Unbound by “Programming”: A Counter-Hegemonic Reimagining of Contemporary Performance
Can we foment a culture in which composers’ utterances are deemed valuable solely on the basis of having been uttered, regardless of hegemonic notions of musical quality?
I had meant, at least at first, to produce here an essay criticizing programs of “Music by [Insert Marginalized Community Here] Composers.” While I’m sure there are some who in their own heart of hearts find such marked categorization validating, I personally find it uncomfortable to have my utterances branded publicly as “female music” or “queer music,” the implication being that an unbranded program constitutes “real music”: music that needs no qualifier. However, this point has been articulated before better than I ever will, and perhaps more importantly, simply shaming the one practice that seems intended to help those of us whose work does not enjoy the privilege of de facto universality in our culture seemed unlikely to provoke any meaningful alternative. Moreover, in envisioning a culture of egalitarian programming–even in watching one come to fruition–I came to realize that a solution I would really like would have to be more profoundly transformative. A hegemony of Deserving Artists with a tiny handful at the top, but who equally likely happen to be women, if anything, feels like more of an exclusion than a culture of programming all men: at least, if women were never programmed, we could blame sexism entirely for our frustration, rather than be faced with the implication that we are inadequate standard-bearers for our gender.
To put it more generally, the assumption that opportunities come to those who deserve them is inherent in any structure in which there are fewer artists who can work than who want to, or moreover in which there is an unequal distribution of opportunities within those who are actively working artists. We are simply in competition with each other whether presenting organizations intend this or not; scarce funding exacerbates this, but throwing money at the problem does not annihilate this fact, and I feel a degree of it would persist even if all artists were guaranteed a stable income. Rather, some disruption of the basic creative transaction is necessary: an option which does not require a composer to start her own ensemble and thereby insert herself into the decider-position.
Can we foment a culture in which composers’ utterances are deemed valuable solely on the basis of having been uttered, regardless of hegemonic notions of musical quality? Certainly explicit competitions are out. (As a side note, when a competition specifically asks for submissions from “underrepresented groups,” this language rings severely hollow. Forcing us to compete for the privilege of being tokenized–in the event that any such applicants are selected at all–is in fact doubly insulting, and it might be worth someone’s time to conduct a thorough survey of how results actually change when such language is imposed.) I have often daydreamed about the possibility of a course evaluating applications by random lottery. But how, then, can music reach the audience-facing stage without this notion of deserving-quality backing it up?
The best course I have foreseen is a change in dismantling our listening hierarchies: really dismantling them, rather than moving the locus of deservingness from the art’s own nature to the artist’s character. What, for example, would it look like if every work that existed were recorded equally well and given an equal chance at reaching audience’s ears? What opportunities could be created, then, for every composer and every performer and every listener to form their own aesthetic values? I don’t mean to pitch a particular type of project as much as to posit a thought experiment and offer a gentle nudge in a new direction. What I envision, were the technical and economic barriers to such a situation eliminated, is a type of free association, in which creative communities would form without deference to a Discerning Other, and in which the bounds that force us to appease pseudoaristocratic notions of taste would cease to alienate us from our own inner creative wellsprings.
As for what I think you, dear reader, “should” do right now (who am I to say “should?”): remember as you evaluate that you are never without biases, and perhaps this is most especially prevalent when you attempt to abolish your biases. While it would be wonderful if we could fully sacrifice our creative urges to some sense of collective good, maintaining the illusion of such a sacrifice (and you do sacrifice your creative urge if you choose to defer to me, even willingly, even if you were to consider me particularly deserving) constitutes a dishonesty harmful both to yourself and to those you have chosen to “support.” Ultimately, at the root of all this, I say: imagine listening differently, as if you have never taken a recommendation from someone, as if you have never suffered through a “Music Appreciation” course, as if you have never read a review in any publication: as if, instead, you are simply searching for the particular combination of factors that stirs you most deeply, in this life and in this moment.