Tal Riva Theodorou: A Diversity Agent in the Making
Art in all its forms, particularly music, played a major role in my life from a very young age. It gave me the opportunity to meet people from all parts of Israel, and led me to study at Israel Academy for Science and Art (IASA). IASA is a residential high school and was established on the three pillars: excellence, leadership, and community service. At IASA, secular and religious Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, kibbutz members, city kids and immigrants live, learn and grow together. Living and studying in this unique environment during my formative years instilled in me the values of equality, antiracism and the acceptance of the other. I found music as a means to connect with people regardless of their background and political views. That is why I joined the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and have been a part of this project since 2004. The “West-Eastern Divan” is an orchestra that was founded by Daniel Barenboim and the late Eduard Said for the purpose of creating a safe space for dialogue between musicians from Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. The project has inspired me to be more active against prejudice and animosity by creating open dialogue and cooperation through music between people of conflict.
I always felt that just being a performer was not enough for me. I searched for a way to share my life experience and ideas about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) with other people in a positive, constructive and professional way. The Diversity Agent 2.0 course is giving me the tools and practical methods to achieve these goals. In the course I am learning, as an individual and as a team member, how to create a safe space for open dialogue, opinion sharing and work activities. I am exposed to written and audiovisual materials that are giving me a deeper understanding of society and stress the need for DEI and antiracist structural platforms. I am learning new ways of creating a meaningful, inclusive work environment, such as sociocracy, and have the opportunity to practice it in an efficient and engaging way. In the course we learn techniques of nonviolent communication and have the opportunity to co-create and offer clinics about antiracist practices to cultural organizations in Finland.
I am inspired and enriched by the participants of this learning group, each one bringing his/her/their insights, individual perspectives and personality to our discussions and lectures, and thus enabling us to practice diversity within our own group. This course enhances my feeling and opinion that we have an individual and a collective responsibility to engage in dialogues and actions against racism and prejudice in our communities and I see this as an educational first step towards equity and inclusion. Overcoming bias and assumptions is not an easy task and it takes courage to admit that we all have them. One of our aims is learning not to let bias and assumptions lead us or to be part of our decision making which is an important milestone toward self-change. Extending our knowledge of different cultural heritage and developing ways to encourage dialogue helps us to reduce fear, racism and to overcome prejudice. It brings us closer to understanding the need for diversity and inclusion in our mutual cultural space and cultural organizations.
Growing up in a bilingual and multicultural family in Israel I have always found multiculturalism an obvious path for a healthier and more creative society. Listening to my grandfather’s personal survival stories and family history during the Holocaust ingrained in me the need to search for equality and acceptance between people regardless of their background.
My thoughts and reflections on our mutual cultural space
As I see it, we are at the beginning of a long process of developing a way for culture to become more diverse and inclusive. As I advance through the course and research the topic of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the practices of antiracism, I find myself as a musician and performer reflecting and questioning the structure and environment of our cultural space. I believe that the art of people from different backgrounds, gender and origin should receive a more equal opportunity for representation in our society and the only important requirement should be quality.
On one hand the arts provide tools for the preservation of cultural heritage, such as playing music that was composed 300 years ago, playing on authentic instruments, the collection of paintings from centuries ago, preservations of buildings, literature etc. On the other hand, the arts are a reflection and a criticism of our society at any given moment. Today we tend to think of the arts as a bridge between cultures and people, a space of sharing our abilities and talent, where anyone can take part. It is a place for communal knowledge and individual expression. This was not and still is not always the case. Looking at history, art was used to separate cultures, gender, religion, status and race. According to my understanding, it seems that it is only in the last 30 years that we are able to notice the beginning of a process where the arts act as a free place for individual expression and where all people no matter what their gender, origin, status, religion and race can take part actively or as observers.
Finland is in the process of cultural merging. On one side we have the cultural heritage of people who have been living here for generations and the obligation to preserve and teach the traditions that are connected with those communities. On the other side immigration is bringing a lot of different cultures to Finland that need a place for expression in our mutual space. This can create a conflict if it is not addressed in the wider spectrum of an evolving society. Addressing the questions and problems that arise from this process, early on in the development of our changing culture, will help to create a healthier, more thriving and inclusive Finland.
How can we create in Finland a mutual cultural space that is diverse and inclusive? Is it possible to avoid discrimination in our art work? How do we integrate awareness of triggers when presenting art to the public? According to Kemê Pellicer (2021) “triggers are anything that might cause a person to recall a traumatic experience that they have had”. How do we provide the right tools to help represent the range of human and cultural diversity that is creating the Finnish society of today and of the future? What are the proper measures that should be taken as orchestras and cultural organizations become more diverse?
Asking the above questions led me to start exploring the ways on how to combine the DEI perspective with musical decision making, such as broadening an orchestra´s repertoire to make it more inclusive and diverse without compromising quality and excellence. My background as a musician, my life experience and the recent enrichment of my knowledge on the topic of antiracism has led me to believe even more in the power of art, and especially music, as a tool to help achieve a more diverse, a more inclusive and culturally rich society.
Music and DEI
“Music is neither moral nor immoral. It is our reaction to it that makes it one or the other in our minds.” (Barenboim, 2008)
Why is it so easy for us to grasp and accept diversity of sound in music but to fail at grasping and accepting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in society?
Looking at a score of orchestral music allows us a broad insight into its diversity. A full symphonic orchestra score consists of 10 to 15 different instruments, where each one of them has a unique sound and character. Together they create a complex and an incredible living sound entity that enchants us as an audience. Imagine for a moment that people from various backgrounds are the different orchestral instruments, all working together towards a mutual goal.
As musicians, the skill to hear and comprehend several voices at once, can enhance the ability to listen and understand several points of view all at once and thus it is more likely for us to perceive the similarities between all cultures rather than the differences between them. Therefore, I believe that musicians have the knowledge and obligation to help our society to become less racist and more diverse and inclusive.
Tal Riva Theodorou
Tal Riva Theodorou is a professional musician (viola) with Masters in Music from Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler” Berlin. She has more than 20 years of experience on stage as an orchestra and chamber music musician. Tal collaborates as a freelancer with orchestras such as Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki City Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, Radio Symphony Orchestra in Berlin, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra and she is a member of the "West Eastern Divan Orchestra". She shared the stage with conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, the late Pierre Boulez and Manfred Honeck.
Tal Riva Theodorou on ammattimuusikko (alttoviulu), hänellä on musiikin maisterin tutkinto Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eislerista Berliinistä. Hän on esiintynyt yli 20 vuoden ajan orkesteri- ja kamarimusiikin muusikkona. Tal tekee freelancerina yhteistyötä Radion sinfoniaorkesterin, Helsingin kaupunginorkesterin, Kansallisoopperan ja -baletin orkesterin, Berliinin radion sinfoniaorkesterin ja Turun filharmonisen orkesterin kanssa ja hän on West Eastern Divan Orchestran jäsen. Kapellimestareista hän on soittanut mm. Daniel Barenboimin, jo edesmenneen Pierre Boulezin ja Manfred Honeckin johdolla.
Kemê Pellicer on the Diversity Agent 2.0 -course (September 2021). “An introduction to content warnings and trigger warnings”.
D. Barenboim (2008).“Everything is connected”, The power of music. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Photo of Tal by Sakari Röyskö.
The painting: Chagall, Marc (1947). The Blue Violinist (The Blue Fiddler), oil on canvas. Private collection.