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!)
The global pandemic of coronavirus has forced so many musicians out of the concert halls and into our homes. It's been a challenging week, with the prospect of many more to come. In an effort to keep the music playing and stay connected to listeners, I've started releasing a musical selection for each day of the week. I hope it gives you some respite in these challenging times. All music is original except where noted. This week included a Bach Prelude and Fugue, three pieces for piano and a new song podcast premiere!
Apple podcasts link
3.1: "Skip" - Baroque / ragtime prelude
3.2: Chorale Toccata
3.3 Meditation #3: Seeking a Higher Power
3.4 Bach Prelude and Fugue in D major
3.5 "Social Distancing:" a song inspired by our new social reality
Last year I wrote 25 piano pieces!
-Five pieces for the Left Hand Alone
-Schumannia (five pieces)
-Syncopated Suite (six pieces)
-Two new pieces on the "Mary Had a Little Lamb" theme
-Two waltzes ("Ghostly" + "Wheels on the Bus")
-Prelude and Fugue in B-flat minor
-A musical parody of a Very Bad Piece
See the ones I ended up playing in this playlist here:
The "Ghostly" Waltz and #1 for the Left Hand were 1st and 2nd place winners in this competition where the participants select the winners, and the Chorale Toccata and Ragtime Toccata were finalists to boot!
Note: all musical examples in this post can be played back by opening the page here.
Motivation: Rhythm gets short shrift!
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about rhythm! In a traditional study of music theory, one learns a ton about harmony but very little about rhythm beyond some very basics. Similarly, in studying music history, there's an overemphasis on the harmonic trajectory of Western music, but almost no attention to its rhythmic evolution. And yet often the most salient difference between musical styles is rhythmic. Especially when one considers folk and popular music of the past century, there's a surprising continuity of harmony! Rhythm, however, is another matter.
The point: Math is useful (and fun!) for building on intuition about rhythm and syncopation
This post and the next approach rhythm from a mathematical standpoint, starting with an example of a piece I wrote recently in comparison to one of Bach. In using variations of the main rhythmic theme, I realized most of them were syncopated; this post explains some of the math that backs up that intuitive realization, compares the theme to its obvious Bach counterpart, and motivates further exploration of the topic.
Here's the new piece:
Here's the main theme at the beginning (ex. 1):
Here's the fifth of the recently-completed six-movement "Syncopated Suite"! It starts out like a Gavotte from a Bach suite, but the rhythmic style again evolves into something different! More about this suite coming soon!
It's another "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Don't be fooled by the opening; the piece evolves gradually (and I hope seamlessly) in rhythmic style as it progresses, adding more and more syncopation.
Starts with ragtime-style rhythms but turns into something else entirely. Much of the piece is based on conflicting (between the hands), and ever-changing rhythmic cycles that create not only syncopations but other similarly unpredictable rhythmic accents. The whole piece coming soon...
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!
Another new piece, with a mix of swing rhythm, blues harmonies (to start), but Bach influence too, of course! And it ends with a comic, (really, kind of ridiculous) waltz. A rough 1st take phone recording
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.