Diversity in Classical Music vs Diversity of Classical Music

Diversity in Classical Music has been a hot topic lately, especially given the recent announcements of upcoming seasons of organizations and the pushback many are getting recently. With the introduction of the Women Composer Database and the Composer Diversity Project, therea a push for aggregating disparate lists of composers to decenter the White Male Canon by highlighting all the Women and PoC (People of Color) composers that have long been existing in the tradition but have been systemically excluded from it except in the most tokenistic of ways.

I have an upcoming project with one of my ensembles, Sulh, which will focus on the Aurora Mardiganian and her escape from the Armenian Genocide and subsequent immigration to the United States where she endured a second traumatic period while being exploited by popular culture industries. The initial idea was to focus on showing some clips from the remaining 22 minutes of the 1919 biopic and other early images of early 20 century Armenians and Armenian Diaspora while performing traditional and folk music af Armenia as a live “soundtrack.” A couple months ago, I decided that it would be far more appropriate to feature the music of Women of Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora. This led to compiling my own spreadsheet of (currently) 55 composers that fit within those parameters.


The point is, it is ridiculously easy to find Women and PoC composers by simply aggregating existing lists and databases that can be found on the web. Second point is, it doesn’t take a big budget and copious amounts of human labor to do so. I said as much in a snarky tweet I posted a few days ago.*

What’s been weighing on me, and has come up mostly in private discussions with various people in the Classical Music field, is what exactly does Diversity mean as it relates to Classical Music? Hence the title of this post. As the earliest readers of this blog will know, I focused a lot on Post-Colonialism (and am recently coming back to that) and how it relates to the arts. Most of my activity here from the past 10 years or so focused much more on the what was being called a “Classical Music Crisis.” Even during that period I wrote a ton about the performing arts from all over the world as well as how minority populations in the West, but especially the US, have formed their own performing arts culture.

The conundrum here is how we are discussing Diversity and what we mean by “Classical Music.” As I’ve been arguing here for years, Classical Music is a much broader phenomenon than most of us think. When we think about and discuss opera (limiting the discussion to US institutions here) most of us have the Met Opera, San Francisco Opera, or Houston Grand Opera. Not on our minds are the hundreds of smaller opera companies throughout the US. In other words, the most prestigious and big budget organizations are what come to mind. When we think of orchestras the New York Phil or Chicago Symphony Orchestra come to mind, not the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra. In other words, even with a big budget organization such as Shen Yun–those aren’t considered in the discussion because it’s not a “traditional” or “legacy” organization. Even when we consider small budget and less prestigious organizations, e.g. local community or school and university ensembles, this excludes groups which do regularly perform classical music such as Mandolin Orchestras.

In other words, there are basically two ways performing organizations are excluded from Classical Music. By Prestige and by Ethnic Origins.

I’ve argued that the former is simply an artifact of the early migration of European Immigrants to the US. Just as we now have traditional Chinese Orchestras in regions with a high population of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans, many of the big orchestras that continue to exist today were formed in regions with a high density of European immigrants. It would be helpful for us to remember that Classical Music ensembles are ethnic ensembles that have a very specific historical development and ties to a very specific type of ethnic migration into the US. No different than the emerging ensembles in Arabic, Croatian, and Chinese migrant populations.

In other words, we could say that European Classical Music organizations had a First Mover advantage by virtue of being the product of the second wave of immigration into the US. Also, given the White majority in the US, some immigrant groups were able to assimilate “better” and as a result, so did their arts. To see how Chinese Opera fared, despite having a large population of Chinese immigrants dating back to the mid 1800s, see my post What American Chinese Opera can tell us about the US Classical Music “Crisis”

And no, I’m not arguing that Chinese Opera be considered classical music. What I am suggesting is that we consider Classical Music, in the way we typically discuss and consider it, be considered another form of ethnic music rather than a “universal” and “neutral” genre. You know, don’t treat Classical Music, as a field, as we are using the White Male Canon in it. Because, that’s kind of what we’re already doing, even in the calls for diversity.

See, one of the fundamental tenets of postcolonial criticisms is the idea that the marginalized should have a say in how they liberate themselves, lest we’re stuck with a paternalistic colonial “White Savior” phenomenon.

Interestingly, I remember when the US theater blogospheare was having its diversity debate a few years ago. The same sentiment came up in a few authors’ pieces. Ian David Moss, in his Creatiquity blog post:

“I sometimes wonder if some of the motivation behind the drive to diversify audiences for traditionally European art forms comes from a place of wanting to assimilate people of color so that we can all be one, big, happy family – on white people’s terms.”


“I’ve heard and read a lot of similar rhetoric in the past, and there’s something about the way these discussions are often framed that bothers me. Recently in a comment to Clay’s post I was able to put my finger on it: the urgent call for “white” organizations to diversify audiences, and the provision of funding to help that process along, strikes me as weirdly paternalistic toward people of color.”

and Clayton Lord at his blog New Beans:

“Universalism” in its theoretical form is about celebrating the essential humanness of all of us, the idealized harmony in which we could all function if we recognized how close we are to each other, really, and not how far. The issue, of course, then becomes whether, as a practical matter, universalism simply disintegrates into something much more minor, which is the representation of the dominant culture as the universal culture”

I made my comments about both of these posts 5 years ago.

Lucy Cheung posted a piece last year about Daniel Barenboim and Orientalism which illustrates how the mainstream classical world views its mission in a colonial mindset and I sometimes believe, as both Moss and Lord have said, that calls for diversity are still a part of that mindset. As if PoC don’t have their own art music, so they should be allowed to be a part of the Euro-Ethnic Classical Music world so that they, too, can enjoy the fruits of the most transcendent of musical worlds.

Or that PoC haven’t already taken Classical Music and have modified it beyond what we recognize as one of the mainstream legacy institutions of old. We want them in our playground, but they can only use our tools and can’t redesign the slides, swings, and merry-go-rounds. In other words, its as if Classical Music stopped evolving at the point that legacy organizations like Orchestras, Operas, and String Quartets solidified and that’s the only thing that counts as “Classical Music” and so the composers need to work within that Historically Informed Performance Practice.

And really, isn’t that just what it is? Since living composers have little input on the large or prestigious legacy institutions, we act as if they haven’t experimented with new forms and genres and that ensembles haven’t evolved well beyond the Great White Legacy Ensembles. By continuing to focus in them, we continue to give them legitimacy. In a world where so much of the institutional, economic, and social power continues to go to these organizations, maybe it’s time to focus our energy on diverting that power structure to groups and organizations which aren’t just propping up the old European ethnic ensembles as paragons of transcendent human musical achievement.

In other words, let’s not worry as much about Diversity in Classical Music, rather, let’s celebrate and support the Diversity of Classical Music as it’s continuing to evolve.




*the population figure is actually the Armenian Diaspora which doesn’t include Armenians living in and around Armenia. Total Armenian population is estimated to be about 11 million, but the gist of the point still stands).

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