Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest]

Takht Ensemble of the Michigan Arab Orchestra

There’s a phrase in post-colonial criticism and politics that essentially states that the overriding dichotomy is the “West vs.the Rest.”  One of the things that strikes me about discussions (in the US and in Europe to some extent) about the decline of Classical Music (and by “Classical Music” I’m obviously meaning the Western or European Classical Music tradition) is the debate about relevancy and/or the relative (though usually couched in terms of absolute) worth of “Great Art Music.”

The title to this post reflects that di(tri)chotomy as the bracketed section is the part of the discussion that so often gets left out.  I’ve blogged somewhat about what I’m calling the false dichotomy of Classical vs. Pop in the past and have attempted to infuse some of these discussions with a much broader context than most of the disputants are willing to acknowledge.

A recent piece in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette by Emma Downs has made me think more about the changing demographic of the US and how that is ultimately going to impact the quality (in the hierarchical sense) of music in the US.  The piece is titled Orchestras slowly add racial, ethnic diversity and is a discussion of the proportion of ethnic minorities in US orchestras in general and the ethnic make-up of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic (which is slightly higher than the national average) in particular.

The piece starts with the bold (and sometimes tired)

Although racial and ethnic diversity is increasing in the United States, many orchestras and symphonies across the country still do not represent the communities they play for.

which I don’t think is a controversial claim when looking at the basic numbers and implied issue of a “quota.”  On the whole, US Orchestras are primarily composed of whites.

Los Angeles Balalaika Orchestra, formerly known as the Los Angeles – St. Petersburg Russian Folk Orchestra

The piece gives a few reasons for this, but this one is the important one for my purposes

The lack of diversity is based on several factors, including historical precedents. For hundreds of years, orchestral music was predominantly a European tradition and a venue for self-expression that seemed to be “an unwelcome field for minorities,” [John] Bence says.

This is obviously a problem–and something that non-minorities can’t fully appreciate.  A poignant story Eric Edberg posted about one of his former students (full disclosure: I am also one of Eric’s former students), Troy Stuart, can drive this home.  I’m taking the quote Eric posted from a profile in the Baltimore Sun (link is dead) about Mr. Stuart:

In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, the toughest challenge Stuart faced wasn’t in the pieces he studied, but in a large mirror on the practice room wall – the reflection of an African-American staring back at him.
“I had to cover it for the first half-year,” Stuart says. “I wasn’t gaining any confidence from seeing myself.  If I had had a Yo-Yo Ma to look up to, I know I wouldn’t have had any problem looking into that mirror. I still remember the first time I saw an African-American on a classical album cover, I almost fainted.”

Not having a role model to look up to can be very trying psychologically.  I remember while growing up in the States that the only Asian role models on television I could see were those found in the occasional Hong Kong Kung Fu films or in Japanese Daikaiju (e.g. Godzilla, Gamera).  Of course, I’m neither Chinese nor Japanese, but Thai and we could probably debate the relevancy of having revenge-minded martial artists or giant-monster-fighting heroes (to be candid–I always identified with the “good” monsters) as a role model for participation in real life society.

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“…he has no European blood in his veins to make sense of our European repertoire…”

Los Angeles Gagaku Group

The quote in the title is from a comment made by a poster to a recent article in Slate about the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s current search for a new conductor now that maestro James Levine will be leaving.  The full quote is:

A few years ago the Boston Globe wrote an article about a whispering campaign against Ozawa, which basically said “Ozawa can’t be a good composer [sic]; being Japanese, he has nor [sic] European blood in his veins to make sense of our European repertoire.[“] Maybe they should find some black female rising star and watch them tie themselves into knots. Seriously, I would look to the future and choose Gustavo Dudamel. If some members of the orchestra “erect barriers” retire them – immediately [my emphasis].

which I find a bit baffling.  At the same time I can also understand the sentiment since at this blog I write quite a bit about various countries and their respective indigenous art musics.  It’s so difficult for folks to separate out ethnic ancestry and cultural institutions as opposed to ethnic ancestry and the musical history of the indigenous arts.  Japan, of course, has a centuries long art music tradition (e.g. Gagaku, NōgakuJōruri).

I think that it can be difficult for folks to understand what relevance that, say, Japanese Court Music like Gagaku (, literally “elegant music”) can have for society in general.  But in a sense, that is increasingly the position Western Classical Music has in relation to society especially as newer music written in the style isn’t actively being promoted within the mainstream institutions.

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