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]”

Performance: Greek Islands Hafla

If you are reading this, it’s because it was written earlier today and set to future post as I will be performing at the Greek Islands Restaurant in Indianapolis when this autoposts.  The group I’ll be playing with is one I co-founded with vocalist and mandolinist, Robert Bruce Scott, in May of 2004, il Troubadore.  Rather than give you my bad prose description of us or repost our bio from the website url I just linked, the image below, from the Indianapolis Star written by David Lindquist could just as easily condense what we’re about.

il Troubadore in the Indianapolis Star

We will be hosting our monthly World Music and Dance night at the Greek Islands Restaurant in Indianapolis, a business run by the Stergiopoulos family since 1987.  We call the monthly event the Greek Islands Hafla.  The Arabic word, hafla, means “party” but in connection with bellydance communities it has taken on a life of its own.  This is a description from Shira.net website:

Hafla. (Pronounced “HAHF lah”.) This basically refers to a party. A private hafla thrown by a belly dancer usually involves Middle Eastern music (sometimes live musicians jamming, sometimes just taped music), dancers taking turns performing for each other, and some open-floor dancing for everyone to get up and enjoy the music. A more public hafla may be effectively a full belly dance festival, with vendors selling their wares and a more formalized stage show.

The local bellydancers in the Central Indiana area know the Greek Islands Hafla as a bellydance night though we do occasionally have some folk dancers that pop in from time to time.

I’ll probably be there until about midnight or so so won’t get a chance to post today hence the autopost.  And for you perusal, here’s a video of us performing at Kira’s Oasis in the Dayton, Ohio area (11 September 2009) for a fabulous dancer, Sherena, who used to be a member of the internationally touring Bellydance Superstars.  The tune is a Greek Laika by Manos Hadjidakis called Milise Mou (“Talk to Me”) and a favorite of our bellydancers.

Alternative Strings and the New Golden Age of String Playing

Alternative Strings
Julie Lyonn Lieberman’s Alternative Strings by Amadeus Press (2004)

For some time ASTA (American String Teacher’s Association) has been focusing on training string music teachers to develop Alternative String programs.  Last year I had decided that I need to formally join the organization (which I haven’t done yet but still intend on doing) so that I can be better informed about the programs, literature and techniques being created by those involved in the organization.

ASTA apparently has an “Alternative Styles Award competition” which I learned about after reading Rory Williams “Report from an ASTA Roundtable: ASTA roundtable finds alternative-styles education moving a step ahead—slowly” in the Strings magazine from the conference in Georgia in 2009.  Here’s what sparked my interest in the organization:

Vighnesh Viswanathan, 14, milled about the exhibit hall with his father and sister at the 2009 American String Teachers Association National Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. What set him apart from the several hundred teachers, dealers, and performers that visited that day in mid-March was not just his age, but his name badge, which proudly proclaimed “winner.”

“It’s for the Alternative Styles Awards competition,” he said, smiling from ear to ear.

One of 12 string players chosen out of 35 applicants, Viswanathan, of Westford, Massachusetts, won the Junior Division of the “Recognition of Established Traditions” category. His specialty: Carnatic (Indian) violin.

“He studies classical music, too,” his father says.

Viswanathan is part of a growing number of bilingual string players—those who can play both classical and alternative styles—who are seeking a well-rounded education. But nearly a decade after ASTA first embraced alternative styles as a viable pedagogy, the question remains whether teachers and institutions—from the elementary to the graduate level—can accommodate these students.

Continue reading “Alternative Strings and the New Golden Age of String Playing”