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Classical Music and Anti-Racism

In school, my conducting mentor continuously pivoted back to the same mantra. “Focus on the process, not the result. Pursuing music is a devotion to lifelong study and self-improvement,” he said.

I find myself revisiting that notion repeatedly as I think about racial injustice and the work classical music must practice to become anti-racist.

Virtually everyone acknowledges that these observations of the field are true:

  1. We have a “diversity problem” in orchestras, conservatories, audiences, boards, and administrative staff.

  2. We largely value the work of European-styled, white composers who lived within a span of 200 years, from 1750 to 1950, over all others.

  3. Our education system, as good as it is, is only set up to propagate professionals who can fulfill the requirements of repertoire from that time period.

Yet we wonder why there’s no diversity in orchestras and why we can’t attract audiences who are diverse in age, race, class, thought, and perspective.

We have the hubris to scoff when classical music is accused of being a subtle, highly trained, and structural bastion of white supremacy. Are we nazis? No. But are we complicit in perpetuating racist structures in our industry? Yes. At least the orchestra that served as a musical mouthpiece of nazism owned it. Largely, though, classical music is slow to admit that it has been –– and this is generous –– passive at embracing modernity.

In his book The End of Early Music, Bruce Haynes argues that the formation of canonic repertoire created an echo chamber that led to the unfortunate decline of the field’s progress. This, he claims, goes back to the mid-20th century, when mass recording took hold and allowed romantic-style repertoire to supersede everything else. Those recordings of romantic-era music were ingrained into the culture of the industry and accepted as a model. As a result, for the past ~70 years, we’ve short-circuited the art form’s evolution and forward movement in favor of replicating what came before us, prioritizing technical advancement over musical. Once it was established, this values system trickled down to conservatories, primary music programs, and beyond.

The historically-informed-performance rebellion of the 1960s and 70s, commonly referred to as performance practice, moved the performing style forward, but the industry’s repertoire did not go along with it. This constriction of repertoire led to diluted concert experiences and musicians being taught to hyper-focus on a small sampling of repertoire and techniques, which resulted in the loss of improvisation, composition, and diversity of thought, presence, and style.

In the context of racial injustice, one can easily project from Hayne’s premise to propose that this also led to our current, racially-sophomoric situation. This stagnancy of performance innovation, dilution of concert experiences, and hyperfocus on esoteric, old repertoire over several decades led to the formation of an exclusive club of highly trained, parochial, white (and some Asian) individuals with mostly mid-to-high socioeconomic backgrounds. Gaining entry into this club became, and continues to be, increasingly financially burdensome, thereby excluding potentially talented individuals who are not predisposed to that group.

Admitting this reality is the first step in classical music’s transformation. There have been statements from some music organizations at least tipping their cap to the idea. Many have even said #BlackLivesMatter. However, statements will not be enough. While obligatory and, frankly, obvious stances are a nice gesture, they fail to recognize the systemic nature of classical music’s issue. In other words, very few, if any, have acknowledged their complicity in white supremacy.

I know the term “white supremacy” is still culturally jarring for many, and I can hear the groans and feel the eyerolls. “I’m not a racist,” the chorus sings. No, you’re probably not, at least consciously. But that doesn’t mean we, as individuals, haven’t all been participants in a racist system. In a recent episode of On Being, the author and trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem articulately reframes the term and issue as “white normalcy.” In other words, white is perceived as “normal.” “Diversity,” therefore, implies divergence from whiteness. Inclusion implies inclusion into whiteness. Both terms center whiteness as the norm.

Applied to classical music, the parallel is clear: European-styled music from 1750-1950 is “normal,” and other music is a divergence. Programming can be inclusive, but it is based on a biased supposition of what is “normal.”

As an adopted Asian child growing up in a 95% white community, I learned how real white normalcy is. At times, I unknowingly whitewashed myself in order to be perceived as “normal” (see: model minority trope). Early in my conducting career, I was warned that orchestras might suspect me of lacking musical expression due to my race, which was code for “be more like white conductors.” Subconsciously, I took this advice to an extreme and for several years found myself moving my hands, arms, and face like Claudio Abbado. By doing so, I even found some success. But it was unsustainable –– I began to lose sight of who I was and why I was pursuing conducting in the first place.

In this context, the various statements of support for racial justice in classical music, ranging from strong to feckless, are unsatisfying. It boils down to this: What evidence warrants my belief in these statements? As individuals, many of the people behind the statements genuinely hope for progress and change. But structural change is different. Structural change can’t be articulated in 50 words on social media. Structural change, in terms of economic theory, is wrought through significant shifts in operation.

Simply putting non-white people on stage, in administration, and on boards, and performing works outside of the European 1750-1950 canon is a good start, but it isn’t enough. Those actions are, shamefully, 75 years late, and they don’t represent structural change. They are incomplete strategies, because they only slightly alter a reality that, for several decades, has been projected to lead to the inevitable decline of the classical music field.

In other words, if those surface-level changes are the only ones we make, we’ll enjoy perceived racial equality for a short time before we experience the inevitable financial insolvency we’ve been headed towards for decades. Structural change will require us to inspect our values and biases, making changes at the individual level, as well as reexamining the purpose of music and how the art form should evolve.

There’s a commonly held idea that classical music was the popular music of the past. That’s a false premise. Classical music didn’t exist. It was just music, and it was popular. Classical music was a term invented in the 20th century to label something that was no longer popular, quite possibly because it only represented a sliver of society.

Why then should we presume that, for example, the public prefers Mozart over something new from a Black composer? The audience we currently engage does, but they largely represent upper class, older, white people, not the general public. The audiences in Beethoven’s time didn’t want to hear Mozart, even knowing how beautiful his music was; they wanted to hear the newest thing of the day. Bach wasn’t heard for 75 years following his death, and evidence suggests he never thought he would be heard outside of his lifetime. Music evolved as an art form, and artists brought audiences with them.

So why, again, do we put a premium on Mozart? Why do we value 200 years of composers over others? And how is doing that not, at best, passively complicit in perpetuating white normalcy?

The argument for such a premium goes like this:

  1. It’s Mozart…

  2. It’s better-crafted than other forms of music.

  3. The (current) audience wants it.

These are all true to some degree. Yes, Mozart is Mozart. He was brilliant, and the innovations of his time period were impressive. And yes, the current audience wants it. Think of it like this: Imagine that we wanted to watch, discuss, and recreate Larry Bird’s games from the 1980s, because he was an incredible basketball player. And we want people to pay us to do that, instead of spending their money to see the NBA play live. Some people may pay to see that. But for most, that premise is preposterous.

How have we landed here?

I believe it’s because we lost sight of who we are and why we pursued this art form to begin with.

Focus on the process, not the result. Pursuing music is a devotion to lifelong study and self-improvement, he said.

We placed individual careers and money over thinking about our art, its progression, and how inclusivity was always the missing piece to connecting to the existing potential audience. Instead of improving upon work of previous generations and allowing the art form to evolve, we have focused on replicating it at a technically advanced, but not human level.

Without intending to, we have ceased being artists and morphed into highly trained, sometimes searingly beautiful, live-action stereos.

Music is music, and it’s universal. It is alive, or at least it should be. Music is not intended to be stuffed on a shelf in a library, checked out, and recited; this practice diminishes its value. Music is about creativity and improvisation, not replication. It embraces the unexplored and inexplicable and encourages self-reflection, and improvement. It pushes the boundary of what is conceivable. It has an innate and unquenchable thirst for new, impossible ideas that require inclusivity.

Before Mozart, no one thought the finale to Act II of Figaro was possible. No one could conceive of Beethoven’s 3rd or 9th Symphonies, the harmonic audacity of Wagner and Debussy, the scale of Mahler, or the Rite of Spring until they happened. All were conjured by people who had not always been “included.”

Where is that feeling of tapping into the impossible in 2020? Where has it been for the past century of classical music”?

In truth, it has always been there, but we successfully ignored it by living exclusively in 1750-1950, which were not the best times for racial equity. Other genres of music did pay attention to that feeling, embraced it, and now rightfully claim themselves as popular.

This duality lies at the heart of our projected financial insolvency, which, should we fail to act, will be our deserving consequence of that inaction.

Statements are the first step, but only the first. We, as individuals and musicians, must reflect on how we came to this moment and our complicity in racial injustice in our lives and chosen field. Simultaneously, we must revisit what we value as a field, the potential of music as an art form, and how we can evolve to mirror society. And, we must improve our practice to include anti-racism.

I can’t tell you what the next stage looks like. Some things we know, and some will have to be discovered. Repertoire expansion and representation on stage and behind the scenes are important steps to take. But those must be backed by meaningful progress. How we get there will look different for every community. It's important that we don’t rush to the end, run through repetitions of uncreative thought, and pat ourselves on the back for “getting through.” We all know how unsatisfying that is in rehearsals.

Getting this right will not be a status, but a state of being. It will be a perpetual practice of study and self- and institutional-improvement in anti-racism. After all, we know as musicians that good practice is the foundation of everything.

Focus on the process, not the result. Pursuing music is a devotion to lifelong study and self-improvement, he said.

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