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.

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Decolonizing the Musical Mind

A few weeks ago, I started re-reading Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) and for some reason this time reading it brought me back to the time when I quit playing the cello (right out of music school). A couple weeks ago, I mentioned here on my page, that I was slowly saying farewell to most Western Music (I’ll have to qualify that at another time). I mentioned some of those reasons in my latest blog post a couple months ago, and was in the middle of a couple of posts clarifying some things (one of which is this post).

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All Orchestras are Ethnic Orchestras

One of the things that is striking about the early accounts of Classical Music is how provincial it was. Until the 20th century we didn’t really conceive of Classical Music as one unified field. In other words, there was a lot of diversity in the genres and repertoire performed. This coincided with what we could call a fragmented audience along ethnic lines for various genres and repertoire.

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School music programs should be teaching Mohammed Abdel Wahab rather than Ludwig van Beethoven

Mohhamed Abdel Wahab, sometimes referrrred to as the "Beethoven of the Arabic World,"  with a Cümbüş.
Mohhamed Abdel Wahab, sometimes referrrred to as the “Beethoven of the Arabic World,” with a Cümbüş.

Fireandair had this to say in one of my recent blog posts about parochial nature of Western Classical Music:

fireandair November 13, 2013 at 4:57 pm · Edit · Reply

Still thinking about this — in a way, the attitude that says that Western orchestras should just stick to what they do best is not a bad one. The idea that a Western orchestra could have a hope in hell of presenting such diverse types of music with any real fluency — or worse, that they “should” — is an ego trip. If the African drum virtuosi can crank out polyrhythms with one hand behind their backs … then in a way why do the Western orchestras need to? I could see how the musicians would find it fascinating (especially the timpanists) but isn’t it an ego trip to treat these incredibly complex traditions like some sort of political bingo chips, or to imagine that most of the (culturally Western) members of a Western orchestra could have a prayer in hell of playing that sort of stuff with the mastery of someone who has been doing it since they were in diapers? Classical musicians are quick to say that you need to start in the womb to be able to play their stuff — well, that African drum master did just that. You can play with those tools but unless they are a part of your culture, you probably can’t touch the master’s virtuosity.

Just thinking about this — that it can either be a hallmark of ego of of humility to say that Western orchestras have a “home court” of music and will probably always be best at that kind of stuff — either because one feels that Beethoven is the ultimate expression of passion, or because the other varied traditions are simply too complex, great, and involved to master them on the side after a lifetime of training in Western music. Individual musicians in a Western orchestra may have a grounded feel for it if they come from that background, but the orchestra as a whole may not.

my response (which didn’t address everything she brought up) was:

Jon Silpayamanant November 14, 2013 at 1:57 pm · Edit · Reply

That’s a good point. I think one of the reasons I posted this blog and occasionally about the ethnic orchestras is simply to dispel the “myth” that Western Classical is universal in any sense. Especially the way it has been practiced in the past century by focusing on the canonical warhorses.

I remember when the early music/historically informed practice movement started to get a lot of negative attention from mainstream classical music institutions–it all seemed to be a way for one population to disparage another by highlighting the legitimacy of a “correct” (and universal) way to perform classical music. I think the underlying fear is that this “correct” way is simply one of many and has now become another form of “historically informed practice” since most new music that is performed is rarely done by the SOBs–Symphony, Opera, and Ballet organizations are just another historical way of approaching a relatively narrow range of music from a particular period of time and region (primarily 19th century Europe).

To admit that there is other “great music” out there–other “great performing traditions” with ensembles and practices–would lessen the legitimacy of the one touted as featuring the “greatest” musical works of mankind–and we can’t have that, right?

So maybe it is best to let SOBs do what they do best: Specialists in one art form of many. This begs the question of what then do we mean by music education since it become untenable that by bringing back music education in the schools at the pre-college level we should be focusing on the traditional string orchestras, full orchestras, and concert bands. Then it becomes a question of Whose Art are we supporting–and once you ask that question, then you realize that there’s no reason why Western Instrumental Instruction should be the norm and we should actually be bringing relevant music instruction to communities rather than subsidizing one cultural art form over another–letting the local cultures determine what arts they value!

My question to music education advocates would be how would they feel if instead of teaching violin, and string classes we teach erhu and other traditional Chinese huqin strings as the Purple Silk organization does in the Oakland area?  Or instead of teaching timpani and flute in band class we started teaching dumbek and ney as the New York Arabic Orchestra hopes to do with their new Arabic Music School?  Instead of school orchestras playing German symphonies, we have them learn how to play Turkish fasıl, Azerbaijan mugham, Indonesian gamelan, Arabic waslah, or Japanese gagaku?

If the answer is that “we should teach kids how to play the greatest music of mankind,” then unless we can demonstrate that there is something greater about a Beethoven Symphony over, say, an Abdel Wahhab Waslah, the question was loaded with an ethnocentric and eurocentric bias in the first place and that percolates up to the Music Conservatory Level and then the Professional Performing Arts world level.

the economics of underserved audiences (part 3): Baumol’s Curse and Liberation from Local Arts Organizations

William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen first described what is sometimes called Baumol’s cost disease in the Performing Arts in 1966.  The gist of the cost disease (which is just as applicable to sports, hospitals, and other fields where human labor cannot be replaced) is that all things considered, the labor cost in the Performance Arts will always rise at a faster rate than other industries and inflation since there are no effective means for increasing productivity since there is no way to replace human labor.  A Haydn string quartet needs four musicians today as it did in Haydn’s time.  Or as Baumol and Bowen put it

Human ingenuity has devised ways to reduce the labor necessary to produce an automobile, but no one has yet succeeded in decreasing the human effort expended at a live performance of a 45-minute Schubert quartet much below a total of three man-hours.

In the US, Orchestras are not publicly funded as they are in Europe, and rely heavily on the audience and donors (roughly a 40% and 60% amount respectively).  Ticket sales will never cut it; especially the larger the ensemble gets.  Even if an Orchestra were able to sell out each and every concert, the sales generated by the audience isn’t enough to cover the ever increasing cost of operations so a donor base is in many ways more important for these organizations.  With the current lag in both audiences and donor base, however, being able to fill the auditorium can go a long way towards showing some measure of relevancy to those with discretionary philanthropic money to give.

While mass media may be able to generate revenue some (but not enough) extra revenue (Dempster, 2000; Guerrieri, 2007) in digital media seems to be having a more pronounced effect (Sheridan, 2009; Midgette, 2011; Trescott, 2011).  With the ability to livecast being a more viable option for actually being able to increase the audience for live events there may be ways of using technology to expand the market for what was sets of individual fixed events (what the NEA surveys list as “Benchmark events”) in limited quantities (e.g. number of seats in an auditorium).

As it’s been a bit since I’ve posted in this series of the economic of underserved audiences, much of the above is an elaboration of the previous installment.  But the pattern of usage via new media technologies has been studied in a different context regarding ethnic populations.  Again, I turn to Waldfogel’s “The Tyranny of the Market: Why You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (2007).

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