Decolonizing the Orchestra: Sarah Cargill & Kelly Lovemonster in Conversation
Nightlife and visual arts producer and curator Kelly Lovemonster got to know flutist, curator, and cultural organizer Sarah Cargill as her mentor throughout her residency last spring at SOMArts. During her time there, Cargill organized But Tell Me What It Feels Like: The Erotic Practice of Liberation, a multi-disciplinary performing arts festival weekend inspired by the ideas and philosophies articulated by Black lesbian poet and activist Audre Lorde. Lovemonster and Cargill sat down afterwards to discuss the festival, as well as the effects of colonization on the orchestra, the fraught relationship of orchestras to gentrification, the pleasures and difficulties of being a Black queer artist working in the arts, and complicating and expanding how an individual’s identity intersects with their artistic practice.
Kelly Lovemonster: I remember asking you to identify the audience you were curating this festival for, and you quickly replied, “I’m curating this show for Audre Lorde.” I loved that.
Sarah Cargill: Mhm, mhm. Yeah. Audre Lorde is one of my chosen ancestors. As a queer Black American, my access to and knowledge of ancestral ties is limited to clues that are shaped by voids and chasms. Lorde’s work fills some of that negative space for me and soothes a kind of perpetual longing for context and self-knowledge. That essay in particular — “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” — I’ve returned to it every time I started feeling burned out with whatever I was doing, particularly when it pertained to workplace trauma or self-imposed workaholism.
Lorde talks a lot about how the erotic isn’t just about sex. That’s a part of it, but not all of it. It’s about the fullness of the doing, a barometer through which we can measure the quality of our presence in the daily and the mundane. There’s a lot of liberation in carrying that knowledge.
Trying to survive within capitalism, I’m constantly like “Go, go, go. Just get this done…” Work becomes something that I compete with rather than a practice that I engage in, and it’s exhausting. Incorporating the erotic into my work means aligning my practice with things that actually nourish me. And for me, rest is something that’s really nourishing [laughter] — I’m sure as it is for other people, too. Yet, we don’t talk about rest enough as something that is a part of our practices.
During the festival, I was thinking a lot about and feeling a lot of grief, too — specifically grief that’s generated within the context of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and generational trauma. I think about the role that grieving plays in helping me to access the erotic. At least in American culture, we often treat grief and grieving as this one-time event, something to do and then get over. But as a Black person living in America, grief is something I live with constantly. And so, it was really interesting for me to be working on a festival that’s talking about the depths of our joy while also being very present for my own grief and realizing that these things are not in opposition. They actually inform each other; in experiencing the fullness of my grief and returning to it in a cyclical way, I’m able to experience the depths of my own joy, the depths of my own feeling body.
KL: You’re absolutely right: there aren’t very many moments where we can fully embody Black grief and the pain that we feel just from everyday existing in America. I love that you consciously were trying to hold space for people to do that.
SC: The second day of our performance, the theme was “tensions that make living possible.” I had an idea of what I meant when I first thought of that, but it felt a little nebulous until after the fact. When I think about grief, I think about it as a type of tension that makes living possible. We need to experience grief in order to experience other things. And the violence of capitalism, of white supremacy, is that it robs us of our ability to fully grieve. We don’t get to spend time or take up space with our grief. So that’s another thought I’ve been sitting with — what are the tensions that make living full, make living possible?
KL: That’s a great question. Would you describe some of the other themes of the festival?
SC: Day one was “Breath,” and it was really about returning to the body. I’m a flute player, so I think a lot about how to sustain my breath and the quality of my breath. But I also know breath to be the first thing to go when I’m feeling anxious or stressed out. In the past couple years, I’ve been trying to explore the meditative qualities of daily flute exercises. Practicing scales, practicing arpeggios, practicing tone: it’s all a part of this rigorous routine and it’s useful, but it can be really stress-inducing. I’ve been interested in exploring how we can transmute these exercises into a moving meditation.
To find my way back into my body, I must first return to my breath. So, for the first day, the performed repertoire was very flute-heavy. I wanted to explore the musical elements of breath, to amplify the sound of the breath as expressed through the body, as expressed through instruments. Leviathe’s (a.k.a. Lien Do) percussion duo and sound installation as well as Rain Ensemble’s closing taiko performance were meant to act as a sonic inverse reflection of the breath. The sound of the flute initiates a collective inhale — an opening up, inviting receptivity. The sound of percussion invites a collective exhale — tactility, reverberation, heartbeat, directed and purposeful action.
As I said, day two was about the exploration of tension — tensions that can be shaped to hold us together and rip us apart from each other and ourselves. I programmed the group piece Submission in Five Acts, which featured textile and performing artist Indira Allegra, composer Amadeus Regucera, conducting artist Melissa Panlasigui, and myself. With day three, “Forces that move (through) us,” my intention was to connect the mind and the body through the passage of the heart space. I wanted to bring performances that illuminated the symbiotic relationship between movement and sound as a pathway to the heart space, giving new meaning to “the Middle Passage,” so to speak. Moving and connecting to my body through the pulse of music is intimately tied to my identity. It’s intimately tied to my survival, too.
KL: I really enjoyed the Alexander Technique workshop taught on day two. It was my first experience diving into Alexander Technique and participating in movement work that helped me return to my body. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what the technique is and how it helped you in your practice?
SC: The way that I describe it as a flute player is as a technique that helps me find spaciousness and fluidity in my own body. It has changed the way that I think about and incorporate rest and self-care into my regular practice. Amy Likar, who led the workshop, is my former flute teacher and the person who prepared me to go to graduate school and do my auditions; I wanted to study with her to learn how to efficiently use my body in a way that prevents injury and also helps me to produce my best sound. One of the things that strikes me about Alexander technique is it brings attention to the minutiae — the things that you forget about.
When I’m about to play for a big audition or a big show or whatever, I hold a lot of tension not just in my neck and my shoulders as a result of holding my instrument up (which is another thing I like to think about — the animacy of my instrument and its ability to shape my body) but also in my gut. Every time I have a big performance, afterwards I tend to have a pretty bad stomach ache — I have to put my tension somewhere, you know? Amy helped me notice other things about my body. I remember this one lesson we had where I couldn’t quite get the tone, the coloration that I wanted in my sound. And Amy told me, “Okay, try to play this passage while squeezing your butt. [Laughter] Just try.” I did and it sounded terrible. And she goes, “Okay, great. So now play that same thing, but just think wide ass, big hips, just release all that tension in your lower back, in your butt.”
First of all, I didn’t even notice that I was holding tension there! Your backside is also something that you take for granted a lot of the time. But the moment I did that, my sound completely opened up. We do so many little things every day to shrink in the world as a way to protect ourselves; whether it be masking grief responses or other types of tension or nervousness, there’s so many things that we do to contain and control expressions our pain. On the surface, compressing pain and nerves can look like control and grace — we’ve been taught to call this “stage presence” — but our bodies carry a kind of wisdom that reveals otherwise. That lesson really stuck with me.
KL: I really enjoyed how these themes unfolded throughout the festival. We’ve also talked about the festival’s motif of decolonizing the orchestra. I’m wondering if you can say more about that.
SC: Oh boy, yes. Colonization controls, contains, rearranges, and strips us of context by way of coercion to groom and prepare the colonized — people, culture, land — to be consumed by the colonizer. We see this very process occur in orchestral music. Composers like Antonin Dvořák “borrowed” from the music of Black Americans, of Indigenous Americans, without exactly crediting his sources. And that became his sound, his compositional style. Many of the stylistic innovations and artistic identities of French composers such as Claude Debussy can be traced back to French colonial culture, where the collection and repurposing of “exotic” sounds — whether culturally specific instruments, rhythmic patterns, chords or melodies — became both a byproduct and tool for “othering” entire groups of people and asserting cultural dominance. After what is desired for consumption is extracted, the bodies, history, and culture that originally produced the sound are erased.
Within the context of an orchestra, the role of the conductor is to — well… [Laughter] The role of the conductor is pretty complex, but one of the overarching tasks is to unify eighty to one hundred individuals in creating a larger cohesive unit — a super-body of sorts. The conductor takes individual threads of sound to weave a sonic tapestry. Now, there are conductors who hold space and conductors who control space. The difference between the two, in my opinion, lies in whether or not they invite consent into rehearsal and performance spaces. I think about how we are placed in the orchestra, too. It’s super hierarchal, everything is ranked. You’re assigned chairs, and where you are positioned within the orchestra plays a big role in how mobile and vocal you can be within a space. Hierarchical structures that dictate one’s mobility, homogenization of bodies into a singular unit — that sounds a whole lot like a reproduction of colonial culture to me.
When developing Submission in Five Acts, we were intentional about creating a porous performance space where we could communicate with our bodies and dissolve relational distance between ourselves as a group and with the audience. I experienced a different kind of unity and cohesion in that performance, one where the ebb and flow of consent-based submission invited trust, solidarity, and compassionate witnessing without compromising the integrity of the narrative or the quality of the performance.
KL: I recall from one of our previous conversations this idea of the quintessential sound of classical music; on being a musician and having to reproduce a very particular sound. Maybe you could talk a little bit about the things orchestral musicians have to do to their bodies in order to be able to produce the sounds we hear and enjoy.
SC: Yeah. In most orchestral auditions, flutists are asked to play a few excerpts from canonized repertoire. These are usually technically challenging and/or exposed solo parts from larger orchestral works and are meant to showcase specific aspects of your technical facility. Sometimes we get to choose our excerpts, but most of the time, we don’t. When studying these excerpts, flutists must strike a balance between communicating their unique interpretation of the music and flawlessly executing not only what is written on the page, but adhering to standard performance practices that are not written but inherited from those who played before us. The line that distinguishes your interpretation from a mistake is very thin, and I think this is especially true for Black folks, queer folks, and femmes whose presence in orchestral spaces are already under severe scrutiny. I have often felt stuck in the space between my interpretation and what is standard, ultimately yielding to the latter.
For me, sound — how we produce, interpret, experience, and embody it — is not a neutral or objective thing; spend fifteen minutes at a dance party and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. In reflecting on my experience as an orchestral flutist, I think of the ways in which I have muffled my own musical instincts and pushed my body toward and sometimes over my threshold of pain just to “get it right.” There’s a bit of a dissociative quality to this. When considering the subtle ways in which I am asked to become disembodied — to strip myself of my own subjectivity to make room for the subjectivity of some dead white guy — things start to feel really violent. And, sure, it can be argued that this is the case for all orchestral flutists, but it lands differently in my body. Similarly to how I navigate space on public transportation or gentrified areas of the city, I have to make adjustments and concessions that others don’t.
KL: I felt like I was witness to a sort of undoing, or an exploration of what the undoing of colonization could look like attending But Tell Me What It Feels Like. Colonization plays out in so many different ways in our lives; of course it’s reflected in orchestral music as well. Nothing is untouched by it.
SC: Yeah! I also think about how orchestral music is used as this tool to do white savior work [laughter], which is really just another expression of colonialism in different countries across the globe. Something that I think about is there’s this [sighs] — there’s this program…
KL: Tell us about the program.
SC: [Laughs] There’s this program that comes out of Venezuela called El Sístema. It’s like an after-school program/youth orchestra, where young folks who often live in areas highly impacted by violence and poverty can join an orchestra, and they get access to instruments, music, mentorship, community, and, in some ways, safety — which is really wonderful. There are quite a few branches of the program in the US. While I don’t have personal experience with the program, I’ve had some educators share how high the stakes are for the youth participants. There’s a lot of pressure on these kids to perform all the time, regardless of what super-real stuff is happening in their lives, you know? Youth orchestra does a lot of great things for young folks. It builds character, it teaches you how to work with people, how to show up in community and be accountable, and those are all great things to learn. But what does it say when kids might be nervous about missing a rehearsal because they know that they can be easily replaced? Telling young folks that they are disposable is a kind of violence.
And then within a larger context, why orchestral music? Why use Western, classical orchestral music as a vehicle for not just building community, but, specifically, elevating communities? Different cultures have their own musical histories and practices that can very well be used to do the same thing. But what does it say when different countries in the world feel compelled to use classical music as a means to access social and cultural capital and visibility on a global scale? To see orchestral music being used in that way, in very specific areas of the globe that have been heavily colonized — if we’re not careful in how we talk about and treat Western classical music, it just becomes an extension of the colonizer’s subjectivity.
KL: That’s really intense.
SC: It totally is!
KL: You’ve been playing since you were a child and I could imagine that you were one of few, if not at times the only person of color in these classical/orchestral settings. How did that feel? What was that like? How were you received?
SC: [Exhales loudly; laughs] Well, I guess I’d like to backtrack a little bit and say that I didn’t start in the orchestra. I started as a band kid, and band culture and orchestra culture are very different. What I love about band culture is that there’s a lot of camaraderie. The sense of community is palpable and often built very quickly. When I entered the orchestra world, I was a junior in high school and beginning to consider what it would mean to continue playing the flute in the “real world.” Bands and wind ensembles are very much associated with school and college culture. Given the lack of professional wind ensembles, being invited to join the orchestra not only felt like a step up for being recognized at a serious flutist, but also a step towards longevity. I felt the cultural shift. In band, we were taught to make mistakes in front of each other, to mess up loudly, raucously. In orchestra, people are way more competitive and they talk to each other way less and there’s this culture of isolation. I’ve gone through years of playing with the same people and knowing the backs of their heads really, really well [laughs] but not knowing their name. I went to a predominantly white arts high school in San Francisco and was one of a handful of Black kids in the instrumental department. Stepping into that orchestra, I felt the stakes get higher… you come to rehearsal and you better deliver.
Obviously there’s more nuance in every individual experience. But being a flute player within the context of an orchestra, there’s an added pressure. You don’t need that many flutes. There are some eerie echoes between my experience as a flutist and as a Black American – there are a ton of us, but not a lot of space for us. I had to actively claw some space out for myself to just even be put on a program. I felt a lot of pressure to neutralize my hyper-visible presence onstage — to have my flute be a stand-in for me — but at some point oscillating between hyper-visibility onstage and complete invisibility offstage grew tiresome… and enraging. I was an undergraduate studying music and gender studies, and my analysis, my capacity to contextualize and name the source of my exhaustion and rage, gave me access to a type of agency that I thought was only reserved for white girls. I started to demand space in subtle ways. For example, I started to wear my natural hair. I’ve had complaints from people sitting behind me that my hair is too big and that I need to tie it down. And the violence of that; the mircro-aggression gets masked as, “Oh, well this is just more practical.” But what’s really happening is anti-Black racism. I was being asked to shrink.
As the only Black person on stage playing principal flute parts, I would not only feel the tension between myself and my colleagues, but between myself and the audience. I was and continue to be aware of the cognitive dissonance that occurs with audience members who cannot connect what they are seeing to what they are hearing or experiencing. After a concert, white folks sometimes approach me with a strange fascination. They are more often surprised than they are congratulatory [laughs]. Or the congratulations is actually a mask for surprise.
KL: Yeah, like, “I can’t believe a Black woman just played that part —
KL: — so beautifully.”
SC: Yeah, congratulations for me being up to white supremacist standards! [Laughter] “Thank you.” I’ve put on my own recitals before and I’ve tried to incorporate some singing into my performance practice as a way to prepare my body to play, but to also bring some kind of ritual, some kind of sacredness into the space before I actually play. I’m not a trained vocalist, but there’s something about singing that’s humbling. It’s a very personal, intimate offering, you know? Especially being classically trained, I’m used to performing only if I know that I can play it really well. And so to be vulnerable and to sing for people before I pick up my instrument — for me that practice is a way of creating some kind of room for humility within the concert space. But in trying this on, what I noticed is that folks actually latched on way more to my singing than the repertoire I spent months and months preparing. I would get a ton of positive feedback like, “Wow, I didn’t know you can sing! Wow, you should sing more!” All of that. And I’m like, “That’s cute, that’s fine, I’m glad that you like my voice.” But there’s something really strange about the fact that you are more focused on my three-minute opening song than you were about my forty-five minutes of furious flute playing. And I can’t help but think that being a Black woman plays a really big part in how people receive me on stage, and what people expect and what people are surprised by and not surprised by and want more of. The interactions just felt…racist. After realizing that, I kind of stopped that practice. So yeah, it’s complicated. You know? [Laughter]
KL: I really do. [Sighs] I loved and appreciated how you centered artists of color during your festival. Would you name some of them and talk a little bit about why it was important for you to center their work?
SC: Absolutely. A big part of my intention around how I assembled these artists was one, I wanted to work with people who I personally knew and really trusted. Some of the artists that I had the honor to work with were Indira Allegra, Amadeus Regucera, Melissa Panlasigui, movement artist and choreographer Alice Sheppard, and Leviathe, a composer, percussionist, and installation artist. I got to work with a ton of incredible artists of color but I was very deliberate and explicit about this festival not being exclusively QTPOC. There were two cis straight white women performing, but they were performing in service of this festival, in service of our composers of color. With the Alexander Technique workshop, for example, it was important to me that working-class folks of color and queer folks could walk into this space and receive care and information that Amy has and can provide access to.
I wanted to move away from the “QTPOC Art Show” label, not because I think QTPOC-exclusive showcases are unimportant — they are crucial, necessary spaces — but because I wanted to challenge the assumption that QTPOC artists only have the authority to speak on their racialized or queer experiences in their art. Part of my intention was to make sure that artists of color, queer artists of color, aren’t being pigeonholed as a specific type of artistry based on their identity. I also wanted to create a space where cis, straight, white folks would actually question whether or not they belonged.
We had a lot of conversations about belonging and entitlement to space and visibility. Prior to getting onboard with the festival, I had a few of the artists — specifically, white and non-queer artists that I worked with — ask, “Hey, do I belong here? Why do you want to work with us specifically when you are trying to center queer and trans artists of color?” Queerness and Blackness and not-whiteness aren’t only expressed on our bodies, they’re revealed in the ways that we enter and hold space. And with white and non-queer folks entering the space, I wanted the onus to be on them to ask themselves the questions that queer folks of color have to ask themselves all the time, which is, “Do I belong here? Am I welcome here? Am I taking up too much space?” For me, it was refreshing to be on the other side of that question.
KL: It’s important to ask the latter questions. The artists of color you worked alongside are insanely brilliant and talented. That was apparent throughout the weekend; these musicians were so thoughtful in and around their practice; and they were conscious about how their identities intersected with how they were musicians. Our identities are a part of our experiences, regardless of what we try to do — but they don’t have to define us.
SC: Yep, there’s so much more depth to our experiences collectively and individually than just what people can immediately rattle off as an identity. And I didn’t want to center white anxiety either, you know? Oftentimes when orchestral spaces are trying to bring in new audiences (and when they say “new audiences,” that’s code for: “We want more people of color, we want younger people, we want people from diverse backgrounds”) rather than centering the narratives and the practices of people of color, of queer folks, etc., white anxiety gets centered around conversations of race and inclusion and diversity. The focus is on meeting quotas, selling tickets, and not looking racist. Rather than taking a step back and saying, “Well, what is actually creating the kind of climate that pushes out queer trans folks of color in these spaces?” the impetus to have conversations about access and social and cultural inequity is prompted by white people’s anxieties around not being relevant anymore.
KL: Yes, and one of the things creating an environment of social and cultural inequity is gentrification, right? It’s ok for theaters and art spaces to want a more diverse audience, AND they should be engaging in dialogue about the inequities that lead to less diverse audiences. How has gentrification impacted the classical music, or the orchestral scene?
SC: Yeah. [Laughter] That’s a really great question, and there’s so many working components to it. To be real, I don’t see initiatives coming from larger orchestral institutions that directly address the impacts of gentrification. What I do see is a lot of rebranding and marketing tactics that are adjusted to fit the new demographic landscape of the Bay Area. I think about how, for example, San Francisco Symphony is sponsored by Lyft and Airbnb, these really big companies that drive gentrification in a lot of cities, including San Francisco. I’m not going to front — I did take a Lyft here. [Laughter] I also realize that it’s complicated as a San Francisco local who’s watching Black people disappear from the city. I can’t travel on public transportation in the way that I used to, largely because gentrifiers have no clue as to how to share space with locals. In thinking about the privilege of public mobility, of who gets to be comfortable and safe while traveling and who may not make it past the BART platform, I think about the compromises that I’ve made just to exist here. While I recognize the ways in which I participate in the gentrifying economy, I also recognize that adapting to it has become a form of temporary shielding. So my question to large arts organizations like the San Francisco Symphony who greatly benefit from the gentrifying economy is: How are you using these funds to re-invest in your community, particularly from neighborhoods with high concentrations of low-income folks of color? Are these organizations willing, for example, to use said funds to sponsor safe rides to and from Hunter’s Point to Davis Symphony Hall?
I see a lot of orchestras sending musicians to public schools to do XYZ workshop or community concert, and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. But it doesn’t actually address the violence of displacement, it just caters or adjusts to it. So, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Groupmuse.
KL: No, please tell me.
SC: Groupmuse is an online community and platform that brings classical chamber music directly into people’s homes. You get together with a group of friends, advertise your program on this online community forum, and people can invite you into their homes to play an intimate chamber music concert. While I think that this is a creative way to address some of the problems that classical musicians face in the gig economy, what I don’t see enough of is classical musicians taking a stance and talking about how platforms like Groupmuse often contribute to the economies that drive gentrification and the monopolization of resources, including space — like, literal real estate in San Francisco — and cultural capital.
Community outreach and youth education programs exist and typically come from larger orchestral institutions, but the current model that I see is very top-down and, ultimately, doesn’t do much to empower communities with tools and resources to create their own programs. This isn’t to say that there aren’t folks doing awesome work within the constraints of larger institutional challenges — as a teaching artist and a former youth participant of some of these programs, I’ve seen and experienced this particular challenge firsthand and I have a ton of respect for those who engage in this work. But I question the gate-keeping and strategic doling out of resources that are based in the interests of the institution, rather than in the collective interests of teaching artists, partnering educators and the youth participants. That feels icky too, you know? [Sighs]
Something else I’ve noticed in a lot of gentrified neighborhoods in San Francisco: music stores are getting shut down. And when I say music stores, I don’t mean Tower Records, I mean places where I used to get sheet music. Those places are actively disappearing. Places where I used to go to get my instrument fixed: disappearing.
There’s a lot of wealth in this city and that wealth is so contained among so few people and we’re allowing folks to just use their wealth to gate keep and dole out resources whenever they feel like it. And rather than going, “Hey, let’s take this money and let’s actually pay rent for a music venue where musicians can just come and play and put on their own recitals,” I see the current public response to gentrification in the creation of a sub-economy that supports it. And that’s where we get gentrifiers who rent and buy prime real estate under the guise of being “community-oriented” hosting these quaint little concerts “put on by the locals.” [Laughter]
KL: Yeah. Thank you so much. I feel super fortunate to spend time with you and to learn as much as I have learned in the last few months talking to you about orchestral music. A whole new world has opened up for me. Do you have anything that you would like to share with the world about what’s next for yourself and maybe where we can find you or see you in the future?
SC: Well on a side note, I’m really thinking maybe I do need an Instagram now. [Laughter] Because it’s relatively hard to find me online, which is, for the most part, how I like it. But on a more serious note, I would really love to continue developing Submission in Five Acts, and dig my heels into new music written by other queer POC composers. I’m also interested in exploring the grotesque and how that relates to the erotic. I feel myself moving towards the ugly in a way that feels very exciting.