• stevejknell

Some thoughts for the aggrieved white male composer

I happened this weekend upon a recent blog post by a particularly successful composer of choral music. This composer, now less than 35 years of age, has a substantial résumé, with the honor of having his music performed widely by colleges, high schools, professional ensembles, all-state choirs, and community choirs the country and world over. I do not know him personally, nor have I programmed any of his music, but I have sung several of his works and have seen his music performed at ACDA masterclasses and performances on at least a dozen occasions. Moreover, he had an entire album (!) of his music professionally recorded and released by the world-renowned Westminster Choir in 2013 when he was a masters student at Westminster Choir College in his 20s. I am sure I have missed countless accolades, and yet there are few choral composers in the United States who can claim to have enjoyed this magnitude of success at this composer’s age. In fact, even for composers who share the privilege of being a white, cisgender male, this composer has achieved a particularly impressive level of success, and, by all accounts, stands to continue his fruitful career for years to come.

I was puzzled, then, by the tenor and subject of his recent blog post, Equity silences the Muse, in which he takes aim at the recent trend toward diversity and representation of composers from historically marginalized communities in classical music. One would think that, given his exceptional success as a choral composer, he would have little about which to complain, particularly in a field that isn’t exactly teeming with resources!

“Equality,” of which this composer identifies himself as a champion, is a lofty, impressive goal. Political philosophers have written about the idea of “equality” for centuries. Ultimately, while an attractive ideal, such luminaries conclude that equality is something for which we can strive, but can never actually achieve. But, political philosophers write, we can collectively do things that make us all just a bit more equal.

The composer in question relies upon an (already sexist) abstract conception of the “Muse” inspiring all artists equally, and therefore acting as an agent of equality among all composers whom this “Muse” may inspire to make music and, consequently, present said music to the public to be embraced and performed. This is a dangerously anemic reading of art that divorces music from the material realities that surround it. Of course, this idealism looks attractive on paper, or a computer screen––artists should, ideally, be judged first and foremost on the content of their work and their contribution to the art. The reality, however, is much more complicated.

Here’s why: nothing, most particularly art and music, exists in a vacuum. Sociopolitical circumstances cannot be divorced from the arts. This composer’s insistence that the socially-ascribed value of the output of white, male composers is separate from material realities is myopic, and moreover the assertion that music can be completely abstracted from the identity of the creator is equally short-sighted. It is indisputable that throughout the development of Western art music, women, people of color, and outed queer and gender-queer folks were (and still are!) taken far less seriously by people in the last several centuries of European-American society. You’d have to be an abject fool, or ignorant of established facts of history, to claim otherwise.

Let’s just take a peek at our canon. How many women composers are really in the “canon” from the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries in Europe? Could you, dear reader, name ten women composers with footholds in the canon, alongside ten men, besides Fanny Hensel and Clara Schumann? How many major orchestras, choirs, chamber music groups, amateur ensembles, community ensembles, collegiate ensembles, or high school groups program the music of these women? How many program entire concerts of just the work of dead, white, European-America men (Ann Harrison, my literature teacher in high school, sagely called them "DWEAMs")? I struggle, even as a person committed to such representation in my work, to name ten truly canonic women composers from 17th, 18th, or 19th century Europe or America. What a failing of my nine years of higher education!

Yet, it should be painfully easy to name ten, twenty, thirty, fifty, even one hundred dead, white, European-American male composers whose music regularly appears in the programs of the best orchestras, choirs, bands, and academic music programs, not just in the U.S. and Europe, but the world over. I’d challenge the reader further to name equivalent numbers of people of color, particularly women of color.

Now, this is certainly not to diminish the works of the white men that dominate the canon, or the work of white men still living. Is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony a masterpiece? Of course! Is a performance of this work elitist and problematic? I certainly do not think so, despite some poorly supported recent arguments that make that assertion. I will continue to program the wonderful music of Howells, Mozart, Bach, Brahms, and living white male composers. But, are the social circumstances that allowed a practically uninterrupted procession of white men to flourish in Western music a component of why these same composers are now in the canon? Indisputably. Think if Beethoven had been a woman; how differently his (her) output would appear in the lens of history!

To use an admittedly tired anecdote, there are musicologists who believe that Fanny Hensel, the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, was as gifted, if not more gifted, a composer as her brother. Yet, Fanny was expected to marry and not to compose, and enjoys a mere fraction of canonic representation of her work relative to her brother’s. This is certainly not a mere consequence of the divergent gifts of the “Muse,” even if she, as a result of her social obligations as a woman in 19th century Germany, was never a "career" musician.

Let’s take this argument to the composer in question’s own epoch. Who do you, dear reader, name as the most influential, or most performed, living choral composers of our time? I would be surprised if names like Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen did not appear on your list. But, even besides those giants, list your top ten, and try to forget you're reading a blog about diversity and representation. How many are men? How many are white men? Or rather, how many are white, period? Can you think of a woman, or a person of color, who has anywhere near the same reach as an Eric Whitacre or a Morten Lauridsen? If you can, and you have good arguments, I would LOVE to be proven wrong. Write me, because I would love to program some of their music!

The composer in question would like you to believe that the “Muse” lives equally in all artists and all have equal opportunity to be graced by the Muse’s “divine” inspiration. But, if this is true, then composers who produce equally excellent work inspired by the “Muse” should, ostensibly, be equally represented in the canon. This would follow an equivalent breakdown by race, sex, sexual identity, etc. as the general population, or at least of collegiate music graduates, or even just composition students. Yet, this is, to any reasonable eye, not even close to the case.

Poll any high school or collegiate choral program from the last decade in the U.S. If, as this composer claims, the “Muse” gives equally to all composers and identity doesn't matter, 50 percent of the music programmed by these groups should written by women. Even remove all pieces written or arranged before we got “woke.” I guarantee the skew is far more toward men than 50-50. How can we explain this, if the “Muse” visits all equally, without considering the social environment that led to it? The composer in question asserts that white men are disproportionately drawn to composing without considering why that might be the case; he does not even attempt to scratch the surface of the historical conditions that allowed white men to flourish in music while others were left to the margins of history, when this very question is central to emerging practices seeking to rectify this imbalance, the same practices with which the composer takes umbrage.

Now, this alone is not enough to respond to the composer’s argument. It seems this composer is upset that the general movement toward representation of historically underrepresented communities in classical music has resulted in a) specific things in which the composer has been unable to participate as a white man, such as competitions for only women composers, and b) a general atmosphere either overtly or subtly hostile to his music, the mark he makes on the art, and he himself, as a result of his identity as a member of an over-represented group.

To the first point, I fail to understand why composition competitions, or other similar things, isolating particular identities are so terrible. This composer has access to composition competitions and commissions ad nauseam. In fact, with his level of success, one wonders why he needs to even worry about such competitions, most of which are designed for undiscovered composers to make a stamp on the art and have their voice displayed. The composer in question certainly does not want for notoriety (from his bio: his “music quickly attracted the attention of renowned American choral directors and catapulted him to the international stage within three years of writing his first work. His catalogue is printed by Carus Verlag, Edition Peters, GIA Publications, Hal Leonard, Walton Music, Wingert-Jones Publications, and self-published through J.W. Pepper and SMP Press.”). Yet, many composers, particularly women and composers of color, don’t begin their careers with the same access to the same degree of opportunity. Think of it this way––if everyone started running a race when the starting pistol was fired, it would be “equal.” To be a woman or person of color in the world of classical music is to have to wait ten seconds after the pistol fires to start, and perhaps also to have a twenty-pound weight attached to your ankle.

The composer in question seems unaware of aspects of his identity and journey that paved the way for him to become successful, not the least of which is education. He got to go to college; hell, he got to go to graduate school at possibly one of the best conservatories for vocal music in the world. Many folks don’t even have the option to enroll in a community college. Moreover, many people of color are locked in a system of poverty that requires them to work to feed families, robbing them of the chance to let the “Muse” shine through them in higher education, regardless of their gifts. And higher education is practically mandatory for a career in classical music. Poverty disproportionately affects women and people of color, and access to the type of higher education that this composer enjoyed is not something that can just be taken for granted, and blithely dismissed as something available “equally” to everyone. And this is merely one example of the myriad advantages this composer and others like him enjoy.

If the composer is correct that all have equal access and opportunity to create, why are there relatively so few choral albums entirely consisting of the work of a living Black composer (who isn’t recorded merely for characteristically vernacular music frequently appropriated by white choirs), or a woman? Or, I ask, why, if the “Muse” addresses all of us equally, new living composers who come into the spotlight, even in these times where representation is in vogue, are overwhelmingly white and male? And, if the identity of represented composers is out of whack with the general population, how one can square that with the purported universality of the “Muse?”

Answer: you can’t. Something else has to be at play. It cannot simply be, as this composer asserts, that there are more white men drawn to composing inherently. And if it is, we cannot just shrug and not examine why. So, what is wrong with institutions attempting to address such an imbalance, like the composer in question’s bemoaned composition competitions for women composers or composers of color? Is it just that the composer in question has one less forum for his already widely-performed and published music? Is it really so sinister for already well-known male composers to be excluded from a competition or two so that a woman, who started the race ten seconds late with a weight around her ankle, can have a shot?

His second, broader argument about how he sees his music being performed less year-over-year warrants more robust discussion. The composer in question is absolutely correct that there exists a prevailing culture in many artistic circles like classical music, particularly in academia, that has begun to emphasize diversity and representation of under-represented groups, and that there can be unnecessary hostility by advocates of these changes. I, frankly, am a shade alarmed by what I perceive as egregious and unhelpful vitriol leveled at this composer as a result of his recent public musings. But let's make something clear: is it the best time in history to be a white male composer? Certainly not. But it’s still a pretty damn great time (pandemic aside) to be a white male composer when compared to a composer of a historically under-represented group.

And, if fact, if the “Muse” flows equally though all of us, perhaps it’s time that white male composers start having to actually compete with the overwhelming number of folks who are visited by the ”Muse” but do not share their identity, when those same folks have not had the same access to be competitive and have fruitful careers in the past. Perhaps, instead of being aggrieved and talking so much, it’s time for white male composers to start listening a bit more. Perhaps these pushes toward “equity” are just leveling the field a bit, making it a shade more crowded and competitive for folks like the composer in question by simply removing the weight from some runners’ ankles.

Look, I get the foundational source of his woes––they are by no means unique. The job of a composer sucks. The job of nearly any professional musician sucks, especially during this pandemic. I got my DMA, an achievement shared by a small percentage of folks in my field, and before I stumbled ass-backwards into my current position, I still went from popping Champagne after my dissertation defense to living in my mother’s basement, working retail for just north of minimum wage for six months, losing that job because of the virus and collecting unemployment, and being on the constant verge of mental collapse and financial ruin all the while. And I am one of the lucky ones––I have the privilege of being a white dude in a field dominated by white dudes. It just sucks to be a classical musician these days. It sucks to have a public profile where you are vulnerable to criticism at every turn. It sucks to have to constantly promote yourself and your work, and to constantly strive for relevance. It sucks to live off a paltry stream of never-secure income and constantly worry about where your next check comes from. But can this composer even imagine how much it sucks for a composer from a historically (and continually) under-represented population to find success and make their voice heard? Can he even imagine how difficult it is to run a race when you’re watching others start ten seconds earlier and a weight is holding you back?

Classical music is dying, folks. We are facing a crisis in our art of literal existential proportions. Funding cuts, waning audience interest, audiences with a distracting screen at their fingertips at all times, and now a pandemic that has all but sidelined every musician in the world. I am sure the composer in question feels the crunch as much as any of us. Given, however, that classical music is facing decline like never before, shouldn’t we be striving for its expansion and democratization? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the inclusion of new perspectives, and therefore potential new audiences? Shouldn’t we scrutinize that which has isolated us and made us a bastion of the privileged and elite?

But beyond all of this, I have to just marvel at the fact that this composer, a person who has achieved an extraordinary level of success at his age, bemoans his supposedly “discriminated against” status. Is it really the case that this successful composer of choral music (an art, by the way, that has been a refuge for many folks of marginalized groups, such as Black musicians in gospel music and spirituals, or queer kids in high school trying to find a safe place, or women finding their voice in an empowering treble ensemble) can be this aggrieved when their music becomes performed just a bit less than it would have been but for a growing consciousness of under-represented groups? Is this composer merely seeking something or someone to blame for his waning popularity, and finds correlation with such social currents? Or is he so fragile, so insecure, or perhaps so arrogant, that he cannot see beyond this ruse of “equality” and sacrifice a small amount of his luck so to allow other voices to be celebrated?

Or, perhaps, is that the great hidden truth of it all, that those with success, fame, and representation, those who the “Muse” apparently graces, view themselves as the ordained ones who are entitled to be heard––entitled to participate in every composition competition, or not to be made to feel uncomfortable that their arrangement of a text got picked for the 50th time over the same text set by a living woman of color, or entitled to be “celebrated” and leave their mark on the art? This has the unmistakable stench of unmitigated, non-reflective, pernicious privilege.

Are we really comfortable making and promoting such arguments in our profession, a profession that so often draws those who need most to belong? Particularly in academia, choral music is famously white, and its programming dominated by otherwise male, cisgender, heterosexual, dead composers. What is so wrong with attempting to fill this gap, and attempting to give voice to people who do not identify with that same dominant identity? Choral music can be a force for the empowerment and uplifting of people. White men have been empowered and uplifted for generations. It’s time that choral music stands on the front lines of uplifting others. If the composer in question or those like him have to take a seat once in a while as a result, I say, “tough shit.”

So, forgive me if I am unsympathetic to a composer who complains about “equity” when his own privilege as much as (or likely more than) his inspiration from a “Muse” has led him to occupy a position of success, a position far more “equal” than that of others. I believe classical music, and choral music in particular, can do better, and be more representative than just the white male dominated canon of dead and living composers. Maybe it’s ok for privileged folks to take a hit from time to time so others can shine a bit. Our privileged lives, I promise, are not meaningfully worse as a result.


© 2019 by Steven J. Knell.