New music org to foster inclusivity

Last spring St. Olaf’s campus became a place of tension and frustration. A few students of color were targeted for trying to make positive change on campus, but this was met with resistance by individuals in the student body. Due to this resistance, a group called The Collective for Change on the Hill was formed to hold people accountable for their micro-aggressions and insensitive actions and to stop hate. This group has inspired other groups on campus, such as the Music Department, to hold people accountable. Thus, Awareness and Inclusivity in Music (AIM) was created.

Erica Hoops ’18, the group’s Coordinator, said AIM started the day of the sit-in in Tomson Hall in May. Music History professor Louis Epstein – the Faculty Advisor for AIM – began a discussion in a Tomson classroom about marginalization and ethics in regard to the music department. This discussion prompted Kaitlyn Clawson ’20 to propose the start of a student organization advocating for inclusivity in the music department. This inspired AIM. The new group has not yet been officially recognized as a student organization, but they hope to get there soon.

When I talked to Hoops, they told me that the main goal of the group it to encourage ethical music performance. This consists of discussing and looking into a performance piece’s composer, its history and its intentions instead of performing without knowing its origins. Without this discussion, especially when unable to experientially understand marginalization, there is a disconnect between the performer and the piece they are performing. 

To a degree, there is also a problem with inclusivity within our music department’s faculty. For example, Dr. Anton Armstrong of the St. Olaf Choir the only person of color to serve as the conductor of a St. Olaf ensemble. The only female conductor is Therees Hibbard. Is the music department being inclusive when they hire new faculty members?

Another set of issues Hoops mentioned was the translations and perceptions of females within music pieces. Hoops noticed the issue when they performed Carmen, an opera by French composer Georges Bizet. Bizet liked to insert exotic sounding aspects into his works – one work being Carmen. When the opera was performed, it was interpreted that the woman, Carmen, was an exotic and therefore sexual being. But Bizet may not have desired such an oversexualized depiction of his character. As a culture we tend to sexualize things that are perceived as exotic or unknown without looking at the original meaning behind it.

Hoops also mentioned a song that was brought on the St. Olaf Choir’s Asia tour this past summer. “Never Again … Evermore,” a song about the Holocaust. Considering the relations between our country and Japan during World War II, it may not have been appropriate to sing a song like this while visiting their country, especially as their guests. This song caused a discussion among the members of St. Olaf Choir, and many of them felt uncomfortable performing it. 

Hoops personally hopes to make it a requirement that the performers write program notes about the composer and their ideas behind each piece. This will allow the performer to understand each song and how it was intended to be performed, without there being questions of the ethical implications. 

AIM aspires to encourage ethical performing practices such as this throughout the entire music department.