5 Questions to Garrett McQueen (Director of Artist Equity, American Composers Orchestra)

Garrett McQueen stays busy. A performer; radio producer and host; lecturer on race, administration, and music equity; and “classical agitator,” McQueen shows how multiple career paths can powerfully inform and enhance each other simultaneously. Because when your professional and personal mission is to dismantle discriminatory systems, you gotta approach it from multiple angles.

And recently McQueen has added Director of Artist Equity for American Composers Orchestra (ACO) to his list of credentials. His new role puts him squarely within ACO’s equity programs: EarShot, the United States’ “first ongoing, systemic program for cultivating relationships between orchestras and emerging composers;” the Virginia B. Toulmin Orchestral Commissions Program, in partnership with the League of American Orchestras, which connects women and nonbinary composers from EarShot with major orchestras; and the re-launch of coLABoratory, an orchestral commissioning program for works created outside of the traditional score format. McQueen’s appointment comes at a time when people are looking at whether institutions are committed to doing the equity work, which means not just engaging consultants, but hiring those that have done the work.

First, biggest congratulations on this position! How does this new role align with or expand what you’ve been achieving in your career?

Creating a pathway for myself as an entrepreneur was something that I was very proud to be able to accomplish, but after meeting Melissa Ngan and hearing about the open position at ACO, I knew that I had to apply. As many people know, my mission is to “decolonize” classical music, or to create a uniquely “American” framework around that phrase and the musical aesthetics that define it. I see my work with ACO as being in perfect alignment with my own personal mission as a creator. I consider the media I produce under the TrillWerks label (in addition to my other work with organizations including the Gateways Music Festival, the Black Opera Alliance, and the Lakes Area Music Festival) as my way of inspiring thought that will lead to actionable change in “classical” music spaces. My position with ACO as Director of Artist Equity is a way for me to engage in some of that action, myself; I consider my two professional worlds completely complementary.

Garrett McQueen reviews the schedule at ACO's June 2022 EarShot readings--Photo by Alfred Kan

Garrett McQueen reviews the schedule at ACO’s June 2022 EarShot readings–Photo by Alfred Kan

Two of the programs you’ll be working with most directly are EarShot and the League of American Orchestra’s Orchestral Commissions Program. What are the strengths of these programs and how do you see yourself continuing/expanding their reach?

Both EarShot and the League’s Toulmin Commissions Program provide a direct pathway for emerging composers to reach orchestras that are interested in new music: something I consider the programs’ biggest strengths. Another major strength of these programs, in my opinion, is the absence of an age limit. As DEI work continues to evolve and become codified within arts systems, it’s become clear to me that most equity-driven initiatives center “young” composers. I find myself critical of the lack of equity in opportunities that come with age limits, and am proud to have been given the opportunity to implement initiatives that are inclusive of composers and artists matter what age they are! At ACO, we define “emerging American composers” as music creators who have had fewer than three performances by professional ensembles and hold citizenship to any country within North, Central, or South America. This has opened the door for countless individuals for whom other initiatives don’t or can’t apply.

Expansion of these programs is multi-faceted and requires a community of support, and I appreciate that my role at ACO encompasses some of this work, as well. Expansion-based requirements are synthesized and realized in several ways, from Zoom dialogues that grow into lasting relationships, all the way to in-person events like our upcoming Gala on October 11, 2022, and our orchestra’s Carnegie Hall performance on October 20, 2022, which will feature works by both EarShot alum and current coLABoratory Fellows. I cordially invite anyone interested in being among the community of supporters of ACO’s work and mission to consider attending one (or both) of these incredible events! I’m looking forward to being there and to meeting everyone!

As a member of the ACO team, I get to fully entrench myself within conversations and collaborations that reinforce the unique value and necessity of new music, and more importantly, living composers.

New music has been a core part of your performing career. How does this impact your work as Director of Artist Equity?

My love and appreciation for new music makes my role at ACO completely justifiable for me. I always remind people that I decided to transition away from my career as an orchestral bassoonist back in 2016 because my values and vision for the orchestral field didn’t match what I was doing professionally, concert after concert. As a member of the ACO team, I get to fully entrench myself within conversations and collaborations that reinforce the unique value and necessity of new music, and more importantly, living composers. As I continue to “get my sea legs” when it comes to aspects of arts administration that I find new or challenging, I’m fueled by knowing that new music and its composers aren’t just an aspect of my work, but the center of my work.

I take very seriously the responsibility I’ve been given not only to platform composers of new music, but to redefine American classical music, and I’m extremely excited to partner with orchestral institutions that can offer space to music creators who are also interested in utilizing Western orchestras to shine a light on the musical stories, aesthetics, and experiences that uniquely define the Americas. This includes (but is not limited to) orchestral works that utilize what I, personally, consider examples of American classical music: jazz, soul, folk, country, hip hop/r&b, gospel, and the countless aesthetics that fall under the category of Latin American music.

You and your ACO colleagues are bringing back the coLABoratory program. What’s it been like re-envisioning this program?

I often get emails and DMs from artists who have great musical ideas and frameworks but no real way to express or manifest them; coLABoratory is, in part, a direct response to this growing community of music makers. While I have spent most of my time with ACO, so far, with EarShot, it’s been a phenomenal experience learning about the current coLABoratory cohort and engaging them in dialogue that helps me see and understand the next phase of music creation. Through dialogue and collaboration, artists like inti figgis-vizueta and Yvette Janine Jackson have given me a broader perspective on a number of issues that I had not yet considered. These include the issue of centering Western musical notation in new music spaces, and the necessity to normalize an expansion of what we consider “standard” orchestration to include electronics, sound amplification, and instruments that have fallen outside of the “tradition,” so far.

Garrett McQueen chants in his home studio--Photo courtesy of the artist

Garrett McQueen chants in his home studio–Photo courtesy of the artist

Your career path has me thinking about a practice I see a lot in my research: 20th century Black classical artists weren’t only performers or teachers but scholars, advocates, and journalists. How do you see yourself within this history and is this type of career path still needed today?

Every Black story is different and every Black story is needed – I have to name that first. Concerning my story, specifically: from my perspective, it has existed at the intersections of survival, an innate love for music, and an unwillingness to perpetuate systems and structures rooted in a “colonial” way of thinking. I couldn’t be a performer, exclusively, not because I didn’t want to, but because it didn’t align with my lived experience and perspective on American music. Survival in a society that’s growing more and more capitalist, coupled with my goddess-given love for music, has given me the unique opportunity to learn the skills and create the relationships that have allowed me to engage the “classical” field not only as a bassoonist, but as a radio host, content creator, activist, advocate, and now, arts administrator. When my time on Earth is done and my story is written, I hope that people see me as a person who wanted to create a better arts ecosystem than what exists today. My dream is for Black artists (and ultimately, for all people) to have the opportunity to engage what they love most in a way that doesn’t require personal sacrifice or compromise. I believe that the more individuals we have creating a way for themselves outside of traditional structures, the sooner we will all experience a field that we all truly feel we belong to.

Daisaku Ikeda, President of the Nichiren Buddhist organization that I’m a part of (Soka Gakkai International), teaches that “Great art is created only through diligent and painstaking effort to perfect and polish oneself.” Remaining solidly immovable in my physical and emotional identity, chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo on a daily basis, and taking on every opportunity to create impact as both an entrepreneur and arts administrator are the ways in which I perfect and polish my own unique place in the field toward the creation of an arts ecosystem never seen before.

Up Next: American Composers Orchestra presents “The Natural Order” on October 20 at Carnegie Hall. The program features newly commissioned works by CoLABoratory Fellows inti figgis-vizueta and Yvette Janine Jackson in addition to works by Mark Adamo and Viet Cuong. 


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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