This is the first in a three-part series of interviews, which will delve into the meaning of and motivation behind identity-based art, how artists interface with their own identities and the identities of others, and the role of identity and cause in concert programming today.
We are in the midst of a new civil rights era. It is a broad and momentous, and it calls for inclusivity and equity above all else. It is an amalgamation of many movements: #BlackLivesMatter, #MMIW, #TransLivesMatter, #BlackTransLivesMatter, #MeToo, #NoBanNoWall, and climate action, to name just a few. In an era of social and environmental action that is inextricably linked with multi-faceted identity, no one person is affected by only one of these movements. We have as many movements as we have individuals with their own unique histories.
This series is a direct response to the massive surge in identity- and cause-driven art being created today. Art has always responded to the times. Art has always been political. And this new wave of identity-driven art is hip. It is fundable. It is an outlet for general liberal rage. But is it actually relevant? Is it successful? Is it impactful in a positive way? Does artistic intension justify art? Does this kind of art actually help anyone?
What does it mean to make successful identity-based art—or is that even possible?
We asked these questions of several artists who interface with identity within their work. These artists are composer inti figgis-vizueta, duo Mazumal (vocalist Felicia Chen & cellist Olivia J. P. Harris), composer-performer Nathalie Joachim, and composer, theater maker, and writer Brin Solomon. The first installment of this series dives into the beginning of the act of creation: why these artists are drawn to create about identity, and how they create within this sphere.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: What motivates you to make art that engages with identity? Why do you choose to address the notion of identity within your art?
FELICIA CHEN: I care about the humanity behind art. I’m not a big proponent of music for music’s sake. As a singer dealing with text, I’m really interested in telling stories and expressing sentiment through the work that I do. And the work that I find most meaningful comes from art derived from shared experiences. That’s one of the reasons why Olivia and I formed our duo [Mazumal]—because we had shared experiences and we could relate to each other in a way which we couldn’t with colleagues in our cohort, because we were the only two women of color in the program. We bonded over similarities and differences in our own backgrounds, a lot of commiserating, and critical discourse about the new-music world—the programming and the kinds of music that we experience, and the kinds of people that are performing or composing the music.
NATHALIE JOACHIM: This idea of human connectivity, how we’re all connected, what it means to really empower people to define their own identity, and to be allowed to exist wholly in those identities—that concept has changed my artistic practice for the foreseeable future. I’m deeply interested in our narrative. I’m deeply interested in understanding our histories, how they overlap, how they differ from one another, and what it means for us to move forward in this life together. How do all of our stories moving forward come to a place of coexistence that feels powerful for all of us?
Why is it important to you to be doing this kind of work? And why should it be you doing this work, and not someone else?
OLIVIA J.P. HARRIS: [Something] that was really important for us is being people of color doing this work. It’s a little bit of a “trend” right now to make “woke classical” music—if that’s even a thing. But we noticed that there’s a lot of ensembles out there… who are hopping on with these causes, and on one hand that’s cool; on the other hand, they might be all cis men, or they might be all white or something. And sometimes those ensembles engage in something that’s really performative or tokenizing. They might say “oh—it’s March, so all our concerts this month are just going to be women composers.” Or February now—I can’t wait for the inevitable trot-out of black composers. Everyone’s going to play a Florence Price piece and then put it in the drawer until next year.
And so, we do still react very strongly to that and to the performative aspects of that, whether it’s just for the pat on the back or it’s for grant money or street cred, whatever it is, there’s a number of ensembles and organizations doing it. And there’s a number of them who are trying to do genuine good work, but still don’t have any people of color on board. And so, it’s really important for us to be out there both as the face of the ensemble and the behind-the-scenes work all being POC-led.
BRIN SOLOMON: I think there are a lot of cis people out there who are very well-meaning and they want to help trans people somehow by making operas about us, or other kinds of arts… That’s a laudable sentiment and like, thanks, but it often comes from this savior mentality of “ah, trans people, they’re so downtrodden! Someone needs to tell their story, so I will come in and do it for them.” And no: we have really talented trans librettists, we have some pretty kick-ass trans composers. Trans people have been out here making art for as long as we’ve been around, and that’s a long-ass time. And so, the idea that we need cis people to come in and tell our stories for us? Questionable.
CHEN: In terms of identity-based music, I believe that there needs to be a direct human connection. We talk a lot about cultural appropriation in music, but also cause appropriation… If you don’t have that personal connection, it’s not your cause to claim.
INTI FIGGIS-VIZUETA: I say “QPOC contemporary classical music” and white folks show up for it. But my audience isn’t a part of a dialogue of audience-building—it’s all white men. There’s this idea that by engaging with social justice, we can make new music and contemporary classical music relevant to society at large. I don’t want my queer POC siblings to go to a concert of all white dudes and one white woman. That’s not the point. The point is that we show up to our own.
Identity is such a nuanced and not only multi-faceted but infinitely-faceted concept. How do you even begin to tackle that complexity within your music? How do you engage artistically with your identity?
FIGGIS-VIZUETA: All music is about identity. All music from composers is pursuing the development of a voice, and that voice is representative of an intersectional self. Specifically, identity-based music for me means that there needs to be an exploration… programming “women’s” concerts or “Black” concerts, for example, can often feel othering, and fails to holistically integrate marginalized groups into year-round repertoire… and I think that otherness beats itself into the public perception of those composers. That in itself feeds into racism, feeds into classism, and does nothing to empower.
I feel like my initial career success was so defined by initial forays into social-justice programming, that I’m really actually trying to escape it now. I don’t want all my [pieces] to just be consumed as if they’re Testimonies of A Real Live Queer Indian.
JOACHIM: I’m just letting myself create things that feel like the right things for me in this moment.
It’s a big relief to be able to truly be myself in creative spaces. So much of classical training is about the erasure of self. But why is it like that? Why am I here if I’m not a part of it? I’ve become way less interested in being a perfect performer, and more about being as honest as I can be in performance, no matter the context. And I feel like even if some of those performances aren’t perfect, they feel way better. I feel better as a person.
HARRIS: There’s this association that high art is white art.
I think about that a lot—the significance and impact that kind of association has. To speak to personal experience, and to something that I still very much am overcoming, I definitely had this resistance for a number of years in my early 20s of leaning into incorporating improvisation into my work, and part of that was because I was always always always asked, as a black femme, if I was a jazz musician—specifically a jazz singer. It was such a normal thing that I leaned really hard into difficult contemporary music because I was trying to separate myself from that perception. I realize now how weighted that is. My reaction to this racist thing was also laden with white supremacy in trying to negate a part of myself. I’m still doing a lot of work around that.
Engaging in this practice has become more meaningful to me because, through [Mazumal] especially, I have been able to take up space and be fully everything that I want to be, without feeling as though I had to try to negate something that I enjoy doing (improvising) to try to avoid this kind of racist idea of who I was as a performer.
Common goals of identity-based art and programming seem to be validation and empowerment—empowerment of self, empowerment of others, and validation of cause. Are these goals that you value within your art? What does it mean to embrace identity in this way?
SOLOMON: I think that works can have a lot of different goals. I think that sometimes they’re like, “oh we want to change the way that cis people feel about trans people,” and sometimes the goal is, “oh, we want to make trans people feel seen.” And those are very different goals! Oftentimes what I see is art that ultimately has the goal of changing the way that cis people feel about trans people, but thinks that it has the goal of representing trans people on stage and making trans people feel seen. And that’s often where the trouble comes in, because… cis people don’t have the internal psychological qualia of being trans, and so they get it wrong when they try to put it up on stage, sometimes disastrously wrong in ways that make our lives much harder, or feed tropes that lead to people murdering trans people. #ManInADressCasting
FIGGIS-VIZUETA: The idea of an identity-based music is the idea of empowering something that hasn’t been empowered before, and you’re giving voice to it. But the moment you do that, you open yourself up to a lot of warped notions about what that means.
When I, as an indigenous queer person, create a piece of art that in any way engages with those identities, I am making art that a majority of my audience in mainstream spaces can never truly relate to and understand. Navigating the fine line between empowerment and self-exploitation involves creating an entryway for the audience to see into your perspective, while still retaining a boundary of self, and who you are versus who they think you are. Then you can see how it is very tricky to achieve that balance while working within institutions that want to pigeonhole you into identity-based musics.
Part 2 of this series will be published on Tuesday, April 9, and Part 3 will follow on Tuesday, April 23.
Composer inti figgis-vizueta is a queer Andinx experimental composer based in Brooklyn, NY. They write identity-focused musics, often channeling story-telling and the manifestation of non-hegemonic voices in concert spaces.
Mazumal (vocalist Felicia Chen and cellist Olivia J. P. Harris created) is a duo committed to innovative music that promotes inclusivity and engages with social issues, such as race, feminism, inequality, and sustainability.
Composer-performer Nathalie Joachim is co-artistic director and flutist of the four-time Grammy winning contemporary chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird, and co- founder of the critically acclaimed urban art pop duo, Flutronix.
A recent graduate from New York University’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, Brin Solomon [they/them] is a composer and theatre maker who writes songs full of striking imagery, unusual harmonies, and flowing, lyrical melodies.
Annika Socolofsky is a US composer and avant-folk vocalist. She has collaborated with artists such as the Rochester Philharmonic, Albany Symphony, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Eighth Blackbird, Third Coast Percussion, So Percussion, and sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird. She is a recipient of a Fromm Foundation Commission, Cortona Prize, and a BMI Student Composer Award, and has been awarded fellowships to the Blackbird Creative Lab, Banff Centre, Cabrillo Festival, Bang on a Can, Cultivate at Copland House, and Brevard Music Center. Annika is a doctoral candidate in composition at Princeton University. She holds an MA in composition from the University of Michigan. aksocolofsky.com
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.