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Timeline: 'Don't Tokenize Us,' An Interview With Elisabeth Blair

Elisabeth Blair is the host of "Listening to Ladies" a podcast dedicated to sharing the music and experiences of composers who identify as women.
Andrzej Tereszkowski
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Elisabeth Blair is the host of "Listening to Ladies" a podcast dedicated to sharing the music and experiences of composers who identify as women.

Elisabeth Blair is a composer, poet, artist and podcaster. Blair joins Timeline host, James Stewart, to discuss the inspiration of her podcast Listening to Ladies as well as the issues of diversity and inclusion in the world of classical music.

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On Timeline we’ve been featuring American composers of color and the last few episodes have focused on the life, music and legacy of African-American women composers. So many of these names and these pieces are just not as familiar to us as others. Why is that? Why does there seem to be less diversity and inclusion in the world of classical music, especially in composers of classical music?

I reached out to the creator of another podcast for her insights about inclusion and representation.

Elisabeth Blair: My name's Elisabeth Blair and I got a little crazy in 2015 and started making a podcast that took over my life for three or four years.

James: Blair’s project was titled Listening to Ladies.

Blair: It was a podcast featuring people who identify as women who are composers.

James: Listening to Ladies features 30 conversations with various composers from diverse generational and cultural backgrounds.

Blair: The thing that really spurred the podcast was reading as an aside - this is before it was big news - it was in 2015, and they were talking about the season, the next year’s season at the Met opera house. It listed all the things in the season, and at the bottom it said, there's going to be a piece by Saariaho, who will be the first woman featured at the Met since 1903. Then it just like finished the article and I just went, what? What?!

I am a white American woman, at the time that I came up with this idea I was 35 and, was in grad school for the first time studying music composition and was pretty horrified by the lack of representation of women. I set myself the goal, while I was studying for entrance exams, can I find a composer (I think it was a composer a day) that's a woman? Because they certainly don't exist in the books. So where were they? I thought, well, I'll look online and I'll start posting one a day on this little Facebook page that I'll name this alliterative Listening to Ladies. I thought maybe it would take a month to find them all, and as it turns out, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of women composers past and present. So, it suddenly became a much bigger project.

James: Blair decided to use composer’s forums and internet hubs as a way to reach out. She…

Blair: …put an ad up there, free ad, saying, Hey, if you're a composer that identifies as a woman get in touch with me. I want to interview you. I'm doing this podcast. I got, I don’t know, a hundred to 150 emails right off the bat within like about a month. I was so excited, but it just was slowly dawning on me that all of the people that I had booked, who had reached out to me via this ad, were between the ages of 20 and 40, American and white. I put an ad up for everyone to see why didn't everyone contact me? That's when I started to learn about outreach and how important that is. It's important to go to the communities that you're trying to reach out to. Assuming they're going to reach out to you is just not going to work. You need to reach out to them. You need to build a relationship because the relationship is broken.

Don't have token individuals. Don't have a token queer composer. Don't have a token black composer at your concert and then feel that you've done well.

In order to get diverse representation on my podcast, I needed to reach out to people and say, "Hey, you are welcome. I want you. I want to know about you. I want to hear your voice. I want to showcase it." That worked really well, but it was a lot of work. And that, I think I'll just say as an aside for all of us in every area that we're working in and every career, it's going to take extra work. You can't just open something up and expect everything to get better. You can't just say, “Oh, now I'm saying out loud that I want people of color to work at my workplace.” You can't do that. You have to actually do some work.

It should be a stepping stone to the ultimate goal, which, in my opinion, is just it being completely normal to just include these folks. Play them. Play them on a Monday in June. Play them on a Saturday in November. Just play them. Play them at your concerts. Don't have token individuals. Don't have a token queer composer. Don't have a token black composer at your concert and then feel that you've done well. Do the work and include the people automatically, just automatically include diverse voices, and don't tokenize us.

James: Powerful, challenging words from Elisabeth Blair, the host and creator of Listening to Ladies.

Find out more and follow the Timeline at VPR.org/timeline.

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