Cultural Diversity and the Arts in America

I’ve just re-read Robert Garfias public policy piece, Cultural Diversity and the Arts in America (1989), and still find it a fascinating and prescient read.  I had first come across Garfias’ work through another paper he had written (1981), but the former resonated very much with what I’ve been researching and blogging about lately.

And while many of the things he called regarding arts institutions in this country haven’t really changed, what has changed is the proactive stance many ethnic minorities have taken with regards to their own arts.  This paragraph in particular could have been taken out of my own life story growing up here in the states:

The reasons are complex, but in essence for these new immigrants, the environment has initially appeared very hostile. At almost every furtive foray into the larger unknown territory, their initial perception has been further reinforced. Everything they see around them appears to reject who they are.  The contrast between the comfortable support of their community and the hostility and lack of acceptance on the outside makes all but the very necessary excursion into the exterior uninviting.  Our concert halls, museums and galleries which for us represent an aspect of our lives which we deeply cherish and need, reflect for these large communities of immigrants, even more pointedly, the very same hostility and unwelcomeness which they experience when they must venture out.  Here, even more so, our art institutions seem to say that “you must belong here to enter” and “you must know what you are doing here”.  For these new immigrants and a good number of other diverse ethnic groups in America there is little or no incentive to meet this challenge.  To them our open doors appear as tightly shut as ever.  The apparent hostility of our arts institutions to the non initiated is, most unfortunately, something vividly clear to those outside and at the same time something unimaginable to those working within the institutional network structure.

In the end, I did opt for assimilation into the dominant arts culture which was made all the easier as I didn’t have a large community of Thais in the area.

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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!

Too many (classical) musicians?

Eric wrote a probing and insightful post questioning the often mentioned mantra (by the Classical Music doomsayers camp) that there are just far too many musicians being pumped out by the University system (at least in the states) to be sustained by the shrinking classical music job market.  I know that in the past I’ve said similar things myself though often with some very specific qualifications. 

I responded on Eric’s blog with many of those qualifications explicitely laid out, so thought I would post that here as it’s a good enough synopsis of my viewpoints regarding the issue.

I recall having a discussion regarding this with Greg Sandow some time ago on his blog. The whole issue of “being a musician” and the general lack of opportunities, regardless of whether the climate was better in the past or just as problematic in its own way, boils down (for me at least) to what exactly does it mean to be a musician?

I mean, obviously this is supposed to mean something along the lines of being someone who enjoys playing music (or to follow along your lines–someone who has to play music).

But sometimes that seems to be at odds with the whole idea of making money, or at least making a comfortable living doing music. I’m almost reading your post as an apology for being one of those folks who just don’t have any choice but to be a musician. Not that I necessarily disagree, it’s just that sometimes the rationale behind assuming that role of musician (at least here in the states) means not worrying about whether or not you can make a living doing it–to the point that it’s almost seen as a bad thing to do so.

And you hear this from pop musicians as well, so it’s not something only classical musicians (not that all feel this way) do–you know, hearing things like “I’m doing it for art’s sake” or “cover bands are only in it for the money, but musicians making original music are doing it for themselves”–things like that.

I find this to be a particularly Western phenomenon and can be traced at least as far back as the romantic bohemian idealism that also has that other trope of the “starving artist”–but it’s not as prevalent a viewpoint (though that is starting to change with Westernization) of other cultures. And not that other cultures haven’t had a similar lack of respect for [certain groups of] musicians. The Rom of Eastern Europe and Rembitika of Greece come to mind immediately.

I guess my point is–and it was something I was implicitly stating in my recent blog post–there are far more opportunities out there than most of us not-so-entrepreneurially-inclined-folk realize. It’s just up to us to find them and, well, “exploit” them.

I guess that’s why I blog so much about underserved audiences–because it’s not that there aren’t enough musicians out there to play music–in face, there are probably too many as you and everyone else is stating. But the demand for music from these audiences should be more than enough to start filling some plates (pun intended). Hell, I still have to turn down nearly as many shows as I accept–have been doing that for the past few years despite the so-called recession and some folks’ stating (e.g. Greg Sandow) that even freelance musicians are having a hard time finding work (which makes me wonder what freelancers in New York are doing to get gigs).

But going back to what I said on Greg’s blog (and I’m too lazy to go find the post) it had very much to do with how we define ourselves as musicians. I think I gave an example to the effect of, well–if I view myself (my role) as being that of an orchestral cellist (or even classical cellist) then sure, there are diminishing opportunities for me in this depressed market. On the other hand, if I view myself as a musician, who just happens to be able to play the cello (amongst other instruments including my voice) well, there’s a whole world of opportunities to be had.

I guess I shouldn’t complain too much–as long as cellists and classically trained musicians accept a narrow role of what they mean by being a musician, that just means more work for me! :D

Obviously this is a simplified statement of my position and there are other considerations to be included in the discussion.  Talk about younger and more adventurous musicians finding work despite the environment must be balanced against the idea of having some measure of security with regards to benefits and pensions that musicians in the orthodox institutions have come to expect and be concerned about.

As the discussions about the Classical Music environment in the US gets more nuanced now that we’ve gotten used to the idea that Orchestras just might not be as long-lasting an institution we thought they would (or should be) given the recent bankruptcies and closures of American Orchestras I’m curious to see how many folks will start to question some of the fundamental assumptions of what seems to be a Eurocentric view (either con or pro) on the preservation of arts.

As I’ve been blogging a bit about the so-called “non-Western Art Ensembles” situation in the US I think it can be easy to see the field of art music in the US focuses on the dominant genres favored by the dominant ethnic majorities (same for the pop music industry).  So I guess the question, for me, is why should the US as a culture support one kind of art music over another?  And by support, I mean everything from ticket sales to government funding (which is negligible here) to private and corporate subsidies and donations.

I wouldn’t go as far as, say, Joe Horowitz does, but as we can see from this brief history of Symphony Orchestras in the US there had been this impetus for creating full-time Orchestras to compete in the post WWII culture wars.  I just think now there’s a different kind of culture war happening on US soil that has next to nothing to do with a battle between Classical/Pop as so many of the Classical Music doomsayers would have it described and I guess part of my understanding of this has as much to do with my activity in those not-so-classically oriented music fields as I talk a little bit about in my quote above!

Final Count: 8,263

il Troubadore playing Klingon Opera and Sci-Fi themed tunes during the Sci-Fi Day Celebration at the Indianapolis Children's Museum "Incredible Costumes From Film and TV" exhibit on March 26, 2011

That was the official number of paying patrons that attended the Sci-Fi Day Celebration at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis that I performed at this past Saturday.  Granted, the performance was just a small part of the total event and there were many activities for the patrons to participate in–the Frog Prince play; all the wandering folks/fans in full costume with all the concomitant photo opps; and the raison d’etre itself–the Incredible Costumes From Film & TV exhibit itself.

So no, most of the folks there didn’t come to hear il Troubadore play tlhIgan QoQ (Klingon music)–not most of them anyway–they were there for the total experience that Eric Edberg and Greg Sandow are talking about here and here.  And while I have some misgivings about that issue that I commented about here there’s a different issue I’d eventually like to blog about relating to what we might call an audience development issue that I was reminded of regarding the whole “Pop vs Classical” [non] issue that was being discussed in Greg’s blog.

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Quick news bite and thoughts about binaries

il Troubadore at the Greek Islands Hafla on 17 March 2011 (photo by Kat Hill)

Just got back home from the show–the Indianapolis gigs are a good two hours drive (give or take 30 minutes for stops for coffee).  So many interesting things to share/talk about but don’t have the time as I head to Bloomington, Indiana (home to the renowned Jacobs School of Music) to play another show with my Balkan group.  Still deciding if I have time to get to this month’s GLMTA (Greater Louisville Music Teacher’s Association) meeting in the morning (urm–later this morning) but also have to go pick up a part for Hello Dolly which I’ll be playing in the pit for in April.

Still been having tons of thoughts about the economics of underserved audiences, and a recent discussion at Greg Sandow’s blog really had me thinking aloud on the drive up to the show last night.  Fortunately the wife is finishing her MBA so I got to bounce some ideas about the economics of music(s) off of her.  See, the discussion–as you can tell from the post and responses–frames the issue of Classical Music versus Pop music as a classical binary opposition that gets collapsed into a false dichotomy.  Basically, that’s the problem with binary oppositions in that they often get treated as binary distinctions, which are a different kind of logical animal altogether.

Continue reading “Quick news bite and thoughts about binaries”