I clung to my accent for dear life.
When I left Australia in 2006 to take up a position in Eighth Blackbird, a Chicago-based music group, I was grasping for shreds of my homeland.
Why the anxiety? I feared the possibility of being a stranger in two countries: an Australian in America, an American in Australia. I could put up with the former; couldn’t bear the latter. I resisted the label of expat, thinking to myself: “Oh I’m just an Australian on a long visit abroad.”
Feeling isolated in my adopted country, yearning for an inkling of home, I sought the safety of the familiar. I took advantage of the new world of podcasting to hear antipodean voices. Wil Anderson calmed my nerves in Conway, Arkansas. Philip Adams settled my mind in New York, New York.
I stole Aussie television from torrent sites, and incorporated “mate” and “gday” into my spoken lingo. Never before had I welcomed people with such a greeting, but all of a sudden I was rool okker.
It was important for me to keep old contacts engaged. I reached out to my alma maters in Brisbane and Melbourne, played gigs at Aus festivals. When my ensemble, eighth blackbird, brought a barrel-full of American music to Australia, I suffered a desperate need to impress. “Hello old friends,” I wanted to say, “I did good. And I’m not so far away.”
I snuck Australian music where I could in the US, but as much googling as I did, I struggled to keep up with a shifting community on the other side of the globe. A part of me felt like it was slipping away.
So I began writing music again, to connect with home in a different way. My response to a commission in 2013 was to pen and perform a flute work inspired by the stark, eloquent words of indigenous poet Samuel Wagan Watson. Last Exit to Brisbane begins,
that forged black scratch
a vein from Southbank to West End
with a tail swallowed by the chocolate river
this is the line, the limit
where the dark skin were told-
DO NOT CROSS!
I clipped short Wagan Watson’s title. Last Exit became a mood-piece for layers of flute sounds, intended to evoke a sense of threat, of barely-repressed violence. To introduce the work for American audiences, I spoke of the suffering that indigenous people experienced at the hands of people who looked a lot like me.
Last Exit was noticed. It received some positive press, and I made a version to collaborate with students at American music conservatories. The piece traveled home.
But the culture was changing. Words like “appropriation” cropped up with greater frequency on social media, in casual conversation, in the press. Each time I introduced Last Exit, this story, which I had long been passionate about telling to Americans, now seemed alien.
A realization, far too late, stopped me in my tracks. This story was not mine to tell.
Looking back at my last decade of music-making, I began to see two strands of activity. One strand was inhabited by self-seriousness, by ideas unconnected to contemporary life, by stilted concert rituals. The same stories being told, again and again. Stories by, for and about white men. Stories that came across as vibrant and exciting to me now were tarnished, worn.
The other strands supported musical trips into other cultures, appetites for different tales. Here were unfamiliar sounds, unfamiliar characters. Here were arrangements of negro spirituals, imitations of asian folk instruments, passionate political statements. But, like my own Last Exit, the vast majority of these musical works were composed and performed by white men.
Two new questions burned: What stories should be told today? And which of these stories are mine to tell?
Since I was a kid, I’ve composed myself to sleep. It sounds odd, I know, this sort of musical sheep-counting, but it became a way to work out creative ideas, a kind of litmus test for my creative interests. The sound of a bowed vibraphone might hover in the air, spinning into the sound of a string quartet, spinning on and on until I fell asleep.
But now I don’t imagine my own music. In these late-night minutes, my thoughts turn to different creative paths. My thoughts turned to how I might step back, and foreground the musical expression of others.
Australian writer Clementine Ford set me a challenge when she wrote: “Equality comes from people either sacrificing their privilege or having it forcibly taken away from them. It does not come from waiting for the oppressed to rise up and meet it.”
Models on both sides of the Pacific pointed a way forward for me. The Killroys is a group of theater practitioners who publish an annual list of unpublished scripts by playwrights of color. The Luna Composition Lab provides mentorship and resources to young female composers. In Australia, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music hosts a “Composing Women” program, and in 2017 Ensemble Offspring played only music composed by women.
My progress is slow, certainly far too slow. I’m a freelancer, so much of my income-producing work still revolves around the canon, the white folks, the old blokes. I certainly worry about, as Ford writes, “holding onto power while pretending to advocate for equality”. Doing that would make me “part of the problem.”
In 2017 I co-directed a thousand-voice performance of a work by David Lang, drawing singers from 43 of the 50 neighborhoods of Chicago. The project was imperfect. The composer was a white bloke, and the two directors were white blokes. (I would do things quite differently next time.) But the performance was a joyful celebration by and for a crowd that looked a lot like the city of Chicago itself.
A chamber orchestra of which I’m a cofounder will aim to give priority to performances of works by women and people of color. Again, yes, most of the cofounders are white men. We are trying to change that.
These examples are to acknowledge that getting started along this road has been a little rocky, a little fraught.
A better example is another forthcoming project uniting flutist/composer Nathalie Joachim with a youth arts organization in Chicago called Global Girls. Joachim is a spectacular, open-hearted musician currently making waves with a work exploring her Haitian roots. Global Girls fosters positive storytelling in its south side community.
But back to that accent. I clung to it for dear life, fearing its loss would brand me as a stranger wherever I was. At the time this thought was central, essential. In retrospect, it is bloody ridiculous. I am a straight, white, cis-gendered man in classical music. I never was, never have experienced life as a “stranger”.
It is time for me to push forward the voices of those who may justifiably feel they are strangers in their own cities, countries, communities. To support voices that are vibrant, rich and eloquent. Voices long locked out of a conversation in which I have had a dominant voice.