Session 2: Spreading Art That Advocates for Change

This month the EXCEL Lab is THRILLED to be partnering with the Eastman School of Music’s Paul R. Judy Center for Innovation and Research on a three-part online symposium entitled Disruption Action Change! This week our featured guests, Joel Thompson (Composer) and Garrett McQueen (Trilloquy), discuss their experiences disrupting traditional organizational practice! Register below to see their live Q&A this Thursday, March 18th at 4:30pm EDT!

Register Here

Meet Garrett McQueen

Garrett spent the first decade of his career as a professional bassoonist. Determined to impact a bigger change in the arts, Garrett later transitioned into the field of broadcast media, and since 2016, he’s been the host and producer behind nationally syndicated public media content at the intersection of race, contemporary culture, and “classical” music. Garrett also works as Executive Producer of the TRILLOQUY podcast, and as a member of the leadership teams of the American Composers Forum, the International Society for Black Musicians, and the Black Opera Alliance. 

From Garrett

What if one day, someone told you that everything you knew to be true was a lie? How would you react to understanding that the things you believe in most, the things that you’d do anything to uphold, were false, incomplete, or even oppressive? I didn’t always want to believe that there was something “wrong” with the art form that I’d fallen in love with at such an early age, but after years of experience on and off the “classical” stage, I’ve dedicated my career to helping people understand the conditioning that is a music education in America, the ways in which people can overcome that conditioning, and the responsibility all artists (and all people) have in creating an anti-racist society. 

Some musicians have the benefit of learning to sing or play according to their culture, but this is extremely rare among “classical” musicians. I can’t quite remember the very first tune I learned to play on the bassoon, but I’m sure it wasn’t something that spoke to being a Black kid in Memphis, TN. Works like “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” aren’t intrinsically violent, but the propagation of Eurocentric culture as the primary entry point toward becoming an instrumentalist must be called what it is: white supremacy. I didn’t always understand that conditioning or music “training” started from those very early stages, but it’s clear when you look at what schools continue to teach. From Orff Schulwerk, all the way to the musical “canon” that serves as the foundation of most American conservatories, the Eurocentricity that has built the status quo surrounding “classical” music must be fully understood and completely disrupted for a more equitable arts ecosystem to be built. 

It’s not easy coming to terms with one’s own conditioning, but it’s completely possible! After leaving my hometown to pursue a bassoon career, I made a point to be as Black as I could in all spaces. I refused to codeswitch, and even foregrounded music by Black composers when I had the opportunity to impact my or anyone else’s programming for the stage. My love for music by Black and living composers eventually earned me a spot on the radio airwaves, where I continued to take action in exposing listeners to the overlooked genius of composers other than Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. From there, I developed a love for being behind the microphone, and expanded my work into a weekly podcast called TRILLOQUY. Since its inception, I have worked to center conversations that not only shed light on some of “classical” music’s overlooked stories, but ones that also can inspire everyone to take action in their communities and institutions.

For generations, words like “racism” and “prejudice” have been pushed into a category that most people don’t think involves them. In reality, every person has a responsibility to take a look at themselves and to determine what they can do to inspire change. Through my work as a content creator, I’ve had the privilege of meeting so many people with such a wide array of experiences, identities, and stories. Being exposed to so much helped me understand my own prejudices, and the things I needed to do to change. When everyone takes the time to learn from and listen to people with whom they may not normally, a new arts ecosystem will be born. I am proud to help facilitate that in my work. 

Meet Joel Thompson

Joel is an Atlanta-based composer, conductor, and educator, best known for the choral work, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which won the 2018 American Prize for Choral Composition. Currently a doctoral student at the Yale School of Music, Thompson was also a 2017 post-graduate fellow in Arizona State University’s Projecting All Voices Initiative and a composition fellow at the 2017 Aspen Music Festival and School, where he studied with composers Stephen Hartke and Christopher Theofanidis and won the 2017 Hermitage Prize. His opera, The Snowy Day, based on the book by Ezra Jack Keats, will premiere December 2021 at the Houston Grand Opera. 

From Joel

The exterior of the building looked unassuming – brick, one-story, yet still huge, like everything in Texas – but the inside was a resplendent treasure trove…like a secret dragon-guarded cave in a Tolkien novel. My old library in the Bahamas kept all the children’s books at the top of a mostly windowless non-airconditioned tower, which was coated in a benevolent Pepto-Bismol pink to hide the fact that it used to be a jail in colonial times. Still, it served as my time machine to centuries past and my Scotty-less transporter to foreign lands and magical wonders…like the Hennington-Alief Library, in which I now stood.

She must have seen the awe on my face in response to the expansive YA section. Or maybe she saw the undisguisable glee inspired by the new knowledge that I could check out more than two books at a time. In fact, they had those little baskets that you saw at the grocery store! I had already purposed to fill mine to the brim when she approached with that endearing Texas lilt. “Hey there! What’s your name, darlin’?” Bashfully, I said my name as I’ve always said it and as my parents said it. “Oh, you mean, Johl.” She smiled. “Can I help you with anything, Johl?”

When I came to the U.S., I possessed a distinct amalgam of the Bahamian and Jamaican accents. My name-changing encounter with Smaug the librarian was one of many steps in the attempted erasure of the natural rhythms and inflections of my speech. Also, sixth-grade Joel didn’t want to stand out as a target for ridicule, so the voice with which I currently speak was born. In the 20-plus years since then, I’ve been told that my accent is not “American,” but not able to be placed anywhere else really. Many times, I’ve also registered surprise on the faces of people who assumed I wasn’t Black after only interacting on the phone. I’d like to think the Texan librarian didn’t intend to do any damage. I guess she simply said my name the way she thought it was supposed to be said, but her choice has continually reminded me how fervently I must protect my voice. The ease and audacity with which she attempted to change my name, the avatar of my identity, to fit within a box for her comfort has always baffled me. I’d like to think that if she and her hypothetical son, Joel, went to Jamaica or even to the pink library tower in the Bahamas, that no one would tell her son his name was actually JO-ell when he introduced himself as “Johl.” However, when I take a step back, I realize that this country was founded with that same audacity – to steal the land, massacre its indigenous inhabitants, and name it the United States of America.

Today, as a composer in dialogue with the legacy of Western European art music, I have found that holding true to my name, to my voice, to my identity is a most disruptive act. Striving towards honesty in my music, centering Blackness, and holding the door open for Black and other marginalized voices in this space are disruptive acts. These acts of disruption are rooted in an unquenchable love for this music and the joy of making it. However, I continue to ask, “Why is this disruptive?” and “What am I disrupting?” The potential answers, as they relate to the genre of classical music, are downright depressing. They show me that disruption is not enough – disruption must be the catalyst for transformation. 

I look forward to conversing with the amazing Garrett McQueen during the Disruption Action Change Symposium, and I hope to learn more about how we can continue to invest in the transformation of this artistic field and how we can continue to our artistic practices with the hope that we can be models for fundamental social change in the real world – a world in which my future children and grandchildren will be able to borrow books without casual threats to their identity, a world in which they’ll be able to create in any field without fear of being pigeonholed or dismissed, a world where they don’t have to change or hide their voices to remain safe, a world where they don’t have to worry about being killed extrajudicially because of their exterior, ignoring the treasure trove contained within. Until then…

Want to hear more?

Join us this Thursday, March 18th from 4:30-6:00pm EDT via Zoom for a Q&A with Joel and Garrett. They will delve into their posts in greater depth and explore questions like, “How must the definition of classical music change to become more inclusive, and what might that mean for the industry?” We hope to see you there as we expand this conversation around experiences making and spreading art that advocates for change. Participation is free, but registration is required via the link below.

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