Metamorphosis by Seeley and Espindola
Bill Long 4/10/06
Sung by the Portland Gay Men's Chorus
The Saturday (4/8) performance in Salem of this recently-released choral piece by Robert Seeley (music) and Robert Espindola (words) was a life-affirming, passionate and searching exploration of the stages of life through which any person, but especially gay persons, travel in order to find a fit with one's own heart and with the universe. The music is testimony not only to how far the gay pride/rights movement has come in the past generation but how much misunderstanding still exists. This essay probes both that progress and misunderstanding.
The Making of Metamorphosis
The mere fact that this 45-minute choral work, sung in 11 pieces (e.g., "Womb," or "Kicked in the Gut," or "I Can Fly," for example), emerged in 2004 and 2005 indicates something about the growth of what I will call "GayLife" in America in our day. Any alert person in his/her 50s has "grown up" with GayLife in America. I would characterize the decade of the 1970s as the time of self-discovery and experimentation, a time of incredible intensity of body and spirit as a long-suppressed minority struggled to find a voice. These newly unbundled emotions, of lust and grief, of rage and new empowerment, flooded our larger cities in that era. With the advent of AIDS in the early-mid 1980s, however, the unbridled experimentation of the 1970s took on a different tone even as some of the same emotions persisted. The passionate desperation evident in Randy Shilts' work, for example, injected a note of fear and loneliness into the roiling feelings of the 1970s.
But GayLife matured, even as many of its most prominent artists and spokesmen were cut down in the Springtime of their lives. From the perspective of 2006, the challenge to gay individuals in the 1990s and beyond has been to put life together in a wholistic way rather than simply to feel and act upon a few overwhelming emotions. That is, as any movement matures the problem of interpretation becomes the crucial problem it faces. Interpretive issues include how to understand our common past as well as our individual struggles along the way. Which words are appropriate to place on the sacred spaces of our lives? For, indeed, our lives are valuable and even sacred. But that sacrality is lost or disrespected if appropriate words to describe it aren't forthcoming. How many times have you been hurt or even humiliated when another has tried to give words to you to describe your life when the words are really not reflective of the solitary throbbing of your heart? Thus, the challenge for GayLife in our decade is to try to come up not only with a series of individual narratives of life lived in integrity as a gay person but to try to formulate a master narrative which might speak to all people, gays and straights alike, about the intersection of GayLife with all Life.
The Themes of Metamorphosis and The Problem of Misunderstaning
Formulating this master narrative, then, is what Metamorphosis sets out to do. Derived from a series of interviews among men in the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus, the text of Metamorphosis tries to personalize as well as universalize the emotions felt especially by gay people in our society in the past three or so decades. It tries to weave the story of a few individuals into the common tapestry of life we all experience. To that end, it follows the course of life from before birth through youth, to rejection and humiliation and misunderstanding at the hands of family, society and even God, and then to a sort of reconciliation at the end, where love and longing for wholeness pervade.
Several of the themes explored in Metamorphosis call for comment but space permits mention only of two. Overriding themes in the piece are shame and the resultant secrecy. Why shame? Of course because the upstanding Midwestern family has a son who is gay, and it feels compelled to hide this fact. Behind the picket fences, the nicely ordered life and well-manicured lawn, is an issue riving a family to its very core. The fourth piece says:
"Sometimes my family sat at night/ with no lights on./ Hiding our anger in the dark,/ Pretending not to see the harsh realities../ of our broken lives.
We spoke in silent screams and 'little while lies.'/ Using our smiles to disguise.../ the secrets that we kept, the bitterness we swept../neatly out of sight."
These lyrics are both moving and trite. The moving nature arises from the picture created in the first few lines. Someone has lived through the experience of a darkened night at home, when family members would not even face each other because of not knowing how to confront the terrible monsters within. Yet, the language has not yet matured, not yet evolved into an eloquent statement of that anguish. "Little white lies" here and "kicked in the gut" a few songs later are hackneyed phrases which no doubt help us to visualize the pain, but they are not yet to the point of crystallizing it in the scream of combined loneliness, rage, misunderstanding, lost love and longing for some kind of reconciliation in the shattered world created by the ones who should want nothing more than to love and be loved. Some of the searing and desperate loneliness and utter despair at realizing one's "uniqueness" is missing from the lyrics.
The mere existence of Metamorphosis is testimony to the growing maturity of the GayLife in America today. Yet, fears, biases and misunderstandings persist. Religious groups, especially, are now petrified with fear of gay people. But, what can you, as a gay or straight person, ultimately do if people refuse to grant you the dignity and acceptance that ought to be yours by virtue of sharing the same humanity with them? If they refuse to receive the gifts you bring to life and work? Well, you can sing. You can sing your pain, your unexpected joys, your heart's desires, your love. And you will find that as you sing you will touch hearts and make connections with people whom you ordinarily would never have met. You will find a new life, and the world will benefit from your voice. That is precisely what the Portland Gay Men's Chorus has been doing for 26 years. And counting.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long