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  • Writer's pictureerikgundel

Immaterial: SOPHIE and Queer Theory in Music Therapy

On January 30th, the world lost the electronic/pop musician SOPHIE at the age of 34. From my standpoint, it would be difficult to overstate the gravity of this loss. While SOPHIE may not have been a household name quite yet, SOPHIE was already becoming an essential touchstone for any artist engaging with identity through music. As a trans artist, SOPHIE (who used neither gendered nor non-binary pronouns) provided an example of how wider acceptance was possible for a still-marginalized community. SOPHIE made no concessions or obscured any part of SOPHIE’s identity – quite the opposite: from the uniquely plastic sound design to the lyrical content, SOPHIE put transness – as in its root meanings of “through, across, and beyond”– at the center of the music. Literally nothing else sounds like a SOPHIE production; on a song like “Lemonade”, percussion pops like bubbles in soda. Frequently in SOPHIE’s music, accessible melodies collide with sounds akin to fingers rubbing a balloon, or intense metallic clangs (perhaps SOPHIE’s most distinctive sonic signature). All sounds (aside from vocals) were created solely with synthesizers. SOPHIE’s musical thesis was that there is no need to imitate or refer to any real-world or acoustic instrument, that the tools of electronic music allow for an exploration of everything beyond corporeal experience. Lyrically, on songs like “Immaterial” and “It’s Okay to Cry”, SOPHIE explores the joys of gender fluidity and the embrace of everything that’s inside, respectively; as others have pointed out, the title of SOPHIE’s only album, OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES is an anagram for “I love every person’s insides”. As an ascendant hero of radical self-acceptance and expression, SOPHIE not being around anymore feels profoundly tragic.

While I was immediately influenced by SOPHIE as a musician, I’ve become more interested in how to apply the notion of identity plasticity to my music therapy practice. As a cisgendered white man, it is all too convenient to simply engage in the traditions of psychology (i.e., those developed and propagated by old or deceased white men). This includes binary hierarchies such as therapist/client, healthy/sick, abled/disabled, etc. These modes of treatment derive from an increasingly obsolete view of how our identities are formed, which subsequently affect the ways in which participants experience the therapeutic relationship. Dismantling these binaries and their constituent static identities falls under the umbrella of queer theory, which needn’t be limited to considerations of sexuality. Music, in particular, feels so attuned to pursuing that which is beyond the traditional scope of therapy; the language of queer theory and SOPHIE’s embrace of otherness provide excellent frameworks.

As a humanistically oriented therapist, I believe in the primacy of the therapeutic relationship as the grounds for exploration and change (supported by unconditional positive regard for those with whom I’m working). Additionally, I feel that therapeutic work is highly intersubjective, in that both or all participants will continuously affect one another (both consciously and unconsciously). However, queer theory suggests that one must go further, and consider how individuals are not just affecting each other in therapy, but are also constantly changing in response to social, psychological, and biological influences. In an article entitled “The politics of becoming bodies: Sex, gender and intersubjectivity in motion”, dance therapist Beatrice Allegranti explores how collaborative improvisational movement provides opportunities to remove static conceptions of identity, and how this experience will reveal the subjectivity of all participants (2013). The artistic expression (in this case, dance) creates in-the-moment felt experiences that serve to remove the distinction between our physical experience of being in the world and how this translates to self-knowledge, towards a more continuous mode of “being and encountering” (p. 397). In this way, the therapist is no longer an elevated healthy/able/educated person, but a subject also in continuous rediscovery. As a music therapist, it can be easy to fall into traditional roles of playing (static accompanist), or into the idioms of western classical and pop music. As SOPHIE demonstrates, perhaps music is most expressive of identity-in-motion when it makes no concessions to rigid genre or sonic signifiers. As opposed to tonal explorations in music therapy, perhaps textural sounds (scraping of strings, clattering pots, scratchy vocal groans) are better at removing the hierarchies present (a big one being technical instrumental proficiency), and create a more fertile ground for mutual rediscovery.

(Photo credit: Charlotte Wales)

In an article entitled ‘Queer as a Bell: Music Engagement and the Queering of the Psychotherapeutic Relationship’, music therapist and professor Brian Harris (incidentally, my current clinical supervisor) explores how improvisation in music therapy can help to remove the dominant binaries of treatment through personal disclosure. Whereas in traditional talk therapy it may be inappropriate for the therapist to share or “disclose” personal experiences or private feelings to clients, music provides a greater range of expression in which to be vulnerable with the other participants. In musical improvisation, it is possible that the music will lead to great emotional resonance for the therapist, and will push them out of the role of healer and into that of someone also in need of being healed. The therapist may be completely surprised by insights gained in the improvisation; as such, all participants are in a state of discovery and will witness each other’s subjectivity.

As a therapist, I have an ethical obligation to be educated in how societal, psychological, and biological factors may be affecting those with whom I’m working; if there are gaps in my knowledge, it is my responsibility to fill them. I would say that my masters program left me with many gaps when it comes to the implications of gender, race, sexual orientation, class, and ableism on creative arts therapy. There are multiple articles written about the need to incorporate queer theory into creative arts therapy masters programs. One entitled “Playing in the Borderlands: The Transformative Possibilities of Queering Music Therapy Pedagogy” is written primarily by candidates at the Slippery Rock University music therapy graduate program (Fansler et al., 2019). In it they discuss not only the ways in which queer theory should be applied to clinical work, but also how the graduate program itself should apply these concepts. I know from experience (as I’m sure many do) that the hierarchy of teacher/student is one that should frequently be ignored, and that a pedagogical system in which the professors are also in a state of subjective self-discovery would lead to creative arts therapists who are more attuned to the shifting, moving identities of those with whom they work.

I would not claim to have a firm grasp of how the application of queer theory would look in my practice. It would seem that having any preconceived ideas about musical interventions or who I am as a therapist would go against the very ideas of queer theory, as it could lead to me conceiving of people in therapy as objects to be acted upon, instead of the dynamic subjects that they are. As it is so often in music therapy, the best course of action is probably to listen: to the ways in which the music of participants reflects who they are as people constantly affected by social, psychological, and biological factors, and most importantly, to how my adherence to traditional hierarchies in therapy may be failing them, musically or otherwise. These were already important considerations for me as a therapist; the loss of SOPHIE, who demonstrated so well how notions of fluid identity could be expressed musically, creates an even more urgent call to action to uphold SOPHIE’s legacy of radical inclusion within the context of music therapy.

I have barely skimmed the surface of this subject here – the application of queer theory (as well as feminist theory) to creative arts therapies has been written about elsewhere with far more depth and authority than I could in this post, and I would urge you to seek out the references below (and reach out to me if you need help doing so).

Allegranti, B. (2013). The politics of becoming bodies: Sex, gender and intersubjectivity in motion. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 40(4), 394-403.

Baines, S., Pereira, J., Edwards, J., & Hatch, J. (2019). Queering the Curriculum: Why Music Therapy and Other Creative Arts Therapy Trainings Need Queer Theory. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, 19(3).

Bain, C., Grzanka, P., Crowe, B. (2016). Toward a queer music therapy: The implications of queer theory for radically inclusive music therapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 50, 22-33.

Fansler, V., Reed, R., bautista, ezequiel, Arnett, A., Perkins, F., & Hadley, S. (2019). Playing in the Borderlands: The Transformative Possibilities of Queering Music Therapy Pedagogy. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, 19(3).

Hadley, S. (2013). Dominant narratives: Complicity and the need for vigilance in the creative arts therapies,. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 40(4), 373-381.

Hahna, N. (2013). Towards an emancipatory practice: Incorporating feminist pedagogy in the creative arts therapies. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 40(4), 436-440.

Harris, B. (2019). Queer as a Bell: Music Engagement and the Queering of the Psychotherapeutic Relationship. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, 19(3).

Rolvsjord, R., Halstead, J. (2013). A woman's voice: The politics of gender identity in music therapy and everyday life. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 40(4), 420-427.

Seabrook, D. (2019). Toward a radical practice: A recuperative critique of improvisation in music therapy using intersectional feminist theory. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 63, 1-8.

Vargas, M. (2005). Staging Identity through Art. CR: The New Centennial Review, 5(3), 65-82.

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