Equity Silences the Muse
Music absorbs politics at its own peril. Case in point: Currently dominating classical music discourse is a shift towards the concept of equity of representation. Whether by composers being programmed, artistic directors being hired, or ensemble members being auditioned, the zeitgeist demands approval by its newly-minted standards of equity. In this essay I will focus exclusively on the first topic dealing with composers.
In the predating concept to equity—equality—the music world invited diversity through the extension of equal opportunity to all. Perhaps one of the most notable developments of this age was the blind audition process—on performance auditions, calls for scores, and virtually any pursuit in which it could be effectively applied. Addressing the common argument to follow—unequal resources of applicants—universities carefully tended their affirmative action programs in hopes of making musical training financially accessible to as many as possible to create equal opportunity. In this paradigm any person, regardless of gender or race, was worthy to strive for success on their own efforts, and success could be indiscriminately obtained on basis of merit. In this age the Muse was free to inspire anyone at any time.
Like myself, countless young school kids of the nineties who fell in love with R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" (from the movie Space Jam) benefitted from powerful messages of empowerment and opportunity. (R. Kelly's character has since come under scrutiny, but that needn't tarnish the purity of this song's message. Yes, I still listen to his music. More on that topic in a future post.)
The ensuing shift towards equity goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of identity politics as a prominent driver in recent years. As a catalyst, a silently destructive newcomer emerged in social consciousness—The Victim. Talk of hierarchies of privilege and disadvantage became more frequent, somewhat simultaneous to the rise in popularity of critical theory teachings in liberal arts colleges. As a result graduates began entering the professional sphere groomed to see the world through a segregated lens of power distribution. The new concept of equity began to supplant that of equality, and music discussions began fixating on representation.
"Classical music is all about white dudes and I'm sick of it!" these postmodernists began to chant. With seemingly willful ignorance to Classical Music's mostly European roots, they began to reidentify prominent composers living and dead not by their diverse musical legacies but by their shared categorical identities—white, male, cisgender, etc. That Beethoven was a white man started to sound just as significant as his ushering in the Romantic Era of classical music history. With this new analysis society was proposing an entirely new scale, vastly pre-weighted on one side and begging to be balanced by fast-tracking additional women, people of color, and LGBTs into the spotlight. They sought control over statistical outcome.
In doing so the most crucial mistake of this decade was made. The identity of a composer superseded the content of their art.
While cultural norms—say, an artist's 'roots'—can inform aesthetic commonalities of art (i.e. style) the Muse, that divine force that conceives the composer's inspired message, is deeply and uniquely tied to that artist's personality. This is informed by the artist's own journey through the world we share, and their interactions with each of us. And why tie this inspiration to the composer's categorical identity at all? The very attempt to do so suggests the decade's second mistake—that the goal of a composer's work is more about personal success than a contribution to the larger culture. With this in mind, these warriors for equity who would bind the Muse to statistical outcome have clumsily discriminated against something much larger than any of us.
As evidence of this cultural shift from equality to equity, a small but increasing number of emerging composers competitions and calls-for-scores have specified female-only entrance, or in some cases ethnic-minorities-only. By all rights this blatant discrimination should be plainly visible...except when viewed through the new lens of equity. The postmodernist embracing of critical theory was crucial to this trend's defense, as it effectively silenced valid counter-arguments of (respectively) sexism and racism by redefining these terms as dependent on systems of inherent power. In this New Age "there is no such thing as sexism towards a man or racism towards a Caucasian, since their male and white privileges shield them from vulnerability to such attacks," the new philosophy sagely retorted. All debate was closed—how very expedient for these new supporters of equity. This new age of diversity seemed destined to be defined by an unavowed double standard.
By the middle of the decade it was a veritable playground for illiberal arguments over, for example, gender—the proportion of female composers' music appearing on concert programs. (Keep in mind the grounds for debate included the historical music of Bach, Schubert, Brahms, et al as valid statistics for "men.") Advertisements for concert seasons seemed all to tell the same story: Ensemble directors and artistic boards, eager to escape accusations of sexism, would rush to identify music to program out of the filtered pool of past or contemporary female composers. In an oft-overlooked backside of the coin, though, attention to equally-high-achieving male composers subtly began to wane towards more of a quiet tolerance. For hypothetical example, if a symphony orchestra wanted to sell out a concert, a contemporary woman's music might make for better promotion than a contemporary man's. In this hypothetical, the woman's music would represent a progressive stance while the man's music may risk being seen as preserving an oppressive status quo—it could be programmed, but it would have to be that much better of a composition to be worth its lack of social capital. Many times I myself have felt this elephant in the room when my work is chosen for study and performance. I'm acknowledged, but not celebrated. That's a huge difference. In effect, the modern man has begun to pay back with interest the debt owed by the simple fact that, for example, Mozart was also a man. For composers who entered the scene after about 2010, maleness was fast becoming the new glass ceiling.
Gender is only one example—this argument has continued to morph at its convenience between archetypal issues of gender, race, and even sexuality; often seeming to focus on only one at any time at fickle whim. It is important here for me to argue support for the range of anti-discrimination practices that have been in place at universities dating back to the Civil Rights era, and that these exist explicitly to ensure that all are equally welcome to enter the field of composition—only leaving for other areas of study if their individual talent prohibits or their inspiration wanes (the Muse chooses who it will). If this educational environment is justly regulated, why then do so many outside academia greet these graduates with the wails of unjust opportunity? The opportunity has been controlled—the outcome is apparently unsatisfactory.
I don't intend a thesis that the cis white male is purposefully discriminated against; more that he is consciously overlooked when we think equitably. I will use my personal experience to attempt to demonstrate this trend. Through the past decade, encompassing my entire career thus far, my artistic growth has been received less enthusiastically year-by-year. One could suggest a wane of artistic relevance were it not coupled with a crescendo of identity politics. It has increasingly felt as if my creating a strong catalogue of work is an unfortunate but acceptable blip in the desired progress of equity in music. The music is consumed, almost as if begrudgingly, but there seems to be a reticence to show full appreciation for its creator. To revisit the scale analogy, it is as if my contributions to the music world are unhelpful additions to the wrong, pre-weighted side of this scale. Though I can't show the hard data of post-engagement analytics (I no longer have Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter accounts), my observations of social media the past few years—say, post-2016—tended to demonstrate that even significant accomplishments shared to social media received only tepid reactions while any casual controversial stance posted was met with enthusiastic, almost euphoric backlash (emphasis on euphoric.) By 2020, the intensity of the latter flirted dangerously with libel, which seemed to betray something more sinister—intent. This to me suggests that today's musical society is, regardless of the individual in question, much more hopeful of seeing a white man fail than seeing him succeed. In this rests the ugliest consequence of equity's hierarchy fetish. To The Cause, ours is a zero-sum game.
When they invoke Equity, they silence the Muse.
I know with the simplest of certainties that my diverse fellow composers can each learn like me, grow like me, and can be inspired like me, and in this the Muse sees no difference in us. It is the beauty of our field—we can leave our identities at the door and enter into a purer realm of inspiration. This inspiration is an input; the resulting music its output. The practice of equity seeks to control output while ignoring that it cannot exist without its input. Inspiration, the Muse, cannot be synthesized or equitably controlled. Moreover it is a grave crime to silence the Muse when it speaks. It is our responsibility to the musicians of the future to ensure that we showcase our most progressive inspirations, regardless of their source. Equality is the only way to indiscriminately listen, and to allow anyone's inspiration to shine forth at any time.
Regarding Equity's primary complaint, I don't know why white men flock to the field of composition—it is a fascinating conversation all of its own—but when they do and when some of them produce important work, I beg all to consider that it is dishonest to reduce that to gender or racial privileges. These men are not oppressors; merely inspired souls. It is also dishonest, and discriminatory, to temper visibility of these works in favor of highlighting the next best by an under-represented identity group by basis of these traits. As one of countless living composers humbly striving to create a legacy beyond myself—to contribute to our time—at the moments I hold the torch of inspiration I flatly refuse to allow my identity to handicap me with the chains of equity.
Equality for life,