Chinese Orchestras in the Bay Area

Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra of San José, California performing at California Theater in 2006

The San Francisco Bay Area is a Metropolitan region encompassing San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose as well as a number of surrounding cities and ‘burbs.  With a population approaching 8 million, it is also home to one of the largest concentrations of Chinese Americans in the US at a little over half a million according to the 2010 census.

What I’ve discovered is that the Bay Area is also home to probably the greatest concentration of Chinese Orchestras in the US.  As I’ve been compiling a database of ethnic orchestras in North America (though concentrating, in particular, on the United States) I’ve since discovered just a little over two dozen ensembles in the Bay Area alone.  It seems that California in general has the highest concentration of Chinese Orchestras of all the States (cf. the geographic region between Chicago and Detroit which seems to have the highest concentration of Arabic and Middle Eastern ensembles and Orchestras in the US).

What’s particularly striking about the Bay Area’s ensembles is the number of Youth Orchestras, and, in a particular case, a k-5th grade Chinese Orchestra.  The other striking thing about these (and other ethnic ensembles throughout the US) is the number (roughly half) that have formed since the internet revolution (early to mid 90s), and the number that have formed within the past ten years or so (nearly a third of the total number).

I’ve yet to do a rigorous statistical analysis of the numbers as I’m still just compiling the database and doing the tedious task of getting numbers (year formed, number of musicians in the ensembles, etc.) so the preceeding paragraph is just a very rough sketch, but if the trends I had been seeing in the Middle Eastern ensembles is any indication of what’s happening with the Chinese ensembles, there is definitely growth in the number of groups formed and the rate is accelerating somewhat.

Granted, there might be some bias in the number of groups as obviously those groups that are no longer active are less likely to show up in simple internet searches.  For all we know there could have been many more Chinese Orchestras in the years or decades before the internet.  Indeed, there seemed to be a high number of Chinese Opera troupes operating in the states during the last half of the 19th century to first half of the 20th century (see Rodecape, 1944 and Mina Yang, 2001).  The situation was similar in New York Chinatown during the period of the National Origins Act when there were up to five separate Chinese Opera Houses in operation (Rao, 2000; 2002).

On the other hand, there is also the fact that many cultural institutions with ethnic minority groups will stay well below the radar of the majority population (cf. MacLachlan, 2008 for a discussion of ‘underground’ intra-congregational music dissemination, performance, and support) for reasons that are systemic as well as cultural (Rao, 2000). Continue reading “Chinese Orchestras in the Bay Area”

Keep Louisville Weird with Thai-singing Klingon Cellists!

Jon Silpayamanant as j'onn, the Klingon Cellist, during a show at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis (Indianapolis), March 2011

So a couple days ago I was actually asked to play an upcoming event, the Terrabeat Showcase, that is going to “feature local ‘worldbeat’/cultural musicians from the city’s immigrant communities who are not yet fully integrated into Louisville’s mainstream music scene so that worldbeats influence in Louisville can be enhanced.”  Some of the other ethnic musicians to be featured will be Indian, Somali and Bhutanese immigrants.  I supposed I’ll be representing the Thai and, um, Klingon ethnic groups?

As I’ve been doing more solo cello as well as music/dance related duets lately, it’s only natural (I suppose) that I *ahem* boldly go where no cellist has gone before.  Not that this would necessarily be much of a stretch for me.  I already sing in Thai (and Klingon plus a few dozen other languages) while playing cello (and other instruments, such as dumbek).  I already have a huge untapped reservoir of material to use and styles to combine (though I’m not sure how I would incorporate beating amplified sheet metal through effects pedals into this show–though I could totally see Klingons doing this kind of thing).

Point is, it’s always nice to not have to rely on the schedules and limitations of others, especially when experimenting with new things.  I still have yet to fully develop Klingon Music theory given the existing canonic (and not so canonic) material, though that is still [yet] another work in progress.  And while I don’t often sing in Thai (just not that much opportunity for that yet, or rather not enough time to develop that) the first tunes I ever learned how to sing were Thai songs, and I still occasionally sing them when the need hits.

Jon Silpayamanant singing a Thai Classical Chant for Kristi Renee who is doing a fusion dance with Thai Fan Leb (fingernail dance) and Bellydance. Kira's Oasis (Dayton), January 2007.

But the idea of showcasing ethnic music (whether dressed as a Klingon or not) just appeals to me, and as my mother often tells me when she wants me to look for Thai movies and/or music or her, sometimes I just get tired of hearing the English language.  And more ethnics [sic] need to play out if only so that local communities don’t get a false sense of what’s actually out there in their [local] worlds.

And with a little luck, folks that perform can be what’s called in psychology, disinhibitory contagion.  This is a robust psychological phenomenon where folks who would generally follow the pack, because of whatever psychological rationalization they have made, do something that they really wanted to do after having experienced someone else going against the grain.

We sometimes see the negative side of this thing as when a high profiled (in the media) suicide coincides with a sharp spike in suicides by folks who somehow identified closely with the media personality.  But I think the positive side of this is to have more and more folks, who don’t normally play Western music (whether Classical or Pop) decide that it’s really OK for them to get out their sitars, koras, tablas, ouds, kavals, or whatever instrument from the homeland and get their funk on.

And from my own experience (which is considerable as I’m active playing in or working with 1) Balkan Band, 2) Klezmer Band, 3) World Music Ensemble, 4) Greek Musicians, 5) Central Asian dance/music project, 6) tabla/cello Indian/Middles Eastern Fusion project, etc.) Caucasian Americans are getting just as interested in this new music.

Jon Silpayamanant and Maja Radovanlija playing Balkan music in Kermes at the Runcible Spoon Gypsy Market (Bloomington), October 2010

Let’s face it, you can go anywhere to see a Symphony (though that might be getting rarer these days) Orchestra, or a cover band playing top 40 hits, or an original band singing in English and playing in an Anglo-American rock style, right?  And that’s the stuff that permeates the normal radio and other traditional media outlets.  How many Beatles cover bands do we need anyway?

Anyway, I’ll be developing a show for this and I suspect it will be something completely different than all the other things I do–or rather, it might be something that completely melds everything else I do!

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]”

Classical Music Across Cultures

Classical Music Across Cultures - Changing the face of Classical Music!

I just got a twitter subscription from Classical Music Across Cultures.  I’m interested in seeing what this is about.  The website will go live in a few hours so we’ll get to see more of what this is all about though judging from their facebook page is more of an outreach program for Classical Music to ethnic minorities (primarily African American and Latino children), which I can fully support even if it doesn’t exactly fit in with my own particular focus.  Here’s the blurb for their twitter account:

The Classical Music Across Cultures project will reach thousands of underserved African American and Latino children to change the face of classical music.

and from their website:

The Classical Music Across Cultures project is positioned to reach thousands of underserved yet gifted African American and Latino children, and encourage them to participate in changing the cultural stereotype of classical music.

This is an important issue when considering the ethnic make-up of Classical Music organizations (in the US) and underserved groups and audiences–but especially musicians and composers!

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”