Composer is banned in title controversy

Composer is banned in title controversy


norman lebrecht

July 06, 2019

The composer Mary Jane Leach was invited to give a talk in Halifax, Nova Scotia, about Julius Eastman, whose works are coming back into vogue. In her talk she quoted the titles of some on Eastman’s works, titles which contained the ‘n’-word to describe people of his racial origin.

The event organisers had a fit of vapours and banned Leach from taking any further part. They also published a public apology so excruciating that it might well qualify as a classic of political correctness.


During Leach’s exposition of Eastman’s life and work, she repeatedly invoked a racial slur by referencing, verbatim, the titles of a series of self-portraits composed by Eastman in the late 1970s and early 80s. At the outset of her talk, Leach made a statement that it would contain explicit, complicated language and that, while she wrestled with whether or not to include said language throughout her engagements with Eastman’s work, she intended to do so on the day in question as a means of honoring what she understood as the intentions of the work and the artist. We recognize that this contextualization was not enough and does not excuse the way in which this program curated, implemented or performed.

It is our understanding that discomfort, unease and violence was felt by many, in the room as Leach invoked these titles. Following Leach’s presentation, Nivie began unpacking some of the complications inherent in Leach’s research and her position as a white person telling the story of a queer, black person’s life. Through pointed questions by the facilitator and feedback from several attendees, Leach’s use of language and handling of Eastman’s life and legacy were called into question and identified as problematic and an example of colonial oppression. Leach’s work and presentation thereof was, in tandem, lauded by a self-identified queer, black attendee, who described it as “brave and important”. The event ended without interference or acknowledgement on behalf of OBEY Convention of the harm perpetrated in the room, and of that we are regretful.

Following the event, a pair of Leach’s pieces were to be performed at a venue nearby. Before the concert began, a number of people approached OBEY Convention staff to express their feelings that the preceding event had been harmful, inappropriate, and careless. In light of this, OBEY was offered the question of whether or not to move forward with Leach’s performance. These concerns were heard and taken with the utmost seriousness. A closed-door discussion ensued including those who came forward with concerns, members of the OBEY Convention Board of Directors, a member of its Programming Committee, and its two core staff members.

To honour the voices that came forward, in trust and confidence, and shared their experience of harm, we decided to pull Leach’s performance from the evening’s program to avoid perpetuating further harm and our continuation of silence. This decision was made not as a punitive gesture towards Leach, but rather as one of care and harm-reduction towards the more vulnerable, racialized people harmed by our prior programming. After informing Leach (and the musician set to perform her music) of the decision, the following statement was drafted collectively and read by creative director Andrew Patterson, joined on stage by executive director Kat Shubaly, and board members Sara Russell and Ray Fernandes:

Earlier today we hosted a program including the third artist on tonight’s bill. We acknowledge that that program caused direct harm to community members in attendance. As creative director, I accept responsibility for allowing and perpetrating this harm, not only in a programming capacity but also as a person in attendance who remained silent. In light of this, we’ve decided to pull the final performance in hopes of preventing any further harm. This is the first step in a process of accountability. Thank you for listening, thank you for your support, and for the care you’ve shown this organization.



  • Esther Cavett says:

    The Arditti Quartet have played Mr Eastman’s ‘Evil Nigger’ (1979) at major international festivals and they haven’t yet been booed off the stage.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    Mr E certainly mined that theme in his compositions:

    Nigger Faggot (1978) for bell. percussion, and strings

    Dirty Nigger (1978) for 2 flutes, 2 saxophones, bassoon, 3 violins, and 2 double basses

    Evil Nigger (1979) for any number of similar instruments, most commonly 4 pianos

    Gay Guerilla (ca. 1980) for any number of similar instruments, most commonly 4 pianos

    Crazy Nigger (ca. 1980) for any number of similar instruments, most commonly 4 pianos

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Someone who uses such titles in 1980 is an immature idiot, and really doesn’t want the music to be played.

    • Mick the Knife says:

      Can Gay Guerilla be played by 4 flutes as well as 4 pianos? If so, the piano parts must be pretty pathetic.

  • Terence says:

    It’s hard to imagine a more pitiful, grovelling example of ‘political correctness’.

    It’s a sad reflection on Canada and it’s obsequiousness towards a self appointed minority.

    They will end up like North Korea if they are not careful.

    Thankfully the US has the first amendment.

    Oh Canada!

  • LEWES BIRD says:

    What are the titles of the works in question?

  • We should recognize that the study of history necessitates quoting clearly contextualized historical language.

  • Bone says:

    The composer him/her/they/zheself should be banned for using the hurry word, too. And burn all of his music, too! Be more WOKE!

  • Alan says:

    “This decision was made not as a punitive gesture towards Leach, but rather as one of care and harm-reduction towards the more vulnerable, racialized people harmed by our prior programming”.

    What a disgusting, craven, appalling and cowardly sentence. YOU ARE NOT ENTITLED TO LIVE YOUR ENTIRE LIFE WITHOUT BEING OFFENDED. And if you do think you are entitled to that then go find yourself an isolated little island to live on and leave the rest of us alone.

    Art and indeed wider civilization MUST be protected from the censorship Facists on both the right and left of politics.

    Imagine curating a festival or a talk or whatever and trying to ensure that your patrons aren’t offended by certain aspects of it. Why would you even bother?

    Shame on the organisers.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Freedom of expression does not mean freedom to offend people, as it does not mean the freedom of being offended by anything whatsoever. Also freedom of expression does not mean that nonsensical or tasteless or primitive expressions in public space are always OK. The kind of freedom which produces primitive, uncivilized expression is in itself destructive and anti-civilizational, while freedom is supposed to be part of the civilizing project of humanity, an instrument of civil society which should be a garantee of every individual’s freedom and dignity.

      As will be clear, ‘freedom’ is not at all a simple concept. It is a very complex concept.

      One can talk about Mr Eastman’s music or silly titles in such a way that nobody would be embarrassed or offended, but why talking about them? Mr Eastman had the freedom to use such titles but that does not mean they are not ridiculous and unnecessary, they obviously were meant to provoke, to embarrass, to offend, in one way or another, and unintentionally distract from his music. It seems more probable that he suffered from serious confusion about the meaning of titles in general and the function of music in social contexts, than that he found a way of using music as a tool of social emancipation.

  • Paul Brownsey says:

    Comparably, I think I have seen the occasional report of pupils in UK schools being disciplined for calling themselves gay, because dim teachers have been informed that “gay” is a bullying sneer that must not be allowed.

  • anmarie says:

    It’s time to ban all words and just communicate with cave drawings.

  • John Borstlap says:

    To begin with, Leach is a decent composer of excellent, well-behaving music:

    …. Eastman however, one of the earlier very minimalists….

    …. thought that music, at least his music, could be a tool of protest. But he was rather crazy, and not very professional:

    “As Eastman’s notational methods were loose and open to interpretation, revival of his music has been a difficult task, dependent on people who worked with him.”

    Going into that territory of verbal Eastman provocation which has nothing to do with musical qualities, as Leach did, can indeed be considered inappropriate and drawing the subject away from music into the social sphere, where people get wound-up, so the staff was correct to stop the proceedings, whatever reason or explanation they came up with.

    • Tim Page says:

      Could you try this in English?

      How dare you patronize Mary Jane?

      • John Borstlap says:


        “Mr Eastman was crazy and Mrs Leach must have been tactless.”

        I hope this is helpful?

      • Randall Davidson says:

        Thank you for speaking up in this forum, Tim. Mary Jane is doing a great service for Julius Eastman, for the new music community, and for our culture. This incidental sideshow of censorship is off topic — the excellent scholarship and advocacy she is performing for the dangerous Mr. Eastman is karmic: it will come back around, eventually.

  • “Julius Eastman, whose works are coming back into vogue” … almost entirely because of the extensive work and research and publications and restorations done by Mary Jane Leach, who knew Eastman personally.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It is admirable of her to invest that much in E’s work. But she may have taken the titles too seriously.

  • Patrick says:

    no time to waste on this….

  • V. Lind says:

    What on earth are “racialised people”?

    “Curated”? I do wish these people would get back to dictionaries. The language they are picking up online is increasingly meaningless.

    As is the rest of the drivel quoted in the statement. What a load of claptrap.

  • Gianni Gualberto Morelenbaum says:

    When political correctness hides violence and cultural dumbness: the “apology” is an almost grotesque and confusing (and confused) piece of nonsense. Not only was Mrs. Leach offended with vile justifications, but Mr. Eastman’s work above all. If he was still alive, I think Julius Eastman would have expressed his feelings about such a tragicomedy using at least a four-letter word.

  • Dora Ohrenstein says:

    A gutless and disheartening decision by OBEY against a woman whose commitment to Julius Eastman brought his work back into the public eye. Mary Jane Leach should be thanked and honored, not treated in this disgusting way.

  • Phillip Ayling says:

    “This decision was made not as a punitive gesture towards Leach…”:

    If they are unable to recognize the punitive nature of this in the midst of their PR and damage control as they respond to those who may have been hurt or offended, it calls into question the integrity of every word in their press release.

    Much of Julius Eastman’s music was written in ways difficult to transcribe for future performances; bits have been lost; revisions lost; some pieces may not have recordings to reference.

    Mary Jane Leach is one of a handful of people who have worked tirelessly to preserve his legacy. This is dreadful.

  • Tim Page says:

    Sad to see this sort of idiocy in Canada — especially in beautiful Nova Scotia. Mary Jane is a hero.

  • Lilas Pastia says:

    This must be a parody from Private Eye!

  • Armchair Bard says:

    Am reminded of Bernard Levin.

    ‘Dear Sir: A certified lunatic has got hold of some of your headed notepaper and is sending out communications that purport…[etc etc].’

  • Bruce says:

    Were the people who put together this event unaware of the titles their chosen composer had given to some of his own pieces? Why invite someone — a foremost scholar of that composer’s work — to give a talk, and then not expect her to say the names of the composer’s pieces out loud?

    Are people so pre-traumatized that the mere appearance, spoken or in print, of “that word” in their world causes them harm irrespective of the context? If Eastman were alive today to give a talk about his own music, would they require him to be barred from an event in his honour if he named some of his own pieces?

    I’m sorry, but this is ridiculous.

  • Peter says:

    “This is the first step in a process of accountability.” it would be interesting to know what will be the subsequent steps in this process.

    I don’t understand how it is meant to work these days. If several commentators of this blog self identify as offended and harmed by the committee statements, does the committee then have to apologise and retract its statements or can it continue on its path of recklessly offensive apologies ?

    • The View from America says:

      “If several commentators of this blog self-identify as offended and harmed by the committee statements, does the committee then have to apologise and retract its statements or can it continue on its path of recklessly offensive apologies?”

      Of course. Don’t forget, we’re in the 21st century now.


    • SVM says:

      As a musician and musicologist, I feel “discomfort, unease and violence” at this hideous censorship of a serious academic researcher (despite the fact that, by the organisers’ admission, she had even given what amounts to a ‘trigger warning’, for what it is worth — I think that demands for ‘trigger warnings’ are often excessive, but I digress) and, in society more generally, the neo-McCarthyist muzzling of the right to express dissent from the Overton window as delimited by a very vocal minority of persons who claim to speak for and defend the rights of oppressed demographics (ironically, such persons often overlook and marginalise the considerable diversity of opinion and experience *within* these very same demographics; I hasten to add that, in any case, no demographic has the right to a monopoly on the discourse about or relevant to said demographic).

      Society is reaching a point where it is becoming /de facto/ untenable to have a full and frank discussion about anything remotely uncomfortable or controversial (and, with the apparent broadening of the definition of so-called “hate speech”, it is sometimes becoming /de jure/ untenable). Already, we have a situation where only the retired and the independently wealthy feel able to really speak their minds, whilst intelligent professionals keep their heads “below the parapet” for fear of losing livelihoods and careers.

      We *must* learn from history, which entails examining language and discourses that we may find deeply objectionable.

      Finally, I hope that Leach and the performer who was deprived of the opportunity to play Leach’s work were paid all fees and expenses promised to them promptly and in full.

      If, conversely, Leach and/or the performer had paid a registration fee *to* the convention (as is common in academic conferences), then the convention should refund it and any associated expenses incurred by Leach and/or the performer (since, by its act of censorship, the convention did not uphold its part of the contract).

      • John Borstlap says:

        That may all be true, but at the centre of the controversy lays the work of Mr Eastman, who deliberately used ridiculous titles to draw attention to what he believed were his predicament, which – if it is true – has nothing to do with music. By packaging his work into socio-emancipatory (?) wrapping paper, he distorted whatever musical interest or qualities his work may have. This is manipulative in the sense of how totalitarian regimes forced art into political frames, but now done by the artist himself. The result is dirty smoke about the wrapping paper and not about content.

        • J Randall Davidson says:

          I would suggest that you have misinterpreted Mr. Eastman’s intent. Interpretation is the basis of scholarship and so I would rather read your analysis based on specific music. If (as I suspect) your problem with Mr. Eastman’s work is with the titles and not the music itself then I think you have a dilemma in your scholarship or your opinion: you may be treading very close to censorship or arrogance. Titles are very much part of a creator’s work’s aesthetic frame. You don’t get to pick the titles for the artist. And you smudge the “mention/use” difference in making your case for removing the titles from the works. It is one thing to “mention” the n-word in scholarship and “using” that same word as an epithet.
          Please understand that this is not meant as a personal argument with you, but part of a larger conversation taking place in the scholarly community. You are taking the side of censors on the far Left and Right. Censorship is censorship, wherever it comes from.

  • Pacer1 says:

    “Don’t mention the War!”*

    *Fawlty Towers

  • christopher storey says:

    I have read some drivel in my time, but this uncalled for apologia takes the biscuit. And who said they could properly use the word “queer” in it ?

    • The View from America says:

      Frankly, we’re offended by the word “Leach” — it sounds too much like “leech,” which is a micro-aggression against people on welfare.

  • muslit says:

    Life was so much better when people kept their opinions to themselves.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed, but it was even better when people did not talk at all. That’s why the animal kingdom is so peaceful – they never talk.

  • Randall Davidson says:

    Exaggeration. Repetition. The Forbidden. Surprise. Four of the Seven Elements of Comedy. This thread has now become, officially, funny.

  • Guest says:

    Reading this bickering (in the article), I think what police must think when gang members kill each other. Who cares? Let them tear each other to shreds.