This is the second in a three-part series of interviews, delving 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. To read Part 1, go here.
In the previous installment of this series, we discussed the meaning that artists find in creating art that engages with their own identities. We also discussed how all art inherently interfaces with identity, and how one’s own identity inescapably molds our work and artistic evolution. The next step in this series is to look at what it means when we work outside of our own individual identities.
As complicated and multifaceted as identity is for everyone, these challenges grow more complex as we seek to empathize, understand, collaborate with, and honor identities that differ from our own. As a community of artists striving to amplify and empower individuals whose voices historically have been silenced, we must ask ourselves: How can we meet these lofty goals without speaking on behalf of anyone? How can we take giant steps forward without stepping over the very voices we seek to serve? How can we make responsible, successful art that interfaces with this complex web of identity?
How can we be better?
In addition to these questions, we’ll take a look a broader look at this discussion itself, and what it means to be a part of it. Inherent to all of these conversations is the rise of call-out culture: a personal and professional accountability enforced by the public. Though many dread being called out and think of it as a sign of failure, we must remind ourselves that feedback and criticism have a noble goal: to provide us with the knowledge necessary to right wrongs to the best of our ability, and to make this world a more just and equitable place.
While this article is in no way meant to be a call-out piece, it does allow us to discuss issues proactively (or retroactively) in a way that encourages self-reflection and growth, as well as further discussions.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: There is a bit of a trend right now to create works about identities and causes that are at the forefront of social and political activism, and often these works are about issues that the artist does not personally identify with. How do you react to this kind of work? Is it automatically cultural or cause appropriation? Can it be helpful to society or certain communities?
BRIN SOLOMON: I feel very strongly that trans people are not alien consciousnesses from some other planet. I feel very strongly that cis people can understand how we think and how we feel and how we move through the world, insofar as it is possible for any one person to understand any other person. That being said, I don’t think that cis people understanding trans people is something that happens automatically. I think it takes a lot of work, and a lot of conscious effort, and also a lot of time…
In all of the media about trans people made by cis people – and I’m talking films and books and operas and plays and literally choose your medium – I think I have encountered two or three trans characters written by cis people that were not transphobic. So statistically, the odds are not in your favor as cis people. Statistically, going by the body of work that cis people have produced about trans people, your art will be transphobic. And again, I don’t think that’s inevitable!
If you’re a cis person and you’re like, “I want to tell stories about trans people,” I think it is incumbent upon you to ask yourself why—why you’re telling this story, and why you, specifically, are the person to tell this story…
I think having that moment of self-reflection and asking yourself, “What do I bring to the table as a cis person writing trans roles?”—I think there can be a legitimate answer! And if that’s the case, then what are you going to do to make sure in a concrete way that trans people are involved in this, and trans people benefit from it?
NATHALIE JOACHIM: I would never try to tell a story from the perspective of a white man, for example, because I literally understand nothing about being a white man—at all. And so, it would never occur to me to try to tell a story from that perspective. I would never try to tell a story from a mother’s perspective, either, because it is very distinct from other female perspectives. A lot of people don’t feel the way that I feel, but I think the instinct to co-opt narratives that don’t belong to you is very strange. I think that action sometimes stems from a sense of eagerness, but mostly the naïveté of thinking that you understand what it’s like to be somebody else. You just don’t.
So much of my lifetime, on a daily basis, is spent justifying the reality of my lived experience, and that my history exists, and that what happens to me on a day-to-day basis is not a construct of my imagination but is in fact real. And I often spend a lot of time masking that because it makes other people feel uncomfortable, not because it’s not happening. I think a lot of people make assumptions about how we all walk through life, and to me that shows a really deep level of ignorance and not understanding that every single person walking through this world has stories that you just simply do not know, and that aren’t yours to tell. It isn’t your place to judge whether someone’s experience did or didn’t happen, or to decide the level of impact it had on them. That’s a big part of the problem that’s happening today—people just simply can’t imagine an existence that’s different than theirs.
I’m doing my best to see people for who they are. That’s my mantra in my life and work right now: to really look at people and see them for who they are, and to allow those narratives to lead the way.
Are there any examples or scenarios where an artist has honorably empowered an identity or cause that was not their own?
INTI FIGGIS-VIZUETA: To me, Berio’s O King is a celebration of Martin Luther King. It’s not bastardized jazz music or repurposed spirituals seen through a white lens. You can actualize people without fetishizing them. You can empathize—maybe not empathize… You can sympathize with the violence that people have experienced, without claiming that violence as something you understand.
If someone wishes to interact with elements outside their own identity and outside their own culture, the driving force has to be a strong intention to empower those voices. That feels right. It feels right for white men who are like, “Hey, the veil has been lifted from my eyes… I realize there’s a lot of super fucked up stuff that’s going on. I don’t wish to continue to create in my bubble. I wish to really bring my experience and my power, and all the things I have access to, and bring them into projects that otherwise wouldn’t have that access.” That, to me, makes sense. That, to me, is much more about the idea of facilitating and empowering voice, rather than appropriating voice.
Discourse asks us to be aware of our own privilege—to recognize how our own identities impact the way we view our own realities. How does perspective play a role in the creation of identity-based art?
OLIVIA J.P. HARRIS: One of the big questions I might ask of a white composer is, why not write a piece in which you are in some way confronting whiteness and owning the inherent racism of this construct of whiteness, challenging that in some way? And then you’re calling out the other people who are like you, and it’s in service to the broader anti-racism cause, but it’s also not, “Hey, look at me, I’m speaking for black people!”
JOACHIM: The way that [Flutronix has] been approaching it: connecting with communities who are already doing the good work, bolstering the work that they’re doing, and allowing their stories to guide what the end result really is going to be. Artistically, it’s been amazing. It’s very freeing in a way, because we are allowing the project to show us what it needs to be. Each interaction we have leads us in a different direction than either of us ever might have anticipated, so I think we’ve kind of let go of our preconceived notion of what the show is going to end up being. It has also inspired us to bring in co-commissioners for the project that allow us to replicate this community-based creative process in other cities. For me that feels amazing, because we’re getting to know so many communities that are new to us.
How does one go about facilitating and empowering other voices, rather than appropriating those voices? Where would one start?
SOLOMON: If you are a cis person and you want to make art about trans people, a necessary step in that process is engaging very deeply with trans people both on a collaborative level and, like… find a sensitivity reader and hire them and pay them money to read your stuff and tell you where you’re going wrong! Hire trans people to be in your cast, give them dramaturg credit, and empower them to be like, “Hey, you’ve written this thing – you’re asking me to do this thing – and actually I’m not OK with that.”
Are you involved in the community that you’re writing about in any way? Are you connected to members of that community? Are members of that community involved in the writing process? Are they benefiting concretely and materially from what you’re doing? What do you bring to this project that they don’t have?
FELICIA CHEN: When you’re trying to be someone who’s a proponent for diversity and inclusion in a creative discipline, you must think carefully about who is benefiting from this work. If you are a white composer and you’re interested in writing about a certain issue, ask yourself: Why? Who benefits from your involvement in this cause? If you care about Black Lives Matter, are your performers black? Is your soloist black? Is the librettist black? If you can’t back up your intentions with your actions, then is it really just self-congratulatory?
The idea of intention versus impact links beautifully back to this notion that there must be an acute awareness of the humanity behind the people and causes that you are engaging with. Thinking about intention means inherently looking inward towards your spark of inspiration. When I talk about impact, I’m asking: Who are your collaborators? How are they impacted by your work? How are your performers impacted? How are the people in the audience impacted? How are people who aren’t in the room – if they read or hear about your piece – how do they perceive it? I believe it is critical to be conscious of the human-to-human interaction that stems from the creative process, presentation, and finished work. Ultimately, I think many of us believe that music can be this universal language that brings people together, and so you can’t lose sight of the people who are affected by the creative work that you do.
Despite all of these questions, you also have to be comfortable with the fact that, yeah, maybe it’s not an appropriate creative outlet for you. It’s not your place or your story to tell, so don’t do it.
Call-out culture is a huge component of social activism today—it has become the checks and balances of our moral code. However, it seems easy to fall into the trap of thinking that being called out is a bad thing. There’s a quote from Alain de Botton: “Criticism is merely the wrong word that we apply to a much nobler idea, which is to try and make us into better versions of ourselves.” Yes, being called out is criticism, but that criticism can inspire nobler action. Why is criticism in identity-based art so important?
SOLOMON: If you’re not going to listen to people who have lived through this telling you that what you are doing is harmful, then maybe take a step back and really ask why you’re doing this. Cause it seems like you’re doing this for your own ego, and not out of any concern or regard for us.
Things that seem OK and reasonable to you might actually be wildly offensive. And that doesn’t make you a bad person! That just means you have some misconceptions about being trans, or how transphobia operates as a structural force in the contemporary United States. I don’t expect everyone to have a university-level understanding of the structural mechanics of systematic transphobia! That’s kind of a ridiculous bar to expect of people. But I do think it’s reasonable to expect people to step back and be like, “Oh! OK, clearly I thought some wrong things. Let me unlearn some of those things.” And I think if you don’t have a willingness – a very deep willingness, because most cis people, as a general rule, know less than nothing about trans people – if you don’t have a very, very deep willingness to sit with the discomfort of being like “Wow, I had some pretty fucked up beliefs in my head! A lot of what I thought was right is actually wrong,” then I think probably don’t write trans people.
Criticism is a form of feedback that allows us to grow in a more positive direction. Are there any common criticisms that you’ve observed? And how might you advise artists to receive and act upon that criticism?
HARRIS: If I were to see another group with our same mission but that was white, I want to know that this is work that they’re engaged in and that when they get called out for it, they don’t somehow retreat into themselves, or use their work with their group as a shield—like, “Oh, I can’t be a problematic person, because look at my duo. Look at the work that I do.” Whatever it is. If they get voices that take issue with some of their work – especially if those voices are the voices of people of color that say, “Hey, I don’t think you have the right to do this” – and their response is to either shut that voice out or discredit that voice or whatever it is, then they’ve demonstrated racist behavior and they’ve not taken criticism.
And I think that that’s just another thing where if you’re going to be a white person involved in this work, you have to be ready for criticism, and you have to have enough humility to say when you’re wrong, to say when you didn’t think something through, to maybe admit that you had problematic behavior in the past and publicly apologize. If somebody asks for receipts, then you have to be ready.
CHEN: Also, understanding that no one can claim allyship… it’s not any individual’s to claim, especially someone of privilege. If you want to be on the path to allyship, it takes a lot of work. You can’t just have the sentiment and say you are an ally, because an ally is not just someone who cares, but someone who is actively doing the work to support others who need it. Allies are those who try to reverse and up-end problematic systems that are in place.
HARRIS: I’m not going to take credit for it, but I’ve been hearing a lot of people make a distinction between allyship and accomplice-ship. Being an accomplice implies that you’re doing something active, right? And so I’ve been kind of into that. I want accomplices, not allies.
Part 3 of this series will be published 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.