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Programming for Justice
Image: Matthias Wagner

Programming for Justice

The disparity in representation within new music is a longstanding and well-documented problem. We know this. Actively promoting art and artists with a clear focus on equity can help to cultivate justice in our new music communities. This too, we know. What then holds us back? Why does disparity in representation remain such a problem?

To move towards a more just society, we must look beyond the individual to the systemic level to better understand how to improve efforts to promote equity within new music. People make programming decisions based on numerous factors. While these can differ significantly from case to case, the cumulative effect, whatever the individual intentions might be, is the continued privileging of white males. In other words, the status quo remains unchallenged. This is systemic injustice.

The commonly cited explanations for monochromatic programming all contain problematic assumptions, and critiquing these will help us overcome them. For some people, the stigma that comes with accusations of “having an agenda” is enough to prevent them from doing this work. Others argue that they focus solely on programming “good” music, that they aren’t to blame for the inequality even as they absolve themselves of any responsibility for fixing it. Still others depend either on largely homogenous peer networks or on choosing already established composers when programming, both of which fail to combat this injustice. Each scenario appears neutral and yet contributes to the ongoing inequality, with white males accruing the benefit.

Advocating for issues of social justice in spaces where these conversations aren’t normally seen to belong inevitably triggers accusations of having an agenda. Outrage over the actual details of the agenda appears secondary to outrage at the introduction of the agenda and at the one who introduces it. Invoking this charged word shifts the focus from the underlying issue to the act of labeling the issue. The reframing reverses the intended condemnation—she who points out the problem now becomes the problem.

This rhetorical maneuver has very real consequences. Fear of backlash can have a chilling effect on otherwise sympathetic people, one that limits or even eliminates their willingness to engage. Those who benefit under the current systems already have little incentive to understand, much less to challenge these systems. Absorbing the constant din of “America the meritocracy,” we turn a blind eye towards inequality, instead attributing one’s situation to one’s character in a perpetual cycle of blaming the victim. The resulting inaction, whether through apathy or ambivalence, enables the structural injustice to continue.

As activist programmers, we must reject the framework that makes agenda into a term of censure and instead embrace it as a potent tool for justice.

As activist programmers, we must reject the framework that makes agenda into a term of censure and instead embrace it as a potent tool for justice. Conversations rooted in social justice aren’t normally seen to belong in areas where they are most needed. Accepting the idea that having an agenda is inherently problematic places us already on the defensive. Such arguments are disingenuous, meant to deflect critique, to divert attention, and, above all, to perpetuate the status quo.

Furthermore, the programming of (nearly) exclusively white men is likewise following an agenda. That we rarely name this as such indicates just how normalized this inequality is. Power differentials existing off-stage are reproduced onstage, and this is subsequently used to justify the offstage power differentials once again. Our social hierarchy is thus reinscribed in a vicious feedback cycle, one where white men hold the power and set the standards. When we speak about the systemic prioritization of white men, this is what we mean.

Systemic inequality persists because it is so thoroughly entrenched in our society. Their ubiquity renders these systems invisible and bestows upon them a sense of inevitability. Although we can hope that the increasing number of calls for justice in terms of race, gender, sexuality, immigration status, class, and the innumerable intersections of these and other identities signals a sincere and sustained effort to challenge discrimination, we must recognize the sheer magnitude of the uphill struggle. To challenge the hegemony of the white male within our society, we need to push. Complacency begets continuity.

Invoking “good music” as the principle factor driving decisions on what to include, even as one continues to program monochromatic music, upholds structural inequality while proclaiming an innocence about doing so. This is an attempt at absolution by those who could leverage their privileges in support of efforts to promote equity and who instead choose not to. Although “good” appears neutral on its face, an open possibility that all music can aspire to, it is used in these instances to deflect efforts to advance more inclusive programming. “I only care about the music” closes conversations. The subtext that music by composers from marginalized communities couldn’t possibly qualify as “good,” or it would already be programmed, once again blames the victim for the situation. Deny and deflect.

Too often, “good” means already established, with no critical examination of the process through which it became established. Our canons depend on an assumption of meritocracy in whose flattened narrative the survival of this music testifies to its unimpeachable quality. The forces that shape music as a social and cultural product also shape our reception of it. Institutionalization is not a politically neutral process, but is instead inexorably tied to the unequal distribution of power. “Good music” is a construct of subjective preferences, not an objective truth. “Good music” is a dodge.

It is important that we are honest with each other and with ourselves about where our choices in programming come from. Given the numerous commitments we all juggle, we collectively default to the path of least resistance, provided that the perceived repercussions appear minor. This often means programming the work of composers we’re already familiar with. Those in a position to program a concert series tend to be white men whose composer acquaintances are, likewise, white men. This setup leads to more exposure and more repeated exposure, helping these white male composers become established names in the new music scene. As a result of these feedback cycles, most of the music programmed, while undeniably good music, nevertheless remains familiar music. What is expected becomes what we get, and this becomes what is expected.

The conscious decision to program something “different” provides us with the opportunity to reflect more deliberately on what exactly constitutes “normal” and how this situation came into being. We who are white men might ask ourselves why we don’t challenge this universalization of the white experience. We might ask why the current disparities in programming are “the way things are.” We might ask what identities we expect to find on our concert programs, and why we expect these and not others. We might ask what metrics are used to determine “good music,” and why they seem to produce diversity of style but singularity of racial and gender identity. We might look outward from our new music community and see how each of these questions also applies to all other aspects of our lives as social beings. We might think more critically about how these issues intersect with our new music community in the hope that witnessing widespread injustice might galvanize us to take action in multiple areas of our lives.

Indeed, we must. Pointing out a particular instance of injustice forces people to deal with it. Once ignorance, whether real or feigned, is no longer on the table, continued inaction in the face of a known social problem becomes a conscious choice. Our naming these problems also acknowledges the real harm suffered by those directly impacted, disarming attempts to blame the victim. This is a starting point. This affects us all.

What else can we do?

If we want to see actual change in concert programs, we need to program change. Making space for music from underrepresented communities on the same platforms that dominant voices occupy declares that these marginalized voices likewise merit space, energy, and resources. These structural changes will not come from a single concert or a single season of activist programming, yet these efforts, no matter the level of their discernible impact, are important. The fumbling and faltering that comprises incremental change is still critical change. These efforts accumulate.

Although few of us are positioned to program concert seasons, we can all work within the spaces we have available to advocate for positive change.

Certainly, concert programming is subject to numerous constraints. Although few of us are positioned to program concert seasons, we can all work within the spaces we have available to advocate for positive change. We should support the organizations within the new music community that are already working to promote equity, diversity, and inclusivity. Meaningful actions include showing up to events, helping to publicize them by sharing throughout your networks, volunteering, donating, and finding still other ways to support these initiatives.

For instance, the Institute for Composer Diversity, in addition to making it easier than ever to find amazing music to program and composers to commission, has developed an equitable programming model we can use as a starting point for these important conversations. Activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished focuses attention on social justice issues at the national level, including police brutality, #SayHerName, the school-to-prison pipeline, and immigration. Several organizations promote the work of specific composer identities, including: the Boulanger Initiative, focused on music by women and women-identifying composers; Castle of Our Skins, dedicated to promoting black artistry; Quinteto Latino, whose repertoire features compositions exclusively by Latinx composers; and Imani Winds, who has a long history of expanding what we consider to be the canonic norms. Other organizations, such as Forward Music Project or New Works for Percussion Project, use commissions to promote equity within the new music community.

The injustices I’ve written about are not unique to new music, nor to music generally. Instead, they replicate recursively, touching every other aspect of our lives. To deny their presence is to perpetuate the imbalance of power. We must all be responsible curators for each community we inhabit. To overcome systemic inequality will require a sustained effort on multiple fronts. We must call attention to situations where voices are not being heard: question who is included in the program, on the stage, and in the audience—as performers, as composers, as producers, and as audience members. Ask these questions publicly. Ask them of the other spaces in our lives. Let us yearn for flourishing communities with the same fervor that we yearn for individual success. Let us #HearAllComposers.


Coming from a rock guitar background, Dave Molk embarked on jazz performance until problems with tendonitis lifted his compositional focus to the forefront. He writes mainly for pitched and non-pitched percussion, combining an energized rhythmic propulsion with expressive timbres. Molk is a close friend with producer Olde Dirty Beathoven. Molk is a founding member of District New Music Coalition and a board member of New Works. His research focuses on inclusive pedagogy and dismantling structural racism. He advocates for undocumented communities in and outside of higher education. Molk taught composition and... Read more »


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One thought on “Programming for Justice

  1. Marcus Wembley

    I am going to hope against hope that NewMusicBox has not become an ideological echo chamber, and that the moderators let my following “non woke” statement stand. I find such articles largely dispiriting and demoralizing. Of course there are social justice issues in composition and new music. That being said, the “privilege” and “social justice” frameworks are narrow and simplistic, and risk marginalizing other supposedly “privileged” quality composers for reasons just as shallow as the ones used to occasionally marginalize minority composers. If you drop the ideological jargon and actually speak to the people in your industry, you may find some of them “privileged”. But you will also find many of them to be fighting battles you risk missing in your woke narrative, and you will find that many of them – despite fitting the shallow “privileged” label – have overcome a great deal to hold even their tenuous positions. And therefore you risk alienating many potential allies when you label them simplistically. There is a silent majority (or at least significant minority) which thinks so in our field, and yet is afraid to say so because the “woke” hold the strings of power.

    Which brings up another problem: If we really are such a progressive field ideologically speaking, shouldn’t such problems already be a thing of the past? Are you all not bothered by this significant bit of cognitive dissonance?

    Best wishes to ALL composer and performers, “privileged” or not….

    Reply

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