5 Questions to inti figgis-vizueta (composer)

inti figgis-vizueta is a non-binary Quechua/Latinx composer from Washington, D.C. As head of the Boulanger Initiative‘s Gender Diversity Council, they work to promote music composed by women and non-binary people and to achieve greater inclusivity in new music. A 2018-19 curator for Score Follower, inti has been selected as a fellow for the 2019 Mizzou International Composers Festival.

You just moved to New York! What has your experience been like so far?

New York has been amazing, and I can’t wait to continue to build here. The first full day after arriving I had an 11-hour recording and mixing session, and it hasn’t really calmed down since. Radical performances happen daily and I can only catch a fraction of them–a great problem to have. It’s lovely to have friends and collaborators drop in often, as so much of our work centers in NYC. There’s an energy and joy here, cultural and musical, that feels ideal in my shift to full-time composing. It’s a space in which I can internally explore and a much safer environment through its diversity. My local mentors and teachers express a high degree of social and cultural competency, and I feel free to develop my music instead of constantly being forced into the role of educator or native informant. I’m continuing to reconnect with my native andean roots, and Brooklyn feels like the perfect soil.

What drove you to become a freelance professional composer, and how do you work with and against the benign and malignant inequalities in classical music?

I come from a family of community organizers, whose work has developed and supported local and national campaigns for immigration rights, such as language access and documentation, tenant rights during the height of displacement for gentrification, all while training the next generation of on-the-ground community organizers and leaders. Critical thinking, cultural competency, and capacity building are the ideas and practices that have shaped me. I’ve never been able to bow my head when I see micro-aggressive and structurally oppressive behaviours.

The fact that I chose to study and write contemporary music pretty much ensured that I’d be engaged in a lifelong fight against fetishization, white fragility, and respectability politics. I moved towards freelance composing after a series of disappointing and harmful experiences within academic and professional institutions that did not serve me.

In my time working within those institutions, I’ve learned that we need to explicitly build systems for accountability and transparency or this liberation work is never going to get done. In a field where structural inequalities exist in every concert, from programming to performer decisions, the solution feels clear: materially support the most oppressed and feature the voices most absent. Hire more trans poc, program more trans poc, and commission more trans poc.

Leaving a respected academic institution where I experienced traumatic racism and transphobia from both staff and colleagues was a very vulnerable and terrifying decision–as a young, educated person of color, I’ve been told that the only way to continue to succeed is to keep my head down and work within these spaces. However, having left, I am more free than ever to pursue my work on my own terms with an amazing community of mentors and colleagues here in NYC. I am realizing that my time is better spent building within my own communities, and with this community comes a much stronger sense of self within my work and my own health. Along with that comes learning how to set boundaries in my work outside my QTPOC community. I’m learning how to negotiate compensation and set value for my perspective and time spent educating white & cishet peers.

inti figgis-vizueta

inti figgis-vizueta

You work with a number of organisations focused on advocating for underrepresented groups of people in classical music. How can these kinds of organisations support musicians who are largely absent in our artform?

I curate for Score Follower and work as Director of Inclusion at the Boulanger Initiative along with occasional consulting gigs. I believe that more than databases or list serves, hiring trans people of color to curate and commission non-hegemonic voices is key to material and transformative action. Also, actually paying everyone involved.

Organizations need to integrate ‘cultural’ programming into normal seasons instead of as a diverse flavor of the dominant culture and aesthetic. Marginalized artists feel constant pressure to define their artistic output by their identity or identity-based oppressions. Having a season that regularly features majority white and/or male performers or composers and then featuring one throwaway diversity concert is actively regressive and happens too often.

The pressure is also highly aesthetic. The privilege of being termed ‘experimental’ is implicitly related to intersections of class, race, and gender. Experimental means a breaking of the dominant canon and its continuum. If being queer or a person of color musician automatically others you–and it does–why are we so often defined by our relationship to that canon? We are not of that continuum so we can’t break away from it? If our parents aren’t rich, how can we even afford to break away from it? If we integrate even a little part of who we are or where we come from, our music now has ‘ethnic inflections.’ If we explore these roots too deeply, we get labeled or deemed inauthentic.

When we’re successful in navigating this wobbly line of legitimate and rewarded music-making, we get told how important our voice is to diversifying their space rather than how strong and beautiful that voice is in our space and our context. We constantly question and redefine ourselves for the sake of white comfort and white audiences because ultimately institutional and artistic spaces have the power at anytime of going back to majority white male programming without consequence. We’re always guests in these spaces. We get told to build our own spaces, losing any power of accountability for the difference in available compensation and support for our practices and growth. We’re expected to be fully formed before we get chosen for emerging artist programs. Often we use the trauma of growing up and learning in predominantly white institutions to develop incredible communication and critical thinking skills and are lauded by those very places for our achievement. That achievement is despite, not because of, those spaces and well-intentioned but ultimately violent people.

How can a white-run institution speak to any of that nuance or experience? How can a white-run organization understand those traumas and how to correctly work to heal them?

They can’t.

Hire us. We live these truths, and financially supporting the work we already do on the daily is more significant than bringing in x or y high profile, ‘diverse’ performer. Want to support queer people of color? Commission us. Create residencies focusing on ancestors and colonization and anti-racism work. Nuance your allyship. If you want more suggestions, email me and ready up that paypal (my venmo is @mx-inti).

inti figgis-vizueta

inti figgis-vizueta

You and I have spoken about pseudointellectualism and the academisation of music. (Hello, Adorno.) How did we get here and how do we move on?

Without delving into the dark hole of ‘music accessibility’ discourse, I’ll just say that the music we write in school and consequently for real world commissions are rightfully different. Music that requires a high amount of education and cultural capital to even begin to understand is by design less open to those without access to said capital. If a composer decides to shift or evolve their aesthetic from, lets say, dense and complex to something that still inspires them but that their mom can listen to and be proud of, I don’t see a problem. When we talk about academisation of music, I’m focusing on those composers who refuse to develop any clarity, or even intentional blur, as the spaces in which they flow through change.

Intellectualism isn’t a bad thing. Yes, I roll my eyes when people overuse Adorno or disenchantment (especially because of his racism when talking about jazz), but genuinely exploring in complex ways can be incredibly fruitful. When people fake it though, it’s obvious. Composition in school feels like a race–who got their masters or PhD the quickest? Who is musically and aesthetically legitimized through their fast tracking? I think the pseudo part grows from that need for legitimacy, where everything needs something complex and often vague behind its genesis and life. Just like in the questions above, I think the solution is more critical thinking and engagement. Don’t support the work that requires hyper specific knowledge and only vaguely engages with it. It’s taking up space that better crafted music could exist and thrive in.

You are working on a lot of composition projects. What are most you excited about sharing with the world?

I have the privilege of writing for Alarm Will Sound as part of the 2019 Mizzou International Composer’s Festival. I also have a upcoming chamber piece for a Brooklyn-based ensemble (still not officially announced) that will premiere in the summer. I have a few individual commissions & concerts that will pop up throughout the year too. Definitely keep your eyes out!