The article below was written by Dr. Miki Kaneda, Assistant Professor of Music at Boston University and a 2019 Paul R. Judy Center for Innovation and Research Grant Recipient.Miki Kaneda’s research focuses on transcultural crossings and the entanglements of race, gender, power, and colonial residues in experimental, avant-garde and popular music in the 20th and 21st centuries. Trained in musicology and ethnomusicology, she has published on topics including the transnational flows of experimental music, graphic scores, art and the everyday, and media ecologies. Her current book project titled “The Unexpected Collectives: Transpacific Musical Experimentalisms” is an ethnographic and historical study that focuses on intermedia (a kind of multimedia art) as a vehicle to examine transpacific artistic exchanges and relations of power through the work of 1960s Japanese and American musicians. She has also held fellowship positions at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University and the Museum of Modern Art, where she was a founding co-editor of the web platform, post.at.moma.org.
Now that “the entire musical ecosystem is endangered,” can we talk? (Reflections on new music, performance, and the musical possibilities for change after 2020)
Five years ago, in 2015, I began a project that looked at performers of new music and their creative work.1 Eight years after journalist Alex Ross declared in the New Yorker that “An exceptionally vital group of young composers is driving the proliferation of new music,” new music seemed to be at a high point.2 The opening of National Sawdust, a venue dedicated to the incubation and presentation of new music, founded by composer and impresario Paola Prestini and philanthropist Kevin Dolan, marked this pinnacle of 2015. The 2015 project focused on how the work that performers working in new music ensembles do shapes the sound of new music. Attending concerts and studying the music was of course important for this project, but I was also interested in the mundane aspects of working in new music. I asked, how does the work (as in labor) that performers do shape the sound of new music? What does musical creativity look like from the angle of a performer? I set out to learn about the day-to-day work of musicians through interviews with around twenty musicians, mostly performers, asking them to tell me about what they actual do (one answer: a lot of emailing).
The grant application that I had submitted to the Paul R. Judy Center in the fall of 2019 proposed to build on the 2015 project, mainly by conducting follow-up interviews with some of the musicians I had spoken with in 2015. I wanted to know: what had changed for them professionally over the past five years? What were some of the ways that professional and life changes had shifted their outlook since 2015?
Then, 2020 happened. Covid-19, and the summer of protests propelled by the murder of George Floyd resounded calls for anti-racist action that reverberated across US cities, and around the world. What hadn’t changed?
In April, the headline of a New York Times of a piece by James B. Stewart declared: “A String Quartet Is Crushed by the Coronavirus: An acclaimed young ensemble was making a fragile but sustainable living. Then the bottom dropped out.”3 Reading on, the reader is told that “the entire musical ecosystem is endangered.” While I recognized the significance of documenting the experience of musicians at this point would be invaluable, I could not get myself to reach out with a casual, “how’s it going?!” It was a terrible time.
When I finally ventured to conduct my second round of interviews in the fall of 2020, I did so with much trepidation. As a regular concert goer, I had not attended a live performance since March. I watched some live streamed concerts online but found them underwhelming. Since I hadn’t been to concerts (or much of anywhere else either) I hadn’t seen many of my musician friends that I would see regularly at concerts. Surely, they had switched careers? Left New York by now?
To my surprise, and awe, all the musicians I spoke with in 2015 are, in 2020, still working as musicians. Cut off from the usual income from gigs, some were collecting unemployment. Others were more fortunate, with tenure-track university teaching jobs that ensured a steady income. But they were all still playing, recording, composing, teaching, performing, organizing, and planning. And dare I say, some were even thriving in this moment of “pause.” I learned that musicians had found ways to direct their energies into new kinds of projects such as learning a new style of music; taking on a new dimension to their work as ensemble administrators, such as taking on archive based digital publication projects (Wet Ink Ensemble’s Archive), or regularly airing online video programs (International Contemporary Ensemble’s TUES@7 or Yarn/Wires’s bi-weekly Feedback series). I was struck by the creative ways in which performers adapted their skills and practices to new or different ways of making music, or making a living through music. I want to credit the strength, commitment, and dedication to their craft that these musicians demonstrated. The testaments by musicians that I found most moving were reflections on what they valued in their musical work. In my interviews, I asked what they viewed as “making it” as a musician. Five years ago, it was more gigs, more international travel, more high-profile projects, the ability to say “yes” to it all. In a year when most those things suddenly went away, it seemed that musicians themselves were shocked to encounter a version of themselves that wasn’t all about pushing oneself beyond physical limits–driven largely by rarely achievable idea that “making it” as a musician means that you make a living based on making music alone. Instead, one musician found herself in a time of healing, coming to terms with her long-term mental illness while spending time in the home she shares with her loved ones for the first time in years; another found peace in the routines of daily rhythms of musical practice and exploration, without the pressures of concerts and deadlines.
I don’t want to downplay the devastating effects of Covid-19 on music, and it’s true that the musical ecosystem is endangered, as Stewart writes. As of the writing of this article, musicians of all genres still do not know when they will be able to resume their concert and gigging. Even if they managed to get through this year, how long will the savings last since the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation checks ended? Beyond money issues, Sam Kulik, a friend and trombonist, wrote to tell me that he had found himself asking whether the joy his Balkan brass group brought to passersby, and himself, was worth the risk of playing and rehearsing with his group that heavily featured wind instruments. In the end, that gig was scrapped.
And yet, it may be the time to bid farewell to the musical ecosystem as we know it–that is, the one that we (those of us in academic institutions and places of privileged education and cultural capital, like new music ensembles) take for granted, as the norm. This year has repeatedly shown in very clear ways, how Black, Indigenous, and people of Color have been disproportionately killed and damaged by the double public health crises of Covid-19 and police violence. It seems like the time is now to take on of systemic inequality in music as well. If, as musicologist Loren Kajikawa has noted, the same social structures that have brought on the divestment from BIPOC life that in turn fuels the “‘possessive investment’ in classical music that perpetuates, or is at least complicit with, white supremacy” it’s time to ask how musicians and scholars of music might envision building a different musical ecosystem from the one that went on pause in March of 2020.4
As a small step toward this end, I want to situate my research on musical performers and performance as one response to the goal of decentering the logic of the “composer and his work” –– a model that has largely gone unchallenged as the basis of the canonical music historical narrative. This is not intended as a personal attack on composers. My concern rather is to point out the ways of thinking that enshrine certain kinds of musical knowledge and objects (the score, the idea of creativity as located in individual geniuses) as the ideals of cultural achievement. The damage takes place when these ideals are put forth to the diminishment of other forms of creativity rooted in improvisation, social practice, ritual, and intersubjective processes of knowledge transfer. It should not come as a surprise that these values overlap with the racialization of musical categories. If the forms of creative labor rooted in improvisation and social practice are understood as the institutional devaluation of Black musical labor, the flip side means a relative overvaluation of musical objects and practices associated with whiteness exemplified by the European Classical tradition. But just as I don’t intend this statement to be an attack on composers, I am also not advocating to get rid of Beethoven from our concert halls and schools of music in this year of his 250th birthday. What I am saying is that by understanding the histories of inequality and racism that have shaped the musical canon and its legacy, which includes contemporary new music, those of us in places of privilege like institutions of higher education can listen better, and make structural changes. For those of us who have found ourselves at the edges of musical legitimacy in the United States (even as we also occupy positions of high cultural and educational privilege) we might give ourselves permission to acknowledge the history of epistemic violence, share our experiences, and create spaces of gathering, healing, and learning on one’s own sovereign terms –that is, neither with nor against hegemonic terms. By understanding this history of the complicity of the musical canon with structures of white supremacy, we can teach our students about the historic specificity of what has been perceived, taught, and cherished as the greatest, and most profound expressions of aesthetic experience in the form of the Western Classical canon. Then, perhaps a lifelong practitioner of the music of the Western Classical tradition might find themselves able to love Beethoven even more, not because of Beethoven’s universal greatness, but because of the deep cultural specificity with which his melodies are encoded into the musculature of a pianist’s hands, the purple callous under the violin side of the chin, and the way his melodies stir something emotional inside.
There is much work ahead, but the year of living alongside Covid-19 has shown me how musicians continue their work a way of dealing with contingency. This gives me hope that musicians do have a special cultural power to sound the way towards these deep structural changes that our old musical ecosystems are in desperate need of. Adapting a thought from the critical geographer and prison abolitionist Ruth Gilmore–I wonder, if, through musical practices and educational paradigms that privilege solidarity and “radical dependency” on one another, musicians might accomplish this monumental task in ways that might even be perceived as beautiful. I write these things because know that I’m not alone in asking if this moment can lead to change–a change led by music that enacts transformations in a “material, deliberate, consciousness-exploding way.”5
1 In addition to the PRJC, I wish to recognize the musicians and scholars who shared their valuable time with me for this project in 2015 and 2020, and all the times between. A huge thank you to the following (listed in rough order of conversation between 2015 and 2020): Giacomo Baldelli, Ian Antonio, Ning Yu, Argeo Ascani, Lawrence Kumpf, Rane Moore, Melissa Smey, Scott Winship, Joshua Modney, Laura Barger, Natacha Diels, Vicky Chow, Peter Evans, Aaron Einbond, David Byrd-Marrow, Kate Soper, Michael Mizrahi, Amanda Scherbenske, George Lewis, Will Robin, Nicholas Tochka, Russell Greenberg, Sam Kulik, Amirtha Kidambi, Erin Rogers, and Ricardo Gallo
2 “Club Acts | The New Yorker,” accessed December 23, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/04/16/club-acts.
3 “A String Quartet Is Crushed by the Coronavirus – The New York Times,” accessed December 31, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/19/arts/music/string-quartet-coronavirus.html.
4 Loren Kajikawa, “The Possessive Investment in Classical Music: Confronting Legacies of White Supremacy in U.S. Schools and Departments of Music,” in Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness across the Disciplines, ed. Kimberlé Crenshaw et al. (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019), 156.
5 Kenton Card, Geographies of Racial Capitalism with Ruth Wilson Gilmore (BFD Productions, 2019), https://antipodeonline.org/geographies-of-racial-capitalism/.