A conversation with Akshat Jain, compiled by Emily Kerski
Meet Akshat Jain: performer, administrator, writer, activist, and the voice behind Confessions of An Indian Tubist. An avid contemporary and classical musician, Akshat brings signature energy and dedication to his incredibly varied pursuits, whether performing with the Origin Brass quintet, appearing with Ensemble 20+, or working at Classical Revolution Chicago. As a colleague, I have constantly admired his vision to create social impact through the arts and the deep thoughtfulness he possesses as an artist-citizen. It is therefore my privilege to introduce Akshat to the Cacophony readership, particularly in light of a concert he presents this weekend surrounding the critical topic of minority visibility in our industry: Music and Dialogue: Minority Voices in Classical Music.
EK: How did this concert evolve?
AJ: The concert was spawned through conversations with collaborator Fareine Suarez and other friends in the arts community surrounding the issue of a glaring discrepancy between white-male musicians (composers and performers/educators alike) and women + any immigrants or people of color in the classical music community. Even in the CSO, one of the preeminent artistic ensembles in the world, there is only one African American musician. While I’ve always been aware of this, it’s easy to forget it, because it doesn’t seem like an issue. I don’t think most minority/POC musicians feel particularly isolated or marginalized in classical music because we aren’t focused on our differences. Rather, we’re focused on our craft and creating a homogenous approach to whatever piece we might be performing. The focus is on art. However, a conversation about involving more immigrants, POC and women in classical music, and all arts, needs to come to the fore more often than not, especially in today’s political climate. We need to create platforms for everyone to interact as equals. This concert will focus on creating a dialogue around our privileges and skills in order to channel support for underfunded schools, community programs and representing minorities as valuable members of society so that the younger generation can point to real people in their surrounding communities as mentors and leaders, and envision a path laid out that may or may not be what they’d otherwise think was possible.
Classical Revolution is essentially a mouthpiece for this event. Fareine and I did the bulk of the organizing. However, without Classical Rev, we wouldn’t have been able to find some key musicians that are performing with us. As far as Hairpin Arts Center’s contributions, Fareine and I approached Kacie Smith at Hairpin in September to discuss our idea for this concert. They were in the midst of planning their LatinxArts series and we approached them with a similar mission of increasing awareness and visibility for minorities and other underrepresented communities/races/demographics in classical music.
The musicians participating are a collection of my personal friends, their friends and some recommendations from Classical Rev. We have three current Civic Orchestra of Chicago members performing on the concert, current and former students from DePaul, Northwestern and Roosevelt and freelancers in the area. The repertoire that was selected to perform came from recommendations from musicians within each group. The only stipulation I set out in front of everyone was to strive to find music by POC’s, Immigrants, and women. The Brass Quintet will be performing a piece by Devin Clara Fanslow, a transgender multi-instrumentalist, composer, and arranger who is currently finishing a masters degree at DePaul. We will also be performing a reduced selection from a piece written by Conner Singh VanderBeek. The woodwind Quintet will be performing selections from Paquito D’Rivera’s Aires Tropicales, a piece by Godwin Sadoh (a Nigerian composer and ethnomusicologist) and some Amy Beach. The string quartet will be performing a piece by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Rhiannon Giddens and Brad Harris.
EK: What do you hope that the musicians and audience involved will learn/gain/discover from the event?
AJ: I hope that everyone involved with this project comes out of it with an enlarged sense of community and responsibility in our field. One of the other catalysts to this event was continuously having discussions surrounding issues (not just minority issues) where people seemed to be on the same page, holding intelligent views on the complexities of various issues in this world with some plausible solutions that were worth a shot. However, time after time, these discussions led nowhere. My hope with this concert is to demonstrate that by giving time, planning and encouraging those around you to participate, you can create something out of nothing. I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but I wholeheartedly support the idea that striving to find the right questions is just as important. By continuing the dialogue, I hope that more people will become involved and share their insights so that our classical musician community can grow in new ways.
EK: What does the idea of a dialogue concert mean to you? What does it mean/look like for this event to succeed?
AJ: I, very loosely, based the inception of this concert off of my observation of mass ceremonies at church from various church gigs I’ve performed on…music being part of the event rather than the focus. For this concert, however, we’re doing our best to highlight both composers of color and female composers, while including dialogue portions between pieces with musicians sharing their experiences, asking questions to the audience and being interviewed in front of everyone. This allows us to step back and talk about ourselves, our past, how it shaped us and what we’ve learned through living life. Since this is our “first-at-bat”, I already believe that this event will be a success. Performing pieces by women and people of color, performed by a majority of musicians that are female or people of color, has been a large undertaking. I hope that this concert serves as a catalyst for more to come, and that new collaborations are spawned from this one.
EK: I know that you have moved a lot in your life – in your view, does the city of Chicago present any unique challenges or advantages in addressing this issue of minority voices?
AJ: I have! I was born in India, moved to Lusaka, Zambia; then Atlanta, Georgia (USA); then Bangkok, Thailand; Antigonish, Nova Scotia (Canada); Interlochen, MI (USA); Muncie, IN (USA); Kalamazoo, MI; and finally Chicago last January. It’s hard to believe it’s not even been a full year since I moved here. Chicago has so many things going for it, and it’s been a dream of mine to live here for years. I enjoy the culture in Chicago, the support for the arts, the contemporary music scene, the civic minded programs throughout the city that support non-profits and underfunded/underrepresented sections of society. I feel a commitment to excellence here that I haven’t felt in a long time. Chicago is vibrant, diverse, and it feels like there is room for everyone to be themselves, but also to belong in whatever community they choose to. Chicago is a destination, and is a role-model for many people around the country and the world. The music community in Chicago gets a lot of attention, and I believe that it is our responsibility to engage in discussions. It’s our responsibility to be leaders in our community, to push those around us, to support those who didn’t have the same privileges growing up as we did.
EK: Do you believe in the potential for Chicago’s classical music community to create real change in regard to this issue –what do you hope to see take place in the Chicago music scene as a result of this discussion?
AJ: If we are talking about actionable change, this translates to increasing community outreach programs where we, as a community, strive to place women and musicians of color in situations where they are performing for younger generations, especially in their formative years. Giving them an example to look at, to relate to and to learn from opens up a wide possibility of views that they may not even be aware of.
It’s going to take a commitment to continue this talk, to collaborate with others and remove our ego from the equation. To extend our hand and pick someone else up, give them a shoulder to cry on, give them tools to succeed and then give them a mic to show others how it can be done. As classical musicians, so many times we are just focused on ourselves. Yes, I am the most important person in my life. But that doesn’t mean that I should turn a blind eye to the things I care about. I think that most of us feel guilty when we don’t focus on our art, or that we don’t think it’s as important as preparing a perfect rendition of an excerpt for an audition. Art is a service, and it is a cultural ambassador for the world. We do this for others, not for ourselves. We do this because we love it, and we want to share that love with anyone who is willing to listen or watch. By stepping away from ourselves from time to time, and sharing our love not only with avid classical music fans but those who may not understand, we can change the way we think about it by simply encouraging it in the younger generations of musicians that will eventually enter our field. This project is my first real step in a long marathon in front of me, and I’ve already found people around me willing to participate, help and teach me along the way. I only hope to find more people in our community that are willing to grow, learn, push each other and support those that can’t always support themselves.
Music and Dialogue: Minority Voices in Classical Music
Sunday November 12 @ 5:30 PM
Hairpin Arts Center
Free Admission, Donations Welcome
Leah Stevens, flute
Midori Sampson, bassoon
Kevin Guapana, oboe
Joe Sanchez, clarinet
Hugo Seda, horn
Joel Cantaron, trumpet
Alex Schwarz, trumpet
Ali Nazimani, horn
Aneesh Kumar, trombone
Akshat Jain, tuba
Alexandria Hill, violin
Kyle Dickson, violin
Seth Pae, viola
Carlos Javier, cello