Counterstream Radio is your online home for exploring the music of America’s composers. Drawing upon New Music USA’s substantial library of recordings, our programming is remarkable for its depth and eclecticism. The station streams influential music of many pedigrees 24 hours a day. Keep listening and discover the sound of music without limits. Click here to open Counterstream Radio.
As we launch dublab’s collaboration with New Music USA, we welcome the opportunity to feature the work of many musicians we believe represent the current landscape of contemporary music composition. Through a series of weekly editorial pieces, radio programs, live performances captured on video, and interviews, we hope we can not only shine a light on these artists and their work, but also bring up questions that are uniquely relevant to our current times.
When New Music USA approached dublab to be the first guest editors of NewMusicBox, both organizations wanted to frame this four-month collaboration under an overarching theme. After discussing various approaches, there was one question staring us right in our faces – when looking at the long history of NewMusicBox and New Music USA’s founding organizations, and the contrasting programming of an organization like dublab, it became obvious that this collaboration represented a clash of the times or juxtapositions of musical philosophies. Traditions, perceptions and the very questions at the center of it all: Who is a composer? What is a composer? And what is the role of a composer in this day and age?
We wanted to emphasize that all music belongs to the same tree, where the music of the past is the roots of today’s music and the music of today will be the roots of tomorrow’s music, regardless of genre or place of origin.
Hierarchies and categorizations can be practical at times, but also limiting in understanding how music creation flows, how interconnected all music is, and how it is conceived throughout history.
We can no longer refer to the archetypical image of the “ivory tower” composer when we think about an individual composing music. By that I am referring to that image you are thinking of right now of the Beethoven-looking man sitting at a table pouring what comes from the genius of his mind onto paper.
A composer’s work can use electronic arrangements from a synthesizer that resembles techno music and yet be considered a composition that ends up in a movie soundtrack, yet if a hip hop producer adds strings or samples of classical music, their music most likely won’t be funded by a grant from an arts organization.
With the emergence of social media, music streaming platforms, the democratization of music publishing and the affordability of equipment to produce quality recordings, the tools to empower those separating the “composer” from the “producer” have been getting narrower and so are the definitions that separated the two.
It is only through diversity in every sense of the word that music composition can evolve and to support the inclusion of those that may have never considered applying for a grant to fund their work.
The corridors that lead to creative paths and careers are as diverse as those that forge them; therefore, we should make sure that everyone enjoys the rewards, the respect, and the opportunities that these generate.
As the Executive Director of a media arts organization like dublab, we have experienced first-hand the importance of perception. Since its beginnings in 1999, dublab’s approach when it came to categorizing music was always under the self-made label of, “Future Roots Radio”. With that label we wanted to emphasize that all music belongs to the same tree, where the music of the past is the roots of today’s music and the music of today will be the roots of tomorrow’s music, regardless of genre or place of origin. Our intention was to break down perceptions of highbrow versus lowbrow music, hierarchies, and categorizations that can all be practical at times, but also limiting in understanding how music creation flows, how interconnected all music is, and how it is conceived throughout history.
I think it is necessary at times to make distinctions and label music and music creators for their place in time, in society and in history, however, with new technologies, and the sweeping changes in social dynamics of the past years, it is more evident than ever that what it used to be no longer is, and what it is, is not exactly what it is. Confusing? Yes, absolutely, but so are the times we live in. When your phone can be a flashlight, your car can be a taxi and your home can be a hotel, so is the composer of today. Technology has put in question who is a composer, and what the role of a composer is. We can no longer refer to the archetypical image of the “ivory tower” composer when we think about an individual composing music. By that I am referring to that image you are thinking of right now of the Beethoven-looking man sitting at a table pouring what comes from the genius of his mind onto paper. That image has been outdated for many years, yet we continue to embrace this perception with consequences that affect musicians and the music industry in profound ways.
In speaking of the past few years alone, composers have learned to borrow production techniques, instrumentation and elements from idioms where their creators are not necessarily seen as “composers”, but more as “producers,” “beatmakers,” “sound designers,” or simply “musicians.” Despite this, composers continue to enjoy the benefits (as they should) of such distinguished title that includes public acknowledgement in arts institutions, commissioning of jobs, and grant opportunities, to name a few. When looking into the ecosystems of musicians where their main work is related to genres considered to be part of popular music, underground culture, or nightlife entertainment, their careers rarely cross paths with the world of art institutions, grants, and commissions. This stark division between the two doesn’t go both ways: The composer’s work can use electronic arrangements from a synthesizer that resembles techno music and yet be considered a composition that ends up in a movie soundtrack, yet if a hip hop producer adds strings or samples of classical music, their music most likely won’t be funded by a grant from an arts organization. The point here is not to blame anyone or point fingers, but look at our general attitudes and the expectations we have from each other and ourselves that end up defining how we seek and provide funding, and how we judge, place value and determine what belongs where in the wide musical spectrum.
A 30-year long road is a long road to travel, but fortunately that road is getting shorter.
With all being said about the divisions described above, more than ever we are seeing conversations, collaborations and cross-pollination taking place between “art institutions” and “night clubs”. What used to take 30 years for art to travel from the streets to the museums, now seems to be acknowledged by the institutions within the lifetime of the artists, and sometimes even as immediate as it is created.
With the emergence of social media, music streaming platforms, the democratization of music publishing and the affordability of equipment to produce quality recordings, the tools to empower those separating the “composer” from the “producer” have been getting narrower and so are the definitions that separated the two. More than in the past years we are borrowing from each other and we learn to use the tools that work at every stage of our careers – from instrumentation, sound palettes, and studio techniques, to how we fund and promote our work.
Here at dublab, we welcome the opportunity from New Music USA as a way to move the conversation forward. As we look towards the end of 2022 and what is to come in 2023, we hope this four-month collaboration will serve as a place to highlight the above-mentioned differences and similarities between the traditional and the contemporary, where one ends and the other begins; or simply how it all belongs to one. Just like New Music USA reached out to dublab for its unique take on music, we look to them for guidance and perspective. It is only through diversity in every sense of the word that music composition can evolve and to support the inclusion of those that may have never considered applying for a grant to fund their work. This diversity can also uplift genres that once belonged to older generations and patrons of the arts, and in turn bring new and younger audiences to an opera house or to a classical music concert and spark a renewed interest and wave of energy that is so needed in art institutions.
A new era is upon us, whether we recognize the signs or not, and it is up to everyone that is part of this ecosystem to open up the doors to the “ivory tower” and share directions to the underground warehouse party. The corridors that lead to creative paths and careers are as diverse as those that forge them; therefore, we should make sure that everyone enjoys the rewards, the respect, and the opportunities that these generate. With these thoughts I welcome you to our collaboration with New Music USA, and I hope you find infinite inspiration in the articles, DJ sets, conversations and live performances that we will feature in the coming months on NewMusicBox.
When I was a 17-year-old violinist and pianist, a committed music educator asked me if I’d ever considered conducting. He invited me to lead from the piano, and eventually, to properly conduct a movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in performance. As soon as I was on the podium, I realized that this was my path. It was exhilarating to serve as a conduit for my peers’ music-making, to focus on the big picture, and to shape sound in this exceptionally collaborative way. By thoughtfully identifying potential in me and continuing to give me opportunities once I demonstrated aptitude and drive, this caring educator ensured a strong start to my trajectory as a conductor and musician. Without this early encouragement and experience, I likely would never have picked up a baton.
When I did not yet have the knowledge, connections, or awareness to pursue focused opportunities, this active encouragement steered me toward a professional career. With few female conductors in the public eye to serve as role models, I was exceptionally fortunate to have champions who intentionally propelled me forward. Today, I often still find myself the sole female voice in a room, and I see an even bigger lack of other types of diversity within my profession. How can we all work to bring a plurality of viewpoints to every area of our art form?
The American classical music industry’s funding and governance model makes us exceptionally averse to risk. In a typical season—3-4 mainstage operas or 6 subscription symphony programs—there is very little margin for error. Audience disappointment could very quickly mean the death of a donor-reliant organization, and industry leaders are under pressure to make choices that are perceived as safe and reliable. Often, this means hiring artists who fit the mold, adhering strictly to approaches that have worked in the past.
Compounding this conservative strategy, top-level hires are often chosen by board members, who generally are not industry experts and may feel insecure in their ability to select the right person. This uncertainty encourages safe choices that remind us of what we already know, further constricting the viewpoints represented in our field. In order to break this cycle, we must make an effort to go outside it.
The need for a plurality of voices within our field has become dire. If we do not begin to represent our communities and the world around us, our institutions cannot continue to evolve. As organizations across the nation attempt to deal with this issue, many continue to face roadblocks, despite incremental efforts. How do we break the cycle and move the culture of classical music into the 21st century?
I’ve had many wonderful conversations on these topics over the years, and would like to offer particular thanks to Jim Hirsch at Chicago Sinfonietta, Tracy Wilson and Julie Heard at Cincinnati Opera, and Afa Dworkin at Sphinx Organization for sharing their thoughts with me as I worked on this essay.
The Value of Diversity
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that a diverse group of employees and leaders creates more successful – and profitable – companies. Studies within the corporate world have shown that a business model enriched by a variety of outlooks and experience can capitalize on more creative ideas, a deeper understanding of a wider range of consumers, and the introduction of new problem-solving methods. However, the traditional classical music industry faces a particular challenge: our model is largely built on finding individuals who can fit within an existing structure—musicians with particular technical skills, adhering to very specific stylistic conventions. This often means that musicians coming from outside an established training background must fold themselves into existing practices. As a result, rather than encouraging new ideas—as might be the case in a typical business model—non-conformist behavior is discouraged.
Jim Hirsch, CEO of Chicago Sinfonietta, has endorsed the value of bringing new styles of playing to the concert hall. One approach to tackling issues of diversity is simply acknowledging that there is not just one valid way to perform a given work. Consider the new interpretative ideas brought to standard repertoire by culturally specific organizations like Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. We tend to choose a single type of interpretation and believe that it is the only approach, but great art can come in different forms. We can see a clear representation of this by hearing performances on period instruments, or by comparing today’s practices to historical recordings. The way Mahler’s music was performed one hundred years ago is very far from our approach to it now. That older approach may be more ‘authentic,’ but it is not necessarily better. We have found something that speaks more clearly to our time and to our audiences, and that practice may continue to evolve.
Start with a plurality of viewpoints and ideas when first defining a piece of music.
Another, simpler way to increase a diversity of viewpoints in our performances is to promote and proliferate new work—to start with a plurality of viewpoints and ideas when first defining a piece of music. If a work of art embodies plurality from its nascence, it will likely continue to encourage diversity throughout its existence (see last week’s article on Shaping the American Operatic Canon).
The Porgy Problem
Opera companies have begun to make a concerted effort to promote a wider range of stories on their stages. Recently, operas about black baseball players and boxers, the wrongfully-accused Central Park Five, a black seamstress in New York, and the civil rights movement have necessitated the hiring more of more diverse on-stage talent. There have also been popular operas that feature gay and trans protagonists, individuals fleeing war in the Middle East, and more. It is wonderful that these new stories are making it to our stages. However, they are often accompanied by “The Porgy Problem”—the hiring of artists only for a racially specific project such as Porgy and Bess, while continuing to pass these artists over for standard work. While attempting to exercise plurality, companies are inadvertently creating a segregated environment within the artistic product.
The importance of actively battling this segregated approach to programming became apparent during the casting process for Chicago Opera Theater’s upcoming season. COT’s audition announcement always includes a statement of interest in artists from underrepresented backgrounds, but this season also features the world premiere of Dan Shore’s opera Freedom Ride, which follows a young African American woman during the Civil Rights Movement. The audition pool leading up to Freedom Ride included more superb artists of color than I had heard in the last several years combined. Sadly, artists’ or managers’ assumption that we would only want them for this project often limited the audition repertoire presented or included on their resumes.
As we were casting a leading role in Freedom Ride, a manager reached out to us about an outstanding singer who turned out not to be the right fit for the proposed role. At the time, I was actively seeking someone for a Russian-language project down the line. This singer seemed ideal, but since the agent did not propose her for anything other than Freedom Ride, I assumed she either was not available or did not have the requisite Russian language background.
I found the singer exceptional and decided to inquire. I am glad I did – not only was she available, she had sung this very Russian role before. This incident confirmed the importance of making a concerted effort to seek out diversity for every production.
The cast for the 2013 Marigny Opera (New Orleans) showcase of Dan Shore’s opera Freedom Ride which will receive its premiere with Chicago Opera Theater in February 2020 with conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya and director Tazewell Thompson. (Photo courtesy Dan Shore)
In conversation with colleagues who specialize in DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) issues, one theme surfaced again and again: intentionality. This idea, of going out of one’s way to create opportunities for diversity, resonates strongly for me. My own career was greatly affected by others’ commitment to this concept.
The conductor who first pushed me onto the podium, college conducting teachers who generously gave me lessons at no cost, mentors who came to my rehearsals and performances to offer feedback – all allowed me to try, to fail, and to learn from the experience. Established conductors overlooked my youth and relative inexperience, giving me opportunities to lead and to learn. They put me in front of major ensembles, in positions for which I would never have deemed myself qualified, and would never have sought out on my own. In every case, a leader’s intentional choice to give me an opportunity to prove myself allowed me to move forward in my career. Without these opportunities to work in environments that pushed my musical boundaries, I would never have grown as an artist.
Music is an inherently collaborative art form – and collaboration is made stronger through diversity.
Now, as I seek out young artists for various positions, I try to make a point of looking outside the box. Though it is impossible to be aware of the entire field of options and some of the best candidates may fly under the radar, it is our responsibility as artistic leaders to anticipate this and seek out those individuals whose plurality will make them an asset to the room, even if their differences give hesitation. Music is an inherently collaborative art form – and collaboration is made stronger through diversity.
Intentionality in Action
Alongside individual industry leaders, institutions can ensure that intentionality is at the core of their practice. At Chicago Opera Theater, we have taken some basic steps as an organization to put this concept into action. The first has been to include diversity initiatives in our strategic plan, which forces us to regularly examine and track whether our staff, board, artists, and audiences represent the diversity of our city. We have engaged in active dialogue on these issues by joining a cohort of companies, including Minnesota Opera, for annual conversations and sharing of ideas. We are actively working to recruit a highly varied pool of applicants for staff positions, our Young Artist Program, and our Vanguard Composer Residency. We believe it is important to make the changes from the inside out—focusing not only on who is seen on our stages, but also on ensuring that behind-the-scenes decision-makers represent a variety of communities. To ensure that our progressively diverse team is able to communicate and work together productively, we are including cultural sensitivity and harassment training in this season’s activities.
These actions are a start, but there is still a long way to go.
Programs and Initiatives
Albeit slowly, the field is trying to change. Organizations like Sphinx and Opera America, initiatives like Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project Inclusion and National Sawdust’s Hildegard Competition, and programs like The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors and Marin Alsop’s Taki Concordia Fellowship are all moving the needle. In addition to grants and mentorships for women and people of color, these programs meet three critical needs: institutional recognition for those who fall outside institutional norms, the creation of a sense of community for those who feel marginalized, and training for groups that have been denied access to certain resources.
The greatest impact of diversity-geared initiatives is recognition.
Of these, I feel the greatest impact of diversity-geared initiatives is recognition. When I took part in The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute, I already had a decade of highly varied experience under my belt, but was having trouble getting noticed by larger organizations and agencies. In searching for new management, I reached out to many individuals and institutions, only to be ignored or quickly brushed off. It was understandable—managers get hundreds of emails from artists; I did not fit a typical profile and they had not heard of me. However, the Hart Institute resources included mentorship by a retired leader from a major artist management firm. He was impressed by my resume, and immediately asked why I wasn’t represented by a bigger agency. When I told him that, lacking connections with major decision-makers in the field, I was having trouble getting management agencies to notice me, he suggested I write again, but this time including his name in the subject line. Suddenly, every agency I had emailed before responded—to messages with the exact same materials and content. Within a few weeks, I was choosing between four leading management companies.
Those of us in a position of power can easily make a difference by serving as references for emerging artists, making an effort to actively advocate for artists from a plurality of backgrounds. For an under-appreciated artist deserving of recognition, intentional advocacy and acknowledgment from a leading institution can make an enormous impact.
Participants in the Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute. (Photo by Karen Almond / Dallas Opera, courtesy Verismo Communications.)
A Sense of Community
For me, one of the most valuable results of programs like the Hart Institute has been the opportunity to build a community of other conductors who have had similar challenges and experiences. The camaraderie that forms among a cohort can help build an essential network among artists. The existence of a cohort also ensures that an artist does not feel the constant pressure of being “the other,” or the burden of representing an entire race, gender, or culture. Building a supportive community allows an artist to flourish.
The importance of community-building goes beyond what we see on stage. In some of my earliest leadership roles—as Music Director at Harvard University’s Lowell House Opera and at Juventas New Music Ensemble—I worked in partnership with incredible female directors on the administrative side. These were women my age, whom I admired and from whom I learned a great deal. My colleagues were my role models and my biggest champions. In all levels of our organizations, ensuring that our artists find individuals who are like them—people with whom they can immediately find common ground on a visceral level—is essential. The more inclusive our environments, the more connections can be created among administrators, boards, audiences, artists, and our immediate communities.
At Cincinnati Opera, along with several other companies, this concept of community is also used in a broader sense. By hiring affiliate artists who are well-connected within a certain cultural sphere, an organization can use that artist’s network to identify and attract top talent. In Cincinnati, bass Morris Robinson emerged as a regular collaborator with a knack for establishing rapport with just about anyone—whether an opera connoisseur or a total novice. Robinson is also seen as a major role model for many African American opera artists, and is very aware of the top emerging talent. The company hired Robinson as Artistic Advisor—a role that involves him in many aspects of the organization’s artistic vision and outreach.
Eric Owens serves in a similar role at the Glimmerglass Festival, where the company benefits from the combination of his exceptional experience and expertise in opera with his access to a larger network of artists who may otherwise be overlooked. Both Robinson and Owens are operatic giants, who would be assets to any organization regardless of their race, but their backgrounds serve additional benefits—bringing new perspectives, new networks, and greater access to new communities for these organizations.
Networks can also be built through lasting institutional partnerships. At Chicago Opera Theater, we are using the shared thematic goals in the opera Freedom Ride to partner with Chicago Sinfonietta, who will serve as the orchestra for this production. The hope is that this partnership will expose us to new players whom we can bring back for many future productions.
The responsibility is on us all
Though the need for institutional changes can feel overwhelming, there is much we can do as individuals. Artists can use their influence, experience, and knowledge of various networks to make a difference. We can make a point of encouraging and mentoring emerging professionals who face the same challenges we faced early in our careers. We can recommend our colleagues to others in the field. We can promote and perform relevant and forward-thinking programs.
Consider your own daily artistic choices
Consider your own daily artistic choices:
What is the makeup of the students in your private teaching studio, and have you made an effort to seek out students who are representative of your community?
When programming a recital, are you (and your students) including works by composers of varied backgrounds, just as you would make sure to include works by composers of various periods?
If you are a stage director, when deciding on the place and time to set a standard work, do you consider non-traditional narratives, and do you take the time to present these narratives in an informed way?
As a librettist or composer, do you seek out subject matter outside mainstream narratives?
When making recommendations of artists for gigs, do you include individuals of varied backgrounds, just as you would include individuals of various strengths, so those hiring have a fuller gamut of choices?
About which artists do you speak to non-musicians?
Whose social media posts are you sharing?
Think of your personal network of colleagues and friends – is it representative of our world?
To whom do you go for advice or to share your latest achievements?
No single action will be enough. However, if each one of us takes ownership of these issues, committing ourselves—intentionally—to a diverse industry on every level, we can make a difference. Symphonic and operatic performance are examples of revolutionary artistic achievement. If we actively choose to work, again and again, to create plurality within our art form, we can ensure that this momentous artistry has the widest reach possible, and continues to captivate audiences through relatable, relevant and meaningful experiences. Homogeneity will alienate us from our constituents and push us into elitist obscurity. Plurality, on the other hand, has the potential to build a lasting link between creators, artists, producers, and audiences, ensuring that the awesome power of our art form persistently resonates across all social, cultural, economic, regional—human–boundaries, allowing music to fully embody its greatest strength—the ability to unify.
It is a dreary, late-fall afternoon when I knock on the door to Diamond’s apartment, a nice duplex in a tidy neighborhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. She opens the door and quickly says, “Jacob, you’re not going to believe this, come look.” I walk through her living room, which is usually cozy but is now filled with twenty over-stuffed garbage bags full of clothes. They were given to her to donate to the homeless and at-risk people that are her clients at the shelter and service center where she works. As winter comes in Rhode Island, these clothes, shoes, and blankets are desperately needed. We get to her bedroom where she lifts a blanket sitting on a crate to reveal a small dog. The little black terrier with wiry hair is jumping and squeaking with excitement. “I’m watching her for a few days until she can get to her new home.”
Three years ago when I met Diamond, I do not think anyone could have imagined that she would be in this situation: housed in a good apartment doing two things she loves—fostering dogs and helping the homeless. Three years ago she was herself homeless and mourning the death of her good friend Wendy Tallo. That was when she first came to a meeting of the Tenderloin Opera Company.
Tenderloin Opera Company is a homeless advocacy music and theater group based in Providence, Rhode Island. It was founded by playwright Erik Ehn and composers Lisa Bielawa and Joshua Raoul Brody in San Francisco. When Erik transplanted to Providence, he recruited local students and homeless advocates to start a new version of the group locally. I was one of them. We kept the name, Tenderloin, to honor the neighborhood in which it was founded. Now in our ninth season, TOC comprises about a dozen core members, including folks who are currently homeless, formerly homeless, homeless advocates, students, artists, and other friends. The members of TOC compose and perform one opera each year based on stories of homelessness, abuse, addiction, hope, love, and redemption. We also perform at social and political events, protests, and marches about issues related to homelessness.
Out of this simple writing process characters emerge, those characters interact in a story, that story becomes a script, we make some songs out of the script, and come out with our “opera”—one a year for the past nine years.
Jacob Richman, multimedia artist, scholar, and educator
We all create the characters and drama together, learn the songs together, and perform together. We are always on book, and our motto is “Wrong and Strong.”
Jacob Richman, multimedia artist, scholar, and educator
I believe we spend way too much time locking ourselves in our privileged spaces, looking around at the people who look just like us, and asking each other why nothing changes.
Jacob Richman, multimedia artist, scholar, and educator
We meet weekly at Mathewson Street Methodist Church in downtown Providence. The church is a hub for homeless outreach non-profits and volunteer groups and hosts a number of free community meals every week. We meet right before the meal on Friday afternoons.
“Put your bodies in the space of someone else…It’s already a whole lot.”
-Helga Davis, New Music Gathering 2018 Keynote Address
Our meetings start with a group check-in, which is perhaps the most important part of the whole enterprise. Members share their names and how they have been doing this week. During check-in, which sometimes lasts up to half an hour, we learn who among the group has gotten housing, who is back on the street, who is sick, who in the community has passed away, who is excited about a new boyfriend (usually it’s Linda), who is doing well, who is recovering, and what is going on down the street at City Hall or the State House that affects the homeless, tenuously housed, and visibly poor populations in Rhode Island.
The rest of the session is spent working on the opera. It starts with generative writing exercises. These exercises are the genius method of Erik Ehn, and we have tried our best to keep the process since he moved away two years ago. They start very simply, with everyone getting index cards and responding to prompts, such as: “List three people you saw on your way to TOC today,” “Five signs of autumn you see on the streets,” “Who has been on your mind this week?” We then read our responses and mix them up: “Take one person you are thinking about this week, and one person someone next to you mentioned, and come up with two things they talk about together,” “Take one sign of autumn you saw, and one you heard from a friend, and make two lines that rhyme.”
Out of this simple writing process characters emerge, those characters interact in a story, that story becomes a script, we make some songs out of the script, and come out with our “opera”—one a year for the past nine years. The operas are technically more like musicals: songs mixed with spoken dialogue. The music for the songs is composed primarily by co-music director Kirsten Volness, some by me, and some with the group all together at the piano.
We have fun in Tenderloin and get to know people. A place to meet and talk and sing. A safe space. My one hour of sanity! A place to let people know what’s going on in the streets.
—Collective TOC members’ answers to the question, “What is TOC to me?”
We perform the operas each spring, and songs from all the operas (“greatest hits”) at least monthly all around Rhode Island. We all create the characters and drama together, learn the songs together, and perform together. We are always on book, and our motto is “Wrong and Strong.” However, Tenderloin Opera Company performances are some of the most expressive and challenging that I have even been a part of. The music is pop-y, but odd, complex, not what you imagine songs for untrained musicians to be. Within each song are fragments of many people’s stories strung along a main narrative. There are sometimes dance routines, sometimes live sign language translation (also courtesy of Linda), and often extended rhythm vamps, opened up for members to approach a mic and tell a story.
TOC members in rehearsal
TOC works are truly “operatic” in subject matter and deal with stories derived from our members’ experiences with homelessness: loss, neglect, exploitation from landlords and politicians, and police harassment, but also love, recovery, magic, and spirituality. Homelessness is deadly, and almost all of our plays involve memorial songs we write about members and friends who have passed. Their ghosts and angels inhabit our operas, as do robots, talking dogs, half-baked superheroes, and villains who curiously resemble the local politicians, authorities, and land developers whose actions threaten the lives of our members and the character of our city.
An example of how a TOC member’s personal experiences transformed into a song is the case of founding member David Eisenberger and the song “Article 134.” The story derived from Dave’s experience as a veteran and having to deal with the unfair and dehumanizing aspects of the code of military justice and veteran neglect. Its lyrics include his stories and experiences, but also a smattering of those from other group members, including dealing with a pregnant teenage daughter, relationship drama, and a collapsing marriage.
“Work the work, daily”
—from the TOC song “Ranger Juan”
For almost ten years, Tenderloin Opera Company has been effective in helping our members express themselves, find friendship and fellowship, but also find resources, services, donated goods, whatever is needed in a given week. It connects our members to a broader homeless services network, 134 Collaborative, headquartered at Mathewson Street United Methodist Church. We look out for each other, make art, and perform together.
What has allowed for this success is consistency and situating our activity within the homeless and homeless advocacy community. We meet, rehearse, and perform our operas in the place where people come to serve, eat meals, and get vital services.
TOC playing a gig at People’s Baptist Church community meal, Providence 2016
TOC On Tour: Community Art and Conference Culture
In 2016, TOC was invited to present at the New Music Gathering hosted at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. The theme for that year’s gathering was “Community,” and we performed some songs and took part in a panel discussion that included other community arts groups from around the country.
I knew it was important to bring some TOC members who were currently experiencing homelessness or were closer to it than I and the other more privileged members were. When I asked the group, Diamond insisted that she was going.
TOC members Laurie Amat, Diamond Madsen, Wendy Thomas, and Jacob Richman at Peabody Conservatory 2016
At the time, Ruth “Diamond” Madsen was at a low point. She had been in and out of homelessness and was currently staying at Crossroads, the largest shelter and transitional housing complex in Rhode Island. Among other things, she was struggling with the loss of a good friend, Wendy Tallo, who had been found hanging from a tree in a cemetery off Broad Street, one of the most hard-up blocks in Providence. The official cause of death was suicide, though word on the street was that she was murdered. Diamond wrote a poem about it that we had set to music earlier that season. This horrific event came during a dark couple of years in which there were numerous attacks on homeless and visibly poor individuals in Rhode Island, including some TOC members.
It wasn’t easy making sure Diamond could get away. I had to talk to her case manager at Crossroads to convince them that the conference and her role as speaker and performer was legitimate, and to make sure her spot at the shelter wouldn’t be given up while she was gone. The lack of trust and leeway given to Diamond was very demoralizing.
Once that was settled, we piled four TOC members and luggage in my car and sped off south on I-95. As soon as we hit the road, there was a change in Diamond’s demeanor. She was excited, singing and dancing around in her seat. Then she quieted down and started furiously thumbing at her phone. By the time we crossed the Delaware River, Diamond had used social media to contact a number of homeless outreach organizations in Baltimore. She had scheduled time for us to visit the Franciscan Center of Baltimore, to work at the kitchen there giving out meals, sort donated coats, and perform with TOC at breakfast. She did all this in a couple of hours on her phone in the car.
We spent our week in Baltimore traveling between the marble palace of Peabody Conservatory to perform and talk about homelessness and arts outreach, and the Franciscan Center on West 23rd Street to play for homeless people, hand out coats, and share stories.
Diamond was a star at both locations. After our talk and performance at NMG, she was swarmed by new fans who listened to her share her experiences and asked nervous questions about building community through new music and art.
“What’s all this about community?…You know where I am. I’m homeless. Just come be with me and you’ll be my community.”
—Ruth “Diamond” Madsen, New Music Gathering 2016
Diamond addressing crowd at NMG 2016
There is a disconnection between the ease with which Diamond approaches community and the way we approach it as community arts groups at conferences—just like there is often a disconnection between our rhetoric on diversity and inclusivity in the new music community and how we actually practice our art.
I was disheartened to see that many of the same discussions (“conversations,” as we often say) we had at the 2016 New Music Gathering were repeated at the 2018 NMG in Boston, without much having changed in the intervening two years. To understand this, it is worth watching Keynote Speaker Helga Davis’s brilliant, Socratic indictment of the difference between the stated aspirations and realities of the new music community.
“If you want to know what you want, look at what you have.”
—Helga Davis quoting August Gold, NMG 2018 Keynote Address
A number of times I have been invited to speak about TOC at conferences focused on the arts and community building, yet have been asked to leave my fellow TOC community members at home—to give my “notes from the field,” I suppose. Based on my own experiences at these conferences, they seem to achieve little in terms of the broad concerns they presume to address.
However, the effect that visiting the New Music Gathering had on Diamond was profound. Since the conference almost three years ago, Diamond has been continuously housed, has been awarded internships and paid trainings, and is now working at a homeless outreach center and women’s shelter in Pawtucket, RI. She attends TOC meetings almost every week and helps fellow bandmate Wendy organize clothing donations at Mathewson Street Church where we meet. She still talks about the crabs and spiked milkshakes we had at our splurge dinner in Baltimore.
Diamond enjoying crabs
…and doing “Risky Business” at our hotel in Mount Vernon, Baltimore
Things were rough for Diamond when we left. But at the New Music Gathering she saw how much people valued her and her knowledge about the homeless community, and how people from different backgrounds can come together in a group like TOC to share stories and make music. The fact that she was asked to share this information and help people at both places of high privilege and extreme need made the process even more meaningful.
“EVERYBODY NEEDS A LITTLE TOC IN THEIR LIVES”
What my experience with TOC at the New Music Gathering taught me was that these types of meetings can make change, but only if you let people in. What if we invited more people from different backgrounds to a conference like NMG? What if we did outreach? Volunteered as part of the conference program? Held a student instrument exchange? What if we let performers of all kinds perform their own new music in the well-heeled institutions where these things are held, and also had the conference take place in community centers, schools, churches, clubs, and homeless shelters? I believe we spend way too much time locking ourselves in our privileged spaces, looking around at the people who look just like us, and asking each other why nothing changes.
“Make something with a group of people that includes people that don’t look like you…Just the invitation will begin to open a door…We’re interested in opening the door.”
—Helga Davis, NMG 2018 Keynote Address
We need to create community art that lets people in and lets everyone grow. I think we can do this by being more mobile, flexible, and accessible. Flexible in terms of where, when, and with whom we perform. Accessible not in the terms of the art we make—some TOC performances are as complex as anything I’ve seen or performed—but in terms of cost, location, and transportation options to the venue. We in the new music community will have to give up control and come out of our comfort zones.
Here’s my advice based on my experience with the Tenderloin Opera Company for almost ten years: Show up. Be consistent. Make friends. Meet in a space that is accessible to your community (geographically, economically, handicap accessible). Keep the performing group together for more than one show. Raise money to go on trips and small tours. Diamond demonstrated to me how important and impactful these excursions can be.
Prepare for it to be hard: the structures that separate us are old, powerful, and ingrained. There will almost always be something that trips us up and reveals the privilege, difference, otherness, and walls between people that your group is working to dismantle. But that’s okay. It’s necessary. Expect to be challenged. As Davis said, “Be willing to let go of your rightness of what you think you know.” If we are not able to do that, we should stop lying to ourselves about wanting to change.
Among the rolling treetops and mountains of western Massachusetts, the large dome of Sweeney Concert Hall stands proudly atop monstrous Grecian columns. The building itself, Sage Hall, houses the Smith College Department of Music. Its four floors boast numerous practice rooms, grand pianos, and a state-of-the-art Digital Music Room. Newspaper articles detailing the accomplishments of alumnae are prominently displayed on various bulletin boards in the hallways. In the basement, where the college ensembles are based, a tattered article from 2001 is pinned to the wall: “Smith Orchestra Makes Carnegie Hall Debut.”
The landscape of Sage Hall suggests a thriving community of student musicians. Statistically, however, this is not the case. In recent years, the musical ensembles of Smith College have seen a significant decline in membership. The same orchestra that played at one of the nation’s leading performing arts venues almost 20 years ago now only has about 30 members. Despite dedicated retention and recruitment efforts by students and faculty alike, youth simply do not seem as interested in playing in a classical ensemble as they once were. This problem is not exclusive to Smith: at a recent conference, I heard testimonies from representatives of various liberal arts colleges reporting similar struggles with dwindling participation in their departments of music.
By investing in collegiate music programs, we invest in a future community of diverse new artists.
Issues of enrollment in collegiate music programs have a direct, albeit delayed, effect on the new music community. New musicians, composers, and educators enhance the vitality of their local music ecosystems by introducing fresh perspectives and partnerships. Most importantly, recent graduates—especially those from diverse backgrounds—can inspire young musicians to pursue their own artistic aspirations. By investing in collegiate music programs, we invest in a future community of diverse new artists. As a student musician and leader in my own collegiate orchestra, I hope to cultivate robust music ecosystems by illuminating potential barriers for continuing music education and proposing cost-effective methods for ensemble retention and recruitment.
Socioeconomic status is a major predictor of whether many students pursue higher education. Low-income students typically have to take on one or more paying jobs on top of their regular course load: time that their higher-income peers may spend pursuing valuable professional development opportunities. While wealthy students are more likely to enjoy college and find employment on the other side, low-income students struggle to make ends meet, often sacrificing the pursuit of their dreams in the process. This vicious cycle is painfully evident in music due to the massive cost of instrument purchase, repair, and rental. While many K-12 schools own instruments which are available for student use, colleges like Smith typically do not. Thus, orchestral instrumentalists often find themselves empty-handed after their high school graduations, forcing them to give up their musical studies. Even if students owns their own instruments, the cost of private lessons is another barrier. With tuition rising annually, many college students are intimidated by the prospect of an extra fee and drop their musical participation altogether.
— Advertise a “used instrument drive” to alumni and community members so incoming students can continue their instrumental studies.
— Invest in owning cost-effective instruments like the plastic pBone line.
— If one does not already exist at your institution, establish a “beginner’s orchestra” with starting musicians and these acquired instruments. By playing in this ensemble, students have the opportunity to develop musically and eventually join the college’s higher-level groups, enhancing the vitality of the music program.
While dead white composers have certainly made large contributions to music history, their narratives almost always take precedence over women and people of color in classrooms and concert halls. The institutional focus on dead white composers is not only problematic because of its lack of accessibility to students: it also “heroifies” some composers like Wagner who have come to represent racist and anti-semitic ideologies. Considering the most recent surge in student activism relating to tolerance and diversity, it is unsurprising that college students shy away from classical ensembles with long histories of Eurocentrism. Furthermore, collegiate orchestras are primarily composed of white musicians, standing at odds with the increasingly diverse makeup of a global campus. Students are far less likely to get involved with an ensemble that does not directly reflect or serve their community.
— Program works by women and people of color which are accessible to the overall level of the group.
— Supplement traditional works from the classical canon with detailed historical contexts that consider multiple cultural perspectives.
— Perform a public benefit concert or other service project at least once a semester. Playing outside the confines of the music building will draw in new audiences to revitalize the group. Today’s students will also be more attracted to an orchestra which upholds values of social justice by serving its community.
In her book Doing School, Denise Clark Pope chronicles the lives of five high school students to illuminate how “we are creating a generation of stressed out, materialistic, and miseducated students.” By placing more value on core academics and GPA than on vocational skills or character building, students are put under the impression that “people don’t go to school to learn; they go to get good grades which brings them to college, which brings them the high-paying job, which brings them to happiness, so they think.” Thus, the “best and brightest” high school students sacrifice sleep for grades, passions for resume-building, and friendships for academic competition. When all of these like-minded people come together at a college like Smith, the “Stress Olympics” begin. Students are often driven to give up their passions for music because of the high standards upheld by their professors, peers, and selves. Many are simply unable to practice their instrument on top of a full course load. Others are intimidated by the ability levels of their sectionmates and leave the group. Either way, exit surveys completed by departing orchestra members are beginning to sound like a broken record: “I just don’t have the time.”
— Create avenues for peer mentorship. Higher-level musicians may teach informal lessons or run sectionals. This would present constructive challenges for students of all ability levels.
— Combat stress culture internally. Student leaders may program “stress-free” social activities outside rehearsals to encourage self-care among orchestra members.
— Always ask, “why are we doing this?” In a culture of immense academic stress, it is easy to forget why one would take the time to play an instrument instead of study. I recommend the integration of a program like StoryCorps into the musical curriculum. The art of storytelling allows students to remember why they started playing music in the first place, ultimately reigniting their love for the art. Story-focused programming may be used to recruit incoming first-years to college ensembles, as well as to advocate for music education at local, state, and even federal levels.
The recent American presidential election inspired calls to action that rippled through various communities: Muslims, Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, LGBTQ people, people of color, the disabled, educators, and social justice activists to name but a few. One of the communities that responded quickly was the new music community.
In New York, National Sawdust hosted a November 10 town hall moderated by Paola Prestini, Courtenay Casey, Daniel Felsenfeld, and Roger Bonair-Agard. In Los Angeles on November 10, the Artist Council at The Hammer Museum scrapped their agenda to “deal with the more urgent situation at hand,” asking, “What can we do? … How can we protect the vulnerable and defend rights we have come to take for granted?” On November 16, NewMusicBox published Gary Ingle’s essay on Decolonizing Our Music. In Los Angeles on November 17, Nick Norton and ArtShare hosted Understanding and Action for Artists and Thinkers: An Open Forum. This meeting asked how we as artists and musicians could help marginalized communities that would be adversely affected by the new presidency. On November 28, Andrew Norman, having won the Grawemeyer Award For Music, made strong comments about privilege to NPR’s Tom Huizenga, an important statement I’ll discuss later. And recently, critic Alex Ross wrote about Making Art in a Time of Rage, looking at artistic responses from Leonard Bernstein to Ted Hearne’s recent politically charged work. Maybe you heard about some of these meetings. Maybe you attended some of them.
I was fascinated and encouraged by these prospects. The new music community wants to help marginalized and vulnerable communities? This could be a potential win-win that benefits both the oppressed and our own rarefied artistic community. Let’s go.
Before we propose remedies and strategies to help the marginalized, I believe we need to take a hard look at the new music community itself. There’s a paradigmatic assumption that our activism is a response to outside forces like the new presidency, but now is an opportunity to look within. As the sayings go: Think globally, act locally; Change begins at home.
Structural and systemic issues have allowed institutional exclusion to be rigid and persistent.
As performers, educators, composers, creators, and producers of music, we typically see ourselves working for a greater good, fortunate not to have our art and labor support the war machine or aggravate climate change, for example. However, we must acknowledge that the new music community has an established history of exclusion.
Structural and systemic issues have allowed institutional exclusion to be rigid and persistent. These issues begin with education and continue through the moderation of opportunities, career development, and audience-building structures including marketing, promotion, grants, and the dissemination of information.
Structural issues begin with early education; geographic, social, and economic privilege facilitates access to music lessons, and can affect how family and cohorts encourage childhood interest in music. Developmental psychologist Steven J. Holochwost has studied inadequacies and inequalities in access to music education in the United States. Holochworst notes there are cases where proactive outreach strategies have helped young students to become more involved in music.
With sufficient interest and success as children, many of us progressed to studying music within higher education. The conservatory, a central institution of Western art music, is based upon the conservation of musical tradition and established values, principles, and systems. (The exception often proves the rule; musicologist Nadine Hubbs describes how midcentury academic advocacy of serialism, while certainly revolutionary in many ways, served to ossify exclusionary heterosexist networks and hierarchies.)
Musicologists and sociologists have studied conservatory culture and dissected its various dysfunctions, often discreetly euphemizing names of institutions and pedagogues. Bruno Nettl looked at the “Heartland University School of Music”. Henry Kingsbury looked at the “Eastern Metropolitan Conservatory of Music,” whose entrance is on or perhaps near North Street (hint, hint). Andrea Olmsted brazenly studied Juilliard; outside the rigors of socio-musicology, Juilliard was also strongly suggested in films such as Food of Love and Whiplash. While Whiplash seemed extreme to the uninitiated, what conservatory denizen has never seen a percussionist with bloody hands, a violinist with an inflamed neck rash, or a music professor who abuses students? (According to the CBC, physical injuries contribute significantly to conservatory drop out rates.)
Professional and institutional networks intentionally bear resemblance to biological hereditary hierarchies and their concomitant racial exclusions, like a line of royal descent.
Socio-musicological investigation of conservatories finds a powerful mythology of musical genealogy, the concept of mystical secrets passed from teacher to student. This in turn helps form professional and institutional networks that intentionally bear resemblance to biological hereditary hierarchies and their concomitant racial exclusions, like a line of royal descent. Furthermore, intense conservatory experiences forge connections and communities in the same way these are formed by hazing at a fraternity, a sorority, or elite athletic or military institutions. The resultant effect is a self-perpetuating exclusionary system, much like an Etonian “old boys club” with similar socio-economic consequences, transposed into the realm of music as a profession.
Prizes, awards, and competitions—particularly those on the entry-level or semi-professional end of the spectrum—do not often function as prizes and awards per se, but as a form of gatekeeping to further professional development. Consider prizes that offer an opportunity to work with an orchestra, either as a composer or concerto soloist. It’s not like contestants habitually work with an orchestra and win a statuette or purse judged upon that work. The prize is the opportunity itself.
Prizes have been widely criticized as a thinly veiled means of fundraising, and this intersects with socioeconomic concerns. For fledgling ensembles and nonprofits, having a competition is a no-brainer; when students have already spent tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, what is a mere $25-$50 entrance fee? While this can raise a little bit of money for the ensemble or nonprofit, it infrequently offers long-term nurturing; instead, it fosters expectations that maybe someone else will become interested in the winners’ work as a result of the competition.
Criticism of the competition complex has been widely restrained because the field is small and no one wants to offend colleagues or arts organizations. Bill Doerrfeld addressed ageism in composer opportunities. Dennis Báthory-Kitsz humorously mocked the system by flipping it, creating a Performing Ensemble Competition offering $1000 and the opportunity to perform his music; no travel expenses covered, and a $75 entry fee. Ben Phelps penned a poignant, tongue-in-cheek advice column, How to Win Composing:
The competition is thus the apotheosis of cultural musical expression. This is why so many average music listeners refer so religiously to such famous competitions as the Masterprize when deciding what new music they are going to like. With competitions holding such a valuable and important place in the career paths of young composers, many justifiably want to win as many as possible, so as to secure admission to more prestigious graduate schools of composition and thus win more coveted teaching positions at more prestigious universities.
Phelps’s essay does not intersect class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and marginalized communities with its savvy takedown, but its parody reveals institutional biases and prejudices couched within musical demands. (See also Frank Oteri’s interview of Wendy Carlos that discusses how academic stylistic expectations mirror prejudice and misogyny.) Strategies for winning that Phelps recommends include using crotales, nested tuplets, and having a title with parentheses, like “Inter(rupt)ions”. This parodies new music and protectionist, institutional biases.
Efforts to define “new music” frequently align with exclusionary institutional biases.
A board member of a mid-sized nonprofit talked to me about their efforts to address diversity. The board member felt her organization was trying to combat racial and gender exclusions and explained, “Well, we have a call for scores, and it’s a blind call, so all the scores are anonymous, no names or information.” A problem with this common methodology is that a savvy panel can distinguish racial and socio-economic identities in anonymous scores through the very formulae that Ben Phelps so wryly advocates. I emphasize that having a diverse board of directors is great, and anonymous scores are great, but you still have an issue with the nested tuplets. There is a lingering means of identifying educational background and insider membership even amidst efforts to be fair and unprejudiced. One might argue that the savvy panel is merely trying to ensure that selected scores appropriately exploit new directions and extended techniques. Yes, of course, but efforts to define “new music” frequently align with exclusionary institutional biases.
Issues of diversity and marginalization are complicated by career concerns: Is engagement with new music a vocation, avocation, or appreciation? (Consider Charles Ives.) Are we free from or financially dependent upon establishment structures? How does new music engage us financially as purchasers, consumers, audience members, creators, performers, and laborers?
If new music is a career either directly or tangentially, we are looking at real world issues of hiring and tenure in academia, bookings and guarantees on the concert circuit, fees and honorariums for clinicians, as well as commissions, grants, radio airplay, recording contracts, and distribution deals. These concerns can impact how we present our politics, program our concerts, or choose what ensembles to book at our venues. We will rely on existing networks in the community to determine who gets the gig.
Diversity hiring is not about creating an unfair advantage for the marginalized. It’s not necessarily about helping underserved populations or any particular candidate, but primarily about correcting deficiencies and inequalities within the hiring institution. It is not about patronizing a candidate or applicant as much it is a course correction for the institution. This likewise applies to commissioning.
If a “call for scores” only results in winners from an existing circle, something is not right.
If a “call for scores” only results in winners from an existing circle, something is not right. If you are not commissioning outside your professional network, there is little reason to have a call for scores. If you want to keep things “in house,” this is perfectly fine; there are positive benefits from cultivating ongoing relationships. Nevertheless, it benefits audiences and encourages composers when conductors and music directors take it upon themselves to research and discover talent outside of their network. While it seems counterintuitive, there may be more equitable and challenging programming with fewer calls for scores and more promotion of work originating outside existing circles.
My focus on institutions allows for an orientation towards the micro-social. Their creation and preservation is predicated on overlapping networks, both internally—among composers, performers, and administrators—and externally—with music critics, funding sources, and audiences.
Robin shows that micro-social circles are driving forces in the new music industrial complex and workplace today. Robin briefly looks at ageism and New York geo-centrism, but he misses opportunities to interrogate how micro-social connections might also be affected by racism, sexism, socioeconomics, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and so on. These biases and prejudices surely affect new music micro-social circles and the new music professional landscape.
Remedies and Strategies
Particularly where music intersects education and social activism, there is a growing body of published research and recommendations. Oxford University Press has published a Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education that is “concerned with ameliorating social inequities affecting marginalized or underserved children and groups.” It looks at policy reforms, emerging feminisms, ableism, gender and sexual diversity, youth in detention centers, and a myriad of other concerns in 42 chapters. This is an excellent entry point for educators in both K-12 and higher education.
When our children do not see teachers who look and live like they do, they may not envision themselves in positions as teachers, conductors, composers, and leaders themselves.
College educator Joshua Palkki wrote in a Smartmusic blog post, “Because our classrooms are a microcosm of society at large, it is worth exploring how issues of diversity and inclusion influence music education. Furthermore, when our children do not see teachers who look and live like they do, they may not envision themselves in positions as teachers, conductors, composers, and leaders themselves. If we do not provide those models, we are not fully serving our students.” Palkki recommends creating safe environments, creating community, being inclusive, aware, reaching out, and championing the stories of others.
A- always center the impacted
L- listen & learn from those who live in the oppression
L- leverage your privilege
Y- yield the floor
I would like to look at these recommendations and translate them into concrete examples.
A: Always Center the Impacted
Throwing a benefit, fundraiser, or town hall should not be a means of self-promotion. It should not be seized as an opportunity to moderate or present oneself as an authority on social justice activism, even if such mantle may be rightfully claimed. If organizational leaders are knowledgeable or active within social justice movements, this is an opportunity to welcome impacted colleagues to lead, present, or moderate a discussion. If organizational leaders do not know impacted people, this is a great opportunity to reach out and make those connections. Activism often involves research, communication, and the building of bridges and consensus. Sometimes the best way to help is for institutional leaders to step aside and center impacted communities and colleagues.
A better approach would have been to invite women and people of color who work in animation at any level to come and discuss the same subject. What are their experiences? What are their recommendations? What can they tell us about the current crop of animated films?
L: Listen & Learn from Those Who Live in the Oppression
If you’d like to help, it might be best to listen rather than reiterate your punditry. To ask how new music can help the marginalized and vulnerable begs the question: shouldn’t we be reaching out to affected people directly and asking them what they need, as opposed to soul-searching in isolation?
If you’d like to help, it might be best to listen.
We should take care not to presume to know someone’s story, to assume how they are privileged or marginalized, without learning their history or background. Many things do not always appear on the surface: gender identity, racial identity, disability, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status, history of activism, civil disobedience, or arrest record. There are many possible intersections, and many surprises. One classic moment happened with vlogger and cultural critic Jay Smooth, founder of Ill Doctrine, in conversation with CBS commentator Nancy Giles on the subject of Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign. Giles seemed to believe that Smooth was “appropriating black mannerisms.” Smooth quipped, “I’m a rap guy,” then spelled things out for Giles, “I’m actually black, but you assumed otherwise, and this is the sort of awkwardness we can look forward to at Starbucks across America.”
We should acknowledge that those of us able to work in music are quite privileged. Even if we struggle to pay rent on a tiny apartment, we are privileged to work in a field of our choice in a rarefied community. There are ways for us to leverage our privilege.
This award has been given to three women out of its 30-year history. And to me that’s kind of an issue. And in all honesty, I’m a white man and I get lots of commissions and there are systemic reasons for that, reasons we should all be talking about. There are so many talented composers out there. Rather than giving me another commission, why aren’t we giving those people a commission? The canon is so overwhelmingly white and male, but we can use new music to fix that problem.
Norman, still young, has enjoyed a meteoric rise. It would have been easy for him to internalize his success and affect his own exceptionalism. The arts industrial complex has a habit of heaping awards upon the same “usual suspects” like a slowly rising conveyor belt you better jump on while you are young. A communal notion of exceptionalism encourages the idea that “new music” can “help.” These notions of exceptionalism are not unique to high art. Critic Ann Powers, in “The Problem With The Grammys Is Not A Problem We Can Fix,” notes that:
For white people, to acknowledge institutional racism is to recognize our place in it and to become prepared to move from that comfortable spot. Yet the little voice of assumed exceptionalism often convinces us that we can stay there and fight the good fight. Feeling exceptional is a privilege in itself. … Exceptionalism contradicts systematic truths and seems to solve the most deeply embedded social problems. And we all crave it. Everyone who benefits from these structures wants to believe they are natural.
Norman leveraged his privilege by speaking out on NPR. Perhaps one day he will sit on a committee himself where he can commission marginalized composers. Not all of us have the opportunity to speak on NPR, but there are other ways of leveraging privilege beyond the bully pulpit: lobbying organizations from within; writing a check; providing legal or logistical assistance to people engaged in civil disobedience; using our connections to board members and major donors to help shift commissioning and concert programming; using our connections to the media to help set agendas and shift coverage; and so on.
Y: Yield the Floor
On February 12, the Artists’ Political Action Network (APAN) held an organizing meeting in Los Angeles. Members of the Hammer Artists Council organized the meeting, but it was not held at the Hammer Museum, but at 356 S. Mission Road, a gallery space in the gentrifying Boyle Heights area. Defend Boyle Heights anti-gentrification activists picketed, interrupted, and protested the meeting with chants such as, “A gentrifying space is not a safe space.” This was an opportunity for APAN Hammer folks to yield the floor rather than counter that “gentrification” was already listed in their PowerPoint. Yielding the floor creates opportunities to listen and learn. Both groups, APAN and Defend Boyle Heights, are well positioned to do good work; afterwards, some people from either group met outside and talked, sharing concerns and ideas.
During the APAN meeting, attendees came up with a list of 150 potential subcommittee issues. These included issues like immigration rights, gerrymandering, and environmental issues, but only one issue related to the arts: diversity in gallery representation. This is one issue where a group of visual artist-activists really have especial knowledge and opportunities. It is here they could really affect change and use their connections and expertise.
My point is that if you really want to work on immigration rights or gerrymandering, for example, there are many existing groups for that, and it would be beneficial to look for people and groups already doing that work. There is nothing wrong with donating time or money directly to groups like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. The idea of creating a new “immigrants rights committee” to speak for others when the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and many other organizations already exist seems a little self-serving. You may have special expertise within your field that allows you to do unique work, and that is worthy of consideration.
I ask us to consider what we can do that is unique to our own knowledge and access. We have systemic racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and misogyny within our own institutions and micro-social networks. I believe that by tackling these issues within our own institutions and networks, we can affect change in a meaningful way. We should certainly partner with other organizations and build bridges to other communities in the arts and social justice worlds. But helping others demands humility and self-awareness as well.