Musicians and Listeners Respond
I wrote this from a multidisciplinary arts residency, which I have the good fortune to be attending. There are nine composers here hailing from different parts of the world, which means I’ve gotten to witness firsthand the process people go through when asked about sexiness in new music.
The reaction has been quite consistent. Each time I introduce the topic, there is a long moment of silence, followed by an alarmingly polite “Huh. That’s interesting.” The first few times I experienced those polite moments, I wondered if I’d made a bad decision in agreeing to do this article. Would nobody have anything to say about it? I imagined finding myself in the ridiculous position of bugging (and begging) people to fill in my admittedly unscientific sexiness survey.
But in every case, the polite silence was broken by an impressive deluge of thoughts, questions, opinions, concerns, jokes, and grievances, and this was also the case with the online survey. For the sake of space, I could not include every participant’s remarks, and many that I did include had to be trimmed. However, I tried to gather and present a representative set of quotations. Attributions were made where respondents volunteered their names.
The pieces of new music below were all specifically cited for their eroticism by participants.
Do you think new music—defined as contemporary classical by living composers—is sexy?
“Weird sounds make me horny.”
“The sexiness is in the social context, not the music per se.”
“Music and sex are separate to me. I don’t listen to get my rocks off.” —Len
“Sometimes when performing my own works and knowing that I look and sound good on stage.”
If yes, describe a time when you had an erotic experience of new music.
“Seeing two performers wrestle with each other whilst wrapping themselves in sticky tape is one example. Hearing a soft-spoken ASMR performance by a German performer as they make delicate noises into a microphone is another.”
“…electroacoustic events where the lighting/setup is made to suit the music, which itself has something sensuous about it (here I would say it tends to only be with material that is tactile, delicate, sculptural, and that is projected with a high degree of fidelity into the space).”
“Usually it’s because of a) a theatrical element, b) a warm, intimate voice, or c) music that’s very loud, sensuous and overwhelming…”
“...I can think of a handful of performance experiences when...advanced voice techniques got a rise out of me because of their raw, delicate, exposed nature (more so than mimicking actual sex moans, but a little bit that as well)…”
“If it is not my own Nocturne for solo piano that goes by the name of ‘A Dialogue in the Night’, I think I would probably name Eric Whitacre’s virtual choral work ‘Waternight,’ based on the poem by Octavio Paz.” —Gaby Kapps
“Any time the performer is clearly passionate and enjoying themselves. That’s hot.”
“Performing Steve Reich is far more interesting and valuable than sex!”
“It’s mostly when I’m watching female performers. There’s something about the passion of a female performer that is very stimulating. It makes for a very different concert experience.”
“[A] very attractive performer soloing with orchestra in a pantsuit, heels, and green hair... not your standard concerto soloist.”
If yes, would you, or have you, listened to new music while engaging in sexual activities?
“All the time. I have sex with all sorts of new music, especially Milton Babbitt.”
“Often immersive, trance-friendly textures, but not easy-listening pads: loud and harsh like Merzbow can evoke a delightful altered state when you’re also immersed in a multisensory physical act. Sensory and intellectual overload.”
“Listening to music actually distracts from the task ‘at hand’ but it’s a delicious back and forth anyway.”
“Regarding recordings, I might put on something like Max Richter, or a downtempo piano album—something that can enhance the mood but not take center stage, so to speak.”
“My inner bro wants me to say that [if] the question about engaging in sexual activity with new music is important, perhaps the precursor question is also important: Can a non-musician (or anyone) dance to new music?”
If no, why not?
“Because it sounds too old to be ‘new.’ ”
“Sometimes it requires too much concentration to grasp.”
“...the sexy people doing the sexy work are too busy making great sexy work to be involved in the dull glad-handing required for mainstream (dull) success.”
“Pointillism, minimalism, and the general tendency towards intellectually-driven rather than emotionally-driven composition create sounds that are more uncomfortable or hypnotic than sexy. In order for something to be sexy there needs to be an emotional connection. It needs to elicit a response beyond intellectual stimulation.”
“Too often tied up in academia, and intellectual arguments about concepts in music. Not enough humor and ‘worldliness’ is allowed to creep through.”
“I think popular music can get away with more sexiness because it is building on performance conventions and established coded vocabularies, whereas classical compositions often either try to build its own worlds from scratch or to triangulate themselves within the (modern, perhaps overly Puritan, understanding of) upper class European ‘long haired’ society, which readily classifies any sexy leanings as faux pas. For example, a bare midriff is commonplace, almost expected in most forms of popular music, and would be scandalous on a classical stage.”
“Music that substitutes cleverness for depth, or that tries to be different for different’s sake = turn off.”
“Knowing how cutthroat some regional new music communities are is a huge turn-off—both in terms of the music and the people.”
What could make new music sexier?
“I don’t see a need to specialize new music. It’s an art form that is not dependent on objectifying its participants. Let’s not change that.”
“Why does everything have to be sexy?”
“I don’t think New Music should be sexy! I think that’s nuts. The obsession with sex permeates every other part of our culture. I wish it would leave New Music alone.”
“Asking if new music can or should be sexy is like asking if new movies can be sexy or new visual art or new anything. The question is too broad and reductive! There’s nothing inherently sexy or unsexy about any medium. The medium can be used to serve any purpose.” —Anna Pidgorna
“New ideas, new people and opportunities to more people would make new music really new. Therefore sexier.”
“New music is made by middle aged and old white males. How sexy can that be? Diversity will make it sexier. More people need opportunities/commissions to compose music. Unless we only want amateurs who struggle to survive.”
“The more we celebrate all kinds of love and bodies, the better it will be.” —Ashi Day
“[Let’s take into account] different kinds of sexy, some relating to experiencing the presence of a performer, others to do with the nature of sound and hearing, the way a concert is set in a space, the way the audience is laid out (er...) in the space. And there are degrees, partly depending on the nature of individual audience members (allosexual / asexual), degrees as heightening of sensations (when does a tactile sound become sensuous or then sexy?).”
“More operas with lesbian figures! I want to see ‘Mädchen in Uniform’ as an opera—with a happy end for the figures.”
“In vocal music, quit writing for and pushing vocal extremes. It’s very hard to make something beautiful/sexy if you’re struggling to just make a decent noise.”
“Get rid of formal wear and put some production values behind a concert (lights, dress, projections when appropriate), and tighter pants for everyone. Everyone looks good in tight pants.” —Adam Schumaker
“Easy—let’s just go back to tonality and clear rhythms.... I think modern music needs to find a way to get back to the people and be more approachable/communicative/understandable.” —Sylvan Loher
“As a composer, I’ve noticed an intentional shift away from writing music surrounding the individual human experience. Is writing about love and passion and about the individual’s experience with/without it to be left to pop music writers now? Is it ‘off limits’ because it’s sometimes perceived as vapid or stale?” —Shelley Washington
Thoughts on sexiness and gender in new music?
“As a woman performer, it’s expected that I should wear plunging necklines, shapely dresses, high heels. Anything less than dress+heels in an audition is seen as unprofessional by judges/casting agents. I don’t like to wear dresses or high heels, so I stopped auditioning.”
“In attempting to be taken seriously I’ve never dared have any kind of sexy pics. I’m a woman. Everything mundane, strictly boring. It’s not working, I don’t get any attention. It’s kind of a joke here (it’s impossible to say for sure what could be different) but it’s kind of falsely true that it’s probably easy to lose attention being too serious. And being too sexy loses you seriousness.”
“As a female percussionist (and a petite one at that) I am still very much in the minority of my profession.... I’ve been told, ‘You’re lucky because you can be sexy when you play,’ while ‘Drummers become drummers to get chicks.’ The jumbled mixture of gender based messages I constantly receive has led me to completely ignore them.”
“I am a female composer and being sexy can be both a hazard (it’s a small world with a lot of sex-deprived guys who are super excited to meet a woman) and a sort of power. We want to see performances by attractive people, and confidence is sexy. It’s also a bitch to navigate if you aren’t available because so many opportunities come through friends/lovers/potential lovers.”
“[I am a] hetero cis-male.... I don’t consider myself to be transgender, but there is a feminine component to my personality that I feel the need to acknowledge, although not publicly. I bond much more easily with women than with men, and I have been experimenting with cross-dressing since middle school, far longer than I have been composing. I have written and had performances of pieces composed under a female pseudonym and wrote one piece while dressed in women’s clothing a few years ago. I found the experience to be highly arousing and thus the piece reminds me of that and, without meaning to, it is a ‘sexy’ piece, at least for me.”
“I’m cis male. For women, it seems like the same struggle as in other disciplines: a tradeoff between expressing gender (sensuously or not) and being taken seriously… For men, the converse is true to a lesser extent (i.e., expressing anything but masculinity may lose credit), but I think a larger deterrent is the ‘creep factor’: it’s easier to see a male as creepy, perverse, degenerate, self-serving (and abusing the audience for it), and perhaps dangerous.... I’ve delved into experiments in more overtly sexy works myself, but only as a furtive side project under pseudonyms, for these reasons.”
“I think it does depend how far you get away from traditional concert contexts and settings; where musicians are exploring and defining new ways of creating and performing, there’s more freedom and openness in what you can do and how you are received (it’s never fully ‘open’ or without context of course, there’s always something already going on); the more you are working within a context with set and long-established norms or tendencies, the more pre-determined your identity, value... In other words, you may not get to choose if you want to engage with ‘being sexy,’ you may not be able to open up that dimension as you want, without confronting strong reflexes or preconceptions.”
“Pros about contemporary music include expectations of concert dress being more accepting—you can be as exposed or as unexposed as you want, and you can dress casually and comfortably without reproach. Female singers aren’t blankly expected to wear feminine clothes or expose their arms and figure if they don’t want— chic comfort rules, and the expectation doesn’t start with objectification the way it does for female singers and violinists and pianists in traditional concert performances. More pros—not just women are asked to be nude in contemporary opera! ‘Breaking the Waves’ is one of many cases in point.”
“I am a lady composer. I am also physically pleasant, so I must confess that I recur to milking this asset at times, and not because I am convinced that it is what I must do, but for the fact that I get more attention doing so. Which says more about my listeners than it does of me…” —Gaby Kapps
“I identify as female.... I was at a festival for composer-performers, and was singing a piece that had been written by a straight, cis man. He was also performing in this piece; it was the two of us plus another cis-het guy. The composer had written the text himself, and it basically centered around a stereotype-ridden female character—her mood changed frequently and abruptly, going from calm to angry to seductive in moments and describing herself (unsurprisingly) from the perspective of ex-boyfriends. I was young and naïve and didn’t have the guts to back out of the performance or even challenge the piece. The worst part was in rehearsals—being coached on my character by the composer, and then dealing with both men’s slimy responses when I was sufficiently sexy/bitchy/hysterical. I think this story perfectly illuminates the problems that can arise from sexiness in any form of performance work—if a [cis-het] male composer/director is demanding sexiness from a female performer…it is inherently objectifying and problematic. I totally support sexiness in new music, but I think it comes with a lot of potential issues.”
“[I am] a straight cis lady. [In my school] there weren’t female composers (represented in the faculty, student body....) and that was difficult. It was lonely, and many times I didn’t feel the sort of validation from my male peers that they so willingly gave each other (like when I had a composition recital and only one or two of them attended...) That has NOTHING to do overtly with sexuality, but also it does. Not having representation, visibility, acceptance and support from my then-peers made it difficult to feel like it was “ok” to express myself fully as an artist, and that extends to my sexuality/sexiness.” —Shelley Washington
Any further thoughts?
“No one finds composers sexy. Performers are the sexy ones. There’s nothing sexy about sitting in your pajamas all day while madly facing deadlines in your bedroom.”
“I got used to being the only female in the room as a composer and trombonist, particularly when it came to electronic music. I felt a lot of pressure to represent my gender well, which ironically led to poor performance. The amount of relief I felt when more women came into the room and started learning with me was surprisingly high.”
“[Queer/bi cis male] Once attended a concert by a new-music pianist (a gentleman) that many in my studio and I found very handsome. Our teacher was disturbed that we even mentioned the fact, and felt that we should only have focused on the performance. I maintain that all elements of a musical experience are always simultaneously in play—seeing live music involves every one of the senses. I don’t believe anyone is truly capable of simply cutting off portions of the experience on command.”
“I have witnessed straight white women being chastised within some tiny sections of the scene for not being ‘radical’ enough, or not being feminist enough. As if the fact of their very being there performing and creating music is not a radical act in itself. This is sad, because it descends into a juvenile (Twitter-style) tit-for-tat competition of who’s-the-most-left-wing? But what do I know as a straight white male. I’ve had it easy.”
“For women especially it’s a no-win situation.... Try to be masculine to fit in, and you’re homely. Try to be sexy, and you’re a slut or you’re relying on your looks. HEAVEN FORBID we encourage each other to confidently be ourselves—when that is *actually* the sexiest thing we could be.”
“I wish sexiness were not such a big issue in a world where meritocracy should call the shots. Or great emotional communicativeness.” —Gaby Kapps
“As a lesbian I am ridiculously tired of watching operas about straight couples, to the point it started feeling alienating and dull. Wish composers chose more interesting opera topics than straight romance.” —Yfat Soul Zisso
“Scruffy [white] men with unkempt hair and beard and an encroaching personality get everything. Seems like ‘sexiness’ isn’t needed after all.” —John Strieder
“From the performer’s perspective sexiness in musical performance is an issue not to be underestimated. Body shaming very much exists in the world of classical music. While I believe that a performer should be able to present themselves in whatever way they want to—and if that means that they go on stage (half) naked, so be it—I find it troubling that the current trend continues towards demanding always younger and ‘hotter’ (thinner, in accord with current standards of ‘beauty’) artists on stage. It seems rather besides the point for audiences (and hence concert organizers, and/or vice versa) to care more about a performer’s hair style rather than their ability to make beautiful and true music.” —Judith Valerie E.
To close, I want to respond to a comment composer Anna Pidgorna made: “I find this survey problematic as it seems to mix many different issues together. Your use of the term ‘sexy’ is not totally clear as you seem to mean both ‘sexually arousing’ and ‘cool/hip/exciting.’ Throwing gender into it just complicates matters further. The issue is WAY too broad to explore in a little article. You can write whole books on the subject of sexuality in music from any era or place! You are wading into dangerous territory and are in danger of either stepping into something unpleasant or simply not saying anything meaningful.”
I certainly agree that it is broad. That was intentional—I wondered how respondents would define it if I left it open. And I think throwing gender in to complicate matters is important labor that we need to keep doing.
I also agree it’s dangerous territory, but I think we have to be willing to wade into such territories. We need to make efforts (whether they take the shape of serious academic books or lighthearted surveys), make mistakes if we must, learn from them, then publicly share what we’ve learned (as opposed to hiding hard-won lessons out of shame). With regard to making progress in the areas of gender and intersectional equity, as a cis white female I don’t pretend to know what’s best, say what’s best, or do what’s best, but I know I have to keep wading if I want to learn. ¶