Music's fuzzy boundaries of identity

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Music's fuzzy boundaries of identity
Ian Bostridge’s latest book and album emerged from a time when the pandemic forced him to question what exactly he does when he sings. (Neil Webb/The New York Times)

by Ian Bostridge

NEW YORK, NY.- Spring this year has been a particular joy for touring singers like me. The cloud of COVID-19 seems to have evaporated: Restrictions have been lifted, audiences have (nervously) returned and the prospect of being stranded in foreign parts with a positive test is gone, not to mention the diminishing threat of serious or voice-impacting illness. Things will never be the same — they never are — but some semblance of normalcy has returned.

When the endless travels of classical music were interrupted, though, and when I was forced into a kind of silence, I had time and the inclination to question what I was doing, to ask what exactly I’m up to when I stand up and sing a song. This interacted with two projects that were conceived before the pandemic but were largely undertaken during it: “Song and Self,” lectures and a resulting book, and a recording of “The Folly of Desire,” a song cycle written by and performed with pianist-composer Brad Mehldau.

This spring saw the consummation of both, with the book out from the University of Chicago Press in April, and the album out Friday on the Pentatone label. In my writing, I looked at some iconic works — by Monteverdi, Schumann, Britten and Ravel — exploring them in the light of concerns about gender identity, colonialism and death. Mehldau’s work, resolutely art and not remotely a work of analysis, treats the multiform and problematic nature of sexual desire, sometimes with a shocking directness and sometimes with a glowing compassion, but always with a visceral beauty.

When I became a professional musician, in the mid-1990s, I forged my reputation as a singer of songs — particularly of lieder, German art song, that very niche but hugely significant branch of classical music reinvented by Franz Schubert in the 1820s and brought to global prominence by legendary baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau after World War II.

The big discovery I came to, as I made my first tentative steps into the world of music theater, was that the distinction I had unconsciously made between “song” and “opera” was misconceived and inhibiting. The boundary between the two was, rather, fluid and permeable.

Having seen Fischer-Dieskau perform toward the end of his career in the 1980s, I had already half-learned this lesson. To watch him perform even as purely lyrical a song as Schubert’s “Meeresstille,” a setting of Goethe’s poem about a ship becalmed at sea, was to see a master actor at work. Some of the great stage directors I have worked with in opera — Baz Luhrmann, David Alden, Deborah Warner — have encouraged me to bring the special intensity of the song recital, the “expressive intimacy” identified by my baritone colleague Christian Gerhaher in a recent book, to opera.

Conversely, song recitals involve the presentation of a persona just as much as any other piece of music theater. And the boundaries between acting as impersonation (think Daniel Day-Lewis’ film performances) and as intensification of the reinvented self (now think of Cary Grant’s work with Hitchcock) are constantly shifting.

Hybrid forms, neither opera nor conventional recital, are particularly interesting in this regard. Three pieces of music theater that I have been lucky enough to bring to Lincoln Center in New York — Seamus Heaney’s translation of Janacek’s “Diary of One Who Vanished,” directed by Warner, and Netia Jones’ stagings of Schubert’s “Winterreise,” in a version by Hans Zender, and of Britten’s “Curlew River” — were exactly that: staged song cycles in the first two cases, and reimagined ritual in third. They encouraged me even more to explore an issue that I found slippery and abstract at first but that gradually took on a clearer form.

Identity is something that all performers have to confront. Each time we stand onstage to deliver a text — literary or musical, or some combination of the two — we have a decision to make about its character, and about our stance toward it. How do we go about embodying it? Do we take on the identity of the material we have absorbed? Or does it reconfigure itself as it is molded to our own identity? What is our duty to the text? To the audience? To ourselves?

My book “Song and Self” explores and worries at issues of identity that come to the fore in some of the works I love — issues of gender, for example. Is the real protagonist of Robert Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und Leben” not the woman we see on the surface, but rather the composer, whose anxieties and passions inflect the cycle at every point? What difference does it make if the cycle is sung, as it was in the 19th century, by a man? Should I sing it today?

Then again, how important is the gender of the Madwoman, which I have sung, in “Curlew River”? Britten uses the ritual resources of Japanese Noh theater to create a sort of distancing. Cross-gender casting is a part of this, but one which in blurring our perceptions of gender only amplifies the impact of the austerely told story: The Madwoman is all of us.

Troubling political issues can also intersect with the sung persona as I discovered in my research into Ravel’s “Chansons Madécasses.” The second section of this powerful cycle, for voice and instrumental trio, is a setting of an 18th century protest against long-standing French attempts to colonize Madagascar, voiced by a Malagasy. “Mefiez-vous des blancs” (“Beware of the whites”) he cries — but that cry was written by Évariste Parny, an opponent of slavery yet a slave owner.

Ravel wrote the song in the midst of French colonial wars in North Africa, only a few decades after the bloody French conquest of Madagascar in 1896. Some early audiences saw the piece as political provocation. There’s something troubling about these twin acts of ventriloquism, Parny’s poem and Ravel’s music. In addressing the song we have to ask questions about the poet’s bad faith as a slaveholding abolitionist, about the composer’s motives and about our own. Who should sing this song? Who owns it?

“Song and Self” is very much an exploratory work. It takes the notion of the essay at its word — as an attempt, an experiment. If I draw any conclusion, it’s that the way to approach classical music, in an era in which its relevance or ideological stance is constantly being questioned, is to explore where it comes from more closely, not to throw it away. Questioning is built into the classical music tradition; and interpreting this complex music that we have inherited means negotiating between the preoccupations of the past and the present so that we can discover more about ourselves.

Mehldau’s “The Folly of Desire” demands similar questioning. I had first met Brad five or six years ago; he was playing jazz improvisations and I was singing “Winterreise.” We hit it off, and he offered to write song cycle for the two of us. What emerged, about 18 months later, was a group of songs that set the past and the present against each other in a way that also opened up new ways of thinking — in this case, concerning what William Blake called “the lineaments of gratified desire.”

“Folly” both fits into and challenges the tradition of romantic lieder that Mehldau and I love so much. It sets a series of poems in a dizzying sequence of musical styles that reflect the shifting perspectives on desire opened up by each poem he sets: the delicate darkness of Blake’s “The Sick Rose”; the classical horror of William Butler Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan”; the sly lubricious perversity of a sonnet by Bertolt Brecht so obscene that his estate will not allow it to be translated; the rollicking jocks of e.e. cummings’ “The Boys,” set in the style of Supertramp “with Wurlitzer.” The cycle ends with an epilogue based on one of the great poetic expressions of the ambiguities and compromises of sexual relationships, W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby”: “Lay your sleeping head, my love / Human on my faithless arm.”

We performed the songs in recital with Schumann’s “Dichterliebe.” The pairing reinvigorated the weirdness and perversity of a piece from the 19th century so familiar as to be in danger of losing its edge. Mehldau’s cycle can also be shocking, but, as in the Schumann, to dramatic effect; juxtapositions of violence and serenity intensify our engagement with the mysterious movements of text and music. When a tiny motif from the first Blake setting recurs in the last — “What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song? / Or Wisdom for a dance in the street?” — we are moved, even if we hardly know why.

In the end, we decided to complete our recording with the jazz encores we had performed over the years, rather than with the Schumann. But hearing these standards — “These Foolish Things,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” “Night and Day” — set against Mehldau’s cycle also opens them up to questioning.

“The Folly of Desire” explores different identities through text and music, some rebarbative and some consolatory, and in doing so shines a light on our experience of desire — its capacity for mindless destruction, its sublime creativity, its sheer idiocy. Folly indeed. As Mehldau writes in a composer’s note, it was written in a period when desire and its dangers were very much at the fore of public discourse, as #MeToo forced everyone to come to terms with the troubled issue of consent.

But the piece is, as Mehldau says, “untouched by prosaic discourse.” Like other great works of the classical tradition, it allows us to inhabit other personas, other worlds. And it offers no answers, doing what art does in that spirit of negative capability, which John Keats so perfectly encapsulated: to be “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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