I’ve been writing since June 2021. This is the first blog post in which I’ve interviewed or highlighted a cishet white male. “But Shannon, if this is a blog centering equity, why are you sharing the voice of a cishet white male?” Good question. Equity work needs to involve everyone. In particular, cishet white men need to be having conversations about equity with other cishet white men. An emerging trend I’ve observed is that many white folks don’t see themselves in equity work; or maybe they are overwhelmed by it (“I’ll say something wrong and people will get mad” or “I’m not sure what to do so I’m just kind of doing nothing” are common refrains). Let’s demystify the work a bit by having open, and at times hard, conversations.
I first met singer/composer/conductor Paul John Rudoi when he was singing with Cantus. He left Cantus to pursue his masters with Dr. Sharon Paul. After completing his degree, he moved to the Twin Cities, where he is currently working a handful of gigs (National Lutheran Choir and at a church job), as well as developing a few new ideas (compositions and composition-based).
When COVID first hit, Paul received some criticism on a piece he wrote that set a Langston Hughes poem (composed pre-COVID). As Paul shared how the piece and subsequent conversations unfolded, it was clear that he was still reflecting. He held space for all of the conversations that followed the criticism, and took learnings from each of them. It’s been confusing– people who share similar identities give him very different feedback. Yet, Paul shared to me: Isn’t it deserved that white men should be silenced for 100 years or more? Why do we have so few living Black composers that are popular? It’s not because there are not enough creative Black people. We haven’t been bringing up everybody with the idea that they can create music. White people generally have a lot more resources available to them, and this leads to a lot of white composers of classical music.
In addition to listening and understanding, Paul is trying to figure out his role in the composition field. He has gotten more comfortable in sending out educational material with his music, understanding that context for the conductors (to share with students and for their own knowledge) is important. He knows he can give conductors a place to start with their research.
Beyond that, Paul emphasized that we need to be talking about generational change. “We are having the same conversations as we did 70 years ago with Civil Rights or 150 years ago in Transcendentalism,” he points out, following it up with “we’re just hoping kids will wake up on their own with better perspectives on how to treat each other.” He doesn’t have an answer, he said, but he can support others who have a better way of offering generational change. “We are going to watch the world burn and pretend it’s not a big deal.”
“Do you want to keep writing?”
“I think so.”
And then Paul continues…
… maybe he can be an advocate for young kids who want to compose? With that, he started talking to me about the Creative Literacy Clinics he’s led. He works with kids to create sounds and put them together. When they thought a sound was funny, it sounded cool. They made weird sounds into a microphone, and then when he looped that sound for them, it sounded cool.
This is maybe the first point in our conversation where Paul sounded excited and hopeful about next steps in the field. He has led some workshops with students about creating music in ways that don’t involve sitting at a piano and writing down a composition.
We didn’t leave that conversation feeling as if we solved anything. That wasn’t the point. I appreciated hearing Paul grapple with how his voice fits in the composition field. It especially struck me that Paul was in continuous assessment of when to use that voice and when to leave space for other voices, in combination with learning and yes, sometimes making mistakes. Paul doesn’t feel a need to expand the choral repertoire. If he’s going to write, it has to be associated with figuring out what the systemic issues are and trying to translate that into music. And this will bring up potentially uncomfortable conversations, some about equity. And he will lean into that discomfort, not shy away from it.