I’m Taking My Name Off the Institute for Composer Diversity
[A note from 2023 Eris: As my writing about the Institute for Composer Diversity (unfortunately) continues to expand, I’ve given up and created an entire blog category for these analyses. You can now find all my posts focusing on ICD by clicking here. Posts that mention them in passing but do not focus on their actions specifically will still be tagged, but you’ll need to search “ICD” in the bar at the bottom of the page—and likely scroll a little—to find those. Thanks!]
Many of you, like me, have been following developments at the Institute for Composer Diversity this year. The organization, originally created (as I understand it) as an intentional programming resource for educators and directors alike, has grown beyond its initial constraints and begun positioning itself as a juggernaut of diversity in music, particularly in the wind band world. I’ve recommended ICD as a resource in the past—even put them on my long list of resources I co-sign—but, sadly, that endorsement has come to an end.
Here’s the thing: like most institutions, ICD has messed up in the past, often pretty publicly. That in itself isn’t the end of the world! But it has increasingly turned a blind eye to the concerns and critiques of marginalized composers ourselves—the very people they claim to represent. That continual unwillingness to listen, acknowledge issues, and work efficiently to correct them (or to correct them at all) has soured their name among many folks who carry with them more expertise through lived experience in diversity and inclusion than many on the ICD staff.
I’ve also grown increasingly frustrated at ICD’s continued positioning at Midwest and other high-profile conferences as an authority on intentional programming, when in reality they offer very little (if any!) information or best practices on establishing relationships with the composers referenced within their database. There’s no discussion of the fact that many of us make more on commissions than we’ll ever make in individual score sales, no talk about how many of us are self-published because publishing favors notoriety over financial success (and many of us can’t get a foot in the door with the big houses, anyway). There’s no discussion about trauma performativity or the conditions under which it might be appropriate and meaningful to ask a particular composer to write a piece that addresses a specific marginalization or violence. There’s not even any discussion of ownvoices and the importance of prioritizing diverse stories told by the populations they most directly impact. It’s just a database, accompanied by vague encouragement to make marginalized composers part of your ensemble’s stat sheet without any attention paid to how their work actually informs and influences your programming needs and wants.
The stats they suggest are pretty conservative, too. If you go to one of the live ICD presentations, you’ll hear someone (probably Rob Deemer, head honcho of the project) say these are suggested starting points, but if that important caveat is anywhere on their website, I have yet to stumble upon it. (The website does cite a “minimum” stat, but it’s very easy to skip over the importance of the word while trying to process the numbers that follow.)
Among my biggest personal struggles with ICD’s work, though, is that it essentially weaponizes its composers’ marginalizations and markets to band directors without providing any specifics about their work, artistic practices, areas of specialization (beyond instrumentation), or even specifics of identity that composers may wish to share, like pronouns and other information that may vary from the traditional expectations that come with certain genders. We are reduced down to data points on a sheet, names that are guaranteed to check an ensemble’s diversity box without paying too much attention to the specifics of our identities and how those important distinctions might inform our artistic work.
Over the past year, it’s become clear that in allowing non-composers and others to submit information on a composer’s behalf, the Institute has inadvertently outed many queer composers without their consent. This isn’t just careless administration; it’s doxxing. A failure to check in with composers and ensure they consent to specific information being featured on a very public, easily searchable website is a colossal breach of trust. How are we to assume an organization that outs us alongside our contact information actually values our work, when they can’t be bothered to even consider how the release of this information might affect our day-to-day safety?
I first heard rumors of an email that would be sent to featured composers to confirm their presence on the ICD databases several months ago. At the time, I figured I’d sit on my thoughts for a couple weeks, then, when the email arrived, decide how to best proceed. But, like I said, it was months, not weeks—a time span that included much of Pride month, when many of us in the queer community had to lock down our social media to protect from coordinated doxxing attempts. All the while, our information remained readily available on ICD’s website. By the time the email arrived (a little over a week ago), I had lost faith that the Institute cared enough about the composers on their lists to protect them proactively.
Below is a copy of the letter I sent to ICD in response to their request to confirm my information in their databases. I am posting it in full because I firmly believe that an organization whose main mission is publicly espousing a reductive flavor of intentional programming should be held publicly accountable. I’ll post some suggested best practices next week, but for now, here’s what I told them (please note my dig at website hits at the end was due largely to the emphasis on their own stats they place in their promotional material):
Thank you for reaching out; I’d heard this email was coming for several months, so it’s nice to finally receive it. I’ve been back and forth over my interest in staying on the ICD database. When I met Rob last year, it seemed like he was interested in incorporating new and more diverse perspectives into his leadership, which I took as a good sign. However, in the intervening sixteen months or so, I’ve seen a lot of lip service from the Institute and, more worryingly, a distinct lack of care and respect toward queer folks and people of color either associated with the project or listed on the database.
Though I cannot speak to the experiences of people of color, I have been increasingly concerned about the Institute’s unwillingness to hold itself accountable to the nonwhite creatives it seeks to represent. The mishandling of Elizabeth A. Baker’s work earlier this year immediately comes to mind: even the apology issued was weak, nonspecific, and did not address the important concerns being voiced by marginalized composers across social media. Instead, it functioned mostly as promotional content, touting the Institute’s stats and seemingly trying to sell followers on its benefit to marginalized composers. (For reference, ICD drives about .01% of my website’s annual pageviews, and my following is significant but not massive.) Indeed, my overall impression of ICD has grown to be that of an institution that likes to say it’s doing important work for marginalized people without actually taking any feedback from the rank-and-file composers they represent.
I’ve discussed the challenges facing ICD and my concerns with the organization quite frequently with Ashley Killam, who’s spearheading your chamber music database. Ashley is a dear friend, and her willingness to listen and forward important issues up the chain is an asset to your organization. However, that benefit is being drastically underutilized. During discussions Ashley and I had in June, in the aftermath of the statement from Rob, I expressed my concern that ICD was inadvertently outing queer composers who had not consented to being represented on the database and that publicly listing so many queer identities without any specified protective measures was putting composers at high risk of doxxing. This past summer, there was a coordinated campaign to dox queer people during Pride, and I saw no statements from ICD on how they would be protecting their membership or signifying they were even aware of the protection a database of queer composers would require. Though I do not work in infosec and don’t have readily available solutions to these problems, I did grow up in Silicon Valley, and I know protective measures are actionable. They may not be cheap or free, but they should be considered an essential part of your operating costs.
During this conversation, I also brought up with Ashley issues with the queer representation on the site, namely that the entirety of the LGBTQIA2S+ community is condensed into one checkbox. There is no option for composers to be specific about their identities, and while I’ve noticed y’all did add a non-binary category under gender, this is still insufficient. It’s inappropriate to lump queer composers into one large pile of “vaguely gay.” Your definition of LGBTQIA2S+ listed on your site also doesn’t include aromantic people, which is a gross oversight. This lack of attention to detail tells your queer composers, very definitively, that you don’t actually care about their identities. You might value their identities for their inclusion in your database, but the takeaway from ICD is that we are all interchangeable, and that is a downright dangerous message to send, especially to your audience of ensemble directors and musicians seeking more diverse repertoire. Y’all don’t even have a way for people to include their pronouns, which is an essential part of ensuring folks are represented the way they’d like to be! When I discussed these concerns with Ashley, she sent the ideas up the chain and came back asking if I’d be interested in meeting with Rob to share my thoughts and suggestions, since he was actively trying to learn and was purported to be taking other similar meetings with queer folks that week. I said yes, and Ashley passed on my information—yet I never heard from Rob. I fully understand how busy he is, but for the straight, white, cis, male head of ICD to claim to be open to outside perspectives while refusing to make time to hear them is at best incredibly dismissive of the marginalized people his organization theoretically values.
And, so I’m clear: with the departure of Christian Folk, ICD has become an institution Rob has used as a power grab. He relies largely on data he did not do the work to amass, he does not share credit with the other folks who helped in the early days, and he positions himself as an ideological figurehead of inclusive programming despite being unqualified to do so. The leader of an institute as commanding as ICD would like itself to be should be a marginalized person with knowledge of and experience in dealing with issues facing the composers represented in the database. Amassing names and websites does not make one an expert in diversity, equity, or inclusion, and the fact that Rob continues to make many unilateral decisions against feedback provided by his own staff cements the idea that ICD isn’t about promoting diverse programming in a way that’s safe for marginalized composers. It’s about promoting Rob’s specific idea of how he thinks diversity should function: in a way that still allows him to build his own reputation on the backs of marginalized people and their work.
This lack of willingness to make time for that kind of learning, specifically on Rob’s part, is among my biggest problems with the Institute. The white saviorism inherent in the staffing, leadership and visibility of the organization is another; the increasing monetization of the database and the implied threat in Rob’s June statement that ICD will not be free-to-access if people don’t start donating also ranks highly on the list. At this point, after many months of sustained criticism and feedback, it is clear to me that at this point in time, the Institute is not actually interested in meeting the needs or addressing the concerns of the composers it represents. Instead, it strives to create for itself a false position of superiority among music educators, contingent on the exploitation and commodification of marginalized composers’ identities rather than truly highlighting their work and excellence. My own entry in the database is wildly out-of-date, but rather than correcting it, I’d like to be removed from your listings and databases in full. I will not lend my name to an organization that will willfully put me at risk while ignoring the concerns and suggestions I and others bring forward. It’s just not worth the hundred pageviews a year.
[Eris] DeJarnett [old pronouns]
performer, composer, sound artist
MFA Performer-Composer, California Institute of the Arts
BM Theory and Composition, Arizona State University
[Since some of you will likely be in the “let me know if you hear back from them!” boat, I’ll be upfront: I sent this email on Sunday the 20th, and the only thing I’ve heard in response was a vague mention, through Ashley and not to me directly, that Rob’s door is always open and he wished I’d mentioned all this before it was too late. See my paragraph above on trying to get a meeting with him. I’m not sure I’m looking for a response from them, at this point; if there was something urgent to be said, I’m sure it would have come in already.]
UPDATED TO ADD: As of Sunday the 27th, Ashley Killam is no longer affiliated with ICD. (I also used this update to link the June statement I repeatedly reference in the text of the letter.)
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