The Fair Trade Trio—Ashley Windle (violin), Hannah Levinson (viola), and Jeanette Stenson (cello)–is on a mission to cultivate new audiences and champion living women composers in order to secure a role for classical music in modern society. Lana Norris talks with Ashley Windle, who also serves as Artistic Director, about the connection between these objectives and making a classical music industry that is accessible beyond educational initiatives.
The Fair Trade Trio specializes in creating accessible performances, and partners with a variety of educational partners in NYC. How do you present “classical music” and what responsibilities do you see embedded in your programming?
A large part of our responsibility in presenting classical music at our educational partner programs is to share music that is real and close to audiences’ experiences. For example, we perform music that was composed in audiences’ lifetimes, or by composers who are from New York City. We always tailor our programming for each audience–we try to learn as much about the educational program before performing there and select the repertoire and material accordingly. One of our most profound realizations through our educational work has been how enthusiastic younger audiences are about contemporary classical music. We performed Jennifer Higdon’s String Trio at the Frank Sinatra School for the Arts High School, and the students were truly interested and inspired by the music and asked insightful questions. At our most recent performance for Music for Autism, we presented Thirteen Changes which is an improvised piece by Pauline Oliveros. We were able to encourage the audience to perform alongside the musicians, expressing their individual interpretations of the text through whatever sounds and/or movements they chose, which created a fantastic interactive experience.
In many of the Q&A sessions we conduct following our educational performances, the students are interested in our journeys to becoming professional musicians. We love to talk to them about how we’ve each sculpted a unique life in music, and we’re careful to not sugarcoat how difficult it can be. But we hope that their experience at our performance is one that inspires them to see how music can be part of their lives, whether professionally or not, and a large part of how we accomplish that is by presenting ourselves as we are–real people who live in their city who still have to practice and work hard. We want to show them that classical music is done by real people who have real human needs.
Ultimately our goal for our educational performances is the same as it is for all our performances: bring inspired performances at the highest level. We do this while hoping to inspire young people to feel like they too could have a voice as well as use a performance platform one day to advocate for underrepresented people. By using our performances as a literal stage for underrepresented populations in music–for example, by performing works by female composers–we hope to show our audiences that unrecognized people deserve to be recognized.
Your chamber society opens pathways for young musicians and new audiences. What are their next access points?
Our programming creates access points in several ways. First, we hope that our repertoire choices expand people’s impressions of the music that they like. Maybe they come to a concert to hear a piece they’re familiar with and are pleasantly surprised to encounter pieces by female composers or other works that are underperformed–perhaps they’ll seek out other concerts that integrate these works. We always strive to find ways to expand people’s view of chamber music: what it sounds like, where it can be performed, and who can enjoy it.
Perhaps the most important access point that we provide can be found in our concert season scheduling. Our season currently includes three types of diverse concert series, and we hope that everyone can find something that fits their tastes. First, our educational series brings our best professional performances right to the schools or programs, like Music for Autism, so they can feel connected to professional musicians and interesting music they might not have had access to otherwise. All of our partner programs receive complimentary admission to any of our regular concerts, which is another way we strive to eliminate boundaries between our audience and chamber music. We also have a Sunday Series which perhaps has the most traditional “concert” feel, though we still choose intimate venues that feel appropriate for chamber music. These concerts tend also to be earlier in the day so, while not directed toward younger audiences, they are family friendly. We want audiences of all ages to feel welcomed and included.
The newest addition to our series is the Rush Hour Concert. We have found an exciting new venue in midtown Manhattan, the Artist Co-op, where we offer a one-hour happy hour performance. Our audience can relax after work, or in some cases, take a break from the day before returning to work–it is midtown Manhattan after all–and enjoy a glass of wine and light refreshments during the performance. We are hoping that everyone who is interested in chamber music can find at least one program in our season that interests them, and perhaps they’ll try something different down the line. Having so many access points to music outside of the traditional “chamber music concert” platform throughout our season contributes to our idea that music is easily accessible, relatable, and that all our audience members can find something in our programming that fits into their lives.
You are in the process of recording an album of string trios written exclusively by living female composers, including Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon, as part of your dedication to contemporary women composers. How does this work integrate with your educational and audience advocacy?
We have selected five works by living female composers, and each piece is completely unique and has a voice of its own. Jennifer Higdon’s String Trio and Kaija Saariaho’s Cloud Trio are probably the best known works on the recording, and both are important staples in the string trio repertoire. Nelson is by composer Molly Herron, a local New York City composer who is currently based in Princeton. Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s piece The Ogre Lover takes us on a musical journey inspired by the poem “Fairytale” by Ted Hughes about his relationship with Sylvia Plath. We are especially gratified to be recording Emily Doolittle’s piece Field Guide which we commissioned and premiered in 2017. Emily’s piece is exactly what great music should be: both incredibly relevant and accessible. She was inspired by the outspoken US National Parks Service following our last presidential election and, as a zoo-musicologist, chose to feature the songs of three birds who reside in the National Parks. We’ve performed Field Guide for audiences of all ages, on both coasts of the US, and it has become an almost instant fan favorite. We frequently get requests to perform “the bird piece” and we’re thrilled that by recording it we’ll be able to share it with our audiences who already love it and reach new audiences who will surely appreciate it as well!
What we are really trying to advocate with this recording is the message of female composed music–not just that it exists and should be performed, but that it’s just really great music. We hope that we are able to present this repertoire in a way that doesn’t make the “female composer” aspect the main focus, but rather something that people will simply internalize and ultimately normalize because we have simply presented music that we feel is important. We hope that audience members will leave our concert or finish listening to our recording having enjoyed the well programmed concert, and maybe will be struck by the fact that so many of the pieces were by women. We have truly found that there’s no gender bias from the listener. It seems that the gender inequality problems are coming from programmers, not the audience, so we’re making a point to program repertoire in a more equal way across the genders. And yes, we absolutely hope that this trend catches on in the rest of the classical music world. Often the excuse programmers give for not programming more female composed music is that it’s not well known enough. But if we don’t program and promote the works of underrepresented composers, that will never change!
Your social work incarnates “fair trade” music. In the trio’s mission statement, however, your first means toward securing classical music’s place in society is to fairly compensate musicians for their endeavors. Do you see advances toward this goal? What steps do you take toward this, particularly in labor contexts with systemic inequality?
Most professional musicians at some point have been asked to perform “for experience” or “for exposure.” This is a serious problem that to us signals a lack of respect for the work that the artist must actually put into producing a quality performance. We believe that by spreading the message to musical consumers that musicians deserve to be fairly compensated for their artistic endeavors, we also help secure the future of classical music. It sounds like a lofty goal, to be sure, but we believe that we are helping to change the perception that musicians merely do this for fun and because we love it. Of course there are moments that are fun, and we do love what we do. But it is also work and takes a tremendous amount of sacrifice. We try to be open with our audiences about the financial realities of being in a creative field and we hope that it influences the way that they view all kinds of artistic industries. This is in line with the mission of the Fair Trade social movement which strives to create fair working conditions for workers, while keeping the product high quality and reasonably affordable. Another component of the Fair Trade movement is to help end the gender gap in various industries, and we are proud to contribute to that as an all-female string trio and in our work to promote female composers.
We recognize that systemic inequality is a much larger problem that happens on all levels, in all industries. As a small, “grass-roots” chamber music society, we simply agreed that this is a problem we’ve all faced throughout our careers and we wanted to figure out a way to work towards fixing it. In essence, we’re doing a small part to contribute to a larger solution by setting the example that it can be done, and that it is important to compensate artists fairly for their work. We recognize that paying musicians fairly is a small and simple goal, but we choose to work with a feasible goal that can be reevaluated as the organization grows. Right now, we are focused on continuing with our mission and hope that it can be tangibly felt in our direct community as well as lead to growth in our community, and as we grow we can also expand our work to combat other inequalities in our industry.
What industry awareness or cross-industry partners could be activated in support of your objectives?
We are thrilled to have several new partners this season that share our overall values. First, we are so grateful to our new Sunday Series sponsors, the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney. Dorsey received a 100% rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equality Index (which measures employer performance in ensuring fair and open workplaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees and consumers) for the twelfth consecutive year. Dorsey also received Gold Standard Certification from Women in Law Empowerment Forum in 2017. Needless to say, we’re thrilled to have them as sponsors.
Our new Rush Hour Concert series is a perfect fit for the venue partnership we’ve created this year at the female run Artist Co-op. The Artist Co-op is a co-working space for performing artists, uniting New York City’s actors, directors, dancers, playwrights, and more, with programs and services to support the performing arts community. The founder, Rachel Berger, was inspired by the co-working trends for tech and start-up industries and realized how they directly benefit the performing artist community.
As we continue to grow, we aim to seek out partnerships with female-focused industry partners who have similar interests and missions to our own. We recognize that in making those choices we seek to reduce the inequalities that exist in our society. However, similar to our view that we should present great music on well-balanced programs that include female composers and other underrepresented composers as well as beloved standard chamber music and any other music that we are excited about, we enthusiastically welcome any support and partnerships with organizations that support our mission and are willing to help us do this important work.