This post got kind of long. tl;dr executive summary:
1. Classical music's racism is tied up in its over-reliance and devotion to the past. You can't change one without first changing the other.
2. Various factors subtly reinforce that reliance, especially from the recording era (1920's) onward. One is the plummeting incentive from that time on to write down music note-by-note. The other is the false choice in classical music between the comfortable past and a disorienting, avant-garde present.
3. As such, changing the culture requires much more than just playing more music by black composers.
4. In education, we teachers need to think outside the box in terms of how we teach and what music we teach, which ideally should include guidance and help from our institutions.
It’s time we admitted it: classical music is racist. It’s not good for the music, for the culture, or for the people who are pushed away as a result. In this post, I’ll explore how classical music got to this point, why it matters, and what institutions and individuals can do to make it better. This is by no means meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive, but perhaps the start of an overdue conversation.
Just a word about me, for those who don’t know me or where I’m coming from. I’m certainly not the final authority here; I’m a white male who’s benefited hugely from the institutions set up that vaguely fall under the “classical music” umbrella (schools, jobs, performances, and so on) though I also have a foot out of that world, partly because I like to write and perform other types of music (though a big part of the issue here is what gets to be, or gets to not be, defined as classical music). At any rate, I’ve grown up with, participated in, and seen the overwhelming whiteness around me in my educational, performing, and teaching life as a musician, so I’ve been part of the problem. It’s easy to be cynical about changing the culture in my (kinda-sorta) field, since I don’t hold too much sway over anyone but myself, but that’s also a dodge, so this post is in the spirit of tackling big problems that need collective action.
A Culture Overly Devoted to the Past
The racism of classical music comes from and is perpetuated by two basic factors. Most of what most people consider to even be “classical music” comes from the distant past when racism in the world was a fact of life. Today, the world of classical music maintains an at best innocent, at worst lazy and pernicious devotion to that past. And even if it is innocent and passive today, leaning so heavily on the past benefits neither the music itself nor the long term health of “concert music” or “art music” as an idea—though it certainly benefits some people and institutions in the field that don’t want to change it. But changing the culture from a tradition of recreating the past to one that’s more in the present is necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) for making it less white, and in any way anti-racist.
Now, that’s not to say there’s no overt racism and discrimination in classical music too, and certainly there’s been plenty when you reach back to the recent past. You may recall the scene from the movie “Greenbook” where black pianist Don Shirley laments the inability to get a gig playing his preferred music, the music he’d “been training his whole life to play” (ie, Chopin). (Yes, he loved the past, too, even more than his own music, it seems, somewhat complicating things!)
If you look a few posts below, you'll see a long, grumpy rant about the politics and aesethetics of contemporary music. In the piece below I've distilled the essence of that rant into music!
Oscar Bettison is a Guggenheim award winner and professor of composition at one of the top conservatories in the country, and one time I attended a concert with this piece on the program:
Did you listen to the whole thing? Or give up after like 30 seconds? Rather than continue to tell you what in detail what I think of the piece, I wrote this revised and condensed parody instead!
"I'm interested in any crazy, creative idea beyond normal imagination," says conductor Long Yu in a New York Times article about the New York Philharmonic premiere of a concerto for violin, percussion and two ping-pong players by Andy Akiho. "Classical music needs more like this."
Does it, though? [Ron Howard voice-over: No, it doesn't]
For a long time, the dominant mindset in contemporary concert music has been one of heavy-handed and sometimes downright frivolous convention-breaking. This mindset ignores an obvious problem: once convention-breaking is common, it's not only aesthetically problematic, it's also its own convention, and therefore self-defeating as an artistic goal. Classical music doesn't need more of that, it needs less! Music should get back to drawing people in the way it traditionally did in the past, with depth of emotion, beauty and subtle ingenuity. It may not be as easy as adding ping pong to a concerto, but it's definitely worth the effort.
This post got kind of long, so here's a tl;dr summary for those who aren't ready to commit to a long read, or only have 30 seconds to spare:
1. The culture of contemporary classical music (or a highly influential subset within it) is obsessed with an often cheap, surface-level notion of innovation.
2. This modern version was not much a value to musicians and composers before the early-mid 20th century (not coincidentally, when contemporary music lost its way and became wildly unpopular). Nor is it the reason that we appreciate and love past composers' music. Today's musicians and historians betray their modern bias in trying to force a norm-breaking narrative into music history.
Whenever I tell people I'm a pianist or that I write music, I brace for the almost-inevitable follow-up: "So what kind of music do you write? Classical? Or...?"
Person I Just Met: So do you do, like, classical music?
Me: Well, that's a complicated question, really! I guess by classical music maybe you mean the distillation and crystallization of various musical traditions in Europe—Renaissance madrigals, Italian opera, Church counterpoint, among others—around 1820?
PIJM: Well really I just meant...
M: But of course those traditions have always fit together rather uncomfortably and meant different things to different people (I mean can you even believe that Bach and Bocherini get lumped together?? Ha! Me neither!), and then in the 20th century they seemed to split between people who think music peaked in the 18th or 19th century (the Traditionalists, one might call them) vs. people who think classical music should make a clean break with the past in order to keep up with the times (the Modernists).
PIJM: ...I'm not sure I follow...
M: You see on the one hand, I agree with the modernists that classical music has to be a living tradition, but generally disagree with them on where that tradition is heading. I also sympathize with the traditionalists in their desire to preserve this canon of great music from 18th and 19th centuries, though I think they're a little close-minded about the possibility for music to keep evolving and improving along similar lines.
PIJM: ...really I was just wondering if you can play "Pachelbel's Canon."
M: **Shudders in horror**
After hearing this question approximately a thousand times, you'd think I'd have a good answer by now, something short and sweet to describe, or at least give some idea, of what my music is like. And I'm well aware that most people asking it are probably just being polite, ready to move on with their lives and forget what I say (or go listen to Pachelbel's Canon). But the question of what writing "classical music" means today is pretty much the aesthetic battle of my professional life. So since you asked...
The problem is—and sorry-not-sorry for the cliche—what do you mean by classical, exactly? Is it music that stems out of a specific tradition? Is it music that's "relaxing"? (No, please don't ever say that again.) Is it music with a certain type of feel or musical characteristic? Is it music written for a specific purpose? For specific instruments? Is it music that exists primarily as a written document? Is it music you can only understand if you're well-educated? (No, no, no, no, and no.) Of course the actual answer is complicated, and most people are no doubt happy with an approximate answer that isn't terribly accurate or specific, a "you know it when you hear it" type situation.
Why do I care then? Because people hijack the good name of this pseudo-almost-tradition, and all sorts of stuff gets lumped into this category that people put me in, and I want no part of it! This lumping takes many forms, but the two main ones are:
1. Mediocre music by any dead white guy from Europe, 1600-1800 ("so pleasant!"):
This is the Pachelbel's canon, put-it-on-in-the-background-or-to-fall-asleep brand of "classical music." If it survived in written form for 200 years, then it must be good, right? Uh, wrong! Most of this music was tossed off to be played a single time for a king, duke, or duchess, and doesn't really deserve our attention today. It was written for light entertainment and most of it is extremely generic. Exercise some discretion, people. Music from the past should clear a higher, not lower, standard, than music from the present, in order to garner precious attention, resources, and time. Exhibit 1 (pulled from today's WETA playlist...despite the fact that either he stole the opening from third movement of Bach's Brandenburg no. 1 or vice versa, the rest of this piece is thoroughly forgettable.)
2. Experimental, incomprehensible, or otherwise "radical" avant-garde music from 1920 onward:
There's this naive, narrow-minded, and surprisingly durable belief that concert music has to be somehow outside the proverbial box in order to be sufficiently or authentically innovative, as if all of the traditionally melodic and harmonic music has been "used up" and there's "nothing left" to write with "conventional harmonies." This mindset ignores all the subtle gradations of style throughout the history of music and the infinite possibilities for new ones in the same conceptual universe. It would be like saying everything creative and expressive that could possibly be written in English already has been (I mean there's been so many books, how many more could there possibly be, right?), so all novels from now on should be in a new made-up language that no one understands. But of course the expressive power of English (or any language) lies almost entirely in how the words are combined and re-combined. (This analogy requires further teasing out, as I will make sure to do at a later date.)
Anyway, classical music's chucking out of its traditional, umbrella "language" leaves the niche for beautiful, communicative music to other genres like folk, pop, rock, and dare I say, country, relegating the past 50 years of "classical" or concert music composition to relative cultural obscurity. Example (this piece was part of a grant-winning application from New Music USA, a grant I've applied for unsuccessfully many times):
I don't mean to sound bitter about the success of this music (financial success, that is), but I certainly am annoyed. To be clear, my problem with the above is not that it's radical or different (since it's not radically different from lots of other new music), but that it's boring. It lacks elements that would command and hold my attention: melody, harmony, and coherent, recognizable rhythms. It could work in supplement to something else, but why would I devote all of my attention to it? What emotions is it supposed to effect in me? If "classical" music means anything, it should refer to music that somewhat requires and definitely rewards paying attention, and elicits some kind of emotional response. (Neither the composer nor the artistic director of the ensemble responded to my questions about the piece and my invitation to explain what it's about or the philosophy behind it.)
Of course, the two categories above are at extreme ends of two axes, whereas most everything exists between them on a spectrum (or various spectra...maybe just a multi-dimensional space). I have no problem with composers themselves who wrote not-so-great music in Europe in the 1700s (they can't all be geniuses, after all), and I have no problem with people writing experimental music today (if that's your thing and you really find meaning in it, then go for it, I guess). My beef is with how the music in each of those categories reflects on, takes attention from, or gets associated with what I do, which is very, very different.
(More on that next time)
The Music Post
The Music Post is a blog / podcast for reflecting on all things musical, informed by years of writing, playing, and teaching music.