Tag: social justice

Raven Chacon: Fluidity of Sound

Banner for the Raven Chacon episode of SoundLives featuring a photo of Raven writing music on a piece of score paper.

Raven Chacon in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded Wednesday, June 8, 2022 at 10:30 A.M. over Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

When Raven Chacon was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in April for his composition Voiceless Mass, quite a lot of attention was given to the fact that he was the first Native American ever to receive this accolade. He is also perhaps the most experimental composer to get the nod, and that is true even considering that previous honorees include Henry Brant and Ornette Coleman. But while his idiosyncratic graphic scores are stunningly original in their conception and have been recognized as works of visual art in their own right (several are in this year’s Whitney Biennial), they have a larger social purpose.

“I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education,” explained Chacon when we spoke over Zoom earlier this month. “I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.”

The ideas that generate Chacon’s often highly experimental sound results are charged stories with deep implications about ecological concerns or social justice, such as Tremble Staves, an immersive work about the environment created for the San Francisco-based duo The Living Earth Show, or American Ledger No. 2, a visceral aural as well as visual response to this nation’s shameful history of enforced repatriations which received its world premiere in the parking lot of the Oklahoma Eagle in the Greenwood District of Tulsa.

“It’s thinking about this space that is existing in a city where there’s folks who don’t have privileges and resources,” Chacon said of the latter work. “Also talking about the policy of forcing native peoples from other tribes into Oklahoma. Once these minoritized communities become successful, such as the black community of Tulsa in the early 20th century, they were then driven out. Were forced out. And so sonically, I was interested in seeing what this system does. Does it create chaos? Does it create organization? Does it create a steady beat? Does it create voice? What happens inside of this?”

To hear Chacon speak of sonic experimentation this way makes his often intentionally inaccessible-sounding music extremely accessible. His occasionally jarring sonorities are always a means to an end. It isn’t always something that even he himself finds pleasant to listen to as he acknowledged when talking about his wind band composition American Ledger No. 1:

I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean. And so in the case of American Ledger 1, the chopping of wood signifies the building of ships. It signifies the building of the colonies that happened in the place after the ships arrived. And it has the potential to talk about then cutting down those buildings–chopping them down with an axe, lighting them on fire. A matchstick is another instrument I use in American Ledger 2 and in Tremble Staves. And I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

One of the most extreme examples of this is his early composition Report in which an ensemble of eight people fire shotguns according to a precisely notated musical score. His feelings about that work now and around whether to let future performances of it occur in an era when mass shootings occur somewhere in the United States every week, are understandably extremely complicated.

Because societal awareness is so central to Raven Chacon’s aesthetics as an artist, he has proven to be a natural collaborator, often placing himself in situations where few composers would feel comfortable. For the opera Sweet Land, which was produced by The Industry just before the pandemic lockdown began in 2020, he immersed himself in a total collaboration with another composer, Du Yun, both contributing their own music as well as harmonizing, orchestrating, and further developing ideas of each other. His collaborative sensibilities were on display most recently in the score he composed for Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli’s documentary film, Lakota Nation vs. United States, which just received its premiere screening at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

“I appreciated not being in the foreground for anything,” Chacon said. “I appreciated being able to reach into archives of things that I have that didn’t fit my normal music. You know, like Baroque fugue or something, why couldn’t that end up in the documentary about the Lakota nation, you know? Because we’re contrasting different times of American history. And sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict. What we’re talking about throughout this documentary is conflict, encroachment. … That was how I approached it because again the last thing I wanted to do was bring new age, reverbed wooden flutes to this score. That’s what’s expected. And so the producers and directors had known my music, and that’s what they wanted. They wanted noise. They wanted the things that one does not associate with native people. Because to do so, might place them in the past. And we’re talking about an ongoing disrespect of Lakota treaties and people that something had to bring it at least into now and into what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

  • As composers, it’s very hard to say what you want to say with instrumental music. You can make the title say what you want to say. You can write program notes all day about it. But ultimately, what does the music have an opportunity to actually convey?

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • In all honesty, I kind of accidentally found myself in that art side of things. I’ve always considered myself a composer first. It’s just that I found opportunities and maybe different attention from that world. And it did come about by way of scores. Some of the graphic notation that I was working with were things that people wanted to exhibit. And I kept telling them it’s just the document to make the music happen.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Every music you listen to, probably everything you’ve ever listened to, will end up in the music you make. ... If you live near a highway in a city, that might influence a kind of music to be made. If you live near a highway in a very rural place, that might end up as another kind of music. And so I think that second one is the kind of music that I end up making.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • often get asked okay, am I supposed to hear native music in here? You know, a particular tribe’s melodies or rhythms, and I say no. I don’t do that. I don’t have to do that actually, if that’s a connection that a listener makes because of all the tropes they’ve heard throughout popular culture, then that becomes their thing that I get to play with. But it’s not something I’m going to intentionally put into a music work.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • The interesting thing about ruins is unless you’re some kind of expert, an archeologist or something, you might not be able to tell how old the ruins are.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I’m not a person who tries to write difficult music to stump people. I’m not a new complexity type of person.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education. I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • If anything is possible, then I should write a piece of music that is going to have limitations on myself. No pitch. No timbral changes. No volume. I can’t control the volume. And maybe no tuning, no harmony. Nothing. No time. Of course, I found you can’t escape time. But everything else I felt I could. What kind of instrument can I find that could eliminate all of these possibilities and choices? And so I was thinking, okay a snare drum. But no, you could play a snare drum very quietly. There’s still a lot you can do with a snare drum. And so I thought, okay guns. You know, being in New Mexico, it’s something we would actually go do on the weekends: go practice shooting. And it’s ten minutes to drive out to the desert and nobody cares what you do. I have relatives who hunt. Friends who hunt. It’s a way of life in rural places.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon

Anthony Davis: Any Means Necessary

A revival of X, a three-act opera inspired by the life of the Black Muslim minister and social activist Malcolm X, opened at the Detroit Opera House this past weekend (and has additional performances through May 22). While there have been a few performances here and there since its 1986 premiere at New York City Opera, the new Detroit production is the most high profile one and it will continue on to Opera Omaha, Seattle Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. Plus there will be another production in June by Odyssey Opera/BMOP in Boston which will culminate in a new recording of the opera scheduled to be released in September. It’s a long overdue recognition for the first opera composed by Anthony Davis, who was finally recognized with a Pulitzer Prize last year for his eighth opera, The Central Park Five, another politically charged work based on recent history (which returns to the stage at Long Beach Opera in June and another production of which, presented by Portland Opera, can be streamed from now until May 20).

Back in 1986, a dismissive New York Times review of X by the notoriously contemporary music-loathing critic Donal Henahan, claimed that “words and ideology, not vocalism,” were “the center of attention in this work” and that the opera “falls into the category of message theater, and by definition its message will not appeal to all who hear it.” While the review undoubtedly dissuaded some impresarios back then, this important work, which was staged a year before Nixon in China, arguably spawned a whole subgenre of contemporary operas based on current or relatively recent events which have sometimes been described as “CNN operas,” although Davis considers that term dismissive and “pejorative. … We’re just borrowing; it’s about the headlines.” Especially because for him this story has all the trappings of a classic opera and its protagonist is “a tragic hero.”

When I spoke with Davis over Zoom last month he was in the middle of rehearsals in Detroit, so X was very much at the forefront of his thoughts. But what I didn’t realize is that this new production might have never taken place had Davis not spent a good deal of the pandemic re-engraving performance materials, which is something he worked on just to make good use of the time.

“All stuff was cancelled… So, I thought, what am I gonna do?” Davis explained. “X was a score I’d done by hand before computers. And then Schirmer had done parts and it was done in Score. So I thought, I’d like to make the piece so that it could be done as, you know, excerpts. … I worked like four or five hours on it during COVID. I had to have something to do. I just about finished the excerpts, which is little more than half of the opera, about an hour and a half of music, and then Yuval [Sharon, Artistic Director of the Detroit Opera] called me, and said he wanted to do the whole thing. So I said, great. Well, I’ve done half, I might as well do the whole thing. … And the revised version of the opera emerged from that. It’s like looking at a mirror and seeing, you know, the Dorian Gray thing or something, see your 30-year-old self staring back at you. But I had to protect that 30-year-old self from my 70-year-old instincts to re-write; I couldn’t change everything. I have to be faithful to what I was thinking then, what my musical ideas were at that point.”

Since X was Davis’s first opera, as he pointed out, “There’s always a fire when you do something for the first time.” But before X, Davis had already established a career as a highly successful contemporary jazz composer, pianist, and leader of the progressive ensemble Episteme. He had also made significant in-roads into the world of so-called contemporary classical music, an early pinnacle of which is his idiosyncratic piano concerto Wayang V, a work informed by his fascination with traditional Indonesian gamelan music. It’s a piece that has been recorded twice, both times with Davis as the piano soloist performing with two different orchestras–the Kansas City Symphony led by William McGlaughlin and, more recently, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose (who is also conducting that new recording of X). Before all of that, Davis was actually an aspiring classical pianist.

“I was playing a lot of Schumann then, so I was playing that Fantasiestücke stuff,” he remembered. “I began to resent the fact that I was playing all white composers. And that really upset me…. I actually did a couple concerts in Italy where I played a half program of classical piano, and then a half program of doing Monk tunes. And then I started doing my own compositions. That’s when I first started writing pieces that I could improvise around.”

The fact that many different musical traditions have shaped Anthony Davis’s aesthetic is something he views not as “eclectism” (another bad word in his estimation), but rather as “a resolution of identity, of discovering who you are as a composer and as a person. And how that is reflected in the music you make. Part of it is your musical education, what you’re exposed to, and to me, all that stuff also recalls emotional states, experiences in terms of what the music implies.”

So, in a way, it’s inevitable that Davis has devoted so much of his compositional energies to opera, and in particular to using the operatic medium to tell stories that either deal with significant historic events or which focus on important social concerns. Aside from X and The Central Park Five, Davis’s eight operas also include: Amistad, about a rebellion on a slave ship in the 19th century; the Patty Hearst-inspired Tania; and Lear on the 2nd Floor, which re-imagines the famous Shakespeare play as the story of a formerly highly-respected woman who is now living in an assisted care facility because she is suffering from dementia.

Curiously, what first triggered Davis’s interest in opera was reading Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy during his student years. “I thought that what Nietzsche was writing about in terms of the Apollonian and Dionysian, and the kind of binary that he created, was more applicable to American music than it was to German. Because we’re African and we’re European. The combination of the musical foundation in these two great cultures, I thought opera could have that. An American opera ideally would be that kind of expression.” But now he sees creating these operas as a mission. “What we face now is so much like the early-‘30s in Germany: the present danger that we could actually lose democracy. We could lose what we have. So it has made it more urgent for me, as an artist, to present things to challenge those forces. I’ve always felt strongly as an artist, but even more now.”

  • Where I grew up in State College, my brother and I were the only black people in the school. So I began to think about that. And I began to resent the fact that I was playing all white composers. And that really upset me.

    Anthony Davis
  • We’re African and we’re European. The combination of the musical foundation in these two great cultures, I thought opera could have that. An American opera ideally would be that kind of expression.

    Anthony Davis
  • I used to imagine playing with Blackwell and Ornette, I was thinking how I could be Charlie Haden in the left hand and Don Cherry in the right.

    Anthony Davis
  • Opera is so much about memory. You can always go back to things that are in the opera. You’re creating your own kind of world in it, but it also has the extra world of what it refers to in terms of the whole genre of opera, and also what other music you bring into opera.

    Anthony Davis
  • I had this image of Malcolm listening to John Coltrane’s quartet, or Sonny Rollins. I felt that the link to music was really evident.

    Anthony Davis
  • One of the advantages of working with black singers is that they have many experiences. They sing in church. Maybe they sang in the black church. They’d sing opera, but some of them of have sung jazz too. It’s not an alien artform. ... So you can find the hybrid musician.

    Anthony Davis
  • Sometimes they call it eclectism, which I think is a bad word for it. ‘Cause that’s like thinking or picking pebbles on the beach or something, you know. It’s actually a resolution of identify, of discovering who you are as a composer and as a person. And how that is reflected in the music you make. Part of it is your musical education, what you’re exposed to, and to me, all that stuff also recalls emotional states, experiences in terms of what the music implies. I think what that can relate to is subtext in a dramatic sense, what is the subtext of what’s going on. And so the music always provides a subtext.

    Anthony Davis
  • It was kind of a pejorative the way it was used: CNN Operas. It was kind of dismissed as this trend. We’re just borrowing. It’s about the headlines, etcetera.

    Anthony Davis
  • Right now, it’s a really dangerous time in America. We can be on the edge of Fascism; that’s something I worry about every day. ... We could actually lose democracy. We could lose what we have. So it made more urgent for me, as an artist, to present things to challenge those forces. I’ve always felt strongly as an artist, but even more now.

    Anthony Davis
  • Someone asked me, how do you write music for Trump? I said well, first of all, he’s a tenor. Second of all, he repeats things a lot. Third thing is he never finishes a sentence. Why was that appealing to people? I mean, this launched his whole career as a politician. He exploited the racial divide for his own personal benefit as a political figure.

    Anthony Davis
  • There’s always a fire when you do something for the first time. There’s a flame that goes, it’s like you’re discovering all these things.

    Anthony Davis

Music For Tomorrow’s World

Out of the Box banner with embedded headshot photo of Jessie Cox by Adrien H. Tillmann

Reflections of the future as digs to uncover what the present holds, maybe as possibility, maybe as impossibility, but surely a practice that sounds an open totality, that is to say improvisation as togetherness, or maybe, consent not to be a single being.[1] Rather than communing in formations, out of and with information as data, or bodies, or domains—sovereign authorities in general—this writing is an attempt to think through the prompt: “…our community ponder aspects of what music will be like ten years into the future,”[2] not only towards a future, but from a future, one I can hear, but also one I might already live in, that radically shifts notions of community, time, and space, under the heading of, and through music, as thought refigured. In listening to the present as an archeological dig,[3] as a site incomplete and still improvising itself out and in, like writing and reading onto and out-from this page, musical thinking can allow a shift in relation. When relation, to time, space, and others, becomes poetic, that is opaque and at the same time fully inseparable, then thinking with the future becomes a reflection of a future: like stars that shine from a past long gone, and mirror us into positions of futurity. It is through music that in this elaboration time is reflected, redirected, so as to allow for another kind of direction, another point of attraction, and maybe we can do away with the point as limit, and point becomes hieroglyphics of sound in motion/relation.

All of this is to say that in this essay I engage the future not as something that comes later on, that replaces a complete and whole present, but rather that the future is a method of thinking that shows something that is already here. In other words, I see the task of such a practice as the task of practicing, of playing, in the present, or maybe in front of an audience, that which I want to matter. As Marshall Allen poignantly said, “You want a better world. You create a better world.”[4] It is thus not so much a thinking through of time but rather a thinking through of music as world-building, as space-time creation: music as a tool to be together (with oneself and with others at the same time, that is also where this distinction as contradistinction becomes irrelevant) in space-time, which is itself that music as poetics of relation. What follows is simply the elaboration of what this means because it requires, on the one hand, a radical shift, and on the other, simply a remembering. Ultimately, this writing is something like a devotional practice,[5] maybe we can call it a meditation, or a recitation of those sincerities of sounding that remind of what is at stake, of being together (in an apartness)[6] through writing (sounds), and a giving thanks to and for those musicians that provide a possibility for spaces to resound this.

Charles Uzor’s work 8’46” subtitled George Floyd in Memoriam is a work written in 2020, from the geopolitical space of Switzerland, shortly after George Floyd’s murder and the incipient of global Black Lives Matter protests. It consists of 7 minutes and 46 seconds of breathing sounds (no instrumental playing) followed by one minute of silence. 8’46” is the first of two works written for George Floyd since 2020 by Uzor and it demonstrates (and places petitions for such thinking) new music’s relation to such protests. Together the two works uncover music’s (and as a specific case new music’s) entanglement with and in blackness. Its title references John Cage’s 4’33” through its similarity in appearance, while at the same time pointing to global protests under the heading of this duration, which was the initial duration used in court in the trial against Derek Chauvin, the police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, for what later was revised to well over 9 minutes, killing him.

It is in this poetics of relation played out by composer Charles Uzor that a possibility of new music becomes amplified (and maybe refined): under the heading of this experimental practice a radical shifting of the world can take place. On the one hand the piece points with this duration, as well as its sounds, to an antiblack world, while, at the same time, speaking of another world: one announced by the work in form of the duration as symbol for the mattering of Black lives. The music becomes staging ground for a performative assertion that black lives indeed do matter. Uzor’s 8’46” reflects a sociality, in the breathing sounds made by the performers, as well as in their silences (which both appear also under the heading of a reflection of observers listening as it is in 4’33”), announced in blackness.

In this scene Music, or music we might bring forth under a heading of new music, is stage to rework our relation to the world—whether that is combating antiblack structures or a coming together in/as/with blackness. In this sense it is music and it is blackness, it is improvised sociality, that is to say a consent not to be a single being, it is an impossibility to be without being in poetic relation. Music becomes a space within which people can be themselves in a common that is founded on and with each member’s unique ways—this I’ve learned from musicians such as Cecil Taylor. In Nina Fukuoka’s Sugar, Spice, and All Things Nice this space is shaped too, and what becomes revealed is how such space-formation is always also an act of reworking spaces around this music—from the music’s seemingly more immediate institutional conditions, to larger questions for this planet. A work that takes accounts of experiences of sexism in the music-world as its basis, collected in, and as, the process of compositions in dialogues with others, Sugar, Spice, and All Things Nice’s life moves by way of the social lives entangled in the composer and the music. Music becomes entrenched in lives. Thus this work takes the task of making music as simultaneously a task of being with others in sociality, and does such alongside an aim of revealing and combating sexism—antisocial brutalities. In recounting such brutalities the performers, the composer Fukuoka, and those whose voices flow into the work, reveal this musical work (this working in and with music) as part of social lives—the music cannot be separated, it does not stand by itself because by listening to it we always engage a complex set of entanglements, lives lived in sound, music as living with things. Thus while at once bringing to the fore how women are being discriminated against in the music field the piece also points to, as example, how music has the potential to be that space which allows for flowering of lives. In addressing the problems surrounding it, the music becomes space for that which is denied: (women’s) lives lived in music. Sugar, Spice, and All Things Nice redoubles this fact in its sounding through the use of textures moving out from and in excess of words spoken, and vice versa—not even in the act of performing or listening can these lives be held.

It is in these two examples that I hear what project of futurity I want to partake in. Music as a world redrawing act, as a process of living in poetic relation with each other and oneself (which is not one any longer), that remaps this world, into something else already here, behind a wormhole, some kind of alterdestiny[7] that was always already present but that we can maybe hear better by looking into the stars, to a future and a past as the present. As skins clash, the sound of drums brings a remembering—a reminder, remainder, and rejoining—of that which music always was, how meeting and departing are always the same—sounds in music. Sounds cease to be of relevance as moments in-between and become that which is always already stronger than itself[8] or any self, or selves in or out of touch. It is music, that blackness beyond wholes with holes as holds. “This is the theme of the stargazers, stargazers in the sky. This is the song of tomorrow’s world, a cosmic paradise.”[9]

  • I engage the future not as something that comes later on, that replaces a complete and whole present, but rather that the future is a method of thinking that shows something that is already here.

    Photo of Jessie Cox by Adrien H. Tillmann
    Jessie Cox
  • Music, or music we might bring forth under a heading of new music, is stage to rework our relation to the world

    Photo of Jessie Cox by Adrien H. Tillmann
    Jessie Cox
  • Music has the potential to be that space which allows for flowering of lives.

    Photo of Jessie Cox by Adrien H. Tillmann
    Jessie Cox
  • Sounds cease to be of relevance as moments in-between and become that which is always already stronger than itself or any self, or selves in or out of touch.

    Photo of Jessie Cox by Adrien H. Tillmann
    Jessie Cox

NOTES

The article’s title is playing on the Sun Ra Arkestra’s record title Music From Tomorrow’s World.

1. Referencing here Fred Moten’s particular engagement with such translation by Christopher Winks of Édouard Glissant’s phrase “consent à n’être plus un seul.” In Moten’s formulation the consent is not given by a subject but is rather more something like what I would like to call a remembering of what was already there behind the veil.

2. This excerpt is from the email by Frank J. Oteri where he inquired with me as to whether I’d like to write this text.

3. Kodwo Eshun’s seminal article “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism” explores the ways in which afrofuturistic practices use the future to rework the present. To this aim he writes out from the notion of the archeological dig—his paper opens with future life-forms digging in their past, our present.

4. Allen, Marshall. 2019. “Out There A Minute With Marshall Allen.” PWPvideo. May 23, 2019. Audio, 5:02 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdTR-fiLfwQ).

5. I have to acknowledge here the origin of this word thought as writing coming out from my conversations with Fred Moten.

6. I’m playing with Karen Barad’s brilliant neologism together-a-part that plays out so beautifully the impossibility of actually being apart or together because of, to put it very oversimplified, entanglement, which is also to say, for me, because there is no single entity to be by itself or with someone else. I’m also thinking here of the ways in which this pandemic has played out and upon this together-apart complication. I invoke with such reminder my longterm collaborator and partner Lucy Clifford with whom I’ve learned of this in grooves of sound and life.

7. This term comes from Sun Ra’s philosophical thought.

8. I’m referencing here George E. Lewis’ A Power Stronger Than Itself, not particularly because of the title’s words but rather because of the book and what it documents: the AACM as a musical collective where music was, and still is, vehicle for lives as well as transformation of spaces and worlds.

9. Sun Ra Arkestra, “Theme of the Stargazers.”

 

Underscoring How Human and Relatable Immigrants Actually Are

I don’t think of myself as the type that gambles with the rent money, yet that’s exactly what I felt like I was doing during tech week of the live, online, remote song cycle I recently produced called Swell. The riskiness of the endeavor, which was funded by the Mayor’s Office of the City of New York along with assistance for ASL interpretation from A.R.T.-NY, didn’t become clear until one night in tech when the internet was bucking wildly and we couldn’t sync the audio feeds coming from various corners of the country the way we’d successfully done during the past two weeks of staging rehearsals. It occurred to me that choosing such an unpredictable medium for a live, remote production whose subject was very dear to me may not have been the most clear-eyed decision.

A few years in the making, Swell began with an encounter with a piece of Nathalie Joachim’s that hearkened back to a trip she’d taken to her mother country of Haiti. Listening to her, I began wanting to make work like that, work that transported me to another place and to another way of life. It made me immensely nostalgic for my own island of origin, Taiwan. After that experience, it became my mission to find composers who identified as immigrants/children of immigrants, ask them if they’d be willing to write a song about some aspect of that experience, and on top of that, ask if they’d be open to collaborating with me on the lyrics. (At the time, I’d been writing lyrics for about three years and working with a couple of different composers; I was enamored with what music could do to enhance text and could see no reason to stop.)

My definition of new music was fairly broad—electronics, pop-inflected sounds, opera, opera lite, atonality—it was all marvelous as far as I was concerned.

It took a while to track down composers in New York who fit the criteria, and who were also comfortable with new music. I remember explaining the idea for the song cycle to one composer from Israel that I’d approached, and afterward he had a pained look on his face. He asked, “What if I didn’t immigrate to escape war or poverty?” My immediate reply was that that was ideal, because not every immigrant’s experience involves fleeing horrific circumstances. He wound up writing perhaps the cycle’s most well-loved earworm. Another composer decided to set his memory piece at a breakneck tempo, because he wanted to emphasize the humor in the song, as well as play with the fact that not every immigrant from Mexico has the same journey, literally or figuratively, to the U.S.

As it turned out, my definition of new music was fairly broad, and by the time I’d found ten composers, the song cycle included electronics, pop-inflected sounds, opera, opera lite, atonality—it was all marvelous as far as I was concerned. I loved, too, that each composer had (sometimes vastly) different musical backgrounds and training. They were all accomplished, yet they’d entered the field from different directions, meeting finally at this project. In summer of 2019, I was offered a two-day workshop at HERE in New York to test out the concept. The workshop presentation utilized three singers, three instrumentalists, projections, a little bit of lighting design, a smaller amount of set design, and music stands because nobody could be expected to be off-book. I’d paid everyone out of my savings, which at the time added up to a few thousand dollars—it was my emergency fund, and being offered space to present this work on very short notice seemed like the perfect emergency. In naming the song cycle, I arrived at a term that evoked both turbulent seas (and sea-crossings), and voices rising in unison.

While people who looked and sounded like us were being taken from their homes, we presented a song cycle underscoring how human and relatable immigrants actually were.

The workshop of Swell coincided with the weekend that ICE began conducting mass raids at the behest of then President Trump. It was an eerie coincidence, as the raids were originally scheduled to occur the weekend prior, but had been postponed for one week. So, while people who looked and sounded like us—people who came from immigrant families—were being taken from their homes, we presented a song cycle underscoring how human and relatable immigrants actually were. Our show wasn’t exactly a solution to what was happening, but it was a place where people could, and did, gather in solidarity against it. Fast forward to March 17, 2021, when Swell opened for a five-day, live, online run, after being given the green light to convert its originally intended, fully staged, in-person production into a virtual one. That night, as we finished up our first post-show production meeting, news of a shooting spree in Atlanta appeared in my feed. It wasn’t being called a hate crime, but it looked at least like a violent act that grew partly out of racist thinking and misogynistic ideas. The following day, I was asked how I was doing and whether there was anything people could do to help. The only answer that made sense to me was to ask people to watch the show. As it happened, half our composers were of Asian descent. I felt, and continue to feel, that the show kept me buoyed during a time when it would otherwise have been easy to succumb to fear and anxiety. I made the show’s comp code available to the public, which was a decision I could make easily as producer. It felt to me like everyone, for different reasons, could use our show at that moment.

As we finished up our first post-show production meeting, news of a shooting spree in Atlanta appeared in my feed.

Aside from the piece itself being moving, there was the undeniable fact that thirty artists contributed to it in some way. That thirty individuals helped to make what amounted to an online experiment, during a pandemic, while getting paid, is inspiring in and of itself. What I think made it such a powerful antidote to the race-based hate and violence toward Asians/Asian Americans, is the community we created over the course of making the show. Although every rehearsal and every meeting took place virtually, we maintained a kind and supportive ethos, even as we were attempting something highly stressful with a considerable chance of failure. It was important to me, especially early on, to have as much individual time with everyone as possible. Along with talking about the music, I swapped life stories with the music director (whom I hadn’t worked with before). I walked the performers through setting up their lights and green screens, and gave them as much time as they needed to get comfortable with the equipment and with me. I found this early getting-to-know-each-other period crucial for buffering the stressors that would inevitably come later in the process, such as scheduling snafus, tech week, and the sundry unpredictable surprises that crop up, which producers tackle on a regular basis.

It’s generally assumed that I regard Swell as my baby. Though this is true, it’s also true that I regard every project of mine as my baby. In theater, I’ve found that producing one’s work is the surest way of seeing that work in the world. In music (or more aptly, music-theater) which I’m newer to, an artist who produces their own work, let alone produces the work of others, seems something of a unicorn. At its core, producing is a time-consuming, stress-inducing, sleep-depriving job, and requires a set of skills that, if one doesn’t already possess them, one must be open to acquiring. Having done it, I can say my favorite things about producing have nothing to do with seeing the work realized. Instead, what I most enjoy are the problem-solving aspect and the power of paying artists. Every day I worked on Swell seemed to present a new challenge, and every day ended, if I was lucky, with a creative solution. Apart from that, nothing gives me as much joy as sending money directly to an artist for making their art. It was almost as if every time I hit ‘send’ I was paying myself.

One of the accomplishments that came out of Swell that I will take to my grave is that many of the composers (perhaps all?) had the chance to write about themselves in a way they’d never been asked to before. This again, was a difference between this world and the theater world. In theater, writers are often pressed to write about what they know, and while the intentions behind this remain well-meaning, for BIPOC writers this can sometimes feel restrictive or worse, extractive. Yet for composers who had never been given the chance to consider their heritage or their personal stories in the context of making work, they came away from Swell with a sense of self and a sense of purpose they hadn’t known they were missing. The other accomplishment of which I’m exceedingly proud is the ability to provide ASL interpretation for the show. What is meaningful to me about this is that for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, music can feel like an activity that belongs only to the hearing. Making this production accessible, with dynamic visuals, captioning, and a separate window for ASL interpretation (as large as the window for the show, if one chose to make it so on their computer screen) to a community that is not typically served, particularly when it comes to sound-based work, was revelatory. Suddenly it made sense to think of Swell as a work of art, rather than a work of sound.

Writers are often pressed to write about what they know, and while the intentions behind this remain well-meaning, for BIPOC writers this can sometimes feel restrictive or worse, extractive.

When we finally got Swell up and running, the same butterflies that attend an in-person show came swarming in. I saw people in the audience I knew, and there were names I recognized. It felt so live, and because of that it was scary. Every night we had different things to contend with, sometimes software related, often internet related. At the end of one night that went particularly well, the applause (via chat) was instantaneous, and my phone and email blew up with messages of awe and appreciation. As with in-person performances, one night like that is almost enough to erase all the imperfections that, to the maker, seem so glaring. If I had known from the beginning what putting Swell online entailed, I think I would have gone ahead and done it anyway.

Why Artist-Driven Change is Exactly What We Need Right Now

Pile of printed scores of pieces by BIPOC composers, including works by TJ Anderson, Errolyn Wallen, Tania León, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Michael Abels, and others, plus a laptop displaying a PDF score.

Hi. I’m Adam. Long time reader, first time writer. I’m a white cis-gender gay male, I play the piano, and I live in NYC. In other words, I’m not that special. There are lots and lots of people like me in NYC and frankly, everywhere around the world. Other qualities I’m hoping you identify with: I take this pandemic very seriously and have no issues wearing a mask and physical distancing, I’m dealing with crushing depression related to the cessation of nearly all of my artistic work, and oh yeah, I strongly believe that Black Lives Matter. If you’re reading this, you’re probably with me, and I’m grateful that there’s a baseline of support for BLM in our community.

Over the last six months, and stretching forward indefinitely, our professional landscape has become unrecognizable. Nobody really knows what to do, and as presenters scramble to figure out how to adapt, performers have more autonomy than ever creating and presenting programs in unusual ways. There are inherent challenges with the predominantly livestream model, but there is also an opportunity to be more nimble and adaptive than usual since concerts aren’t programmed and announced as early as they would be in the before times.

As presenters figure out how to adapt, performers have more autonomy than ever creating and presenting programs in unusual ways.

Our individual agility is perhaps the biggest upside in this often demoralizing artistic landscape. On a broader level, there are a lot of conversations happening right now about institutional racism, inclusion, diversity, etc. But regardless of what institutions we’re associated with, we all exist outside of institutions, too. If you think BIPOC composers deserve more representation in programming, begin that change today. We have an opportunity to look ourselves in the mirror and think about what we can do right here, right now, for ourselves and for people we know or want to know.

This Spring, as I watched with horror new flurries of violence towards people of color, I began to question myself… do I present music that reflects my values in terms of racial diversity and equality? If I go through my repertoire, I can identify works that are by BIPOC. But can I honestly say it’s a significant part of my rep? No. I was ashamed and embarrassed to confront my shortcomings. As I thought about how I can best be an ally, voices in my head whispered “Do we really need to hear more white people playing music by BIPOC and congratulating themselves?” I have loved getting to know the music of Julius Eastman, for example, but the titles of his works make me uncomfortable (I understand that that is part of the intent), and I’ve felt as though I may not be the right person to champion his music.

But really, why? What am I scared of? I don’t want to be someone who tokenizes race or color. I don’t want to appropriate works by BIPOC and present myself as a white savior. I’m terrified of inadvertently demonstrating disrespect for artists that I’m trying to support, because I’ve seen it happen time and time again at the hands of others. (This is not meant as a personal attack on my many colleagues who have been out there doing this work already… it’s just an abstract observation.)

I’m terrified of inadvertently demonstrating disrespect for artists that I’m trying to support.

This, however, is not the time for me to be governed by fear. When I think about the baseline fear that many BIPOC have in our artistic spaces about being labeled “difficult” or “argumentative,” or the discomfort of erasure and whitewashing they carry every day, I realize I have to just buck up and do what I think is right, knowing full well that I will err and need correction from others with a different perspective.

Here’s one pathway to start:

  • Continue to self-educate. Reading, thinking, and discussing has never been more important. Crucial reads, among many, many others, include Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, and Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility.
  • Listen when others speak. If we only look to others to confirm our existing worldview, we have no hope to grow. If you disagree with what someone says, keep listening. Your response may change.
  • Buy music. Lots of music. Shopping can be an ethical act. Choose wisely. We all have budgets, but once needs are met, what feels better than supporting an artist by buying a new score or recording?
  • Learn music. As a performer or a listener, expose yourself to new things. Diversify what’s around you. If you don’t like it, that’s okay. I don’t particularly like a lot of music that’s on my shelf, but I keep it there because it’s my job to know what’s out there and how things interrelate.
  • Share what you’re passionate about. Whether it be telling a friend about a composer or piece that’s new to you, programming your concerts differently to reflect your priorities, or posting links to social media, don’t hold your new knowledge in.
  • Lay the groundwork for more. If you are able, set aside a little cash every month to support the development of new art. That may include contributing to crowdsourcing campaigns, or it may be commissioning new works. Recognize your power. If you can buy a latte, you can support artistic development on some level.

In that first week of June I spent about 15 hours researching databases, lists, and personal websites as a jumping off point for BIPOC composers with whom I was unfamiliar. I ordered about 80 scores, sight unseen, so that I could be surrounded by unfamiliar things to explore. I’ve been lucky to have conversations with some of the composers as a part of that discovery phase, too. I’m still early in the process of reading through the scores I’ve amassed, but that work is probably my favorite part of the job.

Someone close to me asked when I shared my plan “but what are you going to do with the bad pieces? Don’t you want to make sure they are good before you spend money?” That’s a great question, and one that comes up a lot when we are examining inclusive programming. But you know what? I have played a lot of what I might consider to be bad pieces (though there isn’t really a binary here) by white composers. Every single composer writes “bad” music at times. It’s natural and a part of the process, not to mention incredibly subjective. I think of it this way: I’m a pretty good cook, but there have been more than a few dinners over the years I’ve had to toss and order a pizza instead. And that is perfectly fine.

I’m a pretty good cook, but there have been more than a few dinners over the years I’ve had to toss and order a pizza instead.

By studying music of BIPOC composers regardless of where they are in their career or development, I can hopefully support their growth as well as their bank accounts. Also, what I perceive as a less-developed piece may speak to another artist who champions it and makes it shine in a way I wasn’t imaginative enough to accomplish. My job as a pianist includes reflecting back to composers what they’ve put on the page with complete commitment and amplifying to audiences what I believe in with my whole heart. Those are separate responsibilities, but they are inextricably linked and crucial to the development of any new work.

I think it’s important to note that my ideas here are by no means revolutionary or unique. Countless before me (and hopefully after me) will engage with this work. But perhaps none have written about curation as a reflection of community thought with more academic prowess than George Lewis. I also had a long list of colleagues review this essay, point me towards new resources (including George’s article), and help me refine my statement. This is all part of the process, and something we need to continue to normalize.

My ideas may not be new, but my commitment to aligning my actions to my ideals is, and I’m late to the party. Institutional change is a slog. Individual change can begin as soon as you imagine it. It won’t end… probably ever. But the roadblocks are movable and our excuses are weak. Let’s listen more, support more, and amplify what resonates so that we can all grow together in a more just and equitable world.

 

“Shut up and play”—Musicians as Activists in the 21st century

orchestra in a concert hall

Shut up and dribble.” On February 16, 2018, Fox News host Laura Ingraham criticized NBA players Lebron James and Kevin Durant for being “political” after seeing footage of the two expressing the view that the President “doesn’t understand the people” and that many of the President’s comments are “laughable and scary.” Ingraham’s commentary created something of a firestorm, and a talking-head debate ensued about whether or not sports figures should be advocating certain “political” positions.

Few would deny the power sports figures can wield in conveying social justice messages, whether in the form of a raised fist or the seemingly simple act of kneeling during a football game. But what about the role of classical musicians in this context? Is it appropriate for us to convey “activist” positions beyond, say, describing the inherent value of a music education? When we see discrimination in the world, when we see injustice, who are we to be the ones to speak out? Should we just “shut up and play”?

Is it appropriate for us to convey “activist” positions beyond, say, describing the inherent value of a music education?

Amid the current proliferation of nativism across the industrialized world, musicians are uniquely positioned to convey the following simple message that we should all, as artists, understand: no matter who you are, where you are from, how much money you have, or what language you speak, you have inherent worth.

We know this because we live it, every day. Musicians come from, and interact with, people from all walks of life. In our career trajectories, we often start at the very bottom of the economic ladder, barely able to make ends meet. Gradually, most move into the middle class and a small number go well beyond and join higher economic brackets. We go to dinners with donors who are the richest of the rich and then partake in outreach programs with the most at-need in our communities. Our work crosses linguistic barriers and we regularly interact with people from myriad cultures. We often travel to remote corners of the world to share our craft. We find ourselves performing at symposiums thrown by the intellectuals of academia as well as crossover pop-culture events. We work in schools, and most of us have taught people from across the cultural spectrum. We are given a unique window into the world and are provided the opportunity to escape our own echo chambers, whatever those may be.

And we work together. In a single concert, we may have a 10-year-old treble singer making music with a conductor or instrumentalist who is well past 80; they perform as equals. We delve into work written by people from around the world, during a span of many hundreds of years—through this music, we get to know those who have long been dead and those whose voices are just coming to the fore. We find ways to empathize with and interpret the work of people we will never meet. We create, and hope that, long after we are gone, someone will see our world through the music we leave behind for posterity.

Consider opera: stage crews, academically minded dramaturges, white-collar administrators, and superstar artists all work intimately together, in the moment, to create a single organism. Each contributor is absolutely essential to the process, and to the product, that we deliver to our audiences.

In this way, music is enlightening: It allows us to have a wide, kaleidoscopic view of the world, and to see beauty in every corner.

Today, perhaps more than ever, it is the musician’s responsibility to remind the world of this beauty. Exclusionary politics and the demonization of the other are utterly contrary to what musicians do on a day-to-day basis, and we must make an effort to fight this hatred. It is the duty that comes with the incredible gift of music.

Exclusionary politics and the demonization of the other are utterly contrary to what musicians do on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, most of us are not policy experts, and many specific political matters are outside our purview. Yet, when it comes to matters of inclusion, collaboration and cultural understanding, musicians are better positioned than people in just about any other field. More importantly, there are some matters that are purely political and others that—in a democratic context—should never become political at all.

In spring 2016, when the Refugee Orchestra Project had its first concert showcasing the contributions of refugees to American culture, the performance was an activist, but not politically divisive, undertaking. While anti-immigrant sentiment toward particular groups seemed to be growing, it was still typically accepted that the United States had been built as a country of immigrants and could reasonably be expected to continue accepting refugees and other groups. Over the last three years, the political climate changed dramatically, and any positive attitude toward immigrant—especially refugee—communities is now viewed as an incendiary political statement. Our programming choices—featuring refugee performers and composers—were suddenly seen by some as contentious, even antagonistic. We received both hate mail and accusations of questionable patriotism. (Never mind that ROP concerts typically end with a performance of “God Bless America,” written by refugee Irving Berlin.)

I formed the Refugee Orchestra Project because the divisiveness that was taking shape in our country had a direct relationship to my own life. I then used my experience, together with my professional connections, to create a platform for change. But we do not need to have personal history with specific kinds of hatred to fight it. Yes, it can be challenging to speak genuinely and authoritatively about the experience of an underrepresented group to which you do not belong, but every one of us can be an ally by supporting organizations that promote acceptance and plurality within our world. And the value of this plurality is something we, as classical musicians, actually understand.

We do not need to have personal history with specific kinds of hatred to fight it.

Organizations currently fighting for positive change include those promoting diversity, like Sphinx Organization and Castle of Our Skins in the U.S. and Chineke! Ensemble in the U.K. All three of these organizations use music to increase the plurality of voices in our field (see last week’s article for more on this topic). There are also many organizations working to support a very specific marginalized group within a given community—like Eureka Ensemble, which provides a musical experience for homeless women, or the numerous musical initiatives that work within prison systems. Large-scale programs like Barenboim’s East-West Divan Orchestra and André de Quadros’s choral projects in the Middle East help foster peace on an international scale. Chicago Sinfonietta has recently gone the direction of impacting social change more widely within its mission, and has dubbed itself “an activist orchestra,” with programs that address inclusion, diversity, and environmentalism, among others.

Lidiya Yankovskaya conducting the Refugee Orchestra Project

The very first concert of the Refugee Orchestra Project took place at First Church Cambridge in Cambridge, MA on May 10, 2016 (Photo by Scott Bump, courtesy Verismo Communications)

All of these organizations have been built by musician-activists—artists who wanted to see a better world and were willing to work to make it happen. All of us can make a difference by seeking out organizations that promote causes that matter to us, taking part in their performances, and volunteering our time to spread the message. We all have personal resources – time, money, expertise, connections. I have chosen to invest mine in ROP. This includes everything from covering my own travel to/from performances, drafting press releases, seeking potential partners, and spending hours organizing parts and marking in bowings. The ROP staff are highly qualified arts leaders who have decided to volunteer large swaths of time outside of our primary careers to this undertaking because we want to make a difference. Many of the musicians who play with us have given the organization extra time on the administrative or marketing side, and some, who have the flexibility, have donated their concert fees to the refugee aid organizations which our performances support.

Organizations that do not have a specific activist mission also can and should do more. Those of us in a position of power can use our musical experience, connections, and public position to promote a message of inclusion and acceptance. It can be as easy as taking a moment to reiterate a simple and powerful message that is inherently a part of our art: we all matter. Some organizations are doing this by ensuring that their programs are inclusive of many voices or by organizing new initiatives within their organizations. An example is the Oregon Symphony’s “Sounds of Home” series, which brought attention issues such as homelessness, immigration, and the environment.

If we focus solely on overt activism, we may lose some of the transformative power that art can have on each listener.

Of course, many of our musical experiences will not be activist in their primary mission—and that explicit intent is not required to make an impact. Music for its own sake is immensely valuable and has the capacity to move people on an individual level. If we focus solely on art as a means to overt activism, we may lose some of the transformative power that art can have on each listener. Last week, I sat on a lawn with hundreds of people, listening to a free performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival. It was powerful to simply experience the massive forces of Mahler 2 together with the many families and individuals—music lovers and those who just happened to stumble onto the lawn of the public park.

That being said, when we see the society around us moving in the direction of hatred, we can and should—at least occasionally—look outside our regular programming and use our skills to do more. We can join in the ceaseless fight to make our world more interconnected through mutual understanding (for more on conductors’ role in affecting change, see “The Catalyst-Conductor: Conductors as musical leaders for the 21st century”).

Last fall, the Refugee Orchestra Project performed a feature concert at the United Nations as part of the annual U.N. Day. As I sat in the small green room just behind U.N.’s Assembly Hall, I felt the weight of the many people who have sat in that very room, likely on that very chair: national leaders both revered and hated, cultural icons, makers of peace and of war, artists, politicians, scientists, and more. On stage that day, we brought together the classical music tradition of India with that of Europe, in THE American City, to a truly international audience. Next week, I have an opportunity to perform with ROP again—this time in the country of origin of North America’s first European settlers, in London. When I perform with the musicians of Refugee Orchestra Project, the deeper meaning behind the music-making gives great focus and intensity to the musical experience, often rendering it more meaningful to all involved. There is nothing more exhilarating than sharing this experience with audiences across the world, hopefully making a difference in the minds of some, and helping others feel a sense of community as they partake in our music-making.

If the recognition of every human being’s inherent value is political, then the creation and performance of classical music is irrevocably political. It is important for all of us to remember this, and to remind others—the next time we are presented with the opportunity to do so. We should never just “shut up and play.”

The Aftermath

Girl with balloon, graffiti on concrete

People often say that your life and your experiences affect your art and your inner voice. I don’t know if that’s entirely true. I think it’s more accurate to say that your experiences connect the dots that had always been there. At least, for me, that was the case.

Out of everything that has transpired over the past three years as I have processed the end of an abusive marriage and rebuilt my life in music, the most important thing that happened for me was reconnecting with myself. It was in reconnecting with myself and learning to listen to my intuition, my inner voice, and my own vision that I was able to rediscover and accept who I was, who I am, and who I will become.

As a result, the control over my writing has become profound. I have started to value myself as an artist where before I only saw deadlines and assignments. I started turning down projects that I didn’t see value in as a citizen-artist. I started only taking projects that I felt connected to.

For the first time, I have started requesting compensation for work.

For the first time, I have willingly talked to the press when asked.

I have started to attend conferences, to network, to sell my work the way that I should have been doing for years.

All of these things have led to more opportunities in the past three years than I had ever hoped to obtain. I have come to realize that conservatories can teach counterpoint, orchestration, instrumentation, and style, but what they can’t teach is what life taught me in some of my lowest moments.

When your life falls apart, you learn to build a new one. Likewise, when your vision collapses, you learn to see things through a different lens. Having to get out of my own head required a change in my artistic vision. I’m not quite sure why this was. Maybe it is because I was not allowed to express myself for so long, maybe because as a queer victim of domestic violence I felt completely alone, maybe its nothing more than my old defiance, but I have begun to embrace citizen-artistry with a new found defiant zeal.

Being voiceless, being treated like a non-equal, and facing discrimination for so long has caused me to want to address these topics in my work: inequality, discrimination, interpersonal violence, and giving a voice to the voiceless. Including Fear no more, my work addressing domestic violence and consisting of Sháa Áko Dahjinileh (Remember the Things They Told Us), Sonetos del amor oscuro and Ice Shall Cover Nineveh; all of my latest works have dealt with “voiceless stories” in some way. Evocations, which will premiere this year in Baltimore and Mexico City, uses integrated film and chamber ensemble to speak to the rampant inequality in Latin American society. In remembrance of the 40th anniversary of the first diagnosis of HIV/AIDS in North America, I am working on three works which deal directly with texts by and about HIV+ artists and writers. Death Will Lift Me By The Hair, my concerto for harp and large ensemble is based on fragments by the poet Tim Dlugos. Lessons from Provincetown will seek to preserve the stories of queer leaders, drag queens, and activists who passed during the 1980s HIV crisis by setting their stories to music. Mise en croix, which is being written for Peabody Conservatory’s Electronic Music Department will also deal directly with this topic.

It was ironically in the wake of a tragedy that I rediscovered my artistic direction. While I had been able to regain my voice, I knew that I was lucky. People do not always escape domestic violence. I was fortunate to do so alive, and I felt a responsibility to use my art to bear witness, give a voice to the voiceless, and call towards justice and social action in the small way I can.

Rediscovering myself was not only artistic, but personal as well. I lost over 100 pounds. I found a healthy, loving relationship with a wonderful man. I’ve settled into my life in Mexico and planned out my next two seasons. I still have hard days, but they are becoming few and far between.

As with any move, six months after relocating to Mexico City I am still working my way through boxes. Just a few days ago I opened a box that hadn’t been opened since 2016 and I came across three notebooks that I used for sketching. By chance, two of them happened to be for Remember the Things They Told Us and Sonetos del amor oscuro. I flipped through them, expecting to laugh at the poor choices I’d made when my life was in chaos and to be self-congratulatory about ultimately rejecting the material. Instead, I was actually quite shocked to see what, even subconsciously, made it into the final versions of those two works.

Underneath these notebooks I found my treasured score for Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which I hadn’t held since I was packing up my Baltimore apartment three years prior with a sheriff’s deputy standing guard to ensure my safety.

Appalachian Spring was the first work of symphonic music that I ever heard live, at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra when I was 7 or 8. I had known in that instant that I wanted to be a composer.

I reflected on these findings for a moment. Even before I became who I am today, even before the last three years, part of me always was artistically present, and that was visible to me in these works.

I put on my favorite recording of Appalachian Spring and read along with the score, reflecting on who I was, who I have become, and remembering the things this work had told me.

Programming for Justice

A photo of a microphone with a dark background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else can we do?

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

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

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

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

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

How It Happened (said John Cage): A Moment of Silence

A couple of years ago as a New Year’s resolution I decided to take the plunge and start meditating. I’ve heard it’s healthy. I’ve heard it makes you sleep better. I’ve heard it can keep you calm. Highly productive people do it. Artists do it. Therefore I decided I’d give it a try with the hope that one day I would learn to completely clear my mind and find my bliss.

What I actually learned about meditation is that its purpose is not to clear my mind and help me find my bliss—it’s to allow me to become the almighty observer, one who lives in the present moment and merely observes their present moment thoughts and feelings. If you’re happy, it’s okay to be happy. If you’re sad, it’s okay to be sad. If you’re depressed or angry because the president’s FY 2019 budget eliminates the National Endowment for the Arts, it’s okay to feel this way too. Meditation advises us not to dwell on emotions or feelings, but rather to acknowledge them. And as your artistic guru, I would advise you to not only acknowledge your feelings, but also artistically express yourself and channel your emotions and thoughts into something creative. Just write. Just create. Be in the present moment. (Also breathe. Breathing is good.)

Just write. Just create. Be in the present moment. (Also breathe. Breathing is good.)

I look to John Cage when I feel like I should be creating mindful art. Granted, I was not introduced to Cage as a mindful composer. I was introduced to John Cage in the same way many generations of music students are taught about him: he’s the dude who created a piece about silence. We were taught that 4’33” is “the silent piece,” and we were asked (as part of an exercise) to discuss this question: is this a piece of music or not? Cage argued that there is no such thing as silence. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

I know why this is the quintessential John Cage piece: it is easy to teach. More importantly, it’s convenient. There are other pieces that John Cage wrote that experimented with silence (Sonatas and Interludes, Music of Changes, etc.), but 4’33” has made the most obvious use of silence as a piece of music.

I know that Cage was experimenting with silence in his pieces decades before the premiere of this work, but I do believe that because Cage was a mindful composer and was aware of the politics around him, there is an ounce of political protest that surfaced during its conception and performance.

A few years prior to the premiere of 4’33”, John Cage toyed with the fantasy that canned music would no longer plague the ears of a captive audience. (There was a general resentment growing against the Muzak in public spaces at the time.) Cage said during his lecture at Vassar College that he wanted “to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be three or four-and-a-half minutes long—those being the standard lengths of ‘canned’ music and its title will be Silent Prayer.” In his 2010 book about 4’33”, No Such Thing as Silence, Kyle Gann implied that maybe Cage wanted to give listeners a “four-and-a-half minute respite from forced listening.”

Wistful thinking aside, it wasn’t until 1952 that I believe Cage lost it. The Supreme Court, in its case Public Utilities Commission of the District of Columbia v. Pollak, decided that piping musical radio programming into streetcars and busses did not interfere with communication between passengers, and therefore didn’t violate their first or fifth amendment rights.

I know that 4’33” is a piece about silence, or how there is never silence all around us, but now I’m more focused on why he wrote this piece. Yes, this piece culminated his experiments in silence (in which he finally goes for it unabashedly), but I believe he (and others at the time) were just flat-out angry and frustrated that people’s right to hear and not hear music was being infringed.

Is 4’33” a protest piece?

Is 4’33” a protest piece? Yes, I believe so. This is his most controversial and hostile piece, a piece that is neither transcendent nor sacred. It resonated with him and others at the time. It lived in the present. It was mindful of the Supreme Court ruling that was issued a few months before its premiere. Cage was echoing both his and the general public’s resentment over not having agency in their musical listening, and this surfaced in his music.

So, here’s a thought: are all of our artistic offerings political in nature? When a composer writes a piece that is of its time and moment, is it a commentary on the current state of affairs? Does it reflect our thoughts and emotions? Do we want our audience to feel what we’re feeling, or to help them see how we’re seeing things? I will say this—no matter what you think or feel, write music. Create music. Be aware of the world around you. Read more. Write more, whether you are feeling angry and frustrated about an injustice in the world or if you’re feeling loved by the tiny cat curled up next to you. Do all these things, then start the creative cycle again. Be in the present moment, write in the present moment, and breathe.

All the Rage: When Is Music a Political Action

There was a brief time in my life when I no longer wanted to be a composer.

This wasn’t because I thought writing music was difficult and laborious (it still is) or because my music wasn’t being performed at the time (it wasn’t); it was because I briefly believed that writing and creating my music was absolutely pointless and worthless. My insecurities may have ignited a quarter-life or existential crisis at the time, but I truly believed that writing and performing concert music was absolutely self-serving.

Yes, I felt selfish.

I bet you’re wondering what life-changing event made me suddenly question my supposed vocation.

When I went to college at the turn of the 21st century, I was thrilled to learn all things musical, but I didn’t know this would include so many things experiential. I was 19 when I was able to vote in my first presidential election and watched with naive bewilderment the news of Florida’s voting booth irregularities and recounts. I was 20 when I woke up on a Tuesday morning and witnessed on television the South Tower collapse in real time. I was 22 when the Iraq War began. I was incensed. I questioned everything. I donated to Greenpeace. I went to my first anti-Bush protest. I wasn’t an activist per se, but I thought I was being active while continuing on my quest to become a composer.

It wasn’t until I saw a documentary about the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the policies that followed that I questioned my future career.

It was 2004, one year after I graduated from college. I decided to take a few years off and move way across the country to Vermont (much to the chagrin and bewilderment of my parents), a place that is both literally green and Green Party-leaning.

One of my favorite pastimes during my post-college self-deemed “study abroad” was going to the Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas on Church Street in Burlington and seeing independent films with my then-partner. When the newest Michael Moore film was released, we didn’t hesitate to see it.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a film that covers a slew of monumental events that marked the turn of the century. It covers the 2000 presidential election (suggesting that George W. Bush’s election was won due to voter fraud), the September 11 attacks, the corruption associated with trying to construct a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean (which may have been a contributing factor to the war in Afghanistan), the spread of fear-mongering post-September 11 and the creation of the USA PATRIOT Act, and how the Iraq War upended and devastated Iraqis and young American veterans alike.

I wanted to set something on fire.

I wanted to do something.

I no longer wanted to be a composer.

I thought:

Is producing music pointless? Is writing concert music selfish? What does writing and performing concert music do anyway? How does it help people? How does it feed them? How does it fix greed and corruption? How does it prevent an unnecessary war? How does it stop teenagers from fighting in combat and dying?

After the last incendiary and helpless thought left my brain, I decided to write music again, but what was the point? Composing does not bring virtue nor ethics to our corrupted society, right? It does not make me or others more noble, so why do it? I accepted that I wrote music because I like manipulating time and evoking feelings, but I decided that my music would not in itself fix anything. I thought maybe my singular role in the universe would be to someday earn enough money to donate to organizations, to maybe volunteer to work at a voting booth, or to attend a good protest here and there. These are active ways to make the world a better place, I thought, and writing my music would be my way to exist and self-indulge.

I could teach a future generation of students how to write and analyze music, and while music doesn’t literally prevent wars and killings, I would be helping young adults form opinions and think for themselves.

I eventually took a steady job in Ohio in 2012 where I thought I was getting closer to my goal of being political in a more active way. I finally had a steady income stream, so I could donate to other causes. I could attend localized marches in Delaware or Columbus. I could even be on stage with Michelle Obama during a political rally. But most importantly, I could teach a future generation of students how to write and analyze music, and while music doesn’t literally prevent wars and killings, I would be helping young adults form opinions and think for themselves. This was my accepted activist role: I wouldn’t be an official activist, but I could be politically active while still indulging myself by writing my music.

It wasn’t until I met a colleague (The Chaplain) at my institution that I started to question my initial assumption that music isn’t important.

Here is what you need to know about The Chaplain: he is the most affirming person on this planet. He is genuinely thrilled to see you. After meeting him, I would run into him on campus and he would thank me profusely for writing music and sharing it with others. He would say that my music was a great service to the community. I would sheepishly say thanks, but I thought he was merely doing his job by helping me feel good about myself. Doesn’t he realize that I write concert music? That I’m not a singer-songwriter who writes protest songs?

And yet, maybe he was onto something. I merely wrote music about how I was feeling at the time, but maybe I had lots to say? Was I saying what needed to be said through my music? Does writing an opera about Paula Deen choking on a donut and dragging two angels to hell with her make a statement about our socio-political problems? Probably not. But maybe writing a couple of satires about the housing bubble and Big Oil does? Or how about writing about the importance of the Cincinnati Streetcar and the future of the Brent Spence Bridge? Maybe I had something to say and I am saying it. Maybe through my actions and music, I was being politically active in ways I couldn’t fully see. And maybe because we composers reflect on our surroundings, we often (directly or indirectly) make commentary about the political environment around us.