Philip Brett
University of California

Editor’s Note

Philip Brett first presented “Queer Musical Orientalism” by invitation at the Conference on Aesthetics and Difference at the University of California, Riverside in October 1998, and subsequently to audiences at Cornell, Oxford, Indiana Universities, and UCLA in 1999 and 2000.1 In 2002 he accepted an invitation to present the paper on a special session of the Diversity Committee of the Society for Music Theory (SMT) at the Columbus joint meeting of the SMT and the American Musicological Society (AMS). Having been diagnosed with cancer early that year, Philip went into intensive treatment and was given a hopeful prognosis. But late summer brought devastating news of his worsening condition, and in the weeks approaching the conference Philip requested that I read the paper in his place. I presented it to a packed room on 3 November, at an AMS/SMT meeting overshadowed by the news of Philip’s untimely death on 16 October 2002, one day short of his sixty-fifth birthday.

The topic in “Queer Musical Orientalism” was one that Philip had previously explored in the essays “Britten’s Dream,” published in Ruth Solie’s path-breaking 1993 collection Music and Difference, and “Eros and Orientalism in Britten’s Operas,” which appeared the following year in the no less path-breaking volume Queering the Pitch, of which Philip was a co-editor.2 The present paper draws on those earlier essays for some of its historical and textual instances, even as it marks a further point in the evolution of Philip’s thinking on musical orientalism in the work of homosexual modernist composers—here, Poulenc, Britten, Harrison, McPhee, and Cage—and its tangled relations to both colonial domination and antihomophobic resistance.

The paper is unmistakably Brettian in its nuanced and unflinching approach to the multidirectional flow of power and privilege around gay white men’s use of musical tropes of the racialized other to encode the sexual other. Even in this brief text, intended for oral presentation, we find a complex antihomophobic and postcolonial critique marked by theoretical, historical, and queer self-critical awareness, and bracing in its intellectual and ethical clarity. In these traits and in its themes the work is characteristic of Philip’s scholarship. But it also seems somewhat exceptional within his oeuvre. The paper is striking partly by dint of its form (designed, of course, for live reading). It frontloads a sumptuous array of musical examples—ending with Philip’s own recording, as conductor, of Lou Harrison’s La Koro Sutro—and then delivers all its critical cruxes in six “points for discussion” following the main body of the paper. I am also struck by what seems almost like a note of urgency in the message of this paper, a heightened frankness and immediacy in its distilled closing remarks. 

I have chosen to leave the text almost exactly as Philip gave it to me. Its precise and elegant prose embodies Philip’s distinctive critical voice (and at some points his British diction), and it scarcely requires editing. I have made a few minor changes for correctness and consistency, re-constructed the recorded musical examples Philip originally included in the presentation, and added footnotes to illumine various references and quotations in the text. In my efforts I have benefited in various ways, since fall 2002, from the support of George Haggerty, Ralph Locke, Susan McClary, Mitchell Morris, Nancy Yunhwa Rao, Robert Walser, and Chip Whitesell. I am grateful to these friends and colleagues for their kindnesses and to the late Philip Brett for the rich musical, intellectual, and humanitarian gifts he so generously conferred on his friends and his field.

Nadine Hubbs
University of Michigan


    Example 1: Poulenc, Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor, mvt. I: rehearsal [18] to fade to silence just before [26]

  1. It was on a British Airways flight from London to Miami some years ago that I first heard Poulenc’s Concerto for two pianos in D minor. It was written the year after the 1931 Colonial Exhibition of Paris which, like the more famous Exposition of the previous century, featured an Indonesian gamelan among its musical attractions. Roger Nichols, in the 1980 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, says that this work of Poulenc’s “has no aim beyond entertainment, in which it succeeds completely” and alludes to its “calculated inelegancies” as well as to its belonging to the “period of ‘back to X’ initiated by Stravinsky.” But the “X” equals so many disparate things here, far beyond the four or five you have just heard, and includes so many odd transformations, such as the French café tune in the third movement that suddenly and hilariously becomes the “Fire” motif from Wagner’s Ring, that it would be hard for an observer alive to Western culture outside so-called classical music, and particularly for a gay man flying a mile high, to miss the presence of that peculiarly queer performative act of satirical disruption of what might be taken separately as stable categories—the queer performative act so hard to define but instantly recognizable as “Camp.”

    Example 2: Poulenc, Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor, mvt. III: rehearsal [54] + 2 to [57] + 6

  2. What I want to problematize today, however, is the “X” that equals Balinese gamelan transcribed for or recreated by two pianos, which Nichols identifies in his revision of the article for the Grove 2001. Suggested elliptically at the opening, it appears extensively at the end of this first movement, with shortened references at the ends of the other two movements. You would be shocked if I assumed automatically that this belonged to the camp discourse; but please hold the potential disapproval and perhaps evaluate it. I could certainly argue that the passage substitutes for the transcendental universalizing strategy that concludes many classical and romantic works of the European canon. Yet, the parodic level of humor here would render any traditional move of that kind impossible without bathos. This alternative, introduced and closed by Petrouschka-like quotation marks, perhaps suggests a utopian reality beyond the puppet-world of “classical music,” a real alternative to the hieratic space that the straight Stravinsky invokes at such moments.

    Example 3: the end of Stravinsky’s roughly contemporary Symphony in C, ([181] or) [183] – 2 to end (to show the difference)

  3. On another level, however, the passage achieves the characteristic of Barthes’ jouissance that Cynthia Morrill, relating it to camp, describes “as a condition of representation that hurls the subject outside the ties of dominant discourse by unsettling, among other things, his or her historical, cultural, and psychological assumptions.”3 Clearly doing more than simply signaling the presence of that “aesthetic sense” or “sensibility” upon which, according to Susan Sontag, “homosexuals have pinned their hope for integration into society.”4 Camp also avoids the cementing or reification of difference that Morrill sees irony as achieving. It momentarily opens onto a new world—like a “jump cut” in a realist film, to borrow another of Morrill’s parallels—and therefore suggests the unsettling of the queer subject when he or she encounters—as is inevitable—the proscription of his or her desire, a condition of queer representation which signals the lack at the heart of dominant un-queer ideology, as Sue-Ellen Case’s Vampire model makes clear.5 Poulenc’s chameleon-like work answers to Case’s description of the articulation of queer desire as “break[ing] with the discourse that claims mimetically to represent that ‘natural’ world, by subverting its tropes” (18). By a stretch of the imagination, and remembering the distaste with which many modernists and avant-garde musicians still regard the too-obviously gay Poulenc, we might even apply to this composer the rest of Case’s description of the queer as attacking the dominant notion of the natural:
    Like The Phantom of the Opera, the queer dwells underground, below the operatic overtones of the dominant; frightening to look at, desiring, as it plays its own organ, producing its own music (3).
    The fact that a few bars after my example fades, the “gamelan-organ” is suffused with an elegiac Massenet-like gesture of musical resignation and longing sufficiently (re)locates it in Poulenc’s world, thirties Paris, far away from any post-War authentistic straitjacket that might seek to essentialize a Balinese musical identity. It is, we might conclude, an episode that can be heard as belonging to the larger strategy of camp, a strategy which confronts un-queer ontology and homophobia with humor and which by those same means may also signal the possibility of the overturn of that ontology—as when, on a famous night in 1969, the evening of the funeral of Judy Garland, the mood of a group of gays and drag queens reveling in the spectacle of their own arrest by members of the New York City Vice Squad at the Stonewall Bar turned to one of rage and produced the event that solidified the lesbian and gay movement. In this radical queer sense, then, the evocation of Balinese gamelan can be said to belong to the theater of camp.

    Example 4: Repeat of latter part of Example 1, “gamelan organ” now with the following “Massenet-like gesture” added. Poulenc, Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor, mvt. I: rehearsal [24] to end of movement

  4. On January 6 1945, Poulenc played the concerto in Royal Albert Hall. The other pianist on that occasion was Benjamin Britten. The young British composer had received his own initiation in Balinese music through the transcriptions of Colin McPhee, who had befriended Britten during the latter’s extended stay in the United States, 1939–42. And the extensive references to the musics of both Bali and Japan in the works of Britten have been identified and discussed by a number of scholars and critics, among them Donald Mitchell, Christopher Palmer, Mervyn Cooke, and myself. Among the two earliest references is an unlikely borrowing from Colin McPhee’s Balinese Ceremonial Music, which Britten had played with McPhee during his visit to the USA, to create the impression in the opera Peter Grimes of bells on an English Sunday; the other is a more characteristic linking of heterophonic pseudogamelan sonority with the event that prompts these lines of W. H. Auden’s in the Prelude to the failed American operetta, Paul Bunyan (1941):
    But once in a while the odd thing happens,
    Once in a while the dream comes true,
    And the whole pattern of life is altered,
    Once in a while the moon turns blue.
    “That,” Britten told his executor Donald Mitchell in the 1970s, “was Peter”—referring to his companion/colleague/lover, the tenor Peter Pears.6

  5. If Britten, like Poulenc, was homosexual, a more differently constructed queer identity would be hard to imagine. The closest Britten ever got to camp was dressing up in Balinese costume with Pears, who obviously enjoyed it more, and their friends Prince Ludwig of Hesse and his wife. The composer, who took a cold bath every morning, looks ever so much more comfy in prep-school costume—tennis shorts and sweater—in the hill country of Bali. He was (unlike Poulenc) spiritual not religious; a Puritan, charming in public but capable of occasional brutality, driven by the work ethic, determinedly middle class and non-demonstrative. Before he visited Bali he employed what I have called pseudogamelan music to outline a male character who is involved in the imagination of a boy around the verge of puberty: Quint in The Turn of the Screw (1954). Echoes of this usage occur in the portrayal of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), showing that this particular trope survived the actual visit to Bali, which otherwise appears to have prompted rather different approaches.7 Here is a moment in The Turn of the Screw, the moment we first hear Quint, in which gamelan gives way to what one commentator has called “Moorish cantillation.”8

    Example 5: The Turn of the Screw, act I, scene 8, just after [71] (Variation VII) to third statement of “Miles” ending on E flat

    QUINT [unseen]
    Miles! Miles! Miles!9

  6. An attempt at a literal transcription of gamelan occurs almost immediately the year after the trip, in the full-length ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. It accompanies the dance of the Pagodas themselves, suggesting a kind of polymorphous perversity for these gently revolving pyramids that contrasts sharply with the subsequent display of phallic energy in the trumpet calls that accompany the Prince’s emergence out of the salamander. The later and even more famous gamelan episodes in Britten are associated with peace in the pacifist opera Owen Wingrave (1970), and with the innocent Tadzio in Death in Venice (1972/73). In Britten’s music, then, there is an interesting conflict and conflation of images associated with the gamelan or its evocation—to leave out other exotic references for the moment; the allure of the older man in a pederastic or ephebic relation with a younger one; and on the other hand an idealized world in which the gamelan sonorities, sometimes (as in the case of Owen Wingrave’s great aria) married to triadic nondissonant tonality, are projected onto the innocent, and betoken either some kind of presymbolic world or an idealized mixture of pacifism and love—untainted, as it were, by the possibly disturbing-because-power-ridden actuality of physical relations.

    Example 6: Benjamin Britten, Owen Wingrave, act II, scene 1, [246] to end of [252]

    ... farewell.

    In peace I have found my image, I have found myself. In peace I rejoice amongst men and yet walk alone, in peace I will guard this balance so that it is not broken. For peace is not lazy but vigilant, peace is not acquiescent but searching, peace is not weak but strong like a bird’s wing bearing its weight in the dazzling air. Peace is not silent, it is the voice of love. (from the libretto by Myfanwy Piper, based on the short story by Henry James)

  7. This is a brief summary of findings on Britten that could be endlessly elaborated. If you will bear with my turn to the descriptive for a moment, I will go a step further in connecting the Indonesian gamelan to Western composers who, as some of them themselves often like to say, just happen to be homosexual. In an article about Britten, I made a chance remark to clarify the exclusive nature of Britten’s dealings with the gamelan through McPhee on the North American continent by saying that he seems not to have been involved with other American composers of gamelan-inspired music, such as Cage, Cowell, and Harrison, and by adding the teasing phrase “though gamelan is a gay marker in American music.”10 The only work in this category I know as thoroughly as the Britten and Poulenc examples is Lou Harrison’s remarkable La Koro Sutro, which I recorded on the New Albion label in 1987. Unlike the works mentioned so far, it is written for an ensemble of instruments that really is a sort of gamelan, one constructed out of galvanized electrical conduit, oxyacetylene cylinders, enormous Crisco cans (sweet sonic homage to a long gay-male lubricative tradition, in my imagination), and other found objects of North American life: an American gamelan, as Lou and Bill, his late partner and its builder, called it. Of course, it is a moot point whether this or, on the other hand, forming your gamelan by putting nails, rubber strips, and other alien objects inside a Steinway grand, as Lou’s old friend John Cage did, is the more subversive queer gesture. At any rate, the vocal part of Harrison’s cantata, the setting of a famous Buddhist mantra translated into Esperanto, reflects a generalized Eastern-ness rather than a particular Asian tradition—West Coast plainchant, as a Berkeley graduate student wittily christened it. What I discern here is the genuine Western student of Asian religion and tradition paying homage to an Asian philosophy and spirituality and trying at the same time, through the use of Esperanto and a distinctive Californian style, to universalize them, or to make them digestible to his own culture. At least one Japanese-American Buddhist, a woman who had worked in the Berkeley music department all her life, was palpably moved on hearing the chorus and me try to make this overture to her religion and culture in a move unprecedented in the department’s postwar history.

    Example 7: Lou Harrison, La Koro Sutro, conclusion, “Mantro Kaj Kunsonoro”: final 1 minute of recording. (Gate, gate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!—“Going, going, yonder going, going on beyond, awake, all hail!”)

  8. Some concluding points for discussion:

  9. Western commentators, such as Berkeley-trained ethnomusicologist and composer Michael Tenzer, always celebrate the sorts of contact with other musics represented here by Poulenc, and also by such other gay male composers in various branches of the “classical music” world as John Cage, Benjamin Britten, and Lou Harrison, and the less famous but seminal Canadian composer/ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee, who arguably influenced them all. The situation is only slightly different in popular music, where the big bucks involved have rarely stirred consciences or prompted self-examination; this applies in different ways to the early days of “See my friends”—the first example of “raga rock” written in 1965 not by those soon-to-be Maharishi devotees, George Harrison and the Beatles, but by a sexually confused Ray Davies of the Kinks—than to more blatant attempts in the 1980s at musical cannibalization of the third world, such as Paul Simon’s Graceland album.

  10. There is, of course, another way of looking at these musical reflections. They can be seen as part of that phenomenon, involving the projection of the fantasy of the dominant, usually heterosexual, Western majority, a fantasy that takes many shapes (among them an unwanted sexual or erotic supplement), onto other, less powerful people in a location which was at first the Middle East, later the Far East, even Africa: the phenomenon theorized initially by Edward Said in 1978 as “Orientalism.”

  11. McPhee, in a letter to his shrink, shows that the Orient can still be for the homosexual, as for the heterosexual, male (like Durrell and Flaubert in Joseph Boone’s account) a locus of the sexual.11
    Many times there was a decision to be made between some important opportunity and a sexual (homosexual) relationship which was purely sensual. I never hesitated to choose the latter. This I did deliberately and would do again and again, for it seemed the only thing that was real. The Balinese period was simply a long extension of this.12
    The fact that his time in Bali was financed by his wife, Jane Belo, whom he had the gall to judge for getting jealous, indicates that sexual exploitation [of women] is not the province of the heterosexual male alone.

  12. But, since the homosexual, along with (e.g.) the Jew, the Gypsy, or the native American, is orientalized in her own culture, there is a potential for difference in the oriental usage here: for composers like Cage and Britten who could not admit their homosexuality, the use of gamelan-inspired sounds (as suggested in the Poulenc example) may be one way of setting up a reverse discourse—the queer vampire playing his organ.13 And composers like Lou Harrison who are openly gay but still trapped in a certain model of Western “classical music” discourse that involves among other things an exalted notion of “composer” and “work” can critique that discourse by means of antimodernist gamelan sounds that purvey different and by implication more humane notions than are available in new-Schoenbergianism.

  13. On the other hand, any form of orientalism is problematic, since even the sincerest and most accurate imitation of a cultural form or practice is appropriation when the composer is located on the power side of the postcolonial divide, and any other kind of representation than the specific is likely to belong to the species of generalized Western projections that do incredible damage by collapsing cultural distinctions, by encouraging stereotyping, and by actively promoting misunderstanding and worse. The success of The English Patient in the [1997] Oscars, by the way, shows how powerful still is the appeal of Orientalism, in musical, visual, or literary forms, at least in popular and middlebrow Euro-American culture; and minimalism’s dependence on exotic techniques indicates that orientalist tendencies cannot be essentialized as homosexual in the musical world.

  14. At this point I must half-heartedly conclude, having only further questions. My own (still rather British) inclination is to look at results or ends rather than simply to condemn means, and to remember that my context at present is no wider than a group of Euro-American homosexual composers born between 1900 and 1915 whose social accommodation occurred at a time when their sexuality was proscribed to a greater extent than was the case after 1969. In a recent lecture I have argued that Britten, though thoroughly assimilated as a person, pursued a consistent and powerful critique of many aspects of Western society in his music.14 His was not a flabby liberal inclusionist model of the kind gay composers today too often adopt, to my dismay. Cage and Harrison, it could easily be argued, have pursued an even more radical course, though Harrison, perhaps because of personal loyalty, tends to adopt the limited thinking of the reactionary Ned Rorem in his recent pronouncements on the relation of sexuality to music.15 In a radical queer view, I would suppose, orientalism can no longer be tolerated in any context, and the use of gamelan or other “world musics” could only be justified by the ends to which it is put: the pure aesthetic ends so unproblematized, even by today’s musicians, are rarely pure and not ultimately simply aesthetic.



1  Philip Brett [posthumous], Music and Sexuality in Britten: Selected Essays, edited by George E. Haggerty, with a foreword by Susan McClary and an afterword by Jenny Doctor (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 252—NH.

2 Ruth A. Solie, ed., Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 259–80; Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, eds., Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (New York: Routledge, 1994), 235–56. Both essays are reprinted in Brett, Music and Sexuality in Britten, on pages 106–28 and 129–53, respectively—NH.

3 Cynthia Morrill, “Revamping the Gay Sensibility: Queer Camp and dyke noir,” in Moe Meyer, ed., The Politics and Poetics of Camp (London: Routledge, 1994), 118.

4 Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” reprinted in A Susan Sontag Reader (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 118.

5 Sue-Ellen Case, “Tracking the Vampire,” Differences 3, no. 2 (1991): 1–20.

6 Here Philip likely drew from personal conversation with Mitchell—NH.

7 Brett, Music and Sexuality in Britten. Brett illuminated what he called the “pseudogamelan effect” in Poulenc’s Concerto for two pianos in D minor and Mamelles des Tirésias, and in Britten’s music, in “Eros and Orientalism in Britten’s Operas,” 132–35, 142, and 148–49. He discussed Britten’s 1955–56 first-hand encounter with Balinese gamelan and gamelan’s subsequent significance in the composer’s music in “Britten’s Dream,” 124–25—NH.

8 In “Eros and Orientalism,” 142 and 152n16, Brett identified this commentator as Wilfrid Mellers in his essay “Turning the Screw,” in Christopher Palmer, ed., The Britten Companion (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), 149—NH.

9 For readers’ convenience in this print version I have added the relevant stage directions and libretto excerpts in examples 5 and 6—NH.

10 The quoted phrase is from Brett, “Eros and Orientalism,” 133, where he credits Stevan Key with having pointed out to him gamelan’s status here—NH.

11 Brett discussed Boone’s account in “Eros and Orientalism,” 146–47. See Joseph A. Boone, “Mappings of Male Desire in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet,” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 73–106—NH.

12 This passage is also quoted in Brett, “Eros and Orientalism,” 151n11, which identifies its source as a letter from McPhee to William Mayer, postmarked 2 September 1942, and held in the Britten-Pears Library at Aldeburgh—NH.

13 Michel Foucault coined the term reverse discourse with reference to the nineteenth-century proliferation of labels and discourses defining and regulating the homosexual, and particularly the “strategic turnabout” whereby persons themselves defined as homosexual began to deploy such discourses affirmatively, on their own behalf. See Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. I, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 100–02 (“Rule of the Tactical Polyvalence of Discourses”). Foucault used the phrase strategic turnabout in this connection, speaking of the early homosexual emancipation movement, in his interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy, “Non au sexe roi,” Le Nouvel Observateur (12 March 1977): 95, 98; quoted in David M. Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 58–59 (Halperin’s translation, based on that of David J. Parent)—NH.

14 The “recent lecture” cited here would have been “Benjamin Britten: The Politics of a Musical Life” (1998–99). In “Philip Brett’s Britten Scholarship,” an appendix to Brett, Music and Sexuality in Britten, this lecture is identified as a revised version of an earlier one entitled “The Britten Era” (252). The latter was published in essay form in 2000 and reprinted in Music and Sexuality in Britten, 204–23. Its argument is indeed that “Britten’s artistic effort was to attempt to disrupt the center that it occupied with the marginality that it expressed” (222)—NH.

15 For Rorem’s statements in this regard ca. 1988–89, see Lawrence D. Mass, “An Interview with Ned Rorem,” in Philip Brett, et al., eds., Queering the Pitch, 85–112—NH.

Works Cited

Boone, Joseph A. “Mappings of Male Desire in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 73–106.

Brett, Philip. Music and Sexuality in Britten: Selected Essays. Ed. George E. Haggerty. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

Brett, Philip, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, eds. Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Case, Sue-Ellen. “Tracking the Vampire.” Differences 3, no. 2 (1991): 1–20.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Mellers, Wilfrid. “Turning the Screw.” In Christopher Palmer, ed. The Britten Companion. London: Faber and Faber, 1984, 144–52.

Morrill, Cynthia. “Revamping the Gay Sensibility: Queer Camp and dyke noir.” In Moe Meyer, ed. The Politics and Poetics of Camp. London: Routledge, 1994, 110–129.

Solie, Ruth A., ed. Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp.” Reprinted in A Susan Sontag Reader. New York: Vintage Books, 1983, 105–119.