Untouchable: The Male Gaze, ASU Jazz, and the Phoenix Community

When I was an undergrad running with the jazz boys, no one wanted to sleep with me.

…Yeah, I didn’t know how to start this one, either. For all my work addressing sexual assault, I actually don’t spend all that much time dealing with sex. (I tend to leave that creative artistry to Rebecca Drapkin, the sex-positive to my sex-negative.) While I love my body and everything it can do, I’ve grown accustomed to keeping my sexual side to myself. I’m still figuring out how much of it belongs in my artistic life. And though that answer is nonzero, part of why I keep my sex life (and body, and sexuality, and . . .) separate from the rest of my artistic discourse is just because I don’t share all of me with all of you. But part of it isn’t, and there are reasons for that—reasons I can trace back to a very specific time and place—and though I’d rather not discuss any of this, I think it’s time.

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on representation and artistry

Every once in awhile, usually when I’m in the middle of a slew of pieces about assault, my mom will check in with me about my writing. “You are taking the time to write happy music, right?” she often asks. It’s a time-honored song and dance—she asks, I reassure; lather, rinse, repeat. Less often, she echoes a sentiment I’ve also heard from my friends and my own internal monologue: I don’t want, theoretically, to be known for my assault work and nothing else.

That sentiment is a difficult one to wrap my head around on a good day, but I’ve always understood it on a fundamental level. I don’t want to only be approached when someone’s looking to dive deep into the dark; I don’t want to be known as the girl who doesn’t write music for more straight-ahead performances. And while I maybe won’t always write work that’s best when programmed on a vanilla concert, the underlying idea is stark: don’t close doors that might stay open if I picked more palatable subject matter. Put more bluntly, don’t brand as broken.

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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.

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Bandleading, Phoenix, and Three-Year-Old Scars

I met with some friends tonight (back when tonight was in September)—mostly folks in the young generation’s old guard, who were around the last time I lived here—and while we mostly got together to play, we inevitably got to talking, too. At one point, I mentioned that I was considering pitching a new project I’d be bandleading, figuring I’d get some useful insight from the group.

What I didn’t expect was the instant pushback.

Frankly, it was startling. It always is, even though it was an interesting hallmark of my last trip around the Phoenix block. The refrain this time was different: multiple folks mentioned concerns that the venues I’m considering pitching to might turn me down or give me subpar billing because they already have a token woman they hire in that capacity (and, theoretically, they aren’t interested in doing anything more than the bare minimum). While this isn’t the vibe I’ve gotten from conversations with Phoenix musicians a decade to two decades older—they’re generally very supportive of my pitching, actually—the fact that my peers (and close friends!) are shooting me down immediately is troubling at best.

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We Aren’t Your Selling Point: Thoughts on Tokenism in Publishing

Anyone on Facebook knows and probably despises Facebook’s targeted ads. Sure, on rare occasions they’re selling something you’re actually looking for and genuinely need, but most of the time, they’re either a pain or ridiculous. The algorithm, I’ve found, also likes dredging up brands and companies you’ve maybe had one interaction with and dropping more of their ads in your news feed. When it’s a company you’ve had a positive interaction with, that can be really good. In the case of a negative first impression . . . not so much.

Enter Bandworks Publications.

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Token Hire

I don’t like being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. If you asked my peers about it, they’d probably roll their eyes and laugh. Yeah, that’s Megan. I don’t have to be with other women, though that’s obviously a blessing when it comes along; in LA, there were plenty of occasions when I performed with a section or a group whose members were male-coded but included at least one other person somewhere on the gender spectrum beyond cis man. I’ve fallen in love with working among others whose struggles to be accepted in our professional environments speak to something in my own experience. These moments allow for subtle, important moments of solidarity: little reminders that we’re not alone.

That said, I spend a lot of time being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. (#BrassPlayerProblems #JazzProblems.) It’s difficult to explain why the difference is so stark, especially when I’m trying to make sense of it to folks who have probably never found themselves in such a situation. (And even if my cis male friends have, y’all don’t have centuries of systemic gendered oppression weighing on you and affecting your treatment within that scenario.) But when a well-reasoned fear of the consequences—both professional and personal—of putting even one toe out of line has been bred into you from the moment you chose your career, when you work in an industry that has a tradition of violence of all types against your gender(s), when you’re working around people you know won’t speak up if someone makes you uncomfortable, you spend a lot more time worrying and being quiet instead of working to create the art you want.

However, it’s 2019. Professionals the world over are realizing all-male ensembles can’t continue to be their default. Overall, that’s a really good thing; doors are beginning to open for gender-marginalized folks who wouldn’t have had many options a few decades ago. There’s a dark side to the change, though: musicians are beginning to reach for women and other gender-marginalized performers to incorporate into their ensembles so they can say they have one. It’s a performative, superficial kind of inclusivity that draws in folks facing this kind of oppression without considering the systemic structural changes that might be needed to make us feel welcome. It’s hastily scribbling down the answers to your math homework in the ten minutes before class without bothering to show your work (because you’re copying someone else’s), and the results are usually the same: if you don’t have a plan for getting from point A to point B, you’ll only ever get partial credit.

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Here’s Your List: Recommended Resources for Folks Starting Out

Hello! If you’ve been directed to this page, you’ve probably spoken to me recently (or somewhat-recently) about looking for resources on gender marginalization, misogyny, sexual assault, trauma, or some combination of the bunch. You’ve also done so in a way that is respectful and makes it clear your self-education on these topics is a consistent priority. First of all, thank you for being cool about it. Taking the time not only to further your own understanding of the world around you but to ask appropriately and kindly for resources to assist your endeavors is a big deal.

Below is a by-no-means-comprehensive list of resources I hold in high regard. I recommend digging into them at a pace and in an order that makes the most sense for you. Be sure to take care of yourself as you go. Happy reading!

Last update: December 14, 2019

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Here’s Your Damn List.

I am not a fan of the question “can you give me reading material on that?” (in any incarnation). It puts the onus on oppressed demographics to educate their oppressors on longstanding, pervasive harm that is being engaged in to this day. I particularly hate it being directed at me in any context besides a serious, direct (in-person) conversation between two people or perhaps in a small group of friendly faces. If anyone asks me in public, the answer is almost always “no, you can do your own research.” Because, frankly, that’s always true. To borrow from an internet friend, your education is not my calling. It is your responsibility.

However, I know I’m going to be asked this question for a long time, so below is a by-no-means-comprehensive list of over one hundred resources I highly recommend to improve your own education about gendered violence (both in a physical-violence sense and a general-trauma sense). This took me weeks to assemble. Your work does not stop here. If it has an asterisk (*) next to it, that means I found it on the first page of a Google search. You could do that, too. Do better!

Last update: December 14, 2019

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lightning rod/harbinger (lucky/too much)

I have always been jealous of my male friends in the jazz world.

Not because of their skill or their musicality—though I admire that also—but because of their freedom to focus on the music first and foremost. It’s a tricky concept and often difficult to explain, but today, I’m going to try.

Before we begin, though, it’s important to note that I’m keeping this jazz-focused specifically because the prevalence of jam sessions and more consistent shows (at least in Phoenix) means we’re doing a lot more running around and getting together as a community than some aspects of the classical scene. More things are casual, but there’s more happening overall. When my CalArts friends asked me why on earth I would go back to Phoenix jazz in any capacity, the answer was convoluted, but part of it was that’s where the people are, and I need people.

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“It’s Better Now” And Other Well-Intentioned Half-Truths

As I’ve begun settling back into Phoenix, I’ve decided that being upfront about my plans and trepidation is the best policy at this point in time. As a result, I’ve been honest with folks—common refrains are “I don’t play standards anymore,” “I’m still figuring out what I want to put energy into,” and “I’m picking projects I really like and going from there.” These ones are easy to swallow for most folks (though the standards one often raises some eyebrows until I add “this community killed that for me”); however, some of the truthful answers further down the playlist of “how are you?” are already raising some pushback.

The big one, unsurprisingly, is the simplest: in some ways, it’s terrifying to be back.

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