Resonance Ensemble: Carefully Programming Since 2009

“I can’t know what it feels like to be an artist of color or a person of color. But I can do what is in my power to think about structural racism in the arts...”
— Katherine FitzGibbon, Artistic Director, Resonance Ensemble
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Thanks to Oregon Arts Watch for this thoughtful and thought-provoking response regarding their troubling review of our most recent concert. (You can read the review here.) I appreciate several aspects in particular. The OAW editors affirm their own philosophy of inclusion, as well as their philosophy of including diverse opinions of writers in their publication. They corrected the factual inaccuracies in the original review, quoting the points in the letter Vin and I had written. And while they do not wish to censor their writers, they apologize for not having edited the “unduly harsh” tone of the original review (a phrase used both in the editors’ commentary and in Terry Ross’s brief quotation). They note that they have learned “that the charged way he expressed those opinions could indeed make the artists involved feel unwelcome in arts settings.” I appreciate the spirit of learning and reflection that the editors convey here. And I especially appreciate the specific apology they make to Vin, as well as the acknowledgement of Resonance’s mission and history of creating barrier-breaking concerts that include many styles of music performance.

There are ways that I wish this response went further. I would have loved for Terry Ross to have engaged more deeply in this conversation by offering a more substantive and substantial response. The editors of OAW describe the ways that they listened to and learned from community responses. It would have been helpful and healing for Ross to have described the ways he listened and learned.

I appreciated as well this statement by the OAW editors: “Part of the problem, which FitzGibbon and Shambry identify, is the stance of the critic. We see this once-common formalist critical stance supporting the most conservative cultural values: the few against the many, the white against the black, the rich against the poor, the known against the unknown, the old against the new.” This was one of the few places that acknowledged the role of class in this discussion. I would also add gender to the list of conservative values: the men against the women. (Readers of comments on the original review will see gender writ large.)

These class and gender biases worked against Nikole Potulsky’s song, “Baby Mine.” I feel that Nikole has been treated poorly throughout this discussion. As Vin and I wrote, Nikole is a world-class folk music performer, so Ross’s calling her performance “amateurish” was totally off-base. She performs in a folk style – a style historically for the working class, the disenfranchised. She’s a beautiful singer and sensitive guitarist. And she wrote a song that is about an issue experienced by many women (and men, of course) – the issue of child loss, of wishing you could hold a child in your arms. As a woman who has had a miscarriage, and as a woman who has seen friends go through other unspeakably difficult child losses, I listened to this song and felt like it told our stories of grief, and in a musical style that conveyed them as a simple lullaby that heightened their poignancy. I saw audience members in tears. Ross’s repeated dismissal of Nikole’s song as “amateurish” seems like another way of limiting his desired concert content to the conservative, upper-class cultural values cited above by the OAW editors. I feel that Nikole deserves an apology too, but I can only take care of my own part of this, which is to say: Nikole, I am sorry that I did not defend you more vociferously from the beginning. Your music is brave, tender, and rich, and having you be part of the concert deepened the whole evening for me and for many others.

My former student Will Preston, now a writer himself, commented to me that his issue with the original review was that Ross’s “argument appears to be based on nothing more than the fact that the pieces didn’t fit within his expectation of what ‘proper programming’ ought to be, rather than considering what Resonance was trying to accomplish… and judging it on those merits. I think this is also supported by how condescending the tone is. I mean, ‘This advice would have been well heeded by Katherine FitzGibbon?’ Really? That basically implies that the concert was a ‘mixed bag’ because Kathy didn't consider what these pieces might sound like next to each other! That's a completely absurd claim. If the reviewer had actually tried to engage with the programming and still found it problematic, it'd be a different story. But I see no evidence for that in the text.”

Part of Will’s sentiment was conveyed by the OAW editors – that the concert review seemed to focus on what “proper programming” should be. But I’d like to second Will’s suggestion of an alternative framework. What did the programming try to accomplish? Was it successful?

The response that Vin and I originally wrote was primarily limited to a commentary on the final paragraph of Terry Ross’s review. I wanted to be careful not to appear to be a disgruntled or defensive artistic director rebutting a bad review. I always seek to learn from reviews and audience responses. What did we do that “resonated” with our audience? What didn’t work? What can we do better in the future?

I’ve decided to come clean on a couple of aspects of my own personal response to this matter. I was troubled by the opening salvo of the review, “Be careful with your programming. This advice would have been well heeded by Katherine FitzGibbon in putting together the June 24 concert of her choir Resonance Ensemble at Portland’s Yale Union.” My programming is careful and intentional. I resented the implication that I forgot to take care with programming. In fact, I told the audience that we had carefully paired musical works together: waves of grief being answered by waves of healing. AllClassical host Christa Wessel posted on her Facebook page that she felt the concert to have been “thoughtfully curated by Katherine FitzGibbon in a way that – in my experience – very few concerts are.”

I’ve been thinking recently about Reni Eddo-Lodge’s important article, “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”. As Eddo-Lodge writes, “They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white- so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact; they interpret it as an affront.” Or, “It must be a strange life, always having permission to speak and feeling indignant when you’re finally asked to listen. It stems from white people’s never questioned entitlement, I suppose. I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself trying to get this message across, whilst also toeing a very precarious line that tries not to implicate any one white person in their role of perpetuating structural racism, lest they character assassinate me.”

I can’t know what it feels like to be an artist of color or a person of color. But I can do what is in my power to think about structural racism in the arts and in society and create inclusive concert spaces (and classrooms). I can listen when people of color share their truths. And I can do my best to invite concertgoers and our Portland arts community to ask themselves the hard questions, without defensiveness or (if applicable) white fragility, with openness to mutual understanding. And so I ask if our community can think about the power dynamics in our arts scene. Would some of the responses to Vin’s work have happened had he been white? Would the questioning of my supposed lack of care in programming have happened had I been a male conductor? Would the questioning of Nikole’s music have happened if she had been performing upper-class art music, or a text about a male experience? Would people have read the letter Vin and I wrote with as much respect if we would have allowed more anger to show through our language?

Sincerely,

Katherine FitzGibbon
Artistic Director, Resonance Ensemble