This is the final installment 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,and for Part 2, go here.
Today we will dive into the realm of programming and advocacy. What kind of initiatives are organizations and ensembles pursuing today? What kind of impact do these initiatives have on the artists they are designed to support? Where is the line between help and hindrance, advocacy and tokenization? How do we advocate for others while de-centering ourselves from the cause?
And, perhaps most importantly: What steps can we take to improve those initiatives and efforts, in order to ultimately serve the humanity within these artists?
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Let’s start out broadly: We’ve discussed the creative process in identity-based music, but how does the act of programming affect that music? What does it mean to define or create a program around the concept of identity?
INTI FIGGIS-VIZUETA: Identity-based music isn’t a bad thing. However, when the inclusion work focuses on just one aspect of an intersectional self, you’re automatically erasing identities that can’t or shouldn’t be extracted. People’s identity are their own, and trying to curate around it should only be done by or in consultation with folks who are culturally competent or possess the actual ground knowledge to do it without violence.
An example of this done badly is concerts defined by second-wave feminism. Uniting behind the “woman composer” idea of justice in music is super problematic. White women make 89 cents to the dollar, black women make 59 cents to the dollar, and latinx women make 49 cents to the dollar—that’s a big difference. That’s a bigger difference there than between white women and white men. You cannot define the struggle and optics around all marginalized people’s oppression through the lens of white women. And I think that’s where a lot of this stuff gets derailed and misappropriated.
My perception of the quality of identity-based concerts is defined by the way that those programs are put together and, especially, advertised within the community. When I see “female-identifying” or “women & femmes,” I don’t go, I don’t look; I click x on the tab and put it out of my mind. Sorry, you haven’t done your homework, and you continue to support trans-exclusivity and trans-antagonism. Your Band-Aids for your own underdeveloped criticality isn’t something I support.
Structuring programs around these kinds of singular notions of identity can be deeply problematic. If someone would like to take the steps of advocating for representation or creating something that aims to represent, say, trans identity, what are some important questions one should ask themselves?
BRIN SOLOMON: Who is this art being made for? Is this art primarily directed at cis audiences, or is it directed at trans audiences? Asking these questions is a really important step, as is being explicit about “OK, do we have a political goal in mind? And if we do, what is that goal, and how, specifically, is this art going to achieve that goal?”
Who’s coming to see this? What specific things are you hoping to change their minds about? What evidence do you have that they do think these things, and that seeing this story will actually change how they think and feel? Being specific about that will avoid a lot of common pitfalls that I have seen when people try to make art about us. And, again, involve trans people in every step of your process, and make sure they’re compensated for their labor both with money and with credit.
Have programming and inclusion efforts impacted your career as a creator? If so, how?
FIGGIS-VIZUETA: I made a decision a couple years ago when I started seeing inclusion opportunities pop up, specifically focusing on “female and nonbinary” composers… that this is for me, and I had the right and responsibility to participate.
I’ve learned a lot since that decision: that a concert or initiative that’s more focused on advocacy and visibility than structural change is more hurtful than helpful. That the resulting art is often majority informed by the visibility and optics around that identity, rather than the content. These experiences as a queer person-of-color creative came off as fetishizing and unwelcoming, because it was always a kind of “visitor pass” into spaces and ensembles that regularly curated majority white, if not majority dead, programs. If they couldn’t relate to my music, or my pursuit of ancestry and indigenous reclamation, or honestly even to me as an individual, what business did they have playing my music?
I learned, in trial-by-fire, that it’s necessary to create spaces that celebrate the artistry of our communities, ethnic and chosen. I saw the need to bring in the interpretive voices that have either the genuine interest, cultural competency, and/or critical insight to truly bring energy and joy to collaborative music-making. These opportunities are so rare; they require a high level of organizational awareness. It requires white, cis folk in power to truly educate themselves, facilitate the spaces, and then take a BIG step back from the resulting intra-community conversations. That’s the real work, and it’s not as lucrative for white cis folks in power compared to a couple “one-issue” or “one-identity” concerts per season.
Olivia, in the previous installment of this series you said that you wanted your fellow creators to act as “accomplices, not allies.” How might someone act as an accomplice outside of the act of “creation,” and in the realm of programming?
OLIVIA J.P. HARRIS: That goes too for performers who are considering programming. Especially if it’s like, “Oh, I have the opportunity to go to such and such neighborhood that has these people, so I’m going to program that music” in a way that’s really patronizing. I feel like that happens… If you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt, they’re just trying to include representation that’s important. But my next question would be: Well, are they only [programming diverse artists] then? It’s mistaking an invitation to perform as an invitation to tokenize.
FELICIA CHEN: Performers live with pieces for a long time. You have to look at how often do they perform pieces by people of color, and where they perform them—what avenues do they perform them? If they’re not committed to diverse programming all the time, like Olivia said, and they’re only performing works by POCs in POC neighborhoods, then I would suspect that their intentions are not as genuine as they would like us to believe.
Selective programming like this can often have the very real effect of othering the very identities an organization is aiming to empower and represent. How does othering manifest in programming, and what are the ramifications?
FIGGIS-VIZUETA: When organizations or presenters market concerts as diversity or inclusion work, they so often reinforce the notion of marginalized artistic legitimacy as directly tied to reflection on trauma, direct experiences, and/or ethnic narratives, for resulting majority white audiences. That once again compromises the integrity of the art and reinforces the fetishizing, dehumanizing consumption of the Other. Their inclusion isn’t transgressive; it’s comforting or shocking “Tales from the Beyond” for the modern liberal.
For example, if a concert is “Latinx, featuring new music AND Astor Piazzolla,” then that concert actively reinforces an artistic binary between the featured composers and the “normal” ones, highlighting their visible and musical Otherness. I would also argue that Otherness also eventually integrates itself into the public perception of those composers. And what’s that but another obscured structural form of misogyny, racism, and classism?
Also, bigger question: Who has the money to gain artistic legitimacy outside of specifically identity-focused arts spaces? I certainly didn’t have the money or connections not to engage. I needed to win calls-for-scores because I didn’t attend an institution that could (or would) provide resources after I graduated. I didn’t grow up in places where I had a bunch of music friends and colleagues who I could rely or drop back on. I am someone whose only way to “emerge” was calls-for-scores and all of them were looking for specific music that fit their diversity-oriented mission goals. When their mission goals were then defined by second-wave feminism’s concept of white-washed “I don’t see color” ethics, defined by the idea that there’s a unity among all non-men and that this unity can be represented by “women+” or “women and,” I realized they weren’t really interested in queer people of color or our artistic pursuits. They were interested in presenting a feast of Other that folks could comfortably consume.
In this series we’ve looked extensively at many aspects of how identity interfaces with the creative process. Do you have any final advice for our readers about this process as a whole, and how we can move forward responsibly and truly honor the entirety of one’s humanity?
NATHALIE JOACHIM: I don’t know if it’s the kind of work you’re ever done with, you know? We can hope for what the outcomes will be, but I think more than anything, the best part about this is that we’re learning so much about so many people who we would never encounter otherwise, and that process is allowing us to learn a lot about ourselves. 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 really changed my artistic practice and the way that I see myself creating for the foreseeable future. I’m deeply interested in our narrative and understanding our histories: how they combine, how they differ from one another, and what that means for us moving through this life together. How do all of these stories moving forward at the same time come to a place of coexistence that feels powerful for all of us?
FIGGIS-VIZUETA: Most major diversity efforts in this field right now have been called out… These efforts are not conceived properly, and the threads that hold them aren’t woven with our voices. The most common way to address trans-exclusionism is by tacking on an extra name and adding one trans composer to the program. That solution stinks of similar and not-too-distant treatment where POC and women composers used to be one-per-concert with otherwise all white men. Now it’s all white cis women, but the conversations and critical engagement haven’t caught up in the slightest.
How do we hold these folks accountable when they’ve learned just enough of the right language to be “progressive” but in no way radically inclusive. I see the same patterns happening now. Integrating social justice and diversity efforts into organizations is the new vogue thing, but it’s still not done well. The leaders in organizations often conceive of inclusion work as purely service provision.
SOLOMON: We are all human. We all misstep. I have a lot more time for someone who genuinely engages with the community and messes up than someone who doesn’t listen to trans people and doesn’t cast trans people and doesn’t give back to our community in any way, and is just doing it for their own ego. And usually the art is a disaster. I’ve never seen anyone who takes that approach make trans art that’s not a complete train wreck.
CHEN: Tread carefully and sensitively. Think about who you want involved and who you want to closely collaborate with. And again: Does your work benefit them in some way? And it needs to be a big, tangible benefit—like if you had a big grant and could afford to pay black performers who may not otherwise get this lucrative financial opportunity. If you were a professor at a big university, or you had the opportunity to launch the performance at a well-known public venue like National Sawdust, and the performance could help leverage a promising career in a meaningful way—if you can help a community benefit, then maybe maybe it’s a project you can embark on, but not necessarily if it feels self-serving, a pseudo-benevolent “look at me giving you a platform!”
As inti has pointed out, programming and the creation of identity-based music isn’t purely about “service provisions,” it isn’t just about getting more people in the door—it ultimately has the power to be about something so much deeper. What is there to be gained from delving into this work on a deeper level—on the level of personal, human connection?
JOACHIM: This work makes me feel connected to a community in a really beautiful way, and I don’t think that’s something I’m ever going to forget in my life. It’s instilling this practice in me to connect with other people. To really look at somebody and hear their whole story—not who you think they are, not who you want to believe they are, but to see them for who they really are, and to being accepting of that. That’s something that I was never taught in any educational or creative space, and it has become invaluable to me. It is now simply becoming a part of who I am walking through life every day, and that feels worth it, even if the show ends up being terrible.
I’m mostly concerning myself with knowing that the process is not about me. It’s about being a vessel to take in all these wonderful, beautiful stories. Mostly it’s about keeping myself out the way as I become deeply connected to a lot of these people and their stories, and having my eyes open and ears open each time I talk to somebody new. There’s just so much we don’t know about each other. And it’s already felt like such a fulfilling practice to be learning more about everybody around me.
FIGGIS-VIZUETA: Organizations that have started to structurally integrate the voices of gender expansive folk seem to be doing really good work; ICE and ACO coming to mind with some recent appointees. “If you have any questions about this work, please reach out. We have people who specifically engage with these issues.” That’s a first step to accountability and safety.
I’ve been impressed by American Composers Orchestra in particular, with Aiden Feltkamp recently starting there. They have single-handedly made me feel incredibly welcome in that space. They’ve followed up with me after meetings, they’ve been super transparent about…why does it feel like notation is a big boundary here, why does it feel like there are a lot of other boundaries here, as much as we’re trying to say that there’s a stylistic openness? These are the beginnings of inquiry and structural work done right. I hope to see so much more in the future.
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.