National InQueeries: looking back

Vancouver's Fox Cabaret, the perfect venue for National InQueeries. Photo by Jan Gates.
Vancouver’s Fox Cabaret, the perfect venue for National InQueeries. Photo by Jan Gates.

I secretly love a good pun. When pianist Rachel Iwaasa and I were scheming about our next Tiresias Duo concert — one that would commission four young LGBT composers to write new works inspired by historic queer trailblazers — we were wracking our brains for a good title. It finally came to me while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, surrounded by tabloid papers that were, coincidentally, insinuating that some B-list actor had a secret gay lover. “National InQueeries“, I thought, encapsulated what we were out to create: a nationally focused exploration of queer culture and heritage; something that asked questions about who we are and who came before us; and something that preserved an element of the campy and the taboo, especially as queer rights begins to lumber its way towards a very peculiar and selective kind of mainstream acceptance. Four composers were approached: German-born, Victoria-based Annette Brosin; BC-born, Denmark-based Justin Christensen; Toronto-based president of the Canadian League of Composers, Brian Harman; and New York-based composer-in-residence of the Victoria Symphony, Jared Miller. And on October 20th — after a year-and-a-half of plotting, scheming, commissioning, rehearsing, and nail-biting — National InQueeries came to life at the Fox Theatre as part of Music on Main‘s series, “A Month of Tuesdays“.

On one level (and I suppose one could argue that it’s the level that matters most), we were über prepared. Rachel and I had spent a week at the Leighton Artists’ Colony at the Banff Centre, rehearsing the four new works as much as eight hours each day. Moreover, we were working with four composers who are on absolutely top of their game. But what I was entirely not prepared for was how a programme like this would affect me emotionally. I had never stood before an audience and tried explaining that 1.) I’m gay, 2.) it’s an identity that I spent years struggling with, and 3.) the evening’s programme was a way for all of us to learn more about a cultural that isn’t always recognized, but continues to exist and thrive thanks to extraordinarily brave and creative individuals. But what was perhaps even more overwhelming was how each composer responded to the challenge of writing a new work that paid tribute to our shared inheritance: Brian Harman wrote a haunting and often playful piece that paid homage to two exceptional gay composers, Claude Vivier and Benjamin Britten; Justin Christensen’s piece explored the complex homoerotic roots of tango while brilliantly utilizing the spoken text of Judith Butler; Annette Brosin wrote a fascinating piece that looked at two pop songs she loved, one by Björk, another by Radiohead — neither song being specifically queer, but both with messages that, for her, changed dramatically after she came out to herself; and Jared Miller wrote a virtuosic (and occasionally quite savage) tribute to Leonard Bernstein. The evening was one of the most artistically satisfying things I’ve done, and I’m so thankful that 1.) after more than a decade, Rachel Iwaasa remains my Tiresias Duo partner-in-crime 2.) each composer gifted us with such beautifully wrought, intensely personal pieces, and 3.) David Pay and all the folks at Music on Main gave us the chance to share this programme. To each and all of you, I want to shower you with love, gratitude and the queerest of Hollywood movie star kisses.

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