(Re-)Transcribing Composition: Two Transcriptions/Ode to Schoenberg

Two Transcriptions/Ode to Schoenberg (2013) is an art project that frames debates around musical authorship through different historical contexts for considering transgender politics and identity. The project is a response to a 1950 recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1942 work Ode to Napoleon, a setting of a Lord Byron poem for string quartet, piano, and voice. The work has an interesting history: only a year following its release Schoenberg wrote a letter to the Los Angeles producer of the record complaining that it was sung by a woman instead of the intended male voice.

Before proceeding, it is necessary to suspend the idea of music as sound – organized, absolute, or otherwise – in favor of a notion of music as a site for social, discursive, and materially embodied practices that operate on a broader terrain of politics, history, language, and gender. This revised and expanded concept of music is one I pursue in my book, After Sound: Toward a Critical Music, which will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2016.

Back to the letter: on March 3, 1951, Schoenberg, dictating to an assistant who recorded and transcribed his speech, addressed the following missive to Ross Russell in response to the latter’s 1950 record publication:


Mister: You … In spite of my protest, you have published Leibowitz’ performance of my Ode to Napoleon with a woman’s voice, which I find terrible. (… behind the orchestra …) I can only tell you now, that you will hear from me. You will, I can tell you, you will regret this act severely. I will be busy to help you to be ruined by this what I will do …

(Some of the instruments in small …)

You are not only a bugger. You are not only a man who disregards an artist’s wishes, his artistic beliefs, you are also a man who does not care to keep a contract. You know that you signed a contract, according to which you have to account to me regularly. You must have sold quite a number of records of my Violin Phantasy, of the Trio, and other things which you… but which you issued without my consent. I tell you, you will hear from me also about these things, and I hope it will cost you very much money.



In his letter, Schoenberg notably implicates the gender identity of the performer of his score, citing its addressee as responsible for the unacceptable recording. Yet despite Russell’s stated reasons for choosing the vocalist, Ellen Adler – the liner notes describe her as the »most successful« to use Schoenberg’s well-known Sprechgesang technique [1] – the composer decries the production, claiming that his »artistic beliefs« and wishes were ignored. Schoenberg goes further to insist that the producer failed to keep a »contract« and refers to Russell as a »bugger« [2] – a homophobic slur that holds particular weight during the McCarthy era, arguably the most homophobic period in recent history.

Schoenberg is unmistakable in his disapproval, even though the Ode to Napoleon score doesn’t actually stipulate a gender for the voice. While, oddly, Schoenberg had none other than Orson Welles in mind for the part of the speaker, the score provides no indication of such a preference. Schoenberg’s reasoning seems to be that the voice of politics, justice, and war – echoed here by Lord Byron’s »voice of history« – must unquestionably represent a masculine voice. [3] The voice thus forms the locus of this dispute over gender and the limits of the musical score and composition.

The voice also presents a unique set of problems around recording technology. Interestingly, it is only through the record – a technology that purportedly removes sound from its source and thereby cloaks its identity [4] – that Schoenberg is able to affirm the gender of the performer upon which his objection is based. One may consider instances in the history of recorded music wherein gender becomes a subject of scrutiny. Judith Halberstam, for example, discusses the late Little Jimmy Scott, a male jazz vocalist whose voice (affected by a rare hormonal dysfunction) is often misapprehended as female; interestingly, Halberstam suggests transgender as an operative category for understanding Scott’s gender identification. [5] Indeed, while Scott’s gender identity is received perhaps differently between visual and sonic representations, Adler’s gender identity, as such, seems to go unquestioned. In each case, the conflict between expectation and identification becomes the source of contention. Hearing the voice of Scott, one expects (to see?) a cisgender woman and learns that sounds can be deceiving. Hearing Adler’s recitation of his Ode to Napoleon, Schoenberg likewise receives an outcome he did not expect. If Adler’s recording is to disregard »an artist’s wishes,« what would it mean for a transgender performer to realize Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon?


Schoenberg’s 1942 composition predates the modern concept of transgender by roughly half of a century. Anthropologist David Valentine analyzes the history of transgender as a category, noting its emergence and acceptance in collective and institutional terms in the early 1990s. [6] But a consideration of gender-nonconforming identities in this context may nevertheless prove valuable for contemporary questions around authorship, especially as they relate to music.

In 2013, I created a vinyl record, Two Transcriptions/Ode to Schoenberg, which contains a pair of »transcriptions« of Ode to Napoleon – one based on Schoenberg’s score, the other on the transgressive 1950 recording – that feature the voices of artists who identify as transgender: American performance artist Zackary Drucker and musician Theo Baer. Side A consists of an instrumental texture derived from a spectral analysis and algorithmic recomposition of the 1950 record – imagine a musical equivalent of the photomosaic – with a spoken voice part performed by Drucker. Drucker, whose memorable voice-over guides the viewer through her own 2011 film with New York drag queen Flawless Sabrina At Least You Know You Exist, provides a vocal character beyond the fold of typical »new music« performances. She points even further in Two Transcriptions to what Drucker has called »a new vision of transgender performativity.« [7] Side B consists of Schoenberg’s original score performed by the Flux Quartet and pianist Stephen Gosling, and sung by Theo Baer, a musician based in Brooklyn who identifies as a transman.

Importantly, each of the two sides is a transcription. For me, a transcription is a process of writing – a practice of composing – by tracing out a part of the real to produce a new text. Side A’s source material is the 1950 Ode to Napoleon recording, although it exchanges Adler for Drucker (and recomposes the instrumental texture). Meanwhile, Side B »transcribes« Schoenberg’s original score by merely substituting a trans- for a cisman. Two Transcriptions remains tethered to its »Readymade« source, while I consider both sides together as a new work. If my work »performs« Schoenberg, it only does so wrongly. Yet is it »appropriation« or a new text? Composition or plagiarism?

Two Transcriptions/Ode to Schoenberg can be heard in line with an appropriation art lineage that began with Duchamp and proceeded by way of Debord, Foucault, and Barthes to the Pictures generation artists, and on to its lingering yet primary role in contemporary art’s visual syntax. But Two Transcriptions owes perhaps less to the author’s death than it does her »queering« – treading liminally between authorial adherence and a (non)subtle reworking of Schoenberg’s score: transcription. Two Transcriptions thus adds to the lineage of »appropriation« the formal-historical problem of executing a score »correctly« and thereby links it to a system of authorship that predates the contemporary appropriation art canon. In music studies, this system is referred to as Werktreue, or »historical authenticity« in the Anglo-American literature. [8] According to this literature, the »Werktreue ideal« emerged in the music of the early nineteenth century following the solidification toward the end of the 1700s of the »work-concept,« an idea governing composition and performance but went further to reify »the work« as such. [9] Coterminous with the arrival of the autonomous musical work (and copyright laws), this authorship concept forbade the promiscuous use of scores that characterized Renaissance practice. If, in this account, modernism inherits a work-concept structure from Romanticism, then it has also remained committed to the Werktreue ideal.

Schoenberg succinctly enforces this Werktreue ideal by equating the score with contract: word – or, rather, composition – is bond. We may therefore understand the score as constructed by the basic linguistic form of the imperative, or the command structure. The imperative lies at the intersection of violence and signification; it sets up expectations, rules, norms, and repercussions. »You will regret this act severely,« Schoenberg warns his letter’s addressee. Language becomes an exercise of power, and such power, as authority, becomes codified in the musical score. Werktreue refers to a performer’s »fidelity« to the score, her adherence to a kind of Deleuzian »order-word.« In realizing a composition, a performer may, on the one hand, seek to uphold the composer’s intentions (presuming the composer knows what they are), or, on the other, deliberately undermine the score to produce a new text. To perform a work of music, then, is to negotiate between these poles of agency and adherence, autonomy and fidelity. To transcribe, here, is to transgress.

Queering the command: rejecting the normative, regulative ideal of the composition becomes homologous to the rejection of normative cisgender identity. Regarding Cagean indeterminacy, queer theorist Jonathan Katz draws a similar parallel not to gender but to Cage’s sexuality, as a (quasi-)closeted bisexual artist working during McCarthyism and the Cold War era. [10] But contrasting with interpretive indeterminacy, the score brings with it the authority of the command structure, made explicit in the case of Schoenberg’s letter. And Schoenberg’s recourse to the contractual character of the score – here, again, the score becomes a kind of legal document – provides the basis from which Schoenberg issues more threats: »I will be busy to help you to be ruined by this.« Considering such an authoritarian insistence, it is interesting that Schoenberg describes Ode to Napoleon as an explicit statement against fascism during the Second World War. [11]

Beyond a formal exercise, Two Transcriptions unfolds amidst real issues that affect transgender-identified individuals in the present. On May 25, 2013, I staged a panel discussion in New York City on transgender issues, music, and performance and invited musicologist Ben Piekut, musician Theo Baer, transgender activist Che Gossett, along with members of the AIDS and transgender activist communities in New York City. [12] We spoke about the legacy of discrimination and acts of violence that continue to plague the transgender community as a whole. Gossett, a member of AIDS and queer activist groups ACT UP Philadelphia and Queerocracy, noted the greatly disproportionate risk of HIV infection that confronts transgender populations, especially transwomen of color. Despite the increased coverage of gender-nonconforming celebrities like Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and Chaz Bono, the difficulties transgender communities face today remain, on many accounts, staggering. And while my project does not pretend to offer concrete solutions to these problems, it does propose perhaps an unlikely context for pursuing questions of trans politics – if only by re-imagining, re-appropriating, re-transcribing the historical notion of authorship that continues to inform not only music but perhaps all forms of authorship: composition.


  1. Jump Up »The female voice was chosen here for its greater flexibility and adaptability to the instrumental background,« the liner notes argue further, »the male voice having a tendency to overpower the music and turn it into a mere accompaniment.«
  2. Jump Up Here I have chosen to transcribe the phrase as »You are not only a bugger…« [see also Peter Ablinger, »A Letter From Schoenberg reading piece with player piano,« accessed January 9, 2010, http://ablinger.mur.at/txt_qu3schoenberg.html] over the version offered by the Arnold Schönberg Center, »You are not only a… [paragraph],« as though Schoenberg had indicated a paragraph break to the transcriber. I invite the reader to listen to the recording of Schoenberg’s letter to judge which interpretation is more accurate: »VR48: BRIEF, LOS ANGELES, AN ROSS RUSSELL, NEW YORK,« Arnold Schönberg Center.
  3. Jump Up In a letter addressed to Welles, Schoenberg writes: »I have heard you over the radio, and I was deeply impressed by your reading; by the great number of characters and shades your voice is capable to produce; by the very artistic and unconventional manner of structural composition; by the sincerity and by the purity of your expression. When the problem came about, who could take the part of the recitation I suggested – primo loco – your name,« quoted in Sabine Feisst, »Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Op. 41,« in Schoenberg’s New World: The American Years [New York: Oxford U P, 2011], 144-149. I thank Ben Piekut for that reference and for his related comments on Ode to Napoleon, from which I have also drawn here.
  4. Jump Up I refer here to so-called acousmatic listening as theorized in the 1950s by French musique concrète composer Pierre Schaeffer. For a recent study on the acousmatic, see Brian Kane, Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice [New York: Oxford U P, 2014].
  5. Jump Up Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives [New York: NYU Press, 2005], 55-6. Note that Judith has more recently identified as Jack Halberstam.
  6. Jump Up David Valentine, Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category [Durham: Duke U P, 2007].
  7. Jump Up http://zackarydrucker.com/video/at-least-you-know-you-exist/
  8. Jump Up For an overview of the scholarship and a discussion of the discrepancies between the British-American and European debates, see Dorottya Fabian, »The Meaning of Authenticity and the Early Music Movement: A Historical Review,« International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 32, no. 2 [2001]: 153-167.
  9. Jump Up Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music [New York: Oxford U P, 1994], 115.
  10. Jump Up Jonathan Katz, »John Cage’s Queer Silence; or, How to Avoid Making Matters Worse,« GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 5, no. 2 [1999]: 231-252, accessed July 27, 2012, http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/KatzPages/KatzWorse.html. See also Philip M. Gentry, »The Cultural Politics of 4’33”: Identity and Sexuality,« Tacet Experimental Music Review No. 1. Who Is John Cage? [2011]: 19-39; and Caroline A. Jones, »Finishing School: John Cage and the Abstract Expressionist Ego,« Critical Inquiry 19, no. 4 [Summer 1993]: 628-665.
  11. Jump Up Writing of the decision to compose Ode to Napoleon, Schoenberg states, »I knew it was the moral duty of intelligentsia to take a stand against tyranny,« quoted in »Ode to Napoleon op. 41,« Arnold Schönberg Center, July 30, 2009, last updated March 4, 2015, http://www.schoenberg.at/index.php/en/joomla-license-sp-1943310036/ode-to-napoleon-op-41-1942.
  12. Jump Up The record release and panel discussion event, »Two Transcriptions,« was presented by Audio Visual Arts Gallery/Justin Luke, hosted by Incubator Arts Project, and supported, in part, by a 2013 Franklin Furnace Fund grant.