I recently attended the New Music Gathering 2017 at BGSU as a panelist on "Diversity and Inclusion in New Music". The opening activity, a performance of Cornelius Cardew's "The Great Learning: Paragraph 7" was excellent as an icebreaker and from the beginning the conference felt well facilitated. My panel was set for the end of the 3-day long activities, as the sole event. However, when your panel, explaining exactly how the status quo of classical and new music upholds white supremacy and structural, historic racism is at the end of the conference, there is no real opportunity for the lessons of the panel to serve as an inoculation against the oppressive behaviors that permeate the conference.
Looking around, it looked and felt like the only non-white, non-cis folks in attendance at the gathering were the ones speaking on our panel. The keynote address, by Steven Schick, opened on an inspiring note but was quickly overwhelmed by nostalgic (and fairly appropriatory) references to the collective musicality of humanity and a weirdly implied depoliticizing of music. Overall, it called on the music community to engage in a performative capacity (ex.write music about discrimination, donate money from a concert to refugees) rather than an empowering or liberating manner (ex. use social and cultural capital to change institutions and systems that discriminate against non-white, non-cis, non-neurotypical folks).
On a panel talking about failure, there was no analysis or even mention on how structural oppression overwhelmingly affects the institutional and popular success of queer, disabled, neurodivergent, and/or poc musicians. Even one of the best earlier panels at NMG, the New Music(ology) Gathering II, where each of the speakers did an amazing job unpacking and critically analyzing specific case studies, had an attendee, a cishet white man at the head of a powerful organization, who openly took over the conversation, highlighting his own organization and justifying the conservative natures of institutions. Even with the theme of “Support”, the panels did little to apply intersectional lenses to subjects nor to hold in check the voices of the most powerful.
During our panel, we were asked to focus on concrete actions the new music community could make to create more accessibility for marginalized folks and accountability for existing organizations and institutions. Below is my post immediately following the conference, highlighting those conclusions as well as aspect of my personal experience at NMG 2017:
“It was with an oddly dysphoric feeling that I left NMG after the final panel. We succeeded in our goal of discussing, and at times even debating, the pathways to honest and true inclusion. How to avoid tokenism and why the constant recognition and resistance against white supremacy is necessary to reshape centuries-old spaces, made and held for white cishet men. How competitions and opportunities for "women only" most often erase and exclude those most marginalized by our social and political systems, trans-women. Through the discussion of concrete and anecdotal examples of ableism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and mentalism we traced elements of oppression down to the canon's and community's structures of thinking, molded by historical standards of valuation centered on the society's dominant beliefs (reflective of the dominant population).
The panel was effective at providing a platform for these discussions, while having a few glaring shortcomings. We had no asians, particularly east asians (who make up a huge portion of the classical/new music community), on the panel. The panel was extremely white centered, even with a latinx and a black member. While we ended the panel with 'concrete' suggestions for how individuals could move forward:
• increase accessibility through lowering costs of score submission
• support individual accommodation, specifically for non-able bodied, neurodivergent, and in-transition individuals
• when speaking and writing about the culture, expression, and performance by marginalized individuals, actively facilitate dialogue to avoid erasure and misrepresentation
• avoid tokenizing composers and performers by suggestions identity-specific topics (ie. school to prison pipeline, ICE, transitioning)
• create concrete and transparent systems of accountability for organizers, conductors, and composers to avoid misrepresentation and violence towards the identities being highlighted
• actively expand accommodate and embrace musicians and performers with less conventional training and experience
• ask as little emotional labour for marginalized folks as you can, especially if the performance centers around experiences that can be actively draining and triggering
The truth of the matter is that it takes an extremely high amount of personal effort and labor to reflect and understand the ways in which our modes of thinking have been shaped to be implicitly othering of those who don't fit an image of acceptable social and cultural mobility. There needs to be an overhaul of our ethics to require more diverse voices in new music and that starts with each participant in our gathering truly self-criticizing and understanding their own intersections of privilege and power.
I really hope I don't have to come back next year, because these efforts can be implemented now. They require intellectually and morally honest pushes by the established and powerful in the new music community, who have already in name committed us towards a path of progressive and radical inclusion, and to reflect a standard of required diversity so the labor of operating within predominantly white spaces doesn't fall to the few. Actively seek out the voices of those you want to feature. Consciously create safe and inclusive spaces for the most marginalized. Reflect upon the language and phrasing you use: make sure you aren't being violent those you are trying to help.
On a personal note, I need to address the way I was treated as more as an activist than a musician at the conference. Before and especially after the panel, members would ask mentally and emotionally exhausting questions that most often turned into me congratulating them on their efforts of inclusivity. I'm a composer and an activist. The bracketing of identity, even in the microcosms of person-to-person interactions is extremely erasing and I left feeling more used than celebrated.
These conversations have happened before. The path forward however has always been about the creation of honest communication and transparent dialogue. Individuals, ie. you, can create space in your organizations to listen to your marginalized members, without demanding they educate and/or validate you, and without singling them out from the group. Through listening as attentively as we do to compositions and new experimental, boundary pushing work, we can create tangible progress in our community and thoughtfully, consciously all make better music together.”
On a final note, the lack of photo and video documentation for the Diversity & Inclusion panel is pretty noticeable. Considering the declared importance of our testimony and stories, the fact that none of the 500+ tagged photos, videos, and posts highlighted the panel paints it as a clear afterthought. In fact, it highlights the very performative nature of the these kinds of panels as necessary to maintain the illusion of inclusive and non-oppressive institutions while in fact obscuring their roots of supremacy and racism.