When you attend the symphony, an opera or a performance of any kind, there is a high probability that at least some of the women onstage have been victims of sexual assault. About one in three women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. This most certainly does not exclude classical musicians.
If you attend a performance by the Artemis Musicians’ Society in Vancouver, you will know that all of the people onstage have been victims of sexual assault. That is the point.
The group was formed this year by Katelin Coleman, a bassoon player, who wanted to create a safe space for musicians – not just women – who have survived sexual assault. But more than that, she wanted to make a statement. By openly declaring the basis of the ensemble, she was aiming to erase the unjustified and unfair shame that comes with being a victim of sexual assault. She wanted to be part of something where the performers could wear their survival publicly and with pride.
“I had had the idea for a while since becoming quite disillusioned with the orchestral world that I loved so much through my own workplace sexual assault,” said Coleman, 29. “I also noticed how isolating the experience was and how much stigma was attached to disclosing it.”
In January, she wrote a lengthy Facebook post, explaining her idea and inviting people to join.
“It is with both great trepidation and pride that I make this announcement: I am looking to form a professional performing ensemble, entirely comprised of and run by musicians who are survivors of sexual assault,” she wrote.
Several people came forward, some ultimately declining to join – at least for now – but the group held its first performance in the spring. And on Oct. 15, the four members of the Artemis Musicians’ Society will perform their second show, On Loneliness.
Morgan Zentner, an oboist from the United States, was sexually assaulted when she was 12 at a local playground. Later, she was raped. There have been other traumatic experiences – some in a professional context – causing extreme, career-threatening distress.
“There’s this stigma for women, especially in the classical community, where if we show that weakness, we tell our stories, we show people that we’re not always okay, that we’re not going to get hired again. They’re not going to book us,” Zentner, 36, said during a recent interview.
The four women had gathered in the common room of the Vancouver building where Joanna Lee, the group’s violinist, lives. Lee was assaulted when she was 10, has been sexually harassed repeatedly and experienced a traumatic sexual assault earlier in her musical training. She is now earning her doctorate at the University of British Columbia. When Coleman told her about the group and asked if she would join, Lee’s response was “hell, yeah,” they tell me.
“This is a safe space to produce art and music and to get close as humans and individuals and feminists,” Lee, 34, said. “And wonderful women to work with.”
The fourth member of this eclectic quartet is not a classical musician, but a spoken-word artist. Julie Hintz-Barrera, who performs as Chronfused, might seem like the outsider here, arriving not with a traditional musical case like the others, but for one rehearsal wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack and for another carrying a vintage suitcase she picked up for free from a second-hand store (they couldn’t sell it because it smelled, she explained). But she has fit in – and elevated the group with contributions such as her on-point poetry.
“Dear Little Julie of the past,” she reads from her phone as the other three women move from a musical cacophony into a selection from Canadian composer Jordan Nobles’s Museum Pieces. “I hope this message and the transdimensional machine that brought it to you are safe and unaltered,” Hintz-Barrera continues.
The poem, Tender Transmissions, came out of her work with her therapist: What would you say to your younger self, the little girl who was sexually assaulted by a family member?
“I had in my head for a long time that because I have this part of my past, because I’m carrying this weight with me, I’m not going to be able to achieve certain things,” said Hintz-Barrera, 28.
At a second meeting, as the women take turns telling their stories, the others walk over or reach out to rub their arm or back, or hand them a tissue.
“That’s one of the greatest parts about this. We can have these moments, like me breaking down in the middle of a meeting, and it’s okay because that’s the reason we’re here,” said Zentner, whose previous experience includes touring all over North America playing oboe in a folk-metal band. “You don’t have to go into detail. You don’t have to express everything, because it’s hard. They just get it.”
Coleman, who was born in Burnaby, B.C., was sexually assaulted by a relative when she was 5. It left her feeling ashamed and like she was different from other people. Then, as an adult, she experienced an assault in a professional context and then subsequent isolation. It was a terrible time and she looked around for some sort of musical community for people like her. When she couldn’t find one, she started her own.
“Someone has to lead. Someone has to be the one to say, ‘Actually, that happened to me,’” Coleman said. She goes on to list some of the public indignities survivors face: “slut-shaming and victim-blaming and also just plain, old dehumanization. Because people don’t see survivors as, like, their grandma. And their aunt. And their partners and their colleagues and their friends,” she said, assembling her bassoon ahead of a group photo-shoot.
“The common thing that these [perpetrators] always seem to have on us [is] they always seem to be the ones that other people support if you come out,” she said, using an unprintable word for perpetrators. “And I thought the one thing they seem to have that we never seem to have is community. And why don’t we have community? Because you tell people what’s happened and they just go silent and giggle and have to [leave]. Or they’re more preoccupied with how uncomfortable the subject makes them than they are with what’s right.”
She wanted to turn the tables. To make being too embarrassed to talk about it the shameful response. Were that the case, she believes, sexual violence would not be so enabled by the culture. Victims would not suffer – in addition to the trauma – the loss of their livelihoods, friends and reputations.
“I felt, as a survivor speaking out and being assertive about it, that there was a definite script I was supposed to follow and it was supposed to be snivelling and damaged and, like, shaking and incapable,” said Coleman, who whether speaking or playing her instrument, comes across as confident and passionate. She sees anger as a positive emotion that has helped propel her.
“There are much louder and more in-your-face ways of expressing your anger when you’re going through or have gone through trauma,” Zentner said. “We can choose to be much uglier about things. But I feel like we as a group are keeping it a little bit more classy.”
Artemis: On Loneliness is at Notional Space in Vancouver at 1523 East Pender on Oct. 15. The show is free; donations are optional. Doors at 6:30; concert at 7.