Subconscious Communications of Queer Identity: From Schubert to Anohni and Modern Day Pop Music

Any kind of music can communicate environmental, behavioral, and
aesthetic forces, and this can heal someone significantly through spiritual, subconscious
communication, no matter what “level of artistry” the music is at.

Guest post by Timmy Flock 

It is crucial to study music from all areas of history. No matter what genre, all music composed, arranged, and performed is reflective (and the result of) environmental, behavioral, and aesthetic forces. Environmental as referring to the era, country, and/or historical context the piece or song was composed in. Behavioral forces can refer to both compositional and performance norms at the time, and the question of what standards were met and what standards were either stretched or ignored. Aesthetic simply means what was trying to be expressed in the piece, (be that the message or spirit), either in the composition or in the performance.

As a music student, I have discovered that, first and foremost, I either tend towards being much more interested in either the aesthetic of the piece or the behavioral compositional patterns. Environmental (i.e. historical) forces I learn about second-hand, and at a much slower pace. I notice that, when I pick up the aesthetic of a musical piece quickly, I pick up the compositional patterns almost alongside the aesthetic, and the same goes vice versa. This is nothing special for a music student. This is just the way that music works. These compositional patterns, while sometimes seeming abstract to non-musicians, make sense to music majors, and we notice that the patterns instantaneously communicate aesthetics within the confines of the logical compositional theory.

Approaching the works of Schubert was of great interest to me because Schubert did not give a fuck during his time. He completely threw out many of the rules about chord progressions, and replaced it with a system of mode mixture chord progressions and strange key changes. I loved his music’s compositional patterns because I recognized his compositional patterns in some of my mediocre early pieces as a starting composer when I was trying to make something interesting and original. Back when I knew little to nothing about Schubert, I was trying to completely deconstruct this idea of keeping to a tonal center to piss off my mainstream pop music loving friends. So I tried composing pieces within a system I didn’t have a name for, but I discovered it was a system Schubert already invented called a “circle of major thirds.”

These personal details about my life would not be of great interest to myself if it weren’t for one thing I learned about Schubert in college: he was suspected to be gay. Many argue that his pieces were trying to express an aesthetic of homosexuality. However, Dr. Block brought me to an article entitled Constructions of Subjectivity in Schubert’s Music, with the author Susan McClary claiming that you cannot tell someone’s sexuality based off their music. What she did claim was that Schubert might have been intentionally defying gender norms and expressing “femininity” through his behavior of compositional patterns.

This struck me hard. I was not, and never was or will be, a genius when I was composing my pieces with, unknowingly, the same behavioral compositional patterns of Schubert’s pieces. However, I have been brought to critically wonder to myself if we were subconsciously trying to express something similar? Being a transgender middle school student, was I fed up with gender norms, and was this the only way I could express it? Did Schubert have these intense feelings as I did towards either sexual or gender norms, and channeled this similarly into compositions breaking tonal center rules? Did we both do this, perhaps unknowingly about what our feelings were really trying to get across?

This may not seem like a big deal to non-musicians, or even musicians alike. But so much has been explored already in music composition in regards to what has been done with deconstructing tonal centers, and only so much can be done. It is damn near impossible to do almost anything original anymore with tonal centers. I tried to step out and do something original with my lack of knowledge of music history, and ended up expressing an immediate aesthetic within the confines of behavioral compositional patterns already done by Schubert. This, to me, is spiritual, and intersecting subconscious expression.

This may not be something I would be so stunned by if it weren’t for the many real instances of this continuously happening in my music-filled life. For another example, I turn to the transgender musician Anohni, previously known as Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. Instead of focusing on her compositional patterns, I will be focusing more on her performance.

I heard her in the Antony and the Johnsons song “Hope There’s Someone.” I had no idea she was transgender, and I knew very little about the band other than she was similar to other singer-songwriters I liked. I also knew very little about the conversations surrounding gender issues. I heard the sound of her voice and the piano, and almost cried. I didn’t though. I was still under the guise of a cis straight male, and felt that I couldn’t. What I did instead was listen to the entire album the song was off of: I Am a Bird Now, with fascination and intense emotional respect for her artistry.

I didn’t visit her work again until after I was out as a gay man. Then I discovered her work in Antony and the Johnsons was heavily based around transgender issues in the lyrics. I kept listening to her music, and reading more about her lyrics. I started watching her interviews on YouTube. I thought to myself, “She’s pretty cool.”

I had my first relationship, then a first break-up. I felt completely disillusioned with the gender issues that kept arising during the relationship. I then moved into a house for the summer with a bunch of guys I didn’t know very well. They were all nice, cool guys, but I just couldn’t relate to them very well. I heavily turned to Anohni’s music, interviews, and lyrics after my break-up during that summer. I found an hour-long interview that she did where she talked about videos that influenced her life. One segment I kept coming back to was the one where she kept talking about the uniqueness of the transgender experience, and how it would benefit everyone to critically question gender norms. Aside from watching her on YouTube, I did a lot of open mic nights that summer and sang a lot in my car during pizza deliveries. I then, unintentionally, started incorporating Anohni’s singing stylistics into my voice.

I reached the realization I was a gender fluid trans woman at the end of that summer, and was confused. I went back to Anohni’s music during my pizza delivery drives. Went to the song she did with an orchestra called “Cut the World.” Heard her voice sing, “For so long I’ve obeyed, that feminine decree. I always contend your desire to hurt me. But when will I turn, and cut the world?” I uncontrollably sobbed. This voiced all the feelings of dysphoria I experienced those many years, pertaining to both genders. I listened to many of her albums again; especially I Am A Bird Now. Found that all these songs fit with my narrative as a transgender person to a tee. Uncontrollably sobbed. This was my story, all laid out on an album. It was everything: transgender relationships, desires, hopes, and fears.

Piano performance majors could take a look at Anohni’s work with “Antony and the Johnsons” and criticize her average piano playing skills and overusing the foot pedal too often. Vocal performance majors could listen to the voice of Anohni and think her vibrato is overdone, and not occurring as a natural result of vocal tone. String performance majors could ridicule orchestras for collaborating with Anohni, because she’s not an opera singer. Wind performance majors could be quick to tell the spots where her voice is out of tune. They would all be, technically speaking, right. But they would be missing the point.

The point to this story is any kind of music can communicate environmental, behavioral, and aesthetic forces, and this can heal someone significantly through spiritual, subconscious communication, no matter what “level of artistry” the music is at. I am stunned to look back on how I immersed myself with Anohni, and how it literally felt like we were in a slowly unfolding relationship. But really, all she was doing was guiding my subconscious, and she was not getting anything from me in return.

I look at her environment and behaviors and all the interesting areas where our personalities intersect. She was also raised Catholic. I notice from her interviews and the way I try to talk, we both speak eloquently, almost like how a priest might deliver a sermon. I was not born in the UK like Anohni, but I’ve always loved pop music from the UK. Anohni moved to New York and submerged herself in bohemian culture. My dad was born and raised in New York, and I visit my extended family there often. Through my visits there, I feel I have developed a taste for New York fashion, bohemia, aesthetic, and overall “artiness.” I also appreciate New York underground music, such as The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and Sonic Youth.

Anohni did not publicly come out under the name “Anohni” until she released her politically charged solo electronic album Hopelessness in 2016, a complete 180-degree turn from the cabaret folk qualities of her former band. This reaffirmed me that it was okay to take time with revealing transgender identity, and I should not feel shame for blooming so late within my senior year. She is in her 40s now, and only just felt the agency to be able to come out with a name she had been known as for a long time in her personal life! As for the album Hopelessness, well, I had a good screaming and crying fest in the car the day after Trump won the presidency with the title track song, finding it embodied everything about my feelings and the atmosphere of terror and turmoil surrounding the Tacoma area.

I am left to wonder if these similarities in environmental factors contributed to products of music that have consistently made me have these emotional reactions, no matter what stage I was at in my life.

Reflecting on these experiences gives me a lot of empowerment as someone that wants to go into teaching music. I literally have the power to open up pathways to subconscious communication with my high school band students. It seems like this is something that music has been doing for centuries now, almost in its very nature. But if it’s already happening within its very nature, what else can I really do in teaching music that will increase this communication?

One idea is to give students the space, opportunity, and empathy to voice their opinions into words about what is going on in this subconscious process. It can be expressed adorably, such as “Oh my gosh this sounds AMAZING!” But it can also be expressed thoroughly, in a language of critical, subjective analysis. This critical, subjective analysis really took off for me in college, but it would be great to have students voice these questions at an early age. Children are brilliant, and they are able to voice these opinions early on.

Even looking at the songs I was writing in high school, I now recognize the critical, subjective analysis I went through with writing those songs. I think to what I believe to be my best song “Look Me In The Eyes.” It is a song about Temple Grandin, an autistic professor. It is based off a movie about her, which openly dives into her autistic condition and her life story. I could see where people would find me appropriative, or commercially exploitative, writing a song like this. I don’t have autism, how can I understand this? This criticism is justified, but it disregards the fact that I had tried to keep my subconscious in tune and open to communications to expressing this song in the least appropriative and exploitative way possible.

I was trying to express so much within the song, and I asked myself so many critical, subjectively analyzing questions subconsciously. What was Temple Grandin’s perspective? It was of someone who made it as a college professor, and decided to help autistic people by speaking openly and unapologetically about her condition. What was her mother’s perspective? It was of someone who loved and encouraged her daughter, even though her daughter sometimes confused her. (One of the lines in the lyrics speaks of her perspective.) What is my perspective? I am someone without autism, although my parents thought I might have had it when I was a child, perhaps because I innately did not care about gender norms. I have a sister with autism, and have always ended up making friends with someone with autism in every area of school: elementary, middle, high, and college. I have paid close attention to the way people with autism speak, and I love them. They inspire me. I want to speak as openly and unapologetically about transgender experience as Temple Grandin did about autism. I do not understand all the ins and outs of the minds of people with autism, so I will the sing the song in third person. However, I know and understand the bullying, peer pressure, and stigma kids with autism have faced. I wanted to express this clearly and succinctly within the lyrics, the guitar arpeggios, my vocal style, and the fight between major and minor keys in the song. What are the perspectives of my audience? They are people who may not understand the song fully at all. However, when I performed the song for my sister with autism, she said it was brilliant. When I posted it on Facebook, one of the few people that liked it was the mother of a friend of mine in high school with autism. It got to them both. This subconscious expression mattered to me.

These were all questions in the back of my mind when I wrote the song around the time in high school. Except the question of “what is my perspective?” I only remembered my parents thought I had autism after coming out as transgender. Nevertheless, this inspired, successful song poured out of me.

When I go into the field of teaching high school band music, it is crucial for me to introduce as much music history and theory as possible into the curriculum. Knowing about this early on enables my students to quickly see these grand intersections between the environmental, behavioral, and aesthetic forces behind the repertory they will be playing, and it can help them to lead to a fuller subjective, critical analysis.

As with my experience finding a lineage of expression between my mediocre middle school composer self and Schubert, I find beauty in that many of the same behavioral harmonic tricks used in Mozart’s piece are present in so many modern music styles, from jazz to folk to pop, whether these modern day composers consciously realize this or not.

As with my experience finding transgender aesthetic appreciation in Anohni, I think about the strong subconscious and subliminal power of pop music today, and what it is doing to kids. I want to engage my students to think about the pop music they are listening to today, and have them ask themselves critically how it informs their everyday decisions. Pop music aesthetic can communicate a strong foundation of confidence for kids that desperately need it. However, it could also inform their perceptions pertaining to body image, drug culture, sexism, and rape culture. I want to provide a classroom environment where my students feel comfortable opening up about these messages pop culture is telling them about.

I look back at all the environments I analyzed in the composition of that song without even realizing how thorough my analysis was until after the fact. I want my future students to be actively aware of their subconscious considerations they all have to make as performers. Who is our audience? What in the behavioral compositional patterns is causing the piece to make us and the future audiences feel this way? What is the aesthetic of the composer? What is our aesthetic as a performing ensemble? How do we intersect our aesthetic with the composer’s? How will we achieve this intersecting aesthetic in performance?

If I can bring my students to calmly realize their sub consciousness within performance, it will lead them to quickly learning how to perform wholeheartedly, with spirit, and with meaning. It can lead to creating a more empathetic music-making community, and maybe help my students realize we are not that different as people. Hopefully this is love and empathy they can spread outside of their music community and to the other social and cultural communities they live in.

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