Diversity: 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.

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 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.


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 if needed.
  • 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 rec­og­nize and 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