Tag: inclusion

Composer Advocacy Journal: On The Road Again

It’s been two weeks since I returned from Aotearoa New Zealand where I was attending the overlapping International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) World New Music Days and Asian Composers League festivals in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and Ōtautahi Christchurch. But given all the things I’ve plunged into since returning, while fighting jetlag from the 16-hour time difference and the grueling 27 1/2-hour door-to-door journey back to New York City, I still haven’t been able to completely wrap my brain around everything I experienced during the 12 days I was there.

First, a little background. Part of my work for New Music USA, in my role as Composer Advocate, is to advocate for our programs and values both nationally and internationally through various member-based networks, such as the ISCM and the International Association of Music Centres (IAMIC). Prior to the global pandemic, the members of these networks met annually to compare practices for supporting and advocating for music as well as to share music with each other. ISCM meetings occur in a different city somewhere in the world every year concurrently with a multi-concert festival called the World (New) Music Days (WNMD) which features music from each of the countries represented in the network. (The “New” is in parenthesis since some hosts call the festival simply “World Music Days.”) Since 2019, I have served on the boards of both organizations but, since the pandemic, that has meant meeting on Zoom often at less than optimal hours (sometimes at 6:00 A.M. or after Midnight for me) to accommodate the time zones of all the participants. However, in May, IAMIC held its first in-person conference in three years, which took place in multiple cities in Germany (Hamburg, Bonn, and Cologne). And in August, the ISCM finally convened in New Zealand for the first time, an event that had originally been scheduled for April 2020. (Before I was elected to ISCM’s Executive Committee, I wrote several very detailed reports of these annual festivals; to get a better sense of what a WNMD is like, you might enjoy reading the last of these, my account of the 2016 Festival in Tongyeong, South Korea, in which I attempted to explain the cultural milieu of the ISCM by comparing it to the Wizarding world as described in the Harry Potter novels.)

My trip to Germany in May for the 2022 IAMIC Conference was the first time I had left the country since the pandemic, and I was filled with anxiety a great deal of the time. But aside from the discomfort of wearing a mask everywhere including on a long overnight flight, the suitcase containing clothing I had brought for the trip not catching up with me until the night before I flew back home (which offered me an experience I otherwise never would have had of very quickly shopping for overpriced poorly fitting clothing in a Hamburg department store–don’t ask), and one of the delegates getting COVID (thankfully everyone diligently tested every day and it didn’t spread further), it was an extremely worthwhile week. I am particularly proud of a panel I moderated at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn which focused on the extremely generous pandemic-era funding for creative artists based in Germany which made the delegates attending from everywhere else in the world extremely envious.

IAMIC Board of Directors and Cloud Chamber Bowls.

The IAMIC Board of Directors at the headquarters of Ensemble Musikfabrik in Cologne, Germany in May 2022. Pictured left to right are Deborah Keyser, Jonathan Grimes, Radvilė Buivydienė, Peter Baros, Diana Marsh, Stephan Schulmeistrat, Agnieszka Cieślak-Krupa, and FJO. (Note the replicas of Harry Partch’s Cloud Chamber Bowls on the far right.)

By the time August rolled around and I journeyed to New Zealand, I was a seasoned pandemic traveler. But nothing (not even having travelled there once before, 15 years ago, for a IAMIC conference) is sufficient physical or psychological preparation for a flight from the West Coast of North America across the Pacific Ocean and far down into the Earth’s other hemisphere to finally reach Auckland. It’s a 13-hour flight that, if coming from NYC, must be proceeded by a 6-hour flight to get to the West Coast as well as a massive trek between terminals which, even though there’s a more than two-hour layover, is a race against the clock, made even more challenging when masked. (In September, now that I’m back, Air New Zealand just introduced a brand new direct New York JFK-Auckland flight which lasts nearly 18 hours, though I’m not sure whether a direct flight or two long flights with a very long walk in between is worse.)

Maori sculptures surround one of the walls in the international arrival terminal of the Auckland Airport.

Among the first things visitors see after arriving in the Auckland Airport after an extremely long international flight. (They also pipe in a recording of Maori traditional chants.)

Before I continue, I’d like to offer a small disclaimer. Given the role I now have within ISCM, it seems somewhat of a conflict of interest for me to be singing the praises of the World New Music Days in an expansive report, so this should not be construed as that. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to offer some information here on each of the American pieces that were performed, offer a few observations about what made this particular edition unique (especially since it is the first one that took place in more than three years), and to give readers here a sense of what I’ve been up to recently.

Although it had to be somewhat scaled down from what had originally been planned for 2020, the 2022 ISCM World New Music Days, which took place concurrently with a festival of the Asian Composers League, was a major undertaking that seemed to happen through sheer force of will, mainly on the part of the festival’s Artistic Director, Glenda Keam, who also happens to be the President of ISCM. All in all, 20 of the submitted works that had originally been chosen for performance (among them, sadly, Katherine Balch‘s extraordinary string quartet drip music which was a submission from the League of Composers, the official ISCM USA Section), could not be presented this year, plus two additional works listed in the program (that were not from ISCM submissions) had to be cancelled. In addition, due to the ongoing uncertainties of the global pandemic, many delegates could not attend (our general assembly meetings were an often challenging hybrid of in-person and Zoom), so many of the concerts were not as well attended as they should have been. Still, as in previous editions of the WNMD, the festival offered a fascinating cross section of music by composers hailing from six continents. (Despite a fascinating exhibit devoted to Antarctic exploration in the Canterbury Museum, which was around the corner from some of the concerts in Christchurch, a viable new music scene has yet to develop there.)

The members of the ISCM Executive Committee sitting around a table, all masked.

The ISCM Executive Committee met in all day meetings during the weekend before the 2022 World New Music Days began. (Pictured left to right are David Pay, FJO, Oľga Smetanová, Wolfgang Renzl, Irina Hasnaş, George Kentros, and Tomoko Fukui.)

In both cities where the festival took place, before any of the concerts there was a formal welcome (Mihi whakatau) featuring speeches and music from members of the local Māori community, the indigenous people who have inhabited Aotearoa New Zealand long before the en masse arrival of British settlers in the early 19th century and the Māori still make up approximately 16.5% of the country’s population.  It was thrilling to hear live performances by Māori musicians on taonga pūoro (the traditional musical instruments of the Māori which have only been revived in recent decades), particularly (and, for a contemporary music festival, very appropriately) the blaring tone clusters that resulted from the simultaneous blowing of pūkaea and pūtātara, trumpet-like instruments made from wood and conch shells respectively, during the first of these welcomes which took place in the courtyard outside the School of Music at the University of Auckland. Admittedly, though, it was somewhat frustrating to listen to the speeches in Māori which were mostly left untranslated. But the solution to that is to learn the language one day! (I must point out that NZ’s overall embrace of Māori heritage and its attempt at establishing a bicultural society is extremely impressive and it has gone well beyond what I previously witnessed when I visited Wellington back in 2007. That said, apart from a few exciting compositions by composers of Māori heritage, such as Takarei Komene, whose 2019 Ngā Roimata o te Tūrama for unaccompanied mixed chorus and whistling was a highlight of a performance by the Auckland Chamber Choir, members of the Māori community did not seem to be part of the “contemporary music” scene in New Zealand. It should be pointed out, however, that the composers from New Zealand whose music was featured on the festival come from extremely diverse cultural backgrounds, ranging from Greece to East Asia.)

Māori musicians playing taonga pūoro

Here are the Māori musicians who greeted all of the ISCM delegates with marvelous tone clusters on taonga pūoro.

The first two concerts of the festival were devoted to music involving electronics. Seven fixed media works (two involving video as well as audio) were presented at the first one, in Auckland’s Audio Foundation, a sub-basement venue located in a neighborhood that is a steep walk from the University. One of the two works involving a video element was Lithuanian composer Albertas Navickas‘s fascinating Silences (2016), which featured fragments of footage of an older woman speaking accompanied by a pre-recorded ensemble which re-enforced the pitch content of her words (a la Scott Johnson’s John Somebody or Steve Reich’s Different Trains). The other was White Heron Dance, a haunting 2017 studio piece by American electronic music pioneer Alice Shields, accompanied by abstract animation (created by Thomas Barratt), which was submitted for inclusion in the festival by the Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music. It was a challenge to distinguish the other pieces since they were not clearly identified during the presentation, which perhaps was part of the gestalt of this very DIY space, but it was nevertheless somewhat frustrating. The second concert, back at the University, involved live electronics and included two works from composers based in the United States: In the Middle of the Room, Jeff Morris‘s 2017 audio-video manipulation of a song by Elisabeth Blair, submitted by ISCM’s Full Associate Member, based at Stephen F. Austin State University, which promotes the music of Texas-based composers; and PS Quartet No. 1, also from 2017, by Korean-born, Michigan-based composer Joo Won Park, in which four performers manipulate audio and video via PlayStation controllers–which was very entertaining both to see and hear. Full disclosure: the latter was the piece among six submitted by New Music USA (it was funded by a Project Grant) which was chosen for performance in the festival. (All ISCM member organizations can submit up to six pieces for consideration in each year’s WNMD and if the submissions are in at least 4 different instrumentation categories, the festival must perform one of them.)

Computer terminals with visuals and audio triggered by 4 PlayStation controllers during a performance of Joo Won Park's PS Quartet No. 1

An action shot from the performance of Joo Won Park’s PS Quartet No. 1 at the University of Auckland during the 2022 ISCM World New Music Days.

On the second day of the festival there were two concerts, both at the University of Auckland. The first was a tour de force afternoon recital by percussionist Justin DeHart, a transplant to New Zealand who originally hails from Sacramento, California. In a group of seven pieces from Canada, Portugal, and New Zealand, he demonstrated the extraordinary range of sounds that can be made by just one person striking many different kinds of objects (though at times the sounds he made were enhanced by pre-recorded electronics). The evening concert was devoted to mostly unaccompanied choral works (for one, a harp was added) performed by the aforementioned Auckland Chamber Choir, a group based at the University. The concert opened with the inventive and challenging Sonata form denatured prose (2014) by Swedish-born Norwegian-based composer Maja Linderoth (b. 1989), who was named the winner of the ISCM Young Composer Award at the end of the festival; the first time a female composer had received the award since 2011.

The next day the ISCM delegates travelled to the West Auckland suburb of Titirangi for a concert, again devoted to electronic music, in the Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery. Lukas Ligeti, an Austrian-born composer who currently divides his time between Florida and Johannesburg, South Africa, performed his Labyrinth of Stars: The Far Southeast (2014), an improvisatory solo for the Donald Buchla-designed marimba lumina. The material for the piece is derived from the composer’s earlier concerto for marimba lumina and orchestra titled Labyrinth of Clouds.  In his prefatory comments, Ligeti stated that this new version of the music was inspired by his seeing stars that are visible in this part of the world which are not visible in the Northern Hemisphere and the resultant music juxtaposed a series of diatonic ostinatos with some surprising chromatic intrusions. (I was hoping to see some of those stars, too, but most of the evenings I was there were cloudy, plus most of the time I was too close to city lights to be able to appreciate them.) That concert also featured Interdependencies (2018), a trippy live manipulation of eight interconnected tone generators by Danish composer Christian Skjødt which he said was just part one of a work that is twice as long; I’m eager to hear the rest of it one day. Unfortunately, because I failed to signup for it in time, I missed Polish composer Mikolaj Laskowski‘s 2018 Deep Relaxation No. 4: Self-Care, an audience participatory piece involving sound objects and yoga mats that was presented twice but was limited to just 12 attendees each time.

A very large tree in Auckland NZ

While I never saw many stars in NZ, I did see this amazing tree in a park while walking from my hotel to the University of Auckland for ISCM meetings and concerts.

Later in the week, Polish-born New Zealand-based pianist Gabriela Glapska gave a very convincing recital comprised of nine works from eight countries, the most intriguing of which, at least for me, were three selections from Japanese composer Matoharu Kawashima‘s 2017 Action Music, in particular the last one in which the pianist mimics the famous opening of Tchaikovsky’s overplayed first piano concerto, ultimately closing the lid and continuing to play. I was also very taken with a duo recital by violinist/violist Andrew Beer and pianist Sarah Watkins at the hip Loft Q Theatre on Auckland’s busy Queen Street. Everything they played they turned into something extraordinary, but I really loved the brave beauty of Canadian composer Rodney Sharman‘s 2016 viola/piano duo Gratitude and Swiss composer Esther Flückiger‘s often jazzy 2017 Guarda i lumi for violin and piano and will want to hear both works again many times. (Luckily three of the NZ pieces featured on the program were on a CD of the duo I bought the last night of the festival, though I was already familiar with the 2011 miniature Tōrua by Gillian Whitehead, one of NZ’s most prominent composers, since it was one of the Encore Pieces commissioned and recorded by Hilary Hahn.)

I skipped the concluding Auckland event, a screening of a virtual concert by the Australian new music ensemble ELISION who were originally scheduled to participate in person before COVID-related travel restrictions threw a monkey wrench into the plan. But since they plan to post all their virtual performances to their YouTube channel, I hope to catch up with it when they do. Unfortunately the few other programs I wound up missing for a variety of reasons, some having to do with the complexities of navigating Auckland’s challengingly hilly terrain, were mostly not streamed and archived online. After a couple of years of virtual performances becoming a lifeline to musical experiences with the concurrent benefit of these concerts being able to attract audiences from all over world who otherwise could not have experienced them, it seems a shame not to set up even a smartphone (many of which have better audio and video reproduction capabilities than some so-called professional camcorders from 20 years ago) to preserve all performances and make them available to as many people as possible.

Tables filled with CDs and tables filled with LPs further in the back.

The days and nights were pretty tightly packed with meetings and concerts, but there was a gap of a couple of hours one morning so of course I went shopping for LPs and CDs at Penny Lane Records, which thankfully opens quite early.

Although the Festival program in Christchurch lasted a mere four days, it seems like there were twice as many concerts. This is because in addition to concerts featuring repertoire selected from ISCM submissions, there were also concerts devoted to repertoire chosen from the member organizations in the Asian Composers League. It’s far too much music to write about here in a way that won’t seem completely overwhelming, but I would like to call attention to a few things that left a lasting impression.

The Christchurch Youth Orchestra played a very short concert (only about 37 minutes) consisting of five works. Still it was nice to see and hear such a group performing on an important international music festival in front of an audience of people from all over the world and two of the works–Ogham (2018) by Irish composer Ryan Molloy and Distant Lights (2017) by Hong Kong composer Richard Tsang–contained some really exciting orchestration that I’d love to study in greater detail. Another of the pieces, Surcos a la tierra by Chilean composer René Silva, would be a big hit at The Midwest Clinic if Silva were to rearrange it for wind band. Two of the nation’s leading chamber music groups, the New Zealand String Quartet and the NZTrio, offered very wide ranging concert programs. The former, which took place in the 19th century Great Hall in Christchurch’s historic Arts Centre, a real time portal, included an intense 2015 quartet, inside voice, by Kurt Rohde, submitted by ISCM Full Associate member Florida International University, which brought everyone back into modern times. The latter concert, which took place in a posh new venue called The Piano, which was built since the massive 2011 Earthquake, did not include any American pieces, but British composer Joe Cutler‘s clever 2016 McNulty was inspired by the American TV drama series The Wire. Other works on the program included the very effective ACL-commissioned Elehiya Para sa mga Biktima ng Masaker sa Maguindanao (Elegy for the Victims of the Maguindanao Massacre) by Philippine composer Ryle Custodio, winner of the ACL’s 2018 Young Composer Prize, and the rhythmically intriguing Der Tanz by NZ composer Tabea Squire, one of the only works on the festival that was composed this year (since most of the programming was carried over from the postponed 2020 festival).

An orchestra onstage in a concert hall.

The Christchurch Youth Orchestra conducted by Helen Renaud during their performance at t Margaret’s College’s Charles Luney Auditorium in Christchurch NZ.

Another concert held at The Piano the night before the NZTrio appeared there featured seven very different compositions including the melancholy 2009 What gathers, what lingers by American composer Anna Weesner, another Roger Shapiro Fund submission. A concert at the tiny Recital Room in the University of Canterbury’s Arts Centre, which with two grand pianos seemed like very tight quarters, offered a variety of works which explored inside the piano sonorities. I loved Lauschgut (2019) by German composer Charlotte Seither whom, as luck would have it, was on the panel I moderated at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn during the public day of the IAMIC Conference (small world). And though it was completed seven years before Putin’s invasion, Forest Cover (2015) by Ukrainian composer Mykola Khshanovskyi, in which the explosive sonorities emanating from the piano are enhanced by pre-recorded and live electronics, sounded extremely timely. Yifan Yang, a piano student at the University of Canterbury, gave a breathtaking account of it.

Charlotte Seither and Frank J. Oteri

From my panel talk with Charlotte Seither during the public day of the IAMIC Conference at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn back in May (photo by Nathan Dreessen-of the MIZ)

On the final day there was another concert in the Recital Room devoted to eleven string trios from young composers based in 11 different countries represented within the Asian Composers League. The simultaneously deft and fun handling of numerous extended techniques in bouncing, sliding, spinning (2019) by Thai composer Piyawat Louilarpprasert, who is now based at Cornell, earned him the YCL’s 2022 Young Composer Award, but I was also quite taken with New Zealand composer Glen Downie‘s almost static Two Variations on an Original Chorale (2019). The performances, by two different string trios, felt like a triathlon, particularly when Johnny Chang and Mark Bennett as well as Mark Menzies (who was a ubiquitous onstage presence at the Christchurch concerts) and Rakuto Kurano switched between violin and viola, though at one point Menzies forgot which instrument he was supposed to play. But maybe he was just joking. Either way, it was as compelling visually as it was sonically.

Taonga pūoro displayed on a table.

The taonga pūoro that Alistair Frasier performed on during his duo concert with flutist Bridget Douglas.

But the real highlight of the Christchurch events for me was the duo of Alistair Fraser and Bridget Douglas performing on taonga pūoro and Western (silver) flutes, also in the Recital Room. Particularly intriguing were Gareth Farr‘s Silver Stone Wood Bone and Briar Prastiti‘s Terra Firma, both composed in 2019, the latter of which contained passages in which it was sometimes hard to tell which instrument was playing what. It was nevertheless a shame that no members of the Māori community were involved in either the composition or performance of a group of works which were all about bridging the divide between Māori and European cultures. Is it possible that no one in that community has created any music like that yet?

A billboard with a poster that says "I WILL NOT SPEAK MAORI" in all capital letters.

Once upon a time Māori people were forced to recite the line “I will not speak Māori” as part of the Anglicization process during their early schooling. It is something that still haunts the current population of Aotearoa New Zealand.

As I wrote at the onset, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around all of this. In particular, how a festival of contemporary music can truly be representative of what is currently being created all around the world and how such a festival could reach a broader and more diverse audience. Also, are such festivals, which, in the case of the ISCM, have been going on for a century, still feasible in a world that can be shut down by a global pandemic as well as by war and the vagaries of climate change? The ISCM was created a few years after the end of the First World War in an attempt to bring the fractured world together through music, yet in the beginning that world consisted just of countries in Europe plus the United States. As time went on, the ISCM eventually brought in members from South America, Asia, Oceania, and Africa, but 2022 marked only the second time in its history that the festival took place in the Southern Hemisphere. We’re hoping, to mark the centenary of the very first ISCM festival, to meet next year in South Africa, the first time on the African continent, an undertaking which has a great many challenges. But maintaining a festival that takes place every year in a different location in the world might prove to be an even greater challenge.

Flight departures at Auckland's international terminal.

Of course, the trip back home is as long as the trip there…

 

 

Nebal Maysaud: Rumored “Death” of Classical Music Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

[Ed. note: It has been a little over a year since the publication of Nebal Maysaud’s “It’s Time To Let Classical Music Die,” which is the most widely read article in the history of NewMusicBox. Many readers were drawn to its polemical title, which unfortunately was all that some people noticed rather than the concepts Nebal discussed in the article. One year later, Nebal reexamines these ideas in a candid one-on-one conversation with musicologist and University of Florida Assistant Professor Imani Mosley, discussing the relevance of classical music in 21st century America – and how to nurture a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable community that creates, performs, and appreciates such music. – FJO]

 

 

Imani Mosley: Thanks so much for this. I’m happy to get a chance to talk to you – and talk about this piece and contextualize it, and hear more about your thoughts on the piece itself and everything after. So before we talk about the piece, I’d like to talk about the response. Do you feel that your article was met the way you thought people would react to it? Did you find yourself surprised about dialogue that came about afterwards? Tell me about your reactions to how the piece was received and how people were talking about it.

Nebal Maysaud: I was expecting to receive almost no support – but not as much pushback either. I was expecting fewer people to even read it.

So in my first article I detailed a list of ways white people or people in power respond to marginalized individuals and people of color speaking out. So I was actually surprised initially to find a lot more support than I expected. I still do believe, just from what I’ve seen, that classical music as a field does still have a lot of conservative and neoliberal values.

But what I’ve seen also indicates that, while our structures and power structures reinforce these racial hierarchies of white supremacy, there are a lot of individuals who are aware of that and want to make a change in that power structure; and are not content with how we’re abusing people of color in the field of classical music.

So I was very happy to see that it received support. I was thrilled to get messages from people with varying degrees of interest, and who are in various stages in their careers as musicians. I heard back from some folks who studied classical music in college but left the field because of these systemic barriers.

It was really validating to get statements of support saying I’m not the only one who experienced what I experienced.

There was a great positive response. There were also, of course, negative responses – particularly once it started reaching conservative media, propagating it to a bunch of conservative sources.

One thing as a community I feel like we could and should be doing better is publicly expressing our support for writers who speak out – because a lot of the support faded away, but harassment didn’t. They calmed down quite a bit, but every so often, some conservative influencer shares it on Twitter and, you know, I get a few random messages. They can be hilarious: one time someone messaged me, “Screw you. I’m going to listen to Beethoven!” – and [at the time] I was listening to Beethoven.

IM: [laughs] I definitely can understand and empathize with that particular situation, as it’s one I find myself in fairly often. And there’s a lot to be said critically about those who take more left-leaning positions, as you say, about how their support and allyship manifests in these spaces. That’s a real and necessary conversation that definitely needs to be had. So I completely understand what you’re saying, and I’m sorry for the harassment. Unfortunately it comes with the territory but it’s obviously not something anybody should have to endure.

Since you kind of brought this up, I want to dig a little bit into larger ideas that we can break apart – and talk about those things have manifested in the past year. When you talk about classical music as a field, what exactly do you mean by that terminology. Are you talking about a framework, are you talking about institutions, pedagogy, works? When you use the terminology Western classical music, what is it standing in shorthand for?

NM: That’s a great question, and probably the biggest source of confusion for a lot of folks. My ideas and thoughts on this are constantly evolving. I said Western classical music; nowadays I’m trying to be more specific and say European classical music. But either way I am thinking of it less as a set of repertoire: so I am not going after anyone’s vinyl copy of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or anything like that; everyone’s welcome to listen to any kind of music you want; I am not advocating for any book burning or CD burning or score burning or anything like that.

  • At the end of the day, music is malleable enough for us to understand and interpret and reinterpret.

    Nebal Maysaud, composer
  • We are connected to white supremacy; our field is a tool for white supremacy; and it’s not separate, and you can’t separate it.

    Nebal Maysaud, composer

Instead what I’m actually more focused on is the community and the tradition – and the power structures within that community. I’m barely talking about the music at all. Although the music can support those power structures it also doesn’t have to. At the end of the day, music is malleable enough for us to understand and interpret and reinterpret – to a degree: there are some pieces that have a racial slur in the title or are appropriative; obviously there are inherent problems with pieces like that – but say Bach’s work: what inherently about Bach’s music is racist?

It’s not so much about the music, but it’s how we position the music and how we play the music and specifically the idea that Bach is some sort of prophet, or his music is a gift from god. It’s what Evan Williams writes about in his series of articles on the myth of the composer genius. And it’s really a power structure that uses this myth of the composer genius to reinforce white supremacy in the field. It’s also a power structure that keeps people of color from being seen and treated as equals amongst anyone who wishes to practice the music or traditions established by these European musicians and composers.

IM: This is what I want to pull apart here. I can definitely understand why people would have this general confusion: there’s definitely this surface level desire to read any type of critique as saying “Let’s get rid of all music; let’s not listen to composers or what have you.” But what I want to pull apart here is: how does what you’re describing differentiate from white supremacy as a framework?

For me, the concern is that Western classical music is a tool that works within a white supremacist framework. I have a harder time allying myself with the argument that “Western classical music” (in scarequotes) is itself the white supremacy, rather than being used as a tool within a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist framework.

All of the structures which you’re asserting, they exist outside of classical music; they exist within cultural networks that are infused and tangled with whiteness. So do you separate this idea of classical music as tool versus “classical music as an idea is equivalent to, or analog to, an idea of white supremacy?”

NM: That’s a great question. And that’s also, I think, a position I’ve sort of evolved on. As I learn more about how white supremacy works, and how racial hierarchies work within white supremacy, I would agree that classical music is a tool for white supremacy. I’d say that classical music ended up developing into a tool for both capitalism and white supremacy – which in some ways are almost synonymous, or they work together.

IM: They work together.

NM: Part of a solution I proposed, which is really to try to minimize the effect of racism with classical music; we can’t get rid of racism entirely within this field, unless we get rid of white supremacy in general, and that can’t happen unless we get rid of capitalism.

True liberation means that we have to be united in our communities in every field, and every way. The only thing I want to push back against is this idea that classical music – or European classical music I should say, because there are many different types of classical music – and it’s a belief I’ve seen, that European classical music is separate from “these political ideas.”

Obviously to these folks, our lives are political apparently; but they’re political because we have a political system that dehumanizes us into products of labor.

We are connected to white supremacy; our field is a tool for white supremacy; and it’s not separate, and you can’t separate it.

So I definitely do not see Western or European classical music as a unique entity of white supremacy that’s different from any other field.


This is just the beginning of the conversation between Imani Mosley and Nebal Maysaud. To hear the full conversation, listen on Soundcloud.

2020 Chamber Music Conference Continues Focus on Equity and Inclusivity

The audience gives Joan Tower a standing ovation on the final morning of the 2020 Chamber Music America conference.

The annual national conference of Chamber Music America, which takes place in New York City in January, has long been a meeting place for a wide range of musicians and arts professionals and typically offers a wide range of thought-provoking speakers as well as performance showcases for a broad range of small ensembles. But in recent years, the CMA conference has also placed a specific emphasis on equity, diversity, and inclusion in the music sector and has aimed to be a catalyst for positive change within our community. This year’s conference (January 16-19), which was chaired by bassoonist, Memphis-based PRIZM Ensemble Co-founder, and the Community Music Center of Boston’s Executive Director Lecolion Washington, moved the dial still further with a heady mix of provocative talks and diverse approaches to music-making.

George Lewis in front of a CMA podium,

George Lewis gives the Keynote Address for the 2020 Chamber Music America conference.

The tone was set during the opening keynote address by composer, trombonist, and Columbia University composition chair George E. Lewis who declared that “far from being sidelined as identity politics, identity reaches into the core of aesthetics.” Perhaps his most poignant salvo was that if you “grew up believing in autonomous art, you might be like those coalminers who need to lean coding.” Lewis claimed that the notion of autonomous art “is an addiction” that “might kill you” and is a by-product of what he described as a “fake meritocracy.” Ultimately Lewis advocated for a process of “creolization“ for the arts in the 21st century. Given how much of what Lewis said resonated with the conference events over the course of three days, it’s hard to believe that he was actually a last minute replacement for actor/playwright Anna Deavere Smith. (At the onset he quipped, “There is no reason to assume I’m not Anna Deavere Smith.”)

The notion of “autonomous art” is a by-product of “fake meritocracy.”

Mary Anne Carter, who was appointed last August as Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, gave an address during CMA’s annual membership meeting in which she implored the audience not to assume that people who are against government funding for the arts are against the arts, but rather they believe that private funding is a better solution. However, she acknowledged during her time at the NEA, she has become aware that private funding does not reach every county in the United States, but public funding does, which is a very strong argument for the preservation of public funding.

NEA Chair Mary Anne Carter standing in front of a podium.

NEA Chair Mary Anne Carter addresses the membership of Chamber Music America on Friday, January 17, 2020

I attended part of a session in the afternoon focused on Overcoming Structural Racism co-led by Quinteto Latino hornist/director Armando Castellano, Equity in the Center’s Executive Director Kerrien Suarez, and PRIZM Ensemble Executive Director and Pianist Roderick Vester. The goal was to look at how racism operates along a four-tied system—internalized (stereotypes, etc.), interpersonal (where microaggressions live), institutional (the codification of implicit biases) and structural—and to go from “wake to woke to work.” Suarez pointed out that “the way orchestras look today is the desired outcome of structural racism” and that the lack of people in color in many music organizations is a by-product of “white people living in homogenized circles.” This panned out when the session attendees were asked to break up into groups; various members in the audience representing chamber music series in different communities acknowledged that they mostly chose to work with people they already knew, who were mostly white, and that their audiences were almost exclusively white.

Attendees acknowledged that they mostly chose to work with people they already knew.

Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the entire session, because I wanted to catch at least a part of a performance showcase by Fran Vielman and the Venezuelan Jazz Collective, which was one of nine different ensembles featured in 30-minute showcases on Friday. I’m glad I did, but wish I could have heard more; I only managed to catch their closing number, “Minanguero,” which featured a very exciting interplay between instruments typically associated with a standard jazz combo and an array of indigenous Venezuelan percussion instruments performed by Vielma. All in all, I only missed two of the showcases in their entirely, though I’ll confess that I did not feel obliged to attend showcases whose repertoire consisted exclusively of works by familiar dead white European male composers.  I was, however, totally smitten by the repertoire choices as well as the performances of them by the Argus Quartet—whose playlist consisted of a quartet transcription of the Contrapunctus IX from J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, excerpts from works they have commissioned by Christopher Cerrone and Juri Seo (the latter of which they have recorded for innova), and the Adagio from the String Quartet in E-flat Major by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, which in 2020 seems only excluded from the standard repertoire through a combination of ignorance and the legacy of patrimony. That showcase was clear proof that new and old music can co-exist in a performance and that both can benefit from the linkage. Also of note were Andy Milne & Unison’s piano-bass-drums trio performance (I particularly loved their rendition of McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance”), everything performed by the PUBLIQuartet (whose setlist combined exciting original compositions by Jessie Montgomery and Matthew Browne with fascinating arrangements of music by Nina Simone and the 17th century Italian nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, and the extraordinary German unaccompanied five-voice ensemble Calmus (though everything they sang was composed by men and none of it was American). I must also call attention here to an amazing feat that the PRISM Quartet pulled off—their alto saxophone player was stranded in Kansas City but they managed to perform convincingly with Hunter Bockes, a saxophone student of the other three players who happened to be in town and available to rehearse with them earlier in the day. They blended seamlessly!  And when they were joined on a fifth saxophone by Rudresh Mahanthappa for his composition I Will Not Apologize for My Tone Tonight, they totally smoked!

A Saturday morning panel discussion at the 2020 Chamber Music America conference with Aaron Flagg, Tania León, Tomeka Reid, and Jerry Medina.

(Pictured from left to right) Aaron Flagg, Tania León, Tomeka Reid, and Jerry Medina

There were 11 additional performance showcases on Saturday afternoon which I’ll get to in a bit, but first, Saturday’s activities began with a lively group discussion between four very different musicians—composer/conductor Tania León, composer/cellist/AACM member Tomeka Reid, composer/arranger/trumpeter/vocalist/bandleader Jerry Medina, and trumpeter/Juilliard Jazz Studies chair Aaron Flagg, who served as the moderator. Flagg began by asking the group to share stories about feeling not included and what to do when your art is not welcomed. “If you don’t see a space, you create a space,” said Reid who described her transition from being an orchestra musician to working in improvisatory music, which to her felt more inclusive since she “came up under a lot of female bandleaders.”  Medina recounted people telling him that salsa was “too ethnic,” but that it never stopped him from making the music he believes in: “My purpose on Earth is to keep going forward trying to reach people ‘cause music heals.” León, however, stated that she “always felt it was not my problem. … I treat everybody equally even if the person doesn’t treat me equally … Labels diminish the value of a person. … We are global, but we insist on separation.”  Reiterating Lewis’s message from the previous day, León asked, “What is the difference between a salsa and a waltz? Nothing! … That jambalaya is going to create the future.” Reid acknowledged that “things need to change, but don’t let that stop you.” Medina described how music was at the forefront of the protests that led to the ouster of the corrupt governor of Puerto Rico in 2019: “What was the gun? What was the bullets? What was the bomb? It was the music!” Flagg expressed concern that “some people are saying that CMA is now turning into a Civil Rights Organization” as if it was possible to separate culture from the society in which it is created and experienced.  Perhaps the most impassioned comment from the entire session was a remark León made in response to a comment an audience member made about being someone “of color.” “Everybody has a color,” said León. “We need to change the words we speak with.”

“Everybody has a color. We need to change the words we speak with.”

I only managed to catch five of Saturday showcases, since I wanted to check out some of the panel sessions as well; it’s a shame that these activities had to compete with each other this year, but the alternative in previous years was to schedule the various panel talks very early in the morning which was also not ideal. The staff of Chamber Music America will hate me for writing this (and I’ll probably hate myself as well if they actually were to take me up on this suggestion), but maybe the conference needs to be five days! Anyway, I broke my rule about attending a showcase that only included music by dead white European men and went to hear the Minnesota-based Sonora Winds whose repertoire consisted exclusively of mid-20th century Polish repertoire for oboe (Madeline Miller), clarinet (Anastasiya Nyzkodub), and bassoon (Marta Troicki). I was so glad I did, because I had never heard any of the three pieces they performed previously—works by Antoni Szalowski and Władysław Walentynowicz, plus an early piece I was unfamiliar with by Witold Lutosławski, the only familiar name. (After the conference, I listened to their excellent disc on MSR Classics which also features a wind quartet—adding flutist Bethany Gonella—by another new name to me, Janina Garścia, so thankfully the disc was not devoted exclusively to male composers.) Sonora’s showcase gave me the same thrill I get from hearing so-called “new music” premieres: encountering something I didn’t know. It’s the most rewarding of listening experiences, though I was also delighted to hear a live set of Nuevo tango by Emilio Solla, whose music I already knew but had only previously experienced on recordings.  I was wowed by the energy of the Roxy Coss Quintet which exclusively performed her original post-hard-bop compositions which included her sardonic response to the zeitgeist “Mr. President” and the fiesty “Don’t Cross the Coss.” But the Del Sol String Quartet’s all new music set was even more exciting—the totally idiomatic inflections in Turkish composer Erberk Eryilmaz’s Hoppa! – Íki; the altered tunings of Michael Harrison’s Murred; and the unbridled visceral aggression of Aaron Garcia’s makeshift memorials, composed in response to the horrors of recent mass shootings, in which the players shout as they saw their bows across their instruments.

Roxy Coss performing on saxophone with members of her Quintet.

Roxy Coss and members of her Quintet.

When I was not attending performance showcases, I rushed between conversations with people in the exhibit rooms (which is always a great way to catch up with lots of great people), and some of those aforementioned concurrent panel sessions. The first of the ones I caught part of was Music and Healing: Understanding Cognitive Difference Through Music, which was centered around Loretta K. Notareschi’s 2015 String Quartet OCD which is an attempt to convey, through the medium of chamber music, her postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder in the year following her daughter’s birth. It is a deeply moving and powerful piece, but its impact was significantly diminished by being presented via a pre-recorded video performance rather than by live musicians. Perhaps rather than dividing activities between performance showcases and panel talks, these formats should be combined.

Sunday morning was devoted to a 90-minute tribute to composer Joan Tower, recipient of CMA’s 2020 Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award, which included performances of three of Tower’s compositions—by violist Paul Neubauer, flutist Carol Wincenc, and Gaudete Brass—as well as a spirited conversation between Tower and radio host John Schaefer. Tower regaled the audience with her wry observations about the music scene which was sprinkled with tons of spicy anecdotes from her long career. She has frequently said that she believes that there are two types of composers—instrumental music composers and vocal composers—and that she is an instrumental music composer who has only rarely, and with trepidation, dabbled in writing for voices. She recounted “one drunken night” saying to John Ashbery, “I don’t understand your poetry.” To which he replied, “I don’t understand it either.” When Schafer asked her how she felt about the term “woman composer,” she exclaimed that she “identifies as a woman and as a composer,” although later she acknowledged, interestingly, that she has trouble with the term “American.”

John Schaefer and Joan Tower.

John Schaefer and Joan Tower.

Joan Tower exclaimed that she “identifies as a woman and as a composer.”

The conference ended with a final concert devoted to two works commissioned by CMA: Chris Rogerson’s luscious String Quartet No. 3 performed by the not yet but since Grammy minted Attacca Quartet and the expansive The Color of US Suite by jazz percussionist Donald Edwards scored for his Quintet. Given that the theme of the whole conference was inclusion, it was a bit of a shame that the final concert featured only two long works by two men. In previous years these concerts typically featured a greater number of shorter works by a wider variety of composers. Though in previous years, female composers were barely performed during the two days of ensemble showcases and happily this year’s mix struck a much better balance. Putting together such a varied and immersive conference is admittedly an extremely tough balancing act and the formula will never be perfect. And folks will complain even if it is. But two weeks later I’m still filled with sounds and ideas that will stay with me throughout the year as I eagerly anticipate next year’s iteration of the conference, which will take place January 14-17, 2021. Be there.

Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

Photo by Sam Balye via Unsplash of a crowded classroom from the back of the room showing a diverse group of students

By Dave Molk & Michelle Ohnona

Making Whiteness Visible in the (Music) Classroom

Teaching Inequality: Problems with Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy” described how the near exclusive and yet unnecessary reliance on Western art music, institutionalized as white and as male, upholds white supremacy within the music theory classroom. In “Promoting Equity,” we present strategies on how to begin disrupting this normalization of whiteness, starting with making it visible. We should think of this disruption as a process rather than a product—antiracist describes actions, not states of being. To supplement the ideas presented here, we’ll also suggest additional resources in the conclusion that might help you in your own practice.

Naming: A Way to Begin (some reflections from Dave Molk)

As a white man, speaking of whiteness in the effort to de-center it runs the seemingly paradoxical risk of re-centering whiteness. Even in the midst of calling out unearned privilege, I reap its benefits—the presumed authority associated with this aspect of my identity ensures that my voice sounds louder and carries further than the majority of those who do not share it.

And yet, the problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression. Calling attention to an injustice forces a decision from those who practice willful ignorance: a decision between confrontation and conscious evasion. Naming is a way to begin, a way to make perceptible something that so often goes unrecognized. As whiteness becomes noticeable, it becomes noteworthy, and we can recognize its ubiquity as unnatural and intentional.

The problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression.

White people are overrepresented as faculty in the college classroom. The belief that race is a non-white problem, something that affects “others,” is itself a white problem with a disproportionate and negative impact on people of color. Whites are responsible both for this ignorance and for redressing it—claimed neutrality only masks our ongoing racism. There is no opt-out.

An antiracist approach must be intersectional—meaning that race, gender, class, sexuality, and other aspects of one’s identity where oppression exists are inextricable from one another. An antiracist approach names these forms of oppression and their manifestations inside and outside the classroom.

When I talk with my students about white supremacy in higher education, I name my whiteness. When I talk with my students about sexism in higher education, I name my gender. I acknowledge that I receive unearned privileges because I am an able cisgendered white heterosexual man and I name some of these privileges. I name the pressures I feel to stay silent and the perils in doing so. If I’m not willing to do this in front of my students, I can’t expect them to be willing to do it during the course of their lives, either.

Questioning the Curriculum

The process of developing an antiracist music theory classroom begins with reflecting critically on what we are doing in the classroom and why. What exactly are we teaching, both in terms of the immediate material and the underlying messages? Why are we including this particular material on the syllabus and why are we teaching it in this particular way? Whose goals does this actually serve, and what exactly are those goals? What disciplinary habits are we unquestioningly reproducing in our syllabi, teaching, and assessment methods? What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why? Ask these and similar questions at the start of each semester and continue to revisit them as the semester unfolds.

What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why?

Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

I. Centering the Student

To develop an antiracist music theory classroom, we should begin by acknowledging that the classroom is not a neutral space and that each of our students is a complex individual whose background knowledge, social identity, and relationship to music and music education is unique. Being able to connect with students from different backgrounds requires a flexibility in approach, an awareness of privilege and of power dynamics, and the understanding that these things matter. We can empower our students and encourage them to be active participants in their own education when we validate their musical experiences.

During our first meeting, I explain to students that I am not the sole source of knowledge for the course and that our work together will be more successful once we all realize that everyone has something valuable to contribute to our learning community. I state that there are no guilty pleasures in the classroom and that we will not self-deprecate. Hearing these messages said aloud helps students to understand that different musical backgrounds are a source of strength and that our class will work best when everyone feels comfortable contributing.

Questions to ask:

  •   Why do we presuppose that challenging our students is mutually exclusive with validating and empowering them?
  •   What is the relationship between the work we do in the classroom and the lives that our students and we lead outside it?
  •   What is actually necessary in what we teach? How are we defining necessary and who are we considering when we do this? What do our students actually do with this knowledge?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Create the syllabus with intention and invite feedback from a trusted colleague. Discuss pedagogical choices with students.
  •   Continue to ask who is included and who is not.
  •   Invite students to situate themselves in relation to the course material. Create opportunities for them to tell us what they need. Listen. Respond.
  •   Build trust and community by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We can’t expect students to be open if we are not open ourselves. Acknowledge the hard conversations. Empathize.

In Practice: Big-picture conversations

The classroom is not a neutral space.

To help students recognize that music is, in addition to “the notes,” a social and cultural product, I devote the majority of three classes each semester to a round-table discussion of big-picture ideas. I explain that, while I will facilitate as necessary, students should engage in dialogue with each other and not with me. These topics become reference points as we continue through the semester, and we keep these conversations going via online postings and explicit connections during lectures. The final paper asks students to continue realizing the political in the personal by situating themselves more deeply within these big-picture issues.

These discussions provide a way to begin uncovering pervasive biases and various forms of systemic oppression that influence our ways of thinking and modes of interaction. Even when I provide readings ahead of time to help students begin to think about these issues, I deliberately leave space in how to interpret the prompts. This allows students to approach the material from their own experiences and allows the class to learn how these big-picture issues can manifest in different ways. My role is to push us below surface-level engagement, to make visible the underlying assumptions. Teaching only the notes is a political decision with real consequences—in the absence of interruption, injustice replicates. The following are prompts that I use:

  • What makes music good?
  • What exactly is “the music itself”?
  • What is authenticity in music?
  • Disparities faced by women in music.
  • Connections between music, race, and racism.
  • The efficacy of protest music.

II. The Polystylistic Approach

A polystylistic approach uses the particular strengths of many different styles of music to create a sophisticated working knowledge of how music can be put together. Through a polystylistic approach, we also gain ways to talk about the social and cultural issues that are inseparable from music. Using examples from other genres within a pedagogic framework that still prioritizes Western art music is not the answer—inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy. While including “everything” is neither possible nor productive, we must be clear that the decision not to include a particular style is not a dismissal of that style.

Inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy.

If we restrict ourselves to a single genre, then we develop a monochromatic music theory. We forsake the opportunity to speak well about some musical phenomena and the ability to speak at all about others. Our understanding of what music is and what music can be will necessarily be limited by the aesthetics of the single style that we study, and we miss our chance to make music theory more relevant to more students.

Questions to ask:

  •   What is truly foundational knowledge and what is style-specific? How do we justify the inclusion of style-specific material in a basic theory curriculum? What is the explicit purpose of this style-specific material, is it warranted, and are we going about teaching it in the best way?
  •   If our students turned on the radio to a random station, could they engage with the music as a result of our pedagogy? Would they, as a result of our pedagogy, be dismissive of certain styles? Does our pedagogy disrupt such dismissive attitudes or reinforce them?
  •   If we require most/all majors and minors to take music theory, how can we convince them that music theory has value for what they do and who they are?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Be explicit about why we are teaching a polystylistic curriculum. Explain to students the traditional model and name its problems.
  •   Solicit suggestions from students for material to incorporate. Get to know what they’re into and help them to articulate reasons why they like it. Use the familiar to open doors to the new.
  •   Use moments when theory terminology breaks down to point out the shortcomings of theory, then work with students to create better ways to talk about the musical phenomena in question.
  •   Attend to inclusivity both in terms of genre and practitioners within genre.

In Practice: Sampling

To create the two-semester basic theory sequence I used at Georgetown University, I drew primarily from electronic dance music, hip-hop, jazz, pop, rock, and Western art music. These were styles I had formal training in or had devoted significant time and effort to research. When developing a polystylistic approach, the point isn’t to arrive at the optimum mix of styles, but to use a plurality of style to decenter whiteness, to make the material more relevant to more students, to give students a more realistic idea of how music works, what music is, and what music can be, and to provide an entry point for talking about the social and cultural issues imbedded in the music.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, during which I recreate Daft Punk’s “One More Time” from Eddie Johns’s “More Spell on You,” I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style. Sampling lets us talk about a number of important musical topics that don’t come up in traditional pedagogy, including studio production techniques, sequencing, DAWs, riddims, breaks, royalties, and questions of legality, authorship, and ethics. These are more immediate and meaningful to my students than the voice leading norms of a particular style. They’re also more applicable to their careers, and are therefore more important for me to teach.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style.

I use the following guiding principles to contextualize our theory classroom, stating them during our first class and returning to them throughout the semester in order to emphasize their importance. Although we may find these truths obvious, we should still name them for our students—actually saying these out loud underscores the degree to which these points matter.

  • Music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive.
  • The tools we use guide our interactions and shape our interpretations.
  • We don’t have a sophisticated way to talk about a lot of musical phenomena. These shortcomings belong to the tools we use and not to the material.

Putting It Together: The Blues

Willie Dixon’s composition, “Spoonful,” offers a number of intellectually rigorous ways to engage with both the musical elements that work within it and the social and cultural forces that work upon it. What musical elements tend to be foregrounded in “Spoonful,” and how do they function? How about a tune like “Blues for Alice”—what elements tend to be foregrounded and how do they function? What are the advantages to calling both “Spoonful” and “Blues for Alice” a blues? Is it possible to identify a prevailing blues aesthetic? How might we describe it? Define it? What do we learn about the blues specifically and about the concept of genre generally as a result of this process?

We might compare and contrast Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition of “Spoonful” with Cream’s. We might talk about differences in instrumentation, in the use of space, in guitar technique and tone, in the timbres of the drums, the organization, the energy, and eventually realize we’re not even beginning to scratch the surface of the musically important material presented in these two versions of the tune. We might wonder why this type of deep and engaged critical listening isn’t what we talk about when we talk about ear training. We might wonder about biases in traditional ear training and about ways to overhaul that component of traditional music theory pedagogy.

The blues lets us engage with issues of appropriation in ways more immediate and more relevant to students than would be possible using Western art music. In light of these two versions of “Spoonful,” we might ask our students, who can sing the blues, and why? Who should sing the blues, and why? Who gets to determine this? Again, why? What does it mean that Eric Clapton built his career on the back of black music even as he espoused racist vitriol? Is this something we can reconcile? Something we should? What does it mean to separate the art from the artist? Is it actually possible to do so? By allotting time and space within the classroom for students to wrestle with these issues in a musical context, we prepare them to recognize how these issues can manifest more generally.

Talking about the blues in the music theory classroom provides an organic way to bring big-picture ideas into the conversation. Angela Davis develops a constructive framework for thinking about classism, sexism, and racism in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism as she traces the development of black social protest through the music of the classic blues era and into jazz. Sharing with students the lyrics to “Prove It On Me Blues,” “Poor Man’s Blues,” and “Strange Fruit,” encourages them to understand the work of Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday as simultaneously musical, social, and cultural. An introduction to this history lets students re-contextualize social protest as it manifests in other, more recent styles of music in the United States, both inside and outside black communities. We can, of course, talk about form, chords, scales, improvisation, and other elements that we tend to find in a music theory classroom when we talk about the blues. Indeed, we must—but we must also push these conversations further.

Concluding Thoughts

As educators, our failure to engage the potential of our classrooms to be sites of antiracist learning and practice is not only a question of social injustice. When we omit, overlook, or unknowingly disregard the work of musicians of color, we commit disciplinary injustice, and do a disservice not only to the students in our classroom, but to our discipline writ large. It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

We should ask how our pedagogy supports the development of critical thinking and engaging with difference, and how we might better incorporate this into our coursework. We should ask how social and cultural forces shape what we study in the classroom, how we study it, and how these forces impact our lives. We should ask how our coursework aligns with the goals of higher education, and why we remain complacent when it doesn’t.

We are all racialized within this society—conservatory and non-conservatory alike. When we abdicate our responsibility as educators to do this work in these spaces, in spite of significant institutional barriers, we ensure the ascendancy of injustice. The ability to step away is itself a mark of privilege that should be brought to bear on fixing the problem, not perpetuating it. We can all advocate within our spheres of influence to advance the cause of justice. The suggestions offered here are possible starting points for critical reflection about the work we do in the classroom and the reasons we do it. All work must have a beginning—may this be yours.


Suggested Resources

Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

Sara Ahmed’s “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism.”

James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers,” The Fire Next Time.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists.

The Combahee River Collective Statement (see also Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, How We Get Free).

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.”

Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.

Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (original article)

Engaging Students
Philip Ewell’s “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.”

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Ethan Hein’s work on pedagogy, including “Toward a Better Music Theory” and “Teaching Whiteness in Music Class.”

bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

Lauren Michelle Jackson’s “What’s Missing From ‘White Fragility’” and everything she links to.

Adrienne Keene’s Introduction to Critical Race Theory course page.

Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist.

Gloria Ladson-Billings’ contributions to the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy.

Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider.

MayDay Group.

Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race?

The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education is a valuable starting point for finding important conversations, contributors, and resources for bringing social justice into the classroom.

Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Ethical Artistry: Are we really asking ourselves these tough questions?

Outdoor string quartet performance

A little background: For more than two years, I worked to co-curate the Intricate Machines project with composer Phil Taylor and the Aizuri Quartet. Along the way, we had many discussions ranging from the pragmatic details of venue and budget, to deep artistic conversations about musical values. Our process challenged many of the assumptions we had about concert curation and presenting routines, showing us that no single set of guidelines apply to every project, and that decisions we made at every stage—from instrumentation to venue to repertoire—encompassed “lessons” that weren’t unique to us, or even to concert curation in general; instead, they were part of larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists.

So here we are. In a nutshell, over the next four weeks I will discuss the types of projects we pursue and who they benefit (Part 1); I will illustrate the complexity of certain decisions we face when running ensembles and curating concerts (Part 2); I will consider various ways we tend to evaluate our work (Part 3); and, I will argue that our efforts really do matter in terms of how we affect and reach others through our artistry (Part 4).


Pursuing Projects, Finding the Balance, & Reckoning with Artistic Guilt

It came as a surprise when I realized I’d been organizing, presenting, and performing contemporary music concerts for more than a decade. Sometimes these were really special projects near and dear to my heart, but more often they were rather pedestrian, fulfilling some calendar quota at a summer festival or university.

From a very young age musicians get lulled into the routine of these events, from holiday concerts in grade school to those tedious group studio recitals.

Later, in universities and conservatories, we perform degree recitals where our artistic choices are filtered through a rubric of academic requirements. They are often structured with a sort of formula or routine. For example, if you do a quick google search for “voice recital degree requirements,” dozens of similar rubrics pop up. (Here are a few from the University of North Texas and San Francisco Conservatory.)

These sorts of prescriptive recital curricula have strong educational value, ensuring that any student working through a degree program will develop targeted skills. Voice students, for example, will have practiced singing works in different languages, different mediums (e.g. art song, aria, oratorio, etc.), and different historical periods, and this will help in a variety of professional areas where they may later work.

Yet, in spite of their pragmatic design and pedagogical value, our students easily conflate that ticking off these sorts of checkboxes is the essence of what we are meant to do as artists. In fact, these recitals are not an end unto themselvesthey are meant to develop our skills so we have the versatility to pursue other far-reaching artistic endeavors!

When I first started curating concerts outside of school, I struggled to make this distinction. I was swept along in the entrenched patterns I trained under, and it was all too easy to keep my head down and just go with the flow—Hey, just tell me where/when the gig is and I’ll be there!rather than asking if my concerts and artistry were really reaching people in powerful ways.

Crowd Out w/David Lang

A performance of crowd out for 1000 untrained voices by David Lang, performed in Chicago, 2014
David T. Kindler, courtesy of Chicago Humanities Festival and Illinois Humanities

If we’re not careful, we can easily take for granted the ways in which our concerts provide a vital point of connection to a public audience that may or may not have an intimate knowledge of the musical world we inhabit. Because of this, we not only have a chance to connect to our audiences, but an obligation to help guide their concert experience in meaningful ways. If we don’t embrace this responsibility and challenge, we miss the opportunity to showcase the beauty and relevance of our unique artistic world, or worse, we risk turning people off from it.

Our concerts provide a vital point of connection to a public audience.

Why Am I (Are We) Doing This?

This is one of the toughest artistic questions we face, and one easy to run from when we curate a project. It is often easier to follow the steps of a well-defined rolelike gigging as a freelancer, enjoying the active musicking of performing in a community choir, or working as an employee in a professional ensemblethan it is to invent or craft our own projects.

But, at other times we do choose to step outside of these defined roles, pursuing projects in which we invest our own time, money, and mental energy. In these cases, what is the driving force? Is it a career boost? Is it a musical opportunity we don’t have elsewhere? Is it part of curatorial duties we fulfill with an ensemble? Is our project centered around an aesthetic idea, or a collection of repertoire and artists? Is the project fulfilling a social or cultural need in the community? Or maybe it’s a combination of these (and other) factors.

Understanding and deeply connecting to your project’s underlying artistic goals can inexorably guide your work. Your belief and passion is the basis around which others will connect to your ideas. Whether your project centers on a social movement, a set of composers, or even a vague artistic notion that you imagine but struggle to articulate in words, your conviction becomes a rallying cry that can reach others and transform them.

One of the most memorable concerts I ever attended was dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Fase (1982), a choreographic rendering of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, Come Out, Violin Phase, and Clapping Music staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the 2006 BAM Next Wave Festival.

 

For those unfamiliar with Fase (and with early Steve Reich), this setting lasts over 50 minutes, as each of the four Reich scores is played in its entirety. Unlike many of Reich’s later works, these early pieces are extremely limited in their materialrepeating a few small musical cells over and over and over, in phasing repetition. Keersmaeker’s choreography is similarly minimal and repetitive, focusing on a few gestures and movements that cycle again and again, closely mirroring the musical architecture in long, unvaried, stretches.

In other words: it’s long, extremely intense, and fairly boring in the sense that it provides very little variety or reprieve. But, for me, it was also nothing short of brilliant and inspiring!

Keersmaeker’s work had such conviction and dedication to its concept. Meanwhile, Keersmaker and Dolven performed with virtuosity, focus, and determination, sweeping me up in the experience, in spite of the fact that it was long and psychologically intense![1]

This was the type of concert experience that illustrated the visceral power of art and made me want to be a composer. Today, curating my own projects, I try to harness the type of conviction I saw in Fase as I craft projects to try and reach others.

Your convinction becomes a rallying cry that can reach others and transform them.

Unfortunately, as much as conviction can positively guide our artistry, a lack of conviction in programming ideas can also detract negatively. Sometimes our programming can be sort of lazy and half-hearted (e.g. going through the motions, checking off the boxes, etc.). At other times, we feel indifferent, making curatorial choices that are sort of random, or which we feel are minimally relevant. Perhaps scariest of all, we can take a nihilistic view that no programing decisions we make will really matter or affect others in a meaningful way.

I can’t force you to be morally optimistic, but I think a lot of us as artists and listeners have experienced moments of powerful personal reflection and transformation at a concert, and these moments seem to fly in the face of artistic pessimism. Whether it is towering sound giving us chills and goosebumps, or the depths of a haunting piece that ravages our emotions, or some unique communal experience we felt while participating together in a live musical event, it often feels like these revelatory moments result from musical conviction, not from coincidence.

In a word, if we ask ourselves, “Why am I even doing this?” and spend some time really thinking about our answer, I suspect it might guide us towards a sense of conviction that will reach others in a powerful way.

Who Does My Project Benefit? Be Honest, Not Guilty.

As artists, it is important to have autonomy and freedom. And, pursuing any kind of curation or concert project takes a lot of work. So we shouldn’t feel guilty about pursuing projects that deeply interest us, or that will benefit our career in an obvious way. (After all, we’re the ones putting the work inwriting grants, calling venues, renting equipment, and so on!) Furthermore, many of us see the value of projects oriented towards community or social justice, but are reticent to involve ourselves if we feel the projects won’t meaningfully contribute to our own artistic life and goals.

We shouldn’t necessarily feel guilty about any of these positions, but we also should be willing to face the music and admit that some projects we pursue primarily benefit ourselves, and some more widely engage with others.

Wrestling with this balance is largely the crux of what Elliot Cole discusses in his article “Questions I Ask Myself.” Cole notes how much of our musical work as contemporary composers is often structured around personal gain and value systems defined by the specialization of our field, rather than being focused on what it provides to communities outside of the field. Cole’s honesty, and his willingness to engage with these questions, are important steps to take in measuring the impact of our artistry. Are we lost in a monotonous flow of formulaic concerts and accepted practices for artistic work? And are we putting too much weight on awards-based paradigms as the main criteria of evaluating artistic work?

In thinking about many of Cole’s specific questions, and about my general query of who our concerts benefit, we might bear in mind two important considerations. First, we should evaluate our artistic efforts and impact according to a broad and long-term view. In a lifetime spent in the arts, we have a chance to pursue certain projects for ourselves, focusing on individual growth, career gain, and other personal considerations, while other initiatives we pursue primarily benefit others as we provide education, access to music, community engagement, and so on.

Second, the purposes and impacts of any one project can be manifold, meaning the event you are investing so much time and effort into can ideally benefit you and others at the same time. In fact, many times we start a project focused on its benefit to our career or artistry, but as it grows, we may find ways for the project to have a wider outward impact.

When Phil Taylor, the Aizuri Quartet, and I began work on the Intricate Machines project, our passion for presenting five powerful, recent, string quartet works guided many decisions. Audiences on our tour connected deeply to our conviction for the music, which had spawned the project in the first place. But the project also evolved over time, and we ended up leading composer guest talks at five different universities, as well as multiple outreach events with the Aizuris coaching teenage and collegiate string musicians. In the end, our project benefited our careers, while also impacting audiences and communities on a wider level.

If you look at your own career (or ensemble or series, etc.) what balance do you strike? Are your projects exclusively career oriented? Or, are you devoting substantial time towards community ventures, but putting your artistic growth on hold as a result? Is there a middleground you can find?

Maybe the core of the amazing artistic project you are pursuing (e.g. a recital, recording, commission, etc.) can stay the same, but you can find additional ways for the project to impact (or be accessed by) communities that might not otherwise experience it. Or, maybe the community project you spend so much time on can start to include repertoire or curation that will simultaneously benefit your career in a direct way.

These ideas and suggestions take time to pursue, and they may not apply to every project. But, when we take extra steps to think deeply about our artistic work, we often improve both the quality of our projects and the scope of their impact.

For me these two central issues—conviction in concert programming (“Why am I doing this?”) and audiences who are potentially impacted (“Who does my project benefit?”)—are an important litmus test. Some groups are striking a great balance in their work, while others, it seems, are hardly taking these issues into consideration.



1. I think others experienced the work in a similar way. John Rockwell, writing for the New York Times remarked, “It is dry, austere and long, the movements inevitably lacking the shimmering resonance of…Mr. Reich’s scores. But in its intensely focused way it’s still a masterpiece.”

Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music

People sitting in a restaurant watching a violinist perform center stage

“Something’s wrong!” my mom cried. “My headphones malfunctioned! My video sounds blurry!”

I put on her new, fancy headphones and watched the video. It was the singer in the plaza. It sounded crystal clear. I had been there.

“What do you mean it’s blurry?” I asked.

“There’s a lot of noise! It didn’t sound like that in real life!”

“Um, that’s exactly what it sounded like in real life,” I retorted, frustrated with her imaginary tech issue. My mom looked hurt by my dismissal of her problem. This wasn’t going well.

And then it dawned on me: Perhaps arguing was futile, because we hadn’t heard the same thing in the first place. In real life, my mom had experienced a soulful musician playing her favorite songs amidst an ambient backdrop. I, on the other hand, experienced a cacophonous soundscape of live music plus wind, laughter, chimes, talking, traffic, footsteps, car engines, drive-by radios, overlapping accents, multiple languages, paper cups and plastic spoons colliding with metal trash cans, and more.

Thanks to high-quality headphones, my mom could now hear the noisy background, too. But her rude awakening was my realtime reality, and likely that of many other autistic folks.

Hi again, colleague, I’m glad you’re here. In my last post, “An Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague,” I referred to the music world’s “unacceptable, overwhelming status quo of autistic inaccessibility,” gave you a primer on autistic etiquette, and introduced this four-part series as a “no-bullshit guide to upping your autistic accessibility game as a musician or arts presenter.” I alluded to my fear of asserting my own needs and declared it time for all arts professionals to improve autistic accessibility in our concerts, rehearsals, and interactions.

Today, I present you with the heart of this series: an organized, actionable reference guide to help you enact a permanent framework for autistic accessibility in your musical efforts. These tips aren’t just for organizations and presenters; they are also for musicians, students, teachers, and other music-adjacent allies. If you are not autistic, consider this required coursework.

The reason I began this post with an anecdote is twofold: 1) It nicely illustrates some of the sensory processing discrepancies between allistic and autistic people, and 2) It prioritizes autistic stories. As a conscientious ally, it is critical to listen to autistic stories, learn about our diverse lived experiences, and consider how our needs may coincide with or differ from your own. Without that context, even the best list of tips couldn’t help you.

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My own guide will be rife with gaps and even contradictory information that another autistic person may not agree with. As I mentioned in the last post, “if you know an autistic person, you know ONE autistic person.” I bring my own set of experiences, identities, and privileges to the table (queer, non-binary, second-generation, biracial person of color, Cambodian, Chinese, and Greek, American citizen, thin, able to drive, sighted, hearing, physically able, financially secure family, elite college education, etc.), and you will have to adjust to your audience’s particular needs. I am not an autism expert; I am merely a student of my own autistic experience.

The Guide:

I came up with the acronym SCALE to help you remember the five main themes in this guide to improving autistic accessibility. You will eventually forget most of the tips, but if you can remember the main themes (SCALE), you may have an easier time filling in the blanks and adding your own points.

S – sensory needs

Sensory needs are one of the most discussed hallmarks of the autistic experience. Many autistic people experience sensory hypersensitivity, resulting in the magnified perception of sound, smell, touch, taste, and other senses. This overstimulation can be not only painful but dangerous, causing disorientation, loss of balance, shutdown, meltdown, and other cognitive or physical impairments. On the flip side, many autistic folks experience hyposensitivity, which may cause us to seek extreme, additional sensory inputs for stimulation.

Given that it is neither practical nor feasible to simultaneously accommodate all autistic sensory needs at the same time, what, then should you do? In my experience, err on the side of reducing sensory input. As the writer of the Autisticality blog says: “It’s worse to have too much input than not enough. If you don’t have enough input, you might be bored, restless, or uncomfortable…In contrast, having too much input can be actively dangerous.”

  • Be conscious of the venue’s lighting, temperature, acoustics, seating, and restrooms. Any of the following could be devastating for an autistic person:
    • Fluorescent lights, strobe lights, very bright or very dim lights.
    • A reverberant, cavernous space, which can make sound bounce off the walls, especially when there’s a crowd or amplified sound. I feel physically sick from being in spaces like this and certainly cannot handle conversation.
    • Restrooms with extremely loud flushes or hand dryers.
    • Loud music, bass, and people. Be mindful of appropriate sound levels.
    • Air conditioning and heating. Not just the temperature but also the noise of the units, the blowing sensation, and the way that impacts the room, sound, and individual seats.
    • While it’s best to provide a scent-free space whenever possible, at least take care not to spray or otherwise adorn the space with scents. If there is a critical, artistic reason to include a scent, make sure guests receive a warning in advance.
  • Specific musical sounds and extended techniques can be jarring for an autistic person—including high-pitched registers (violin, coloratura soprano, etc), harsh static, sound walls, and crunchy attacks. However, I am not advocating for the removal or banning of these sounds in your composition, programming, performing, and classroom efforts! As with everything discussed here, we autistic people do not agree on what bothers us, and removing one thing can be taking away another’s greatest pleasure. As a violinist and 21st-century composer myself, I understand how tricky these needs are to negotiate, and rest assured that you’ll never manage it perfectly. But if you can provide warnings to audience members in advance, that communication can go a long way.
  • Limit competing noise. If we are watching a concert and meant to focus our attention on the performer, be mindful of additional sonic inputs as much as possible. These can distract an autistic person. Examples:
    • Outside conversations
    • Music from other rooms bleeding in
    • Loud A/C, slamming doors
    • Buzzing speakers.
    • The same rule applies to classrooms, meetings, and even social interactions. I have skipped class and left concerts many times due to jarring, competing noise making me anxious.
  • List the potential sensory triggers in advance. If I know one part of the program will be too loud for me, I can step out for that part, rather than suffering in my seat with no way out and possibly experiencing a meltdown.
  • On the flip side, consider offerings things to stoke sensory pleasure! Not only can this increase an autistic person’s enjoyment, but it may also help to soothe us. Stimming is a term used to describe the “self-stimulating” things autistic people do to cope with external stimuli. I recently went to an event that offered fuzzy pipe cleaners and Play-Doh for people to use in their seats as wanted or needed. It was delightful, and certainly helped soothe my anxiety during the intense discussion.

C – cognitive needs, clarity, and communication

Cognitive differences—that is, differences in mental processes that encompass skills like attention, memory, executive functioning, decision making, and awareness—are another predominant marker of the autistic vs. allistic experience. Cognitive needs are tricky to illustrate but still require devoted attention and effort from allies. Because it can be hard or inappropriately taxing for an autistic person to explain why a particular aspect of something is difficult, allistic people are often left to either take our word for it or dismiss it. This puts us in the position of having to prove our impairment or the severity of our need to an allistic gatekeeper. Don’t do that. It’s dehumanizing, embarrassing, and ableist. Never make assumptions about another person’s cognitive needs.

So how can you validate the cognitive needs of autistic people and make your efforts more autistic-friendly? Communication and clarity are your friends! Here are some basics:

  • WE LOVE (and need) DETAILS! Include as many details as you can, whenever you can. This goes for your concert invitations, announcements, and interactions. Information that’s extraneous or obvious to you may be crucial or non-obvious to an autistic person, and clarifying details can help us feel safer.
  • Location: Share not only the address or name of the venue, but also directions, a map, parking instructions (including the cost), directions to the entrance, where the wheelchair-accessible entrance is, and how to find the specific room. The more photos and visual descriptions of the building, entrance, and room you can include, the better.
  • Venue Specifics: Tell us what to expect.
    • Is it wheelchair-accessible, both inside and out? Include whether some parts of the venue are accessible but not others, so folks can plan accordingly. It is incredibly important to communicate this info in advance.
    • Will there be seating for fat people? Couches, benches, and other forms of sturdy, wide, armless seating can be more accommodating for fat people than flimsy fold-up chairs. Note: “fat” is not an insult, but these 11 fat-shaming phrases are. (Source: Nakeisha Campbell for The Body Is Not An Apology blog.)
    • Restrooms: Provide gender-neutral restrooms. If the venue doesn’t have any, write “All-Gender Restroom” on a piece of paper and stick it to the door. Make sure that at least one gender-neutral bathroom is wheelchair accessible. Whatever the bathroom situation is, though, make sure to communicate in advance.
    • Is anything banned, like food, drinks, or selfie sticks? Who can we contact if we need an exception? Will anything be for sale?
  • Basic Protocol: Autistic folks do not always follow the same social conventions as others, nor do we innately understand the same “rules” as allistics. Try to provide any rules, implied rules, guidelines, dress code, and any other relevant information in advance.
    • Examples of less-obvious things to communicate: Expected arrival time, how long parking usually takes, if we’ll be expected to check our coats or take off shoes, if seating is assigned or first-come-first-serve, if we are not supposed to clap between pieces, etc. (You will get better at learning what details are relevant as you practice.)
  • Detailed schedule: For concerts, provide a program or communicate what the run of the show is. Include information about any pre or post-concert talks, break lengths, meet and greets, places for refreshments, etc. If you don’t know at the time of program printing, try offering a separate insert as guests enter.
  • Tell us, for better or for worse: Is this a scent-free space with quiet areas, soft light, moderate temperature, and comfy seating? Great, please let us know in advance! We won’t know about all these good things if you don’t tell us. On the other hand, will there be harsh fluorescent lights? Does the room get hot and stuffy? Is there a part of the concert that gets extremely loud? Then, you must also let us know.
    • Never omit information for fear of people not showing up. Every autistic person has a different concoction of needs and sensitivities, and while the information you share may cause one person to decline, it may cause another to attend. For example, I’m not bothered by most heat, so if I knew an event would get hot, I actually wouldn’t be deterred. But without factual, detailed information, we are left to our own guesswork, and I usually default to expecting the worst and skipping out.
    • Being upfront about both positive and negative details can also help autistic people plan accordingly—i.e. bring earplugs, sunglasses, or dress in layers.
  • A Complex Chain of Steps: Keep in mind that the cognitive processing of autistic people may cause us to consider each event or action as a complicated chain of micro-steps. For me, something as simple as getting a drink of water can send me in a stressful spiral, as I consider the potential aspects of the water, the steps I must navigate in order to get it, the short-term effects of hydration, whether I will bother other guests, whether it will impact my seat comfort or exit time, and more.
  • When in doubt, make an announcement. If there any changes, do your best to communicate. Don’t take any understanding for granted.
  • The cognitive (and sensory) barriers add up. It is not uncommon for autistic people to feel relaxed at the beginning of an event and utterly discombobulated by the end.
  • Check in with us. Autistic folks may not always speak up for themselves, due to hurdles with cognitive processing or fear of drawing negative attention.
  • Just because someone hasn’t complained doesn’t mean you’re being accessible. Many autistic people feel uncomfortable complaining, have trouble explaining their needs, or are used to being brushed off. Moreover, if you haven’t put effort into your autistic accessibility, autistic folks may not have experienced one of your events in the first place.

A – aids, accommodation, and assistance

No event will exist with perfect conditions for every autistic person, but something you can always do to help is provide assistance and aids. The more you know about autistic pain points, the better you will be able to anticipate needs.

  • If the event will be loud or crowded, consider offering disposable earplugs. My music school provided earplug dispensers in all of the classrooms.
  • Whenever you have aids to offer (earplugs, etc.), make sure these are either publicly or very obviously and easily available upon request. You could even try offering them to guests upon entering the building.
  • Designate a space in the venue as a “quiet room,” “escape room,” or “sensory-friendly room.” An autistic person may get overstimulated, anxious, or experience other challenges during a concert, and it would be a relief to have a safe place to take a break.
  • Provide language and communication aids. When screening a video, turn on closed captions. Many autistic people have trouble processing auditory language.
  • If applicable, consider providing name tags — some autistic people struggle with reading and recognizing faces
  • Many theme parks provide attraction and accessibility guides that list rides with sensory warnings, wheelchair accessible areas, baby-changing stations, and more. You could do a similar thing for your events, including gender-neutral bathrooms and other information.
  • Offer (compassionate) personal assistance: Provide and make sure guests know of a compassionate, designated point person they can speak with if they have a concern. If your event can manage, consider having the point person check in with special guests throughout to offer anything or see how they’re doing. To be clear, I am not advocating that organizers visually pick out guests with “probably special needs.” But if someone has designated themselves as needing special assistance, or if they have already sought help at the event, then it may be nice.

L – language

Never underestimate the importance of affirming language. Our words and the mediums we use can signal (explicitly and implicitly) who is welcome in our presence and at our events.

  • Do use affirming language. Autistic, autistic person, on the autistic spectrum, and uses a wheelchair are examples of generally appreciated terms.
  • Avoid ableist language, including: handicapped, handicapable, confined to a wheelchair, crippled, gimp, stupid, dumb, weak, idiot, mentally challenged, mental problems.
  • Avoid the phrase “differently abled.” Your intentions may be good, but many autistic and other disabled folks find it condescending. Unless a disabled person specifically requests otherwise, default to “disabled.”
  • Ensure that you, your materials, announcements, and staff never use derogatory language, whether autism-specific or otherwise. This can immediately signal that your space isn’t aware, safe, or welcoming. But if you use affirming, inclusive language in most areas but aren’t great with autistic language yet, someone like me may give you a chance, as your overall inclusion gives me hope that you are willing to learn.
  • Let go of the slurs and condescending phrases you’ve unknowingly grown used to (as many of us have) and learn affirming alternatives. This post on the Autistic Hoya blog about Ableist Terms and Alternatives is a good place to start on the ableism side of things.
  • As mentioned in the “A” section, provide closed captions and other language aids when screening videos.
  • Explicitly normalize the welcoming of autistic people and behaviors. This may seem small, but it can make a huge impact. It’s one thing to privately do things to make autistic folks feel safe, but if an autistic person feels like a secret exception in the larger context, it can be alienating. Example: If you have a sensory-friendly room available, tell everyone, and don’t make it awkward. Instead of saying “We have a sensory-friendly room available for guests with autism or other people in need of escaping this concert [insert audience chuckles], but seriously, most of the concert will be fine, unless you’re really sensitive,” try “We have a sensory-friendly room available in the back of this hall, which includes beanbags, toys, and quiet space. If you’d like to go in at any point, just go straight there, and a volunteer in a red vest will provide any assistance.”

E – expression and embodiment

One aspect of autism that cannot be erased is our unique way of embodied expression. As mentioned earlier, stimming is a natural response to emotions and other stimuli. It manifests in infinite ways, including waving arms, flapping hands, pacing, spinning, clapping, rubbing things, repeating words over and over, making noises, wiggling eyebrows up and down, and more.

Unfortunately, many autistic people are taught that their stimming is unacceptable, either explicitly (via behavior-changing “therapies,” admonishments, being teased,) or implicitly (being praised for “normal” behavior, etc.). This results in massive amounts of shame among some autistic individuals. The irony is, stimming is far from unhealthy, and stifling an autistic person’s ability to stim can actively harm us or lead us to meltdown. Stimming is a beautiful thing, as long as it’s not harming anyone else, and we often use it to show excitement or cope with stress, negative emotions, cognitive dissonance, and sensory discomforts.

To accept an autistic person, you must accept stimming.

But it goes without saying: It is not always possible to encourage all forms of stimming simultaneously at every event. There will have to be some balance and negotiation. Here are some ideas:

  • Can you allow areas for freer motion? Consider designating spaces for this, if not already available. The sensory-friendly room could be such a place. If your event is outdoors, or if it is casual, stimming should be acceptable regardless.
  • Consider holding a special, dedicated event for autistic folks that includes ample space to move freely.
    • This is NOT a substitute for making your regular events more accessible. In fact, many autistic people prefer to attend the general events.
    • Many organizations already hold sensory-friendly events, but most of them are tailored toward children. While this is certainly valuable, keep in mind that autistic adults want welcoming programming too. When every “autism-friendly” concert, event, or activity is for kids, it sends a message that 1. You don’t see autistic adults or validate our existence, 2. We should have grown out of it, or 3. You don’t think we are monetizable.
  • Do not ban or draw attention to specific behaviors that you may consider unusual, distracting, or rude. Not everyone will like this, but I do not recommend banning cell phones, fidget spinners, notebooks, or other things like that. If you do so, you may be removing a person’s accessibility aid, stimming aid, or self-soothing mechanism.
  • Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that you absolutely must allow jumping jacks and cell phone use in the front row of your audience or classroom. After all, what would you do if an autistic person’s front-row jumping jacks were causing sensory distress for another autistic person? Point is, needs and civilities are a constant negotiation, and it will never be perfect. However, I’m willing to bet that autistic folks compensate and negotiate on behalf of neurotypical and allistic folks significantly more than the other way around. I highly recommend reading Nick Walker’s Guiding Principles for a Course on Autism post on his Neurocosmopolitanism blog for further ideas on how to negotiate a variety of conflicting needs.

Recap:

S – sensory needs
C – cognitive needs and communication
A – aids, accommodation, and assistance
L – language
E – expression and embodiment

I hope this guide points you in the right direction as you develop your framework for autistic accessibility. But it is far from complete. Though I spent over fifty hours drafting this guide and incorporated both my own experiences and those of various peers, online friends, and blogs, I am still coming across experiences I left out, glossed over, or contradicted.

So colleagues, please promise me the following:

  1. That you will continue listening to a diverse range of autistic experiences.
  2. That you will humbly accept critique from autistic people without being defensive.
  3. That you will start somewhere. I do not expect you to immediately apply everything tomorrow. Don’t let that stop you from taking small steps, starting conversations, and paving the way for future accessible possibilities.
  4. That you will apply this guide not only to your music world but also to the other aspects of your life.
  5. That you will send this guide to your collaborators, co-workers, teachers, peers, and/or anyone else whom you think needs to read it.

Really, please share, and most of all, please use this.

Come back for Part 3 next week, in which I will do a Q&A and troubleshoot case studies.

PS: If you share this guide and have the energy, I would appreciate credit! I’m Chrysanthe Tan (@chrysanthetan), and you are reading this on NewMusicBox (@NewMusicBox).

An Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague

A sideways photo of an audience in a concert hall

Musicians, arts administrators, colleagues: It’s time we talk about autism.

No, we’re not talking about autism charity efforts, nor once-a-year concerts for autistic children, and goodness, no, not inspirational stories. Autistic people exist at all ages, all times of the year, and in rather ordinary aspects of life. We’re everywhere: We are fellow musicians, collaborators, and artists. We are enthusiastic audience members, patrons, and guests. And so it’s time you adapted a permanent framework for improving autistic accessibility in your concerts, rehearsals, and other music organization efforts.

Allow me to introduce myself: I’m Chrysanthe Tan, a real-life, autistic violinist, composer, and recording artist, and in my near-decade of working in many music spheres, I’ve noticed an unacceptable, overwhelming status quo of autistic inaccessibility. I have sat through rehearsals while on the verge of vomiting from sensory discomfort, cradled my head and rocked back and forth in my chair when rooms got too loud, and skipped many concerts due to the panicked embarrassment of not knowing attire or protocol.

While certainly upsetting, unfortunate, and uncomfortable, the lack of autistic awareness in the music world is not intentional, nor is it purposely aggressive. I know this. Ironically, that makes it even harder for me to discuss it with people. I don’t want to be too accusatory, don’t want to cause misinterpretation, don’t want to deal with defensiveness, and definitely don’t want to feel bad for requesting fairer access. It’s a whole thing. But the time has come.

I’m ready, and you’re ready too.

Over the next few weeks, I will be laying out a compassionate, no-bullshit guide to upping your autistic accessibility game as a musician or arts presenter. This information — separated into four parts — is geared toward anyone who works in or otherwise takes part in the making or presentation of music. This includes students, teachers, administrators, conductors, soloists, ensembles, producers, contractors, classical artists, pop musicians, and, well, you get the point. The information presented will be applicable to numerous contexts. It will help you increase your understanding of autistic colleagues and concertgoers–hopefully in a way that enables you to make better future judgment calls. The information will be actionable.

Here’s what to expect in this four-part series:

  • Part 1 (this post): This article serves as the introduction to the column and includes a basic primer on autism and how to treat autistic people. Having these basics down will make it easier to internalize the information in the following three parts. We only have this short time together, so it’s off to the races!
  • Part 2: Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Concerts (and rehearsal spaces). I’ll tell you what autistic-friendly considerations to keep in mind, give pointers making event invitations more accessible, and cite things to avoid in your planning. I’ll also offer tips on making collaborative spaces and relationships more autistic-welcoming.
  • Part 3: Q&A and Case Studies – In this post, I will answer specific questions pertaining to autistic accessibility in music spaces. Thus, I’ll need your questions in advance — by March 10! Please take advantage of this opportunity to ask nitty gritty, embarrassing questions and even submit detailed examples of what autistic accessibility questions you’re struggling with. Should you choose an indoor or outdoor venue? Assigned or unassigned seating? Is your event invitation missing any crucial information for autistic people? I look forward to answering and helping to troubleshoot these questions. NewMusicBox has kindly set up this form, which you can use to anonymously submit.
  • Part 4: Pro-Tips and Sample Scripts – This last post will be filled with ideas for how to be a more powerful advocate for autistic people. I’ll also include sample language for more inclusive programs, invitations, emails, interactions, and more.

A Primer on Autism and Autistic People

You’ll want to familiarize yourself with these terms and concepts before reading the rest of the series.

  1. Autism is a neurological, developmental, and pervasive way of being that can manifest in a variety of ways, including but not limited to: sensory sensitivity, communication impairments, atypical social skills, and atypical information processing and learning styles. Autism is generally referred to as a disability or disorder, though some autistics prefer not to identify it as such. Selective use of the “disabled” term is also common, depending on the context and company.
  2. Allistic refers to a person without autism. It can be used as a noun (i.e. an allistic) or an adjective (i.e. allistic people). Some people use the word neurotypical to mean the same thing, though allistic is more precise these days.
  3. Autistic Person vs. Person with Autism – You’ve probably noticed that I’ve referred to “autistic people” rather than “people with autism.” While there’s no hard and fast rule on this, autistic self-advocates tend to favor identity-first language (i.e. “autistic person”) over person-first language (i.e. “person with autism.” Calling someone a “person with autism” distances the person from the identity, implying a separation between the individual and the disability. However, many autistics consider their autism an important part of their identity and wish to embrace it in the same way that I also call myself Cambodian, Greek, and queer. If you’re truly not sure what label to use with a person, you may also default to “person on the autism spectrum.” But when in doubt, simply ask the person, and always use what they desire for themselves. You can read more about identity-first vs. person-first semantics on Lydia X.Z. Brown’s Autistic Hoya blog.
  4. Don’t brush it under the rug! – If you have an autistic friend, family member, or colleague, your instinct may be to politely ignore their autism, not treat the person any differently, and offer seemingly comforting phrases like “I see past your disability,” “Your condition doesn’t define you,” and “I hardly even notice your autism.” However, for many autistic people — myself included — this can be harmful, as it reinforces the internalized shame autistic people have learned. If you’re awkward about my autism, I’m awkward about it in turn. And if you claim not to “see it,” then I wonder if you are in denial, whether you accept me despite rather than wholeheartedly including my autism, or whether I’m inconveniencing you if I dare bring up the “A” word or state my special needs. It sucks. Please don’t default to this unless your autistic colleague or loved one specifically tells you not to acknowledge it.
  5. Autistic people are *not* the same as “everyone else” – Forget what you learned in elementary school; we are not all the same. Yes, we are all human beings who deserve love and respect, but autistic people do have unique needs and often do need special accommodations that allistic people must learn about. Acknowledging our different realities isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it can help you learn how to interact with us better, deepen our relationships with you, and increase our comfort and accessibility.
  6. Autism vs. Asperger Syndrome – A lot of people wonder if these are the same thing. Truth is, it’s confusing, so here’s the quick sum-up: Asperger syndrome used to be in the DSM-IV as a diagnosis nearly identical to autism, except with “no clinically significant delay in development of language.” In 2013, the DSM-5 removed Asperger syndrome and introduced autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a unified umbrella term to include all of the various autistic disorders instead. Thus, a person diagnosed with Asperger syndrome pre-2013 would simply be diagnosed with autism today. Because many people originally diagnosed with Asperger’s choose to maintain their given label (as is their right), it is still common to hear the Asperger label today. This whole terminology hullaballoo is quite controversial in the autism community.
  7. If you know an autistic person, you know ONE autistic person. Autism is a big spectrum, and no two presentations of it are exactly alike. One autistic person’s biggest impairment may be another’s greatest skill. Moreover, the popular media representations of autistic people tend to favor a shockingly limited set of looks and behaviors (think the main characters in Rain Man, Atypical, or The Good Doctor). All of these examples portray white, cis, straight young men. It wasn’t until more recently that professionals started to notice the signs of autism in girls and non-binary people; turns out, we often have more hidden or subtle characteristics, potentially as a result of more intense social pressures growing up. To top it all off, autistic people tend toward extremes, which often lie in direct opposition to those of other autistic individuals. For example, some autistic people are incredibly sensitive to the cold, while others cannot stand heat.

This is where I shall stop, for now. Thank you for sticking with me and for making a commitment to improving autistic accessibility in your music world. Next week, we’re getting right down to the specifics.

But in the meantime, here’s what I need from you: As I mentioned above, Part 3 in this series will be a Q&A with your submitted questions and conundrums. Thus, I need your questions! The deadline to submit is Sunday, March 10, and you can do so anonymously by using this form or by sending an email directly to [email protected]. The more context you can provide about your situation, organization, or concert, the better!