We are pleased to virtually welcome conductor, composer/arranger, vocal contractor, singer, and musical activist Dr. Alexander Lloyd Blake to the Schulich School of Music as a ReVoice guest lecturer to discuss the Black Voices Matter Pledge he co-authored as well as programming considerations in choral music.
Blake is the Founding Artistic Director and Conductor of Tonality, a new choral ensemble focused on spreading a message of unity, peace, and social justice through a culturally diverse choral setting. The ensemble took shape after noticing that Blake noticed he was one of few choral singers of colour and one of the even fewer conductors of colour. In a recent Musical America article, in which Blake is named as one of their “Top 30 Professionals of the Year”, Blake writes:
“… I felt it was time to start something that would become more inclusive. After that, using these different perspectives to speak on issues of marginalization and social justice was a natural evolution.”
Besides Tonality, Blake has a long list of accomplishments and achievements that have shaped his career and passion. He’s held numerous positions, including Director of Classical Choirs at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and Principal Associate Conductor of the National Children’s Chorus. Recent film and TV credits include singing on the soundtrack of Jordan Peele’s “Us”, Disney’s “Lion King”, and Pixar’s “Spies in Disguise.” Blake also prepared singers for the 2020 Grammy Awards and performed at the 92nd Academy Awards.
In advance of his virtual visit, we reached out to Blake via email to learn more about his upcoming lecture.
Why is it important to have discussions around inclusive and representative programming in choral music (as well as other styles of music)?
It is my belief that we as artist leaders desire our art to add an emotional benefit to those around us, both in the roles of the performers and audience. Part of feeling welcome in a space is feeling represented and validated, as any supportive community tries to do with the members therein. However, due to the centralization of white composers and Euro-centric genres, many people who we would like to participate in our choral world do not get this opportunity. They become excluded from the conversations we deem important due to the limited scope of what is seen as classical music or "quality" work. This pattern of Euro-centricity (and other forms of marginalizations of identity) is no less systemic than some of the issues we have witnessed on a global scale in recent months, and the way to work toward an environment that is truly inclusive is to actively work to break down the patterns that have been supported and perpetuated in the education and performance of the choral genre (and other styles of music as well.) We all bring our own voices to these efforts, so it is in the sharing of perspective that we can truly find ways to honor and acknowledge more identities and people through the programming and other aspects of our artistic endeavors.
What strategies would you recommend choirs use to ensure they present more inclusive programming?
Some of these are mentioned in the Black Voices Matter Pledge, but one of the most pertinent steps is to measure the diverse voices you are representing in your annual program. Maybe setting a certain bar, such as making sure that 50% of the programming is done by a woman or each program will have a Black composer (in addition to the spiritual or gospel piece.) Find a place to start and then work to adjust those numbers on a regular and consistent basis. Also, making connections with different composers or accessing resources to discover composers underrepresented in our genre. The great thing is that we do not need to know it all! Through social media or access to online databases, there are many ways to find more work and people. One great new resource is called the Choral Commons, which is starting to do great work in equity and inclusion within the choral field.
By 2030, what changes do you hope to see fully implemented in the choral industry?
Simply, I would like to see more diversity in the field in all aspects. I would like to see different identities across the Board of Directors, Artistic Directors, commissioned composers, Executive Directors, Dept. Chairs... the list really goes on and on. I would love to see choirs celebrating the process of digging into the performance practice of music that is not exclusively centered in the European cultures, and that educational choral settings become a way to make this new inclusivity a norm. I would like to see musicians specializing in genres that do not require doctoral degrees to be welcome to speak on genres as much as we bring in musicologists for our classical field. Basically, I would like to see us treat all people - and the cultures and musical genres that represent them - with the same intention and care we treat Western classical music.
ReVoice is an exciting programme of activities centered around conversations with 23 leading artists. In addition to discussing masterworks, historical and stylistic approaches, it will tackle several important issues related to programming, diversity, and inclusion. With the guidance of guests and through weekly projects, ReVoice will explore important topics including cultural appropriation, anti-racism in classical music, the transgender singing voice transition, and working with indigenous artists.