24 September 2003
Ruth Crawford Seeger Paper
Ruth Crawford was composing music at a time when an American compositional identity was just forming. Her influences and compositional tools place her in a matrix, where ideas and skills pass from composer to composer and from teacher to student. The ideas that she used are still reverberating through American composition.
Charles Seeger taught his students, including Ruth Crawford, about neumes, a musical idea that he gained from his historical research into early music. He also taught this to Cowell, who passed it on to his students, including Lou Harrison. Harrison was so taken with the idea and made such heavy use of it, that the first item in his Music Primer is an explanation of neumes and how to use them. His methods are the same ones that Crawford used. The item ends with "Henry Cowell taught me most of this." (Harrison p 1)
The Theosophy and mysticism that Crawford embraced still echoes though American music as well. The KPFA archives contain a collection of tapes of Dane Rudhyar speaking about various Theosophical subjects. When I was cataloging the archive, I noticed the unusual titles and subject matter and asked Charles Amirkhanian about them. He spoke very highly about Rudhyar and Theosophy in general. Extrapolating from the number of tapes of him in the KPFA archives, I assume that he must have been able to influence a large number of people.
Theosophy also appears in Robert Ashley's Opera, Perfect Lives. Ashley opens each section with, "These are some songs written about the Corn Belt and the people living it. Or on it." One of the main characters is a Theosophist, something mentioned early in the series. In a later episode, Ashley focuses extensively on the Theosophist character and a number of Theosophist themes are discussed in detail. He repeats the phrase, "without coincidence" several times. If it is indeed without coincidence, it seems that the presence of theosophy in the opera is recognition of the theosophical composers from the Corn Belt, including Crawford. What more naturally belongs in an opera about the Midwest than a discussion of the worldview held by so many composers from that area?
In a more controversial vein, Crawford is also emblematic of American composers through her sexual orientation. As you (Professor Slobin) said in class, "It must mean something if so many of the major American composers of the 20th Century were gay." It is, of course, impossible to make definitive statements about deceased people's sexual orientations, and I cannot presume to know that Crawford was bisexual or perhaps even a lesbian, given that she clearly didn't identify as such. However, from the reading, it's clear that Crawford went though many of the same experiences that queers typically face.
Crawford was clearly questioning her sexual orientation while she was at the MacDowell Colony, and with good reason. Being repulsed by the idea of physical intimacy with a member of the opposite sex whom one is romantically involved with is a normal experience for closeted gay people, but, I'm told, is somewhat unusual for heterosexuals. After Gene left the colony, Crawford turned to a woman, Marion Bauer, for comfort. She agonized about her lack of desire for Gene, but the claimed that she nearly slept with Bauer. Tick very tellingly writes, "Crawford called [this] the 'Lesbian' subject." (p 107) The "Lesbian subject" is very clearly a weighty one and something that she must have thought deeply about. With a "healthy curiosity, [she mulled] over the words of a lesbian poet at the colony who was after her to begin an affair. 'You have to know what you are experiencing before you can sublimate it, she wrote . . ..'" (p 98) Thus she is willing to consider the idea of sexual expression only when it occurs in a lesbian context.
Therefore, Crawford was in flux. She continued to identify as straight, perhaps unaware of the idea of bisexuality. Her Methodist upbringing and current social mores probably pressured her intensely. There are no currently known examples of "statements in Theosophical literature either condemning or accepting homosexuality as unnatural or unnatural." (http://www.religioustolerance.org/hom_theo.htm) Theosophy would not have provided her with a gay-positive refuge. More than being in flux, she was also in crisis. "Was she sexually damaged? She despaired of knowing." (Tick p 100)This crisis provides a possible analysis of her worry about being able to have a family and a composing career. If one is repulsed by the idea of procreating, of course one will find reasons not to have a family. Crawford's worries and ideas about sexuality are familiar to me, as a lesbian with a religious upbringing. She shares a large part of the gay experience. These experiences also demonstratably affected her writing as they were occurring, as her romantic crises caused writer's block and her rejuvenation when Bauer got her creative juices flowing again. They also may help explain some of her wishy-washiness throughout her compositional period. She was someone in crisis, with an uncertain sense of identity and who was wrestling with large personal questions. Is it any wonder, then, that she felt overwhelmed by writing an orchestra piece even though she had written large pieces before?
This string quartet that she wrote instead is masterful. It has beautiful use of dissonance and a melodic character, with a unique voice. It's certainly a smaller piece than a symphony and it makes it tempting to speculate what amazing things she might have written, had she not stopped composing and subsequently died before she could start again. It's also tempting to speculate on why she stopped composing. Did she find compositional strength in her personal uncertainty? (Facetiously: Does a gay (or questioning) identity compel one to compose?) Speculating further, if she indeed was a lesbian, then why did she marry Seeger? Some people agonizingly question their sexual orientation only to discover that they are straight. Or, she may have been bisexual. Perhaps she merely changed. Sexual orientation can be fluid. I have a friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) who describes the (now discarded) heterosexuality of her youth by saying that, "[she] was a willing, even enthusiastic participant." It's worth noting that a large portion of Crawford and Seeger's courtship took place via letters, so she could achieve the meeting of minds that she craved without the specter of a possibly alarming physical expression looming immediately over her.