Asian Invasion of Classical Music

Seattle Chinese Orchestra

So Greg Sandow wrote a post on diversity in classical music and somehow it just left me feeling a little bit betrayed.  Not that what he’s saying is necessarily wrong, but it’s the typical issue that many of us Asians/Asian-American have with regards to any idea of diversity.  Historically, ethnic diversity talk in the US focused on Blacks (and more recently, Hispanics) while the issue of, say, Asians rarely gets mentioned.  Part of that is because of the false stereotype of the “Model minority,” which, when taken in conjunction with the phenomenon of the Perpetual Foreigner stereotype demonstrates just how oddly strange many Asians get treated in the US.

Factor in the fact that, when talking about Asia as a continent, we’re talking about roughly two thirds of the Earth’s population and quite probably the most diverse human population on the planet.  Remember that, technically speaking, Russia is in Asia; China, India, Thailand, Indonesia are more obvious Asian countries, but recall also that Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan are also in Asia.

So when it comes to talking about Asians in Classical music, usually that is just shorthand for East Asians–particularly Chinese/Chinese-Americans and Koreans/Korean-Americans with a smattering of the Japanese/Japanese Americans.  Granted–this is nearly a third of the Earth’s population with tons of diversity (often unrecognized even within those countries for various reasons), but as you can see from the link above, most folks refutation (r at least questioning) of Greg’s position frame it within the context of the over-representation of [especially] Chinese-Americans in Classical music in the US.

But that’s not really a good reason to doubt Greg’s primary thesis, that there is a problem with racial diversity in Orchestras.  Just not quite the problem as everyone sees it.  Or rather, it’s not just an *ahem* White/Black problem.  But again, going back to my what I said above–that’s usually how the issue gets framed.  Take, for example, this recent piece by Kevin Berger about the Oakland Symphony.  Here’s a quote in particular:

There are very few black conductors, period. A 2011 survey of more than 300 orchestras by the League of American Orchestras, an advocacy group, turned up nine black music directors. In fact, the paltry share of black musicians in the nation’s approximately 1,200 orchestras — less than 2 percent — reflects the pervasive lack of racial diversity in classical music.

The bolded statement in particular is precisely the framework I’m talking about.

From a recent piece by Emma Downs (that I’ve mentioned in my post Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest]) in the Fort Wayne Journale Gazette, there are some statistics for racial makeup of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic as compared to the racial makeup of the League of American Orchestras data:

By the numbers

Racial makeup of orchestras nationwide, provided by the League of American Orchestras:
Asian: 7.34 percent
Black: 1.83 percent
Hispanic or Latino: 2.42 percent
Native American: 0.22 percent
White: 88.19 percent
Racial makeup of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, provided by the Fort Wayne Philharmonic:
Asian: 13.5 percent
Black: 1.7 percent
Hispanic or Latino: 1.7 percent
Native American: 1.7 percent
White: 81 percent

This sidebar above is used to illustrate that the FW Phil’s racial diversity is slightly greater than the US average orchestra:

As of 2008, roughly 87 percent of the musicians in orchestras nationwide were white, according to the League of American Orchestras. The Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s diversity is slightly greater than the national average. White artists make up 81 percent of the local orchestra.

Put aside the discrepancy of the 87 percent versus the 88.19 percent for a second and take a look at the actual percentages of the ethnic groups–“Asian” and “Native American” are disproportionately represented while Blacks and Hispanic or Latino are underrepresented.  I actually understand the “Native American” issue–Fort Wayne is the repository of archives dealing with the Indian (sorry, but all my Indian friends say they prefer “Indian” to “Native American” so I’ll go with their preference) tribes that existed in Indiana before they were forced out West.

But what does the “Asian” tell us?  Could it just be the case that there are more Chinese-Americans in Fort Wayne who play classical music?  Or maybe, since Fort Wayne has one of the largest populations of Burmese refugees in the US there just might be a higher proportion of Burmese-as-token-Asians that are in the Fort Wayne Phil?

The later isn’t likely since South and Southeast Asians tend to be underrepresented in Classical Music in the states–not that we would know that by the over-representation of Asians in Classical Music according to the numbers.  So there’s the first problem with using Asians as a marker of diversity in orchestras.  The numbers are skewed by particular subgroups.

But doesn’t that show a low entry barrier even for those subgroups?  I think not.  Consider the South Bay Chinese Orchestra (here, “Chinese Orchestra” means a large ensemble made up of traditional Chinese instruments modeled after the Western Orchestra).  There’s a picture of the 20 member group in the link I gave above.  All Chinese/Chinese American.  Practically the same with nearly all the dozens of traditional Chinese Orchestras in the US.  With a near 100 percent representation of Chinese-Americans in Chinese Orchestras we might start to get a picture of Chinese-American culture in general.  As far as the arts are concerned, this population seems to favor it much more than other populations in the West.

Taken in conjunction the relative lack of Chinese-American (or indeed, Asian-American) artists in the public eye, it makes a kind of sense that Art music ensembles like Western Orchestras and Chinese Orchestras might be over-represented by Chinese-Americans.  This group hasn’t obviously made it into the mainstream the way, say, Black Hip-Hop artists or White Rock and Classical musicians have.  And so, like many of the marginalized minorities (to contrast with the privileged minorities in some sectors of American culture) the only recourse is to stay relatively close to ethnic origins in ways that just don’t coincide with mainstream American culture.

And this is where I do vehemently disagree with the idea of “Pop Culture” (i.e. “Popular Culture”)–pop culture is only mainstream to the majority, or even the majority minority.  The rest of us have to make do with building our own cultural edifices in our bid to either assimilate or co-exist with mainstream cultural edifices.


  1. I don’t really understand why diversity is so important in classical music. It just seems like a complete waste of everyone’s time to talk about. It’s from Europe so it’s no surprise that white people make up a large percent of the musicians.How about we just let people do what they are interested in and not set strange racial quotas?


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