Connected Musical Society

Identity and Diversity: Seeking a Connected Musical Society

In today’s politicized cultural environment, we’ve become accustomed to hearing that everything needs to be more “diverse.” In music, this means not only the composers we program and the students we teach, but also the individuals sitting in our audiences and on our faculties and boards.

From economists and business leaders, we hear about diversity’s practical rewards: It will make us more productive, innovative, creative and efficient. We are told that fostering diversity is a moral imperative and an ethical responsibility. We work and play in the shadow of UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, issued shortly after 9/11, which stated that “as a source of exchange, innovation and creativity, cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature.” It concluded that the commitment to cultural diversity is “inseparable from respect for human dignity.” The successful 21st century musician is expected to channel the zeitgeist, heroically reaching across ethnographic, cultural and social divides.

Diversity is routinely invoked as a lofty but inconsequential abstraction.

But diversity is rarely defined for musicians in a practical manner. The more complex aspects of identity tend to be under-examined. More often than not, it’s unclear how we can nurture cultural diversity within our own ensembles, organizations and communities, or how diversity and identity relate to realizing our artistic missions and professional goals. As a grants panelist as well as a grant seeker, I have seen weak and sometimes disingenuous claims about diversity made in the attempt to put butts in seats and money in the bank. This has led me to ask: How does diversity really function in musical environments, particularly those dedicated to the presentation of new musical work? How have issues of identity and diversity related to making ”new” music in the past? How can our understandings of identity, diversity and inclusion inform our future curatorial initiatives?  

The musical environment is a complex system sustained by performers, composers and listeners both real and potential. It is also populated by presenters and teachers, curators, publicists, producers and engineers, all of whom mutually influence one another through their actions, like a food chain. How diversity functions within this kind of complex environment and the extent to which that environment can benefit from its own diversities depends on the principles directing the environment’s growth and behavior. Therefore, those of us who seek to enhance the robustness and longevity of these musical environments are obligated to identify the principles guiding our actions. These will determine whom we affect and how we affect them. In other words, how we conceive “diversity” and “identity” for ourselves not only reflects the depth of our commitment to inclusion, but also determines the social implications of our work. Diversity is routinely invoked as a lofty but inconsequential abstraction. But the cultivation of identity diversity can help us to engage with our environment in a more direct, immediate way towards the realization of our goals and the betterment of all involved.  

“Identity diversity” refers to social identities based on race, ethnicity, gender and its expression, sexual orientation, religion, class, age, nationality and physical ability. Differences in individual identities also relate to family structure and ancestry, geography, education and class. Identity, of course, extends to aesthetic preferences, with regard to the types of music and listening experiences to which we’re drawn. All of these factors influence how we see the world and how our environment is seen by those with whom we share it. 

in considering what we play and whom we’d like to see onstage, in the audience and at the office, we too often reduce people to types and kinds

So identity diversity is complex. Yet in considering what we play and whom we’d like to see onstage, in the audience and at the office, we too often reduce people to types and kinds. We check boxes. But we disregard something fundamental about people when we classify and value others based only on individual components of their identities. Each of us has multiple dimensions to our identity — and only by acknowledging the complex identities of those whom we hope to include in our environment can we fruitfully engage them. 

To bridge truly diverse populations, we must ask difficult questions: Why would this person, with their attributes and history, be interested in what we do? How might we best reach them, on their terms? How would their presence and feedback help us to fulfill our mission? We’ve all seen sorry attempts to educate the audience, with an eye towards music “appreciation.” Yet rather than trying to educate and convert new listeners, we might reconceive how our work dynamically relates to them and the environment in which we co-exist. To do so entails acknowledging the power of fluid and textured categories of identity. And once we grasp the richness of identity diversity, we can begin to connect meaningfully with others less like ourselves.

A more connected musical society is the ideal. But the tendency of musical communities to be insular is a serious obstacle facing even those who embrace diversity and inclusivity. Soloists, ensemble players, administrators and devoted listeners often share common levels of education, cultural literacy and economic advantage. We bond through common passions and preferences: the music of a certain composer or style, or a particular performance aesthetic. Like all social and insecure animals, we bond through the exploration of shared goals and experiences. So it’s only natural that, when seeking new audiences, we first reach out to groups who resemble us and have kindred interests and goals. Some of our most meaningful personal relationships are tied to the deeply bonded communities of worship and study, ethnicity and sex — and the initial effort to draw an audience almost always reaches for family, friends and social similars. Members of these groups recognize something seminal about their origins. As a result, even as we see the value in inclusivity, we are often hesitant to leave our own groups. Even musicians enthusiastic to reach broader audiences are not always prepared to extend a hand towards those dissimilars, who might be less immediately appreciative of our skills and accomplishments. 

once we grasp the richness of identity diversity, we can begin to connect meaningfully with others less like ourselves

We may be wary to admit others who are not like us. They may view us as suspect as well. But we will only successfully bridge with others when we overcome the fear that, in opening up to diverse groups, we might lose something of the cultural specificity that distinguishes our own endeavors in the first place. This fear is misguided. Achieving a diverse society does not mean that we have to shed our cultural specificity. But it does require that we recognize something nuanced and malleable about our own cultural identity. It requires that we reconsider how we build our social connections. Building a connected musical society in which everyone can maintain and protect their own identities, while establishing personally valuable relationships with one another, requires that we recognize the complex identities of all involved.

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Marilyn Nonken

Marilyn Nonken, “one of the greatest interpreters of new music” (American Record Guide), is Associate Professor of Music and Director of Piano Studies at New York University.  …more 

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