Man on Stilts
Commissioned by Michael James Smith
Premiered April 5, 2018, at West Chester University of Pennsylvania
Additional performance at NACUSA National Conference, May 2, 2021
“Man on Stilts,” written for and premiered by Michael James Smith, responds to Alexander Calder's wire acrobat sculptures, and is also an ode to the wobbly rhythmic grooves that I associate with the music of D’Angelo. The piece is part of the Calder Project, an ever-expanding collection of piano works responding to Alexander Calder's sculptures and Sara Ahmed's concept of citation chains.
As feminist scholar Sara Ahmed explains in Living a Feminist Life, “citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before” (17). To Ahmed, citations “can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings” (16). In his six-part blog, Music Theory’s White Racial Frame, music theorist Philip Ewell writes that when we cite an author, “we grant them legitimacy and authority, potentially turbocharging their worth to the field. Historically, the only authors who get so turbocharged in music theory are white males.” The same can be said for classical music: historically, the composers and artists whose work is referenced by other composers, whether explicitly or implicitly, are overwhelmingly white and male. My citation of Alexander Calder in the previous paragraph of this program note is a contribution to that artist's legitimacy and authority. An instance in which a white man contributes to the perceived legitimacy of another white man may seem too commonplace to warrant comment, but I believe it is important that we notice and name these occurrences. Scholars working at the intersection of music and critical race theory have demonstrated the necessity of naming — in clear and unambiguous terms — systems and structures that perpetuate whiteness and maleness as dominant ideologies. This piece is an opportunity for me to acknowledge my complicity in upholding these systems and structures.