Author: Dave Molk

Confronting Our Complicity: Music Theory and White Supremacy

A photo of a wrecked classroom with paint peeling from the ceiling, desks turned over and broken.

For many students, the traditional music theory core curriculum is an undesirable and yet unavoidable part of their college music experience. It becomes something to be suffered through, survived rather than savored. A critical source of this frustration is the disconnect between their musical lives inside the classroom and those outside it. Despite the fact that the majority of our students do not listen to Western art music regularly, nearly all of the core curriculum is based on it. Consequently, as students progress through their degree, they must endure the constant friction between the music they want to study and the music they have to study, between music they value and what music theory as an institution values.

In “Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy,” I described how a theory curriculum devoted to a single style is inherently limited and inherently limiting. When we restrict ourselves to Western art music, we forgo the opportunity to speak about basic yet essential musical elements such as groove, timbre, improvisation, and post-production in styles where these are powerfully foregrounded.

Why then do we as a discipline remain so averse to change? Despite the passage of time, the evolution of taste, and the advent of new styles, new techniques, and new technologies of music creation, the topics we teach and the examples we use rarely reflect this. Instead, today’s leading theory texts cover more or less the same material as those we used as students, as those our teachers used as students, as those our teachers’ teachers used as students. The theory curriculum at too many institutions remains largely standardized and largely stagnant.

This is a problem.

Our unwarranted privileging of Western art music—a style constructed by white people as white, despite the historical and ongoing participation of people who aren’t—enables the dismissal of other styles of music and the people associated with those styles through unfavorable and unfair comparisons. How do we reconcile this with our many statements extolling the virtues of diversity, equity, and inclusivity? Why do we continue to rely on a deeply flawed pedagogy?

We continue to rely on the traditional pedagogy for three interrelated reasons. First, given our extensive training in Western art music, we’re reluctant and often unable to divest ourselves from its contents. Second, because institutions prioritize research over teaching, we prioritize research over teaching. Finally, we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness of the curriculum because we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness in our lives.

When we rationalize our use of the traditional pedagogy by appealing to its contents, we attempt to transform a subjective preference into an objective truth. The specific set of skills that one acquires through studying Western art music becomes the necessary set of skills for any consequential study of music. But basing an entire core curriculum on any single style requires making major concessions about the musical elements we can talk about and the informed ways we can talk about them. Being able to harmonize chorales “correctly” means nothing if you’re looking to get up, get into it, and get involved. Conversely, asking if you can take it to the bridge won’t help you avoid parallel fifths.

Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why. Simple historical inertia—the replication of what we were taught as students—isn’t sufficient. If we appeal to “art for art’s sake,” we need to be explicit about whose art and, consequently, for whose sake. We need to talk about the metrics being used to determine what counts as art, who selects these metrics, and their reasons for doing so. We need to talk about how white male identity politics has shaped Western art music.

Our decision to use the traditional pedagogy is also motivated by how this impacts our careers. Institutions place a disproportionate weight on research relative to teaching, and this incentivizes perpetuation in the classroom, rather than innovation. Because the classical style is highly codified and relatively easy to teach, we can allocate more time and energy to research while still hitting established learning goals. Unfortunately, our longstanding pedagogical dependence on Western art music has conditioned us to expect certain results without asking if they matter, much less how they do, or to whom.

Contingent faculty have even less institutional incentive—and often less agency—to challenge the curriculum at the schools where they teach. The instability of employment and higher turnover rates means that any traction for innovative pedagogy is hard to establish and harder to maintain. In general, changes to the status quo, when they occur, tend to be fairly isolated.

Nevertheless, theory’s established historical pedigree does not absolve us from the moral necessity of questioning what it is we’re actually doing in the classroom. Well-established marginalization is, after all, still marginalization, and the generation of predictable results does not in itself mean that we are teaching our students what they should be learning. The bald assertion that the traditional pedagogy provides any and all necessary and fundamental knowledge needs to be defended, and I don’t believe it can be.

We present music almost exclusively by dead white European men under neutral course titles like “Basic Musicianship,” allowing the two to conflate into a tautological definition of what qualifies as “Real Music,” and re-inscribing racial and gender hierarchies in the process. We present Western art music as an unassailable good and our teaching of it as unassailably good. We present Western art music as an intellectual art form, a high art form, a better art form, and we do this in the service of an ideology that positions white identities, ideas, and ideals as superior.

We want to continue using the traditional pedagogy without acknowledging how it upholds white supremacy because we don’t want to acknowledge how we uphold white supremacy. We consistently downplay or deny the privileges whiteness provides and we consistently downplay or deny the ways we protect those privileges.

  • Today’s leading theory texts cover more or less the same material as those we used as students.

    Dave Molk
  • Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why.

    Dave Molk
  • Listening to Western art music is not racist in itself. ... Canonizing only white composers of Western art music is racist.

    Dave Molk

Listening to Western art music is not racist in itself. Studying Western art music is not racist in itself. Teaching Western art music is not racist in itself. Canonizing only white composers of Western art music is racist. Requiring all students to use a white lens to approach, understand, and critique music is racist.

As Michelle Ohnona and I wrote in “Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom,” we need to engage with music and with the social and cultural mechanisms that shape it. We need to look past individual intent and acknowledge the cumulative impact of supporting a pedagogy that holds that a core curriculum based solely in Western art music is acceptable. To present this status quo as the natural order of things, without critique, is to uphold white supremacy.

The 2020 presidential election once again laid bare the ongoing thrall of white grievance and the pervasiveness of white supremacy. We can’t be impartial about this—oppression within education is a reflection and a reinforcement of oppression within society, and when we fail to address injustice, we ensure its continuance. Let us push back against the claimed inevitability of this insupportable curriculum.

The best thing we can do for our students is to embrace an engaged, transformative pedagogy in which, as bell hooks eloquently writes in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, “our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students.” This requires at least a realignment and probably a rethinking of what higher education is supposed to be.

With a transformative pedagogy, we recalibrate our classrooms into spaces where we acknowledge the humanity of our students and are explicit about how the work we do in the classroom relates to their lives outside of it. We talk openly with students and with each other about racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and other forms of identity-based oppression. That this call to arms isn’t a new one only underscores its urgency. That these discussions aren’t necessarily easy only underscores their urgency.

As we teach students how to hear, interact with, and think about music, let’s also teach them to think critically, ask questions, self-reflect, and to care enough to do so. Let’s open their ears, eyes, and minds to voices and people that have been marginalized, to the stories that surround and support the notes, to the unheard music. We need to teach the humanities as a practice you take out into the world.

As with any enterprise involving the sowing of seeds, some will germinate immediately, some only after the passing of several years, and some not at all. This is okay. Now is the time for planting.

Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy

A pair of eyeglasses and a pen on top of pages of music notation.

The musical case against rap is that in my view and the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody, and there is rhythm. And rap only fulfills one of these—the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, it is basically, effectively, spoken rhythm. And so it’s not actually a form of music, it’s a form of rhythmic speaking. And thus, so beyond the subjectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is it’s not music. (Ben Shapiro, 9/15/19)

During a recent episode of The Ben Shapiro Show Sunday Special, Shapiro invoked the authority of his “music theorist” father who went to “music school,” in order to dispel, in seemingly objective, fact-based fashion, the idea that rap is music. Shapiro’s criteria for what qualifies as music is absurd and his assertion that rap fails to meet this criteria is likewise absurd—but this is largely beside the point. The objective of these bad faith arguments isn’t necessarily to win or lose, but rather to perpetuate the notion that rap-as-music merits debate. Even entertaining the question undermines the legitimacy of rap by setting it apart from other musical styles about which we couldn’t imagine having such conversations.

We must reject Shapiro’s attempt to leverage the prestige of academia to do his dirty work for him. At the same time, we must consider the implications of his appeal to music theory. Shapiro wants us to focus on what music theory and music school suggest about rap-as-music—we should instead ask what his invocation of these institutions suggests about music theory pedagogy. Within these institutions, what do we learn about who and what is valued, and why?

Although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to Western art music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles.

Western art music is not a universal language. It does some things well, other things not as well, and many things not at all. And yet, although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to this style of music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles. Given this disconnect, how can we justify our near-exclusive reliance on traditional pedagogy, especially in situations where it isn’t necessary to do so? What biases do we create in our students when we declare Western art music to be mandatory knowledge for anyone pursuing formal studies in music? What biases does this reveal in us?

Let’s start with names.

Names create hierarchy. A course title like Music Theory 1: Diatonic Harmony explicitly designates harmony as the most important element of the course. Nor is this harmony in the general sense, but harmony specific to Western art music. There’s a real danger of elision, whether in perception or practice, so that music theory becomes just about harmony. Discussions of melody often come folded into larger discussions of harmony. The standard textbooks, despite grand gestures towards complete, everything-you-need-to-know musicianship, devote almost no attention to rhythm, beyond strict issues of notation. Other critically important musical elements, such as improvisation, timbre, and post-production, fail to make any meaningful appearance. This unwarranted prioritization of harmony as the essence, if not the totality, of the music theory core curriculum shapes the reality of what, within academia, is considered music, or at least music worth studying.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A myopic focus on Western art music severely distorts what music is and what music can be. The standard pedagogy relies on a value system whose metrics are based on subjective preferences but passed off as objective truths. Western art music is declared, without adequate justification, to be the necessary tool for understanding music at the most fundamental level. The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top, until recently considered the only music that merited institutionalization, perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

These are decisions made by people, no matter how compellingly they’re framed as divine decrees or natural phenomena, no matter how long-standing their historical pedigree. Teaching Western art music without acknowledging issues of canon-formation, cultural colonization, exclusion, and erasure ensures that these problems will continue. We are not exempt from interrogating the standard theory pedagogy, nor are we absolved from blame when we choose not to. The emergence of new musical styles and new technologies of music production are inconsequential—Western art music continues to be prioritized at the expense of all other modes of music creation. We need to understand this unwarranted privileging within the context of white supremacy.

White supremacy is the systemic centering of whiteness. It builds on an incorrect assumption of white racial superiority and functions to uphold white privilege. Whiteness is defined as the standard against which and on whose terms all others are measured and invariably fall short. When white is designated as normal, those who are not white are forever deemed not normal, no matter how hard they work or what they accomplish. Restricting the definition of white supremacy to a collection of bigoted individuals overlooks the myriad ways that institutionalized power in this country, whether social, political, legal, economic, or cultural, reinforces the primacy of whiteness.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral. The only reason Western art music is the benchmark by which other styles are validated or repudiated is because whites made it so. When Beyonce’s triads are as legitimate as Beethoven’s, reproducing without critique a system that excludes black music from the basic theory sequence is a political choice. This denial of the legitimacy of black music contributes to the ongoing denial of the legitimacy of black people. Injustice unchecked remains injustice.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach. Students need a broad musical foundation to prepare for advanced studies in the particular styles relevant to their interests and projected career paths. An antiracist approach to music theory recognizes that Western art music is not the pinnacle of human achievement, but simply one among many equally valid forms of artistic musical expression.

The stylistic evolution of any language depends on whose voices are seen as legitimate, on who is allowed to participate. That many of us have only recently become aware of just how pronounced the disparities in representation are within music theory testifies to the extent we have internalized the biases behind them. We who are white, who hold a disproportionate number of jobs in academia, tend not to notice whiteness because it is what we expect to find. This is a problem. Our condemnation of Ben Shapiro’s racist words does not absolve us of our own participation in and perpetuation of a racist pedagogy that normalizes whiteness. We must divest ourselves of the false conception that music can exist in a vacuum, devoid of context, independent of the people and the processes integral to its production. We must do better.

Western art music is not a universal language.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach.

As educators, we must be able to speak not just about what we teach, but also about why we teach it. We must ask ourselves who benefits from the current system, and who is harmed by it. A diverse student population in the classroom is not a prerequisite for concern about diverse student experience. Education is never politically neutral. As teachers and as students, as mentors and as mentees, our job is to question, to engage, to grow. We must all participate in our own education. We must all point out the ways that inequality and oppression manifest in what is presented as objective truth. The way things are is not the same as the way things have to be. We are each accountable for disrupting this narrative.

This is the first in a two-part series. The second essay will provide resources and suggestions for ways that we can begin incorporating justice initiatives into our music theory pedagogy.

Programming for Justice

A photo of a microphone with a dark background

The disparity in representation within new music is a longstanding and well-documented problem. We know this. Actively promoting art and artists with a clear focus on equity can help to cultivate justice in our new music communities. This too, we know. What then holds us back? Why does disparity in representation remain such a problem?

To move towards a more just society, we must look beyond the individual to the systemic level to better understand how to improve efforts to promote equity within new music. People make programming decisions based on numerous factors. While these can differ significantly from case to case, the cumulative effect, whatever the individual intentions might be, is the continued privileging of white males. In other words, the status quo remains unchallenged. This is systemic injustice.

The commonly cited explanations for monochromatic programming all contain problematic assumptions, and critiquing these will help us overcome them. For some people, the stigma that comes with accusations of “having an agenda” is enough to prevent them from doing this work. Others argue that they focus solely on programming “good” music, that they aren’t to blame for the inequality even as they absolve themselves of any responsibility for fixing it. Still others depend either on largely homogenous peer networks or on choosing already established composers when programming, both of which fail to combat this injustice. Each scenario appears neutral and yet contributes to the ongoing inequality, with white males accruing the benefit.

Advocating for issues of social justice in spaces where these conversations aren’t normally seen to belong inevitably triggers accusations of having an agenda. Outrage over the actual details of the agenda appears secondary to outrage at the introduction of the agenda and at the one who introduces it. Invoking this charged word shifts the focus from the underlying issue to the act of labeling the issue. The reframing reverses the intended condemnation—she who points out the problem now becomes the problem.

This rhetorical maneuver has very real consequences. Fear of backlash can have a chilling effect on otherwise sympathetic people, one that limits or even eliminates their willingness to engage. Those who benefit under the current systems already have little incentive to understand, much less to challenge these systems. Absorbing the constant din of “America the meritocracy,” we turn a blind eye towards inequality, instead attributing one’s situation to one’s character in a perpetual cycle of blaming the victim. The resulting inaction, whether through apathy or ambivalence, enables the structural injustice to continue.

As activist programmers, we must reject the framework that makes agenda into a term of censure and instead embrace it as a potent tool for justice.

As activist programmers, we must reject the framework that makes agenda into a term of censure and instead embrace it as a potent tool for justice. Conversations rooted in social justice aren’t normally seen to belong in areas where they are most needed. Accepting the idea that having an agenda is inherently problematic places us already on the defensive. Such arguments are disingenuous, meant to deflect critique, to divert attention, and, above all, to perpetuate the status quo.

Furthermore, the programming of (nearly) exclusively white men is likewise following an agenda. That we rarely name this as such indicates just how normalized this inequality is. Power differentials existing off-stage are reproduced onstage, and this is subsequently used to justify the offstage power differentials once again. Our social hierarchy is thus reinscribed in a vicious feedback cycle, one where white men hold the power and set the standards. When we speak about the systemic prioritization of white men, this is what we mean.

Systemic inequality persists because it is so thoroughly entrenched in our society. Their ubiquity renders these systems invisible and bestows upon them a sense of inevitability. Although we can hope that the increasing number of calls for justice in terms of race, gender, sexuality, immigration status, class, and the innumerable intersections of these and other identities signals a sincere and sustained effort to challenge discrimination, we must recognize the sheer magnitude of the uphill struggle. To challenge the hegemony of the white male within our society, we need to push. Complacency begets continuity.

Invoking “good music” as the principle factor driving decisions on what to include, even as one continues to program monochromatic music, upholds structural inequality while proclaiming an innocence about doing so. This is an attempt at absolution by those who could leverage their privileges in support of efforts to promote equity and who instead choose not to. Although “good” appears neutral on its face, an open possibility that all music can aspire to, it is used in these instances to deflect efforts to advance more inclusive programming. “I only care about the music” closes conversations. The subtext that music by composers from marginalized communities couldn’t possibly qualify as “good,” or it would already be programmed, once again blames the victim for the situation. Deny and deflect.

Too often, “good” means already established, with no critical examination of the process through which it became established. Our canons depend on an assumption of meritocracy in whose flattened narrative the survival of this music testifies to its unimpeachable quality. The forces that shape music as a social and cultural product also shape our reception of it. Institutionalization is not a politically neutral process, but is instead inexorably tied to the unequal distribution of power. “Good music” is a construct of subjective preferences, not an objective truth. “Good music” is a dodge.

It is important that we are honest with each other and with ourselves about where our choices in programming come from. Given the numerous commitments we all juggle, we collectively default to the path of least resistance, provided that the perceived repercussions appear minor. This often means programming the work of composers we’re already familiar with. Those in a position to program a concert series tend to be white men whose composer acquaintances are, likewise, white men. This setup leads to more exposure and more repeated exposure, helping these white male composers become established names in the new music scene. As a result of these feedback cycles, most of the music programmed, while undeniably good music, nevertheless remains familiar music. What is expected becomes what we get, and this becomes what is expected.

The conscious decision to program something “different” provides us with the opportunity to reflect more deliberately on what exactly constitutes “normal” and how this situation came into being. We who are white men might ask ourselves why we don’t challenge this universalization of the white experience. We might ask why the current disparities in programming are “the way things are.” We might ask what identities we expect to find on our concert programs, and why we expect these and not others. We might ask what metrics are used to determine “good music,” and why they seem to produce diversity of style but singularity of racial and gender identity. We might look outward from our new music community and see how each of these questions also applies to all other aspects of our lives as social beings. We might think more critically about how these issues intersect with our new music community in the hope that witnessing widespread injustice might galvanize us to take action in multiple areas of our lives.

Indeed, we must. Pointing out a particular instance of injustice forces people to deal with it. Once ignorance, whether real or feigned, is no longer on the table, continued inaction in the face of a known social problem becomes a conscious choice. Our naming these problems also acknowledges the real harm suffered by those directly impacted, disarming attempts to blame the victim. This is a starting point. This affects us all.

What else can we do?

If we want to see actual change in concert programs, we need to program change. Making space for music from underrepresented communities on the same platforms that dominant voices occupy declares that these marginalized voices likewise merit space, energy, and resources. These structural changes will not come from a single concert or a single season of activist programming, yet these efforts, no matter the level of their discernible impact, are important. The fumbling and faltering that comprises incremental change is still critical change. These efforts accumulate.

Although few of us are positioned to program concert seasons, we can all work within the spaces we have available to advocate for positive change.

Certainly, concert programming is subject to numerous constraints. Although few of us are positioned to program concert seasons, we can all work within the spaces we have available to advocate for positive change. We should support the organizations within the new music community that are already working to promote equity, diversity, and inclusivity. Meaningful actions include showing up to events, helping to publicize them by sharing throughout your networks, volunteering, donating, and finding still other ways to support these initiatives.

For instance, the Institute for Composer Diversity, in addition to making it easier than ever to find amazing music to program and composers to commission, has developed an equitable programming model we can use as a starting point for these important conversations. Activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished focuses attention on social justice issues at the national level, including police brutality, #SayHerName, the school-to-prison pipeline, and immigration. Several organizations promote the work of specific composer identities, including: the Boulanger Initiative, focused on music by women and women-identifying composers; Castle of Our Skins, dedicated to promoting black artistry; Quinteto Latino, whose repertoire features compositions exclusively by Latinx composers; and Imani Winds, who has a long history of expanding what we consider to be the canonic norms. Other organizations, such as Forward Music Project or New Works for Percussion Project, use commissions to promote equity within the new music community.

The injustices I’ve written about are not unique to new music, nor to music generally. Instead, they replicate recursively, touching every other aspect of our lives. To deny their presence is to perpetuate the imbalance of power. We must all be responsible curators for each community we inhabit. To overcome systemic inequality will require a sustained effort on multiple fronts. We must call attention to situations where voices are not being heard: question who is included in the program, on the stage, and in the audience—as performers, as composers, as producers, and as audience members. Ask these questions publicly. Ask them of the other spaces in our lives. Let us yearn for flourishing communities with the same fervor that we yearn for individual success. Let us #HearAllComposers.

Speak Now: Music of the Travel Ban

The Trump Travel Ban unceremoniously strips citizens from the countries on its list of their humanity, essentializing them as stigmatized non-Americans and even actively anti-American. Now on its third iteration, the so-called Muslim Ban has suspended acceptance of certain refugees, blocked immigration, and revoked visas from a shifting list of countries. Immediately after the policy announcement, thousands gathered at major airports to protest and stand in solidarity with those now denied entry. This reaction is a snapshot of the larger and ongoing resistance to the Trump agenda that ranges from daily phone calls with congressional representatives to globally linked marches involving millions, with myriad activities in between. We need not move mountains to defend our values. By leveraging power and privilege within our own spheres of influence, however modest they might appear, we can all effect real and positive change.

We need not move mountains to defend our values. By leveraging power and privilege within our own spheres of influence, however modest they might appear, we can all effect real and positive change.

For Trump and his nativist advisors, one’s nationality alone is enough to trigger the end of a conversation. My colleague Ben Harbert and I consider it the start of ours. Using the resources available to us as faculty members of Georgetown University’s music program, we organized “Music of the Travel Ban” as a way to resist through music and through presence. The concert series provides a space for the voices from these banned countries to be heard as people, recognized as neighbors, welcomed as friends, and celebrated as a vital part of our artistic and intellectual communities. As a model for campus engagement, this series is our rejection of policies rooted in racist ideologies and reflects our unwavering commitment to a multicultural ethos.

Music of the Travel Ban poster

Within “Music of the Travel Ban,” resistance occurs in more and less predictable ways. As the motivation behind the entire series, the specter of the Travel Ban is ever-present and inescapable. Shockingly, however, none of the first three concerts appeared overtly political; the conversations between the audience and musicians during the performances and the subsequent Q&As were wholly devoid of Trump and of his policies. When the topic of politics finally emerged in the fourth concert, it came from the sphere of ally-ship rather than from those immediately affected.

And yet, the refusal to engage rhetorically with or even acknowledge these policies, despite their very real and disastrous consequences for performers and audience members alike, is a mode of resistance in its own right. It is imperative that we engage forcefully and directly in a fight against policies that we find unjust. However, in the specific context of our series—itself predicated on defiance of the Travel Ban’s broader agenda—the performers’ insistence on their right to share their music freely, and moreover that we focus on their music and not on their biographies or birthplaces, becomes paramount. This form of resistance is no less potent, and presents advantages for those more directly vulnerable under the current administration. The refusal to engage is a rejection of false categories rooted in propaganda rather than reality.

The very physical presence and proximity of the performers forces us to contend with human beings rather than abstracted ideals. The bodies on the stage in front of us defy and deny erasure. We watch them breathe and we see them perspire. They speak to us and we to them, and all the while their humanity is foregrounded, demanding that we reconcile the one-dimensional racist stereotypes this administration pushes with the living people we see. The message is unavoidable—policies impact people.

The multicultural influences embraced by these performers complicates the current administration’s reductive narrative of an evil other. This too is resistance. Multiculturalism—practiced here on the level of the individual—reflects the global ethos of the concert series. We’re confronted with the porous nature of artificial genre boundaries, the ease with which performers cross musical borders, and the compelling artistic reasons to do so. Through “Music of the Travel Ban,” we come to understand that a construct like “the music of Syria” is problematic, that defining something necessarily circumscribes and therefore reduces it. And just what does it mean to be of a place?

The series opened with a performance by Huda Asfour and Kamyar Arsani, whose music has a visceral, teetering-on-edge power coursing throughout. Its particular urgency doesn’t feel native to the classical Arabic traditions they both grew up listening to and eventually learned to perform. Instead, this rawness derives from their love of punk rock and their deliberate efforts to incorporate its attitude, aesthetic, and energy in their own music. By combining elements from these seemingly disparate genres, the duo successfully forges a musical identity that resonates strongly with a number of cultures without being bound to any of them.

Asfour and Arsani exemplify the multicultural in music in a very literal way when choosing to play “Bint El Shalabiya.” With early roots in Andalusia, which at the time housed Jews, Christians, and Muslims simultaneously, this tune spread throughout Arabic countries and beyond, appearing in Turkey, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, India, and Greece, among others. Asfour and Arsani discovered this cultural overlap during a fortuitous moment in a free-form jam and have since uncovered still more versions of the tune in additional countries. By explaining this intercultural context before performing their own version of the tune, the duo reminds us just how historically interconnected traditions can be.

Lubana Al Quntar, who performed on the second concert along with Eylem Basaldi and April Centrone, is in many ways a living realization of what musical multiculturalism can be. In addition to her extensive background in traditional Arabic vocal performance, the Syrian native is the first woman of her country to earn international acclaim as a professional opera singer. This allows her to create cultural overlaps where none seem to exist. Responding to Al Quntar’s performance of Puccini’s “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” an audience member described the transformative impact the experience had on her own cultural understanding, saying, “I grew up very proud of Arabic music and thinking it was the best. But when I heard you sing the opera, I realized there was another side of you that couldn’t be expressed by Arabian music but needed the opera. I think it was very beautiful.” Nor was such an epiphany unique to this woman, or its direction exclusively from Arabic music to opera. Venturing beyond the dictums of genre opens up otherwise hard-to-access musical worlds. We tend to be receptive towards something new if we can understand it within the context of something familiar. Musicians like Al Quntar, who occupy these different musical worlds simultaneously, can help to facilitate this move beyond the familiar and into the new.

The solo act for the third “Music of the Travel Ban” concert, Jorge Glem, is a living legend on the cuatro, the four-stringed instrument that is so fundamental to Venezuelan culture that it adorns the walls of many homes throughout the country. Along with prodigious, forward-looking techniques, Glem’s revolutionary approach to the cuatro is defined by his ceaseless incorporation of different styles of music into the traditional repertoire. Describing how he cultivated his own style, Glem stated, “I felt it necessary to play on the cuatro what I listen to on the iPod.” He brands non-traditional music with a characteristic Venezuelan sound while simultaneously continuing to transform traditional music. One such multicultural mashup was Glem’s version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” replete with blistering bebop solos redolent of Charlie Parker and accompanied by a “salsa army” of short, percussion-derived loops played on the cuatro and looped on the fly. By transcending both geographic and stylistic borders, Glem opens up new paths for Venezuelan music and for music globally.

Amy K. Bormet, along with Karine Chapdelaine and Ana Barreiro, led a cosmopolitan jazz trio on the fourth concert. Although a last-minute line-up change dissolved the explicit tie-in to the Travel Ban theme, this concert was the first to feature an open denouncement of the Travel Ban. Bormet used her position of privilege to speak as an ally, condemning Trump, his administration, and the Ban. Turning one of the conservative criticisms of migration on its head, she urged us to “be grateful for the people who’ve decided to come and live here.”

Even as her actions embody our idea of what commonly constitutes resistance, Bormet uses music to reinforce her advocacy. Prefacing her slow, contemplative performance of “America the Beautiful” by calling for all of us to “take ownership of our country,” Bormet challenged us to discover ways in which we too can advocate for our values. The deliberate inclusion of an established patriotic symbol like “America the Beautiful” within the “Music of the Travel Ban” series is a political statement, and one Bormet reinforced by speaking explicitly about the valuable historical and ongoing roles that immigrants play in our country. Trump’s vision of a beautiful America is a bleached one, the Travel Ban in full effect, a giant wall to our south, and all refugees, asylum seekers, TPS-holders, and undocumented immigrants summarily vanished. Bormet presents her vision of a beautiful, inclusive America through her framing of the tune so that we conflate “America the beautiful” with a “nation of immigrants.”

Music is a medium through which we share our cultural experience and share in the cultural experience of others.

Music is a medium through which we share our cultural experience and share in the cultural experience of others. Its communal identity becomes a celebration of the I, the you, and the we. Through “Music of the Travel Ban,” we reflect on how we define ourselves as a country, how we reconcile ideas and ideals of freedom, brotherhood, and equality with religious persecution, racism, and systemic inequality. That these values have in practice never been as inclusive as they should have been does not make these latest aggressions any less egregious, nor suggest that we cease striving to reach these ideals.

“Music of the Travel Ban” arose out of the crossroads of frustration and incredulity, a speculative “what if” that grew into eight concerts, the first four of which I’ve described here. The near-constant shocks that blast throughout the country via indecorous and vitriolic tweets, blatant and continual lies, and an endless cycle of cabinet scandals keep everyone off balance and anxious. Some consider this presidency a storm to be weathered rather than confronted, but this only works as long as you’re not directly in its path. We hope our series will inspire others to consider again the resources available to them and to speak out against injustice when they encounter it. We all have a personal responsibility for this country’s trajectory; if we lay claim to its successes, then we must own its failures. “Music of the Travel Ban” is our proclamation to all that “you are welcome here.”