To keep an unfunded project afloat for 2+ years, I have had to tap into a flavor of ambition and drive I didn’t know I harbored. On the other side of my ambition is a deep discovery of my own moral compass, and how far I’m willing to go to produce and showcase my art. This balance of ambition and reflection has become an essential part of the work. This has provided a more holistic perspective on western art music culture, and how it lacks a necessary foundation to equitably address systemic issues, and communicate outwardly.
Part of this issue being discussed overtly in many circles, are problems of representation within classical music. While this is, in part, my concern, I’m happy to report that small artistic organization like Constellation Men’s Ensemble address representation in their mission’s every season. Although these tides shift too slowly, I do get the sense there is a public push to address this problem. However, I feel the latent issue of competition within classical music goes widely unnoticed. This latent issue is imbedded in the ways we consume art and music. Competition seems to be a part of the classical music institution’s ontology, a widely accepted norm that frankly afflicts a lot of hidden damage. Competition is related to issues of representation and equity, and deserves more examination. For example, this concept of competition allows people to believe they don’t harbor “musical talent,” even though music is a universal human activity and form of communication.
Glenn Gould is probably the most recognizable critic of competitive musicking, going so far as to argue that our music institution’s version of performance is reduced to a competition. This, in turn, cuts off any true empathic connections for those involved in the performance. This lack of empathy, hypothetically, makes it difficult to connect systemic issues in and outside the concert hall with any emotional reactions to the sounds within the performance space. In other words, what if a competitive environment allows for a particular shade of dehumanization that is easily clouded by the prestige of classical music institutions? In this sense, I admire Gould’s excessive and bold stance because it harkens back to music as a human tool of connection. Through the process of creating and producing safe, stable, loving, and permanent home, I feel more connected to his perspective than ever before.
In my experience, ambition and drive are simultaneously expected and stigmatized in creative environments. My perseverance is threatening in the all-too-often zero-sum environment of classical music. To other composers, I have a commission, which means they don’t. Furthermore, because I am creating work that is centered around collectively changing social fabric to be more inclusive; my work is easily shaded as a value symbol and not “music.” As disheartening as this type of message has been (and these are messages I have received to varying degrees), ultimately it has become a way to find people who truly support others. To be clear, this is not the feedback I get from everyone. Plenty of composers and musicians want to uplift the community. It is through these positive and supportive people a number of beautiful professional relationships and friendships have blossomed. While my takeaways are largely positive, I can’t overstate that our music culture has a long way to go toward truly embodying social advocacy. For example, powerful artists and department heads have claimed music about foster care “doesn’t go deep enough,” or that my work “isn’t really music.” Hopefully this raises a red flag how our culture’s concept of music is far too narrow to address important issues of sustainability and community.
Furthermore, I would like to address both direct and indirect feedback I have received for years that this type of project is not something worthwhile to pursue. Safe, stable, loving, and permanent home is a complex topic for an art piece. This makes it a challenge to secure funding through grants or individual wealthy donors (definitely at this early stage in my career). This is the tenor of professional advice I have received throughout my education: that you need to market a project or skill for grant funding, and/or impress a wealthy donor, and ideally be head hunted to do a project. If it is not marketable, it’s not worth the effort. There is logic in this perspective, and I have to admit my lack of financial stability and “success” is, in part, due to blatantly ignoring this advice. On the other hand, I think centering my work around a capitalist idea of art and life would fracture the connection I feel toward the music I compose. This would lead down a path where my communication through the music I create would be separate from my own sense of self. I am not interested in pursuing this path. The warning I decided to heed was not from their words, but the way they present themselves, the exhaustion they often exhibit, and the pretention they carry in their over emphasized sense of “being an artist,” and deserving of attention. My goal is not to criticize anyone in particular, but point out that music culture rewards this often unhealthy behavior, and contributes to the issues of competition and representation discussed earlier. We need to broaden conversations on towing this line as a professional artist. Or even better, discuss how we can truly uproot narrow capitalist ideology, and build a more supportive environment where financial stability (in one of the wealthiest countries in the history of human civilization) is a given, allowing artists to build networks based on expression and opportunity.
Finally, I want to end this post with a thought that has cropped up since signing the commission contract. Ultimately, this work will be performed, and the performers and audience will likely associate the work with my name. But the reality of this piece, is that I’m at most tangential to the ideas, concepts, and stories intended to emotionally impact the performing artists and listeners. I’m not sure I’ll find a comfortable way around this, or find a medium to uplift these marginalized voices who’s lives make the music possible. But I think it’s important to point out that the way(s) we consume art and music give voice to those few names on the top of the page. In recognizing this reality, I hope we can collectively consider a more equitable and codependent fashion to create, consume, and live.
Thanks for reading <3