Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest]

Takht Ensemble of the Michigan Arab Orchestra

There’s a phrase in post-colonial criticism and politics that essentially states that the overriding dichotomy is the “West vs.the Rest.”  One of the things that strikes me about discussions (in the US and in Europe to some extent) about the decline of Classical Music (and by “Classical Music” I’m obviously meaning the Western or European Classical Music tradition) is the debate about relevancy and/or the relative (though usually couched in terms of absolute) worth of “Great Art Music.”

The title to this post reflects that di(tri)chotomy as the bracketed section is the part of the discussion that so often gets left out.  I’ve blogged somewhat about what I’m calling the false dichotomy of Classical vs. Pop in the past and have attempted to infuse some of these discussions with a much broader context than most of the disputants are willing to acknowledge.

A recent piece in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette by Emma Downs has made me think more about the changing demographic of the US and how that is ultimately going to impact the quality (in the hierarchical sense) of music in the US.  The piece is titled Orchestras slowly add racial, ethnic diversity and is a discussion of the proportion of ethnic minorities in US orchestras in general and the ethnic make-up of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic (which is slightly higher than the national average) in particular.

The piece starts with the bold (and sometimes tired)

Although racial and ethnic diversity is increasing in the United States, many orchestras and symphonies across the country still do not represent the communities they play for.

which I don’t think is a controversial claim when looking at the basic numbers and implied issue of a “quota.”  On the whole, US Orchestras are primarily composed of whites.

Los Angeles Balalaika Orchestra, formerly known as the Los Angeles – St. Petersburg Russian Folk Orchestra

The piece gives a few reasons for this, but this one is the important one for my purposes

The lack of diversity is based on several factors, including historical precedents. For hundreds of years, orchestral music was predominantly a European tradition and a venue for self-expression that seemed to be “an unwelcome field for minorities,” [John] Bence says.

This is obviously a problem–and something that non-minorities can’t fully appreciate.  A poignant story Eric Edberg posted about one of his former students (full disclosure: I am also one of Eric’s former students), Troy Stuart, can drive this home.  I’m taking the quote Eric posted from a profile in the Baltimore Sun (link is dead) about Mr. Stuart:

In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, the toughest challenge Stuart faced wasn’t in the pieces he studied, but in a large mirror on the practice room wall – the reflection of an African-American staring back at him.
“I had to cover it for the first half-year,” Stuart says. “I wasn’t gaining any confidence from seeing myself.  If I had had a Yo-Yo Ma to look up to, I know I wouldn’t have had any problem looking into that mirror. I still remember the first time I saw an African-American on a classical album cover, I almost fainted.”

Not having a role model to look up to can be very trying psychologically.  I remember while growing up in the States that the only Asian role models on television I could see were those found in the occasional Hong Kong Kung Fu films or in Japanese Daikaiju (e.g. Godzilla, Gamera).  Of course, I’m neither Chinese nor Japanese, but Thai and we could probably debate the relevancy of having revenge-minded martial artists or giant-monster-fighting heroes (to be candid–I always identified with the “good” monsters) as a role model for participation in real life society.

But having a role model isn’t always enough.  Especially if the role model just happens to be one in a field, discipline, or culture that may or may not have much relevancy. Enter folks like Kevin Olusola who’s been getting some press the past few weeks because of his cello-beatboxing (which is really freaking cool!).

Kevin is just one example of a new generation of musicians for which the big Classical/Pop debate doesn’t matter so much as just making music.  This is where the Classical vs. Pop debates fall flat.

Seattle Chinese Orchestra in performance. Seattle also has a Chinese Youth Orchestra which feeds into the SCO.

But also, few involved in the debate question whether or not Western cultural norms should be the role models.  It’s just a debate over whether Classical Music as a role model for a music career or Pop music as a role model for a music career (or some combination thereof) is the one to “save the arts” as it were.  While we can argue about whether or not to consider Hip Hop an B-boyin’ as “legitimate” part of Western culture (technically, it is) what Kevin is doing is also related to the other issue of connecting with (and ultimately presenting) music that has more to do with our ethnic backgrounds and personal histories.

This is another aspect of the debate that’s coming to the foreground.  I recently posted about an organization, Classical Music Across Cultures, which has as part of its focus to outreach to African American and Latino populations in the States with Classical Music.  The other side of that coin is the focus on the “Creation, Performance and Preservation” of works by African American and Latino composers.  Watch this inspirational promo video by the Sphinx Organization

And this video of the Boston Latin-American Orchestra that I first learned about at Tony Woodcock’s blog

While Latin music and much of the music of African Americans have long been part of the US’s popular culture fare, bring it, institutionally into the classical music in the forms above is a good sign that at least some of that field is recognizing that there’s more to Great Art Music for large ensembles than just the works written by centuries old dead white Europeans.

Bereket, the University of Texas Middle Eastern Ensemble

And what’s also changing is that there’s more to pop music that just the work that’s traditionally been part of the Euro-American pop music industry.  The African American and Latino examples above aside, there is also an increasing number of various Asian American and Middle Eastern American populations in the US and they bring with them, much as the earlier European immigrants did, their own music both Art Music and Pop music which is something I’ve been blogging about much lately.

The question I’d been thinking about the past few days since I read the Emma Downs article is, with the concern about declining audiences for Classical Music in general (which is pretty much a given) and the not so apparent decline in Euro-American pop music (which isn’t a given considering how much the Chicken Little Think Tank faction is focusing on re-invigorating Classical Music through Western Pop music), how much of the growing ethnic minority audience is actually attending Classical Music concerts (much less Euro-American pop music concerts).  Since it seems like there’s some measure of growth in non-Western music in the US, one would think that the audience for this is growing, but from which demographic are these groups getting their audiences?

I haven’t really done much research on the demographics (other than age, since that’s what’s readily available) of Classical Music audiences but I have a suspicion that ethnic minorities (as well as some of the ethnic majority) are increasingly attending these non-Western performances.

Chinese Music Ensemble of New York

If you hadn’t noticed, I’ve scattered images of some of these non-Western Orchestras throughout this post.  Some of these ensembles (and the examples posted by no means exhaust the list) date back to the 60s, but a huge majority of the current ensembles have been formed within the last 10-15 years.  For links to the websites of these ensembles, just go to the subpage of my blog, Ethnic Orchestras in North America, which is a work in progress and is by no means exhaustive.

While some of us in the states decry the death of classical music (which ain’t true) and laud the sustainability and relevance of Western pop music (which is overstated), there are more than enough other musicians that are content with growing their audiences and playing their exquisite and venerable Art and pop music that is more relevant to them than either [Western] Classical or [Western] Pop music.


  1. […] And by ignoring the many functions of music in societies in favor of focusing purely on public concert events which are driven far more by economics than private events, we’re only talking about a small fraction of the music that’s actually being made out in the world. This is ironic for those who call for classical music to join the wider world. This simply replays the di(tri)chotomy of Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest]. […]


  2. […] **By “Popular Music” I don’t necessarily mean the Industry categorization of “Pop” as a marketing category as distinguished by other genres (i.e. Rock, Country, Hip Hop) but as phrase to designate musicians working in all genres which typify all those genres as a whole as opposed to Classical Music, other Art Musics (e.g. Classical Arabic Music, Indian Carnatic), folk musics, underground experimental music, or other world genres. This is part of the problematic binary of “Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest]” I’ve brought up in a previous blog post. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s