Flashback to the second day of the recent Gender Diversity in Music Making Conference in Melbourne, Australia (6-8 July 2018). In a few hours, I will perform the first movement of the Sonata in E minor for piano by Florence Price (1887–1953). In the lead-up, I wonder whether Price’s music has ever been performed in Australia before, and feel honored to bring her voice to new audiences. I am immersed in the loop of my pre-performance mantra:
My music and message is powerful, my music and message is powerful.
Repeating this phrase helps me to center my purpose on amplifying the voice of a practitioner who, despite being the first African-American woman composer to achieve national and international success, faced discrimination throughout her life, and even posthumously in the recognition of her legacy.
In Price’s time, there were those in positions of privilege and power who listened to her music and gave her a platform. One such instance was Frederick Stock of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and his 1933 premier of her Symphony in E minor. But there were times when her musical scores were met with silence. For example, when she wrote to Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony Orchestra requesting that he hear her music, the letter remained unanswered. There was a notable intermittency in how Price was heard, which continues today. It seems most natural for mainstream platforms to amplify her voice in months dedicated to women and Black history; any other time of the year appears to require more justification. And so, as I am repeating this mantra—my music and message is powerful—I am attempting to de-centre my anxieties, and center my service to amplifying Price’s voice through an assured performance.
I applied to the conference a few months ago. I was keen to bring my research to new audiences. Upon seeing that the conference was in Australia, I knew this would be a fantastic opportunity to gain transnational insight into the ongoing work around representation and inclusion in music. Fast-forward to July: here I am, in Australia for the first time. The venue is unfamiliar and I have not met anyone here before this visit. However, this is what I do know: I have fifteen minutes for my performance; hence, I have only prepared the first movement of the sonata. Looking in the program, I noticed there will be a paper taking place at the same time as my performance, given by an academic who identified himself in his printed abstract as “a white, old, straight man with power and privilege.”
The title of his paper? “I Have Nothing to Say.” While gender diversity was the overarching theme of the conference, the goal towards inclusion negated the fact that not all platforms are created equal. The speaker’s proposed topic advertised the ease with which the dominant voice may access a space for its mere presence, regardless of what will be said. Conference logistics then set this voice and its contribution against the radically diverse sounds of our time slot. In addition to my lecture and performance, there are several other events taking place simultaneously. The subjects include: mentoring women composers, creative realizations of parenthood in composition, gender balance in Australian jazz, interpretative approaches to the music of Kaija Saariaho, music as a vehicle for navigating the challenges around non-binary and transgender identity, and a cis-gendered white man’s exploration of ceding power and listening.
I remember a casual conversation the night before in which the joke arose of the speaker being “the token white man.” Of course it was a joke; the very notion is absolutely ridiculous. I remember reflecting on tokenization earlier that day and tweeting to that effect:
I knew the joke was light-hearted, but there is nothing light-hearted about being a token, nothing light-hearted about knowing your excellence, yet wondering if it will even factor into the decisions around your involvement. Anyway, I did not want to prioritize thoughts about the token white man over my purpose at the conference because that would take up time, space and energy, and in my pre-performance rituals, that time, space and energy belongs exclusively to the women that I seek to honour.
When it is time to perform, I bow, then sit, then sink into the first sound, which is this rich e minor chord that engages almost all of my fingers. I relish the rich tones in the grandeur of the introduction. But as the first theme comes in, conjuring up the soundworld of plantation songs, I calm the mood down to ensure that the lyricism of the top melody really sings.
My music and message is powerful.
The performance is followed by a presentation where I talk more about the sonata, who Price was, and what she achieved. I make sure to highlight her Arkansan roots and her Chicago successes, particularly around the Symphony in E minor. I speak about the influence of the spirituals within the classical frameworks of her compositions. I also speak about the privilege and the incredibly moving significance of being able to present and perform her music for an audience, largely of African descent, at the Chicago Symphony Center.
I play excerpts from the rest of the sonata off my recent album Four Women on Spotify and struggle to find the best time to pause the track because there is so much that I want the audience to hear: from the development of spiritual themes in the second movement, to the virtuosic whirlwind that is the final movement.
A dynamic discussion ensues, weaving in the narratives of Nina Simone, African-American folk tradition and my passion for this repertoire. I elaborate upon the ways in which exploring classical music by women has been an empowering personal journey. I articulate how the perception of men achieving “firsts” renders them gods while women achieving “firsts” are miracles that were never supposed to happen, that may never happen again. I express my role as a musicologist-pianist as demonstrating a long and rich history of women music-makers and, therefore, evidencing precedents—her-stories—for the creative contributions of women now. My time comes to an end and I am left feeling proud to have represented Price’s music and legacy here, today.
After my performance, I tweeted the following thought-through (but clearly not proof-read) thread expressing my disappointment:
My goal with this post was to juxtapose this paper with Price’s music and career, spotlighting the implications of uneven power and access therein.
3. His talk was called “I have nothing to say.”
Some people therefore chose to listen to a man who has “nothing to say” over the music of an African American woman composer who has historically been silenced and is barely heard in this current day.
Let that sink in.
— Samantha Ege (@samantha_ege) July 7, 2018
Wrapped up in my post was the criticism of the fact that, being a university professor, the speaker of “I Have Nothing to Say,” has access to this kind of platform year-round, while marginalised voices only get amplified in the specific and limited spaces that society has carved out for them.
My critique is not about the individual, but about the systemic and institutionalized undermining of underrepresented voices, even at a conference designed to amplify them. The fact that such a work was placed on such a program evidences the extent to which we are so conditioned to ensuring the most powerful and privileged voice speaks in every single space, even when they acknowledge they have nothing to say.
Since posting that evening to both Twitter and Facebook, I have received a backlash on the latter, one that is, at present, unaffiliated with the organisers of the event. It has, however, attempted to derail the conversation. Apparently I was only upset because my program faced competition from other papers. Maybe I should have looked into the scheduling to make different arrangements. Or I should have found out what the speaker’s talk was about because there is a chance that I would have enjoyed it. Repeatedly, the onus was placed on me to reach out to the “token white man” and better understand his position. I also learned something new: passing judgement on a presentation because of its title is no better than passing judgement on a composer because of their gender. However, I was under the impression that the paper title was a choice and that Price’s identity as a black woman was not.
Anyway, I did not judge by the title. I judged by the abstract:
When one of the organisers of this conference suggested in a Facebook exchange on someone else’s post that I should submit an abstract for a paper, I was surprised. And a little frightened. What could I possibly contribute to such an event? I am the problem. I am a white, old, straight man with power and privilege. Surely my voice could only be heard by others as a violence in this context. Surely, my job is to get out of the way, to shut up, to not be heard. Surely, the only thing I could ethically and honourably bring to this is my listening. But then I felt that this is what needs to be said. I am and old straight white man who says that the job of people like me is to actively get out of the way, actively cede power and authority, actively be told, actively shut the fuck up. So I decided to use the occasion to practice a way of speaking that does those things, gets out of the way, cedes power and authority, gets told, shuts the fuck up. To practice speaking which listens. A listening-speaking. So that’s what I am trying to do in this paper. To enact a listening-speaking that gets out of the way, cedes power and authority, gets told, shuts the fuck up.
The speaker’s participation was invited and his proposal both encouraged and evidently accepted by the organizers. The abstract presents a sense of knowing better. “Surely my voice could only be heard by others as a violence in this context.” Yes. “Surely, my job is to get out of the way, to shut up, to not be heard.” Yes. “Surely, the only thing I could ethically and honourably bring to this is my listening.” Yes! “But…”
Ultimately, what needed to be said, actually needed to be done. The enacting of a listening-listening with neither platform nor audience would have been a powerful statement, quietly powerful, but powerful nonetheless. To reiterate, not all platforms are made equal—could I, realistically, have told him to shut the fuck up? How would that have sounded? How would I have sounded?
The derailing responses I have received pointedly ignore how the very presence of this paper disrupted the multiple and intersectional conversations happening in that moment. It distracted from the rarity of these subjects and their platform, and quite materially, culled an audience who could and should have been doing the very listening the abstract advertises. Scheduling this paper restored the speaker’s position to the center, and re-centered his power and authority to speak about everything and “nothing.” His privilege remained intact. In the midst of the most diverse and pertinent themes was the voice that has, both historically and to this day, spoken over the top of so many others.
I chose not to reach out directly to the institution nor its organisers because of the emotional labor this would entail. To put the issue forward in a quiet behind-the-scenes way that is sensitive to those who created the issue, is to chip away at my voice and its power. On the otherhand, to project the issue with a loud “shut the fuck up” is to perform a type of power and privilege on a platform that I do not have. I enact a public conversation here via Sounding Out! so that this experience may inform wider work towards diversity and representation. I enact this conversation in order to progress definitions of inclusion to a point where the choice to engage the dominant voice factors in a listening-listening as an exceedingly valuable contribution to the narratives offered by lesser heard voices.
I have since received a written acknowledgement from the organizers of this problematic programming, with a formal apology for the impact. But I must bring to light the important action of two allies, in particular, who recognised the emotional work required of me to bring this forward institutionally. They offered to continue the conversation on my behalf. We talked about the way in which the ensuing discussion must center listening. We shared that the process towards inclusivity may result in mistakes being made along the way. We discussed that while compassion and sensitivity can be important parts of the dialogue, I cannot afford to extend that compassion and sensitivity without becoming emotionally drained. And so, they wrote to the institution with the message of actively learning and making efforts towards change. I am so grateful for that allyship because while I knew that my voice would be heard, I could not guarantee how it would be heard. After all, if there is one take away to be had from this experience, it is that regardless of intention—and regardless of occasion—the dominant voice is very much conditioned to speak up, and speak over. And the dominant ear cannot help but listen.
So, how do I move forward?
My music and my message is powerful.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Author
Samantha Ege is a British musicologist, pianist and teacher based in Singapore. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Music at the University of York, UK. Her research focuses on the aesthetics of Florence Price. As a pianist, her focus on women composers has led to performances in Singapore (supported by the British High Commission and International Women’s Day), and lecture-recitals at the University of York, the Chicago Symphony Center and the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, USA. Her album Four Women: Music for Solo Piano by Price, Kaprálová, Bilsland & Bonds reflects her journey into a rich and unrepresented repertoire.
She would like to thank Deborah Torres Patel for the gift of this mantra.
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SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
I founded the Detroit Sound Conservancy in 2012 in order to preserve what music producer Don Was has called “the indigenous music of Detroit.” I also did it to preserve my own archive of Detroit sound related artifacts – oral history interviews, recordings, vinyl records, cassette tapes, 8-tracks, posters, t-shirts, buttons, articles, clippings, books, magazines, zines, photos, digital photos, notes, jottings, and other miscellaneous ephemera — knowing that if I could not help preserve the materials of an older generation of musicians, producers, DJs, writers, collectors, and fans, my personal archive and passions would not weather the storms (literal and figural) of the early 21st century – PhD or not. After a year or so of organizing virtually from Boston where I had found academic work teaching media & rhetoric, the DSC had its first major success with an oral history project for Detroit music, funded through Kickstarter. Donations allowed us to throw a great party in Boston, form the non-profit, and push me home to work on the DSC full time.
The results of the move have already manifested themselves. This summer we had a successful conference at the Detroit Public Library — the first of its kind — dedicated to Detroit sound.We will hold another next year on May 22 dedicated to the key role of Michigan in general, and Detroit in particular, in the emergence of the modern soundscape. We plan to have the call for papers out this fall.
In addition, we currently have an organizing/promotional night called #RecordDET at a downtown coffee shop called Urban Bean so that we can continue to both record interviews and playback the sounds / stories we are learning from. So far we’ve interviewed a retired disco / house DJ, a record retail and radio veteran, and two blues historians and musicians.
The long-term goal is to use the stories and sounds to propel us into a more sustainable future for Detroit’s sonic heritage. Recent local floods have reminded Metro Detroiters just how vulnerable we are and continue to be. We must preserve or our sonic dreams will perish.
I imagine the DSC as the sonic dream weaver. As one of our inspirations, the Black Madonna in Chicago, says: We still believe.
Carleton Gholz (PhD, Communication Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 2011) is the Founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Sound Conservancy, a lecturer in Communication at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and President of the Friends of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection at the Detroit Public Library.
SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
Several years ago—after working on media art, myths, songs about invisible networks and imaginary places—we started a series of sound art projects about America. In making these public sound artworks about our country we ask ourselves questions about funk, austerity, debt and responsibility, aesthetics, and inheritance. We also attempt to reckon with data, that which orders so much of our lives with its presence or absence.
We are interested in how data might be understood differently once sonified or made musical. We want to explore what kinds of codes are embedded in the architecture of American culture.
The first sound art project in this vein that we completed in 2007 was entitled Big House / Disclosure. Northwestern University commissioned Big House / Disclosure to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. We began researching Chicago’s recently (2002) issued Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance, which states that any business seeking a city contract must publicly disclose (without penalty) its historical relationship, if any, to the slave trade. In that project we interviewed 200 citizens in the Chicago area about that city ordinance, how they (or their ancestors) arrived in this country, the origins of house music, and imaginary plantations, as well as their opinions about the legacy of slavery in their lives. Their answers were woven into a 200 hour house song & public sound installation on the Northwestern campus.
We used custom built software to trigger changes in the sound (drums, bass lines, chords, etc.) of that installation as the stock prices of companies like Lehman Brothers and Wachovia Bank (listed by this city ordinance as having profited from slave trade) rose and fell in 2007. In addition to the sound installation there were a number of performance scores and graphic scores to be performed in the project. The graphic scores were performed at the Stone (John Zorn’s music venue) by bassist Melvin Gibbs, turntablist Val Inc, percussionist Satoshi Takeshi, and pianist Shoko Nagai in New York. The book and album for this project (recorded with percussionist Guillermo Brown, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, cellist Okkyung Lee and percussionist Tim Feeney) were released by 1913 Press.
In 2012-13 we created American Cypher. This project looked at American stories about race and DNA. The stories included narratives about Barack Obama, geneticist James Watson, Oprah Winfrey, and two men in the criminal justice system. At the center of the project was a multi-channel sound installation made from a small 18th century bell that belonged to Sally Hemings (a woman enslaved by Thomas Jefferson and, as indicated by DNA testing, mother to his children). The bell was recorded and altered. It was tuned using DNA information (microsatellite STR analysis) from the Jefferson and Hemings families. That analysis gave us a pitch set that was used to compose the piece. The project was commissioned by Bucknell University’s Samek Gallery and Griot Institute. The exhibition was mounted at the Studio Museum in Harlem and later traveled to the Institute of Visual Art at the University of Milwaukee Wisconsin.<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/81574324″>Mendi + Keith Obadike: American Cypher – Samek Gallery and The Studio Museum in Harlem</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user12307441″>Keith Obadike</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
Free/Phase is our latest project for 2014-15. This work uses the archives of Columbia College’s Center for Black Music Research (Chicago, Illinois) as its foundation. With this work we are doing conceptual remixes of African-American freedom songs found in the archives. We are thinking about how this music has been used over the past couple of centuries and all that is encoded in these songs musically, politically, and spiritually. There are three nodes to this project. These nodes will be presented and produced in several venues throughout the city of Chicago and will include audience participation.
“Beacon” is made up of a distributed site-specific sound installation that “rings” morning, noon, and evening, playing a short melodic phrase from specific spirituals found in the CBMR archives. Each spiritual chosen contains musical & lyrical messages that could have been used for pre-emancipation navigation on the underground railroad or inspiration.
“Overcome” is a video work that is inspired by ways that music was used during the American Civil Rights Movement.
“Dialogue” is comprised of “listening posts” throughout Chicago. A number of DJs engage audiences in a discussion about the canon of African-American freedom songs.
Across this series, we hope to invite new ways of thinking about the archives that hold information about our existence—the records of profit during the era of American slavery, the relationships marked in our genetic information, and the strategies for survival encoded in our music. Our work in this area reflects on the information that sometimes vanishes from view, whether because it is ephemeral or because it has been buried. We hope our sounding the archives invite new ways of listening to the past and the future at the same time.
Mendi + Keith Obadike make music, art and literature. Their works include The Sour Thunder, an Internet opera (Bridge Records), Crosstalk: American Speech Music (Bridge Records), Black.Net.Art Actions, a suite of new media artworks (published in re:skin on M.I.T Press), Big House / Disclosure, a 200 hour public sound installation (Northwestern University), Phonotype, a book & CD of media artworks, and a poetry collection, Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press). They have contributed sounds/music to projects by wide range of artists including loops for soul singer D’Angelo’s first album and a score for playwright Anna Deavere Smith at the Lincoln Center Institute. You can find out more about them at http://obadike.com.
Featured image from authors’ website.
SO! Amplifies: Regina Bradley’s Outkasted Conversations-Regina Bradley