Diversity: A Rolling National Conversation
Report on the Halifax Session

Monday, January 9 | 9:30 AM – 12:30 PM AST
Room 401, Dalhousie Arts Centre – 6101 University
As part of Open Waters Festival 2017

A CNMN project funded by Factor and presented in Halifax by Upstream Music Association and SuddenlyLISTEN

Report: Jennifer Waring

The session in Halifax was a great kick-off to CNMN’s Rolling National Conversation. (The next iterations take place in Victoria on March 26 and in Montreal on May 1.)  Twenty-three people attended, with another 15 connecting via live streaming.  The three-hour event was divided equally between a panel discussion with audience input conducted in the round, and a circle exercise, which broke out into smaller discussion groups.

Ellen Waterman, ethnomusicologist and improviser (St. John’s)

Juliet Palmer, facilitator/composer/collaborator/AD Urban Vessel (Toronto)
Rémy Bélanger de Beauport, free improviser/organizer (Quebec City)
Dinuk Wijeratne, composer/pianist/conductor (Halifax)


The Halifax session was about communicating, what constitutes communication, how we undertake it and to whom. Organizers framed the issue as follows:

Communication is a two-way street that entails both clarity of expression and active listening. Effective communication is more than a simple exchange of information; it means understanding the emotion and intentions behind the information. If we want to increase diversity in contemporary music, we need to become more aware of what kinds of messages we are sending to audiences and musicians. We also need to seek opportunities to listen to people who are not already involved in contemporary music to find out what they need and want, and what would constitute a welcoming environment for participation. 

In this discussion, we will explore some of our motives and means for effective communication both within and beyond the “borders” of our contemporary music scenes.  What are our motives for seeking a more diverse range of participants and expression in contemporary music? What kinds of messages are we currently sending through our programming and marketing? What potential audience do we miss or even exclude? And in programming, are we open and welcoming in whom we present? Do we actively seek new and diverse creative voices, and new expression, as much as we could or should?

The first act of communication at the Halifax session began with an acknowledgement of traditional territory:

We would like to begin by acknowledging that we are in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People. This territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship” which Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) people first signed with the British Crown in 1725. The treaties did not deal with surrender of lands and resources but in fact recognized Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) title and established the rules for what was to be an ongoing relationship between nations.[source]

The Panelists

Rémy Bélanger de Beauport has been an improvising cellist for 15 years, and is an organizer of safe spaces for the queer community.  He brings experience programming concerts and events that fight against homophobia, and wants to transfer that sensibility to diversity in all its forms.

Juliet Palmer, originally from Aotearoa/New Zealand, she grew up with an understanding of the importance of indigenous peoples in the life and culture of a country.  As an immigrant to Canada, she wants to know more about the complex mix of cultures and communities here and how to connect creatively with them.

Dinuk Wijeratne is Sri Lankan by birth, lived in the UK and US, arriving Canada in 2005.  He has had a nomadic life, eclecticism is something he lived with and has become part of his music.  As a nomadic immigrant, there is “no sense of gravity”, but how do you turn that into an advantage?  Situations or places where there is no sense of eclecticism do not resonate with him. Diversity is the lens he sees the world through.

Key comments & ideas

As discussion developed, these key comments and ideas emerged:


Women in new music – It’s still an uphill battle.  Women account for 20% of composers in Canada (only 20%) but festivals and presenters often programme none.  And only 4 of the more than 70 tenured composition professors in the country are women.  Just think of what might be possible if there were more women in these positions.


Whether music reflects the identity/background of the composer/creator

“The music we are creating here is so exciting, it would be good to draw more people in, and more diverse people. But what is it about this music that moves me so much, because it can be challenging.  Is it possible that it can only be related to by privileged people, who have time, people who are already feeling good about themselves and have the leisure to engage in society?  I hope not, I hope it is a music engaged in struggle which anybody can engage in.  But I wonder about this notion of privilege and whether this music is for all.”  Rémy

Rémy would also like to think that there is a correlation between his queer identities in general, which he defines as non-heteronormative, and the music he creates, which is not played on the radio, is not capitalist mainstream music. For him, the combination between the non-traditional music and the non-traditional identity is a good fit, but then, in gay bars there is mainstream music and in new music there are straight white men. So, what is that disconnect?


Aesthetic style as a barrier to communicating

Youth are open to a broad range of styles.  As people get older, they affiliate with one style or another, creating pockets, becoming clique-y, less open and inclusive.  Why do people feel this need?

“I have a childhood need for eclecticism.  As a contemporary classical composer, I ask myself, ‘how does this communicate? and what?’  It gets back to style.  If I’m challenged to write a piece that will stand next to Beethoven 5, that brings up a lot of questions for artist, audience and presenter, and it comes back to style.”  Dinuk


Entry points into music

“As moderator, I want to interject for a moment and say that the door into music is a really tiny door.  We need to ask the question of who are we filtering out in our training – it’s a complicated question.”  Ellen

 Related to the question of why diversity is important, one might ask “what is the motive for restricting access.  Ask people to justify why the door is so narrow.


Communication -marketing

We’re in the habit of marketing narrowly to the audience we know, or think, already exists.  Perhaps this is a mistake. Perhaps we need to assume the best and communicate widely.


Communicating what we’re about by other means – the messages we send out

  • Acknowledging that a concert takes place on occupied territory.
  • Publicizing that the venue has non-binary bathrooms (things that a cis white male may not think of doing.)
  • Announcing that there will be strobe lights.
  • Publicizing policies on scent.
  • Publicizing wheelchair accessibility.
  • Publicizing that it is a safe space where homophobia, transphobia and racism are not tolerated.

All these can be entailed in the announcement that “this is a safe place”, but is that enough?  Specifying may be necessary.

 “I acknowledge that while some people feel that these sorts of measures emphasize difference and may create ghettos, I disagree.”  Rémy


Communicating/reaching out  – targeting a specific community

You need to invest time in reaching out and consider how to do it.  You can’t just send an e-mail to youth at risk and expect them to come.

Note about youth at risk and other such communities – turn around the way in which you’re identifying them, not marginalized people but people with specific skills, while acknowledging that they need special support and inclusion in the artistic process.

 “We will open our doors sometimes and discover that what we are offering may not be wanted.  A specific example is a project where we were looking at creating an interdisciplinary project with two communities, one in Japan and one in Canada. The communities had parallel connections to atomic history through mining and power generation.  In spite of this shared history and our enthusiasm for the collaboration, one community we spoke with was reluctant to be involved — reminder that your own agenda might have to take a back seat and that meaningful relationships take time to grow.”  Juliet



To engage in music making is to create a community. But in creating a community, you automatically exclude.



Idea –  that new music in the “Classical” stream is very insular.  It is not commercial or popular, and so gets defined very specifically, within a silo.   We need to acknowledge how new and radical the idea of inclusion is, in a field where the opposite has been the operational mode.

Counter idea – that “classical” music has always been about rebellion, time after time, new propositions for how and what music might be.  And human nature being what it is, as people adopt these new ways and invest their creative energies in them, these ways become sanctified, and codified, and people become righteous about them.   They are not so much deliberately exclusionary of any particular people becoming involved, but they are very exclusionary about what music must be.  Then there’s a new wave of ideas that rebels against the last dearly held new (now old and ossified) way.

 “I think human nature is such that we have this tendency to fix things in time and context. We could get an [artistically interesting] ironic situation born of many contradictions when we attempt to freeze things in time as classical music was constantly in rebellion.”  Dinuk


Alternative spaces as a way of connecting with new or different communities

Purpose-built concert halls are empty when no one is using them.  But other kinds of spaces – bars, etc – are building their own public all the time.  In an event in an alternative space, the space itself can be the draw.


Tokenism – how to view it/deal with it

Recognition that the call for diversity can create convenient, token inclusion.

  • A young bi-racial musician at the event doesn’t know how to view/respond to some of the gigs he gets. Someone relates a story of an Aboriginal artist who was conflicted about the “token” opportunities she was getting, but who got the advice to “cash in those tokens.”  She then uses that opportunity to make space for other marginalized artists.
  • A woman composer expresses discomfort at being included in all-woman programmes.
  • Someone tells of a programming idea that wasn’t carried out before she left her organization, but which dealt with the all-women problem: without being explicit, programme a whole season of women composers (just as one can still see concert seasons of all male composers without that fact made explicit.)
  • If someone uses a reluctance to engage in tokenism as an excuse not to programme people of a certain community, challenge them. They have not done sufficient research.


What to do when confronted with discrimination?

  • If something is uncomfortable, be honest.
  • If it’s an organization, make sure that someone in the organization makes the response as a person.
  • You can be humble, but if the situation warrants, you can also be direct.


Turning questions around

It can be revealing (and was) to turn the question around.  For example: “Why don’t we allow more people in?”  becomes, “Why do we restrict entry?”


The Circle

“In alignment with our desire to create an open discussion, we adopted a circle format. In a forum examining barriers to inclusion, it was vital to encourage active participation by people who had in the previous session been “audience members”. Moving from one large circle into many smaller circles, we sought to create an inclusive structure for community engagement. This approach was inspired by both talking circles in Indigenous cultures as well as non-hierarchical meeting formats other traditions.” Juliet Palmer

Following the break, Juliet Palmer led the group – invited guests and audience alike – in a circle discussion.  It began with a breathing exercise that expanded into vocalization and improvisation – discussion in musical form.  Everyone was then invited to write or draw a reflection on the discussion so far – a question, a concern or a personal intention.  These were deposited into a pile in the centre of the circle.  They were then redistributed, with people forming into groups of three or four, each group choosing the idea on one of the cards for further discussion.


Community Cards from Halifax, Victoria and Montreal