Jacob Caines © Andrew Gilmour
Jacob Caines © Andrew Gilmour

Discussing Diversity with Jacob Caines

  • Jacob Caines / ClassicalQueer

    Jacob Caines is a conductor, musicologist, and performer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Jacob is an occasional faculty member at Dalhousie University, where he is the director of the Dalhousie Wind Ensemble and professor of music history at the Fountain School for Performing Arts.  He is a founding member of the Canada Council for the Arts funded Alkali Collective which supports living Canadian Queer+ and BIPOC composers and musicians through performance and commission.

    He is the founder and author of ClassicalQueer, a project dedicated to accountability, visibility, and support for Queer+ performers, writers, musicians, administrators, and artists in Canada.

While the lack of ethnical diversity remains a very actively discussed topic in classical music, the industry seems – at first glance – to be relatively open towards Queer+ musicians. Is this a naïve assumption?

There is an ongoing attempt to have classical music and performance institutions better represent the populations they serve. Included in that conversation is an understanding that gender, sexuality, and race are intersectional and connected discussions in many ways. I think the important distinction to make is between "open toward" and "embracing or celebrating of" Queer+ musicians. Given the statistically disproportionately high number of Queer+ people that work in the arts, there is very little visibility of the community within classical music programming and education. Other performing arts (and certainly visual arts and literary arts) long ago began the celebration of their Queer+ colleagues, but classical music has been slow to embrace and champion their Queer+ co-workers.
According to the 2020/2021 Equality and Diversity in Concert Halls report that studied 100 orchestras around the world and their programming, of the 14,747 pieces played by these 100 orchestras in the 2020/2021 season, 14,010 were by white men. Fewer than 1% of those were also self-identifying Queer+ men. Knowing that orchestras around the world are staffed by thousands of Queer+ people of all genders and sexualities, the programming is not representative of the population. With so many Queer+ musicians working in the industry, it is important to move from tolerating or being open towards Queer+ people and to move toward celebrating and championing the talent currently held within.

You are the founder and author of ClassicalQueer. Can you introduce us to what you aim to achieve with this project and how people can engage with it? Since launching in 2018, what are the achievements you are particularly proud of?

I always say that ClassicalQueer began for selfish reasons. I knew there were many Queer+ musicians working and performing but would rarely see interviews or hear people talking about their work and life. I wanted to share my experiences as a Queer+ musician with other artists and hear how their background and life has influenced them as a performer and musician. After bemoaning the lack of content available, I decided to just do it myself. ClassicalQueer has grown to include long-form written interviews, a monthly podcast with my European co-host Sammi Smith and guests, and a database of over 150 Canadian Queer+ musicians from my home country. It has become a way for orchestras, performance institutions, and universities to expand their roster of artists and diversify their programming.
I am proud of the database, written interviews, and the podcast. I am honored to be able to amplify these voices to an audience and have people be as excited about Queer+ performance as I am. However, I am proudest of the responses I get from Queer+ artists around the world. I have heard from performers across Asia that ClassicalQueer was the first time they have seen Queer+ musicians celebrated. I have received emails from Queer+ youth in the United States that tell me they were overjoyed to see themselves proudly represented on stage. I have talked with colleagues in several countries who have begun to use the site to program new composers, artists, conductors, and soloists. Although it began as a way for me to make connections and feel a sense of belonging, the ability for others around the world to find community has been incredibly rewarding. So long as the site can show Queer+ artists around the world they are not alone, classicalqueer.com has a vital function.

The term "Queer+" might not be familiar to all of our readers, especially to some German speakers. Could you please educate us on what this word entails and why you personally prefer it to other terms used to describe members of the LGBTQ+ community?

I use Queer+ for two main reasons. The first is to reclaim Queer from being a slur and reshape the history of the word. By using Queer and embracing it, many people have found joy in taking back a word that was considered hateful in many places. To me, Queer has always meant different or other and I like to think of myself that way. Intentionally other or counter to.
The second reason I use Queer+ is to purposefully acknowledge the complexity and intersectionality of the community. There are many people who identify with more than one sexuality or gender marker, people who don’t want to be labelled or classified as anything and would prefer to be fluid with gender and sexuality, and people who don’t yet know with which terms they connect. Many people also change or move between terms over their lives and locking them into one initialism like LGBTQ+ feels restrictive. There are also far more letters that would need to be added to include pansexual, sapiosexual, gender-fluid, non-binary, gender non-conforming, among others. Queer+ is an umbrella term that can include all non-heteronormativity and genders.

While many people strive for more Queer visibility in classical music, it can also be seen as problematic to put certain labels on composers and performers long dead. How do you feel about applying today’s language and discourse when talking about people like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Franz Schubert, or Jean-Baptiste Lully?

I tend to agree that putting labels on a composer posthumously is not best practice. I talk with living artists who are able to engage in a conversation about what queerness means to them and what aspects of it they identify with. They self-identify and can be clear in why they do so. Lully very well may have been Queer+ by today’s Western understanding of the word. He may have even chosen to be public with that label; however, he is not alive and ascribing queerness to him without his modern understanding of the label is not fair. Queerness through history is an extremely nuanced conversation that needs to consider time, place, social standing, affluence, power, gender, and culture. Although to modern eyes, Schubert might appear to be Queer+, if he were alive, he may look at the definition and not see himself as Queer+ at all. Who are we then to tell him he is!
My view is that whether these wonderful composers were Queer+ or not, there are thousands of currently living performers, conductors, and composers who would love to be part of increasing Queer+ visibility in classical music. Let’s allow Tchaikovsky to be performed with no speculation about his sexuality, and program living artists who can be clear about their life and how it informs their work.

You are currently conducting your doctoral research at Concordia University where your research blends studies in Canadian urbanism and geographies, Queer+ artists, and the contemporary state of classical music. Where did you find the most surprising overlaps or discrepancies?

I study where the Canadian federal, provincial, and municipal governments supply funding for the arts and Queer+ initiatives in comparison to other social programs which are funded. With the population of urban Queer+ people we see via Canadian census data, there is a sharp discrepancy in the support available when held against other social programs. This acknowledgement of community through support is mirrored in many cities’ classical music institutions. We have governments and local institutions who favor populations that are not representative of the actual communities in which they exist. Canada has been at the forefront of Queer+ politics for decades, and although we are lucky here to have the support of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there is clearly more work to be done.
Perhaps that is an obvious statement to those engaged in these conversations already, but I think it can be shocking to people who are not from any marginalized group that the weight and focus of the people who control financial and public support is not toward a fair representation of the larger community. Classical music in Western countries (Canada included) has for a very long time been in dialogue only with itself and not the full community surrounding it. As much as I see this to be true in my research, I still find it surprising. Even our very Queer+ friendly cities of Montréal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax, have significant work to do to have infrastructure and funding reflect their populations.

What can a festival like Lucerne Festival do to create a welcoming space for Queer+ artists and audience members alike? How do we make sure they get to tell their own stories and to be seen and heard?

The difficult path to walk for any festival or institution is between visibility and tokenization. Pride festivals are important, and they can signal to the Queer+ community that the organization values their presence and participation. Carrying that ethos into regular programming is important as well. Increasingly, institutions, businesses, and organizations around the world are being chastised for only caring about the Queer+ community during pride. To go beyond tokenizing, all performing arts groups can be looking at the statistics of composers performed during a regular season. Outside of pride, are Queer+ artists being booked? Are Queer+ people of color being provided opportunities to thrive and succeed in classical music? In 2022/23 or 2023/24, of the approximately 15,000 works being performed by orchestras each season, are they still 95% by white male composers? How many of them are living composers?
Though, rather than taking a grim view, I often look at an orchestra and think of all the potential in front of us. Classical music and all art speaks to the experience of being alive and the trials and tribulations therein. When our performing arts institutions only speak to a small segment of their city’s population, we can’t be surprised when we don’t have record-breaking audiences, and don’t have new perspectives and voices telling new stories. However, if classical music can be the voice for many others, audiences will be excited and proud to see their stories told and we will be proud to have brought those narratives forward. There is a great opportunity in front of us as classical musicians, we just need to embrace it.