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by Brandon Farnsworth and Rosanna Lovell

A Discussion with Dahlia Borsche

Brandon Farnsworth: There seems to be more buzz in contemporary music/New Music in Germany in the past couple of years towards trying to diversify. At least acknowledging that these issues are important, if not doing something about it. In general, from your perspective, could you put a finger on why this has become such a buzz word?

Dahlia Borsche: I have been asking myself the same question for a long time. This is a pretty negative answer actually, but the German scene is under pressure, they are fighting for their existence and acknowledgment. They know that they have to deal with this to survive, at least those aiming at the next generation do, because the pressure comes from outside and from inside at the same time. All the other contemporary art practices are dealing with this, but once again German contemporary music scenes are set apart. However, they cannot ignore that this is an important issue nowadays. The younger generation is also putting some pressure on them, as you [ed.: GRiNM] are for example, along with lots of younger composers and musicians who raise this topic. If you want to keep a connection to the next generation, you have to deal with the topics that are important to them.

BF: Do you also think it has to do with the fact that directors have been in their positions for so long? They get these directorships essentially for life…

DB: Yes, it is the biggest benefit of German contemporary music and the core problem at the same time, and I do not know any other country with this funding system. If you are in a position for the rest of your working life no matter what you do, then there is no challenge, no motivation to keep up with developments, to think anew and reflect on your own practice. It is also a generational problem, because especially for older people, gender diversity is just another topic, so to say. They learned things in a certain way, and it massively affects their self-conception to think about it differently. For younger generations, it is not such a big deal to think about gender not as a fixed category; for example, the first thing I hear my students say is what pronouns they use, which has become so normal. But for white men over sixty, they just do not ask these kinds of questions. Now they are forced to, but it is not something they have learned about.

BF: You have a background working with transcultural musicology and also working with CTM Festival which has been engaged in these issues for a long time. What is your experience working within the ‘legacy structure’ of New Music at the DAAD? How do you perceive this register change, this code shift?

DB: It is always nice to change perspective and face a new challenge. ‘Legacy’ is the right word, as it is all about conserving and connecting to a certain tradition within the long history of the DAAD. This program has existed since 1963, and the DAAD can be proud of its history, which encompasses a who's who of the avant-garde, not only in music but in the other art forms and art practices. This is something I am willing to connect to, but it is a difficult balance between connecting to that legacy and shifting to new visions and urgent changes.

The major issue I have faced is being confronted with hierarchy in so many dimensions, even within my own team, which I was not used to, as CTM and all the other teams I have worked in before were not as hierarchical. Also, this very strong Eurocentric idea of knowing that this is contemporary music, along with the ignorance of so many other practices, has been an issue. Coming from CTM, I had another perspective, and many of my new collaboration partners talked in another language about global music cultures and their horizon.

BF: What is your vision for a diverse music scene? What would it look like in this city?

DB: Maybe the city is too big—Berlin is very diverse anyway. What I would like to foster at DAAD is an exchange based on challenges, rather than inviting international people who are repeating the same structures that we have here, even though they, of course, come from another country and bring their own culture, approach, and perspective. What is more interesting for the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin programme is to invite people who bring a completely different understanding of what contemporary music can be, on the same level of excellence and reach and quality, since the DAAD is about supporting excellence. But there are so many voices around the world who could bring different music practices to Berlin that are a challenge for musicians and composers here and add something new to what we already know. This is my vision for the programme, to challenge our view of contemporary music with diversification in terms of actual global perspectives.

Rosanna Lovell: Many countries have certain goals in regard to diversify that need to be addressed to get funding from the major government arts funding body. Do you think such an approach could accelerate change in Germany? Would this pose challenges to the DAAD programs and its infrastructure?

DB: I do not think it would affect the DAAD programme or my specific work that much because we are trying to focus on diversification anyway. It is a difficult question, and I cannot really tell if it would be positive or negative because it is always both. But since we are so far away from gender equality, or a global view of contemporary music and acknowledgement of music practices beyond Europe, it is really important to have these top-down institutional tools that force people to talk about these topics. As I said at the beginning, the scene is under pressure from the outside, too, because these are State decisions. Diversification is something the Federal Republic of Germany wants to happen, which is important. We need to bring these topics to the surface—we still have a long way to go! The negative effect, which we can see now, is that then queer people, female composers, people of colour, whoever is in focus, tend to be exhibited and tokenised. It is a fig leaf—if curators invited one queer artist, they just put them on stage and feel that they do not have to deal with that issue any further.

RL: It is a bit of a tick-the-box kind of thing.

DB: Yes. Diversity—check. And this is what is happening in some of the major German New Music festivals. International artists come and are presented with no communication, no mediation, no introduction, for either the audience or the artists, and this is not working. It is not enough; it is not what we are aiming at.

BF: What steps have you been taking concretely with the DAAD to diversify the people that are selected for that programme?

DB: The first one was a simple step. We did not change the selection process; people can still apply and then they get selected by an international jury. The step was rather that I chose new jury members. It was as simple as that. As soon as there are people in the jury who know global music practices, they can judge respective applications because they can put them in perspective. Last year, there were three former jury members, I re-invited them, and three new ones, so it was really interesting to watch their different approaches and how they judged the applications. One of the three artists who got the fellowship for this year was first pushed away because there was no score, and some jury members did not understand what they were seeing on screen; it was just something electronic. They did not have the background or understanding of these music practices, so they would rather just put it away because they cannot judge it. Therefore, it was really helpful to have other people on the jury who could say very smart things and really put it in relation to the other applications.

I also wrote a letter to the jury members telling them about me and my colleagues’ vision for the programme, that we are aiming at gender equality, diversity, and a really global perspective. Of course, it is an independent jury, and I was not involved during the decision process. But I thought it was important, so that they would be encouraged to make a decision that was related to those topics. Rather than thinking that a musical practice was not that good because it is not really like traditional New Music, and so maybe it is not expected here, I wanted to tell them that that was actually something we are also really interested in.

Other steps to diversify the people that are selected for the programme will take more time. The most diverse, global, and gender-sensitive jury can only choose from the submitted applications. Thus, we have to promote the programme in regions and contexts where it is not known yet, encourage female and queer artists, and attract applications from other backgrounds. Last year, I travelled to several festivals to present the programme. In addition, I am collaborating with local experts who could function as multipliers.

RL: Talking about the jury selection process and how people get selected leads to this question of organisations or collectives that do not fit into the application structures of the DAAD. Is there any way that you are trying to change structural elements within the DAAD or is this still a challenge?

DB: You have to take a long perspective for this kind of change. But it is definitely something that we are thinking about. How can we manage to legally invite collectives, for instance? We cannot only do it by trying to work around the rules, e.g. inviting one person from the collective with this fellowship and the other ones as collaborating artists. Changing the rules to enable this is difficult because it involves not only the Artists-in-Berlin programme; the rules for fellowships are the same for all of the DAAD, which is a massive institution. Our needs for the Artists-in-Berlin programme are different to those for the rest of the DAAD concerning academics and students, and it is a challenge to mediate these different interests.

BF: All these issues bring me back to the question of audience. I wonder about this tension between bringing in different kinds of artists to serve an audience who is already interested in experimental music, and bringing in artists from certain countries who also speak to a local audience in Berlin who would not normally come to a DAAD concert. Are you programming different kinds of music for the same audience, or do you see this as also opening up the audience and the concept of what the whole DAAD exchange is?

DB: Absolutely, diversification should happen in the audience as well, this is as important as the diversification of the artists. This is much easier with this programme than I thought; it is actually one of the more minor challenges I am facing with diversification. There is a big pre-existing audience which just trusts the programme, this DAAD Artists-in-Berlin brand, and know that it therefore has to be an excellent artist, no matter who is in my position, or directing the department, or if they know the artist already or not. The branding really works.

I also tried to open up our events to other audiences, which I thought would not be as easy, but I just had to open the door and they were almost rushing in! We try to reach out to different audiences in many ways with various kinds of promotion, addressing the gallery neighbourhood and younger people, student programmes or through think tanks between students and our artists. Collaborating with different people from diverse scenes in Berlin, not only with the big institutions, but reaching out to other collaboration partners and also the free scene (Freie Szene), the audience diversified quickly. Since we are not allowed to generate any income because we are a publicly funded institution, all our events are for free, which of course makes them even more attractive. I also find it very important to mix audiences and not try to schedule events so that this one is for the white, old, New Music people where it has to be a proper concert situation and they have to sit and face the stage, another one is for the club audience, and a third is for the Turkish neighbourhood community... but rather to curate events that enable people to meet each other who might not have met without the event.

BF: My next question is about your selection process at the DAAD. What is the relationship between programming or selecting for a local community, and the possibility for artists to interact with that community, versus the importance and status that artists have within their home country or musical tradition?

DB: There has to be a balance, of course, but the importance of the artist in their local context is a major factor in the decision process. Many times, the Berlin audience does not even know the name of the artist who is invited. But in this person’s local context, they are a very influential musician, composer, or sound artist. It is very important to grant accessibility and visibility for these practices, and then I think that automatically it is something that is interesting also for the German audience. It is a question and also a decision we make, to say what is interesting for the Berlin audience, and a lot of people would answer this in different ways: some would say they would prefer someone who they can collaborate with easily, or who speaks their musical language, but there are also enough people who would rather really want to learn something new, and are curious about experiencing musical practices that are different to theirs.

RL: Following up on from that, you mentioned already the lack of mediation some artists experience. What kind of mediation do you think is important and what efforts do you make to mediate or situate or contextualise their work?

DB: We are in this lucky situation that we have so much time with the artists. Our award residents are in Berlin for a full year, which gives us a lot of time to introduce them and their context in many ways. We write a portrait text before they come, which is presented on our website, and then we try to introduce them not only by presenting their art or music, but also with different talks and discourse events. We set up this series of interdisciplinary talks last year called Common Ground, where we invited fellows from our different departments to present their works in process, and to exchange and talk about their ideas, doubts, and struggles. It was really informal, so people could just get into a conversation with the artists to ask questions and learn more about their work, not this on-stage presentation of a shiny finished piece where there is a big distance between the audience and the artist, but more like a studio visit. The artists on stage try to figure out their common ground, or frictions, and this is also what the audience does afterwards in the discussion; it works well and the audience really appreciates it. In other words, we are trying to offer communication in manifold ways, and unlike festivals, we have time.

Time is not only important for the Berlin audience to find out about the artist, to get in touch and to understand and follow up and all that. It is also important for the artist who comes to Berlin, because it takes time to understand, to build trust for them to open up and to really report on also their struggles and their local context and not just presenting an image—this artist persona which they learned to present for official events. Time is the crucial factor.

RL: Our last question is in relationship to the current situation we are in doing this interview, where there is no chance of assembly or travel, and all musical communities are currently virtual. The name DAAD itself—Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst—interestingly does not actually imply physical travel, but rather service or exchange. How has the situation changed for you and your artists given the current situation? Does it create any opportunities that were unexpected? Beyond that, what do these virtual networks and communities also build or open up for you in your thinking?

DB: I wish I could tell you some more positive examples! What is really positive at least is that we can see how relevant art practices are in general, how relevant social gatherings are, and how there is just no possible way you can substitute a live concert situation. Everything I do in my job, and that I have always done while programming and curating, is about bringing people together in one room, that is the essence of my work. There are a lot of ways that I can still keep up—of course, we are in close contact with all of our fellows via Zoom, having meetings and discussions, and trying to reflect on the situation. But the musical experience is just not a digital thing, it is impossible. It is good to see that, and feel that everyone understands this is so important to us. We cannot be replaced; the digital world cannot replace the real world. It is really important to have a resistant attitude towards Silicon Valley, who wants to replace humans as much as possible with robots and algorithms. Humans are okay if they can keep up with the pace of a robot, but at best they should be replaced. It is super nice to have these music practices really working against that.

On the other hand, of course we can foster exchange on digital platforms. Right now, the DAAD is spending some money on people who cannot travel, so they can do something in their local context. Hopefully, it can all move around the world again at some point, and the outcome of these local actions can also be transferred to Berlin. What is also really important, and the benefit of a big institution like the DAAD, is that we are not forced to produce anything. We are never forced to schedule events, we are not a concert venue—we are a residency program, so we can give our fellows and the artists we collaborate with time to reflect, which is so important.

I see so many freelance artists right now who are producing like crazy, bedroom productions and online concert streams and all that; it is just not leading anywhere. There is such an overload of digital production, just because people are so scared that they will get lost in this situation, which I totally understand. Our fellows will not get lost, because they are in a safe haven, they receive a high stipend, they are in safe surroundings, and there is no pressure to produce at the moment. They can just sit and breathe. We also try to slow them down, try to foster this reflection on what we really want to change. Obviously, none of us want to go back to the normal that we came from, but it is important to take this opportunity, and this privilege we have right now, to think about the situation we want to live in after the pandemic. What do we have to do and what is our reach, what can we do to end up there?


Dahlia Borsche is a musicologist and curator. In 2019, she took on the position as Head of Music at the DAAD Artist-In-Residence programme. Dahlia Borsche was active as a promoter, DJ, coordination manager, and producer (CTM Festival Berlin, Labor Sonor, et al.). From 2014-2019, she co-curated CTM’s discourse programme. As a musicologist, her most recent engagement was at Humboldt University’s Chair for Trans-Cultural Musicology in the Department of Musicology and Media Studies. Her research interests focus on contemporary and transcultural music processes, thereby expanding traditional discipline boundaries to the fields of sound, urban and cultural studies.


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