New Project and Big Questions

So, I have officially started work on Sex in the Early Modern City: Music and Eroticism in Rome, my Marie Curie fellowship project. I’m going to be working on this for the next three years, and it’s a completely brand new project. Exciting times! A new research project, a new website, a new blog, a new role, in new-to-me institutions and soon in a new-to-me city too.

For the next few years, I will be developing and answering questions that, in hindsight, I have been avoiding exploring or tentatively exploring for years–begun in my doctoral research, bobbing below the surface in my first publication (far below the surface, as they are not actually addressed in the article; it was a short piece and I was, frankly, too chicken to take them on, although they cropped up in private discussions while I was writing the piece), growing in my teaching (especially in my courses on Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern Music, 1500-1800 and the interdisciplinary doctoral master class I developed on Body, Gender, Sexuality, and coming more to the fore in the book I am co-editing with Linda Carroll and Katherine McIver. These are questions like: was there such a thing as sexuality in the 16th and 17th century? If so, how did it work? If sexuality is constitutive of subjectivity, as Judith Butler argues it is for the present, then was it constitutive of early modern subjectivity? (And what does that look like, anyway?) What was the role of music in shaping sexuality (if/in whatever form(s) it existed) and subjectivity (if/in whatever form(s) it existed)? And my faculty sponsor at UCLA, Olivia Bloechl, pointed out my proposed work poses another one: how does music relate to the sexuality of a specific patron? The relationship of music to life is one of the central questions of music biography, although it is more often posed in relation to the composer rather than to the patron, performer or audience of a piece of music. So, it’s not exactly a new question, but it’s not one I had thought about in quite that way before.

There is a lot of work on the history of sexuality, and a good deal of it addresses 16th- and 17th-century Italy. Guido Ruggiero’s recent work on Machiavelli and his discussion of sexual consensus realities I find intriguing; that’s on my list. I recently joined the H-Hist-Sex discussion group and came across an upcoming book which will be high on my reading list when it’s published next month, Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History by Barry Reay and Kim Phillips. This will all help me engage with whether there was such a thing as sexuality in the past and if so, how did it work. Foucault thought sexuality as an institution was really a 19th and 20th century thing, but that has been called into question. Laura Macy’s article (which I love and use in some of my courses), “Speaking of Sex: Metaphor and Performance in the Italian Madrigal,” Journal of Musicology, 14/1 (1996): 1-34, is a great one for music students as it demonstrates that there certainly was a discourse around sex. (There’s plenty of work on the historical medical, juridical, and theological discourses of sex, as well as a thriving body of scholarship looking at sex in early modern literature, art and music.) One distinction often drawn is between acts and identities. Some people want to say there is a historical specificity to homosexuality (you know, those gays you get these days, well, they didn’t really exist back then; there were just same sex acts, and that’s different from homosexuality as a defining point of identity) and sometimes the same people then claim that heterosexuality, and perhaps especially the institution of heterosexual marriage is virtually unchanged (you know, it’s always been like that). There’s more at stake in that debate than how one represents history.

As for the relationship of music to a person’s life, Suzanne Cusick’s magnificent book Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court has a particularly wonderful chapter on Caccini’s Primo libro and subjectivity which shows one way to clear that disciplinary thorn bush. My UCC colleague Chris Morris recommended Martha Feldman’s Opera and Sovreignty: Transforming Myths in Eighteenth Century Italy, and Olivia suggested Judith Tick’s Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music. Also, it could be that music patronage was a way to deal with the public image as anything else, and in fact there was a public dimension to sex at the time: people didn’t have the same levels of privacy we expect now, and communities could be involved in attempting to regulate an individual’s sexual activity. So, perhaps that’s another possible avenue to consider.

I’m only just beginning to fully appreciate the relationship between self-fashioning and the birth of the modern subject. I’m looking forward to building my reading list for this; a quick scan of the UCLA library catalogue shows there’s no shortage of material. In terms of musicology, Susan McClary’s Modal Subjectivities: Self-fashioning in the Italian Madrigal is directly relevant. The subjectivities seemed quite modern and familiar to me and I wondered when I read it whether that is because they just were (early modern, after all, suggests a high degree of continuity)–well, that is the core of McClary’s argument, that the madrigal was grappling with modern subjectivity in the years before Descartes–or whether there were other subjectivities there that are less familiar and therefore harder to recognise somehow. Although on reflection, normally the unfamiliar stands out. But still, I need to think about that a lot more…..