We’ve reached out to Minnesota composers to ask about diversity, equity, and inclusion and how it impacts their work. In this Commissioning Corner article, we will focus on diversity. We hope it will inspire future conversations and allow you to learn more about the work of some of our local compositional voices. All interviews took place between August-September 2020.
Bryan Blessing and Peter J. Durow
How would you describe your current thinking about diversity and how has your thinking changed over time?
Catherine Dalton — Great question! I used to believe that all we needed was more diversity within our institutions in order to achieve a more just world. Today, while I still believe that diversity is important, I have learned that a focus on diversity alone can actually be a deterrent to real change. It’s too easy to check the diversity box without a deeper look towards rooting out systemic problems. Diversity goes hand in hand with inclusivity. In order for an organization to be diverse, we need to make sure people feel included in the work we’re doing and invited to participate. This requires us to take a hard look at the systems in place that prohibit substantial change, maintain the status quo, and further entrench heteronormativity, white supremacy, and the patriarchy.
A couple of years ago, I was concerned with the lack of diversity and inclusion I saw in the choral works selected for ACDA performances and reading sessions. Instead of simply being frustrated, I decided to do something about it. I gathered leaders from our community and led a panel I called “Through the Lens of Inclusion” at the Central/North Central ADCA conference. My questions prompted the panelists to have honest discussions and share authentic stories about their experiences with regards to race, culture, gender, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community. As they talked, a central theme became apparent — that recognizing diversity and being inclusive with regards to language and repertoire choices is incredibly important for choir members and audiences of all ages. Please contact me for a copy of the transcript.
About the same time, I was serving on the Music Committee for One Voice Mixed Chorus. I had always been a champion for more diversity and inclusion in programming, but it was through this committee that I realized how difficult it is to achieve. We are entrenched in a heteronormative system that centers on whiteness and maleness, and the work that must be done to change this, while not easy, is essential. I’ve seen how diverse programming, with an eye towards inclusion, makes my fellow choir members feel valued and our audiences feel seen. But it’s not enough. We all need to continue to have sustained, open conversations about the past and the future that move us toward equity. It takes work, on an individual and systemic level, to make room for others. This important work gets done when we listen with radical openness to the people in our community who are leading the way with diversity and inclusion efforts.
Paul John Rudoi — Over the past few months, I’ve been pushing myself to broaden my own view on words like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. To me, these words can be seen in objective lineage with one another: diversity is the one-word definition of the human variety around us, equity is how that human variety is or is not manifested in our societal constructs, and inclusion is the act of bringing together this human variety.
On a more personal level, I have to constantly check my own implicit biases to see the diversity (or lack thereof) around me. I’d like to think I’ve evolved over time, and that I’ve used my implicit biases to inform how I can support those less fortunate around me. Here’s the ticket, though: I’ve had a platform my entire career while many others have not simply based on the societal constructs in which they were born. So if anything, my growing knowledge of the complexities of diversity have diminished my need to speak and spend more time quietly learning from others.
Jocelyn Hagen — I am more motivated than ever to promote the works of BIPOC composers through my personal platform and Graphite Publishing.
Timothy C. Takach — As a young composer, it’s easy to see what’s popular on the concert stage and write derivatively, which doesn’t diversify the repertoire. As an audience member, I got tired of hearing different versions of the same kind of music on stage and began to think about what was missing, why I wasn’t always engaged as a listener. As my own compositional voice developed over my first few years as a composer, my work naturally became more and more diverse. I set texts by poets that hadn’t been set, I’d choose poetic topics that were more unique, and I’d intentionally set out to create pieces that sounded quite different from each other.
I’ve begun to actively think about diversity in my own work in the last few years. I myself am not diverse in the choral world. I’m a straight white male, and those like me are already over-represented. But a composer’s work is rarely an isolated creation, and as I choose collaborators I can amplify other voices. The poets that I’ve been inspired by are contemporary voices that should be sung. I’ve been lucky to set the words of Detroit poet Jamaal May, touring performance poet Sierra DeMulder, Mexican poet Manuel Iris, Somalian writer and teacher Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, hip hop artist Desdemona, MN poet laureate Joyce Sutphen, Maltese monk Alfred Cachia, Ojibwe writer Louise Erdrich and Estonian poet Juhan Liiv, among many others.
After all of that name dropping, I should also say that although the word diversity has taken on a very specific meaning these days, it’s taken me a while to look past how I am the same as many other composers (gender, skin color, privilege) and embrace how different I am from other composers. I’m not a composer who always writes about light, life, love, hope and peace, but I do love themes of making people better humans through music. But I am also a self-acknowledged part of geek culture, and I’m ready and willing to show that in my work as I write about ghosts and “Star Wars” and demonic possession and the solar system and magical realism and mythology and what happens to the flying monkeys after the credits roll in “The Wizard of Oz.” And all that creative work is adding musical diversity to the choral repertoire, even if it is a less important diversity than equal racial and gender representation on our programs.
Linda Kachelmeier — I feel that diversity in regards to choral music is at an important intersection. Will the recent events bring us closer to gaining a truer sense of diversity, or will we be so exhausted and disheartened that it will seem insurmountable? My thought process in regards to diversity has changed because I notice things more now: what composers are conductors programming? Who is on panels and boards? I hate to say it, but even the current make-up of ACDA-MN Star of the North displays a lack of diversity.
Kyle Pederson — I grew up in a very non-diverse environment (or at least I wasn’t aware of the diversity that may have been brimming around me). I’m pretty sure I was over twenty years old before I needed two hands to count the number of people I knew who were a different race, ethnicity, or had a different religion or sexual orientation. Eventually, of course, I met and had conversations with people who looked and thought differently than me. Without a doubt, I now more fully appreciate the gift that diversity can be: diversity in religion, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, political opinion—these can add to and improve the conversation and our lives—and result in more vibrant, whole, healthy, equitable, honest, real, and interesting communities.
One area I was ambivalent about years ago was the importance of diversity in leadership positions. I know I underestimated the difference in lived experience of those who were not a white, cis-gendered, Christian male like me. And I overestimated the ability of white Christian males to speak for—and speak to—diverse walks of life and the unique issues and perspectives most integral to their experience. I now more fully believe that people of all diverse backgrounds need to see themselves represented in leadership, literature, music, curriculum, etc. Not only is this essential for development of healthy self-concept and mutual understanding, but without this, I also don’t believe we’ll be able to make enough strides towards equity and justice for all people.
Elizabeth Alexander — My earliest thoughts about diversity grew out of my childhood in the Carolinas. Had I been asked, I could have easily labeled every place I knew as either integrated or segregated. In my mind’s eye I saw diversity as a big room with a wide open door containing people from different cultures, like the United Nations General Assembly. I still envision diversity as a room with a wide open door, but more and more I believe that room exists within ourselves. Embracing diversity means keeping our inner doors open so that others might influence and change how we see the world. The chambers of our hearts are where diversity can begin to truly come alive.
In what ways do you think diversity is important to someone in the role of a composer?
Catherine Dalton — As composers, we select texts and write music that reflects our times. These works can have a profound impact and I believe we should be intentional about the texts we write ourselves or choose to set with an eye towards how they will be received by choirs and audiences. At ACDA conferences, choral directors often share with Linda Kachelmeier and me that they appreciate our texts. They love that they often contain non-gendered language and, because of that, the pieces feel inclusive to all of their choir members. They also appreciate that we write about a variety of topics for S(SA)A choirs.
It is important, as composers, to consider which voices we are choosing to lift up, which writers and poets we are selecting. Like choral directors searching for diversity in repertoire, it can take more effort to find texts by writers representing many lived experiences, but it is worth it when our texts open the doors to a piece feeling inclusive. My compositions often explore the human condition and how we live in this world together. Because of this, I have music about immigration, ethnicity, and social justice — topics that lean into inclusion and diversity.
Overall, I seek the universality of a text; Specific experiences, which feel ubiquitous to the human condition, open doors to inclusion and compassion. “Today will be Warm: A Story Cloth in Sound” was commissioned by Global Harmony Community Chorus. They were looking for a text by a Hmong author for their concert supporting a local non-profit that assists new immigrants. I chose a text by local author, Kao Kalia Yang, that describes her family being attacked by soldiers in Laos following the Secret War. Although most of us have never experienced that terror, the story is told in a way which makes us feel that it could have been us. After the premiere, a local high school choir sang the piece at a community book club discussion with Yang as the featured guest. Local church choirs have also performed this dramatic choral work as a way to educate people about immigration and Hmong culture. It excites me when music expands our world while also bringing us into closer community.
Like all of us, I am still finding my way. As a white woman I know that I must tread carefully when I consider texts or musical language that is not my lived experience. In the effort to include stories that are different from my own, does it cross the line? Each time I write pieces that center groups of people with experiences other than my own, I have conversations with people who have had those experiences or identify with that group in order to make sure I am not crossing boundaries and I am telling a story that represents their experiences as close as possible. If possible, I invite the choir to reach out to the authors or other people in their community who can provide additional education. My wish is to broaden the scope of the stories told, to always learn, and to be intentional. In my song “She Stood for Freedom,” I lift up civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, and suffragist, Alice Paul. The third person in the song is us — all of us. All of us doing the difficult work of dismantling systems that have been built to leave people out. To work together to take apart systemic structures that are hurtful. How can we each be an ally for diversity and inclusiveness? How are we breaking down the barriers?
Paul John Rudoi — As a composer, it’s not only important to consider diversity in what I do. It must be one of the items on my required checklist to ponder as I create a new work. And it helps! If I consider just how diverse and complex the human experience is, my musical influences expand through research and a broader listening palate. I can keep myself from writer’s block by deconstructing why music outside my initial comfort zone works so well. I can consider what I previously deemed “outside the box” ideas as “inside the box,” changing my paradigm while supporting the unconventional. Most importantly, I can spend the time digesting these various sources so that their impact can be felt in my music without appropriating it.
Jocelyn Hagen — As a female composer I have always been drawn to setting the texts of female writers. I am now more drawn to seek out the works of BIPOC writers to help champion their words and perspectives.
Timothy C. Takach — It’s a tricky balance as a composer, trying to find your own voice and also embracing diversity. Eventually the question comes up, “which stories are okay for me to tell?” I have a specific set of experiences that allow me to tell my story, which helps me find my voice, but as an artist I’m also inspired by other people’s stories. This finds its parallel in what we do as singers. Singers have to sing words that are not their own, inhabit the minds of different people, different genders, different religions. We have to convey stories that are not ours, but we have to tell them in as honest a way as possible, so that the audience believes us. As a composer, words have to inspire me. If I’m choosing a poem because the poet is diverse but I am unable to set their words honestly, then I am choosing diversity for the wrong reason.
Linda Kachelmeier — I try to write for all voices, but ultimately, I can only write with my own voice: that of a middle-aged white woman. So what does it mean if our choirs are singing mostly music composed by white men? What does it say to the singers in those choirs that rarely sing the music of people who look or sound like them? When I went to college for music it didn’t even occur to me that I could be a composer since I had so few female role models or mentors who could show me that it was an option.
Kyle Pederson — One thing I think more and more about is the question of “Whose story are we telling?” in our choral pieces. As a composer, I feel increasingly compelled to tell the story of diverse perspectives—and to contribute to the diversity of voices, styles, instrumentation, etc. But with renewed (and important, I believe) attention to cultural appropriation, it is not immediately clear how I (as a white male composer) should proceed on this path. Can I respectfully add to the canon of African American spiritual arrangements, or are these particular stories ones that I should respectfully leave for others to tell? Can I encourage myself to be shaped by scales, language, sounds, instruments and rhythms from other cultures and then evoke that music in my own compositions—or does this in some way disrespect that musical tradition or culture? These are vitally important conversations that will help shape how composers like me approach the idea of diversity in our own music.
Elizabeth Alexander — When I create, I have to let my whole heart be open and expansive. The lens through which I view the world must be constantly widening. This means being open to everything that is presented to me – sounds, stories, musical ideas, feelings, tensions, images – whether or not they make me feel comfortable. It means catching myself whenever I start to put up any kind of protective filter. This is just as true for me when I am composing an instrumental work as when I am engaging with a lyric.
What is a piece of music in your catalog (or possibly something in your future plans) that you would like to share with our readership with regards to diversity?
Catherine Dalton — Wow! There are so many that I would like to share for various reasons. “Sweet Radiant Mystery” is a spiritual work that has been sung at a variety of church services, schools, and by professional choirs. This fall, I am writing the third song in a Female Mystics song cycle for SATB voices, featuring texts from throughout history and the world. Contact me if you are interested in being a part of that group commission. “Boxes” is a new piece on the topic of gendered boxes and being true to yourself that was commissioned for the ADCA 9-10 Honor Choir. It was not able to be performed last February. Let me know if you are interested in premiering it! (SATB and TTBB voicing available soon.)
Paul John Rudoi — One of the best examples of this in my work is Gamaya. The choices I made supported artistic creation rather than appropriation:
I chose an English text, and instead of setting it as I had found it online, I made sure to research to find the source. It turns out it was a translation of an ancient Sanskrit text!
Rather than just setting that text as I found it, I wanted to learn about the language’s origins. I found that Ancient Sanskrit comes from a wide range of peoples, cultures, and religions, but primarily from India and Hinduism. This led me to Vedic Chants.
Again, rather than just utilizing chants I found as if they were a commodity I could “use,” I deconstructed them down to their essential musical elements to see the differences between them and my own music. I found they were very non-Western in their use of mantras in harmonic modes less heard by Western audiences.
I came away with a clearer picture of what made this music great, and found purely musical ideas that I could keep in mind as I created my own melodies, harmonies, and textures.
So, in essence, Gamaya represents my investment in a culture beyond my own, digested and celebrated through my own music. It is a love letter to Vedic Chant, ancient languages, and the beauty of the Hindu faith. Most importantly, it shows what happens when a composer places a focus on musical diversity above their own “brand” of music. I hope to use this process as much as possible in future commissions.
Jocelyn Hagen — I recently composed an evening-length work for Conspirare called Songs for Muska based on the poetry of the women of Afghanistan. Four excerpted works that will be available soon from that piece are “Load Poems Like Guns” (advanced SATB), “For Nadia” (intermediate-advanced SATB), “Ode to My Earrings” (intermediate SSA and harp), and “It is Not Finished” (intermediate-advanced SSA and drums). These pieces will spark important conversations regarding women’s rights around the world.
Timothy C. Takach — I wrote “Bahihii Waaliidkay Dhaqay,” a commissioned piece for Minneapolis Public Schools in 2016, and I collaborated with Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, a Somali writer and teacher in town. He wrote an original text in Somali for me to set for middle school voices and piano. It was amazing to listen to him talk about his own journey to the United States from Somalia, and his relationship to music and poetry. We sat for many hours together, discussing the imagery in the poem and him teaching me to pronunciation and natural text stress. It’s difficult to set a language that you don’t know, but when Ahmed writes poetry there is instinctual music in his head, and some of that music’s rhythms seeped through the cracks as he read his text to me.
Linda Kachelmeier — I wrote “Lift Me Up” as part of a collaboration with Voices of Hope, a women’s prison choir in Shakopee, MN, founded and directed by Amanda Weber. I had been invited to talk with the choir about a piece of mine that they were working on: “I Am Becoming” and was so blown away by their strength, interest, and commitment (and my false preconceived notions) that I knew I wanted to write more music for them. A 2018 Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board made it possible for me to work regularly with the choir, producing a body of their own words that became lyrics to 5 new works.
The next year I was commissioned by Jennifer Anderson and VocalPoint to create an SAB version of “Lift Me Up” that was featured as part of their “Holding Space” concerts with proceeds ($22,384!) benefitting the Walk-In Counseling Center.
Kyle Pederson — We Stand on Their Shoulders. It’s not yet released, but will likely be out later this fall. It is my first collaboration with Tony Silvestri, and it’s a setting of a very powerful text he wrote to help commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the Civil Rights Movement (civil rights broadly conceived). The recurring, central line of Silvestri’s poem is:
Our name is Pride
We are Diversity
Our name is Strength
We are Unity
No one gets to say who we are
No one gets to make us hide
We decide what power we have
Our name is Pride.
THAT is powerful stuff. As Tony and I workshopped this piece this past winter with the premiering choir, we heard them speak to ways in which they felt pressured to conform—where they were not living into their own glorious diversity—but where they felt like others were attempting to define who they should be. It was an impactful moment of honesty, vulnerability, and the power of a community to embrace diversity.
Elizabeth Alexander — As hard as I try to be open to new information, I don’t always find it easy to adjust my world view. A decade ago I realized that I had an inner resistance to accepting that racism was so very deeply entrenched in law enforcement departments. I had never experienced police brutality myself, so it was tempting to imagine it a rare occurrence – yet evidence increasingly showed that was not the case. This resistance concerned me greatly. I clearly had some work to do. Part of that work included being brutally honest about how hard it can be to admit that your preconceptions are wrong, which is why I eventually wrote “Let it Matter.” I hope this song and this inner work brought me a few steps closer to “opening up the prison of my mind.”
Bryan Blessing is the vocal music teacher at Oak Grove Middle School in Bloomington, MN. Bryan received his Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education from Saint John’s University, his Master’s in Music Education from the University of St. Thomas, and is pursuing National Board Certification in Adolescent Music. Currently, Bryan is on the advisory board of the ChoralQuest series through the American Composers Forum and is the Chair of the Commissioning Task Force for ACDA-MN. He is a baritone and the Music Adviser for The Singers-Minnesota Choral Artists.
Peter J. Durow is a conductor and composer working in the field of music education. He began his tenue as the Artistic Director of From Age to Age, a chamber choir of young professionals based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2016. Dr. Durow has taught at the Secondary and University levels and as worked as a church musician in Minnesota, Texas, Indiana, Florida, New York, and Missouri. Peter’s compositions and arrangements are published in the Henry Leck Choral Series and Rodney Eichenberger Choral Series with Colla Voce Music, LLC; the Peter J. Durow Choral Series with Heritage Music Press; MusicSpoke; The Sacred Music Press; and VocalEssence Music Press in the Graphite Marketplace. Peter enjoys serving ACDA-MN as the managing editor of the Star of the North. He lives with his wife Jodi, and their two children in Maple Grove, Minnesota.