We’ve been members of Chamber Music America for about a decade. We attended their national conference for the first time this year, just getting home to Minnesota from New York the day before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. CMA is the clearing house for all things about Chamber Music in America. They publish a beautiful and informative magazine, have commissioning and residency grants, and publish directories of ensembles, presenters, festivals, and ensembles. They are the sort of organization you’d expect to find catering to any specialized field, chamber music being a rarified example.
Our chief impetus for going was as recipients of their 2018 Classical Composition Commissioning Grant. 217 ensembles applied from across the nation, and we are thrilled to be among the 11 groups awarded a commissioning grant. We are especially excited to have a new piece written for us by Valerie Coleman. Anne Midgette of the Washington Post described Valerie as one of the “Top 35 Female Composers in Classical Music.” She’s an amazing musician with a unique and beautiful compositional voice, and we can hardly wait until the piece is finished and we can take it on the road as the newest part of our repertoire. We went to the conference to learn more about CMA, talk up our new commission, network, and hopefully find new presenters and venues interested in bringing OboeBass! and our music to their concert stages.
We’ve always liked and appreciated CMA, but this year we discovered Chamber Music America is something much more than just another trade organization. They have a mission to make a difference in the world and they are inspirationally effective. In particular, they back up their words about racial equity and inclusion with visionary, meaningful actions and initiatives.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Building Equitable Communities,” with a focus on connecting with previously under-represented populations of music professionals from ALAANA communities (African/Black, Latinx, Asian/South Asian, Arab/Middle Eastern, and Native American). Their full statement of “A Commitment to Diversity, Inclusion and Equity” contains this summarizing paragraph:
“CMA believes that there is a fundamental difference between inviting ALAANA communities into a Western European-based structure and revising the structure itself to include ALAANA musicians, presenters, composers, and others in the field to fully benefit as active participants in the organization. We are committed to the latter, and know that we have a great deal of work to do in order to become a fully inclusive and equitable organization. CMA will undertake this work by seeing diversity, inclusion, and equity as a related set of approaches that build on one another and lead to the fair sharing of the benefits and services that our organization offers.”
Most organizations and institutions seem to have some sort of boilerplate statement of “inclusion” like this, but we’ve never seen it more fully, meaningfully, movingly put into action than in this organization and at this conference. The CMA board, panel discussion, and keynote addresses were primarily led by non-white musical and cultural luminaries, starting with the opening keynote address by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Our flight got us in too late for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s address, but we caught the after-discussion, and attended as broad a mix of the panel discussions and showcase performances as we could through the course of the conference. We found we agreed, disagreed with, and questioned the various speakers and panels about as much as we would have with Caucasian-led panels, but we found we were left with a much higher percentage of challenges to our assumptions and new ideas for moving forward.
Carrie noticed a catchphrase of the conference, “Conflicting Truths,” kept coming back as a transformative concept. “Conflicting Truths” are not necessarily truths that compete for intrinsic supremacy over other truths, but they are truths that often compete for a place at the table, in the classroom, or in the concert hall. The first of these conflicting truths is that both the western canon of classical music and the world of jazz contain some of the most sublime chamber music ever created. CMA has long been a leader in presenting both Jazz and Classical music as co-equal and cross-pollinating branches of chamber music. Until now, however, much of academia and the concert-producing world has skewed toward practices that put the western European tradition on a very high, narrow pedestal that often limits serious consideration of other traditions to the point of exclusion. Both of us have doctorates in music. We’ve studied, practiced, performed and carefully and critically listened to music our entire lives. We rejoice in sharing Mozart’s greatness, and stand by the truth that his music speaks to the universal human condition with transcendent beauty and eloquence. We don’t deny the value of other musics intentionally, but we are realizing with more urgency that our training and backgrounds left us with blindspots, and we have to actively seek and open our ears and minds to other types of music and musicians.
We and most other performers don’t think or act with racist intent, but we are discovering we are sometimes so entrenched on our “side” that we are unaware of the racism we thoughtlessly perpetuate by our learned-to-the-point-of-being-subconscious assumptions. It is clear that a long backlog of little ignorances, oversights, and assumptions have accumulated and allowed a mountain of racist consequences to grow. It’s as imperative as fighting climate change for all of us to stop perpetuating the problems and start working for solutions. As one of the speakers commented, “I want to see the change in MY lifetime.”
Rolf was struck by how “inclusion,” while on its face a positive-sounding force, is only truly meaningful when it became a two-way street, encompassing the concept of “building equitable communities.” “Inclusion” is nice when a community uses it to welcome a new member to the neighborhood. It has a pernicious potential if it includes an underlying assumption that the “welcoming” neighborhood is somehow inherently superior to the neighborhood “the other” came from. We are all the richer if we listen to and learn from other individuals and traditions.
Chamber Music America continues to extol Classical Western Music. We heard ensembles CMA showcased give exquisite performances music of Telemann, Beethoven, Janacek, Ligeti, Brahms – all dead white composers with music of lasting universal significance. Chamber Music America also presented their highest award, the Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award, to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), a music organization founded over fifty years ago by a mighty handful of Black musicians for the encouragement of experimentation and self realization of jazz musicians. In all our years of academic and musical study, we never heard of this organization or much about its founders, even though it exerted powerful influences of both the jazz and western classical music traditions from the twentieth-century to the present.
Henry Feathergill, one of the founders of the AACM, gave one of the most moving and funny and inspirational talks about music we have ever heard. He spoke of the founding of the organization, predicated on the idea that all members could share their ideas, and that all other members would do their best to bring the ideas of others to musical fruition, whether or not it was something they particularly cared for or believed in artistically. This democratization of ideas extended to influences. He spoke of playing in Bohemian and Polish polka bands, doing parade music, playing in clubs, and blues and gospel as influences that surrounded them in the Chicago birthplace of the AACM. He also spoke of hearing the Chicago Symphony play under Fritz Reiner, and the Classical new music series that took place blocks from where they presented their jazz programs. They often traded ideas and concert attendance with composers like Varese, Cage, and Hindemith. He extolled both being open to a wide variety of ideas and influences, and in specializing in and mastering a narrow field. Music is and needs all of that. He also spoke of the original impetus we all shared of wanting to become musicians in the first place – the thrill of having music speak to us, and the joy of working together to make it speak to audiences. The chief goal of the artist is to communicate and celebrate the special spark of individuality in each person, The way music binds those individuals into a community civilizes us and makes us better people. The pianist Amina Claudine Meyers and the Jazz Trio of the AACM concluded the award ceremony with some of the most adventurous, avant-garde, and thoroughly compelling chamber music we have ever heard. Pure. Elemental. Fire.
We met so many people at the conference that exemplified fusing “competing truths” into music that fosters the ideas of equitable communities. Jazz bass giant Rufus Reid attended most of the showcases, jazz, classical, avant-garde, you name it. He has a towering reputation in music and enthused about all the new ideas from all directions he was hearing that would feed his own compositions. The great ones never stop learning, and they are most generous with their time and talents, and gracious about meeting and greeting their fans!
We also met Meraki, the duo of Anastasia Christofakis, clarinet, and Elizabeth Hill, piano. They were also first-time CMA attendees who won a CMA Classical Commissioning Grant. They will be working with Chickasaw classical composer and pianist, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. We had the chance to raise an apricot juice toast to music with them and CMA Classical/Contemporary Program Director, Susan Dadian at Turco Mediterranean Grill. We are inspired by the opportunities we have been given, the music we will be learning and performing, and by the engaging artists of vision and excellence of all stripes that we met and heard at CMA.
So what are we doing individually and as OboeBass! to build more equitable communities?
We naturally gravitate to music infused with folk elements from around the world. We seek out composers with common interests and abilities for writing that sort of piece. The composer who has written the most music for us is Tim Goplerud. Tim’s first and abiding musical love is jazz, one of the most unique and significant African-American gifts to the world of music. In his formative years, Tim sought out performers in the clubs and studied with African-American visionaries like Mehul Richard Abrams (The founder of AACM). His Scandinavian heritage put no dampers on his ability to love, learn, inherit from, and pass on African-American musical traditions. He had the same classical training we did but learned and incorporated long before us that there was so much more to music than what the conservatories offered and elevated. We chose to seek a commission from Valerie Coleman, not because she’s black or because she’s a woman (though that will undoubtedly bring valuable perspectives to her composition), but because we loved her music. We became fans of Imani Winds, the woodwind quintet Valerie founded. We really liked the pieces she composed and arranged for the quintet. Her compositions have strong roots both in her solid western classical training as well as in the music of Africa and of African-American traditions. These musical strains stand on equal footing in terms of value, significance, and potential to connect with all audiences. Combined they make for richer possibilities of artistic expression. We want to perform more music like this and collaborate with more composers and performers of other traditions.
We are also presenters. Our series of Coffee Concerts at the Lakeville Area Arts Center has included performers of many racial backgrounds, ethnic traditions, and musical specialties. We’ve chosen programs celebrating music of Latin-American, India, the Balkans, and Jazz traditions. Our audiences are still predominantly white. This year we are reaching out to African-American, Asian, and Latin audiences, advertising in publications that serve their communities, meeting social and business groups, and programming literature that reflects their contributions.
One of the treasures we’ve taken away from this conference is the understanding we need to do more, not just to invite other groups to share in what we have to offer musically, but to ask others to share with us their insights, needs, and musical riches that we can learn from. We have music and stories to share; we also want to be better listeners and learners.
What can you do as a reader, musician, or music lover? Educate yourself about music and musicians who were left out of your training or experience. Work from your passions and gifts, the things that grab you as meaningful and important. Demand more from your institutions. Generally, musicians don’t care what color, sex, or shape another musician is so long as they can produce the required virtuosity and collaborative abilities to make great music. Boards and presenters and marketers are much more cautious and less willing to take steps they fear will rock the boat. We’re proud to say The Minnesota Orchestra is one of our local institutions that is making a concerted effort by board, artistic leadership, musicians, audience, and community efforts to reach out to, learn from, demand, and include the music of ALAANA composers in the orchestra’s programming, educational outreach, and hiring. Choosing to act makes a transformative, uplifting difference, for the art, the artists, and for our over-arching crazy quilt of delicious individual differences flavoring our shared humanity.
Let’s all look forward to and work for the day when all of us and all our children play together, and we live in a world where people are not “judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” In the meantime, let’s look for and exalt the best contents in every character we come across and make beautiful music together!
God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.
Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.
This is triumphant music.
-Martin Luther King Jr.