If you follow the American Composers Orchestra and you stay on top of your composer opportunities, you might have noticed ACO’s most recent Earshot post on Facebook:
I saw this opportunity when it was first posted and I thought, “Great, another meaningful opportunity from ACO. Good for them, I wonder who the four winners will be.” And many others shared my enthusiasm—commenting, liking, sharing, and tagging to help spread the word. But I was surprised to see some comments that weren’t so positive. In fact, some went so far as to accuse ACO of blatant racism. Others argued that, were the tables turned to only include white composers, we would hear uproarious criticism. ACO has since removed those comments, but left some of the less incendiary responses up, such as:
The comments that were removed and those above reflect some dangerous thinking—dangerous because it suggests that we live in a colorblind, post-racial America, where careful consideration of a historically oppressed and repressed group of people can now be casually tossed underneath the blanket term “racism,” or disregarded altogether under the guise of our shared Americanism. It is absurd because it suggests that the diversity of people successfully creating and performing new music in our field is robust enough so that no such opportunities like this one are necessary. It suggests that these remaining opportunities somehow pander to notions of trivial politics instead of addressing modern-day oppression. It is dangerous and absurd because it microinvalidates specific cultural identities with notions of super-imposed normalcy, i.e. “Americanism”—that somehow to be American is to be enough, and to be further qualified is unnecessary.
One need not spend more than 20 minutes looking through the headshots and biographies of the fastest emerging or most famous composers creating music in today’s orchestral world (and new music in general) before noticing the astounding homogeneity of that pool. I find that lack of diversity perplexingly unrepresentative of the actual number of people who are creating or who would like to create new music at high levels. Every day I come to work and receive calls, emails, applications, and musical samples from people of all races, ethnicities, and genders who are working diligently to improve their musical craft. As a violist, I perform with people of all races, ethnicities, and genders. On SoundCloud, YouTube, Vimeo, and BandCamp, I listen to people of all races, ethnicities, and genders. Yet the diversity of composers chosen for some of the highest paying or otherwise most valuable career opportunities in our field remains less than impressive, even in 2013. So why do some people react negatively when major cultural institutions take a public stand to make our field more equal?
Were the tables turned and this opportunity offered only to white composers, of course we would, and we should, hear and make uproarious criticisms of that model. The phrase “Whites Only” harkens back to a painful historical narrative in the United States. “Blacks Only”—“black” as the privileged, as the historically powerful—does not. To equate a hypothetical whites-only call for composers with ACO’s opportunity is impossible and painfully ignorant of the consequences of our past. Lawyer, civil rights activist, and author of The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander puts racial privilege in perspective, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”* The too-often monochromatic skin tones in positions of power within new music affirm that there is still much work to be done.
I don’t care to live in a post-racial America; we all have a race, a culture, and an identity to embrace and celebrate. I do, however, care to live in a non-racist America, where people of all colors, ethnicities, and genders are hired, approached, perceived, and even incarcerated equally. It should be obvious: we do not live there today. But some opportunities, behaviors, and dialogues take steps to get us closer to that nation of the future. To return to Michelle Alexander’s writings:
This argument [of racial caste] may be particularly hard to swallow given the election of Barack Obama. Many will wonder how a nation that just elected its first black president could possibly have a racial caste system. It’s a fair question. But there is no inconsistency whatsoever between the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land and the existence of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness. The current system of control depends on black exceptionalism; it is not disproved or undermined by it. Others may wonder how a racial caste system could exist when most Americans—of all colors—oppose race discrimination and endorse colorblindness. Yet racial caste systems do not require hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference.*
I, for one, am grateful for ACO’s lack of indifference.
After graduating from Vassar College with a bachelor’s in music and a secondary focus in English, Emily Bookwalter joined New Music USA’s team as a grants manager in January of 2011. Seldom refusing an opportunity to meet new people through music, she is an open-minded collaborator, improviser, and violist/singer in New York City. As a faithful advocate for accessible music in communities, Bookwalter is a violist and the external affairs manager for the String Orchestra of Brooklyn; a close-knit group of musicians dedicated to the democratization of concert music in Brooklyn. In addition to her time spent with the SOB, she actively performs with jazz/hip-hop/contemporary ensembles ShoutHouse and the Gabriel Zucker big band, and is an avid performer of improvisatory and experimental chamber music.