5 Questions to Garrett McQueen (co-host, TRILLOQUY podcast)

Getting a degree in music often provides students with a narrow vision of what is possible or what constitutes success. You can win an orchestra gig, form a chamber ensemble, or teach–but what of those who find themselves in fields outside of performance and education like music journalism, public media, or art administration? Often, it takes the combination of being open to opportunities and being willing to step outside one’s training and comfort zone in order to effect change off the stage or outside of the classroom.

Garret McQueen is a singular example of someone who has transformed a successful performing career into a broader platform for discussing social inequities in Classical music. Garrett holds degrees in bassoon performance from University of Memphis and University of Southern California, but he currently serves as the Host/Producer of American Public Media’s “Music Through the Night” and co-host of TRILLOQUY podcast. As an advocate for diversity in classical music, Garrett is a sought-after speaker and panelist, most recently appearing at Sphinx Connect 2020. We asked Garrett five questions about his circuitous career path and the importance of centering racial equity in Classical music.

As an orchestral bassoonist by training, how did you end up as a national host and producer at American Public Media?

One of the most important things I’ve learned since the start of my career is that no matter what, you have to try. Music schools do a great job of making this point when it comes to auditions, but giving something a try that seems a little “left field” or “out of the box” is what’s led many musicians toward a really dynamic career off the stage, myself included.

At the beginning of my fourth season with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, WUOT-FM reached out to our personnel manager seeking a sub for their afternoon classical show. At the time, I was supplementing my income as a bartender, so I thought this might be a more applicable way to make a little extra money. After taking the temporary spot, my updated programming and unique perspective on classical music led to my being named the permanent host of WUOT’s “Afternoon Concert.”

As I continued to expose my audience to new music and music by composers of color, I started to get more questions concerning the relationship between race and classical music. In response, I created a series on the topic that led to my speaking at panels hosted by the Gateways Music Festival, the Sphinx Organization, and the Kennedy Center.

My reputation as a classical music agitator grew, and more people started to pay attention to what I was doing. While subbing with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (on my very first trip to the Twin Cities), American Public Media’s Brian Newhouse and Julie Amacher invited me to lunch to discuss some of my work. Four months later, I was invited to apply for an opening they had for host of “Music Through the Night.” A month after that, I packed my apartment and moved to Minnesota to start the next chapter.

Garrett McQueen--Photo by David Caines Burnett

Garrett McQueen–Photo by David Caines Burnett

With professional orchestras and public radio both still being predominantly white institutions, can you talk about the role that code switching has played in your career?

Being Black in America and code switching go hand in hand. Our “excellence,” “success,” and “professionalism” have always been measured by how well we can assimilate, and how well we can do what we do to the comfort and acceptance of white people. This is something that I’ve always challenged as an activist, but something that’s been harder to execute when it comes to my role in the field. With the help of my manager, Julie, I’ve been able to find my true voice–to sound exactly like myself both on the air and in live conversation and presentation. I’ve started to take this a step further in the way I dress and in the way I move around in my various professional spaces.

Code switching is a reaction to the status quo that centers the comfort of white people. In everything I do, I center the liberation of Black people, and other people of color. I hope to live as an example to other people, so that being oneself in all spaces becomes the norm, instead of a challenge against the norm.

During your time at Knoxville’s WUOT-FM, your listenership exponentially grew once you started intentionally playing more works by women, people of color, and other marginalized identities. With this in mind, how do you respond to those who dismiss equitable programming efforts by saying, “I don’t care who the composer is. I just want to play good music”?

From my perspective, a listener who doesn’t care about identity is a listener who doesn’t care about history and the way it manifests today. It’s important to remember that historically speaking, there have been individuals and institutions who have codified what they considered “good” music, or music worth sharing–that’s why the canon looks and sounds the way it does today. Because of the way identity has been dealt with on a broader scale, the vast majority of those individuals and institutions have represented perspectives that don’t include the viewpoints of more marginalized communities. My centering the music and the perspectives of more diverse communities is my response to the systems that have created the inequitable programming and performance practices that have defined classical music for far too long.

Your podcast, TRILLOQUY, features “true and real stories from the fringes of classical music.” By intentionally operating on the fringes, who are you capturing that might not otherwise be a part of the conversation?

The way I see it, classical music has become a “good ol’ boys club,” for lack of a better phrase. From the time a musician enters a music school or conservatory, they’re a part of a network that leads to opportunities–summer festival invites, sub lists, etc. Intentionally operating on the “fringes” is the way in which I try to remedy the cliquey nature of classical music.

Operating on the fringes is also my way of showing people that classical music is so much broader than people are usually taught. Examples of this can be seen across the TRILLOQUY catalogue, including conversations we’ve had with South Indian musicians, rappers, arts administrators, composers, and even those who fill those more traditional roles. America’s concert halls are telling a very specific story. With TRILLOQUY, I’m telling a different set of stories connected to classical music.



You’ve expressed your frustration with the feeling that racial equity conversations in classical music need to be grounded or otherwise qualified by other inequities such as sexism, ageism, ableism, etc. How do you balance foregrounding racial equity while also acknowledging intersectionality?

This is a question that I’ve had to face more and more as my career has developed. These days, I balance foregrounding racial equity while acknowledging intersectionality by acknowledging the diversity of race.

James Baldwin once said, “The power of the white world is threatened whenever a Black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.” Across the board, I see organizations and institutions defining equity in ways that include people of color, instead of CENTERING people of color. I refuse to accept that definition. An effort to hire more people of color, for example, IS an effort to hire more women, because there are women of color. My work tends to center Black people, specifically. This includes Black people who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, Black people with different abilities, etc. Racism is America’s original sin–period. I don’t think we’ll ever overcome that original sin if we don’t center racial equity in our efforts to be a more inclusive and equitable society.