SFCM Faculty on 5 Influential LGBTQ Composers Who Changed Music
In honor of Pride Month, SFCM faculty speak about the legacy of LGBTQ composers like Billy Strayhorn, Wendy Carlos and Pauline Oliveros.
By Alex Heigl
It’s impossible to overstate the influence the LGBTQ community has had on music, but even in the world of the arts, much of it has remained in the shadows. For Pride Month, SFCM is shining a light on the lasting impact a sampling of these LGBTQ composers has had on the musical landscape of today.
Strayhorn was famously referred to as the “alter ego” of jazz icon Duke Ellington, one of the most important composers of the 20th century. His compositions—either co-written with Ellington or on his own—like “Lush Life” and “Chelsea Bridge” have become must-know jazz standards, and “Take the A Train,” his best-known composition, was Ellington’s signature piece for his entire career.
“Strayhorn definitely did not receive all the praise that he probably should have while he was living,” Roots, Jazz and American Music (RJAM) Executive Director and Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Jason Hainsworth said. “But he and Ellington were literally the first unit of study that I believe we did when we started the RJAM program here.”
“Their relationship was such that you could probably say it’s hard to tell where one begins and one ends,” he added. “Duke would be on the road and would oftentimes call Strayhorn with a motif or idea and Billy would take those and flesh them out for the band. That’s a real testament to how great of a composer and arranger that Strayhorn was, to write something effectively in Duke’s style and have it feel seamless.”
“I cannot imagine what his life must have been like, being a Black man just for starters, but then being an openly gay Black man at that time,” Hainsworth said.
For anyone interested in Strayhorn’s work, Hainsworth recommends a biography of Strayhorn, Lush Life, and the albums Three Suites and the soundtrack to the Alfred Hitchcock film Anatomy of a Murder—one of the first opportunities Black composers were given the opportunity to score a major film.
At 30 years old, Shaw became the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her work Partita for 8 Voices, written for the cutting-edge vocal group Roomful of Teeth. But she's hardly rested on that laurel. She's netted commissions from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the BBC in conjunction with the University of Delaware, scooped up a Grammy for her work Narrow Sea, and also has a number of collaborations with Kanye West under her belt, which surely makes her a rarity in the contemporary classical music scene.
Shaw rarely discusses her personal life in interviews but Shaw’s work is often performed by queer artists like New York City’s ChamberQUEER. And she has at least one champion in San Francisco: San Francisco Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing Shaw’s "Entr'acte" earlier this month.
“Caroline Shaw is one of today’s most expressive composers and someone whose writing I excitedly recommend to students,” SFCM voice faculty Matt Worth said. “Her compositions for the voice are often familiar for the audience, putting them at ease while simultaneously infusing depth and complexity into the overall soundscape.”
Thanks to his inexhaustible curiosity toward music and his far-ranging list of collaborators, Muhly has become one of the most visible composers working today. Muhly started working for Philip Glass as an archivist, ultimately joining Glass’ ensemble as a pianist, an association that lasted eight years; his next prominent collaboration was with Björk in 2004. He’s also collaborated with Grizzly Bear and Sufjan Stevens and composed the score for the Oscar-winning film The Reader and most recently the Apple TV+ adaptation of the wildly popular book Pachinko. Muhly also has connections to SFCM and the San Francisco Symphony. He completed a 19-minute piece titled Throughline with eight collaborative artists selected by Salonen; a "virtual premiere" for the work by the SF Symphony was held on November 14, 2020.
Just last year, the SF Symphony commissioned a piece by SFCM's own Lukáš Janata to be featured as part of Muhly’s curated Soundbox series.
“Nico and I met through our wonderful mentor John Corigliano, and he then decided to commission me as he liked my work, and wanted to work with someone that is part of that universe and lives in San Francisco,” Janata said.
“It doesn’t weigh on me, but I think that’s generational,” Muhly said about his identity as a gay man. “A lot of those battles got fought and a lot of my generation was born into the clear.”
“The universe I inhabit is incredibly comfortable in terms of being gay,” Muhly added. “The world is not waiting for the opinion of white, middle-class men about such things. I don’t need to plant that flag.”
Wendy Carlos literally fused the old and new with her landmark recording Switched-On Bach, a massively successful recording of iconic compositions on the then-novel Moog synthesizer.
“Bob Moog’s vision was to create synthesizers that could be used as easily as one might play a piano, so his synthesizers featured keyboard-style layouts as opposed to other styles of synthesizers, which have less direct methods of inputting commands,” said Kristopher Grant, an SFCM Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) professor and mixed-media artist.mCarlos, who graduated from Brown in 1962 with a dual degree in music and physics and subsequently earned her master's degree in music composition at the groundbreaking Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, was a perfect fit. She worked closely with Moog to refine the technology, and the success of Switched-On Bach and its follow-up helped the instrument become one of the defining sounds of pop, rock, funk and electronic music in the second half of the 20th century. Moog went on to tell People Magazine of Carlos’ skill with making new sounds from the synthesizer, saying “Nobody is in her league.”
Carlos largely withdrew from the public eye as she agonized over her gender transition, but still managed to turn in work on iconic films like A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Tron. She gave a wide-ranging interview about her transition to Playboy in 1980, becoming one of the most visible transgender musicians of the era.
Today referred to as “the Godmother of Electronic Music,” Carlos’ influence can be felt anytime someone picks up a synth: The composers behind Stranger Things, Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon have called her a “magician” on the instrument she helped pioneer.
An icon in the Bay Area’s music scene, Oliveros has several direct ties to SFCM. She helped to found the San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC), which began life as a small music studio in the attic of SFCM’s second home at 1201 Ortega Street. The SFTMC would see the premiere of Terry Riley’s groundbreaking composition In C, in which another 20th-century musical icon, Steve Reich would perform as part of the ensemble.
Oliveros is a rare figure in that much of her life’s work was concentrated on the act of listening to music—although she was an accomplished and prolific composer also on the vanguard of music technology. Her concepts of “deep listening” and “sonic awareness” fused concepts from meditation and critical art theory to encourage musicians and listeners to more deeply connect and engage with sound.
Oliveros’ SFCM connection is upheld today by Technology and Applied Composition Executive Director Taurin Barrera, who studied with Oliveros during her long tenure at Mills College in Oakland. “It was incredible to be working with this 80-year-old woman who was ten years ahead in terms of the technology she was using and thinking decades beyond where we currently were as a society in terms of how we communicate, how we make music,” he said.
Aside from the SFTMC—which moved to Mills and became the Center for Contemporary Music—Oliveros founded multiple organizations and threw festivals and performance series. “She was very much an organizer, and I think through that, her legacy is just immense,” Barrera added. “She’s had such an impact on so many musicians, specifically electronic musicians, whether they know it or not.”
“One of my most formative moments as a musician was attending one of her Deep Listening workshops,” Barrera added. “It was completely transcendental: I had never experienced sound or music or the resonance of my own body like that before. It really opened up my eyes as to what the meaning of sound is for humans.”
“Being a woman in music and specifically music technology and composition at that time had to have been an incredible challenge, and Pauline’s character and vision put her at the top of the list,” Barrera added. “She talked about the challenges that she faced as a queer woman in classes, but at the same time, she really embraced being on the outside and being open in sharing her vision and who she was.”