Joy Guidry © Shala Miller
Joy Guidry © Shala Miller

Discussing Diversity with Joy Guidry

  • Joy Guidry

    Radical self-love, compassion, laughter, and the drive to amplify Black artmakers and noisemakers comprise the core of NYC-based bassoonist and composer Joy Guidry’s work. Their performances have been hailed by The San Diego Tribune as “lyrical and haunting…hair-raising and unsettling.” A versatile improviser and a composer of experimental, daring new works that embody a deep love of storytelling, Joy’s own music channels their inner child, in honor of their ancestors and predecessors.

    Joy holds a bachelor’s degree in Bassoon Performance from the Peabody Conservatory and a Graduate Performance Diploma from the Mannes School of Music. They have been commissioned by The National Sawdust, Long Beach Opera, JACK Quartet, and the I&I Foundation. Guidry is a finalist for the 2021 Berlin Prize for Young Artists taking place in Berlin, Germany, in June 2022.

Your bio starts by describing you with: "Radical self-love, compassion, laughter, and the drive to amplify Black artmakers." How is it that these wonderful attributes make you a standout within the classical music scene when they should be part of the everyday vocabulary of any welcoming community?

Expressing emotions can be hard for many people – for me it’s not. I’ve been told once or twice in my life that I was "too much." I’m very extroverted, so putting myself out there has never been hard. But I definitely see why people stay closed off from a negative response to them opening up more or just having trust issues. It would be cool if other people were more open, but I can definitely see why it doesn’t happen.
For every aspect of any performance, any collaboration I do, I’m going to try and hire Black people first, especially Black queer people. I’m planning my album release show right now, so just going through everything from the venue to outsourcing: Can the film crew be all Black, the lighting designers, all of my dancers, the whole band? With my music being rooted in Blackness so deeply, I’m making sure that I don’t have someone come into this space whom I have to explain things to. When it comes to Black classical musicians, but especially in the Black contemporary classical world, I don’t really know where I fit anymore. I just like to stay with my people as I go into new spaces and feel at home in an uncomfortable world.

A lecture you gave at School of Performing Arts at Virginia Tech was titled Decolonizing My Musical Practice. Could you summarize what this entails – and do you feel a Festival like Lucerne Festival should also think about decolonizing itself?

My students – I teach mostly Black and Brown students – I expose to all types of music. I know that they listen to a lot of R’n’B, hip-hop and rap, so I integrate that into our musical studies. I’m not going to say: "I want you to relate to this Pavarotti recording." They have every ounce of musical genius in all of them to do that, but I can also just say: "You know how Lauren Hill sings this or Jazmine Sullivan sings that – what does that mean to you?" And it’s just such a faster process and I love that. I want to make it known that you don’t have to teach classical music from just the classical music perspective, you can teach it from rock and roll, you can teach it from rap, you can teach it from bluegrass. Because music is music.
And then with Lucerne… I have thought about applying to the Lucerne Festival Academy as a bassoonist many times, but when it comes down to the audition list, the bassoon pieces they pick are kind of frustrating to me. Because it’s very old school contemporary. I think the newest piece is Olga Neuwirth's Torsion. It’s an amazing piece – but there are so many others: Jessie Cox's bassoon piece is incredible and it’s really hard, there’s Liza Lim's bassoon piece, Michele Abondano… there are so many out there. Just knowing what is asked for in the audition gives me a very good insight into what’s probably going to be programmed. My friends that have done the Academy tell me: "We don’t know if you would actually enjoy this." The music, they say, is just very white and mostly by men. So I think it definitely needs decolonization.
I don’t know too much of the history of Lucerne Festival, but if I were to guess, I would say there is not a lot of programming of Black and Brown composers. So it just comes down to do: you want this to happen? Then just make it happen. You hire a Black person to do curation and it gets done

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 LGBT+ musicians. Is this a naïve assumption?

I do think it’s naïve because it’s only accepting to the conventional white queer person.
Ericka Hart is a wonderful community leader, author, and sex educator based in New York and they talk about – and I quote – how your queerness will never absolve you of your racism.

In an interview for the Berlin Prize For Young Artists, you talk about hitting a wall when always practicing the same classical repertoire and how you started doing different repertoire although your teacher did not approve. What was the process of this transition in repertoire like and what was the biggest take-away you would like to share with other musicians or music lovers looking to discover a more diverse repertoire?

The transition happened after I left the Peabody Conservatory. After my senior year there, I went to the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity as a fellow with International Contemporary Ensemble. I studied that summer with George Lewis, Matana Roberts, and Mazz Swift, and those three Black artists rocked my world. There was so much I just didn't know; I didn’t know Afrofuturism was a thing, I didn't know who Julius Eastman was, or Lisa E. Harris and so many others. Getting that visual and auditory representation absolutely changed me and it opened up the world.
I was still trying to get an orchestral job but it just didn’t feel right. But growing up in Texas, I’m very competitive, so it’s like well if I’m going to do something I’m going to do it really well regardless. So I still practiced a lot of orchestra and ended up going to the Spoleto Festival. I was very proud to get in but I realized I do not share the same joy as everyone else when it comes to opera and classical music. I talked to some other fellows there and they pushed me in a very encouraging way: "Life is short, go do what you want to do. We’re all talented, we got into this great program. Just take that talent and actually use your energy towards it." So when I went back to Banff after Spoleto, I had this mindset of "I’m not done with orchestra, but I’m done taking auditions, I’m done trying to live a life that I don’t want." I got serious about improvisation and exploring it. Then Corona came to the United States and everything stopped. That’s when I made my first EP, which was my first huge dive into creating my own music … and it did really well! Transitioning repertoire really happened fast, but I would never go back.
When I give talks at universities, I always ask if they know who Solange is, Jazmine Sullivan, Jennifer Hudson, or Ari Lennox – and they don’t. And then I say: "I know, because I can hear it in your sound and there’s a sense of lyricism that is missing." It makes me sad that there are so many people that say that they’re fighting for diversity and trying to change their music but they still only listen to white people. If you want to branch out, just go and try everything. I saw this tweet saying: "Artists could probably be amazing at other different types of art but we’re taught to just get good at this one thing." So many performers would be amazing composers of different types of music. I never, ever, ever thought I would be an electronic musician and now I have an album out! It just took trying and giving it a go and I love it.

Let’s talk more about your work as a composer. In that same interview, you describe yourself as "I’m Black and non-binary and fat, and all of these great things." How do your compositions reflect that?

I’ve tried to love myself and I do love myself – but the world does not want me to love myself. I talk about it very overtly in my music, especially with the titles or in the program notes. All of my pieces so far that I’ve written for other people are really straightforward in that way.

Do you compose differently when a piece is first played by a non-white musician as opposed to when it would be premiered by a white musician?

I don’t think I’ve actually run into that. If I were to write for a non-Black person, it’ll probably be something a little more spiritual, more ambient. A piece I was working on this winter tells a story of people who can’t go home for Christmas because of family trauma. It was written for a woman of color but this could be played by anyone, this is a relatable story of any race. I still like to hit hard subjects, but they don’t need to be directly attached to my culture.
For the piece I am writing for Lucerne, I ended up making the decision to the piece can only be performed by Black people, it’s just way too deep of a subject.

Can you give us a little sneak peek into this piece you are writing for Aaron Akugbo for his Lucerne Festival Solo Debut?

It’s about the Middle Passage, when the slave ships stole us and brought us to respective parts of the world. Many enslaved Africans jumped off the ship or were pushed off. It’s a tough subject, but these things need to be talked about.
It’s the hardest piece I’ve ever written in my life, it’s just such a terrible story. When I was making the soundscape for it, I had to keep taking breaks because it just was not working out for me emotionally. You’re going to hear the waves, you’re going to hear the footsteps, you’re going to hear the chain slowly dragging, and the foot slipping off the boat. It ends with an interview with Fannie Lou Hamer, a prominent activist in the Civil Rights movement. This interview was from 1968 and it has the famous line: "They know what they’ve done to us" – that’s the name of the piece.
Aaron’s going to do an amazing job. There’s trumpet with harmon mute, not muted trumpet, singing… I’m very excited. I will honestly say that trumpet has not been my first choice to write for, until I found out about the harmon mute, it’s so beautiful. Aaron’s incredible, and it’s been really wonderful working with him.