On Pen Names, Impersonation, and Identity

Greetings, folks, and welcome to another episode of Posts I Didn’t Want To Write. Today, we’re using a real-life example to talk about marginalized identity in composition and repertoire. However, this example, highlighted this week by the band and orchestra communities, is of a white man using a pseudonym to represent himself as a female Japanese composer (and, by extension, to represent his appropriative works as authentic).

The man in question is Larry Clark, an educator-turned-composer who has achieved some prominence as a large ensemble composer, particularly for young groups. Clark has, since at least 2005, published some works under his own name and others under the pseudonym Keiko Yamada. Titles from Clark’s catalog are fairly standard for a white composer in this century—“Subatomic,” “Intuition March,” etc. (I will not be linking to his website or any of his content during this post.) Yamada’s titles all lean into the supposed Japanese identity—“Hotaka Sunset,” “Kon’nichiwa,” “Japanese Lullaby” . . . you get the picture. To make matters worse, parts of this false identity seem to be co-opted from actual Japanese women—one student presentation on the “composer,” found in a basic Google Search, conflates Clark’s Yamada with the popular Japanese manga artist of the same name. The “composer”’s birthdate, available through Schott Music’s page dedicated to her, is listed as August 18th, 1972, which is the birthdate of Keiko Komuro, lead vocalist of the pop group Globe.

Through this, Clark has created two footholds for himself in the world of large ensembles: one in which he profits off his own name and one in which his racist, sexist, colonialist, and transphobic business practices allow him to profit from work misleadingly billed as authentic. He has created a persona that tiptoes into spaces he would not otherwise be welcome in. He has taken advantage of the intentional programming movement; Yamada’s name and work is listed on mandatory repertoire lists in at least two states. Further, the decision to publish under a name carrying double-minority status means he, a white man, can take up spots on concerts reserved for women, people of color, and women of color.

But let’s back up a second, because I said “racist, sexist, colonialist, and transphobic” and haven’t covered all that. The Keiko Yamada persona is racist because he, a white man, has no right to present his work (and himself—because it’s still his composing) as Japanese without experiencing the same treatment and struggles as Japanese composers. (This is putting it mildly, but I’d like to defer to folks with lived experience in this vein.) The Keiko Yamada persona is colonialist a) because he is taking whatever pentatonic crap he writes (see Kon’nichiwa‘s description, or better yet, don’t) and selling it as culturally authentic based on the name he puts on the score, and b) because his own website and output does not in any way indicate that he has done anywhere near the work required to engage with the Japanese musical tradition in a way that’s anything other than ruthlessly appropriative. The Keiko Yamada persona is sexist because as a cis man, he has no right to claim to write from a female perspective he hasn’t experienced (and it’s doubly awful because many of us abbreviate or use real, non-appropriative pseudonyms to appear less feminine). And, finally, the Keiko Yamada persona is transphobic because it’s a slap in the face to folks who are accused of masquerading in their gender and those whose catalogs exist under two names because they were unable to publicly acknowledge their gender until partway through their careers. Each of these points could be its own post, but for now, I’m going to leave that floor open for those better-qualified than me to speak on these topics.

A not-insubstantial number of folks in the large ensemble community have been hip to this for some time. In 2016, Carl Fischer, Clark’s publisher, began indicating he was the actual composer of the work; it’s worth noting for later on that Clark served as VP and Editor-in-Chief of the company for over eighteen years. However, things boiled over this weekend, when a Facebook post by Owen Davis went viral in the band and orchestra communities. Clark, to the dismay of many, was set to speak at the 2020 Midwest Clinic on repertoire selection (for those unfamiliar, the Midwest Clinic is the US band world’s biggest annual conference). Though this announcement had been made previously, efforts to alert Midwest to the situation went unanswered at the time. The thought of a man with a history of actively engaging in appropriation giving a clinic on repertoire selection, being presented as one of the foremost experts on the subject, is appalling. Thanks to the weekend’s uproar, the board of Midwest realized (finally) that they couldn’t sweep this under the rug anymore. Clark’s appearance was canceled, though it remains to be seen what will replace it.

Still, in the midst of the uproar, it became increasingly clear why Clark had gotten away with it for so long: many ensemble directors continue to operate on an “I don’t care who wrote it if it’s good and works for my group” model. It’s a stark reminder that we’ve still got a lot of work ahead of us. For now, though, I want to extend the hand in that direction by explaining a little of this not as someone who’s used to dissecting these concepts (though I am) but as a queer woman still processing and being affected by these issues in real time.

Being a young composer in this century is both a land of increasing opportunity, as the professional orchestras become overcrowded and more people form their own groups, and a journey of uncertainty, as many of the most high-profile ensembles still tend toward programming dead white men. Being a minority makes this even more fraught (though the degree to which this functions can vary—in the US, composers of color have a whole lot more to deal with than a white (cis) woman in the same field). The idea of the Old White Boys’ Club certainly plays a significant role in this, especially in the act of automatically treating anything written by a woman, a composer of color, a queer composer, and/or a composer with a disability as inherently different. We are Othered by virtue of who we are (or maybe who we are not), silenced again and again by the clamor of voices who seem to simultaneously argue that a) our music doesn’t conform to the canon and isn’t marketable or good for their groups, and b) our music is in the exact same ballpark as (and therefore judged the same as) the straight white men, so it’s not their fault our work just isn’t as good.

These ideas are tricky to work around and challenge directly, and it’s why so many of us opt to seek out and create spaces where being female (or nonwhite, or queer, or disabled, or some combination of the above) and contributing to our art form despite the obstacles we face is acknowledged and celebrated. These are frequently small spaces with nonstandard instruments—for instance, if I were going to try to pull a small all-female jazz group together comprised entirely of Phoenix-based women who are friends of mine, I’d have trumpet/flugel/laptop, tenor saxophone, two vocalists, and a guitarist. Nonstandard is putting it lightly. Our influences would be equally across the map: we’d have a strong doubler, a weird-music person (hey, it’s me), a singer-songwriter, an opera-trained singer, and a skilled commercial player. Even though we can all converge somewhere in the increasingly stylistically diverse bubble we call jazz, we wouldn’t end up with a uniform sound that mimics the genre’s tradition. And while that plus our lineup would (hopefully) get us a little cult following, we wouldn’t be eligible for a lot of the same mainstream success afforded to male groups who break the mold stylistically. Even if our music was amazing (and with a little time, it almost certainly would be), we wouldn’t have access to spaces and opportunities simply because we tried not to androgynize ourselves. Put simply, that honesty would cost us dearly. Larry Clark did not have to pay that price; instead, he profited from it.

This translates to composition, too—I’ve never spent time trying to write anything that could possibly be construed as a love song, even when I’ve wanted to, because I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into a box that equates femininity with a general lack of musical competency (and trust me, there are a lot of those boxes floating around). I’ve generally steered clear of anything super-emotional for those same reasons. And yet, with this androgynizing of my creative self and my work, I’m sometimes unable to access the tools and ideas that make me both a pretty okay human and a good storyteller. Is my music only good when my emotions run high? No. My competency doesn’t hinge on my femininity, but the stories I choose to highlight and the means with which I choose to do so are often indirectly influenced by experiences in life I’ve had because I am a woman. This is what we mean when we’re talking about authenticity in composing. And for Larry Clark to decide to sell music under a name that implies an honest relationship to the material’s generation is to perpetuate the misogyny, exoticism, and fetishization that has long plagued Eurocentric Western art music.

Clark apologized on Facebook, but the effort was . . . lackluster, to say the least. He argued that pen names were a thing everyone does, completely failing to acknowledge that he not only donned a new name but a new gender and cultural identity that he had no right to. He claimed that in 2016 he, “together with [his] publisher at the time,” opted to stop using pen names. (It is unclear if Carl Fischer stopped publishing any pen names for any composers or if Clark possibly had more than one. The plurality of “pen names” in Clark’s post may have also been a typo, but it’s impossible to tell at this time.) Let’s all remember that tidbit I mentioned earlier: Clark served as VP and Editor-In-Chief at Carl Fischer for over eighteen years, per the bio on his website. The bio says Clark moved from his position at Fischer to his new publishing company, Excelcia; the company’s Facebook page says it was founded in summer 2018, and they’ve been on Twitter since August of that year. The short answer? Larry Clark wants us to think his publisher was a big part of that decision, but he was essentially his own publisher. He made that call, and he didn’t make it until 2016, more than a decade after he started publishing under the Yamada persona.

Clark’s pseudo-apology continues, claiming he is “trying to make things right” through Excelcia. He states he will seek “composers of diverse backgrounds that better reflect the students that will perform our music;” however, at the time of writing, that’s clearly not a priority. In the current Excelcia catalog, band directors looking for repertoire for concert bands at all available grade levels (.5-5) have only three offerings—out of dozens of pieces—written by women. Only one is by a woman of color. Even if we believe Clark’s apology, promoting minority composers through his publishing company would result in a significant profit for him and relatively little for the composers he claims to uplift. It’s a bit of a catch-22 as it stands, but what Clark doesn’t address is that there are plenty of other ways to encourage, publicize, and share the work of these creatives—they just don’t benefit him.

This story continues to develop; it’s become clear through the discourse surrounding this weekend that Larry Clark is among more composers masquerading as women (and likely women of color) for some portion of their creative output. In time, I’m hoping to write more on what we can do to combat this, but I’m going to end with one last point. Remember the jazz group analogy from a few paragraphs ago? The one where we gave up opportunities for not androgynizing ourselves? That’s also a great example of women making a creative space that allows their voices to be heard. 5thWave Collective, a Chicago-based group lifting up the work of women composers, is another. A lot of (male) composers routinely moan about women-only (or non-cis-men-only) calls for scores, but it’s important to realize that those are new opportunities that exist in new spaces. To borrow from the “everyone gets a piece of the pie” analogy, we didn’t make your slice smaller; we made the pie bigger. But we did that for ourselves. We did not create that space so we could welcome you.

If you’re considering being a Larry Clark, don’t even think about it. It might take time, but we will always root out the liars. ♦

Thanks for reading! If you like what you see (or would like to see more like this), come back every Saturday at 8pm MST. To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @ordinarilymeg on Instagram.