“I’m always drawn to defend anything that people shit on aesthetically.” It’s hard to sum up an artist’s work in a single sentence, but for Alex Temple, that’s not a bad place to start. She has a particular interest in “reclaiming socially disapproved-of (‘cheesy’) sounds,” often taking and warping them into something more than a little disquieting. Her “Liebeslied” takes mid-20th century love songs at their word: What if you really did only notice the birds in the trees when your love was around, what if you really did only have eyes for them? Similarly, “Grass Stem Behaviors” builds an uncanny landscape from fragments of the traditional piano repertoire. Temple takes familiar references and assembles them into an unsettling phantasmagoria: the signs are all familiar, but they don’t point to anywhere you know.
Her work isn’t all disquieting. “The Man Who Hated Everything” is a raucous celebration-with-critique of Frank Zappa, and “O Superfood” is a delightful free-associative romp through everything from Skrillex to Johannes Brahms. Her surreal dystopias aren’t necessarily bleak: “Switch,” a “science-fiction micro-opera” about a society rigidly divided between left- and right-handed people, works, she suggested in one of two phone conversations I had with her recently, “because its heavy-handedness and anger are mixed with absurd humor and Tom Lehrer-style over-the-top rhyme schemes.” With Temple, there’s no need to separate out the gleeful from the disturbing, the silly from the surreal; these things are inextricably tied together, each spurring the other on.
With all her references to other styles, she admitted that she occasionally worries about losing track of her own artistic voice. The opening of “The Man Who Hated Everything,” in particular, gave her pause. “I actually asked a couple of friends, ‘Does the opening sound too much like Zappa?’ and they were both like ‘Yeah, kinda.’ ” She toyed with the idea of reworking the instrumentation to get away from his influence, but ultimately decided to keep it as it was. “If the opening sounds like Zappa, OK. It’s not gonna keep sounding like that. I’m doing all sorts of other things with those melodies and transforming them.”
Even so, at times Temple consciously curates the image her works list gives. “I wrote a piece in 2012 for a reading session with the JACK Quartet called ‘Late Beethoven,’ and because it was for JACK, I went all out with the extended techniques in a way that I don’t normally do. I thought it was an OK piece, but listening to it later, I was like ‘Is this really how I want to present myself?’ ” At the time, she decided it wasn’t and took it off her website, but she told me that she may be “squashing parts of [herself] in the name of a false unity.” The piece hasn’t gone back up, but she feels “conflicted about that.”
There are other pieces she’s taken off for other reasons. She’s constantly weeding out works that no longer meet her artistic standards. Other pieces have been taken down, perhaps temporarily, for gender reasons. Temple is trans, and as she’s moved through her gradual transition, the way she feels comfortable using her voice has changed as well. She recorded a piece called “Imogene” in 2010, but in the time since, her presentation has changed. “There are parts I just can’t listen to anymore,” she said. “One of these days I’ll re-record it, because I do like that piece, but I don’t know when I’ll get around to it.”
Temple and I have followed each other on Twitter for some time, and I was curious whether she had ever felt pressure to present a sanitized, “professional” version of herself there at the expense of personal idiosyncrasies. She answered in the negative: “It feels stifling to hide parts of my personality for the sake of professionalism. I teach. I make puns when I teach. I teach with purple hair. I’m a complete human being and don’t want to separate myself into different sections.”
Assembling her signature polystylistic works often requires extensive listening to research the sound worlds she’ll be working with. There are some sonic landscapes she feels she has under her belt, but for others she transcribes and analyzes recordings to figure out what makes them tick. She usually begins with an overarching concept. For “The Man Who Hated Everything,” she crowdsourced music that her friends associated with LA, and for “Nineteen”—a labor-of-love mashup piece she wrote in six days by combining snippets from 100 pieces by 100 composers, one from each year of the 20th century—she began by making lists of pieces she knew she wanted to include, and then went out and listened to different possibilities for things that might fill in the gaps.
This kind of listening and then writing has been with Temple since childhood. Her father was a piano minor in college, and although he didn’t go on to have a career as a pianist, he would still regularly play bits of the classical repertoire as she was growing up. These pieces—“The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Brahms Op. 79 No. 2, Mozart’s F Major Piano Sonata K. 332—“caught [her] ear,” and to this day there are still passages in them that she thinks of as “having a mustache” because of the association with her father. She started taking piano lessons, and not long after began “writing little things, occasionally.”
When Temple was 12, her family spent a few weeks in Padua, Italy over the summer. They didn’t have a CD player at that point, but the house they were staying in that summer did, along with an extensive collection of classical CDs. “I just listened, over and over again, obsessively.” She asked her parents for music paper: “I started writing pieces, and I never stopped.”
At the age of 15, she discovered the Beatles (prior to that, she had been “totally unaware of pop music”), and then with the advent of Napster while she was in high school, her horizons broadened even further. By the time she was in college, she was “an experimental rock evangelist” writing manifestos about how “genre-bending experimentalism was gonna be dancing on the grave of the Classical Music Establishment.” Recalling this, she laughed gently at her past self. “That’s where I was at that point.”
These days, such cut-and-dried proclamations are far from her mind. “I’m conflicted about everything right now,” she told me. The election of Donald Trump hasn’t helped. “I was a fucking mess after the election, I just couldn’t work at all.” She’s worried about herself, she’s worried about her partners who live in places like Georgia, she’s worried about communities large and small. In a poll of her Twitter followers a week after the election asking whether they expected to be alive in four years, almost a third answered “not a clue” or “no.” The tropes that she usually engages with are beginning to feel stale. “I’ve been dealing with cheesiness since 2006, that’s past. I don’t want to talk about cheesiness.” She’s even feeling conflicted about “End,” a podcast opera about TV logos and the end of the world that’s been in the works since 2011. She’s worried that the piece feels like it “belongs to another era,” and less excited than she once was to cover the apocalypse. “Dear God, we have enough apocalyptic stories, I want to do something with a little bit of hope in it.”
At the same time, she said, “ ‘End’ is a queer love story, and we need more of those.” “QUEER VISIBILITY NOW MORE THAN EVER” another of her post-election tweets proclaims, and in queerness she sees inklings of a way forward. She’s been thinking a lot about the quip “not queer as in ‘fuck you!’ but queer as in ‘fuck yeah!’ ” as well as Lora Mathis’s idea of using radical softness as a weapon. “In an era of bigotry, demonization, cruelty, and hate crimes, I feel the urge to connect more widely. I want to put some gentleness into the world that at the same time has the potential to be subversive.” Later in our conversation, she said she wants to “throw a wrench in the machinery, but in a disarmingly gentle way,” but added that the wrench is still very much there: “I see this as something more transformative than the moderate liberalism it might sound like.”
When she brought up the idea of using cuteness in her work as a way of manifesting these ideas—“I use the word ‘cutie’ a lot to describe my partners and their partners and the whole culture of the queer poly[amorous] circle that I’m in, and I love cuteness, I love cuteness as an artistic phenomenon. I think it has the power to be disarming”—she was quick to clarify that she wouldn’t be using it straightforwardly or naïvely. “I want to do it in a way that has fangs, but, you know, adorable fangs.” This combination of softness and hard edges is something she keeps coming back to. “In an era of Trump, we need aggressive resistance. Of course we do. But we also need humaneness.”
She’ll have plenty of opportunities to explore these ideas in upcoming pieces. Temple is currently working on “Three Principles of Noir,” a “time-travel neo-Noir story about murder, patriarchy, H.H. Holmes and all sorts of things” for voice and chamber orchestra; music for an experimental video game with designer Aeva Palecek and artist Bitmap Prager; and a collaboration with genderqueer poet RA Briggs. “There’s more and more queer- and LGBT-oriented stuff [on my list of projects], which I’m very happy about,” she said.
Temple isn’t sure where these new artistic paths will lead her. “I have no idea how [these ideas are] going to manifest at this point. But it’s the beginning of something, maybe.” Reflecting on the last few minutes of our conversation, she gave a rueful laugh. “Maybe call this a thought in progress.” ¶