Garrett McQueen, Perpetually in Motion

Atop a winding hill on the West Side of Saint Paul, Garrett McQueen records a broadcast associated with the Lakes Area Music Festival. McQueen is an Artistic Advisor to the Festival, and he’s providing a lucid and informed background for pieces that will be performed in it. His voice is fluid and fast, infused with the kind of energy passion promotes. From his studio space, Studio G, McQueen integrates facts, history, and his music expertise with a seemingly effortless grace. He appears perfectly at home, perfectly at ease in faded jeans folded up twice at the hem, a blue and white shirt with a banded collar, and immaculate white sneakers. His tidy dreads drape over his shoulders and onto his chest. He’s wearing those round eyeglasses, a signature of sorts among those who know him.

A writer walks in and McQueen doesn’t look up or skip a beat, he just keeps speaking — about land acknowledgments, about ways to offer tributes to the earth, about Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia, which he calls a tone poem, he keeps speaking about one of McQueen’s favorite subjects — his life’s work — classical music.

McQueen has appointed his studio to suit the work he does and to express who he is. Blue LED lights frame the ceiling line, there are three computer monitors in front of him, and several microphones and headphones nearby. There are three music stands, and more than a few sound panels installed on the wall behind him. Of course there is a bassoon, but there’s also a ukulele, a keyboard, and a djembe. An MLK I Have a Dream poster features on one wall, opposite it hangs a vivid painting of a cat that McQeen found for $5 at a Goodwill in Knoxville. A Pink Sands candle offers light and aromatherapy, a few flowers are arranged in an unremarkable vase, and, along a shelf near a Buddhist shrine, there is a perpetual motion machine that probably never stops moving.

In his work, in the many roles he plays, McQueen represents the present and the future of the creative economy. McQueen is a musician. He plays bassoon, flute, “keyboards, various percussion instruments, guitar, ukuleles and, so called world instruments, like the cajón, African and Indian flutes and things.” McQueen is a curator and does a little bit of composing. He’s the executive producer and co-host of a popular and critically acclaimed classical music podcast called Trilloquy. He owns TrillWorks Media, a holding company for his various enterprises. He is the Director of Artist Equity for the American Composers Orchestra and serves on the board of directors of the American Composers Forum. As mentioned, McQueen is an Artistic Advisor to the Lakes Area Music Festival, but he also holds leadership positions with Black Opera Alliance, the Gateways Music Festival, and the International Society for Black Musicians. McQueen works as an equity consultant, a speaker, and a presenter, the list goes on.

Home / Home
McQueen often speaks about his hometown, Memphis, Tennessee, and when he speaks about where he’s from, he speaks with reverence. “I always highlight Memphis because there’s a responsibility that comes with being from a place so rich in history, and so rich in Black culture,” he says. “I had always hoped and wished for my career to be there at home. That’s not how it ended up working out. So if I can’t be in Memphis, I have to make sure I’m honoring Memphis — and every way I can.”

After all, Memphis was where McQueen first took an interest in music, and it’s where his musical training began. “What I consider my formal training started all the way back when I was five or six years old, in the Black church. I learned how to read music in church. I learned how to harmonize in church. You know, what a melody is. So, my musical training, my ear, was really formed singing those spirituals and singing those gospel tunes.”

The church formed the foundation of McQueen’s musical education for six years before he picked up an instrument. With equal parts fondness and awe, he recalls that time in seventh grade, entering the band room at his school. “I was 12 years old. I had the opportunity to join the choir or learn to play an instrument. Because I had spent so much time singing in the church. I felt like you know, I don’t need somebody to tell me how to sing. I’m good there. So I took that opportunity to learn to play an instrument. When I entered the band room, I wanted to play the flute. I did eventually learn how to play the flute, but the band director handed me a bassoon. I didn’t know what that was. My parents didn’t know what it was, but I decided to go ahead and stick with it.”

“As they say, the rest is history. I fell in love with playing the bassoon, and went on to earn a Bachelor’s in Bassoon from the University of Memphis. I got a Master’s in Bassoon from the University of Southern California. After that, I spent a couple of years playing with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and did some work in New York. I spent five seasons as second bassoon with the Knoxville symphony — on the other side of the state [from Memphis]. That’s where I met my partner, Dell. It’s also where I began my transition into broadcast and digital media.”

“And that brought me to Minnesota.”

McQueen was looking for ways to promote a more expansive idea of what classical music is. He started broadcasting from a station in Knoxville where he says listeners “could go a week without hearing me say the name Beethoven or Mozart or anyone like that.” McQueen produced a few special features that were broadcast on National Public Radio, and, from there, caught the attention of Minnesota Public Radio.

McQueen had a popular and celebrated show at MPR until he was unceremoniously dismissed for playing “replacements” — songs not included on the programming list — in response to the murder of George Floyd. His termination was national news and went viral on several social media platforms.

When he talks about play replacements, McQueen specifically mentions “When David Heard” by Eric Whitacre which opens with a chorus singing, hauntingly, “my son, my son, my son.”

“As I thought about the death of George Floyd, I was thinking about the familial impact. I was thinking about what it is like for a mother or a father to experience the death of their son in that moment — that’s how I could use Western classical music to tell that story. So it wasn’t even necessarily about me trying to make the classical radio airwaves blacker in that moment, as much as it was about me speaking directly to the moment.”

“Although,” McQueen adds, “what’s wrong with [classical music] being blacker in this moment?’

Today, McQueen could work from anywhere. The decision to stay in Minnesota may seem strange given his affinity for Memphis, “but,” he says, “I’ve really grown to love the extent to which Minnesota puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to the arts. I’ve never lived somewhere with so many opportunities for entrepreneurs, so many grant opportunities. Springboard for the Arts has been a huge help in my work.” McQueen looks around the room, then adds “at this point in my life, I can’t really imagine taking all of this stuff off the walls and putting it in boxes and going somewhere else. So there is a convenience factor about it too.”

It isn’t all about the Benjamins and inertia. The local community matters to McQueen — a lot. He has strong ties to artists here. “I’ve become sort of entrenched,” he says. “There are local artists who I’ve had the great pleasure of collaborating with, folks like Tish Jones and PaviElle French and all these incredible people that I don’t want to move away from. So, you know, there are times when I do miss the South and especially in the winter, I’m challenged. But, at least for now, this is definitely home.”

Trilloquy hosts Garrett McQueen and Scott Blankenship Trilloquy hosts Garrett McQueen and Scott Blankenship, photo by James Napoli.

The Mission
McQueen’s work takes many forms. A singular mission is difficult to articulate and fails to honor the breadth of his many contributions. Within his work a focus emerges —  to promote more expansive understandings of what classical music is and help steer it away from any notions of being suitable only as background music back to the more social art form it used to be.

McQueen explains it this way “So, that phrase, ‘classical music,’ when you use it in different parts of the world, you’re going to get people thinking about different types of music. So, if we go to India, their classical music involves instruments, the vina and the guitar and the sitar and all of these different sounds. Classical music in China sounds very different than in Japan. Then, in parts of the motherland… years ago I spent a fair amount of time in the Bahamas teaching at the Bahamas Music Conservatory. And if you’re just walking along the street talking about classical music, people there are just going to think about calypso and reggae and those things.”

“Here in the United States, when we use that phrase, ‘classical music,’ we aren’t thinking about the music that’s foundational to our history and to our culture that has been colonized as something Western European. Even to this day, when you use the phrase classical music with folks who aren’t in that world, they’re going to think about old dead white European men.”

He continues, “my work isn’t just to get those spaces more diverse, get more Black people in, I’m trying to critique people’s aural definitions of the phrase ‘classical music’… When I’m talking about decolonizing classical music, I’m talking about flipping our perspective on that phrase — both the music and the conversations we align with that phrase — away from the colonized toward something that is ours, something that tells our story, something that speaks to our sensibilities and to our perspectives as Americans.”

Every Action, Every Cause
McQueen concludes his Lakes Area Music Festival broadcast. He lets silence prevail for several seconds before he shuts down all the equipment. The writer who walked in a few minutes after his broadcast began, asks him a bunch of questions for a profile he’s writing for a local arts nonprofit. As before, McQueen speaks fluidly and fast. He’s also patient, gracious, and forthcoming in his responses. The morning ends with a tour around the walls of studio and with McQueen sitting in front of a shrine he erected, reciting, no singing, a Buddhist chant he has chanted for a few years now.

He sets the stage. He provides facts and history, referencing “the mystic law of cause and effect,” what it means to him. “You know, for all of time and all of eternity, the Absolute Truth is that nothing comes from nothing. When an action is put in place, there is an effect, and every effect is connected to an action. So I’m trying to, in every way I can, put out every action, every cause in the world that I can, as an individual, to have the effects that I hope to see.”

Then he sings the Nichiren Buddhist chant of the Lotus Sutra, “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” over and over, fluidly and fast, over and over — a kind of hymn — church music.

Cover image: Garrett McQueen in Studio G, photo by Garrett McQueen.

About the author:
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet, essayist, literary critic and arts educator. He lives in St. Paul with his wife, Karen, two dogs, Ziggy and Jasper, and two cats, Curly and Mocha.