Ok, maybe it is. However, it is time that we explore a better way of thinking about programming that is slightly less mystical and much more equitable. I recently shared a couple of thoughts on programming as it relates to conscious efforts in diversity and equity in a Twitter thread that began with this:
What follows is an edited and expanded version of that thread.
We’ve all seen it: there is that large (but hopefully shrinking) group of folks that arch their backs every time there is talk of performing works by women. Among them, there are the truly noxious people whose deep and poisonous biases can be safely disregarded in total. However, from the less extreme portion of that groups comes a particularly pernicious pattern of argumentation that I want to identify, debate, and debunk. It is the argument that consciously selecting music with the aim of increasing equity, inclusion, and diversity in classical music makes it less likely that the performer will program “the best music,” the music of highest artistic integrity, because they are now selecting for an arbitrary trait rather than solely based on the musical merits.
Here’s what’s wrong with that:
That’s all programming is. Programming is a form of puzzle to do with selecting music within a series of artistically arbitrary constraints in the form of practical considerations. As a conductor, you look at your season, you look at your orchestra, and say to yourself things like: “I need a 30-35 minute work, for medium large orchestra, with no soloist, appropriate in difficulty for university or top youth orchestras, with an 8-rehearsal schedule. The horn part can’t be too high, the viola part can’t be too hard, no more than 2 clarinet parts, and the bass part cannot divide or use a low C extension. And I’d prefer something with a Latin feel. What options are available within those specifications?” And, this doesn’t even begin to look at issues of budgeting, the venue, the placement on the calendar with respect to holidays and important anniversaries, the other works on the program and season, and the list goes on. What I would like is for someone to tell me where, in all of that, is there something to do with the artistic quality of the composition. I’ll cut to the punchline: It’s not there! Instead, it is a litany of droll, practical concerns. And, among those concerns, it is not at all difficult to add, “and, if I program a work by a man to fill this spot, I need to look at where else on my concert I might try to balance that with a work by a woman,” for instance.
That’s not to say that curation cannot be a serious artistic process with truly revelatory power. In fact, it must be exactly that. But, we must demystify the work that is involved and recognize that it is an unglamorous process of filling the pipeline with quality music, and then being able to push those works through the filters created by the factors outlined above in order to drop great music into appropriate positions in a season plan. How good works get into the pipeline is quite simple: you listen to a ton of good music, and you remember the music that speaks to you the next time you are looking for repertoire. It’s the point of selecting what music to listen to, I would argue, that the greatest opportunity for intentionality exists, and possibly a topic worth expanding upon at a later time.
Now, for a note of encouragement: Take heart! Art thrives in its restrictions. Every composition across the history of music was composed under restrictions and every program ever curated did the same. Nothing, nothing at all is lost by challenging ourselves to slowly build the equity we seek, brick by brick, and that comes in no small measure from consciously selecting for a diverse season. To be sure, there are significant challenges to robust diversity in programming. Some of them have been and are being addressed by the Institute for Composer Diversity and some additional challenges are doubtless going to see projects rise up to tackle them. There is no need to minimize that fact.
However, there are two pieces of low-hanging fruit for a conductor (or a season programmer of any type). The first is to simply challenge yourself to make it a condition of your season planning that women and persons of color occupy a meaningful place in your season. That simple act of deciding will cause you to do the work necessary to achieve that objective, and any artist worth their salt should welcome the challenge. The second is merely to be in the habit of asking friends for repertoire ideas along any given dimension, including concerns to do with equity. Conductors already do this all the time along the other relevant dimensions. As mentioned, we are constantly running through our mental database for a work that will meet any given criteria until we find one that is the right fit for the orchestra and concert before us. It is a fun mental exercise that we enjoy doing, and that we enjoy discussing with our peers. It’s essentially a puzzle that tests our repertoire knowledge. And, it is part of the process of filling up the pipeline I mentioned.
What is lacking, therefore, is adequate repertoire knowledge.
Again, I include myself in the long list of those who need to continue to work hard in this area. I am a person for whom Julius Eastman was completely unknown only two short years ago, and for whom Ethel Smyth (whose birthday is today) was completely unknown just a year ago, to name only two. It is not fully the fault of those of us who were educated without exposure to the rich history of good compositions by women and persons of color. However, it is most certainly our responsibility to augment our education with additional study in the present day so that music by these terrific composers see the light of day in keeping with the strong merits so their best works of art, the same as any other composer.
It is at this point, with the pipeline brimming full of great music by composers with all manner of backgrounds that the truth is revealed. Indeed, the highest artistic integrity not only admits of but demands works by women and other marginalized groups.
Program artfully, but program accordingly.
Photo: Music Theory Examples by Women.