White Males Orchestras and America’s Other Orchestras

A couple years ago I discovered a series of pieces title “America’s Other Orchestras” at Arab America and it helped me to solidify some thoughts I’ve been having about how we have discussions, and the narratives we create, about Orchestras and Classical Music. These are thoughts that were percolating at least since I first wrote a couple times about the Kennedy Center’s American Voices Festival back in 2013.

And that can be boiled down to Ian David Moss said in his post, “Why Aren’t There More Butts of Color in These Seats?

“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.”

Without going into a lengthy discussion of the history of the US as a colony, and then a colonial power, and how that ties into its production of culture (you can read about that at the rest of this blog), it might be useful to dissect how implicitly nativist and essentialist ideas about Classical Music and Cultural Production inform how we have discussions of diversity in the field.

I outlined how some of this works in a twitter thread “Classical Music, the Perpetual Foreigner Trope, and Colonialism.” Of particular importance is the third, fourth, and fifth tweets in the thread where I stated:

“3/ This evolution of Classical Music has taken forms we don’t recognize, & often in parts of the world we don’t associate w/ this European art form, even when this evolution (e.g. Mandolin Orchestras) takes place in the 4 meccas of CM (i.e. England, France, Germany, Italy).”

“4/ And that’s part the problem–referring to Classical Music as a “European art form” is essentialist and belies the fact that it’s pretty much a Global thing now, and really has been for some centuries.”

“5/ It’s true that Classical Music originated & developed primarily in parts of Europe, but for the same reason we tend to neglect Women Composers and Composers of Color, we neglect CM that developed in regions outside of Europe.”

I gave examples from the world of Opera in tweets six through ten. This post, and some future posts, will focus on Orchestras and Orchestral music as there are many more examples to be found.

In the opening piece of “America’s Other Orchestras,” Sami Asmar states that

Since the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, music from a variety of cultures is abundant – this is sometimes called ethnic music or world music. It is common for large immigrant communities to have active orchestras or large ensembles, some of which are in the Western-style interspersed native instruments, and others are in the pure style of their areas of origin. The general public typically encounters these ensembles during festivals or commemorations, while dedicated fans follow them every season.

From Arabic Orchestras to Chinese Traditional and Tamburitza Orchestras, the US, as many other countries around the world, has a plurality of these large ensemble types. Rarely do they come up in discussions about orchestras. I highlighted that in one discussion on twitter about Anne Midgette’s recent Washington Post piece about (see the discussion branching off Anne Shreffler’s Twitter thread here).

Note also that Asmar says “Western-style.” When most of us discuss or think about Orchestras, it is that “Western-style” that usually comes to mind and becomes the implicit definition. That we have phrases such as “Arabic Orchestra,” “Chinese Traditional Orchestra,” and “Mandolin Orchestra” emphasizes their hybridity while assuming the neutrality and universality of the implicit definition of Orchestra.

This is essentially the same issue being discussed in Classical Music Diversity as it pertains to composers and repertoire (hence the usage of Dead White Male Canon). In this case, we have Dead White Male Orchestras,* but rarely do the discussions make that point.

The essentialism here is in treating the Western-styled Orchestras as somehow neutral and universal while hyphenating the Non Western-style Orchestras. I made a similar point a couple years ago in my post “All Orchestras are Ethnic Orchestras.” This also has the unintended(?) consequence of neglecting a huge swath of composers and repertoire written for these Non “Western-styled” groups; not to mention that until the middle of the 20th century, African Americans and Women had to form their own Orchestras in the US as they weren’t allowed to play in the White Men’s music clubs.

Which brings me back to Moss’ comment I quoted above:

“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’ll be exploring these issues in future posts as I continue to Decolonize my Musical Mind.

 

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*See also discussion in the comments section of my post “The Other Orchestras (part 1): Ethnic Orchestras” (March 5, 2015) about the usage of “Orchestra” as an ethnically specific term.

Image: John Reese Europe and his Clef Club Orchestra of Harlem. One of the many all African American Orchestras in the early part of the 20th century. This photo is from 1911. From the Wikipedia entry for the Clef Club:

This orchestra was very large, numbering around 125 members, and consisted of a wide variety of instruments. Among the instruments included the normal orchestral instruments of violins, violas, cellos, basses, and the normal wind and brass instruments, but also included mandolins, guitars, banjos, ukuleles, and a large bass drum. These “strummed” instruments were not in small amounts either. According to one account the orchestra included “thirty strummers- ten each of mandolins, guitars and a rare harp guitar, and banjos.” The orchestra was also frequently joined by a men’s chorus, eight pianists, and various soloists.

 

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