Philip Gentry

Philip Gentry teaches music history at the University of Delaware. His research focuses on American music at mid-century, with interests in performance historiography, the cultural practice of identity politics, and queer theory. He is currently working on a monograph that explores music-making in the United States during McCarthyism.


"The Erotics of Chance"

“Life is at its most rewarding,” writes Samuel Delaney, “…when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of good will.” Or, as John Cage put it from the musical perspective, an indeterminate way of life will be “excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”

This paper explores, on the one hand, the erotics of indeterminacy, musical practices whose outcome in performance is unforeseen. And it explores, on the other hand, the poetics of cruising, that urban sexual practice whose outcome in performance is unforeseen. There does not necessarily exist a “music of cruising,” nor do many composers of indeterminate music wish to think in terms of sex. And yet, I argue that there is much to be gained from juxtaposing the two. What are the pleasures and dangers of random encounters, and what might we learn from them? What anxieties do they provoke, what structural inequalities do they both challenge and maintain?

Historically, the connection between musical indeterminacy and cruising exists largely thanks to John Cage, the avant-garde composer who practiced both. But although this (general interest) paper is largely concerned with a composer of distinctly non-popular music, it seeks to broaden and complicate indeterminacy beyond that more narrow social world—one thinks of the feedback of a distorted electric guitar arising at the same moment as Cage’s chance techinques—into a theory of musical cruising.

My Speakers Sessions

Saturday, March 24

11:15am EDT