Author: Shi-An Costello (世 安)

Emotion, Through Music, As Weather

In this article, I will leave emotion ungraspable; I do not wish to speak about it definitively. Rather, I would like to focus personally on the relationship, in my life, between music and emotion, blending these two unique realms into one cohabitating discussion. What is emotion? Singularly, I do not know, but combined with music, I do have some feelings…

The secrets behind emotion have been long sought. In 1962, psychologist Robert Plutchik wrote about emotion that “there is serious question about the reliability and meaningfulness of the verbal report. In the history of psychology, it has been pointed out many times that introspecting about our own emotions often changes them.”[1] The emotional appeal of music has been equally enchanting. In ca. 397 C.E., Saint Augustine wrote, “I must testify for myself that when I am moved more by the music than by its meaning, I feel this offense should be punished, and wish I had not listened to the cantor […] But you, Lord my God, hear me, heed, look on with pity, and heal me, before whom I am made a riddle to myself, which is the symptom of my sins.”[2]

And finally, in 2008, scientist Daniel Levitin embraced mystery in his explanation of music:

Scientists are in the business of wanting proof for everything, and I find myself caught somewhere in the metaphorical middle on this issue. As a musician, I’m reminded on a daily basis of the utterly ineffable, indescribable powers of music. […] Our scientific theories have to be able to reconcile this common experience and the strong intuition that music is—dare I say it?—magical.[3]

Emotion—a thing that Robert Plutchik found impossible to scientifically report—is expressed through music in a way that a daring Daniel Levitin called “magical,” and what a conflicted Saint Augustine called a “riddle.” Perhaps “magical” “riddle” is a good working definition for emotion in music. Like Levitin and Augustine, I am baffled too.

Perhaps “magical” “riddle” is a good working definition for emotion in music.

In the 1970s, composer John Cage used the weather to describe artistic process, observing that “many composers no longer make musical structures.  Instead, they set processes going.  A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.”[4] Like Cage’s use of this creative and non-technical definition, I will similarly use the weather as a way to discuss emotion expressed through music. This article will move like weather. And like a forecast, I hope to address what swirls around.[5]

Swirling air represents the meeting of diverse parts. Robert Plutchik acknowledged that there is a difference between “laboratory studies of pure, momentary emotions” and the “persistent mixed emotions of clinical experience.”[6] That is to say, the real-world application of emotion deals primarily in mixtures of emotions, rather than single, pure ones. Weather on Earth is complex, too: a mixing of cold and warm fronts, rainy on some days, stormy on others, partially rainy, partially stormy, partially cloudy, or partially sunny on others still. And there is no piece of music that is all any one emotion either. Good memories can be rendered only partially good through the loss of innocence; many find a deep comfort and contentment in feeling sadness. Emotion in music is an array of moving parts.

Like weather, emotions in music swirl wildly around. As disorienting as this whirlwind may be, we must never forget how fortunate we are to have the skies, the clouds, rain, thunder, lightning, and most importantly, the sun. The sustaining love of the sun is, after all, what makes all of this possible.

Nebulous as my approach may be, I hope this discussion will enrich our understanding of music, emotion, and our own selves. While I do not claim to hold technical qualifications to discuss the weather or emotional psychology, I do intend to write from my own experience, with sincerity and imagination. In the following sections, I will attempt to bring emotions to life, expressed in music, and retold as weather.

Clouds (Sadness)


Image: Mila Young

Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.

Clouds can weigh you down: clouds can make you question the existence of the sun. When I was finishing grad school abroad, I received news from back home that my parents were divorcing. I went into a state of depression. I remember going to the practice room, taking scores out of my bag, placing them on the piano, closing the lid, resting head on my arm, and crying on my own shoulder. I would cry for hours, then pack up and leave, never touching a single key of the piano. I ended up having to reschedule my final degree recital, which in turn (through a string of incidents that would take too much space to describe), led me to an unexpected move back to the United States…

Clouds can make you question the existence of the sun.

…but clouds can also give you focus: clouds can give you a reason to not lay in the sun. When I moved back to the United States, I was left without a job, without a place to live, and without work. I was still paying rent for an apartment overseas that I was not living in, and I was struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship. I was deeply saddened by the circumstances. But, I met this dark time with fearless abandon, playing as many concerts as possible, and working tirelessly to rebuild my career in a new country. My own disenfranchisement fueled my desire to succeed.

Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.

Rain (Tears)

A cloud in the sky can lead to rain. But tears are not just a singular cause-effect; rather, it is the grand accumulation of weight that becomes simply too heavy for a cloud to hold.

I remember the first time I heard my mother sing. She sang “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. I played the chords at the piano while she sang and played the melody with her right hand next to me. I was giving her a piano lesson, and I didn’t specifically ask her to sing, she just did it on her own. My mother brought me to tears because it was a rare joy to hear her shy, untrained voice sing without the least sense of self-consciousness. The song will never again be the same to me.

Rain is a fundamental process to the recycling of the vital element of water. Although rain is the losing of something, we need it to live.

Lightning (Shock)


Image: Elijah Hiett

Often before rain is the initial shock of lightning. The electricity of a storm is stunning—when it strikes, we are unable to do anything to counter its intensity. We can’t run towards, nor away, from lightning. Shock is the arrestation of movement, it is a primal reaction to first contact with something mysterious, powerful, and possibly dangerous.

The memory of a performance of a piece I wrote, called Accord, affected me deeply. At the first massive, crashing tone cluster that interrupts the sound of a tuning violin, I witnessed a gut reaction from an audience member in the front row. The listener’s arms, shoulders, and legs seized up, and the head pulled back as the neck tightened. The hands shot up reflexively towards the ears to cover them…

I immediately felt guilt and remorse. I was responsible for this lightning strike. I wrote this gesture in hopes that it would grab people’s attention—and I succeeded—but at what cost? As an emerging composer, I had often strived to grab attention as quickly as possible, and at any cost. It is the treasure hunt for the loudest, fastest, most terrific possible sound. (Or similarly, the softest, slowest one.)

But in this treasure hunt for the most shocking sound, I inadvertently flipped a sonic middle finger to the audience member. Did this terrifying and anxiety-inducing sound make this person into a fan of my music, or new music in general? It is doubtful.

Shock is a powerful element, and it should be used wisely and cautiously.

Shock is a powerful element, and it should be used wisely and cautiously. After seeing what my music had done to someone, I vowed to strive to genuinely affect listeners for the better, rather than to use shock as a ploy to garner attention at a most hollow, visceral level.

Storm (Anger)


Image: Michal Mancewicz

If lightning is the initial shock of potentially dangerous force, then the storm is the realization of that force. The storm is violent and intimidating. The storm is rain in excess.

Anger is a fleeting sensation that can be understood and referenced, but not used as a building block.

But there is little for me to say about storms in and of themselves: I have never used anger as a motivator in listening to or playing music. I personally find within me very little creativity that is fueled by anger. For me, anger is not a profound and sustaining enough emotion to fulfill me expressively as an artist. It is a fleeting sensation that can be understood and referenced, but not used as a building block. Anger is real, but for me, it must ultimately lead to something proud, hopeful, and ecstatic. This is the art I seek. The glorious arrival at “The Great Gate of Kiev” after “Baba Yaga” in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The “Cheerful and Thankful Feelings After the Storm” in the final movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The way Nina Simone completes the second half of the song “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life.” Anger should not go unacknowledged, but it should also be overcome with something more hopeful, peaceful, and productive.

Tornado (Disorientation)

A tornado takes the land and blows it about. A tornado is disorienting, but it can also create bliss.

I, in fact, take pleasure when I am unable to identify the key center, the meter, or the exact instrumentation of a piece of music: Since my career in music relies upon my ability to identify the aspects of music as quickly and efficiently as possible, the moments where I simply do not know give me great joy.

On one occasion, I saw this same joy in a six-year-old student who was having trouble identifying the note A on the keyboard. The student, whom I will call Lance, started on C and counted out loud up the C major scale. “C, D, E, F, G…” And when Lance reached G, he would accidentally go on to “H” and then “I” and then “J.” I stopped him just before the note E became an “L” and told him that the notes on the keyboard reset at “G,” that the next note after “G” is “A.” Perhaps I explained it poorly the first time, because when Lance tried again, he made the same exact mistake, and again, I corrected him. I wanted to let him try as many times as he needed to get it right, but Lance would get it wrong over and over again, always going from “G” to “H” to “I” to “J.” After about 15 minutes of this, I became nervous that Lance would become frustrated with his failures. But he did not. Instead, he grew happier with each try. There was something comforting to his realizing that there were such mysteries that enchant the keyboard of the piano, that after “G” some “magical riddle” occurs, leaving him in a state of wonder. Eventually, I’m sure Lance will learn to not be disoriented by the challenge of moving from “G” back to “A.” And when he does, I hope he finds a new mystery from which to achieve bliss.

Clear Skies (Innocent Love)


Image: Crawford Ifland

I know now that the color blue in the sky is a refraction of the sun’s rays on the dust in our atmosphere. A clear day is really not clear at all—it never was. But I still have the memory of thinking how open and free the world is on a clear day.

The version of Western music that I learned, both academically and casually, was rooted in the glorification of great men, and in my youth, I fell to this template’s allure. I idolized the music of Great Men, and truly, with all my heart, believed they were better-than-human: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Wagner, Prokofiev, Morton Feldman. But, upon closer examination, Bach sounded like a neglectful husband, Mozart seemed like a dysfunctional man-child, Chopin seemed like a caustic friend; Schumann seemed mentally ill, Wagner seemed anti-semitic, and Prokofiev seemed unnecessarily mean-spirited. And, based on some recent allegations, Morton Feldman seemed to be a sexual predator. Evidence shows that all of them were people, for better or worse.

While not a note of their music has changed, the innocent love I once had for these brilliant musical minds can never be regained. My personal overcast—clouds saturated with the knowledge and wisdom of life—have now permanently shrouded the music, re-painting the images of these fallen heroes into a murkier, more realistic, shade of humanity. It is sobering to realize the skies are no longer clear, and that they perhaps never were.

Certainly, Lance can be a lesson to us: While knowledge is power, there is still great bliss in not knowing. Ignorant, innocent love is indeed powerful. But ignorance and innocence are meant to be lost. My perspective on my innocent love is so different from the emotion as I remember it. Now, my past is viewed with the special lens a more informed perspective affords. But my pure feelings of love in the past were important, and they still travel with me.

Innocent love is a type of love you can only have once, and I am thankful for the formative memories it gave me.

The Sun (Sustaining Love)

I love the sun. The warmth of the sun is essential, and we must always acknowledge this. No matter the weather, we rely on the warmth of the sun to survive. The sun is a sustaining love.

Contemporary music sustains me in a different way: primarily, it fulfills my personal need for adventure.

My sustaining loves in music are only a handful of composers: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, Schumann, and just individual pieces of Schubert, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and a few others. Contemporary music sustains me in a different way: primarily, it fulfills my personal need for adventure.

As I grow out of innocent love, I am starting to really see the true loves for who they are. Some innocent loves are not sustainable—a bright street light is no star. But, many of the musical loves that sustain me now were once innocent loves too: Not all innocent love is ignorant.

The sun is the mightiest source of inspiration. No matter the weather, we can always say, “Thank goodness for the sun.” And thank goodness for emotions. And thank goodness for music.

Rain (Tears) continued

rain with doll

Image: Rhendi Rukmana

Briefly revisiting the rain, I would like to highlight some of the musical moments in my life that have brought me to tears—a necessary physical overload of emotion.

There are so many more that have faded with time. But, at least the ones I remember can be recorded. There is a beautiful, sustaining love that runs through all of these memories—perhaps this is why I remember them, and perhaps this is why they made me cry.

  • The first time I ever heard an orchestra live: An open rehearsal of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier
  • The funeral service for my childhood friend, Shumie, who committed suicide. I do remember music, but I don’t remember what it was.
  • I was taking a piano lesson with my teacher in grad school, and had just broken up with my significant other.
  • I was in a practice room, playing a section of Jerome Kitzke’s Sunflower Sutra. It was the section titled “Canticle for Mary.”
  • After finishing the first run-through of my debut album, Rounded Binary.
  • The first time I heard my mother sing, singing “Across the Universe” by The Beatles.
  • Later, in private, after playing for my fiancee’s mother who was dying of cancer. We played and sang “Let It Be” by The Beatles.

…I have just said the unspeakable. I have shared my deepest emotions with a general public. Does this make you uncomfortable? Why? Are we, as a culture of humans, unable to plainly and unapologetically articulate our emotions with one another? Within the arts, the domain charged with expressing the beauty in humanity, why is this such a challenge? What is this barrier, and why is it there?


still lake

Image: Dmitry Ermakov

How and why were the sun and the stars in the sky created; how and why are emotions and music what they are? One cannot answer this without asking a more fundamental question about the origin and purpose of human existence. According to Aristotle, “the soul” is “one of the hardest things to gain any conviction about.”[7] Charles Darwin felt that in studying human expression, “close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.”[8] To Oscar Wilde, “The final mystery is oneself.”[9] The list of brilliant people who were baffled by their own self is long…

The further I discuss this, the more I am baffled by the mystery of emotion, and by humanity itself. There are really no words: while experientially known, these subjects are uniquely ungraspable through discourse. So then, we must be content with beauty that is imprecise—the beauty of weather, the beauty of emotion, and the beauty of the whole of humanity—and humbly appreciate that music can in some ways express it.

1. The Emotions, by Robert Plutchik.

2. Confessions, by Saint Augustine.

3. The World in Six Songs, by Daniel Levitin.

4. In Empty Words, John Cage writes, “Many composers no longer make musical structures.  Instead they set processes going.  A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.  In the case of a table, the beginning and end of the whole and each of its parts are known.  In the case of weather, though we notice changes in it, we have no clear knowledge of its beginning or ending.  At a given moment, we are where we are.  The now moment.”

5. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed writes, “Emotions don’t make the world go round. But they do in some sense go round.”

6. The Emotions.

7. In De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle writes, “In general, and in all ways, it is one of the hardest of things to gain any conviction about the soul.”

8. In The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin writes, “The study of Expression is difficult […] When we witness any deep emotion, our sympathy is so strongly excited, that close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.”

9. De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde.

Orientalism in American Classical Music

I’m rebellious, I’m hardworking, I’m obsessive, I’m competitive, I’m solitary, I’m sporty, I’m cerebral, and I’m passionate. These characteristics are the top reasons why I self-identify as a classical musician—these particular character traits make me highly compatible with the classical music profession. However, these adjectives aside, what I fail to mention is that I am visually perceived to be of East Asian descent. This descriptor, often conjured by others without a prompt of my own, resurfaces in association to my identity as a classical musician in the United States, over and over and over and over and over again. Being of East Asian descent bizarrely “explains” to people why I am a classical musician, usually at the expense of overlooking the personality traits that form my identity, and thus my profound compatibility with classical music. After 30 years of shrugging off this racialized identity, I feel it is finally time for me to address what I’ve grown accustomed to when making classical music while East Asian.

Being of East Asian descent bizarrely “explains” to people why I am a classical musician.

Simply put, my perceived Asianness is a reproduction of Orientalism. In this article, I will focus on three statements in particular that reproduce Orientalism upon my body, here in the West: 1) otherizing excellence (“The Chinese play with such discipline…it’s like a martial art to you.”), 2) obsessive focus on technical precision (“Oh my, you have great technique!”), and 3) marking otherness as a collaborative quality (“Our ensemble is not that white, because we have you.”).

In this article, I will be reading the three Orientalist statements specifically within U.S. classical music. This is not to say that comments like these do not occur in contexts outside of classical music—they indeed apply on a much larger scale. But since American classical music is where I have come to intimately know these types of comments, I will limit my focus to this scene.

Firstly, we must understand Orientalism as a historically racist, colonialist ideology; Orientalism as it manifests in 2017 is naive at best, racist and neo-colonial at worst. In the groundbreaking 1970 book Orientalism, Edward Said disarmingly defines “the Orient,” positioning it necessarily within a duality that ultimately has little to do with the Orient itself:

Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident.” Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on. […] The value, efficacy, strength, apparent veracity of a written statement about the Orient […] relies very little, and cannot instrumentally depend, on the Orient […] Thus all of Orientalism stands forth and away from the Orient: that Orientalism makes sense at all depends more on the West than on the Orient, and this sense is directly indebted to various Western techniques of representation that make the Orient visible, clear, ‘there’ in discourse about it. [emphasis mine]

With Orientalism defined, let’s now address each of the following statements individually and explain why they are harmful reproductions of Orientalism.

Statement #1: “The Chinese play with such discipline…it’s like a martial art to you.” When a person makes this statement, it is not intended to start a conversation about martial art. Martial art is an East Asian activity considered exotic in the West, and it is conjured precisely because it is exotically viewed. The exoticization of a commonplace human characteristic is an Orientalist notion, and like Orientalism, explains nothing about the exoticizable identity (Chinese people, martial artists) nor the exoticized element (discipline). Although discipline is indeed a desirable quality for a classical musician, this statement says nothing about discipline nor classical musicians. What it does manage to express, is two unrelated observations: 1) I notice that you are a classical musician, and 2) I notice that you are Chinese.

Statement #2: “Oh my, you have great technique!” (Great) technique is desired by all classical musicians. But, as Pablo Casals puts it, “the most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all.” When a person states that my technique is good, as the sole observation of my playing, it puts focus on the very thing that is only good if you do not have to focus on it. Although the racial element of this comment is often not explicit, it nevertheless conjures the stereotype of a submissive Asian classical music student, exhibiting technical excellence while differing to a Western master for interpretative guidance. The prototypical manifestation of this particular type of Orientalism is the documentary film From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China (1979). In the film, violinist Isaac Stern, director Murray Lerner, and executive producer Walter Scheuer portray the Chinese classical music students as diligent, hard working, but ultimately incapable of grasping the profound essence of classical music without brief, shallow contact with a Western master. Telling enough is the most upvoted user submission on the film’s IMDb page: “scgary66” remarks on the “lack of skill development among many of the young [Chinese] musicians and the emphasis on technical skill rather than artistic interpretation.” “Scgary66” in fact proves my point: sole focus on technique, even as a compliment, diminishes the achievements of artistic interpretation. It begs the question, is it the Chinese that are focusing on technique over interpretation, or Western people in their Orientalist views of the East?

Statement #3: “Our ensemble is not that white, because we have you.” While facing occasional discrimination from stereotyping within classical music, I also have been valued for being a classical musician “of color.” This is a unique form of Orientalism because it reflects an incentive for American classical music organizations to obtain monetary funding, as well as social capital, through “achieving” racial “diversity.” I find comments of this type linked directly to multiculturalism as a prevalent, unquestioned ideology within classical music.[1] As a BIPoC, I can by no means solely represent the multitude of black, brown, and indigenous peoples that comprise this mark of identity. However, when I am valued simply for being of color (“Our ensemble isn’t that white, because we have you”), most often acting as the only person of color, I am asked to play an impossible role. This is an oversimplification of identity, and oversimplification is a form of erasure.

More broadly, the biggest flaw of valuing my otherness, whether it is about my “discipline” or “technique” or apparent affinity for “kung fu,” is that it reasserts the flawed notion, in the first place, of my otherness. I was born and raised in the United States. I’ve never been to China and I don’t speak Chinese fluently. Given my background, you can imagine the confusion, annoyance, and anger when confronted with such racially motivated comments.

Recall the things that do define my identity in classical music: rebellious, hardworking, obsessive, competitive, solitary, sporty, cerebral, and passionate. What do these words have to do with race? Not much. Does this mean race has nothing to do with my identity in classical music? Not necessarily. Each racial minority, and each person within each minority, has to come to terms with that question individually.

rwy crosshatch

Acknowledging racism in the U.S. past and present, I often struggle to not let this weigh down on my soul. But part of staying mentally healthy as a person of color in a predominantly white profession is to avoid the denial of ugly truths. The perpetuation of Orientalism is alive and well in U.S. classical music circles—whether it is through an Orientalizing of musical talent, fixating on technique, or nuanced manifestations under multiculturalism—and it needs to stop. These modern iterations of Orientalism, though slight, enable fundamental, mainstream racist practices to continue within the American classical music scene, distracting from the profound emotional and spiritual potential of the art form.

I love classical music and I love being a classical musician. The notion of race does not enable this love (as the Asian stereotype suggests), it only distracts from it. The same way I pity the audience member who can’t see anything but my (Oriental) “technique,” my (Oriental) “discipline” or my (Oriental) “affinity for kung fu” after a 2.5 hour solo piano recital of Western classical music, or the chamber partner disillusioned by multiculturalism who values me for my vague otherness, I pity any American who can’t see past their own racism to truly appreciate music.

Amongst the brutality of racism in the United States, Orientalism in classical music is a relatively small bone to pick. Nonetheless, the subtleties of this unique form of racialization help us better understand the systemic tendencies that favor white people at the expense of those who are not white. This is not meant to create divisions between white and non-white classical musicians, or white and non-white people in general, but rather to acknowledge that Orientalism, and any other similar, xenophobic ideology, has already created these divisions.

The aim of this article was simply to educate, or to borrow Paulo Freire’s term conscientização, to raise consciousness. The more conscious we are of our words and actions, the more likely we are to replace them with more humanizing gestures, in hopes of a kinder, more tolerant world.

1. I define multiculturalism as a dominant ideology that enables contemporary manifestations of Orientalism. There is nothing inherently wrong with the celebration of multiple cultures, as a literal reading of the word suggests. However, multiculturalism as a dominant, largely unquestioned ideology is problematic. In other words, it is good to be multicultural, but problematic to support multiculturalism. Multiculturalism in arts organizations is a mechanism through which racism plays out in classical music. Competing for resources (funding, audiences), American arts organizations are keenly aware of the importance of exhibiting an affinity for diversity and inclusion as concepts. However, though well intentioned, the way in which these concepts are “achieved” is deeply flawed.

Shi An Costello

Shi An Costello

Shi An Costello (世安) is a classical pianist, composer, writer, actor, and activist. They regularly write and report for Family Court Nightmares and the media/communications team at Asian Americans for Advancing Justice-Chicago; they have contributed articles to FOCI Arts, chicshifter, Riksha, and Performance Response Journal on the topics of economy, fashion, and the intersections of race and gender. As a writer, Shi An is interested in articulating politics, activism, and law as performance. As a musician, Shi An is currently on the piano faculty of New Music School in Chicago. They regularly perform in both solo and chamber settings across North America. They hold a B.M. from Columbia College magna cum laude, and an M.Mus from Schulich School of Music at McGill University. Shi An served as a visiting artist in the composition department of Boston Conservatory from 2013-14 and has run the Morton Feldman Chamber Players since 2014. His solo debut CD will be released with Blue Griffin Records in the fall of 2017, featuring preludes and fugues of J.S. Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich.