Orchestra Ethiopia

Colonialistic Diversity: Decentering Eurocentric Orchestras and Normalizing *all* Composition

As I get into the second month of #NotBeethoven tweet thread, you may have noticed a couple things. First is that I occasionally feature composers outside of the Western Art Music (WAM) tradition(s). Second, the natural consequence of this is I have to highlight Composers of Color and Non-Eurocentric Instruments and Ensembles.1

A couple of the reasons I’m featuring these composers is to:

1) Normalize all the world’s varieties of compositional styles, genres, and schools. If the compositional practice of the WAM Canon is just one compositional practice amongst many, then the Myth of the Composer-Genius which permeates it is harder to defend and maintain. As the late Bruno Nettl says:

Musicians in Madras used to say to me, an American, “We have our trinity of great composers, Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri, and Dikshitar, just as you have your trinity,” meaning Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.2

2) Highlight the Music Ecosystems3 of minority groups. The drive to create diversity in the WAM Ecosystem sometimes feels like a subtle neocolonialist mission civilisatrice to complement the overt missionary outreach that has long plagued the field. Native Americans, Immigrants, and Ethnic Minorities have constantly endured an assimilationist drive in the US culminating in the twentieth century melting pot myth. Once we acknowledge other long, rich, and vibrant living music traditions that are being created globally as well as by ethnic minority groups in the US, then a push for diversity in the WAM Ecosystem starts to feel like a continuation of that assimilation program for minorities. It’s Audre Lorde’s maxim, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,”4 writ large in WAM!

While some have called for the death of Opera and/or Classical Music,5 I think we should spend more time decentering the Canon and Legacy Ensembles (the Symphonies, Operas, Ballets – aka SOBs) and see how WAM has been adopted and adapted into other Music Ecosystems as well as how those systems of support in different cultures shape their growth and evolution. Which is not to say we shouldn’t highlight the accomplishments of women and minorities who are currently working in that field (Mainstream Classical Music), as well as those who have done so in the past. The latter is crucial for decentering inside as opposed to outside the Ecosystem.

A natural side-effect of focusing on Non-Eurocentric Ensembles and Instrumentation is that attention will be shifted to Non-European and Non-Western composers, musicians, and audiences many of whom will be PoC (People of Color). Given that these types of ensembles regularly perform works by Composers of Color, including a much higher percentage of living ones,6 and that the musicians and audience members are often immigrants whose countries of origin can be traced back to the Ensembles and Composers’ countries of origin, this should not be a surprise. The trick is to not make the assumption, ala Barenboim, that these are uncultured populations with no “good music” of their own.7

To follow my #NotBeethoven twitter thread, bookmark this link: https://twitter.com/Silpayamanant/status/1212239360801812480

On Facebook, this thread: https://www.facebook.com/silpayamanant/posts/10156787421738513

Or simply listen to the music examples via this YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLe7Iw63oNsTplh6ZBD-wQ9z_4k0Gx9D39&fbclid=IwAR2ETbH2In7Lo4sf9QECsX1-QbU_vya7144N3uTv_rQybXcP3PzGfeDZ1gU



1. Most of the following relates mainly to the US and US Orchestras.

2. Bruno Nettl uses this example of alternate “trinities of great composers” in several of his works including Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music , The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts, and in Mozart and the Ethnomusicological Study of Western Culture (An Essay in Four Movements).

3. See Douglas Shadle’s “Lessons from Aubrey Bergauer: Musicology in Motion” for a cursory explanation of a Music Ecosystem. <<https://classicalalternative.substack.com/p/lessons-from-aubrey-bergauer>>

4. Cf. Micah White’s “The Master’s Tools: The Wisdom of Audre Lorde” <<https://www.activistgraduateschool.org/on-the-masters-tools>>

5. To be fair, the titles of both of the two pieces linked (“To save opera, we have to let it die” and “It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die”) are a bit click-baity and likely the result of editorial decision. Both pieces raise important points for change in the WAM Ecosystem.

6. This is especially true for the many types of orchestras modeled after the WAM orchestras in the first half of the twentieth century. With a shorter timespan, repertoire tends to be on the newer side. Thing is, if we look at WAM ensembles, we would also find this to be the case near to beginnings of their careers. E.g. see Suby Raman’s “10 Graphs To Explain The Metropolitan Opera” <<https://subyraman.tumblr.com/post/101048131983/10-graphs-to-explain-the-metropolitan-opera>> and Eric William Lin’s “Pulsecheck: Is Orchestral Music Still a Living Art Form in 2017?Extrapolating trends from 175 seasons at the New York Philharmonic” <<https://ericwilliamlin.com/NYPhil_data_viz/>>

7. ‘“Now I want to explore all those places where music hasn’t been brought to.” Barenboim claims to speak in the name of music, but what I see is a glimpse into the mind of a colonialist.’ from Lucy Cheung’s “Classical Music and Colonialism” <<https://van-us.atavist.com/orientalism20>>


Image Credit: Orchestra Ethiopia in 1967 (photo by Charles Sutton). Orchestra Ethiopia was an orchestra in Ethiopia formed by Egyptian-American composer and ethnomusicologist, Halim El-Dabh, in 1963. Similar to the Pan-African Orchestra, it brought together musicians and instruments from several different tribes and regions into one large performing ensemble. It disbanded in 1975.

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