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.

Continue reading “Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest]”

the economics of underserved audiences (part 2): “Who Benefits Whom” and Preference Minorities

Joel Waldfogel’s – The Tyranny of the Market published by Harvard University Press (2007)

It’s been some time since I posted the first part of this series of posts exploring the issues surrounding how I view my role as an educator and musician.  In this, part 2 of the series, I’m going to make some use of some of the research and theoretical insights by Joel Waldfogel that he published as a short book titled, “The Tyranny of the Market: Why You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

The gist of the book is summarized well enough at its page at the Harvard University Press website (linked above):

Economists have long counseled reliance on markets rather than on government to decide a wide range of questions, in part because allocation through voting can give rise to a “tyranny of the majority.” Markets, by contrast, are believed to make products available to suit any individual, regardless of what others want. But the argument is not generally correct. In markets, you can’t always get what you want. This book explores why this is so and its consequences for consumers with atypical preferences.

When fixed costs are substantial, markets provide only products desired by large concentrations of people. As a result, people are better off in their capacity as consumers when more fellow consumers share their product preferences. Small groups of consumers with less prevalent tastes, such as blacks, Hispanics, people with rare diseases, and people living in remote areas, find less satisfaction in markets. In some cases, an actual tyranny of the majority occurs in product markets. A single product can suit one group or another. If one group is larger, the product is targeted to the larger group, making them better off and others worse off.

The book illustrates these phenomena with evidence from a variety of industries such as restaurants, air travel, pharmaceuticals, and the media, including radio broadcasting, newspapers, television, bookstores, libraries, and the Internet.

Waldfogel’s basic thesis is that given high fixed costs, those who are members of a preference minority are far less likely to get products they desire.  Through his research he demonstrates that as the population of a particular preference group increases, the members of that group are more likely to be satisfied by the range of choices available to them and vice versa if the population of a particular preference group decreases.

Continue reading “the economics of underserved audiences (part 2): “Who Benefits Whom” and Preference Minorities”

Music diversity for a new millennium?

Greg Sandow has recently posted a blurb from Ramon Ricker’s blog post, Changing US Demographics and Classical Music.  This is very much an issue and theme I’ve been exploring a bit here.  I especially enjoyed Janis’ comments to Greg’s post.

I’ve had at least one response at Greg’s site get eaten, so i thought I’d go ahead and post my short response to his post here, just in case:

Hmm–I actually thought I posted a comment about this issue on your “City Opera’s back — with an improvising orchestra!” blog post, Greg.  But it seems to have been eaten or something.

I’ve been seeing something along these lines for some years now–having worked on the inside of some presenting organizations and now just playing with non-standard (read: non-Euro-American) ensembles I’m not at all surprised that this would be a trend.

See, when you say “Alt-classical” for years i referred to non-Western “Art” music (e.g. Hindustani raga; Ottoman fasil; Egyptian waslah; Thai piphat) as “Alternative Classical” music.  I guess even wiki has just defaulted to the more cumbersome “Non-Western Classical Music” so…

Point being, with changing demographics, there’s going to be little reason for folks of non-European descent and heritage to favor Western Classical music when they may very well have their own art music traditions (same with pop music).  I think we in the states (and possibly other European countries) overestimate the popularity of both our “high  (e.g. Classical Music) and “low” (e.g. Pop/Rock) art.

There’s a fascinating study of popular music by Deanna Robinson that set out to test the “cultural imperialism hypothesis” (basically the idea that cultural transmission is a one way affair from Western culture to the rest of the world) called Music at the Margins: Popular Music and Global Cultural Diversity that sought to demonstrate how pervasive the cultural imperialism is only to come out with the tentative conclusion that Western pop music isn’t nearly as popular as most people and cultural critics thought.  I tend to agree with that conclusion given my own experiences and what little research I’ve done on my own on the subject matter.

And though it looks as if my response Ramon’s post did indeed get posted, I’ll go ahead and post it here too, for posterity’s sake:

Very nice–love the Gretzky quote.

Rena Shagan, in her ‘96 edition of “Booking and Tour Management” discussed the trend of presenters and presenting organizations to book a more ethnically diverse season. one of the rpesenters she interviewed was bemoaning the fact that he just couldn’t book as many classical music acts as he would like because of this general thrust for diversity.

While I was working as an assistant to the organizer of my university Performing Arts Series in the early 90s I was seeing almost as many presskits for world music/dance/theatre as not.

I don’t think it’s that much of a coincidence that I perform more regularly with an Arabic ensemble in Louisville and a World music group in Indianapolis than with Classical music groups–and I’m seeing a growing number of classically trained musicians performing in groups like these.

Maybe part of that is the growing demand (because of the changing demographics of the US) for non-Western Art Music, or the shrinking demand for Western Classical Music while the universities continue to churn out classically trained musicians–likely it’s both–but it’s happening whether we want it to or not.