Dr. Eleonora Beck is a musicologist who teaches a course on Music and Social Justice at Lewis & Clark College-- but she's never been the type to stay locked away in an ivory tower. In this episode, you'll hear Beck talk about fighting for change through music, inside musical institutions, and out on the front lines of protest and policy.
Hosted by Tori Marchiony. Mixed by Teng Chen.
Post Publication Note: Dr. Beck is now goes by the name Aaron and uses the pronouns he/they.
TORI MARCHIONY: (Voiceover) Hello, happy Women's History Month. And welcome back to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I'm Tori Marchiony. And this is a space to hear from the people working hard to build a more equitable world inside and outside the concert hall. The music you just heard in the intro was Euridice from the 2013 album Strange Land by our guest today, Eleanora Beck.
Dr. Beck is a college basketball player turned musicologist specializing in Italian, Medieval and Renaissance music. She's a professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where she designed a course called music and social justice. It examines the role of the performing arts in social movements, including Black Lives Matter, women's rights, LGBTQ+ equality, environmental justice, and more. We'll talk about how we can correct holes in the canon, how music reflects and shapes society and why appropriation can be such a complex concept when it comes to music. But first you should know that Beck doesn't live locked away in an ivory tower. Last summer, she was part of the famous Wall of Moms at Portland's Black Lives Matter protests. And as a Italian woman, she's been fighting for equality all her life. In 2013, a homophobic law in her home country took her all the way to the Italian Supreme court. Five years later, she achieved a precedent setting win.
AARON BECK: What happened was, I was on sabbatical, like all professors and I wanted to bring my family to Italy like everybody else, but I'm Italian. I have Italian citizenship. And so I thought I'd just get my children theirs like everybody else. And so I went down to San Francisco and so on and the consulate called me on the phone and said, “look, you know, we can't do this because your children's birth certificate had two mothers on it”. And in Portland already in 2000s, they were putting two moms on the birth certificate, which was cool. And they said, “you can erase one and it would be okay, but you cannot have two moms on that birth certificate”. And I had to go to Italy you know, in a month, what am I going to do? And the consulate said, in real Italian fashion, you know, telling you to just go. So I went and then that was, I happened to have a connection to an attorney who did estates through a family friend and I, and Bologna, God bless Bologna, gave my children, um, residential permits to be there. And, uh, my wife as well, uh, permits to stay. So that's how the whole thing started. And then it was this attorney with me and my family said, “let's push this. Let's go further”.
HOST: I kind of wondered if some of your like “competitive spirit” from basketball played into that- of like, we're going to fight about it. So what were your feelings as you were going through that?
AARON BECK: Well, thank you for bringing up basketball because I do think that women's basketball is a really important part of who I am. And I don't think that it's a fluke, that the person who finally was able to stand up to Bill Cosby was a female basketball player. I do think that even though I played a long time ago, it instilled in all of us a sense of we can do this if we do this together. And if something is not right, it's not right. Also I played basketball in New York City, which in and of itself brings a kind of- there ARE lots of different people on the team. We all work together to try to make things better. So, um, I do think in that spirit, I, I didn't really look back.
HOST: Was that because, I know that growing up in Italy, there was, there were obviously lots of pressures on you to negotiate your identity, but now as a person living in Portland and living authentically, was it shocking to you to sort of be confronted with that kind of… I'll call it bigotry?
AARON BECK: Oh yeah. Well, no, because I am a person of a certain age, you know I'll be turning 60. And so I grew up in a very bigoted time. And when I was a child, I grew up very much in Italy. Um, I was so frightened that anybody would figure out that I was gay. I wouldn't say, my mother would say, “don't tell anybody it's none of their business”. So I wasn't allowed to talk about it. And if I did, I don't know what would have happened. I don't think Italy would probably have been better, but in the United States when I was in college, we were routinely spit on, chased. Um, I remember terrible time in the New York City subway. Um, when I don't know why these guys decided I was gay, I was just minding my own business, but suddenly in the middle of rush hour that I heard them yelling at me, all these terrible words. They said that they were going to kill me and they were clearly drunk and laughing. And it was the most frightening moment. So this was in the eighties, this is what it was like. Um, and, uh, in the eighties and the seventies for people, it was frightening and we couldn't come out and, and then we had to deal with all the repercussions of having to be a be in the closet.
So interestingly enough, when I went to Portland in the nineties, um, I was afraid a little bit and my grandmother said, “are you sure it's going to be safe for you in Portland?” And I said, yeah, because Lewis and Clark was always terrific in Portland. But so that's a little bit of my story. Now, Italy has opened up a little bit and my Italian family and my Italian friends that I knew from L a little Theo has loved me, then don't judge me. So that's how it's been. It's been getting over fear for a lot of us in my generation. We're still dealing with the trauma that we experienced from just being so scared.
TORI MARCHIONY: Wow. Thank you for sharing that. As, as musicology has sort of like gotten into sort of a theory kind of place, was that exciting and interesting to you? Did that shift your sort of academic pursuits at all?
AARON BECK: You know, I was excited when I, there were a lot of wonderful theorists now in musicology, but what I've I've understood about one's identity, at least from me, is that being a professor trumps being queer. So in other words, like professorial kind of weirdnesses and egos and, um, having to always kind of be right and getting the right book contract and being at Harvard or whatever, all the things that professors do, trumped being queer. So if you weren't speaking the right language for other musicologists, like you were out, and I felt at the time that my queerness was central to me, but the way that I needed to express it was to work with artists and ideas that were in the valleys between disciplines.
So I love Meredith Monk because she did video and she did dance and she sang. And so for me, that was my safety place was "how can I bring these things together?” But I, I, I didn't have the language or it didn't sing to me the theory. So, because I wasn't theoretical, I didn't become, or I'm not part of, kind of the queer musicology, um, academics.
TORI MARCHIONY: (Voiceover) Here’s an excerpt of Meredith Monk's Railroad Travel Song performed by Conrad Tao.
MUSIC: Meredith Monk's Railroad Travel Song performed by Conrad Tao.
TORI MARCHIONY: Does music have a history of successfully acting as a hammer or is it primarily a mirror?
AARON BECK: I would say it depends who wields it, because there have been ways, for instance, in the 20th century, we look at Shostakovitch and the Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, where the story goes, that Shostakovitch composed it while hearing the German armies on the outskirts of Leningrad. And it was a way to bring everyone together. And the symphony itself, it actually has the sounds of the drums and the marching. [00:10:00] And I think that did wield the hammer. I think it, it had an emotional way of saying, of stopping this onslaught.
AARON BECK: I, I have to think that it really depends because whoever has the power in our culture is going to wield that musical hammer and have more control of it. And what is clear has always been clear in the United States is certain people have the power and certain people don't. So when I teach my students, is that we need to all overcome this and that music is one way to do it, that it does bring us together. Ultimately.
TORI MARCHIONY: As I was learning about the history of We Shall Overcome I thought it was fascinating that on the one hand it's been used as this political anthem for so many different movements. And on the other hand, it's kind of a story of appropriation that it's a ham by a Black man minister, which was popularized by a Black woman organizer and then made famous by a white man [00:13:00] who then on his behalf, we're having like copyright conversations about it when it's like, it was so far from being his- he changed a word, right?
AARON BECK: Yeah. That's a good, that's a really good point. Um, spirituals and there, a lot of them began in the worst song in the 19th century, early 19th century, when it comes to, We Shall Overcome, it was first published [00:13:30] by a Black composer, and then they change, they migrate. And in this case, the song was sung in Tennessee at a famous school- A freedom school. And this school was set up to help poor Appalachians, who weren't getting enough education and the leaders of the school, um, sang this song there. And when Pete Seeger [00:14:00] came, they taught it to him and in this kind of change, they also taught it to some union folks. And then Pete Seeger took it on and made it a kind of rallying cry for the people. Um, interestingly enough, many African-American composers had already published the spirituals and arranged them for different. So for piano and boys [00:14:30] and some for choir.
So I find that the spirituals again are nuanced in that I- Frederick Douglas said, wrote, that he couldn't listen to them. You know, that they were so sad and it brought up so much sadness that he couldn't, he couldn't, and they were also sorrow songs, songs of sorrow. And then what happened at like much music that is so powerful and so wonderful. [00:15:00] It just started, they had a life of their own and entered American culture in different ways.
Some, I don't know the word appropriation has been a word that I know people use a lot. And I think sometimes musicians often take good ideas from other people. You know, you could even call it stealing sometimes like when Mozart took big ideas [00:15:30] from a Handel or Schumann took from Chopin or something. And so there's a quality of being a musician. I say, “wow, that's really good music. I want to hear it”. But the issue of course in the sixties is when Black composers wrote a song and then big companies took the rights of the song. And that, to me, that's just bad. But I think the idea of borrowing, stealing…[00:16:00] the American folk song tradition, much of it is based on spirituals and it's such a rich and incredible place.
TORI MARCHIONY: I thought it was also interesting that that song has had a life internationally in, in social movements. And that, that really speaks to sort of what you're describing that transcendent power of music that when it, when it hits, it hits. Yeah. I mean, I'm thinking now about sort [00:16:30] of the, the canon of, of music history and how that it's obvious that certain composers were overlooked. And it feels like in recent years, there's been an attempt to rescue some of those individuals, but then there's always the question of who didn't even make it far enough. That, someone pointed out to me that some pieces have never even been played or that there's [00:17:00] no recording of them. So the, the sort of effort required to bring them to this stage now is huge. Do you have an opinion about what the best way forward is and sort of rectifying those holes in the canon?
AARON BECK: Oh, having been a musicologist for many years and starting my career really in the early nineties, uh, first of all, I was very interested in what he was like by women. And I remember going to my professors [00:17:30] at Columbia and saying, “you don't really want to study 20th century women composers”. And they were like, “oh, we don't know. You know, where did, this is not a particular interest. You might want to go across the street because there's somebody at Barnard College who works on that”. And then early on, I kept pushing. I started working Meredith Monk and I did an early interview with her. And still when I went back to my college and said, “I really want to spend more time working on Meredith Monk”. They told me “no, [00:18:00] no, um, where you need to stay in your field”. So, and musicology.
Anyway, I think the first big push has been to record music by women. So whether it’s Amy Beach or Clara Schumann, or, um, even later composers.
What happened was in the nineties though, however, the quality of the recordings aren't that good. So what's people started saying is, uh, [00:18:30] “you know, of course we didn't really want to study women's music because listen”. Yeah. But it ended up that the recording quality wasn't good. Never, nothing like what for the masters are. So I think this is also important as we move on and we need, first of all, to publish all of the music of lost composers- you may know this wonderful story about Florence Price.
It seems like somebody had bought [00:19:00] this house in Illinois and they were fixing it up. He said, “this is a fixer”. And they found a treasure trove of one Florence Price’s, music that had never been published. And now Schirmer is going to publish it all. I really think that is exceptional music. So the first step is to get it published. Well, I guess the first step is to find it. And the second step is to get it published. But then the third step has [00:19:30] to be that these recordings are really top notch
TORI MARCHIONY: (Voiceover) Just a few weeks ago. The Philadelphia Orchestra presented Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement with soloist Michelle Cann. It was part of a constellation of ongoing efforts among institutions to correct the conspicuous absences in the canon of artists like Price, who by the way, was the first Black woman to have a symphonic work played by any major American orchestra back in 1933. [00:20:00]. This year, Price is the focus of Cornell University's One Composer series dedicated to the study, performance and discussion of a single underrepresented composer's life and legacy. That program helped support Michelle Cann’s performance with The Philadelphia Orchestra back in February- which actually marked the first time Price's Piano Concerto had been played in North America in its original orchestration since at least 1953. Thank goodness it wasn't lost forever. [00:20:30] Here's a taste-
PRICE, Piano Concerto in One Movement, Michelle Cann with The Philadelphia Orchestra
AARON BECK: [00:23:00] Florence Price is an interesting story because she grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas and same place where Stills is from- two great composers from the same town. And she was born, her father was a dentist. And so early on they did, okay. But then gradually race relations got worse and worse and laws were passed there that made things more difficult [00:23:30] for Blacks. And so she realized she had to get out and she ended up at the New England Conservatory and she studies as an organist and she composed a lot of really great music that wasn't performed. And did you survive through teaching?
So I always look up to that figure as well, who is composing, is writing, is making the music that they love and finding a different way to make a living. [00:24:00] So I, I like, I'm always drawn to composers ultimately who write the music that they want to, and that speaks to them and is, yeah. I like that figure. I don't know, the one who survives- the survivor… overcomer.
TORI MARCHIONY: Yeah! As you were putting this, the little bits together for your music and social justice course, were there any sort of epiphany that you [00:24:30] had personally, things that maybe you had an inkling about, but that really hit home once you started putting it all together?
AARON BECK: I think the biggest epiphany I had is that this is all a journey. And the thing that as music lovers, we need to commit ourselves to is learning more and more. For instance, in my music history class, their final project is to have a rebirth or find a composer that no [00:25:00] one really knows and be the first one to write the short biography. I short discography and bring them to life, bring them to light. And sometimes students find, I don't know, their long lost aunt or a student had some genius family member who had kind of gone down a wrong path and, and talk to them and found all this music. So I think what I learned most is to contribute [00:25:30] to social justice and music from my vantage point is to know more and more.
And why don't we listen to Florence Price’s music? It’s because we don't listen to it, we don't listen to it enough. It is really, really good music. I mean, I love Beethoven's music. I love, I basically live on music. I've listened to it a lot and not only have I listened to, I listened to the 50th, you know, Barenboim, you know, then I listened to Bruno Walter’s and then I listened [00:26:00] to different versions. Just imagine if you brought that kind of light on to William Grant Still or Price. I mean, luckily Meredith Monk now has really become a part, I would say as if she was at Carnegie Hall, she’s won a MacArthur. But way back when I was studying Meredith Monk, it was hard for her too. But the more light we can shine… that's what I've learned to keep learning about music. And this way [00:26:30] I think that in my own way is promoting social justice.
TORI MARCHIONY: Awesome. Well, thank you so, so much. This has been absolutely wonderful.
AARON BECK: Well, all I can say is I've loved your questions and I've loved speaking with you and thank you.
TORI MARCHIONY: (Voiceover) And with that, we've reached the end of another episode. Thank you so much for joining us. And please remember to like subscribe, rate, review, comment, share, and tune back [00:27:00] in next month for another episode of HearTOGETHER. The Philadelphia Orchestra and Michelle Cann, will play us out with some more of Florence Price’s, Piano Concerto in One Movement.