Siba Research days 2021 Keynote - Heidi Partti

Keynote: The stories we tell, the world we create. Research as a disruption and source of hope.


Heidi Partti's keynote as text

Let me start with a question:

How will the world look like, say, ten years from now?

How about in the 2080’s, when the children starting their school today are getting ready to retire?

Nobody knows the answer to these questions.

All we can see is how the world looks like today.

And it does not look particularly promising.

The recent reports by IPCC; for instance, tell us that the clock of eco-systemic crises is ticking much faster than most of us had realized.

The role of the IPCC is to collect huge amounts of research conducted by a plethora of scientists in order to prepare reports about up-to-date knowledge on climate change, its causes, potential impacts and response options. The message is loud and clear: there is no time to be wasted in facing the threat of climate change, advancing sustainable development and eradicating poverty.

And the situation does not look much more promising in terms of equality, human rights, or freedom of speech, religion or press, either.

I don’t need to go into details here. The examples of frequent violations against humans and the planet are all too familiar to us all.

And as if things were not challenging enough, the global pandemic has further accelerated the growth of the global gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”. It has also highlighted the societal inequalities related to racial discrimination, residential segregation and homelessness, and occupational gender segregation and wage inequality, also here in Finland.

So here we are.

On Monday afternoon in March the 8th, 2021. On International Women’s Day, when millions of girls just wanna have fun…damental human rights. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring. The best we can do is to attempt to foresight in order to provide predictions, estimations, and perspectives of possible futures. I say futures, in plural. As there are always multiple possible futures, as pointed out by futurologists. The futures are not only multiple and uncertain, but also open.

And this – the very nature of the futures being multiple and open – gives us hope. Whatever today looks like, tomorrow can look different.

Tomorrow is not predestined in the sense that there is nothing for us to do than to watch and burn. The very nature of the futures being multiple and open also provides us a challenge, as without active efforts today, we cannot shape the futures. As musicians, we know this very well. One doesn’t become a skillful instrumentalist or accomplished composer only by the virtue of one’s potential. It takes years of deliberate practice and painstaking efforts for the potential of today to develop into expertise of tomorrow.

So, what could this mean in the context of us as researchers, artists, students, and pedagogues in music? Is there anything we can do today to attempt to shape the futures of our world? In this speech, I will propose there is.

Indeed, I will argue that we, as researchers and practitioners in the field of music, have a responsibility to take our own place as part of attempts to address the complex global problems related to inequality and the ecological crisis, for instance. I will first discuss the role of stories in creating the world, and then look more closely in some possible ways how can create a more sustainable and equal tomorrow. Finally, I will also discuss the role of the arts in transforming the world of tomorrow. The basis for my speech is an understanding of the crucial role of hope in creating alternative prospects for the futures. I started off with a very bleak, yet realistic, review of the state of the world today. However, my main argument is that we should not give in to fear, cynicism, or hopelessness. Rather, we are called to action. Action with hope as its horizon.

Let us begin with a story.

Once upon a time, there was a man. A white, European man. The man had an extraordinary super-power. He was able to compose such beautiful melodies and mesmerizing harmonies that they made everyone cry. These melodies and harmonies gave the listeners a sense of belonging and community. Indeed, it made it easy for them to imagine that they somehow belonged together, even to the extent that they formed a nation. It felt evident that these melodies and harmonies could only have originated in a different world altogether; that the man had to be a chosen one, a messenger, who had been granted a superpower to transmit the music from that other world beyond the range of the perception of other mortals. This is why everyone began to call the man a Genius.

Words are used not only to tell about the state of the world. Words are also used to create the world. We know from narrative research that stories and narratives don’t merely reflect social reality, they also create it. Narratives both reveal and reinforce the underlying beliefs and assumptions regarding, for instance, professionalism in the field of music. The language and images we use and stories we construct and share play their role also in creating, establishing, and reinforcing societal power relations and structural inequalities in public domains, such as music education. Consider the story I told you about the genius composer.

Consider the ways this story (and its various versions) has and continues to impact on our ways of understanding what it means to be a composer. What kind of a reality does this story create?

With its way of valorizing the individual, white male as genius, what kind of preconditions for composer’s work does it provide?

And if you did not identify yourself with being a white, European man, where would you find yourself in this story?

What would the story tell about your opportunities to participate in the world as a composer of music?

These questions of stories and myths regarding composing have bothered me some time already, and it became again timely when I was contacted by the Finnish composer Minna Leinonen and a couple of other composers who asked whether I would be interested in a collaboration. They draw my attention to the fact that in Finland, only a small minority of professional composers in the field of classical music are female (or, assumed to be female), and the same imbalance can also be witnessed in composition studies in higher education. Here’s some concrete examples of the current situation.

Interestingly, in music schools (and other music education contexts) girls actively participate in music instruction, including composition classes. But when it comes time to make choices for higher education and the future career, young women (for some reason or another) don’t choose the career as a composer as nearly as often as young men.

So it seems that something happens just before higher education studies. This was the start of the project called Yhdenvertaisesti säveltäen (Equity in Composing). Some of you have already heard me telling about this project earlier. The project started in April 2019, and the first phase of the project has just ended.

We offered instruction and mentoring in composing primarily for female and non-binary participants aged 15 to 20 – but without excluding male participants. We organized workshops and provided one-on-one instruction and mentoring throughout the project. As a researcher, one of my aims in the project has been to understand the phenomenon of occupational segregation in the field of classical music composing. I conducted interviews and collected observation data during the project. And it didn’t take long before I, once again, bumped into the power of stories.

As it turned out, the individual choices we make, such as choices regarding our studies and future careers, are not that individual after all. No man is an island.

The lengthy and multidimensional process of choosing one’s profession and educational path is often referred to as a vocational choice. It is typical for the process of vocational choice that it is quite heavily influenced by perceptions one has of any given professional field, be that medicine, law, or music composing. It doesn’t really matter whether those perceptions and beliefs are true or not. What really matters are the meanings we give to these perceptions. Naturally, these perceptions of professional fields that young people have are also linked to the gender-related impressions that they have of the fields.

The Finnish working life, for instance, is still very strongly segregated according to gender. This has been highlighted during the pandemic. There are probably multiple reasons for this phenomenon, but I suggest that the well-grounded impressions of professional fields nurture this segregation. The views that we have in terms of what profession and job (or musical instrument) is “suitable” for boys and girls, men and women.

Importantly, these ideas and perceptions are not only personal, but also culturally and historically constructed and at least partially shared. They are part of our social imagination and cultural imagery.

These and other factors have built a strong image of the composer as a man who, almost without exception, is also white, heterosexual, and most often also comes from a rather privileged background. He works alone, he is a genius. This hegemonic narrative has legitimized the gendered, classed, and/or racialized figure of “The great composer” over all others. As such, it has not provided opportunities for identification for women or non-binary people (not to mention people of colour, or with disabilities or a working-class background, for instance).

This came up also in the interviews of the project, and also in other studies conducted among women. There is a lack of role models, a lack of narratives one can relate to. This is not insignificant in terms of the educational and career choices young people make.

We know from social learning theories that we are extremely relational beings and imitating others plays a key role in the development of our behaviors and attitudes - and in this case also in the processes of vocational choice. Thus, one of the most obvious reasons for the dominance of male composers both in Finland and in the world is related to the scarcity of diverse role models.

Let me put it in another way: I suggest there is a connection between the gendered and individualized narrative of an “ideal” composer and the gender segregation in the field of classical music composing.

How to initiate change? What would it require to shape the futures?

Firstly, it requires that we are ready to identify, critically investigate, and resolutely challenge the hegemonic story of an “ideal composer” as a gendered, classed, and/or racialised figure. This is to say that all these perceptions, narratives and images associated with composing and composers are made by us, humans. Narratives are culturally/historically constructed, as I explained earlier. Consequently, they can also be deconstructed on the same principle.

Secondly, initiating change requires that we not only challenge the “hegemonic story”, but also, and importantly, we introduce new and alternative stories that represent diversity. Rather than having The narrative, we could accept the multiplicity of coexisting narratives. Let me give you a couple of examples to clarify this.

In the Equity in Composing project, we welcomed Finnish composers as guest speakers in our weekend workshops. In this way the project made visible the diversity of composers and their diverse professional paths.

Another way to introduce new stories representing diversity was a lecture about “alternative history of music”, in which the composer Riikka Talvitie introduced various composers outside the gendered, classed, and racialized narrative, and placed the well-established canon under critical scrutiny. In these and other ways the project aimed to challenge the prevailing and narrow narrative of the composer, and to offer new stories of what it means to be a composer, and how it could look like. And on a more general level the project and the related research in itself could be understood as a counter narrative. An act of dismantling prejudices and increasing gender consciousness in the field of composing.

I have spent a lengthy time in telling you about the Equity in Composing project, as I wanted to provide a concrete example of the possibilities of research in advancing a more equal world. In many ways, I understand this project as a disruption – an interruption to the regular flow of the hegemonic story of an ideal composer. The project had an activist approach: we aimed not only to understand the situation, but also to actively advance equal opportunities and equity.

I do not claim that one project can change the world. Also, I am very aware of the limitations of this particular project. The project challenged the gendered narrative of “The Great Composer”, but there is a lot to be done in challenging the story of an ideal composer as a classed and racialized figure, for instance. For me, seeing the limitations of one project and the need for further disruptions is not a defeat. I take it as a challenge to continue the work.

My example of the research-based development project with an explicitly activist approach is only one example of shaping the futures.

What else could it look like specifically in the context of the arts?

Shaping the futures always takes place in the space between two powerful forces: the power of fear and the power of hope. Fear is useful, but only to the extent that it helps us to wake up. To see the crises and to take it seriously. In 2019, Greta Thunberg famously uttered to the world leaders at the World Economic Forum: “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” Fear helps us to see the crisis.

But it is hope that helps us to see the opportunities in the crises. Fear without hope leads to stagnancy and cynicism and sense of powerlessness. If there is nothing to be done, why even bother? Hope awakens our sense for potentiality for what could be.

In order to create alternative prospects for the futures, we need to be able to imagine what those alternatives could look like. This requires imagination. It does not take much to imagine a future filled with dark scenarios of problems and unresolved issues. All one needs to do is to look around and list them as I did at the beginning of this speech. It is exceedingly more challenging to imagine alternatives.

How do we cultivate in ourselves, and in our children and students, this kind of imagination? Imagination, that is needed in advancing social and environmental justice. I turn to the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who talks about the role of the arts and arts education in our attempts to develop democratic societies and transform the world of tomorrow. In her book, “Not for profit: Why democracy needs the humanities”, Nussbaum states:

“Citizens cannot relate well to the complex world around them by factual knowledge and logic alone. The third ability of the citizen, closely related to the first two, is what we can call the narrative imagination. This means the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.” (Nussbaum, 2010)

The arts and arts education can cultivate the narrative imagination in ways that might be even beyond the reach of scientific research. In many ways, artistic endeavors in themselves can be considered as explorations of “what it means to be in the world”, as pointed out by Gert Biesta (2017, 67). This is to say that whether we are playing an instrument, composing a musical piece, partaking in a drama improvisation or painting a picture, we are engaged in, what Biesta describes as, “the ongoing and never-ending exploration of what it might mean to exist in and with the world” (Biesta 2017). There is no artistic activity without interaction and negotiation, whether with other people, or with the material.

I quite like the English word play, as in ‘playing an instrument’, for instance. As shown by child psychologists, play is to be taken seriously. Play is crucial to the phase of development during which infants learn that they are not the centre of the universe; that there are others with their own needs, their own emotions, and their own experiences. Children’s plays provide opportunities to imagine what the experience of another might be like. And it is the arts that can preserve and enhance this cultivation of ‘play space’ in our culture, as Nussbaum puts it. Play space to nourish and extend the capacity for empathy, also in our adulthood.

So, this is a central role of the arts in shaping the futures: to cultivate empathy and the narrative imagination – and, I would add, ecological imagination – so as to enable us to step outside our immediate situation and examine it from an alternative viewpoint, and from the point of view of who and what is Other - including other human-beings and the planet. Moreover, the arts can shape the futures also by making visible something that is not yet there. Or it can shed light on something that is hidden. In my little story of the composer, I referred to the power of music in facilitating the sense of collective identity. There are multiple examples of this, near and far. Long before there were civil rights, there was a dream, there was an anthem. Long before there was independence, there was an idea of a nation. And this idea was depicted in paintings, poems, compositions, books.

Similarly, the arts can bring to light the taken-for-granted assumptions and hidden ideologies that prevent us from creating a sustainable and equal world. To “address particular cultural blind spots”, as Nussbaum puts it. The arts and research are sources of hope and transformation in their power to reveal and interrupt the flow of events, and to cultivate the imagination needed to create alternative narratives for the futures.

Today is International Women’s Day. A day of honouring women’s social, political, and cultural achievements, but also a day of highlighting the inequalities that are still experienced by too many women around the globe. The campaign theme for International Women's Day 2021 is 'Choose To Challenge'.

The campaign website states: “A challenged world is an alert world. And from challenge comes change.” International Women’s Day tells us a lot about fear and hope. Fear tells us about systemic violence, oppression and inequality. Hope awakens our sense for potentiality for what could be: a world of equal opportunities, peace, freedom.

“Without hope there is little we can do”, writes Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, in his book “Pedagogy of Hope”.

In itself, hope cannot transform reality. Hope alone cannot remove wickedness and exploitation from this world.

But without hope, as Freire continues, “[our] struggle will be weak and wobbly. We need critical hope the way a fish needs unpolluted water.”

Or, as articulated by Professor Jürgen Moltmann (2012):

“We become active in so far as we hope. We hope in so far as we can see into the sphere of future possibilities. We undertake what we think is possible.”

In this speech, I have proposed that regardless of the state of the world today, we can shape the futures so as to create a more sustainable and equal tomorrow. I have discussed the role of stories in creating the world and some possible ways how research and the arts can contribute to shaping the futures. I have suggested that the ecological crises or occupational segregation cannot be solved by natural scientists or economists alone. This is also to say that as artists or researchers in the arts and humanities, we have no excuse for not making a commitment to action. Indeed, as I have argued, the arts and research can play a central role in creating alternative prospects for the futures. I will leave you with these questions:

What kind of a world do you hope to create with your efforts?

What kinds of alternative prospects for the futures can you create today, by means of your research or artistic endeavours?

What does it mean to you to live up to the future, to not take things as they are, but to see them as they can be tomorrow?

What do you hope for? What do you think is possible? What kind of sphere of future possibilities do you see?

Siba Research days 2021 website