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]”

“66,000 opera companies across America”

A lively discussion is happening at Tony Woodcock’s blog, but what’s intriguing me a bit are some of the things a poster with the username of Digoweli is saying.  In particular, this excerpt from the post linked:

What has happened to us from 1900 when there were 66,000 opera companies across America with 1,300 Opera houses in the farm state of Iowa alone and Opera companies even in the Indian Territory before it was Oklahoma? Opera for Indians, you won’t see that in the movies. You won’t see that the color barrier was broken at the Metropolitan Opera in 1925 by an Osage Indian soprano either. I have a picture on my wall of the opera house in Miami, Indian Territory in 1900. The same place that birthed the great American Indian ballerina Moscelyn Larkin.

I didn’t find these facts in music school. I found them at home in Oklahoma and from non-music historians like Lawrence Levine (“Highbrow/Lowbrow, The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America” Harvard). I found the Iowa figure from an economist for the NYTimes and the WSJournal Robert Cook, in his (“The Winner-Take All Society” Frank and Cook, Free Press) Neither Frank or Levine are musicians but they are not blind to what has happened here. They also knew virgin territory when they saw it.

Music historians Crawford and Dizikes made a start but couldn’t get out of the double bind artistic folks are in. Mentioning a cultural economic virus in the Arts is like mentioning a sexually transmitted disease in polite company. Art is supposed to create health and harmony. It’s supposed to validate systems not prove that they are flawed. So we erase the flaws. There is no real history of America’s arts in performance. The companies, the great performers, the battles, the victories. There is no real history of the legacy of the great pedagogical traditions of Europe and their teachers in American Institutions either. It’s as if everyone was hatched from nothing with no tradition and no awareness of how they got here and no awareness of what has been lost. Except I would exempt violinists who know about Wolfgang’s lessons with Leopold because they still play the exercises and pianists who have a strong historic thread in their teaching in their teaching as well. Who on this list knows who William Thorner was or even Samuel Margolis? People who shaped what we hear in the present and then disappeared. But where did they come from? People without a history are people with ancestors and culture. As a result we don’t know what we’ve lost nor the health of what we have.

But if music historians will not tell the story, others will because the story must be told. From the thousands of Opera Houses in 1900 to the present with 210 professional companies most with no ensemble, pick up orchestras and no repertory, is a measured 98% decline. If that isn’t dying what is? The poor muse is sick and yet everyone is in denial.

Complex Classical Art is dying to most of America except for the upper 2% who consider themselves to have enough for their own needs. It’s time we looked this in the face. You are a young man, I am not. I have no illusions. I don’t have time for illusions and I’ve made my living in the 2% for fifty years and still do. There are answers but there must be discussions beyond blogs and everywhere and most of all there must be an evangelical message about the value of complex Art and what it means if you lose it. Why we are comfortable with an America that is brutish in the world, ignorant of culture and feral? It was David Kay, the U.S. Arms Inspector, who blamed it on American cultural ignorance that we went to war in Iraq. What has the Arts failed at teaching to America’s citizens? First you have to know what you are for and what is your purpose as an Artist in the scheme of things.

I would like to see where he got his numbers, obviously, but what he’s saying isn’t unreasonable (the lack of documentation of phenomena like this in the history books).

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SoundCloud and a new look for the blog

SoundCloud Logo
SoundCloud Logo

So as some of you have noticed, I switched themes for the blog.  I’m not entirely sold on this one, but I wante something with a bit more color but similar functionality to the previous theme.  This was about as close as I could get.  Some things are a bit more clear in this template, but I don’t particularly like that there’s so much space in the header above.  If I ever feel inclined I might go into the template and see if I can’t modify it some, but for now it will suffice.

And Ive been toying around with SoundCloud ever since I noticed it on Tony Woodcock’s recent blog post about Pushing Boundaries.  I’ve noticed it around some sites before but it wasn’t until listening to some of the tracks he had posted by New England Conservatory students (in particular Goodbye Ben Ali by Yasmine Azalez) that I realized how it works.

Basically the track itself becomes a social networking system by allowing folks (who have an account) to make comments at specific points on the track much like how Youtube allows comments to be embedded into the videos now.

The best thing is the ability to  embed the track onto websites individually which makes it much more useful (for me) than the more traditional artist audio sites out there right now.

Continue reading “SoundCloud and a new look for the blog”

“Donors are feeling fatigued by orchestras…”

I wanted to post a quick note linking to Tony Woodcock’s blog post about the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and fundraising woes, Motown Blues.   Some quotes are particularly relevant to the whole issue of Orchestras’ legitimacy:

I have been talking recently with some major donors and leaders prominent in the orchestral world…Donors are feeling fatigued by orchestras – the constant demands, the needs, the on-going and unresolved problems.  They are questioning the role of “orchestra monoliths” whose consumption of a community’s  philanthropic wealth is disproportionate to the value they produce.   They are questioning musicians’ passivity within the symphonic organization and the community when, in fact, it is musician leadership and initiative that will be needed to make real change happen.  They are asking these questions with a degree of serious concern that should make everyone think creatively about relationships, structure, and community for the future. Why? Because these are the investors rethinking their priorities.
[S]ociety has changed….Societal changes present huge challenges to our conservatively held views of what constitutes an orchestra.  We can blame society and national leaders and the media but that’s not going to get us very far.  We are where we are and everything is moving forward with or without us.

We are forever talking about the issue of relevance.  Clearly, the performing arts’ relevance has declined as measured by the sheer drop in attendance figures as well as the arts’ ever more superficial penetration in the community.  But I want to change the term from relevance to legitimacy which presents a much bigger issue. I use “legitimacy” here almost in the political sense of an organization deriving the moral right to exist from the approbation of the people.  So when we consider “legitimacy for the performing arts,” we must ask ourselves the question: Is playing excellently enough?  For too long, we have believed the maxim: “Play well… they will come.”  Doesn’t happen–anymore.  I have been to so many great concerts performed to empty halls.  Legitimacy must be authentic.  It is bestowed, not taken.  It must be re-examined every single year and not taken for granted.  It must address key issues such as why do the majority of people feel increasingly excluded from the arts, and also why do the arts matter?

What may turn out to be a lively discussion about this blog is starting at the Cello Chat forum. Continue reading ““Donors are feeling fatigued by orchestras…””