"I wanna play for a smaller audience"

Having taken my mother on our monthly foray to an Asian food mart in Louisville, I actually took to the time to inspect one of the fliers that litter all the Vietnamese food stores on third street:

What I hadn’t paid attention to in the past is that these fliers were (I’m assuming) for events in the Kentuckiana area (notice the bottom right hand corner: Vietnamese Musical Band of Louisville). The other flier I picked up was for a Vietnamese Lunar New Year concert happening at the local casino boat venue:

This reminded me of what I said about my “mission statement” as well as things I’ve posted elsewhere about playing for underserved audiences.

But what this really reminded me of what a short email exchange I had with someone that was spurred on by some comments I made in a discussion at Greg Sandow’s blog. I’m going to post my response to this person (I don’t have this person’s permission to post the other half of the exchange) which, I will mention, received no response but I think really underscores some of the issues surrounding my wanting to perform for underserved audiences, which in many cases means a minority audience (hence the title of this blog post). Some of this is only going to make sense in the context of the discussion at Mr. Sandow’s blog, but I think most of it is pretty self-explanatory.

to: ********
date: Mon, Mar 1, 2010 at 3:50 AM
subject: Re: Broader Audiences and such

****,

Thanks for being willing to continue this discussion. I really do appreciate it. I hope I clarified some of the points you’re referring to in my most recent post and response to Melissa at Greg’s blog (and I hope my public apology helps you understand that i’m not interested in a catfight as much as having a discussion). As far as to what Pierre-Arnaud–or rather to which composers he was using to illustrate his point, as I said in my post, Boulez, Carter and Lachenmann are hardly composers I would consider to have reached a larger audience at all.

That aside, I’m not sure how often you do read Greg’s blog or have followed any of my responses there, but your concerns about the whole idea of a “World Music group” are well founded and obviously issues I’ve had the ‘pleasure’ of dealing with. I think the biggest issue is that for all intents and purposes, that “World Music” designation was designed as a catch-all term that the music industry uses to market music that falls outside of most Western music genres. Or rather, it was a phrase that the industry adapted for use in marketing that kind of music (I haven’t really done any research on the evolution of the phrase as a way to categorize non-Western music, so can’t say for sure whether the usage was first a marketing term or just a general one to make those categorizations when describing the music).

That being said, there’s also the issue of it’s usage in marketing in two very distinct ways and for two very distinct “sub-genres” of “non-Western music”–basically for traditional folk/art or even pop music and then for the more contentious (and maybe the music to which you are referencing more?) so-called “World-fusion” music (especially as you describe it with the “World music groups generally condense various genres into stereotypes”). I’ve often heard this referred to as “Crossover” music, though that term also seems to include the crossover into classical music by pop musicians (or vice-versa) so maybe Crossover isn’t entirely appropriate here.

But my world music group isn’t entirely either of those. But mostly, the world music we do perform are traditional folk and art music works (with a smattering of world pop music hits). Given our instrumentation (vocals, mandolin, Egyptian tabla, cello, clarinet), it will never be entirely “traditional” enough for the purists at the same time, it’s a little too traditional for those audiences or contexts that want to “World Fusion/Crossover” sound (whatever that is). We generally stay away from genres or styles that have religious/ritual functions (for example, we would never think it would be appropriate for us to perform a “concert version” of an adhan–Islamic call to prayer–since none of us are Muslim, and since the call to prayer has a very time specific religious function).

That being said, the description of the students at the dance marathon was meant to illustrate changing tastes. If I had wanted to illustrate how good a fit we are as an ensemble in more traditional contexts I could have described an audience response at any number of private or public events we’ve done for ethnic populations (e.g. an Indian Bharat we did in Toronto in 2008 singing songs in Hindi and Punjabi; A Greek Orthodox engagement party consisting of primarily Arabs we played in Indianapolis a couple of years ago singing tunes in Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew; The Louisville Italian Festival that we regularly played for several years performing only Italian standards with Italian instrumentation in various Italian dialects; a Greek restaurant owned by a first generation Greek immigrant that we regularly play singing Greek and Eastern European tunes; etc.). See, one of our stage-banter quips is to say we’re “putting the World back into World music.” These are what i meant by underserved audiences. I mentioned some others in the post I linked above (namely women and children).

I’m not meaning to be snide in response to your question, but we’re not all Americans. And in that sense I mean that I’m actually a legal resident living here in the States. Been here since I was a kid but have never bothered to get citizenship. Grew up in a household with my Thai mother as my primary caregiver. The first music I learned how to sing were Thai songs. Not having a Thai community around where I grew up, it made it difficult to keep a Thai identity despite being as immersed in it via my mother as was possible in the Midwest. At the same time, I never fully identified with mainstream American culture either for the obvious immigrant reasons as well as the legal reasons of my immigrant status which doesn’t afford me the same rights as citizens get.

My background has probably helped make it easier for me to identify with minority groups who have very little options as far as live entertainment options go. It has also probably helped me to understand how the live entertainment from our respective homelands resonate with each of us better than the majority of live entertainment that can be found here in the States can–not just the music, but also the dance and drama as well. That was even more apparent when I spent about a year doing write-ups for local (to Indianapolis) write-ups and previews of ethnic performances like Hindustani music concerts or Chinese Opera productions, or Salsa Band dance nights. Getting the feedback from members of those ethnic communities and the warm thanks and invitations to actually attend the events free of charge really drove the point home for me even more than my own personal experiences performing for them that there are sub-populations in the US that not getting what they want out of mainstream American culture.

And going back to you Glass opera example–and I’m not saying that Melissa’s Cantata is at all relevant as an analogy here since her work obviously has more contemporary social relevance than Kepler does–the disconnect you’re understanding between the content of the Glass opera and contemporary audiences is in similar ways no different than the disconnect between Western music genres and “non-Western” audiences. It has as much to do with a temporal and cultural gap as it does with a musical and aesthetic gap. For example, if Melissa had written her “Cantata” in Thai Classical Chant style rather than as a cantata, it would probably resonate with me even more. Or even had she written it as an Arabic wasla or Azeri mugham opera I might find it even more interesting. But she didn’t and there was no reason she should have since she had other reasons for writing it in the default art music style of the US/Europe and for most intents and purposes (for good or ill), the rest of the world.

As for why I get more satisfaction playing for underserved audiences (please note also that the world music group is only one ensemble I work with that plays music for underserved audiences) if some of the above hasn’t helped to make that obvious I’ll state it bluntly. I know what it’s like to have the pressure to assimilate into the dominant culture of the US and some of the social-psychology consequences that is a result of that pressure. I want to make it easier for immigrants or minorities to feel comfortable being who they are by showing that it’s 1) OK to perform music from your own background in more public forums, and 2) that there are people here in the states that do enjoy and appreciate non-Western music genres enough to make a stab at performing it publicly. In a nutshell, I’ve always viewed my function as a cultural ambassador–just one that happens to be making connections between populations within a country rather than between populations in separate countries.

In short–I tend to prefer the idea of a multi-ethnic nation to the idea of a melting-pot nation, if that makes any sense?.

Best,
Jon

I think this also underscores some of the things I just don’t have time for anymore as there obviously must be an “overserved” audience if we want to admit there’s an underserved one. And I really don’t feel the need to supply that audience with yet another live performance of a Beethoven Symphony or Beatles cover.

While I do still occasionally do things like this still, I’m much more interested in minimizing my activities in that direction because, you know as they say, “life is short” and as I say, “there’s a whole world of music out there” and I want to put energy in discovering the latter in my short time on this planet.

I think I’ll be blogging more about the whole idea of underserved audiences in the near future, but as this post is more than long enough as is, I’ll end it now.

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