Art music, inclusion and good intentions

When it comes to inclusivity, the classical music industry is brimming with good intentions. But history has shown that good intentions are frequently derailed by roadblocks of our own making. So, how can we ensure today's good intentions convert into good embedded practices and outcomes in the future?

March 30, 2021
Holly Mathieson
A small British boy of African descent wearing a blue teeshirt with a yellow superhero logo on the front holds a conducting baton and looks towards the photographer. Behind him are four more boys, slightly older than him, waiting for their turn. On the left of the photo is a blonde, white woman, bending own and smiling at him in encouragement.
The author leading a family workshop during the LSO's This is Rattle festival at the Barbican Centre, 2017

This is a transcript of my contribution to a panel I shared with Uchenna Ngwe and Raeesa Lalani last month, hosted by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland as part of their series Art-making in the Anthropocene. If you find it of interest, I’d heartily encourage you to seek out the work of my fellow panellists, Uchenna and Raeesa, including Uchenna's research project plainsightSOUND, aimed at rediscovering colonial and postcolonial voices in British classical music. They are insightful artists and thinkers. Without any prior sharing of notes or planning, the resulting discussion turned into a Venn diagram of three different perspectives and experiences, with a fertile meadow of overlap in the middle.
As a female conductor I’ve observed (and to some extent, surfed) the convoluted waves of exclusion, agenda, tokenism and genuine celebration that happen with a movement towards greater inclusivity of one kind or another, and perhaps there are lessons to be learnt from that process. But the primary perspective I thought I could usefully contribute to the discussion was that of a Music Director and Board Member, those in our field who are, traditionally, most empowered.
First, some disclaimers: I can only really speak about classical music, and in particular orchestral music and opera. We sometimes forget what a small corner of the creative world that is. Some of the points I raise may or may not apply to other musical genres or indeed other artforms, but I don’t have the expertise to speak to them. I also want to underline that the arts are just a tiny microcosm situated within greater social and political systems, so how the conversations around inclusion and equity play out in the arts is different in every culture around the world, and shoved around by forces far bigger than pondering what overture to play next week. I hope you’ll allow me to generalise to a degree, but please don’t think I’m speaking about the arts or classical music industry on a global scale, nor even on the level of the nation state. I can’t. I should also clarify that I am speaking specifically about bodies of work, or organisations, that seek to be inclusive.
I'm still learning as I go, but as is Scordatura's ethos, I hope writing about this topic here will deepen and challenge my understanding.

I want to start with the words Good Intentions, because the music world’s board meetings, Instagram feeds, post-pandemic-recovery strategies and zoom panels are full of them. Genuine, good intentions. In my professional networks (which are situated in the UK, Aotearoa and Canada), everything I am reading and every discussion I am party to around inclusion and de-colonisation of the arts has been full of genuine good intentions and, thankfully, some tremendous good actions to match. However, we don’t have to travel far down the path of good intentions before systemic structures become road blocks. Just ask female composers in their seventies and eighties. They’ve been “discovered” about once every 15 years since they day they graduated. And with a little reflection, it's not hard to see why.

Let’s picture the typical lifeline of a project that embraces inclusivity (explicitly or implicitly), as a pipeline. At the beginning of the pipeline, we have the genesis of an idea – it might come from a performer, a composer, a producer, a member of a board or administration, or be part of a funding imperative. At this point in the process, everyone is bursting with good intentions. At the other end of our imaginary pipeline, if the project survives its journey, we will have a concert, recording, or workshop which is a direct descendant of that initial idea or funding. Our hope is that the good intentions present at the beginning of its journey will have found expression in its eventual output.

Diagram of a yellow cloud with the words "good intentions", feeding via an arros into a long purple cylinder containing icons: cogs, people, a checklist, £ and $ symbols, a green tick and a red cross. Then, another arrow leads out to of the other end of the cylinder and points towards a green box with the words "final project" written on it.
Naff middle-management model, using comic sans font. Forgive me...

But here’s the rub. That pipeline contains a variety of gates for the project to pass through: marketing plans, repertoire committees, Board meetings, ticket revenue projections, budget and strategy aims, contracts with agents and concert halls, negotiations with recording companies etc. It also weathers the attitudes of the audience and musicians. Basically, our pipeline contains all of the motivations, requirements, anxieties, assumptions, spreadsheets and egos that govern how, or indeed whether, that initial idea at the beginning of the pipeline results in a completed project and – crucially – whether the good intentions will have remained integral to the process and outcome(s).

The first thing to make clear is that the murky swamp in that pipeline, all of those tests to be passed before the product/project emerges at the end, don’t have bad intentions. This is not about good and evil; It’s about idealism and pragmatism. Many things can derail a project, but the one thing that is almost certain to annihilate is an unbalanced spreadsheet.

Finances aside, I believe artists, administrators, board members and producers have, for a very long time, wanted to programme more inclusively, welcome more diverse audiences, and genuinely want access to arts education and jobs to be merit- or need-based; after all, it is in their best interests for it to be so. There are exceptions, of course, and those I’ve met who are not open or interested in inclusive practice seem to fall into one of two camps: ignorance of the issues experienced by others (whether naïve or wilful: hello opera and ballet companies still using yellow- and black-face) or ideological opposition.

I think those in the first camp, which is certainly where I began as a young musician, are opening their eyes to see the benefit of different perspectives and greater reflection on their own practice. The learning is slow and clumsily reliant on the labour of a small number of our colleagues, but it progresses. And not only on the fringes. In an online discussion I attended last year, the argument was raised by a colleague, themselves a person of colour, that proactively diversifying the orchestral workforce could negatively affect playing quality. The guest speaker that evening, an absolute titan of traditional, conservative orchestral administrations in the US curtly replied, like a badass: “if every orchestral position around the world was truly merit-based, about a third of the world’s musicians would lose their jobs tomorrow morning.” Mic drop. Nobody can argue with an ounce of integrity or rigour that the lack of diversity on and offstage can be accounted for by a lack of ability, motivation or interest.

A male french horn player in a wheelchair plays amongst an audience gathered on stage. A partially obscured female dancer takes the weight of his wheelchair, tipping him back so that he is on two wheels.
British Paraorchestra in performance

The second group can’t be ignored. They are sprinkled around the podiums, boards, conservatoires, administrations and orchestral sections of the world. They are racists, misogynists (this includes women who challenge female leadership) and overgrown schoolyard bullies, and they would be no matter what their industry. They’re horrible to work with, and tend to act as magnets to others, but their views are only corrosive in direct relation to the amplification they are allowed to have in the workplace. Ultimately, that is a failing at the managerial or executive level. New workplace tools such as anonymous micro-aggression reporting software, and greater accountability to the public through the media, will hopefully bring about safer spaces and a shift in what is deemed “acceptable” or “excusable” workplace behaviour, regardless of the musical abilities of the perpetrator.

Overall, however, and even in the case of those organisations drowning in a legacy of canonic insensitivity, or grappling with toxic internal culture issues, genuine good intentions are present from most, if not all, at the start of the “inclusive practice in the arts” pipeline.

So, what of those pesky spreadsheets? At the heart of the funding (and, one could say, cultural) crisis of classical music is its change in function: for millennia, music – including what we would now call art music - was something people did; in the last 200 years or so, it’s gradually become something we purchase tickets to watch other people do. I don’t think we acknowledge the significance of that transformation often enough: art music is still at its heart an amateur activity (something we do for love, enjoyment, or social function) elbowed into a professional framework (something we do or consume in exchange for money). We are trying to make something which was never designed to be “for profit” fit comfortably within a balanced spreadsheet. It never will.

A  19th-century oil painting depicting a scene from about the 16th century, in which a family gathers around the dining table to play instruments and sing together. On the left are two small children: the little girl lays a drum while seated on a stool, and her older brother sings from sheetmusic. A woman stands next to them smiling. In the background, one man sings and plays a lute, while the other plays a wooden wind instrument shaped like an oboe. At the table, an elderly lady, two men and a woman sit smiling as they watch and listen. There is a large dog sitting next to the children protectively, and in the foreground is a domesticated crow, looking at an overturned jug and discarded blanket on the floor.
Das Familienkonzert, Fritz von Uhde (1848-1911)

To paper over the resulting cracks, we are heavily reliant on subsidy and patronage, and in many countries the state plays a very generous role in providing that support, especially in comparison to the support given to other artforms. Funders, especially state and institutional funding bodies in the countries I work in, have been exerting positive pressure to encourage and support our good intentions on various fronts for a number of decades, and I believe they are genuine in wanting those guidelines and restrictions to effect good and permanent change. I trust their motivations, even if the short-term outcomes are not always as progressive as the long-term intentions.

I have seen with my own eyes (and heard with my own ears) the remarkable effect of that approach over time in Aotearoa New Zealand. The breadth of publicly funded arts currently in action around Aotearoa, especially the respect, support and status given to Māori and Pacifica arts projects and practitioners, simply did not exist when I was a kid. The arts are thriving in unforeseen ways, because the government used its funding arm to motivate the prioritisation of Māori, Pacifica and community-centred art. It has proven that focused, politically- or ethically-driven funding really can make a huge difference to access, inclusion and representation, and that far from watering down existing good art, the resulting diversification makes for much better art for far more people. And if it means orchestral and opera projects conceived within the 19th-century model receive a slightly smaller proportion of funding pool than before, I personally see that as the scales tipping in the right direction. (Of course, we don’t need to go far back in European history to see how state interference can also hinder healthy creativity, but stay with me on this…)

An historic oil painting of a wealthy family in the 18th century, all in powdered wigs and period costume. The wall behind them has an allegorical painting in a gold frame, and a window looking over the countryside with a billowing red curtain. On the left, a woman in a pink dress holds the music steady on the fortepiano, ready to turn the page. Another woman plays the keyboard, with a man in a blue jacket and gold breeches playing the cello to her left. Behind them, three figures listen: a man in a long green tailcoat and orange breeches, and two women in blue who are looking directly to the viewer, and holding reading and writing material.
The Gore Family, Johan Joseph Zoffany (1733-1810)

In terms of private patronage, the wealthy music lovers of 200 years ago who played in the (amateur) chamber and philharmonic societies evolved into the wealthy patrons who supported the newly formed trade of music-making from the mid-19th century onwards. Now, of course, there is an enormous industry built around art music (touring, recording, competitions, etc) and people rightly need to be paid for what they do to keep that industry running. But now that the big recording boom of the 80s has been and gone, and with the glorious free-for-all that the internet offers, it means we’re ever more beholden (and grateful) to donors and, therefore, to their tastes, habits, social interests and identities, all of which – helpfully or not – form part of our project’s pipeline.

It doesn’t require much extrapolation to realise that if our funding circles are demographically insular, that will have a profound effect on the work we produce.

The other sets of egos governing much of our activity are those of the audience and performers (including the teachers, managers, critics and agents who play crucial roles in their development). From our first lesson, a classical musical education grants special status to virtuosity, excellence and competition, and teaches us that there is a hierarchy of value among composers and their works. As a result, the traditional marketing of art music – a necessary tool in ensuring that our work attracts financial support, audience retention and ticket revenue – pre-emptively guides the audience into a positive critical or emotional response, and tends to be littered with terms like “masterpiece”, “genius”, “maestro” (all etymologically gendered, classed and ethnicised). Music is not just here to be bought and consumed; it is here to be admired, utilised as a status symbol, placed on a continuum of excellence.

A long blue corridor, in the backstage area of a concert hall. A young male with a beard, in a dinner suit, plays the double bass. behind him, a woman plays the flute as several violinists stand in conversation while they wait to go onstage.
Members of the Aurora Orchestra wait backstage before a performance. Photo credit, Nick Rutter

This all reinforces that mainstream art music is, at its very roots – for students, for performers, for the public, and for the people in the middle working so hard to squeeze it into a viable business model - enclosed within an elite, patriarchal and unshakeably European value-system. The first step to going beyond good intentions is getting comfortable with that fact. Yes, yes… There are countless examples of projects that “break down barriers” and sell cheaper tickets than the football. That really isn’t the point. We could do it for free on a street corner in our jeans and sneakers (in fact, I regularly do). But to most of those present, whether as performers or observers, it would still be tied to that same value system, even if only by ironic reference. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just a… thing. And it seeps through our little project’s pipeline, catching at the feet of good intentions like quicksand, auto-filling sections of the spreadsheets with all the habits, assumptions, anxieties and necessities that tip the scales in the wrong direction.

So, what can those of us in the middle of that pipeline do to detonate, or at least mitigate, the hazards and help the good intentions to not just bear fruit, but grow into a full orchard with deep, enduring roots?

Can the egos in the room please stand up?

Let’s acknowledge the egos involved in the planning process – the musicians’, the administration’s, the audience’s, our own. If one of the primary impulses for playing in, funding or attending a classical concert is display of status, then people will make decisions about what they purchase, programme or play based on that currency. Under such a system, the “great whites” of our repertoire will always have a disproportionate advantage. If we sell art music as being principally about pleasure or brilliance, or pander to the existing audience’s assumed collective identity, we will be participating in a ritual of performative narcissism until we drown. We need to build a more robust cultural and social currency in our work, and encourage educational, professional and audience cultures with motivations and rewards that go beyond virtuosity, admiration and status.

Get comfortable with discomfort

Let your work with people from outside your immediate culture change what you do: If you are the dominant partner in a commissioning project, financially and institutionally, ask them to be the dominant partner creatively and logistically; let them control the rehearsal schedule and resources; let the output be counter to your expectations and traditions; let the process be unwieldy, expensive and complicated; and let your staff and musicians find it uncomfortable and unsettling. If it was cheap, easy or profitable to include everyone in the current system, we would be profiting from it (in all senses) already.

Fund the change you want to make

Seek out and ringfence funding for making these adjustments. Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms are available for free on the internet and use a small, standard classical line-up. In contrast, William Grant Still’s symphonies call for triple winds and large brass sections. Working with artists with disabilities incurs costs for access requirements, assistive technology and support staff. Artists whose creative process incorporates improvisation, as is the case in some indigenous artforms, need flexible rehearsal periods and require certain skills to be developed in us as collaborators. The orchestral works of a composer like Louise Farrenc cost a small mortgage to hire, far beyond the fiscal resources of most youth and amateur orchestras (who, let’s not forget, are the lifeblood of music-making and audience-filling, in the UK at least).

We need to incorporate these expenses into our budgets in the same way we accept the cost of hiring extra players and instruments for Mahler, Wagner and Bruckner. (As a side note, let’s open up a conversation with the music publishing industry about the effects of their pricing strata, because complacency and canonicism are often unintentionally incentivised.)

Show me the (unexpected and overlooked) money

Let’s drop our assumptions about who has the wealth or inclination to donate to the arts. There is a tradition of philanthropy and a sophisticated interest in culture and the arts in every demographic in society. Find them, listen to them, invite them to join your board either as individuals or as part of a cohort, and ask them how they would like to see the organisation operating. Eventually, inclusion stops being about charity, ticking a diversity box, or attempting to represent the wildly misnomered “minority" communities, and becomes about expanding the types of people who are invested in the arts, valuing them as equal partners, and making work that honours their commitment, interest and support.

Digital resources are not always our friends

Everyone is playing music by black composers this year. The only problem is that other than a few new commissions, in truth everyone is playing two pieces in particular by black composers: Starburst by Jessie Montgomery and Lyric for Strings by George Walker. Literally. We are all programming them, myself included, mainly because they are both exceptionally good works, but also – crucially – because there are great recordings available for free online. To add to their programming appeal, the strings-only orchestrations are affordable and viable with social-distancing, the parts are comparatively cheap, and they are easily digestible pieces for the audience. We are programming these works in particular, because circumstances make them easy to programme.

Don’t get me wrong - both pieces deserve to played around the globe every year, but let’s not pat ourselves on the back and say that means we can now tick the box that says our organisations played music by black composers this season. We have to go into the unfamiliar, as well. That means programming the music that’s never been recorded, the music that’s not in well-known catalogues, the music that’s notated by hand, the music that can’t be notated, the music that’s not been written yet, and the music that was played once in 1730 and hasn’t been heard since.

And when we feel reassured that the hallowed concert halls of the world won’t burst into flames in response, let’s then apply the same practice to music written by people of every colour, era, creed and gender. And then, (woah, cowboy!) let’s record it all, get it onto YouTube and Spotify, with publisher’s contact details in the notes and the ad revenue going straight to the composers’ bank accounts.

And, finally, a few thoughts from the perspective of a conductor or guest artist, particularly for those of us who fall somewhere in the burbling mainstream and can afford to hold the placards high in support of our colleagues who can’t take the risk:

You have leverage

As a Music Director or Chief Conductor, voice your concerns or expectations about the makeup of the board and music staff before you sign the contract; as a soloist or guest, if you’re in a position to take a little risk, make inclusive programming and hiring within the season a condition of your appearance. Be pro-active: offer administrations creative marketing and community project ideas to sit alongside your repertoire suggestions, including your commitment to contribute to those efforts, so that “we can’t sell it” is not a valid response.

Set your own ethical compass

Personally, I would rather donate part of my fee towards the prohibitive music hire or commission fee of an underrepresented composer, than accept that it’s outside of the budget to programme it. I’m in a privileged position to be able to do so, and many colleagues might not be able to take the hit to their income. All the more reason for me to do so. And 9 times out of 10, the person I’m negotiating with will be persuaded to think from the same perspective and match my pledge. Value systems are contagious.

Hold your subscribers and donors accountable

Remind your audience that it’s not enough for them to like your Instagram posts about inclusive hiring and repertoire. Organisations can only afford to programme this repertoire and book these artists if people buy the tickets – let's encourage people to be curious about sounds and stories that don’t explicitly reflect their own identity.

Inclusivity is neither a prerequisite nor a guarantee of good work. But I do think that the entire arts ecosystem (including its audiences and non-audiences) will benefit and - crucially - integrate in the long term, if the work we do now around inclusivity is bedded in robust, reflective practice. Just as I hope that one day no one will refer to “women” composers or conductors, equally, I hope that the future doesn’t require specialised departments and initiatives for engagement, accessibility and inclusion. Those departments are crucial right now to redress the gross imbalance we’ve inherited, and should be at the heart of our daily work, not relegated to satellite departments. But if all goes well, they will be victims of their own success, and in years to come those who replace us - onstage and off - will be horrified that we needed to have these discussions at all. After all, if we're only now getting around to engaging with, giving access to and including everyone in our work, we must ask ourselves, what exactly we have been doing until now?

Thank you to Emily Doolittle, Sarah Hopfinger, Stuart MacRae, and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland for hosting such a wonderful series of discussions, and enormous thanks to the Royal Society of Edinburgh for supporting the whole series. More details and links can be found at the Art-Making in the Anthropocene website, here.