BY JASSY ROBERTSON
Many composers and musicians will allow their art to speak for itself. Not always are they asked about their personal lives.
We think it’s important to give all individuals a platform to express their views – to speak openly about what shapes them, and tell us how they feel the world perceives them. We want to share stories that will help others express their individuality as they navigate a career anchored in past traditions.
Queer and Now is a new CutCommon series in which we interview LGBTQIA+ identifying musicians and composers in Australia to gain a wider perspective of how identity affects art and careers.
In our first interview we spoke to ARIA award-winning composer Sally Whitwell. This month, we venture further into the music industry to chat with Melbourne arts writer, broadcaster, and podcaster Ben Nielsen.
Ben serves the classical music community through his work with ABC Classic FM, and as a former contributor to CutCommon and Limelight Magazine. In addition to his significant work in the arts, Ben creates content for The Pinnacle Foundation to support LGBTQIA+ youths. Ben’s successful new podcast LGBTI[Q&A] explores ‘conversations with leaders, who happen to be queer’.
Ben is also a mentor for our 2017 CutCommon Young Writer of the Year Competition – apply now to learn with him about music writing.
How do you feel your identity has affected your career in music?
My identity hasn’t affected my career in music so much as my career in music has affected my identity.
I feel like classical music – instrumental sections, especially – is very gendered. Just think about the stereotypes: females play flute, macho guys play trombone. As a young trumpeter, who was also trying to determine his sexual identity, I felt a constant pressure to maintain a certain masculine persona.
I’ve since discussed this with other, well established musicians, who have had similar experiences – even in professional settings. So now, I actively try to demolish those stereotypes, and it’s interesting to see a lot of contemporary composers who create works with the purpose of making social impact.
What have been the career challenges, benefits, or impacts (either real, or perceived) of publicly expressing your identity?
When I was younger, I was super-aware of my identity, and tried not to reveal too much of myself in a work environment.
I actually read something about this – I think it’s called ‘filtering’. Workplace productivity decreases substantially because you put so much effort into hiding your identity and constructing a particular image of yourself.
I’ve changed heaps since then! Every day is still very much a ‘coming out’, but I unabashedly embody all the facets of my personality.
You know what I do hate, though? When some people change their demeanour once they know you’re gay. One colleague wanted to talk more about shopping, RuPaul, etc. I personally think that’s a type of homophobia – you can’t pigeonhole a gay person based on your preconceived notions of what it means to be gay. Diversity is, well, diverse.
How would you describe the sense of community between LGBTQIA+ musicians and composers?
I didn’t experience a sense of community during my studies – and as I’m not playing professionally, I might never experience it.
I certainly feel part of a queer writer/broadcaster community.
Are there other queer artists who influence your work?
I’ve had the great fortune to be mentored by fantastic queer people: cabaret artist Matt Gilbertson, playwright Lachlan Philpott, and a couple of other legends. I’m also constantly surrounded by successful, inspirational people – from a range of backgrounds and careers – through my work with The Pinnacle Foundation.
I take inspiration from a variety of fields:
Theatre practitioners like Declan Greene, journalists like Patrick Abboud and Monique Schafter, corporate figures like Paul Zahra, and performers like Richard Chadwick (aka ‘Karen from Finance’). And, my approach to food (something I dedicate a lot of my life to!) is very much informed by people like Kylie Kwong.
I’m very lucky in that my current project, a podcast called LGBTI[Q&A], has led me to interview a lot of the queer people I admire.
What advice would you give to LGBTQIA+ identifying artists who hope to achieve their dreams in Australia?
Would it be cliche to say ‘be true to yourself’? But honestly, I’ve had a lot more personal and professional success since identifying my authentic self.
I haven’t come to the end of that journey, by the way.
Maybe: align yourself with like-minded people. Look for allies, but don’t be afraid to expose yourself to people who hold opposing views. Ask for help. Work out who you admire, why you admire them, how you could benefit from their skills and wisdom. Then, go approach them with your questions.
Ben has been nominated for the Australian LGBTI Awards. You can make a nomination online.
Are you an LGBTQIA+ identifying artist and would like to share your story? Get in touch with us using the form below.