everything needs to change

I’m not feeling particularly inspired to write newsletters these days. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor remain freshly enraging — Taylor’s killers have still not been charged. If you can protest, protest. If you can donate, donate. DC and Maryland do not have cash bail, so I’ve been giving to Black Lives Matter DC’s legal defense fund. I’ll be giving to them again on Monday for my birthday, and encourage you to do as well. Educate yourself about defunding and abolishing the police; start with Mariame Kaba.

Based on my social media feeds, a lot of people are thinking not just about changing the nature of policing in our country, but also about how to change their own worlds, to commit themselves to anti-racism where they live and work. Good. My world -- music academia, music criticism, classical music, the (white) musical avant-garde -- has devalued black music, black culture, black liveness, for centuries. To rectify this only begins with diversifying your repertoire, programming music by composers from underrepresented groups. It will be about centering black music and black culture in curricula and supporting black folks on campuses. That means, as Loren Kajikawa articulates (read his article), a necessary push beyond the genre boundaries of classical music in curricula, an understanding that music schools and departments need to upend their white supremacist roots and take seriously popular music, jazz, non-Western music. And by seriously, I mean that these musics should flow through every part of your department, not just as a bit of extra sauce in your music history sequence. And, as we teach beyond classical music, we need to foreground how white supremacy has always shaped the American vernacular (see Matthew Morrison).

Some of this work is easier than it looks (this is all easy!). Over at NewMusicBox I spoke to several musicians about what to do right now, and Nathalie Joachim foregrounded this:

We have been here before, and the only thing that hasn’t happened is a complete and utter reckoning with ourselves: who we are as a country, how we got here, why we are like we are, why we keep coming to this place. People don’t want to do the work, because it’s hard. But  when it becomes a way of life, it becomes less hard. It becomes less hard constantly. For a while, it’ll be hard, constantly. And it’s going to hurt.  But radical change, that’s it: you have to just accept where you’re at and figure out something to do to move forward that is more than lip service, that is more than likes and clicks, that is about you reaching deep into yourself and saying, “You know, we haven’t been doing the work. We say we’re about diversity and equity, but we haven’t really done anything. And our leadership doesn’t reflect that, and our actions don’t reflect that, and our programing doesn’t reflect that.” That’s just a reality that needs to be contended with. And honestly, when it comes to the arts, it’s just not that hard. It’s not that hard to hire black people. It’s not that hard to commission black artists. It’s not that hard to create space.

But we should also be frank about where the difficulties lie: there will be pushback from some who ground their understanding of music-that-matters in music that they know, that their teachers taught to them and that their teachers’ teachers taught to them. This makes a lot of sense: they have devoted their lives to a project that they think is broad and powerful and universal, and may only now be learning that it is in fact narrow, and limited, and exclusionary. (That “they” is also a “we”; I am fully implicated in this, having thought this way for much of my life and am still learning, un-learning, re-learning.) It will be work for studio teachers to learn works by black composers that they can teach, in-depth, to their students; it will be work for music theorists to learn to teach black popular music within a traditional sequence; it will be work for directors of large ensembles to find ways to collaborate with musicians across traditional genre boundaries. I am sympathetic to this work, especially in the midst of a pandemic. But I am much less sympathetic to those worried about it than I am to the labor that black scholars and musicians have been doing for a long, long time to teach everyone else how to be better. Have you read Eileen Southern’s The Music of Black Americans? You should.

Our work should have started a long time ago; it's far past time to start now. Challenge your colleagues, your professors, your students, yourselves. 


I did want to fire off a short newsletter because this forum may go dormant for some to-be-determined amount of time, because I am going to be a dad very soon. Like, any day now. We’re very excited! (Georgia is, too; she loves kids.) So, four more quick things before I leave you for a while:

  • My book is in production with Oxford, and it will likely be published around January/February!! (There’s another Bang on a Can online marathon tomorrow, tune in!)

  • I wrote a piece for 21CM about the importance of public musicology; it’s a short thing aimed towards non-musicologists, so it doesn’t go full-force into my whole “what’s the deal with public musicology” rant that I give to grad students in my seminar. But it does unpack some of the underlying values I consider when I think about this term and why it’s useful; and some of the reasons I give to students about why it’s worth pursuing as part of their scholarly work. At some point I’ll probably write a 10,000 word journal article about public musicology, but this can serve as a quick-read stopgap for now, I suppose. (I had an enlightening and humbling discussion with Matthew Morrison about the limits of #publicmusicology on Twitter this week.)

  • Book #2 is going to be a collaboration with my amazing friend Kerry O’Brien: Minimalist Music: A Reader, a co-edited volume now under contract with University of California Press. We’re re-telling the history of musical minimalism through source documents: rare archival documents, well-known manifestos, previously unpublished interviews, Voice reviews, etc. It will shed new on your favorite figures and a lot of musicians you’ve never heard of. More on that soon.

  • Season 1 of my podcast, Sound Expertise, will launch sometime in July. Stay tuned.


I leave you with the words of George Lewis:

I cannot profess surprise at any of the revelations that have been dominating the media lately. A few years ago at the University of Minnesota, I was on a public panel with a close relative of Philando Castile. For me, that earlier murder, George Floyd’s murder, and those of so many other black people, all simply fold into the daily litany of anti-black, internationally instantiated micro- and macro-aggressions from state-sponsored and privatized vectors of white supremacy that I have experienced at least from the age of nine, and with which I, and now my teenaged son, need to contend.  Perhaps this accounts for my impatience with naïve class-trumps-race denials. However, there is no number to call, no app to download, to express solidarity—not even a single “protest movement.”

So, even in the face of a growing Afro-pessimism, what people might want to do is to fight to transform their own communities where they can, with a sense of vigilance against anti-blackness, and a militant incredulity at those who would deny black subjectivity and humanity.

In opposition to an influential view that polices the borders of music to deny its crucial implication in urgently needed political and social change, we have philosopher Arnold I. Davidson’s quote from AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie: “Artists teach people how to live.” So how do we do that? To fulfill that mission, scholars, critics, curators, teachers, composers, performers, and other musical people might start by teaching themselves, retooling for a new reality, with the help of Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Sara Ahmed, Tim Wise, Joe Feagin, Sylvia Wynter, and Frank Wilderson.

I am quite gratified to see, among so many people, mostly much younger than myself, the same kind of creolizing identity dynamic I have suggested for contemporary classical music, where the myth of black absence retains its death-grip. In response, a creolization of the field is needed, one that recognizes that its current identity issues amount to a kind of addiction—one that, like other addictions, you have to overcome to survive.

And the music of Courtney Bryan: