5 Questions to Aiden Feltkamp (ACO Director of Emerging Composers & Diversity)

In late July 2018, the American Composer Orchestra recently announced Aiden Feltkamp as Director of Emerging Composers & Diversity, a newly-formed position dedicated to the ACO’s mission of inclusivity. Feltkamp’s responsibilities involve emerging composer recruitment efforts, including promotion and marketing materials, to better represent the wide landscape of identities in America today. Leading up to this new position, Feltkamp has had a successful career as a writer and vocalist, graduating with an M.M. from Bard College in Dawn Upshaw’s Graduate Vocal Arts Program, and in 2015, founded OperaRox Productions, a non-profit dedicated to promoting underrepresented artists through opera. We asked Aiden five questions about the new position with the ACO and their upcoming Phenomenal Women concert at Carnegie Hall on November 2nd.

You mentioned in a press release that you believe “[you and the ACO] have the power to sculpt the future of classical music.” What do you see as the future of classical music, how do you see yourself sculpting this future, and what kinds of future projects do you envision cultivating within this position?

Everyone should be able to walk into a concert venue for any given performance and see themselves represented in some combination of the music being played, the musicians onstage, the audience around them, and/or the conductor. For me, that’s the future of classical music–it’s bright, it’s welcoming, and it’s abundantly diverse.

I couldn’t be more adamant about the fact that I, myself, cannot sculpt the future of classical music. Despite its significant influence, American Composers Orchestra can’t do that alone, either. Inclusion doesn’t work that way. It’s going to be a team effort, with every organization and ensemble and administrator involved. However, ACO has decided to put itself forward as a leader in diversity, and the creation of my position is a result of that commitment. I’m going to do everything I can to educate, to advocate for change, and to put my boots on the ground to make that change happen. Thankfully, I’m not the only one doing this, but I would like to see more people engaged in making diversity an organizational core value. If I had it my way, every major ensemble would have a full-time position like mine. One day, we won’t need these positions, but they’re desperately needed now and the classical music world needs to step up to the plate in a unified, wide-spread way. 

ACO already has a fantastic emerging composers platform in place. My current projects, which extend into the near future, revolve around removing barriers for composers from underrepresented groups. We’re still in the part of the process where we’re digging out the root causes of those barriers; we’re defining the problem so that we’re asking the right questions and solving the right problems. This process requires extensive co-creation with composers and leaders from different demographics, deliberate analysis, and extra time to examine unconscious biases at each step of the process. It’s slower work, but I believe it’s more effective in the end. 

American Composers Orchestra. Photo credit: RMK Photos

American Composers Orchestra. Photo credit: RMK Photos

In what ways has this position been related to or different from the previous endeavors on which you have embarked?

You’ve basically summed up my entire life in one question! I feel like everything I do is slightly related and slightly different from everything I’ve done before. It definitely keeps things interesting.

This position is similar to my previous work because I’ve been working in classical music and in diversity for my entire professional career. I started my musical life as a cellist and spent about 15 years playing in orchestras until I discovered my love for diversity-related work. Along the way, I got deep into opera and studied as a singer. I worked as a singer for a few years, getting an up-close-and-personal look into the classical music world from that perspective. All of this led me to start my own opera training company, OperaRox Productions, which focuses on hiring underrepresented artists and promoting social justice through the art form. While all this was happening, I educated myself on diversity and served as a consultant for companies both large and small.

This position is different because it allows me to work full-time on diversity and inclusion specifically in and for the classical music field. It’s the job I’ve always wished existed. I feel honored to be able to dedicate so many hours a week to this work and to do it with ACO specifically. Not only are they sincere and enthusiastic in all that they do, but they’re especially invested in inclusion. For me, it’s a match made in Valhalla.

Pauchi Sasaki and the American Composers Orchestra

Pauchi Sasaki and the American Composers Orchestra–Photo by Jennifer Taylor

At this particular point in our culture, with so much political and social contention, has this had any influence on your focus areas of recruitment and promotion?

The short answer is no. Unfortunately, the focus for recruitment in orchestral music is the same now as it’s been for decades: composers of color and composers that identify as cisgender female, intersex, transgender, nonbinary, gender non-conforming and/or something besides cisgender male. And while the current political climate might seem like a major change in awareness, we’re still fighting similar biases, similar deficiencies, and similar barriers. We’re moving in the right direction, but we need to keep moving further along that path.

The long answer is that the heightened contention in America has fueled the intensity and the immediacy of diversity work. Not only have I personally felt more driven to pursue this work, but I’ve also seen it ignite a new passion for socially-relevant art amidst other artists, sister organizations, and funders. Social justice and diversity aren’t interchangeable, but they do go hand-in-hand. While this tumultuous time could lead in a myriad of directions, I’m hoping that it leads to greater unity, diversity, and empathy.

What most excites you about the Phenomenal Women program at Carnegie and why?

It’s such a good program and it’s hard to choose what excites me the most, but I have to go with Alex Temple’s Three Principles of Noir for a few reasons. First of all, I’m a sucker for science fiction, and this piece has time travel in it. Any piece that has an orchestra, operatic drama, and science fiction will have me running to buy a ticket. Second, I’ve been following Alex’s music for a few years, and it’s so special to see this piece coming to life at Carnegie and with ACO, in particular. I love how she’s always experimenting with her style and changing things up. I never know what to expect! And third, Amber Treadway’s directing work is always electric. I’m so glad that she’s having her Carnegie Hall debut with such a great team and a cool piece.

What can audience members listen for on this concert that encompasses diversity and inclusion?

In general, this concert isn’t different from any other. We’ll all walk in, experience music, and then decide what to take from it. No matter the composer’s demographic information, we’ll all just be experiencing a new work. However, acknowledging a composer’s background allows us to begin to think about what we’re usually listening to, which composers are usually presented at a particular venue or in a specific genre such as classical music, and how we can begin to shift that.

I personally love to listen to each work as a way to get a sneak peek into a composer’s brain. It’s a representation of what they like, what interests them, what drives them as an artist. And that diversity of thought and artistry, made up from so many different factors in that composer’s life, is what really matters at the end of the day. And we’ll be able to experience the full expanse of compositional creation when we have the greatest diversity of creators.