Why Artist-Driven Change is Exactly What We Need Right Now
I ordered about 80 scores by BIPOC composers, 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.