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Look, you get older. Passion is a young man’s game. Young people can be passionate. Older people gotta be more wise. I mean, you’re around awhile, you leave certain things to the young. Don’t try to act like you’re young. You could really hurt yourself.—Bob Dylan, interview with Robert Love, AARP Magazine, February/March 2015
A French artist related that, in his 30s, a gallery owner told him that if he didn’t succeed as an artist by the age of 40 that he wouldn’t make it at all. He responded angrily, saying that age shouldn’t matter. “If the art is good, it’s good . . . [but] I see now that she was right,” he said matter-of-factly over a coffee in Marseille. Now in his 50s, in spite of a great deal of good work behind him, he spends his days playing boule in public lots with retired men while sipping pastis.
In the article “Blocked” by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker (June 14, 2004), Elizabeth Hardwick, a denizen of the writing world in the late 1950s, is quoted as saying: “I don’t think getting older is good for the creative process. Writing is so hard. It’s the only time in your life when you have to think.” Acocella cites author John Updike who speculates on Herman Melville’s diminished output after turning 32: “. . . basically Melville exhausted his artistic capital—his seafaring years—in ‘Typee,’ ‘Omoo,’ and ‘Moby-Dick.’ If, after those books, he wrote a couple of mediocre novels and then gave up the trade, it is no surprise.”
So, as one ages, how does one continue to “follow one’s bliss?” If it’s not passion in the 50+ age category (and, in my mind, that’s debatable) what is it that keeps us going in our work—especially if, like me and countless others, huge success hasn’t come knocking? Some days I feel like the only payoff I’ll ever have is the joy (not spoken ironically) of the daily habit of composing. Really, the important thing seems to be to work constantly and not worry about the end results; it’s best to invest your energy, enthusiasm, and—yes Bob—passion into your work.
At least 95% of all composers get better with age. A very small minority get worse, but this is usually because of illness: . . . Yet there is more and more emphasis on and support for so-called ‘emerging composers’ —most of whom, I am sad to say, are left on the scrap heap when they turn 40. . . . I have had desperate letters from composers just over 40, who have won international competitions, and whose careers have suddenly come to a halt. Because they are no longer emerging, they are of no interest. The composers are bewildered and bereft. I think this is morally wrong. . . . Emerging, who cares? Publicists.
Daniel Grant relates the story of a gallery owner who shared that “age tends to be an issue for certain kinds of collectors and, as such, is an issue for dealers.” [The Huffington Post: “Is There an Age Limit for ‘Emerging Artists’?” August 25, 2010, updated May 25, 2011], He noted that he sees “collectors’ body language shift when they learn that [an] artist is older. . . . Certainly, one might make the argument that lengthy experience deepens one’s technical and conceptual abilities.”
Our craft takes time to mature and develop. It’s true that some great art comes out of younger artists, but sometimes it needs time. One need go no further than Stravinsky to make a case in point. His early ballet music is some of my favorite—and he was finished with those works by the age of 32. Still, I’ve always admired the fact that, as he grew older, he continued to experiment and transform as a composer. A more extreme example of the brilliance of the young is W.A. Mozart, who never did grow old (at least speaking in terms relative to our era). But, for many of us growing older, a continued concentration on craft places Malcolm Gladwell’s following statement within the realm of possibility: “. . . sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table” [October 13, 2008, “Late Bloomers,” The New Yorker].
Looking at an older generation of living composers as I write this, Alvin Lucier in his late 80s is still composing excellent and beautiful music. I was privileged to play one of three banjos (with ebows) on the premiere of his composition Hannover, with the Callithumpian Consort of the New England Conservatory four years ago. This year I released the premiere recording of a piece for solo banjo that I commissioned from Christian Wolff who is also in his 80s (Innova 005). John Zorn, in his 60s, still exhibits an originality and energy that I’ve always admired; the same holds true for Kaija Saariaho. And Augusta Read Thomas, now in her 50s, is still composing great and colorful music that’s as enthusiastically received as the music that brought her wide acclaim decades prior. But what about composers who were sensations in their 20s but then somehow disappeared from public discussion, even as their work continued. Was it a case of getting too old to be of interest to a youth-focused culture? Was a shift in body language detected in concert programmers when a name and age were mentioned?
But there are also composers in the aging category who don’t hold the legendary status of some of the above-mentioned composers who are finally finding well-deserved success combined with a craft that continues to develop. My Tennessee composer friend Jonathan McNair, who just turned 60, has been writing excellent music for years. His music is infused with wonderful musicianship honed with passion and heart. Some of his music is expressive of a large social consciousness. For years, he kept writing and teaching and now a number of musicians have discovered his music and are programming it. “I think I wrote more music in the 11-month period from May 2018-April 2019 than ever before in my life,” he wrote me. And he is confident and happy with the direction that his new compositions are going,
As a composer in his 60s, am I supposed to give up because the zeitgeist seems to favor younger composers and artists? Chances are great that many of us composers over 50 aren’t through yet. “We’re living longer than ever before,” writes Amy Gutman [“Aging is not death. Stop conflating the two,” The Washington Post, May 17, 2015.]. “In the 20th century, Americans gained a staggering 30 years of life expectancy, thanks to advances in nutrition, public health and medicine. A century ago, just 3 percent of our population was 65 or older. Today, that number is 13 percent and expected to rise to 20 percent in the next 15 years. In other words, by 2030, an estimated 1 in 5 of us will be 65 or older.”
I’ve never been bored by the subject of music; it’s been an endless pipeline of exciting ideas and discoveries. I learn a lot from looking at works by Beethoven that I don’t know. I hear for the first time events in works by Debussy or Ravel that I may have heard a thousand times, but never before noticed. That’s an advantage for me in aging—I’m a more intelligent listener; my ears are better and keep improving. And I try to stay abreast of works by younger composers. I don’t want to send my own writing in their stylistic directions, but I am interested in the transformation of our art form. As an older composer, I am set on my own path, but I want to maintain an awareness, if not open-mindedness, of what is going on around me. At least I can point my students toward composers closer to their peer group to keep an eye on.
I don’t believe that I’ll run out of material or passion if I can at least maintain my health and attitude. I’m happy to have a catalog of works good and bad that developed over several decades. For the most part I believe that I’ve gotten better as one should with practice. The daily habit is what sustains me psychologically—anything beyond that in terms of performances or royalties may just be icing on the cake.
The musician/polymath Nicholas Slonimsky interviewed by NPR on the occasion of his 90th birthday was asked what he intended to do next. He listed numerous activities including composing and writing an autobiography, eventually titled Perfect Pitch, and published in 1988 when he was 94. He, in fact, lived to be 101. Elliott Carter kept writing music up until the year he died at the age of 103.
Is passion really a young person’s game? I find myself drawn to certain quotidian habits born of a passion fostered in my 20s: composing (esp. when I don’t feel like it), practicing, and teaching. I think back to images of the young Bob Dylan in the D.A. Pennebaker film Don’t Look Back. While on tour, during the day, Dylan and his entourage are killing time in a hotel room; it’s an energetic scene: Joan Baez plays and sings in the corner, the manager Albert Grossman simply sits or fields calls, and Dylan is slamming out some sort of (I imagine) stream of conscious narrative on his typewriter. At this time, he was indefatigable and passionate with his writing and composing; performing constantly until his motorcycle accident in 1966.
I think that viability as a creative artist is self-defined regardless of age. We can’t believe an art dealer or concert promoter if they tell us we are washed up at 40. Some of us dive in early in our careers with that youthful passion that causes us to work every day. Dylan, now 77, never seems to have wavered in passion and song production over the past 60 years. And if it’s not passion, then it must be habit born of passion that continues his productivity. And as for me, I see no reason to quit stumbling to the drafting table every day; I still have ideas, and a desire to improve my work. It’s not the posterity of a large body of work that I’m trying to create, but the continued self-defined worth of an artist who still wants to compose and collaborate with excellent musicians. Thankfully, it seems that there are more of those now than ever before. Do I stop composing because the LA Phil hasn’t contacted me for a commission? Hell, no.
Imagine you have a master’s degree in music performance from a long time ago and, alongside many exciting musical adventures since, you’ve taught at the college level for eight years (adjunct with full-time hours—you know the drill, you absolutely adore teaching and the students but the money is miserable). Looking at this situation, you … decide to quit teaching and go back to school across the country for a master’s degree in music composition!
It’s hard to imagine, right? You’d have to be completely bonkers to make that kind of a decision.
“I could never go back to school after teaching,” said many wonderful professors who used to be my colleagues.
So why did I do it?
Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, 2012
I started writing music when I was 30, and by the age of 36, my composing career was soaring. I loved writing music just as much as I loved performing and teaching. I knew I would never be bumped up to full-time at my university, and even after eight years, my pay couldn’t go up because I only had a master’s degree. Despite working as a freelance percussionist, curating concerts, writing music, and teaching, I still was hardly making enough money to get by. I was wonderfully happy in the Atlanta music scene and had established amazing friendships there, especially with the members of my chamber rock band. I had developed a life there, but it was time to leave. I was ready to take a step down in order to take a step up. I had to do something to make a better and brighter future for myself. The goal was to earn a master’s in composition to get my skills up to par, and then continue on to a DMA in composition so I would have The Piece of Paper that would allow me to teach at a college again—at a higher salary level. It’s a completely risky endeavor with no guarantees, but it’s the choice I made. And I’m happy I did. I now hold a master’s degree in composition and will be starting a DMA in composition at the University of Miami next month. I’m looking forward to the journey, no matter where it takes me.
First, though, allow me to back up two years. There I was, beginning my first semester as a new student, living in the graduate dorms with roommates—two 21-year-old German exchange students, who were hilarious and noisy and wild. Right away I embraced everything about student life, and that part of college made me very happy. My classmates became my dear friends, even though most of my new friends were the age of the students I used to teach. I learned all the cool millennial slang words. I had FUN. I took free bus rides to Brewers games, ate tons of free pizza, played in percussion ensemble and band, taught part of an online music theory class, fixed bongos and organized the percussion studio, took classes in theory and analysis and writing, studied with two different composition faculty members, heard the University Band play one of my pieces, and wrote a ton of music—including my first piece with electronics in it. I was much more focused in my classes than I was during my first master’s degree; I wanted to soak up all the new knowledge and experience that I could. I remembered what it was like to be completely bored in class, and how invigorating it was to be in the classroom with an enthusiastic teacher who made the subject matter come alive.
UWM Band Rehearses …and then the Universe exploded
I juggled a professional composing career on top of everything. My assistantship was split in half; I was both a theory TA and the percussion TA. The percussion majors were kind to me from the very first day. They brought me right into the fold and never treated me like I was “old.” Everybody thought I was in my twenties, until I told them otherwise. They were fun, talented people, and playing music with them was a joy. The performance majors in general were absolutely delightful and played my music with enthusiasm. Some of these folks will be lifelong friends and musical collaborators.
So that’s some of the FUN STUFF, but here’s the kicker. The transition from professor to student, from mostly-performer to mostly-composer, from professional in my field to student in my field (while remaining a professional) was difficult and awkward that whole first year, and especially the first semester. Five months prior, my music professors would have been my colleagues. But once I started school, I would rarely be treated like a colleague again. A few of my professors took the time to talk with me early on, and learned about my background and treated me with respect, just as I treated them, and we have great relationships. I’m so thankful for them! But most professors saw that I played in band and assumed I was a new graduate percussion major. There was a lot of assuming.
My friends and mentors were lifesavers to me during this time. A few friends from Atlanta, who were passing through town at different times, came to visit me. I was recharging myself in Chicago once a month, taking composition lessons with one of my dearest friends and favorite composers. I brought him all the music I was writing professionally, outside of school. His joyful spirit and the fact that he loved my music really lifted me up. He introduced me to one of his composition students, who saved my sanity and became a very close friend. I wouldn’t have made it through that first year without the both of them.
I was accustomed to being loved, to being known and knowing others, in my old life. There was so much mutual admiration in the Atlanta music scene. I really tried to be graceful about existing in Milwaukee, a brand new space where most people didn’t know or care about my previous 15 years as a professional musician. “They’ll figure out I’m a pro percussionist by listening to me play,” I thought. “They’ll figure out I’m a legitimate composer once they hear my music.” Still, I confess that there were days when I wanted to wear a bright green t-shirt with flashing Christmas lights on it that said in red lettering I’M 37 AND I TAUGHT COLLEGE FOR EIGHT YEARS AND WAS CO-FOUNDER AND CO-DIRECTOR OF TWO CONTEMPORARY MUSIC FESTIVALS AMONG MANY OTHER ACCOMPLISHMENTS on the front and GO TO MY (SWEAR WORD) WEBSITE AND YOU’LL SEE MY MUSIC IS PERFORMED REGULARLY ALL OVER THE COUNTRY SO STOP TREATING ME LIKE I’M AN INEXPERIENCED 22 YEAR OLD on the back, but I didn’t. I felt incredibly childish about my inner reaction. I wanted to be cool about it, on the inside and the outside. Well-meaning friends said things to me like, “Your identity is no different. You’re just in a new environment.” Easy to say when you’re living in the same environment you’ve lived in for a decade or more. The truth is, the only other time I’ve had an identity shift that intense was when I got divorced. It was hard, and weird, and very isolating.
Yet there were so many good parts to the weirdness. After performing with only professionals for ages, I got to play in a college percussion ensemble again, which was wonderful fun and so much easier than directing a college percussion ensemble! All I had to do was learn my music and show up to rehearsal to play. In rehearsals, I learned to disengage (as best I could) from Teacher Mode. I instead just sat back and enjoyed playing music with my classmates. Since I knew I’d most likely only be in the city for two years, I chose not to get my feet wet in the Milwaukee music scene outside of school, but I met some area musicians who became friends. I desperately missed playing music with proper professionals, and that was difficult. I felt isolated from the performance faculty; I felt like they were my colleagues, but not many of them felt the same way. I learned to accept that I’d be playing less because I was composing more, and that I would probably lose some of my chops. I developed some extra long-term patience, figuring out that these two major transitions: professor to student, performer-composer to composer-performer, would take time. Thankfully I had another year of grad school ahead!
The recent American presidential election inspired calls to action that rippled through various communities: Muslims, Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, LGBTQ people, people of color, the disabled, educators, and social justice activists to name but a few. One of the communities that responded quickly was the new music community.
In New York, National Sawdust hosted a November 10 town hall moderated by Paola Prestini, Courtenay Casey, Daniel Felsenfeld, and Roger Bonair-Agard. In Los Angeles on November 10, the Artist Council at The Hammer Museum scrapped their agenda to “deal with the more urgent situation at hand,” asking, “What can we do? … How can we protect the vulnerable and defend rights we have come to take for granted?” On November 16, NewMusicBox published Gary Ingle’s essay on Decolonizing Our Music. In Los Angeles on November 17, Nick Norton and ArtShare hosted Understanding and Action for Artists and Thinkers: An Open Forum. This meeting asked how we as artists and musicians could help marginalized communities that would be adversely affected by the new presidency. On November 28, Andrew Norman, having won the Grawemeyer Award For Music, made strong comments about privilege to NPR’s Tom Huizenga, an important statement I’ll discuss later. And recently, critic Alex Ross wrote about Making Art in a Time of Rage, looking at artistic responses from Leonard Bernstein to Ted Hearne’s recent politically charged work. Maybe you heard about some of these meetings. Maybe you attended some of them.
I was fascinated and encouraged by these prospects. The new music community wants to help marginalized and vulnerable communities? This could be a potential win-win that benefits both the oppressed and our own rarefied artistic community. Let’s go.
Before we propose remedies and strategies to help the marginalized, I believe we need to take a hard look at the new music community itself. There’s a paradigmatic assumption that our activism is a response to outside forces like the new presidency, but now is an opportunity to look within. As the sayings go: Think globally, act locally; Change begins at home.
Structural and systemic issues have allowed institutional exclusion to be rigid and persistent.
As performers, educators, composers, creators, and producers of music, we typically see ourselves working for a greater good, fortunate not to have our art and labor support the war machine or aggravate climate change, for example. However, we must acknowledge that the new music community has an established history of exclusion.
Structural and systemic issues have allowed institutional exclusion to be rigid and persistent. These issues begin with education and continue through the moderation of opportunities, career development, and audience-building structures including marketing, promotion, grants, and the dissemination of information.
Structural issues begin with early education; geographic, social, and economic privilege facilitates access to music lessons, and can affect how family and cohorts encourage childhood interest in music. Developmental psychologist Steven J. Holochwost has studied inadequacies and inequalities in access to music education in the United States. Holochworst notes there are cases where proactive outreach strategies have helped young students to become more involved in music.
With sufficient interest and success as children, many of us progressed to studying music within higher education. The conservatory, a central institution of Western art music, is based upon the conservation of musical tradition and established values, principles, and systems. (The exception often proves the rule; musicologist Nadine Hubbs describes how midcentury academic advocacy of serialism, while certainly revolutionary in many ways, served to ossify exclusionary heterosexist networks and hierarchies.)
Musicologists and sociologists have studied conservatory culture and dissected its various dysfunctions, often discreetly euphemizing names of institutions and pedagogues. Bruno Nettl looked at the “Heartland University School of Music”. Henry Kingsbury looked at the “Eastern Metropolitan Conservatory of Music,” whose entrance is on or perhaps near North Street (hint, hint). Andrea Olmsted brazenly studied Juilliard; outside the rigors of socio-musicology, Juilliard was also strongly suggested in films such as Food of Love and Whiplash. While Whiplash seemed extreme to the uninitiated, what conservatory denizen has never seen a percussionist with bloody hands, a violinist with an inflamed neck rash, or a music professor who abuses students? (According to the CBC, physical injuries contribute significantly to conservatory drop out rates.)
Professional and institutional networks intentionally bear resemblance to biological hereditary hierarchies and their concomitant racial exclusions, like a line of royal descent.
Socio-musicological investigation of conservatories finds a powerful mythology of musical genealogy, the concept of mystical secrets passed from teacher to student. This in turn helps form professional and institutional networks that intentionally bear resemblance to biological hereditary hierarchies and their concomitant racial exclusions, like a line of royal descent. Furthermore, intense conservatory experiences forge connections and communities in the same way these are formed by hazing at a fraternity, a sorority, or elite athletic or military institutions. The resultant effect is a self-perpetuating exclusionary system, much like an Etonian “old boys club” with similar socio-economic consequences, transposed into the realm of music as a profession.
Prizes, awards, and competitions—particularly those on the entry-level or semi-professional end of the spectrum—do not often function as prizes and awards per se, but as a form of gatekeeping to further professional development. Consider prizes that offer an opportunity to work with an orchestra, either as a composer or concerto soloist. It’s not like contestants habitually work with an orchestra and win a statuette or purse judged upon that work. The prize is the opportunity itself.
Prizes have been widely criticized as a thinly veiled means of fundraising, and this intersects with socioeconomic concerns. For fledgling ensembles and nonprofits, having a competition is a no-brainer; when students have already spent tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, what is a mere $25-$50 entrance fee? While this can raise a little bit of money for the ensemble or nonprofit, it infrequently offers long-term nurturing; instead, it fosters expectations that maybe someone else will become interested in the winners’ work as a result of the competition.
Criticism of the competition complex has been widely restrained because the field is small and no one wants to offend colleagues or arts organizations. Bill Doerrfeld addressed ageism in composer opportunities. Dennis Báthory-Kitsz humorously mocked the system by flipping it, creating a Performing Ensemble Competition offering $1000 and the opportunity to perform his music; no travel expenses covered, and a $75 entry fee. Ben Phelps penned a poignant, tongue-in-cheek advice column, How to Win Composing:
The competition is thus the apotheosis of cultural musical expression. This is why so many average music listeners refer so religiously to such famous competitions as the Masterprize when deciding what new music they are going to like. With competitions holding such a valuable and important place in the career paths of young composers, many justifiably want to win as many as possible, so as to secure admission to more prestigious graduate schools of composition and thus win more coveted teaching positions at more prestigious universities.
Phelps’s essay does not intersect class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and marginalized communities with its savvy takedown, but its parody reveals institutional biases and prejudices couched within musical demands. (See also Frank Oteri’s interview of Wendy Carlos that discusses how academic stylistic expectations mirror prejudice and misogyny.) Strategies for winning that Phelps recommends include using crotales, nested tuplets, and having a title with parentheses, like “Inter(rupt)ions”. This parodies new music and protectionist, institutional biases.
Efforts to define “new music” frequently align with exclusionary institutional biases.
A board member of a mid-sized nonprofit talked to me about their efforts to address diversity. The board member felt her organization was trying to combat racial and gender exclusions and explained, “Well, we have a call for scores, and it’s a blind call, so all the scores are anonymous, no names or information.” A problem with this common methodology is that a savvy panel can distinguish racial and socio-economic identities in anonymous scores through the very formulae that Ben Phelps so wryly advocates. I emphasize that having a diverse board of directors is great, and anonymous scores are great, but you still have an issue with the nested tuplets. There is a lingering means of identifying educational background and insider membership even amidst efforts to be fair and unprejudiced. One might argue that the savvy panel is merely trying to ensure that selected scores appropriately exploit new directions and extended techniques. Yes, of course, but efforts to define “new music” frequently align with exclusionary institutional biases.
Issues of diversity and marginalization are complicated by career concerns: Is engagement with new music a vocation, avocation, or appreciation? (Consider Charles Ives.) Are we free from or financially dependent upon establishment structures? How does new music engage us financially as purchasers, consumers, audience members, creators, performers, and laborers?
If new music is a career either directly or tangentially, we are looking at real world issues of hiring and tenure in academia, bookings and guarantees on the concert circuit, fees and honorariums for clinicians, as well as commissions, grants, radio airplay, recording contracts, and distribution deals. These concerns can impact how we present our politics, program our concerts, or choose what ensembles to book at our venues. We will rely on existing networks in the community to determine who gets the gig.
Diversity hiring is not about creating an unfair advantage for the marginalized. It’s not necessarily about helping underserved populations or any particular candidate, but primarily about correcting deficiencies and inequalities within the hiring institution. It is not about patronizing a candidate or applicant as much it is a course correction for the institution. This likewise applies to commissioning.
If a “call for scores” only results in winners from an existing circle, something is not right.
If a “call for scores” only results in winners from an existing circle, something is not right. If you are not commissioning outside your professional network, there is little reason to have a call for scores. If you want to keep things “in house,” this is perfectly fine; there are positive benefits from cultivating ongoing relationships. Nevertheless, it benefits audiences and encourages composers when conductors and music directors take it upon themselves to research and discover talent outside of their network. While it seems counterintuitive, there may be more equitable and challenging programming with fewer calls for scores and more promotion of work originating outside existing circles.
My focus on institutions allows for an orientation towards the micro-social. Their creation and preservation is predicated on overlapping networks, both internally—among composers, performers, and administrators—and externally—with music critics, funding sources, and audiences.
Robin shows that micro-social circles are driving forces in the new music industrial complex and workplace today. Robin briefly looks at ageism and New York geo-centrism, but he misses opportunities to interrogate how micro-social connections might also be affected by racism, sexism, socioeconomics, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and so on. These biases and prejudices surely affect new music micro-social circles and the new music professional landscape.
Remedies and Strategies
Particularly where music intersects education and social activism, there is a growing body of published research and recommendations. Oxford University Press has published a Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education that is “concerned with ameliorating social inequities affecting marginalized or underserved children and groups.” It looks at policy reforms, emerging feminisms, ableism, gender and sexual diversity, youth in detention centers, and a myriad of other concerns in 42 chapters. This is an excellent entry point for educators in both K-12 and higher education.
When our children do not see teachers who look and live like they do, they may not envision themselves in positions as teachers, conductors, composers, and leaders themselves.
College educator Joshua Palkki wrote in a Smartmusic blog post, “Because our classrooms are a microcosm of society at large, it is worth exploring how issues of diversity and inclusion influence music education. Furthermore, when our children do not see teachers who look and live like they do, they may not envision themselves in positions as teachers, conductors, composers, and leaders themselves. If we do not provide those models, we are not fully serving our students.” Palkki recommends creating safe environments, creating community, being inclusive, aware, reaching out, and championing the stories of others.
A- always center the impacted
L- listen & learn from those who live in the oppression
L- leverage your privilege
Y- yield the floor
I would like to look at these recommendations and translate them into concrete examples.
A: Always Center the Impacted
Throwing a benefit, fundraiser, or town hall should not be a means of self-promotion. It should not be seized as an opportunity to moderate or present oneself as an authority on social justice activism, even if such mantle may be rightfully claimed. If organizational leaders are knowledgeable or active within social justice movements, this is an opportunity to welcome impacted colleagues to lead, present, or moderate a discussion. If organizational leaders do not know impacted people, this is a great opportunity to reach out and make those connections. Activism often involves research, communication, and the building of bridges and consensus. Sometimes the best way to help is for institutional leaders to step aside and center impacted communities and colleagues.
A better approach would have been to invite women and people of color who work in animation at any level to come and discuss the same subject. What are their experiences? What are their recommendations? What can they tell us about the current crop of animated films?
L: Listen & Learn from Those Who Live in the Oppression
If you’d like to help, it might be best to listen rather than reiterate your punditry. To ask how new music can help the marginalized and vulnerable begs the question: shouldn’t we be reaching out to affected people directly and asking them what they need, as opposed to soul-searching in isolation?
If you’d like to help, it might be best to listen.
We should take care not to presume to know someone’s story, to assume how they are privileged or marginalized, without learning their history or background. Many things do not always appear on the surface: gender identity, racial identity, disability, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status, history of activism, civil disobedience, or arrest record. There are many possible intersections, and many surprises. One classic moment happened with vlogger and cultural critic Jay Smooth, founder of Ill Doctrine, in conversation with CBS commentator Nancy Giles on the subject of Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign. Giles seemed to believe that Smooth was “appropriating black mannerisms.” Smooth quipped, “I’m a rap guy,” then spelled things out for Giles, “I’m actually black, but you assumed otherwise, and this is the sort of awkwardness we can look forward to at Starbucks across America.”
We should acknowledge that those of us able to work in music are quite privileged. Even if we struggle to pay rent on a tiny apartment, we are privileged to work in a field of our choice in a rarefied community. There are ways for us to leverage our privilege.
This award has been given to three women out of its 30-year history. And to me that’s kind of an issue. And in all honesty, I’m a white man and I get lots of commissions and there are systemic reasons for that, reasons we should all be talking about. There are so many talented composers out there. Rather than giving me another commission, why aren’t we giving those people a commission? The canon is so overwhelmingly white and male, but we can use new music to fix that problem.
Norman, still young, has enjoyed a meteoric rise. It would have been easy for him to internalize his success and affect his own exceptionalism. The arts industrial complex has a habit of heaping awards upon the same “usual suspects” like a slowly rising conveyor belt you better jump on while you are young. A communal notion of exceptionalism encourages the idea that “new music” can “help.” These notions of exceptionalism are not unique to high art. Critic Ann Powers, in “The Problem With The Grammys Is Not A Problem We Can Fix,” notes that:
For white people, to acknowledge institutional racism is to recognize our place in it and to become prepared to move from that comfortable spot. Yet the little voice of assumed exceptionalism often convinces us that we can stay there and fight the good fight. Feeling exceptional is a privilege in itself. … Exceptionalism contradicts systematic truths and seems to solve the most deeply embedded social problems. And we all crave it. Everyone who benefits from these structures wants to believe they are natural.
Norman leveraged his privilege by speaking out on NPR. Perhaps one day he will sit on a committee himself where he can commission marginalized composers. Not all of us have the opportunity to speak on NPR, but there are other ways of leveraging privilege beyond the bully pulpit: lobbying organizations from within; writing a check; providing legal or logistical assistance to people engaged in civil disobedience; using our connections to board members and major donors to help shift commissioning and concert programming; using our connections to the media to help set agendas and shift coverage; and so on.
Y: Yield the Floor
On February 12, the Artists’ Political Action Network (APAN) held an organizing meeting in Los Angeles. Members of the Hammer Artists Council organized the meeting, but it was not held at the Hammer Museum, but at 356 S. Mission Road, a gallery space in the gentrifying Boyle Heights area. Defend Boyle Heights anti-gentrification activists picketed, interrupted, and protested the meeting with chants such as, “A gentrifying space is not a safe space.” This was an opportunity for APAN Hammer folks to yield the floor rather than counter that “gentrification” was already listed in their PowerPoint. Yielding the floor creates opportunities to listen and learn. Both groups, APAN and Defend Boyle Heights, are well positioned to do good work; afterwards, some people from either group met outside and talked, sharing concerns and ideas.
During the APAN meeting, attendees came up with a list of 150 potential subcommittee issues. These included issues like immigration rights, gerrymandering, and environmental issues, but only one issue related to the arts: diversity in gallery representation. This is one issue where a group of visual artist-activists really have especial knowledge and opportunities. It is here they could really affect change and use their connections and expertise.
My point is that if you really want to work on immigration rights or gerrymandering, for example, there are many existing groups for that, and it would be beneficial to look for people and groups already doing that work. There is nothing wrong with donating time or money directly to groups like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. The idea of creating a new “immigrants rights committee” to speak for others when the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and many other organizations already exist seems a little self-serving. You may have special expertise within your field that allows you to do unique work, and that is worthy of consideration.
I ask us to consider what we can do that is unique to our own knowledge and access. We have systemic racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and misogyny within our own institutions and micro-social networks. I believe that by tackling these issues within our own institutions and networks, we can affect change in a meaningful way. We should certainly partner with other organizations and build bridges to other communities in the arts and social justice worlds. But helping others demands humility and self-awareness as well.