By Hannah Kendall, Harald Kisiedu and George Lewis
Harald Kisiedu (HK): Hannah, George, thank you so much for taking part in this conversation. It’s great that we were all able to find time to get together. Elisa Erkelenz asked us for our thoughts on how to diversify contemporary music, and one thing she asked us about was envisioning what the Donaueschinger Musiktage could become in the next 100 years.
Hannah Kendall (HSGK): I was particularly interested in that question of what the festival might look like in the next 100 years, or indeed, 10, or even five years! As a start, I think it’s great, and obviously important and timely, to actively include music by Black composers in programs. But what’s behind this shift? How can we be certain that this will be a long-term change?
George Lewis (GL): At Ensemble Modern’s Afro-Modernism Symposium in November 2020, Martina Taubenberger asked Björn Gottstein quite directly, »Why are there so few composers of color who actually get programmed? What do you think are the reasons for this?« Björn admitted that the festival »has programmed very few composers of color in the past decades, and it is going to be 100 years old next year.«
HK: In fact, before Elaine Mitchener’s On Being Human as Praxis, which was premiered in 2020, the presence of Black musicians at Donaueschingen was exclusively confined to jazz-identified musics.
Her work has been described by The Sunday Times as »…intricately and skillfully wrought«. Pieces include Disillusioned Dreamer (2018), which the San Francisco Chronicle praised for having a »rich inner life«, and The Knife of Dawn (2016), a chamber opera that received critical acclaim for its involving and claustrophobic representation of the incarceration of Guyanese political activist Martin Carter. It was presented at the Royal Opera House, London, in 2020. Her work has been performed extensively and across many platforms, with ensembles including London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Ensemble Modern, and London Sinfonietta. Born in London in 1984, Kendall is based in New York City as a doctoral fellow in composition at Columbia University.
GL: That’s right, and in fact I was there in 1976 with Anthony Braxton. But in terms of ›classical-identified‹ composers, which we were not at that time, before the Elaine Mitchener project that number was not just »very few«, but actually zero. So Björn was the one who breached a century-old barrier at Donaueschingen. There was a Jackie Robinson aspect about Elaine’s project, with three Black composers at the same time – me, Jason Yarde, and Matana Roberts. That was similar to 2019, where I remember telling Ilan Volkov that his performances of Roscoe Mitchell, Tyshawn Sorey and me by the Ensemble intercontemporain were probably going to be the first-ever performances of Black composers by that ensemble. The ensemble performed our work wonderfully, but the publicity for the event portrayed us as outsiders in relation to the world of ›musique contemporaine‹. We were said to be »showing curiosity and interest in our contemporary counterparts« – an odd way of describing, say, the area chair in composition at Columbia University. But that’s the kind of identity politics we will probably be discussing in greater detail today.
HSGK: I’m not only invested in this as a composer, but also having spent so many years working as an arts manager in the UK, encouraging diversity in the industry, and experiencing pushback from so-called gatekeepers. Has there been a true awakening? What happens when individuals and heads of festivals and venues move on? I’ve been impressed by the work that the Keychange initiative has done for working towards gender balance at festivals. It’s something to which organizations can sign up and remains fixed regardless of who’s at the top. The BBC Proms, for example, has signed up, and in general there has been better balance. I know that the PRS Foundation in the UK has recently launched Power Up, which is described as »…a new ambitious, long-term initiative which will support Black music creators and industry professionals and executives, as well as addressing anti-Black racism and racial disparities in the music sector.« It would be great if festivals could sign up for something like this to say that by a certain year, they will achieve a specific percentage of diversity and good representation in programming.
HK: Exactly, exactly. There’s currently some controversy in Germany in terms of the inaugural Deutscher Jazzpreis. There’s an initiative of musicians called Musicians For, who challenged the almost complete exclusion of people of color in terms of people who were the recipients of this prize. In many of Germany’s cultural institutions there’s a lot of resistance to addressing this issue, or even to admit that it is an issue.
GL: Georgina Born’s famous book on IRCAM is a great model for tracing the complexities of a contemporary music artworld, and even that book provides just a starting point. From her perspective, contemporary music looks like a millipede – educational institutions, publishers, curators, foundations, scholars, government agencies related to culture, critics, journalists, music historians, professors, and much more. The actions of all of these groups, whether knowingly acting together or not, still amount to the production of knowledge, or what purports to be knowledge. And much of the ›knowledge‹ produced over the decades seems to support the idea that the erasure of Black Afrodiasporic sounds, methodologies, histories, and perspectives is altogether proper.
HK: Even today’s contemporary classical music still seems to hold fast to what critical theorist Fred Moten said about a deeper, perhaps unconscious, formulation of the avant-garde as necessarily not Black.
GL: We see these books coming out even now about ›the future of music‹, with no Black people mentioned, which reminds me of the artist Alisha B. Wormsley. All she had to do to attract censorship was to put up a big billboard: »There are Black people in the future.« Maybe I should have cards made up with that text, like Adrian Piper’s Calling Cards, and send it to these authors. Or maybe that would be my suggestion at Q&A time at lectures: »You know, there really are Black composers in the future.«
HK: Well, that’s because there were Black composers in the past, who challenged axiomatic constructions of Western classical music as an historically and institutionally white space. I’m thinking of the African American composers who founded the Society of Black Composers in New York around 1968. They wanted to establish institutional space to highlight Black composers, their works, and their ideas, through concerts, symposia and lectures. They didn’t make any genre distinctions. They felt that music could serve as a medium for social transformation and would enrich the cultural life of African American communities.
The Musicologist received his doctorate from Columbia University. His scholarly interests include jazz as a global phenomenon, music of the African diaspora, music and politics, and Wagner. He has published on Peter Brötzmann, Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, Muhal Richard Abrams, jazz and popular music in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and Black composers. Kisiedu is also a saxophonist and has performed with Branford Marsalis and Henry Grimes, among others. He is a lecturer for jazz history and jazz studies at the Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences. His book European Echoes: Jazz Experimentalism in Germany, 1950-1975 was published by Wolke Verlag in 2020.
HSGK: I find some similarities with the Keychange initiative, which is about actively increasing the number of women composers being presented at festivals. Back in 2011 in the UK, the percentage of female composers was 13 percent nationally. And so, the initiative has increased the percentage of women composers who are working professionally. The Power Up initiative is doing similar things, but specifically looking at increasing the representation of Black composers, music creators and songwriters on a long-term basis, and working with festivals and art centers and all of these things to increase representation of Black composers.
GL: But what is gender equality in this circumstance? When we rolled out the Defragmentation initiative in Berlin at Haus der Berliner Festspiele in 2018, a group called GRiNM – Gender Relations in New Music, was there too, and they offered their own sort of, I don’t know, maybe a counterstatement to what we were saying. So, they said, »Well, we demand right now that 50 percent of all festival programs be music by women composers.« Is that what gender equality means in this case?
HSGK: Yes, they’re aiming to program 50/50, people who identify as women, and gender minorities.
GL: OK, but do you see any early difficulties with that? Are there enough people around that you can just do that?
HSGK: Yeah, I think so.
GL: Well, I’m not so sure about that, and this is a conundrum for me. For instance, academic programs in composition are considered feeders for the field. The resumés are printed in the programs and curators look at them – »Here’s somebody who studied here or there and with this or that composer.« But after more than 30 years of being on academic juries, grant panels, admissions committees, etc., I can say that rarely do more than 20 percent of the applications for jobs or academic programs in composition come from women. So somehow, despite decades of exclusion and discrimination at every level, including the fact that many, even most of these academic composition programs continue to have few or no women, suddenly the women are there, just waiting at the door. So where are all these women coming from, if they weren’t getting admitted to these feeder schools?
HSGK: They’re probably just doing it on their own. My opera, The Knife of Dawn, was presented on the Royal Opera House’s main stage in October 2020. This was the first opera by a person of color to ever be shown there, and only the third by a woman. However, it was actually a self-produced project that I began back in 2015/2016. I had been frustrated by the absence of roles specifically for people of African-Caribbean heritage in opera and thought that the only way to change that was to do it myself. I was also working as an arts director at the time, and it didn’t seem like such a commission was likely to happen any time soon.
So, I suppose what I’m saying is, by the time 2020 swung round and the Royal Opera House wanted to present a work by me, this piece was ready and waiting. This shows that there might be something positive in the redistribution of funds to artists. Even when they’re being excluded by the main festivals and venues, etc., artists are of course working, and need financial support to create these works. When I was fundraising for The Knife of Dawn, I came to a point where the money I had access to as an individual in the UK ran out, and the remaining balance, thankfully, came from a source in Switzerland. If that miracle had not happened through a friend, the work would not exist. Certainly, in the UK, more often than not, money is directed to registered companies and charities, the very ones who have not been inclusive historically, and I wonder whether giving composers opportunities to create and present works on their own terms will at least ensure that there is a growing body of works.
GL: This is an excellent point, because for me equity means investment, not just equality of outcomes or proportional representation on programs. So far Anthony Davis, one of the most distinguished composers in the United States, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2020, and whose music is hardly performed at all in Europe, remains the only Black composer who has had major productions in major opera houses and theaters. So, we look not only at the raw numbers of composers, but at how much is invested in their work by the field – an orchestral work or a trio? New commissions or reliance on existing works? Someone contacted me the other day and asked about whether I knew of a piece by a Black woman composer, 16 minutes, 12 or more performers. I had to say that given this ensemble’s aesthetic stance (which has to be considered), I didn’t see Black women receiving that level of commission very often, and they really should consider commissioning someone. Since the investment has been so low, new and substantial commissions have to be awarded to the formerly excluded. If women composers, and Black women in particular, are disproportionally offered the lower-infrastructure commissions, this is an equity problem, an investment disparity, that is not reflected by the raw numbers.
HSGK: It’s interesting thinking back on all the things that industry members have said in the past. I worked as an arts manager for many years, for an organization trying to turn the tide. And I was constantly being told, oh, well, you know, we just need to program for the audience. What they want to hear is what we present. And now, in recent years, you know, they are finally presenting artists of color, and creating positions for a diversity of artists. But what is it that has actually changed specifically? Because for me it’s like night and day. I could quote every single negative response I’ve had in the past, whilst trying to promote diversity in concert halls and venues and festivals. Now, in the past year, there’s this new drive. Yeah, I don’t know what it is, but I think it is an interesting topic. But then you don’t want to say, »well, you didn’t seem to care about this ten years ago. What has happened recently«?
GL: Well, I welcome expressions of support, especially when accompanied by real resources. One thing that has happened, though, is that we are seeing a lot of boilerplate statements about how Black lives matter and we need to support our Black colleagues, etc., from institutions who have still never programmed or included a Black composer on any project.
HSGK: Oh my gosh, have you seen the stories about the Barbican Centre? This is the largest multi-arts venue in Europe, and I used to work there as a press officer for classical music. What has just been published is a book of testimonies from Black people who work and have worked there, talking about all of the racist goings on with regards to programming, as well as personal acts of racism. This was an incredible act of bravery, I think. I didn’t contribute to it, but everything is in there. It’s been a huge controversy in the UK. They’re putting out statements about being a place of equality and diversity and, you know, diversifying the artists that they present and host. But actually, all of these things are going on behind the scenes.
GL: You’ve been on a lot of these boards now. Do you think these boards are themselves diverse?
HSGK: No, not really. I mean, I left them because I was becoming frustrated, and wondered whether they just wanted me on these boards to make them look diverse, but not actually to listen to anything I had to say about the reality of the industry. So, I thought, why am I wasting my time doing this when I can focus on writing the best music I can possibly write?
GL: Yeah, I’m starting to feel that way a little bit, especially after turning 69, as to how much time I have left for these kinds of things. I’m on a jury right now and the jury process allowed people to suggest people in addition to those who had applied, which is one way to foster diversity. But I was the only person on the jury who suggested any Black people, and those were the only Black people out of all those submissions, those three people. And I was the only Black person on the jury. So, I began to think, well, what am I doing here? Should I actually drop out, or stay and continue to advocate? Would people understand the cultural standpoint of these works as they understand the others? The question arises, what kind of institutional stamp does a person of color being there place on a process like this in terms of the field? This goes under the heading of ›systemic‹. But I’m ultimately optimistic about the possibilities, because we are all getting to know each other. And sometimes, something great comes out of those interactions. You can’t be cynical about it. You find out that white people can also advocate for Black Lives Matter. What I’m sort of saying here, though, is that we will need new curators, we need new boards. We need new people to shake up the institutions. It’s not like Black curators are that hard to find.
HK: You know, that was one of the central demands of Musicians For – a more diverse board. A few years ago I was part of a panel in connection with a jazz festival where the topic of the panel was gender and diversity. I remember there was one panelist. She was a member of one of the radio big bands, and so she talked about her experience being the only woman in that band. And the panel went on for, I don’t know, two hours or so, but the issue of diversity regarding ethnicity or race was never really discussed. And people are very, very reluctant. I think some people probably even think that, you know, diversity means or can be reduced to gender. But going beyond that, something that is increasingly challenged by people in Germany is the idea that, you know, race here is something that is completely distinct from what’s going on in the US, and so, you know, we don’t have to deal with that anymore.
GL: But at some point, you have to get past the masking language of ›diversity‹. There are a lot of holes in classical music’s roof, and the rain is really coming in now. I saw no need to try to fix all the holes, just a few that I felt qualified to deal with – in this case, the tendency of our field toward erasing blackness, something nobody was talking about.
HSGK: I found it interesting that in the survey that the Power Up people did with Black composers, 100 percent of the composers had experienced racism in the classical music industry. That’s one hundred percent!
GL: I mean, I hope it hasn’t gotten to the stage where Black composers are getting threats and being booed, like Lewis Hamilton or Simone Biles or those English soccer players.
HSGK: The booing is kind of private, it’s behind closed doors and it shows its face in the absences. The absences show us what the priorities of the field are. My impression is that Donaueschingen was positioned as a highly politicized festival, a space where artists and composers can speak about and present works that are highly politicized, but obviously my criticism of that is that those politics were incredibly narrow until very, very recently. I get the sense that they’re actively trying to open that up. And obviously Elaine Mitchener was a part of that opening up.
GL: Well, what is the identity of the Donaueschingen festival? What is it, a European festival? Does it showcase Europe? And if Europe is changing, shouldn’t the festival reflect that? Or if the festival presents international composers also, should changes in that way also be reflected?
HK: In 1957 the German jazz critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt presented the Modern Jazz Quartet at Donaueschingen. This was the first time African American musicians had appeared at the festival. That performance became the talk of the festival and even eclipsed the German premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Agon. Suddenly, for the next 10 years, jazz disappeared from the festival’s program.
GL: That’s absurd, but not entirely unexpected.
HK: Forty years after that performance, an article by Berendt in a book edited by Josef Häusler revealed that shortly before his death, the musicologist Heinrich Strobel, who was so influential at Donaueschingen, explained the silencing of jazz at Donaueschingen by saying that even though he loved jazz, if this had been allowed to continue, jazz might have pushed contemporary music into the background.
GL: Wow! »You will not replace us.« That’s real identity politics.
HK: A few years earlier, Bernd Alois Zimmermann tried to get his trumpet concerto performed at Donaueschingen. He actually tried to find a Black trumpeter as a soloist for his piece, which was about blackness and oppression. Strobel discouraged Zimmermann from doing that, but in the end, this turned out to be one of his greatest works.
GL: I heard it at Ostrava Days in 2015 with Reinhold Friedrich playing – incredible!
HK: In the Häusler book, Berendt also talks about the interaction between jazz-identified musicians and composers such as Stockhausen and Berio. And he said, you know, they talked to the musicians, and they wanted to find out about extended instrumental techniques and stuff like that. I was wondering, do you have any recollections of your 1976 performance at Donaueschingen and its reception?
GL: Well, that was 45 years ago. I was playing a duo with Anthony Braxton. I barely remember anything about the reception; I should probably research that, although a recording of our performance was released about 20 years after. Anthony was following contemporary music; I was just starting to do that, mostly under his influence. I went to a lot of the concerts, but of course I didn’t know anybody. Looking at the program for that year, I could have heard Tristan Murail’s Mémoire/Érosion. I hadn’t heard of him either, but I did meet him at IRCAM in 1982, and later we were both part of Columbia’s composition faculty. The only name I remember is Michael Finnissy. His piece made quite an impression on me, and I found it remarkable that some of the materials we were using overlapped with what he was doing. But we were segregated off in the jazz section.
HK: Yeah, maybe like Plessy v. Ferguson? [Laughter]
GL: Separate, but not exactly equal [laughs]. But this had its own joys, since I met Albert Mangelsdorff and Zbigniew Seifert, who tragically passed away well before his time, and Michał Urbaniak and Urszula Dudziak. But I never had any further contact with the festival until 2017, when Björn Gottstein invited me to give what became my creolization of classical music lecture. I don’t think Anthony was invited back either, except maybe on the jazz side. He’s one of the most widely known composers of our day, but his music is never played in Europe except when he brings his own group. As far as the ›classical‹ side of the Donaueschinger Musiktage was concerned, he was just part of the super-long list of Black composers they ignored until 2020. A wonderful musician from one of these great German contemporary music ensembles told me that he had trouble presenting projects of Anthony’s music in Europe because the curators thought of it as jazz, which was supposedly outside their genre remit. But we have the internet now, and five minutes there can inform you about the scope of Braxton’s work. So, genre is just an excuse, really. Everyone knows who Braxton is, or if they don’t, perhaps they are the wrong people to be making cultural decisions. There are other people out there now.
HK: As I see it, the Society of Black Composers articulated an identity based on what Guthrie P. Ramsey has called ›Afro-modernism‹: »How Blacks throughout the world responded to the experience of modernity, globality, and anticolonialism as well as to the expanded sense of experimentation and visibility of black expressive culture.« By drawing from a wide array of aesthetic references and widely deploying cultural admixture, the Society of Black Composers significantly expanded the purview of contemporary music.
GL: And now we have even more of these new populations, new subjects, who are bringing new knowledge, histories, and aesthetics, changing not only the racial, gender, and ethnic identity stances of new music, but also, at a fundamental level, the sound of new music, and how we hear it. This prevents the scene from becoming sclerotic, but it also produces a decolonizing situation where, in the words of Chinua Achebe, »we are no longer at ease«, and we have to live with the demise of the cozy arrangements of the past.
HK: These attempts to decolonize the contemporary music art world to counter the erasure of Afro-modernist classical and experimental music from concert programs and historical narratives became intensified in the wake of Black Lives Matter’s global impact – but you can expect pushback, certainly. I was reading an article by the historian A. Dirk Moses which is really central in terms of a debate that is going on in Germany now. He discusses a turn of illiberal postwar liberalism that is challenged by and seeks to contain demographic, cultural, and ultimately political and moral changes brought about by migration and generational change. And I thought that was very, very insightful, and very fitting in terms of, you know, what we’ve been discussing.
The Composer, musicologist, technological artist and trombonist is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University. Lewis is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. Lewis’s other honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Doris Duke Artist Award. Lewis’s books include A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008) and the two-volume Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (Oxford University Press, 2016), and his compositions for instrumental and technological forces have been presented worldwide. He holds honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Edinburgh, New College of Florida, and Harvard University.
GL: Now, this reminds me of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s curious review of the Ensemble Modern’s Afro-Modernism concert at MaerzMusik 2021. The critic was saying, well, maybe this concert was looking for the »Black sound«, but according to him this music didn’t sound different from any other contemporary music. Well, we never said we were trying to define a ›Black sound‹. We were just presenting six Black composers writing music, something the scene in Europe wasn’t doing. This concert had Afrodiasporic perspectives from Europe, the Caribbean, the UK, the USA, and Africa, all in one concert, just as diverse as the Afrodiasporic music event Elaine Mitchener and I curated with the London Sinfonietta. At both concerts we presented music by Tania León, who has just won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize, whose work is rarely performed on the continent. Putting on an evening of Afrodiasporic new music is really no different from an evening of French new music, but this guy actually wanted to define what ›the‹ Black sound was and sit in judgment of how Black everybody’s music was. That’s basically a move to hold on to power in a shifting landscape, like Moses says – to contain demographic change, but also to retain power over the nature and pace of any kind of change.
HK: Related to this, a while ago I read an article by a German music critic in a very conservative German newspaper about changes in the curriculum at Oxford’s music department, where people advocated for the inclusion of, let’s say, Miles Davis, or hip-hop. The critic was horrified by this, and he asked this rhetorical question: »Do you really just […] want to replace Pyotr Tchaikovsky by Miles Davis?«
GL: Well, personally, I would consider that. But that remark reminds me of the ›culture wars‹ of the 1990s in the USA, where people dismissively professed to be searching for the Tolstoy of the Zulus, to cite one famous novelist. Offering fake dichotomies, you know, identity or quality, diversity or excellence.
HK: I thought this critic’s remark was a good example of what Moses was talking about – cultural change brought about by migration and generational change.
GL: Conceptual as well as physical migration. We’re dealing with that kind of issue right now at Columbia. Both of you have taught the undergraduate course ›Masterpieces of Western Music‹ there, and current graduate students are pressuring faculty for a decolonization of that curriculum, sort of like what they did at Harvard, and particularly with respect to Black composers.
HSGK: I know what you’re referring to about the syllabus. Recently in the UK, there was a controversy because the only Black composer – Courtney Pine – on one of the national A-level music syllabi was going to be removed, because they were saying teachers couldn’t handle marking the exams in the pandemic. So, in order to make it easier for the teachers to teach young students, they said, we need to reduce the syllabus, etc. But there was a huge national reaction, and they had to put the composer back on again. What I find is that people don’t really even understand the notion of colonialism. The whole Windrush situation, where people who became British citizens in the 1960s were deported because there wasn’t this understanding of what it meant to be from a British colony, to be a British subject – that isn’t even taught. In my own music, I’ve really become interested in the idea of creolization, because somehow it seems as though it’s a bringing together of all of these aspects that we’re talking about, creating spaces for transformation.
GL: I’m reminded of something else that Björn Gottstein said at the Afro-Modernism Symposium: »You know, you just have to find the right people to talk to.« I totally agree with that. I like to imagine that after we did the Ensemble Modern Afrodiasporic music events at MaerzMusik 2021 in Berlin, the mobile phones were burning up with interesting conversations that went like this: Somebody would call up a critic, musicologist, professor, or curator, and say, »Wow, that concert was really great. Did you know about these composers? No? Why not? Maybe we should seek out some new people who know more.« At this point, new knowledge becomes a threat to the established order, and that threat can easily become racialized and gendered. So, what that ultimately means is that a new generation of curators is needed, people we can talk to, who are aware of these issues. Who will be contemporary music’s Okwui Enwezor? ¶
This text appears in print in the reader »Dynamic Traditions« on behalf of Donaueschingen Global 2021, published by Elisa Erkelenz and Katja Heldt.
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OUTERNATIONAL wird kuratiert von Elisa Erkelenz und ist ein Kooperationsprojekt von PODIUM Esslingen und VAN Magazin im Rahmen des Fellowship-Programms #bebeethoven anlässlich des Beethoven-Jubiläums 2020 – maßgeblich gefördert von der Kulturstiftung des Bundes sowie dem Land Baden-Württemberg, der Baden-Württemberg Stiftung und der L-Bank.