Ownvoices versus Intentional Programming: A Primer

In the last year, I’ve sat down several times to break down problematic and offensive programming and publishing decisions by major music institutions. Sometimes it’s started on Twitter, sometimes on my blog, but I’ve found myself circling back to many of the same issues again and again and again. In certain cases, it’s been harder to spot, because the Phantom Regiment snafu and resulting fallout look different on the surface than, say, the Larry Clark/Keiko Yamada moment or my thoughts and hesitations about Fire in my mouth. Each of these points to different, interconnected issues within our communities and the ways in which we talk about marginalized composers and their work. However, they also point to different ways in which our current mainstream discussions of these issues aren’t specific enough to make the right arguments for folks who may not be as plugged in as we are.

Because while these instances and others (looking at you, St. Louis Symphony’s History/Her Story programming) all fall under the umbrella category of Things Concerning Marginalized Composers, they don’t all deal with the same issues. In fact, they concern themselves with two distinctly different things: intentional programming and ownvoices representation.

Of these, intentional programming is perhaps more familiar for the classical-music-industry layperson. For those unfamiliar, the idea behind intentional programming is that because music directors and conductors commonly choose music by the dead white men they’re already familiar with, they (and everyone else programming concerts) need to do the legwork to find and select worthy works by marginalized composers. The goal is… well, to program intentionally. To find these people and their music on purpose and put them on concerts on purpose.

The intentional programming movement is largely referred to as such in the band and orchestra worlds; in the experimental music community, I’ve found it’s more commonly an extension of having friends and not being an asshole. (You’ll run into the occasional cronyism problem that way, but in my experience, the new music community is more receptive overall.) Still, the movement subverts a lot of the most problematic tokenism arguments, particularly comments from folks who imply we’re programming trash music just because its composer is marginalized. Effective, thorough intentional programming involves getting to know more than one or two marginalized composers, and it requires learning about their overall output, not just familiarizing yourself with a score or two. In doing this, you can decide for yourself which pieces you love and would like to program, and if that composer’s style isn’t for you, that’s okay—you’ve got more you’ve grown to love. The ripple effect of intentional programming is (hopefully) long-lived: as directors begin to consistently program works by marginalized composers they adore and start allowing these pieces into their greatest hits lists, audiences and performers will fall for them, too.

While this places an immense amount of responsibility (in my opinion, rightfully so) on music directors and ensemble managers, performers can and do contribute as well. Students and soloists can intentionally program recitals and concerts they’re in control of, and performers of any kind can point their peers, colleagues, students, and superiors toward marginalized voices they adore, requesting to play certain repertoire when appropriate. Most importantly, intentional programming does a decent job of removing responsibility for getting a foot in the door from marginalized composers—if we’re making good music and you can find us on the internet, we’ve got as much of a shot as our periallocishet male contemporaries do.

However, the musical landscape continues to evolve as communities and institutions put forth important questions about the full implications of an appropriately diverse musical canon. Intentional programming, though an excellent starting point, does not address all of these questions (nor should it). The most prominent of these queries, from my admittedly limited viewpoint, this past year has been a vital one: how do we treat stories about marginalized individuals and communities?

To answer this, I’m pivoting into the literary community. Author and editor Corinne Duyvis coined the hashtag #ownvoices (and, by extension, the term) in September 2015. Her original goal for the tag was simple: “to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.” Kidlit, for those unfamiliar, is an abbreviation for children’s literature. While the term started out describing books aimed at young humans, it’s since spread to virtually every corner of the fiction world. It’s an easy signifier for folks, and it’s an important one: as Duyvis pointed out in this excellent FAQ, “it’s common for marginalized characters to be written by authors who aren’t part of that marginalized group and who are clueless despite having good intentions. As a result, many portrayals are lacking at best and damaging at worst.”

This is pretty obviously of critical importance for authors and readers, as an inaccurate portrayal of a marginalized character can not only leave a marginalized reader feeling all sorts of crappy things but can reinforce bigoted stereotypes in non-marginalized (or differently-marginalized) readers’ minds. An ownvoices book minimizes (though does not eliminate) the chances of that happening; an author who’s lived the experience they’re documenting is far likelier to portray it honestly and accurately, with attention to detail and nuance others might miss. The result: books that, even in fiction, tell stories as they would really happen to their marginalized characters.

In Duyvis’ FAQ, she points out that ownvoices can be intersectional, but isn’t inherently always inclusive of every marginalization a character faces. For instance, if I, a queer white woman, tried to write a queer woman of color, my story would be ownvoices for the queer aspect but (obviously) not the racial component. (Further, if I wrote a gay man, it wouldn’t be ownvoices, since that’s not an experience I’ve had. Existing under some parts of the LGBTQIA+ umbrella does not give you a blanket license to authority of all those experiences!) It’s important to keep these distinctions in mind to ensure you’re consuming responsibly, because there are absolutely straight, white, cis women who abuse the hashtag, but once you understand the principles at play, it’s an incredibly useful tool.

As the intentional programming movement picks up steam and we continue to see greater representation of marginalized composers across the board, more discussions are happening about who’s telling the stories in our programs about gender-diverse people and individuals of color and disabled folks. The most obvious of these in 2019 might have been the conversations surrounding Phantom Regiment’s 2019 Joan of Arc-centered show, I Am Joan, and its all-male cast of composers. I’ve said plenty on the issue; in fact, my critique of Phantom’s choices is the most viewed post on my blog. The Twitter thread it transcribes went lowkey viral. It’s the first time I’ve found myself being frequently cited as one of the go-to perspectives on such an issue. (Is this what people mean when they say you never win the Pulitzer for your best work?)

The immediate fallout of the Phantom snafu was intense. I spent most of a week engaging in as much productive discussion as I could while mitigating the hate and vitriol I got from Phans who were… unhappy I’d taken issue with the corps’ playlist consisting largely of well-known, well-established works by well-known, well-established (dead) male composers—or, as I called it at the time, “Greatest Hits plus Thirty Seconds to Mars.” The discourse was complicated by the fact that the drum corps community is even more resistant to new music than most major orchestras, and after managing wave after wave of (largely abusive, largely blocked) comments on my blog and elsewhere, I realized how much of an uphill battle it would be to get most drum corps fans on the side of ownvoices programming without taking over a major corps myself. The message I received from Will Pitts, Spartacus drum major and then-head honcho of music selection at Phantom, thanking me for my education efforts was a lovely surprise, but by the time the corps had begun issuing statements agreeing they’d made some poor decisions, the damage had been done.

That is, to an extent, why I’ve been quiet about St. Louis Symphony’s programming of a weekend of music billed as FESTIVAL: History. Her Story. Our Future. that features exactly zero pieces by women. (Further, a lot of their programming for the weekend involves works in which women die. Lots to unpack in there, and none of it’s good.) I don’t have it in me to jump back into the fray with orchestral purists and argue that, historically, men have actually been pretty shit at telling gender-marginalized stories. I don’t have it in me to educate people on how deeply misogynist tropes have been embedded into the classical canon since its inception. And I know I can’t make them care, no matter how many times I tell them they need to.

Sometimes, though the community (or, at least, the part of it I can see) does a better job of coming together in defense of ownvoices writing. Such was the case with Keiko Yamada, the racist pseudonym used by (white) composer and publishing executive Larry Clark for long enough that students began compiling actual (nonexistent) biographical information on Yamada, viewing “her” as a role model for young, female composers of color. The fury surrounding Clark had been building for some time, but a viral Facebook post by musician and educator Owen Davis proved to be the boiling point. I wrote about that, too, but because the tides were different and we weren’t up against a fan base largely lacking extensive music education, the experience was less draining for me. Composers of color, however, by far had it the worst during that bout, but they kept pushing; their leadership and tenacity on this issue and all others has always been a shining example of the best of our community. We still have work to do to live up to their example, and I’m not going to brush that aside here.

Actually, that leans into the crux of this issue—part of why ownvoices doesn’t have as much traction as intentional programming is because it is often defended mostly by the ownvoices creators whose lives, cultures, identities, and experiences are being most mischaracterized and fetishized by powerful institutions. Composers of color asking that their generational trauma not be appropriated and exploited are often among the only voices pointing out the harm done by depictions that are insufficiently researched, inappropriately commissioned, or irresponsibly staged. Queer and gender-marginalized white composers don’t have the effects of colonialism and institutionalized racism to contend with, but we still have to spend excessive amounts of time critiquing programming like we’ve seen at Phantom and in St. Louis. All any of us want is for our own stories to be told accurately, yet so much of the music community remains resistant to the idea.

To fully understand this, we need to talk about trauma porn. The term is a colloquialism for “the exploitative sharing of the darkest, creepiest, most jarring parts of our trauma specifically for the purpose of shocking others.” The link I’ve provided above goes on to explain that the shock value of trauma porn can be engaging for non-survivors, but it is frequently damaging and retraumatizing for those who have actually experienced the topic at hand. Trauma porn can be created intentionally or enforced accidentally through misuse of material (which is why I tightly control where and how my Letters pieces are programmed and insist on copious trigger warnings). To be clear, trauma porn is created largely by either non-survivors asking survivors to bypass their personal boundaries in their creative work or non-survivors writing work dealing with an issue they have not experienced. While trauma porn can relate to sexual assault and similar, singular events, it can also be used to describe continuous and/or generational bigotry and mistreatment.

When we are asking marginalized creators to step over their personal boundaries and into trauma porn, we are asking them to perform their trauma. The connotations of trauma performativity are insidious because they are so clearly associated with entertainment: when we think about performing, we take a step away from things we would normally do in our day-to-day and start breaching the realm of things we do to give people what they want to see/hear/consume. We prioritize what’s most effective, not what’s most natural or safest. As such, the ethics of trauma performativity are… sketchy at best; marginalized creators (and everyday people!) are frequently coerced or forced to relive the worst moments of our lives for folks too disinterested to do research that doesn’t harm us. We become a twisted form of entertainment, sometimes masquerading as education.

Trauma performativity is bad, and non-ownvoices trauma writing/artmaking can exacerbate the issue. This is where the Phantom show, the St. Louis program, and Fire in my mouth become problematic: because each uses non-marginalized (or, in Fire in my mouth’s case, less- or differently-marginalized), non-ownvoices composers to craft their programs and music, they inherently omit important nuance and perspective from the narratives they form. I noted (briefly) in my thoughts on Fire in my mouth that the “I want to talk like an American” portion of the oratorio seems hollow, its impact dulled by the vagueness and cookie-cutter ideas presented. Phantom’s show included excerpts from Carmina Burana, a show known for its intentional musical choices painting women out to be deceptive and generally bad. (At least, you’d know if you paid attention in Music History class. Or if you’re knowledgeable about opera. Or if you’ve done your research.) St. Louis’ concert theming is extremely at odds with the programming; if their repertoire is supposed to paint our future, it’s going to be a world continually filled with violence against women.

But because in each case these are being held up and even heralded as landmarks and important moments for the representation of women, they cannot be treated solely as fictional works or interpretations. We can’t throw a “yay, women!” concert where we kill all the women; we can’t commission and present work by a non-immigrant woman and pretend it speaks accurately as a singular representation of an immigrant experience. The deaths of minorities are not the most important things about them, but the prevalence of trauma performativity, especially by non-ownvoices creators and artists, skews public perception away from seeing marginalized people as folks deserving of happily ever afters and the full gamut of adventures afforded to the privileged protagonists of the artistic canon.

It’s the corollary to “if she can see it, she can be it”—if all she sees in her artistic future is martyrdom and violence, it gets exponentially harder to create and perform anything else.

Trauma performativity is an important caveat to the ownvoices discussion; while ownvoices art inherently takes into account the nuances of its creator’s identity and oppression, it does not require ownvoices characters to live, relive, recount, or even directly reference that trauma for the audience or consumer. Arguably, this is one of the most important extensions of the ownvoices discussion: marginalized characters and stories shouldn’t only be placed in the artistic canon when unspeakable harms befall them. We are deserving of nuanced representation of all types, including the epic fantasy adventures, self-insertion fics, and happily ever afters. Alex Temple, a tour de force of a composer currently on faculty at ASU, wrote an excellent piece discussing trans representation in the operatic canon for I Care If You Listen; I’ll link it here. The points she raises speak to the importance of ownvoices in trans-inclusive works far better than I could ever articulate here. Though the particulars may vary by marginalization, the underlying message remains the same. Ownvoices are a critical component of a thriving, inclusive artistic community both because they allow for the capturing of accurate, nuanced portrayals of characters and experiences and because their presence, support, and success allows marginalized creators to be recognized (culturally and financially) for the work they create.

So, in the end, an ensemble or institution planning a program needs to answer three very distinct questions. Whose stories are we telling? Who are we asking to tell them? Why? (Or, put another way, what do we hope to accomplish with the programming decisions we’re making?) By framing repertoire choices through both intentional programming and ownvoices lenses, we’re more able to tell stories that are accurately reflective of the full spectrum of human experiences we might choose to share through music. And while the work doesn’t stop here, while the work never stops, taking the time to handle these decisions with the care they deserve is an important milestone. It’s a shift. And it’s one I hope you’ll all make with me.

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