be the transgendered reincarnation of Pierre Boulez, whose hermetic sleevenotes explaining his own music always drew me into a parallel universe named Bullshit Country. Grab a handful of words that are missing from most mainstream dictionaries, mix in a goodly dose of meaningless opposites (in v out, male v female, top v bottom, knowable v unknowable and whatever else takes your fancy, pour in a pint of contempt for the gullible peasants, stir it through and hey, presto! You’ve got a job at the University of Pennsylvania! If Naomi should be a close personal friend of yours (or Sally’s) then please accept my insincere apologies!

          • John Borstlap says:

            Naomi and Sally got into a fight over shoes in a shop at Newbury St in Boston which spoiled the planned picknick later in the afternoon and they never spoke again.

  • william osborne says:

    At any rate, people see correlations between music and gender. An easily perceived example is “cock rock.” With a bit of humor, I wonder if there might be a vein of “cock classical.” The promotional photos of conductors might be a place to start looking. The whipping and slashing baton, the orgiastic build to climax under the authoritarian eye of the powerful male, the vicarious satisfactions of control and domination. Perhaps that’s why Hans von Bülow described the conductor-musician relationship with the term “orchestral coitus.” In any case, there might be more at work in classical music than we realize. People who vociferously deny this often seem to be hiding something from themselves.

  • Grüffalo says:

    Can music transcend gender. Yes. But that’s obviously not what this is about.