“I became the thorn in people’s side, and I’m proud of that. . . . I feel like I have a role to play here and I’m going to play it.”

I talked to composer Joan Tower for a profile in advance of her 80th birthday celebrations in Boston. This was one of those interviews that I thought was going to last 20 minutes and instead lasted over an hour. I probably could have written three articles with the material I had from her and Kati Agocs, a composer she mentored who also told stories about meeting Tower at a crazy dance party and benefiting from her “bullshit detector.”

Read Joan Tower’s thoughts on growing up in South America, writing for amateur orchestra, being the only woman in the room, and dancing, over at the Globe!

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All Male Seasons™ and online outrage

With the turn of the new year, symphony orchestras across America have begun to announce concert lineups for the 2018-2019 season. And as classical listeners living in 2018 have come to expect, the work of female composers and composers of color is vastly underrepresented in most of the season prospectuses that have been released. At present, two of the historical “Big Five” orchestras (Chicago and Philadelphia) have announced seasons entirely comprised of pieces by men.

With this, much of the music Twittersphere is bubbling up in predictable yearly outrage. Critics at major outlets – Joshua Kosman at the San Francisco Chronicle, Zachary Woolfe at the NYT, Alex Ross of the New Yorker, myself at the Boston Globe, et al – are Tweeting right on cue. Lisa (Iron Tongue) is keeping track of numbers on her blog in this consistently updated post, and she and I are in on a spreadsheet that will track the number of female composers, composers of color, and living composers in proportion to dead white men that each orchestra programs. Matt Marks, of Alarm Will Sound and New Music Gathering, is calling for a boycott. Threads and lists of female composers are up for unrolling and scrolling.

The question that pervades my mind is how much all of this online outrage will do. Unless something major changes, these All Male Seasons™  will continue to be profitable for orchestras, meaning they have no reason to deviate from status quo.

I highly recommend these two threads:

The above thread by Vanderbilt University musicologist Doug Shadle provides some valuable and easy to understand summary of why it’s so easy for individuals connected to orchestras (music directors, conductors, patrons, PR) to cast off responsibility for diversifying the lineup.

And here, composer and singer Patricia Wallinga takes her hometown orchestra to task, explaining how it feels for a kid in the gallery seats when none of the composers look like you.

The standard institutional answer for why there are no female composers featured is the same answer you might get if you ask a college admissions office or a hiring manager why there are so few black people in your school/workplace; “because we don’t consider gender/race when we program music/admit students/select applicants, we select based on how great the music is,” throwing the asker into an awkward situation that it’s very hard to talk out of. It implies that only the music the ensemble has programmed now or in the past is “great,” and any other is therefore not “great” enough. “Great” is marketable. “Great” is what leads to a single name becoming an icon. “Great” has never, to my memory, been used to describe a musician that’s not a dead white man. This view of “greatness” as a sublime, untouchable authority is what led to the adulation of conductors such as James Levine and Charles Dutoit, which silenced the voices of those speaking out against their sexual misconduct until the #MeToo avalanche last year buried their careers.

In a now-deleted tweet, the Rochester Philharmonic responded to criticism of their overwhelmingly male program with “Philharmonics series = classical series, back in ye olde times when that wasn’t as common…we try to expand rapidly while not discounting classic repertoire from which we’re based.” But would performing a few more works by composers that aren’t cisgender white men really be “discounting the classic repertoire?”

Glimmers of progress sometimes do appear. This afternoon, it was announced that Korean conductor Eun Sun Kim would replace the disgraced James Levine in conducting the Cincinnati Symphony and May Fest Chorus in Verdi’s Requiem at Cincinnati May Festival. She will be the first woman to conduct at the festival in its 145 years. But the fact that it took this long, and that Kim (or another woman conductor) was not booked until now, and it not even being a scheduled booking but a replacement: it says something.

The Boston Symphony has programmed one female composer in its Symphony Hall concert season for the past few years. The new season comes out in March. If the BSO holds the pattern of the token one female composer or rolls out with an All Male Season, hopefully more than just these voices will be loudly asking why. I know I will be.

 

In memoriam: Ursula K. Le Guin

“Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.” – Ursula K. Le Guin, in the Paris Review

My favorite author of my time died earlier this week, and her death was announced yesterday while I was on a bus. For her, daring to imagine a better world wasn’t an empty platitude. In her work, she showed us those messy better worlds. She gave us fantastical societies and civilizations that weren’t the countries we already knew wearing thin masks. She practically predicted the Internet with her ansible. And she consistently questioned what it was to be a hero. In her stories, actions had consequences. One couldn’t just jump in an X-Wing and blow something up, to quote General Organa.

Was blowing something up ever the right thing to do in a Le Guin book? I haven’t read all her work, so I can’t say definitively, but I know that during her lifetime, her country (mine as well) was at almost perpetual war. Accordingly, there’s no glory in war in her stories. She knew the addictive power of violence. Consider the ending of “The Word for World is Forest,” when the Athsheans have learned what violence and rape are, and may be beyond going back to singing to resolve conflict.

“What would that world be, a world without war? It would be the real world. Peace was the true life, the life of working and learning and bringing up children to work and learn. War, which devoured work, learning, and children, was the denial of reality.” – Four Ways to Forgiveness, “Betrayal”

And so she encouraged us to dream of better worlds, but also to learn how to make those worlds, and to do our part towards that long journey. To honor her memory, cherish your friends. Give gifts that didn’t cost money. Respect all genders. Journal. Give fascists hell. Beware of self-proclaimed utopians. Make sure she outlives those who don’t deserve to outlive her, because as long as her words live, she will too. For the love of all the hearthgods, don’t buy her books on Amazon.

And if you do one thing to remember her, imagine real grounds for hope.

Hybrid species.

When Sierra Hull arrived at Berklee College of Music on a full ride at age 17, she didn’t fit the profile of a typical incoming freshman. First of all, instead of spending her weekends exploring Boston and hanging out in the dormitories, the school’s first Presidential Scholarship bluegrass musician was heading to the airport to take off for performances at clubs and festivals all around the country with her touring band.

There was also the fact that she couldn’t read a note of printed music. “Not at all!” Hull laughs, speaking by phone from her Nashville home.

Hull’s reputation as a virtuoso mandolinist began from a very young age. She released her first all-instrumental album, “Angel Mountain,” at age 10 in 2002. The same year, she took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry with her idol, fiddler and singer Alison Krauss. It was onward and upward from there.

But bluegrass music is an aural tradition, learned at the knee of more experienced players or by osmosis at campfire jam sessions. Most bluegrass teachers don’t include reading music or theory, says Hull, 26. Describing her experience in a Berklee sight-reading class, she recalls: “I don’t know what note that is on the staff without taking a minute to go ‘Wait! Every Good Boy Does . . .’ ”

Read more in the Boston Globe!

Kentucky Opera gives the director’s chair to women all season.

The Louisville-based opera company’s three productions of the 2018-2019 season will all be directed by women. Kristine McIntyre will return to KO for “The Magic Flute,” and Mary Birnbaum and Kathleen Belcher will make their company directing debuts on Ben Moore’s recent opera “Enemies, A Love Story” and Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” respectively.  More in the Courier-Journal!

Tuesday Quickread: Why neo-Nazis love classical music

The long and short of it: we’re not trying hard enough to make it too diverse for them to like it.

Zack Ferriday trawled through the brackish, putrid swamp of a white nationalist message board, and found an unsurprising number of classical music fans. It’s pretty clear why they like it: all the composers we hold up as “great” are white men, and in a way, it provides a sonic safe space for people who believe the only people we should be celebrating ever are white men.

 

Most diversity initiatives happen on such a local and small scale that those ideas don’t reach the larger landscape of classical music. Then, of course, there’s the affirmative action fallacy: someone asks why there isn’t more music performed by non-white people, and the reply is that music isn’t chosen based on race or gender, it’s chosen based on how good it is and how it fits the ensemble—implying that a) the asker’s thinking is flawed because they seem to think music should be included just based on the composer’s race, and b) none of the music they listened to that wasn’t by white men was “good” enough to merit inclusion.

“It shouldn’t take the Chineke Orchestra to bring Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges to London, or its cellist and 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year, 18-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason to donate money to his former school to ensure accessibility to classical music for all. We’re all too well aware of classical music’s checkered past when it comes to nationalism, so why is it that even now, 18 years into the 21st century, the likes of Karajan continue to be unambiguously celebrated as greats, as the “emperor of legato,” whatever that means, while racial bias is counteracted on a small-scale basis, somewhat distant from the money and opportunity of the classical music mainstream.” – “White Noise”