Paying Your Dues (and other bullshit)

Since moving back to Phoenix, one phrase (besides “it’s better now”) has begun to permeate my consciousness—and weigh on my mind—more than it ever did while I was in California. I absolutely spoiled any chance at a surprise with my title, so yes, that phrase is “paying your dues.” Despite all the time I’ve spent wandering through various genres and fields of music, it’s never quite rung true to me. This is, I think, partly because of how intentionally nonspecific it is and partly because of the conditions under which I make music and move through the world at large. The depths of this issue are murky, and from here it’s difficult to see the bottom, but if I had to take a stab at a thesis, it’d be this: the gatekeeping, favoritism, and institutional bias that create the foundation of “paying your dues” stifle creativity, discourage participation, alienate newcomers, and serve the white patriarchy.

Wow, that’s a lot to unpack. So let’s take it a bite at a time, shall we?

Before we get into it, I’m not sure why this didn’t come up a lot while I was in Los Angeles, but the answer is probably partly regional and partly cultural. A wise jazz musician once pointed out to me that the prevalence and outward manifestation of misogyny varies drastically by location. Generally, New York and LA are noticeably different (though not necessarily less misogynist) than most of the rest of the country. And while this “paying your dues” thing can undoubtedly play into that, I think another part of the equation is that mindless playing-for-the-paycheck work isn’t as looked down on in LA as it sometimes is in some pockets of Phoenix—in part because gigs are a step up from the carousel of day jobs, plural, needed to pay Los Angeles rent.

The other part of this, I suppose, is that I wasn’t told to pay my dues in LA; I was told to put in the work. While both phrases carry similar weight, there’s a lot more flexibility to the latter. My friends and teachers saw me making angry assault music and counted that as “doing the work.” They saw me advocating for student life improvements and institutional change and counted that as “doing the work.” They see me blogging about the need for better treatment across the board and count that as “doing the work.” But regardless of the details, I didn’t hear or talk about or think about “paying my dues” much in California, and I do in Arizona, so it’s time to break down some concepts.

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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 identities 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.

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Fuck the Maestro Mentality

Since I started studying music in college, I’ve only rarely had the opportunity to work with a female conductor or ensemble director. (In fact, I think it’s happened . . . twice? Three times? Really rarely.) Before that, though, I was a product entirely of woman-run programs, and while middle and high school band were a long time ago, that education set me up with the expectation that my accomplishments were first and foremost my own, and while my teachers could be proud of me and talk about me, they could only claim so much credit.

This idea extended from my academic classes into my creative work in large part due to the guidance of the female and nonbinary professors and TAs I’ve had lessons and influential classes with over the past six years. These folks are supportive to no end, so eternally giving of their time and resources, but their support and praise is far less performative than some of their male colleagues’. It’s genuine, frequently private, and usually keeps an eye toward the future and what else I might accomplish. A good chunk of my male teachers, mentors, and colleagues also follow this model, but we’ve always got the handful of teachers who wait in the background, either refraining from genuine praise or being quietly unsupportive unless we jump through a little-communicated, preordained set of hoops (of which they are frequently gatekeepers).

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