Tag: racism

Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy

A pair of eyeglasses and a pen on top of pages of music notation.

The musical case against rap is that in my view and the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody, and there is rhythm. And rap only fulfills one of these—the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, it is basically, effectively, spoken rhythm. And so it’s not actually a form of music, it’s a form of rhythmic speaking. And thus, so beyond the subjectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is it’s not music. (Ben Shapiro, 9/15/19)

During a recent episode of The Ben Shapiro Show Sunday Special, Shapiro invoked the authority of his “music theorist” father who went to “music school,” in order to dispel, in seemingly objective, fact-based fashion, the idea that rap is music. Shapiro’s criteria for what qualifies as music is absurd and his assertion that rap fails to meet this criteria is likewise absurd—but this is largely beside the point. The objective of these bad faith arguments isn’t necessarily to win or lose, but rather to perpetuate the notion that rap-as-music merits debate. Even entertaining the question undermines the legitimacy of rap by setting it apart from other musical styles about which we couldn’t imagine having such conversations.

We must reject Shapiro’s attempt to leverage the prestige of academia to do his dirty work for him. At the same time, we must consider the implications of his appeal to music theory. Shapiro wants us to focus on what music theory and music school suggest about rap-as-music—we should instead ask what his invocation of these institutions suggests about music theory pedagogy. Within these institutions, what do we learn about who and what is valued, and why?

Although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to Western art music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles.

Western art music is not a universal language. It does some things well, other things not as well, and many things not at all. And yet, although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to this style of music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles. Given this disconnect, how can we justify our near-exclusive reliance on traditional pedagogy, especially in situations where it isn’t necessary to do so? What biases do we create in our students when we declare Western art music to be mandatory knowledge for anyone pursuing formal studies in music? What biases does this reveal in us?

Let’s start with names.

Names create hierarchy. A course title like Music Theory 1: Diatonic Harmony explicitly designates harmony as the most important element of the course. Nor is this harmony in the general sense, but harmony specific to Western art music. There’s a real danger of elision, whether in perception or practice, so that music theory becomes just about harmony. Discussions of melody often come folded into larger discussions of harmony. The standard textbooks, despite grand gestures towards complete, everything-you-need-to-know musicianship, devote almost no attention to rhythm, beyond strict issues of notation. Other critically important musical elements, such as improvisation, timbre, and post-production, fail to make any meaningful appearance. This unwarranted prioritization of harmony as the essence, if not the totality, of the music theory core curriculum shapes the reality of what, within academia, is considered music, or at least music worth studying.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A myopic focus on Western art music severely distorts what music is and what music can be. The standard pedagogy relies on a value system whose metrics are based on subjective preferences but passed off as objective truths. Western art music is declared, without adequate justification, to be the necessary tool for understanding music at the most fundamental level. The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top, until recently considered the only music that merited institutionalization, perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

These are decisions made by people, no matter how compellingly they’re framed as divine decrees or natural phenomena, no matter how long-standing their historical pedigree. Teaching Western art music without acknowledging issues of canon-formation, cultural colonization, exclusion, and erasure ensures that these problems will continue. We are not exempt from interrogating the standard theory pedagogy, nor are we absolved from blame when we choose not to. The emergence of new musical styles and new technologies of music production are inconsequential—Western art music continues to be prioritized at the expense of all other modes of music creation. We need to understand this unwarranted privileging within the context of white supremacy.

White supremacy is the systemic centering of whiteness. It builds on an incorrect assumption of white racial superiority and functions to uphold white privilege. Whiteness is defined as the standard against which and on whose terms all others are measured and invariably fall short. When white is designated as normal, those who are not white are forever deemed not normal, no matter how hard they work or what they accomplish. Restricting the definition of white supremacy to a collection of bigoted individuals overlooks the myriad ways that institutionalized power in this country, whether social, political, legal, economic, or cultural, reinforces the primacy of whiteness.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral. The only reason Western art music is the benchmark by which other styles are validated or repudiated is because whites made it so. When Beyonce’s triads are as legitimate as Beethoven’s, reproducing without critique a system that excludes black music from the basic theory sequence is a political choice. This denial of the legitimacy of black music contributes to the ongoing denial of the legitimacy of black people. Injustice unchecked remains injustice.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach. Students need a broad musical foundation to prepare for advanced studies in the particular styles relevant to their interests and projected career paths. An antiracist approach to music theory recognizes that Western art music is not the pinnacle of human achievement, but simply one among many equally valid forms of artistic musical expression.

The stylistic evolution of any language depends on whose voices are seen as legitimate, on who is allowed to participate. That many of us have only recently become aware of just how pronounced the disparities in representation are within music theory testifies to the extent we have internalized the biases behind them. We who are white, who hold a disproportionate number of jobs in academia, tend not to notice whiteness because it is what we expect to find. This is a problem. Our condemnation of Ben Shapiro’s racist words does not absolve us of our own participation in and perpetuation of a racist pedagogy that normalizes whiteness. We must divest ourselves of the false conception that music can exist in a vacuum, devoid of context, independent of the people and the processes integral to its production. We must do better.

Western art music is not a universal language.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach.

As educators, we must be able to speak not just about what we teach, but also about why we teach it. We must ask ourselves who benefits from the current system, and who is harmed by it. A diverse student population in the classroom is not a prerequisite for concern about diverse student experience. Education is never politically neutral. As teachers and as students, as mentors and as mentees, our job is to question, to engage, to grow. We must all participate in our own education. We must all point out the ways that inequality and oppression manifest in what is presented as objective truth. The way things are is not the same as the way things have to be. We are each accountable for disrupting this narrative.

This is the first in a two-part series. The second essay will provide resources and suggestions for ways that we can begin incorporating justice initiatives into our music theory pedagogy.

Am I Not a Minority?

Hands on a piano, with a heart tattoo on the left hand.


Contemporary classical music is a field overrun with socially conscious and politically liberal musicians. Moreso, the community pays great attention to the need to increase diversity for minority composers, but do people of color see those benefits? If musicians today put so much effort into increasing diversity in their programming, then why are there so few composers of color? While white minority composers see progress, people of color are left behind.

The field of Western classical music as an institution suppresses Black and brown voices while utilizing tokenism to prevent public outcry and protest.

The Problem: Western Classical Music is Rooted in White Supremacy

This article isn’t just about me. I’m not asking for personal inclusion in a field of exclusivity. Instead, I’m hoping to use my experiences as a victim of racism to highlight the fundamental institutional abuses Western classical musicians sanction on composers of color.

The fact that this field needs greater diversity is no secret. Many prominent new music organizations express a yearning for more works by minority composers. But composers of color still face significant barriers in our careers despite the overwhelming public calls for good will.

This irony might seem baffling, but Western classical music’s history of white supremacy is so deeply entrenched within the institution that increased visibility will not be effective in liberating all minority composers. Instead, a complete restructuring of how we as contemporary classical musicians view classical music is necessary.

With this article, I express nothing new. Instead, I add my account of racist experience into the ever-growing library of minority musicians who have written similar accounts to how they perceived and reacted to their own oppressions within the field of classical music.

Western classical music’s history of white supremacy is so deeply entrenched within the institution.

Artists such as Anthony Green, whose article “What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers” provides a clear example of how new music communities continue to discourage Black composers from gaining stability and stature as new music composers. And Elizabeth Baker’s article, “Ain’t I a Woman Too?” Which was a direct influence on my article, and beautifully expressed many of my own frustrations with the lack of inclusive feminism in our white-centered musical landscape.

The information I present in this article is not new, but I’m hoping it will be expressed clearly enough to help my minority colleagues understand that they are not alone in their experiences, and for more privileged readers to better understand how deep classical music’s racism really is. This article will provide the background information needed to understand the remaining articles in this 4-part series, which will more carefully analyze issues such as orientalism, class, and resistance.

Far more composers are doing good work in building sustainable futures for minority artists than are listed here, and they are heroes building a new framework that is more inclusive and more freeing than classical music’s institutions will ever be. Just because these barriers exist in classical music to keep it as white as possible does not mean that we have to accept these truths and play within their system. In fact, I want to use the information I share in this article to argue that we can and should create something better.

The Myth of the Composer-Genius

One of my good friends and colleague Evan Williams has already written a wonderful article titled “The Myth of the Composer Genius,” which I encourage you read. Dr. Williams examines the cognitive dissonance between the belief of composers being artistic geniuses chosen by God to share their gifts with the world and the reality that composers get their skill through work, practice, and opportunity.

The romantic idea of the composer-genius has been successful in keeping Western classical music a whites-only field. The conflation of “genius” and “white man” means that no minority will be viewed as a real genius, and hence not a real composer.

The romantic idea of the composer-genius has been successful in keeping Western classical music a whites-only field.

While one can argue that the definition of genius is being expanded today to mean anyone, its expansion creates a top-down approach to breaking down these barriers. A top-down approach means that you grant access first to those with the most privilege and move down. Instead, Black feminists and their organizations such as the Combahee River Collective recommend a faster, more effective bottom-up approach. This method seeks to eliminate oppression by focusing on the most oppressed first, and is based on the understanding that when the most oppressed are liberated, then everyone above them is liberated as well.

Trickle-down Social Justice

The classical music field is squarely rooted in the top-down approach. And like trickle-down economics, the idea that liberation will trickle down by giving a few more opportunities to those at the top is ultimately a myth.

Like trickle-down economics, the idea that liberation will trickle down by giving a few more opportunities to those at the top is ultimately a myth.

This approach grants most opportunities for increased diversity and visibility to minorities with the most privilege. In a white supremacist society, that would be white minorities. Specifically, white women.

First let me say that women in general have an abysmal and unacceptable representation in the Western classical music field. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra examined the repertoire performed during the 2014-2015 concert season by 22 of the largest American Orchestras and found that only 1.8% of works were composed by women.

According to The Guardian, “New statistics have shown up the ‘inexcusable’ fact that only 76 classical concerts among 1,445 performed across the world from [2018] to 2019 include at least one piece by a woman.”

It’s possible that among new music chamber groups, the statistics might be better, but there is still an undeniable bias towards men in this field.

Many of you reading this article know these statistics. And maybe you are doing good work in commissioning and performing works by women composers. But structural oppression runs deep enough that heightened visibility will not close this gap quickly enough.

In order to have a full understanding of our landscape, we need find statistics on our most oppressed. Not only do we need statistics on women, but how about women of color? Non-binary composers? Non-binary or third gender composers of color? Black composers? Black women composers? LGBT+ Black women composers?

All of these minority groups, and more, deserve to be free enough to create artworks of their own. But as it stands, the only minority group being paid much attention (and even for them, it’s not enough) is made up of white women.

Where are the Statistics on Composers of Color?

Surely if I google “statistics on composers of color” I should be able to get some results. Instead I get more statistics on women composers. And here I find the perfect metaphor for how different minority groups are conflated.

Too many organizations behave in a manner that suggests helping one group of oppressed minorities will help everyone.

Too many organizations behave in a manner that suggests helping one group of oppressed minorities will help everyone. While it is true that increased opportunities for a single group can help expand others, that situation only occurs when the single group being supported is more oppressed than the other groups. For example, increased opportunities for Black women will lead to more opportunities for other women of color. But supporting white women will not have the same effect. This belief only works when taking a bottom-up view of decolonization, not for trickle-down social justice.

This is what I mean by trickle-down social justice. By making white minorities the center of diversity attention, you have a system where the pool of privileged folks utilizing the culture and labor of PoC is growing, enabling further oppression of those with the fewest means to success while claiming a progressive, anti-racist label.

In Western classical music, people of color are ignored because organizations believe that supporting white women is enough. But people of color have no reason to trust that white women will be any less racist than white men. Dr. Monica T. Williams explains this mistrust more deeply in her article, “How White Feminists Oppress Black Women: When Feminism Functions as White Supremacy,” pointing out that “True feminism has the power to transform society, but too often what is advanced as feminism is actually White supremacy in disguise – a counterfeit we sometimes call White Feminism.”

In Western classical music, people of color are ignored because organizations believe that supporting white women is enough.

The institutional barriers that keep composers of color from succeeding are worlds apart from the experiences of white women. And one shouldn’t invalidate the other. Anyone interested in expanding access to classical music education and careers to all minorities should be mindful of the institutional barriers that keep composers of color from succeeding and work to utilize their privileges to dismantle them.

A cartoon of a mother and child, both with text bubbles. Mother says, "Brahms could be worse, Calvin." And the child replies, "Brahms could be a lot better, too!" (Image taken from the Facebook Group “Art Music Memes for Wagner Hating Teens” with permission)

Image taken from the Facebook Group “Art Music Memes for Wagner Hating Teens” with permission

The Institutional Barriers that Keep Composers of Color from Succeeding

Not all people of color are the same. We each have our own successes and failures within this field. Some would argue that the current push for diversity supports their careers while others insist that current work is not enough.

I have observed a few patterns of behavior that many people of color face. These microaggressions are a few ways in which opportunities were kept from me and other people of color.

The classical music field does not value Black and brown voices. We exist as oriental decorations to the white-centered narrative which controls the space. Classical music institutions permit us as guests, but never equals.

Classical music institutions permit us as guests, but never equals.

Western classical music’s initiatives to diversify their compositions do not challenge the system’s white supremacist roots. Despite heavily influencing white cultures, PoC are rarely allowed our own space. Exceptions are made at the expense of tokenizing the few non-white composers they allow in their space.

In my experience, I’ve had to follow a set of unspoken rules if I want to be taken seriously as a Western classical musician.

1. I am not allowed to be too “radical” in Western classical music.
2. I must depend on white funding and institutional support for my projects.
3. I must work within an institution, never against it.
4. I must never express anger or resentment at my treatment.
5. I must remain calm when harassed by a white individual.

These unspoken rules silence people of color. At the same time, they allow us enough space to exist in the presence of white musicians. It creates a shield from criticism while upholding white supremacy. Musicians of color tend to face severe consequences if they hold contempt for one of these rules.

Rule #1: I am Not Allowed to Be Too “Radical”

Those with stature in classical music institutions claim that slow change is happening. Ultimately, they decide how much change they want to see in their institutions. If this change involves them losing their stature, or diminishing the meaning of their stature (which is necessary for our liberation), then it will be deemed too “radical” and will either be ignored or ridiculed.

As minorities, any ideas which do not fit the status quo are ignored. People of color are allowed to have (monitored) voices in this field, but they must have the approval of the larger, white audience to take root.

White musicians are allowed to follow whatever ideas for inclusion they want.

But white musicians do not need approval from people of color to express their ideas and are encouraged to steal the labor of musicians of color. White musicians are allowed to follow whatever ideas for inclusion they want.

I personally have seen my work and my ideas taken by a white man, who essentially claimed credit for the work I’ve done. This practice goes further into how we treat material, where white composers are comfortable taking stories and religions from non-white cultures and appropriating them in their music.

Rule #2: I Must Depend on White Funding and Institutional Support

In a capitalist society, success is based on money. Artists need to focus on money in order to afford themselves stability. To create art without needing to profit off your labor relies on a privilege that not everyone has.

Frankly, the conversations I’ve had with classical musicians on issues of economic oppression make it obvious why “class” is in the name. The first step to being a classical musician is to amass a massive debt in exchange for education. Some might argue that it is the nature of higher education today and something everyone, regardless of what they study, goes through.

But then why are we expected to continue paying thousands of dollars for other experiences outside of our education? We live in an environment where doctoral degrees are assumed to be a necessary stepping stone toward one’s future, and universities are taking advantage of that baseless assumption by sticking a disastrous price tag on those degrees. If the field as a whole believes that higher education is necessary for a composer’s growth, then why is it inaccessible to most on grounds unrelated to merit?

Festivals serve a darker purpose: they weed out the poor to give opportunities to the rich.

Higher education barely scratches the surface. On top of spending an exorbitant amount of money on 8+ years of academic study, composers are expected to spend several thousand more dollars to attend something similar during the summer months. Summer festivals are seen as places where one can acquire prestige and network with similar musicians. But these festivals serve a darker purpose: they weed out the poor to give opportunities to the rich.

And yes, to me and anyone with my level of income, those who can afford these festivals are rich.

What’s almost worse is the expectation that lower-income folks will apply for scholarships and perform extra labor to receive (partial) funding instead of creating new avenues for opportunity. In this regard, we are expected to work within the institution to beg for funding instead of creating our own opportunities for career development.

But let’s say that despite all odds, despite being unable to afford the education and festivals, you still become a prominent composer. How will you get money? By and large, you will be steered only towards resources for minorities – which grant most of their funding and visibility towards white women.

Many of these organizations do not have anything to offer PoC; because PoC fall under the umbrella of “minority”, we end up in a position where white minorities monopolize the crumbs of tokenism within institutional structures.

Almost all of these institutions within the classical world are white-owned–even the very few designated for minorities.

The field of classical music relies on institutions, endowments, universities, people who can afford to commission new work, and other high-paying clients. Almost all of these institutions within the classical world are white-owned–even the very few designated for minorities.

Rule #3: I Must Work Within an Institution, Never Against It

If I rely on white institutions, then I can’t be too radical or else I will lose my avenues for funding. If I want funding without beholding myself to the whims of an untrustable elite, then I need to find alternatives to gaining capital outside the framework of an institution.

But rejecting an institution is perceived as being against it. After all, wouldn’t working against institutions mean that you’re against them, or the way they function? These institutions offer spaces for PoC to exist, but to suggest our independence risks exposing the foundational flaws and abuses these organizations graft onto their minority followers. They fear we will expose them for the fraudulent practice of using token visibility to shield their own white supremacist roots while claiming to be progressive.

So they work to silence the minorities who, without any more options, reject the prescribed system of tokenism in exchange for real methods of artistic creation that allow for sustenance on their own terms.

Rejecting an institution is perceived as being against it.

This silencing depends on enabling racist behavior, on pointing out whatever flaws one can find or make up about a person of color, and trusting that it will tarnish their reputation, despite those standards never applying to a white individual. The effect reverberates around the miniscule classical world, and anyone who depends on the institution, and believes in it, will have no reason not to believe it and thus shun those who work against an institution.

A meme created via imgflip.com with the caption "WHITE MUSICIANS WHEN POC ARE TALKING ABOUT RACISM" showing someone with their face buried in the ground.

Rule #4: I Must Never Express Anger or Resentment at my Treatment

These last two rules go hand-in-hand, and emphasize classical music institutions and their affiliates’ pervasive use of tone policing. White musicians love giving the minimum to PoC and using that exposure to shield themselves from criticism.

PoC are not allowed to complain because progress exists.

In essence, PoC are not allowed to complain because progress exists. That sliver of progress is used against those who advocate for real, substantive change.

Rule #5: I Must Remain Calm When Harassed

In that same vein, PoC are demonized when we do express anger, even when being harassed. I have these as two separate rules because rule #4 applies on a meta level where I must always at least pretend to be in a state of contentment with the institutions of classical music and their efforts to increase diversity.

But this rule is more specific.

Every time I have defended myself or matched the tone of someone harassing me, I was promptly demonized by my peers.

In my experience (and I’m sure this is the case for many other PoC as well), every time I have defended myself or matched the tone of someone harassing me, I was promptly demonized by my peers. I can think of so many examples, especially on social media, where as soon as anger is shown, as soon as white folks actually see the consequences of their constant abuses, or even evidence that there is constant abuse, the entire case is dismissed under the excuse of belligerence.

These experiences have led me to be labelled as racist, sexist, anti-semitic, transphobic, islamaphobic, and other labels which I work to fight against.


I have written very little about music, which will be covered in a later post. With this article, I wanted to show how pervasive white supremacy is in the classical music world, and explain the background into other arguments I intend to make in this series. Arguments such as the following: white composers using Middle Eastern stories in their composition is colonization; trans, non-binary, and third gender composers need their own space unique from cis-women led spaces.

It’s important to understand the baseline motives behind the way music colonizes people of color.

It’s important to understand the baseline motives behind the way music colonizes people of color. But the musical output takes it a step further. In my next article, I will explore several examples of how white Western culture steals and appropriates from other non-white cultures, and how Western classical music embodies that colonization.

Plus Ça Change: Florence B. Price in the #BlackLivesMatter Era

A black and white photo of a mother and daughter

“While more and more blacks are being driven into homelessness,” a classical music fan fumed, “Mostly Mozart is rewarded with government, corporate, and media support.” The problem? No black composers on the program—not even Mozart’s great contemporary, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

We can easily imagine this critique as a sick Twitter burn from last summer, or last week. Calls to diversify classical music programs intensify regularly. But the sad truth is that many organizations are reluctant to pursue any path other than business as usual. (Others certainly aren’t.) Perhaps sadder still, the comment above dates from 1987. Mike Snell, a reader of Raoul Abdul’s music column in the New York-based Amsterdam News, wrote Abdul to eviscerate the media for not highlighting the systemic racism underpinning the lack of black representation on the concert stage.

Plus ça change.

Returning to the present: the music of one black composer, Florence B. Price, has experienced an extraordinary surge of public interest over the past year, mainly on the heels of extensive coverage of violinist Er-Gene Kahng’s world premiere recording of her two violin concertos in The New Yorker and The New York Times. Prominent U.S. orchestras, including the New Jersey Symphony, North Carolina Symphony, and Minnesota Orchestra, programmed Price’s music during their 2018–19 seasons. The Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra recently released the world premiere recording of her Fourth Symphony on Naxos Records. And more ensembles will likely take up the mantle, both in the United States and around the globe. The Chicago Symphony, for example, recently announced that it would perform Price’s Third Symphony in the 2019–20 season.

Given the longstanding historical exclusion of African American composers, Price’s sudden rise to stardom might raise a few eyebrows. Is the sudden widespread interest in Price’s music a convenient fad? Are predominantly white institutions exploiting her legacy for short-term gain—what Nancy Leong has called “racial capitalism”? These are the right questions to ask. Their skeptical slant is justified when a major trade publication can obliviously describe women composers as “in vogue.” And it would be far from the first time that white musicians bolstered their careers on the musical labor of black women, or that black women’s musical accomplishments have faced unfair scrutiny upon entering white public consciousness.

We can only speculate about how Price’s resurgent presence on the concert stage might bring about deeper structural changes over the long term. But, if we listen carefully, her unique experiences as a composer and as a black woman present us with a more immediate opportunity to name and fight racial injustice today. Mike Snell’s complaints—and those of concerned musicians before and after him—show that time has refracted these injustices to the present.

Plus ça change, indeed.

Open Our Ears

The persistence of anti-black racism in classical music spaces stems largely from the white majority’s refusal to engage meaningfully with black voices—or even to listen. In a detailed critique of the new music communities in which he has participated, composer Anthony R. Green encourages us to “trust these voices. Be critical, but respectful. Engage in exchange. Be patient. When our work is blatantly ignored, disrespected, not studied, and not programmed, our voice is all we have.” White people, even those with anti-racist sympathies, often recoil at the suggestion that they have harmed people of color and shift the discussion to defend their motivations—a phenomenon multicultural education expert Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” But the fact that Green’s observations are not new simply proves the point.

Green’s critiques revolve around the classical music industry’s propensity to pigeonhole black composers as “one-trick ponies.” This dehumanization, he argues, occurs when concert organizers think about music by black composers only during Black History Month or, in more recent years, for concerts with a social justice theme. “While this is not necessarily negative,” he adds, “the injustice arises when absolute music or music with non-social themes by black composers is overlooked.” Florence Price’s daughter, Florence Robinson, expressed similar frustrations after Price died in 1953. Artists were happy to perform Price’s arrangements of Negro spirituals, but she found no advocates for her mother’s symphonic compositions.

Once a black composer finds an advocate, however, another problem is that concert organizers do not always think through the implications of poor framing. Price’s Symphony in E Minor, which Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra famously premiered in June 1933, appeared on a program ostensibly devoted to celebrating black musical achievement.

CSO program, June 1933

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 15 June 1933

It featured tenor Roland Hayes and pianist Margaret Bonds as soloists in addition to pieces by Price and Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. But the opening number was an overture by John Powell, an avowed anti-black eugenicist. Powell’s presence was an acute indignity for Price and the other black performers, especially since Chicago’s black newspaper, the Defender, had publicly criticized Powell earlier that year.

To make matters worse, the event occurred the night after a concert celebrating American music, which had not only neglected to include any black musicians, but highlighted George Gershwin’s symphonic jazz compositions—pieces epitomizing white appropriation and presumed “elevation” of a fundamentally black style. Were African American musicians not American? The juxtaposition is startling.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 14 June 1933

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 14 June 1933

Critical comparisons between the two shows were inevitable. One critic wrote about both as a unit. “Gershwin,” she observed, “looks like his music,” while John Alden Carpenter (whose Concertino had appeared on the second program with Margaret Bonds as soloist) “took up the white man’s burden” for the evening. Price, in contrast, “was given to little communicative inspiration.” By what standard we’ll never know. And black musicians of the era were painfully aware of these racist gaffes and slights, as William Grant Still, a composer who had grown up with Price in Arkansas, demonstrated in scathing commentary published in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1950.

Fifty Years of Progress in Music

“Fifty Years of Progress in Music,” Pittsburgh Courier, 11 Nov. 1950

But what choice do black composers have in the matter given the racist status quo? Is saying no to a major opportunity a viable option, especially if it puts food on the table? In September 1940, a conductor in Detroit approached Price about setting up a performance of her orchestral music. He was “quite anxious to do something from your pen,” he told her, and asked for information about her orchestrations of black folk dances. Sensing the urgency of the situation, she sent him her abstract Third Symphony instead, along with a letter that has since become one her best-known artistic manifestos. Making sure he knew the character of the piece was unlike what he had requested, she added, “The other two movements—the first and the last—were meant to follow conventional lines of form and development.” The conductor had no choice but to program the piece, given few ready alternatives. But Price took a significant professional risk by not conceding to his original demands.

Price to Frederick Schwass

Price to Frederick Schwass, Florence Price Papers, Special Collections Division, University of Arkansas Mullins Library

As these episodes show, ignorant, racist framing of black music prevents black composers from fully expressing their artistic visions and hampers listeners from approaching a piece on its own terms. Unilateral concert planning carries the risk of reifying racist norms. Creating a just environment means working with composers to find a frame that shows their music at its best. And here we can take a cue from history as well—from a 1935 performance of Price’s Piano Concerto given by the Bronx Symphony Orchestra in which the evening’s featured black musicians had taken an integral role in planning.

New York Times, 30 Aug. 1935

New York Times, 30 Aug. 1935

#BlackLivesMatter and Classical Music

Following Trayvon Martin’s brutal murder in 2012, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tomeli inaugurated the Black Lives Matter movement to publicize the precariousness of life itself for black Americans in a violently racist society—and, of course, to rectify the injustices underpinning it.[1] The halls of classical music may seem far removed from these issues, but only because they have remained predominantly white spaces. Indeed, as historian Kira Thurman has shown, classical music (even whistling it) could not protect Draylen Mason, a young bassist from Austin, Texas, from the bomber who targeted African American homes and ultimately killed him. White people must confront this stark reality, despite the luxury of being able to avoid it.

In her reflections on Mason’s death, Kira Thurman has explained that “we don’t know how to talk about” black classical musicians because “to be black and a classical musician is to be considered a contradiction.” This insight suggests that conventional writing about classical music and musicians tends to emphasize white (male) lineage and benevolence, usually at the expense of people of color. Stating one’s position in a prominent network, for example, is meant to be a signal that talent and grit, rather than race, gender, or status, led to success. Doing the work of justice will therefore entail developing a language that breaks reliance on white patriarchal norms and captures the nuance of an individual’s full humanity.

The experience of blackness cannot be reduced to violence, but I emphasize violence here since it has experienced its own series of refractions over the past several centuries—from family separation and horrific physical abuse under slavery, to lynching under Jim Crow and decades of unchecked police brutality. The pall of violence is so pervasive that many African American parents pass strategies for navigating it to their children in a family ritual known as “the talk.” And, as black feminist theorists such as Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks have argued, black women are uniquely vulnerable.

Price was no exception, since violence had dramatically shaped both of her parents’ lives. A group of Irish bullies, for example, nearly assaulted Price’s father when he was a young man living in New York City simply for “wearing a tall silk hat” on the sidewalk. In a draft of his memoirs, Price annotated this moment as “the lynching.” Price’s mother, meanwhile, was abducted and nearly raped as a teenager in Indianapolis. Both were squarely middle-class, indicating that a relatively high socioeconomic status could not mitigate their victimization.

Conventional biographical writing about classical musicians leaves virtually no room for examining race-based experiences like these that might shape a musical career. The official biography of Price featured on the website of her current publisher, G. Schirmer, emphasizes her relationships to white institutions and teachers but elides the circumstances that brought her into contact with these individuals in the first place.

Price studied at the New England Conservatory, for example, but not because it welcomed her as an African American. Instead, her mother insisted that she take advantage of her racially ambiguous skin color to pass as a woman from Mexico and avoid unnecessary scrutiny of her African ancestry. This decision was not only a safety measure, but as historian Allyson Hobbs has shown, carried the potential to destroy families separated by the artificial color line. Likewise, though Price continued to study with prominent teachers in Chicago, as the biography states, she went to Chicago to flee from racist violence in Arkansas that culminated in an especially grisly lynching.

"Mob spokesmen asked Carter if he had any last requests. He asked for a cup of water and a cigarette, and these were granted, as was his request to say a final prayer. Members of the mob then put a rope around his neck, threw the noose end over a utility pole, and forced him onto the top of a car. One of them drove the car away, leaving Carter hanging from the pole. The mob then pumped more than 200 shots into the dangling corpse."

Description of a lynching

Further, musicologist Rae Linda Brown has shown that domestic violence caused Price’s marriage to fall apart shortly after the move, leaving her to raise her two young daughters with the assistance of a community of black women on the city’s South Side that included dear friend Estelle Bonds and her daughter, Margaret Bonds. That Price thrived in these environments says far more about her and the racist and misogynist circumstances she faced than the prestige that might have accrued from any institutional affiliations.

Justice, then, includes allowing a musician’s true self to be fully present when facing the public—to appear “at our best,” as Kira Thurman has called it. She explains that black classical musicians “embody the Brechtian concept of Verfremdung, making the familiar strange and uncanny. Our performances and our musical experiences challenge the bounds of blackness and whiteness and the histories of racial oppression that have tried to culturally and musically determine both.” Like Anthony Green, she insists that denunciations of racial profiling and critiquing structural inequality don’t have to come at the expense of aesthetic enjoyment—that violence and beauty are equally powerful. Papering over one or the other merely reifies centuries of structural inequality by sweeping it under the rug.

A Renaissance

Historical erasure is perhaps the most acute consequence of the institutional oppression and misunderstanding that Green and Thurman highlight. And here Price’s story offers another cautionary tale.

In 2009, a pair of renovators, Darrell and Vicki Gatwood, found a substantial cache of Price’s manuscripts —roughly thirty large archival boxes—at Price’s abandoned summer home near St. Anne, Illinois. These materials eventually moved to the Special Collections division at the University of Arkansas Mullins Library. This discovery and acquisition marked a true watershed for Price scholarship and advocacy, which had grown slowly but steadily with the limited materials Price’s daughter had already sent the university shortly before her death in 1975.

Florence Price’s summer home, 2009

Florence Price’s summer home, 2009 Photo: Timothy Nutt

Price’s daughter, in fact, had struggled to find performances and publication outlets after her mother died in 1953. Some people tried to help but couldn’t, and she was occasionally suspicious of opportunists seeking to capitalize unfairly on her mother’s dwindling legacy. Things took a turn for the worse in 1974 when she became too ill to manage her mother’s affairs any longer. Barbara Garvey Jackson, a musicologist at the University of Arkansas, had been in touch her and finally convinced her to send a few manuscript scores to the university, including the famous symphony premiered by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933.

With these slivers in hand, Jackson planted the seeds for a Florence Price revival by publishing a major biographical article in The Black Perspective in Music. Rae Linda Brown, a graduate student at Yale who had stumbled upon a manuscript of Price’s Third Symphony in an archival collection, soon joined her and became a new leading voice in the revival as she published numerous articles on Price’s life and music.

Over time, Jackson and Brown worked with several distinguished musicians and scholars, including Helen Walker-Hill, Mildred Denby Green, Althea Waites, Linda Holzer, Calvert Johnson, Trevor Weston, Karen Walwyn, and the Women’s Philharmonic to bring Price’s music to the public. This work culminated in Brown’s editions of Price’s Piano Sonata and First and Third Symphonies (co-edited with Wayne Shirley for the series Music of the United States of America published by A-R Editions), Jackson’s series of publications for ClarNan Editions, Weston’s reconstruction Price’s Piano Concerto, and several ensuing recordings. This extensive labor extends beyond the fact that Price’s vocal music has been a staple on vocal recitals, especially those given by African American performers, since the 1930s. Richard Heard collected many of these songs in his edition called 44 Art Songs and Spirituals.

After the St. Anne discovery, several new individuals became involved in this ongoing Price revival, most notably Arkansas-based composer James Greeson. He used materials from the new collection to form the basis for a 2015 documentary, The Caged Bird, which has screened at venues across the United States and has become a staple of educational initiatives around the country.

While researching black composers of the early 20th century, I visited the University of Arkansas in May 2016 to peruse the original Price archival collection but ended up using the entire new collection since it had opened to the public the previous year. A report on my work was broadcast over WUOL 90.5 in Louisville, Kentucky, a few weeks later. I collaborated with the station again in the summer of 2017 to host an all-Price concert at the city’s annual Muhammad Ali Festival, which featured members of the Louisville Orchestra giving a contemporary premiere of one of Price’s “lost” string quartets. The quartet segment was later rebroadcast nationally on the syndicated show “Performance Today.”

Meanwhile, other performing groups such as the Apollo Chamber Players, The Dream Unfinished, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the BBC Orchestra explored new areas of Price’s life and work.

Together, this collective but dispersed grassroots effort drew substantial new attention to Price’s life and music, which crested in the New Yorker and New York Times pieces mentioned earlier.

A White Savior?

If efforts to reinscribe Florence Price into the historical record were reaching new heights by the middle of 2018, what might the reification of structural inequality look like?

Publisher G. Schirmer announced last November that it had acquired worldwide rights to Price’s compositional catalog. In other words, the firm would serve as a clearinghouse for the publication, distribution, and licensing of Price’s scores. Previously, interested scholars or performers would have to visit the University of Arkansas to take photographs of the archival material (or pay the library for photographic reproductions) before engraving the music or performing from the manuscripts themselves.

Explaining the rationale behind the firm’s decision, promotional director Rachel Sokolow stated, “As more orchestras and presenters recognize the need to address diversity in classical music programming, we hope that Price’s oeuvre can be a valuable resource.” Citing the interest in Price that seemed to bloom after the extensive media coverage, G. Schirmer president Robert Thompson explained that it’s “important to insure that past composers like Julius Eastman and Florence Price are not forgotten, and that their legacies are living ones, celebrated through live performances and new recordings.”

On the surface, this may sound like a great idea with an ethical underpinning. Black composers like Price have obviously gone underserved for far too long. And the G. Schirmer website is far more convenient to access than a dusty archive. But, as musicologist Matthew Morrison’s work suggests, the firm risks joining the long line of predominantly white for-profit corporations hoping to circumscribe an equally white marketplace for black musical production if it overlooks the vibrant work that expanded the audience for Price in the first place.

At a glance, G. Schirmer’s official statements may seem reminiscent of what writer Teju Cole has called the “White-Savior Industrial Complex,” in which “the world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” Perhaps many organizations rushing to program Price’s music are riding an enthusiastic wave rather than redressing injustice. But Cole’s formulation also illustrates the sharp differences between how an organization perceives itself and what the historical record shows. “All [the White Savior] sees is need,” Cole writes, and “he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.” In Price’s case, performing organizations neglected her music, but even G. Schirmer itself owns a small share of the responsibility for narrowing the marketplace and creating the lack of diverse programming we face today.

To wit: Marian Anderson premiered Price’s Songs to the Dark Virgin in November 1939 at a Carnegie Hall recital, with a repeat in January. A representative from Theodore Presser jumped on the opportunity, but Price had so much leverage that she ended up going with G. Schirmer over an offer from the equally prominent Presser. In other words, G. Schirmer knew about Price and her music but offered to publish only a tiny fraction during her lifetime.

Songs to the Dark Virgin

Cover of Songs to the Dark Virgin, G. Schirmer, 1941

“When you [Anderson] introduce a song,” Price’s daughter once explained, “that is a signal for the publishers to try to persuade the composer to sign a contract for publication.” Price and Anderson worked together to capitalize on this knowledge of the system’s inner workings because Price occasionally had trouble finding publishers on her own. Ethnomusicologist Alisha Lola Jones has argued that this synergistic collaboration was a channel through which “black women empowered themselves to sound the (un)quieted, undisputed dignity of womanhood on the world’s stage” without the involvement of white benefactors.

Florence Robinson to Marian Anderson, Dec. 1966

Florence Robinson to Marian Anderson, Dec. 1966, Marian Anderson Papers, University of Pennsylvania

But Price could not rely solely on a community of women to bring her orchestral music before the public, and therefore to have any hope of publishing it.[2] This institutional neglect of her music during her lifetime explains why so many manuscripts were awaiting “discovery” after her death in the first place. Promotional brochures dating from Price’s lifetime show that her prolific catalog was public knowledge throughout the industry. ASCAP, of which Price was the first African American woman member, produced these brochures and distributed them widely.

Florence Price’s ASCAP Brochure

Florence Price’s ASCAP Brochure

Why did no one offer to work with Price or her daughter to secure a legacy—the kind of legacy that G. Schirmer is now rightly pursuing? Publishers? Conductors? Instrumentalists? Even in the supposedly vaunted world of classical music, profit-seeking considerations and their deep ties to systemic discrimination often trump ethical concerns. In the heady environment of an exciting renaissance, white organizations run the risk of refusing to acknowledge black voices, especially those of black women, virtually ensuring that these voices become unsung to their posterity.

Within the complex matrix of composers, publishers, venues, performers, audiences, and critics, we must all play a role in creating a just musical community. Or we will keep repeating the same patterns of oppression.

A Classical Postscript

As it turns out, Joseph Bologne’s music also has an esteemed but spotty publication history dating from his own lifetime in the late 18th century. Famous houses like Antoine Bailleux and Jean-Georges Sieber published him alongside J.C. Bach, Luigi Boccherini, and others. After a long publication hiatus, one of the foremost scholars of black music, Dominique-René de Lerma, worked with Peer International to publish a series of Bologne’s chamber music in 1978—a full decade before music fan Mike Snell wagged his finger at New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival.

Plus ça change.

Thank you to Dr. Alisha Lola Jones and Samantha Ege for providing substantive feedback and additional sources for this essay.

1. BLM should not be confused with the Movement for Black Lives, which is a separate but occasionally overlapping organization.

2. University of York musicology Ph.D. student Samantha Ege is arguing in her dissertation that Price’s social circle did in fact offer material support for the Chicago Symphony concert once her piece became a viable option for Frederick Stock.

“Underground” Electronic Music

A black and white brochure photo of a Telharmonium

Electronic musical sound saturates our sonic world. Check the pop charts any week, and you’ll hear sounds clearly identifiable as electronic in almost every track. We expect to hear these sounds, and rarely consider their presence, let alone their significance. Given their ubiquity, it’s clear that electronic sounds matter—but how? What do they mean to us? How did they become so valuable and so popular?

If you go looking for answers to these questions in the pages of electronic music histories, you are likely to read a story like this: in the middle of the 20th century, avant-garde composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen pioneered various techniques, ideas, and sounds that eventually led to a digital revolution in the 1980s, when electronic music exploded and came to dominate popular music.

Among other problems with this narrative: popular electronic music existed well before the experiments of these “great men.” Thousands of people in the U.S. witnessed electronic musical sounds played on early electronic instruments long before the celebrated midcentury experimentalists. Each of these instruments offers a history with its own answers to questions about encounters between audiences and new electronic sounds.

Crowd in Telharmonium Hall

Crowd in Telharmonium Hall, A. B. Easterbrook, “The Wonderful Telharmonium,” Gunter’s Magazine (June 1907)

Telharmonium Hall

The instrument that first introduced U.S. audiences to electronic sound was an enormous machine that drew accolades during two short seasons in New York City: the Telharmonium. Invented by Thaddeus Cahill and installed in the city from 1906 to 1908, the instrument occupied two floors of “Telharmonium Hall” at Broadway and 39th Street. In the basement sat half an acre of machinery, including switchboards, tone mixers, and dynamos—the large electrical generators that produced the instrument’s sound. Telephone wires carried the sound upstairs where receivers, somewhat amplified by simple paper cones, piped the music to audiences. Two, three, or sometimes four performers played the instrument’s hodgepodge of interfaces, including multiple keyboards, pedals, and switches.

Telharmonium Hall opened in 1907 to critical and popular success. During its first season, tens of thousands of people attended concerts there. The hall also offered subscription services a century before streaming platforms like Spotify came to dominate music consumption. Some of the city’s most lavish cafes and hotels, among them the Café Martin and the Waldorf Astoria, became subscribers, as did private individuals like Mark Twain. The Plaza Hotel went so far as to wire every guest room for Telharmonic service.

Laudatory accounts appeared everywhere from McClure’s and The New York Times to Scientific American and Literary Digest. “It is wonderful,” said Alfred Hertz, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, “and I believe in telharmony as an art of music.” Famed tenor Enrico Caruso foresaw a musical “revolution,” and journalists agreed, predicting the end of the orchestra, a new era in musical appreciation, and the improved health and family life of Americans (at least some Americans) who would now have music, day and night, “on tap.”

Dinner from the Future

“Dinner from the Future” (depiction of an “ideal” family experiencing Telharmonium music, piped through their lamp, during dinner)

“Purer and Better”

For proponents of the instrument, the Telharmonium was an ideal vehicle for revolutionary changes in music production and consumption because of the quality of its tone, widely perceived as “pure” and even “perfect.” Purity has long been associated with whiteness. Rhetoric about racially “pure” musical aesthetics and sounds was already decades old by the 20th century, and was exacerbated by anti-immigrant policy and sentiment. “Purity” was central to a nationalist voice culture movement of teachers and musicians that thrived in the U.S. from around 1880 to 1920. Scott Carter, who has documented the movement, notes an obsession with pure vocal tones, rooted in racist beliefs about vocal clarity and anxiety over non-white immigrants.

Within the new science of acoustics, which Cahill carefully studied, purity of tone had a similar racial component. Tara Rodgers notes that acousticians like Hermann von Helmholtz equated “notions of the sine wave as ‘pure’ and ‘lacking body’ with whiteness and scientific objectivity,” and timbral variations away from this norm with “material embodiment (e.g. raced, gendered, classed) and transgressive pleasures.” Cahill designed the Telharmonium to produce and combine sine waves and to create various timbres, and touted the instrument’s tones as being “purer and better than those of the orchestral instruments.”

Journalists happily took up this talking point about the instrument’s sound, describing it as particularly pure in review after review. The Telharmonium’s audiences and commentators were almost exclusively middle- and upper-class white people, and while it’s impossible to know whether the average listener heard the instrument’s sound as pure, it is safe to say that they experienced it through the lens of their racial experience. White audiences were used to having all kinds of products marketed to them as “pure” (and therefore healthy and superior)—from soap to food to medicine. Telharmonic music was for this population: created and sold in elite white spaces, consumed by white audiences, and widely described as sounding white.

Telharmonium Performers

Telharmonium Performers, Ray Stannard Baker, “New Music for an Old World,” McClure’s Magazine (July 1906)

Insiders and Outsiders

Nowhere does a journalist or marketer make the whiteness of the Telharmonium’s sound explicit; as Jennifer Stoever points out, when whiteness is the racial default, its sonic qualities are rendered inaudible. Yet one New York Times story—“An Invisible Rival for the Hurdy Gurdy”—comes close, pitting the Telharmonium’s sound against music made by a pair of immigrant street musicians.

During the Telharmonium’s brief time in New York City, the number of Italian and Eastern European immigrants in the city and nation was rising rapidly. Then as today, overblown fears about immigrants fed—and were fed by—racist stereotypes and discourses about citizenship (at the time, these immigrants were not considered white). In “An Invisible Rival for the Hurdy Gurdy,” a pair of street musicians—“two swart Italians, man and wife”—set up their barrel organ just outside Telharmonium Hall during a performance. In the story, as the husband begins to crank “a syncopated air” out of the instrument, his wife stops him, crying, “Somebody in dis-a place ees playing da bigga org” and pointing to Telharmonium Hall. The “Sicilians,” The Times reports, “were awed. They realized that against the massive tones that came from the building their instrument offered a thin and hopelessly unentertaining substitute for such rival music—although theirs had the merit of being real.”

Yet awed as they were, the musicians themselves posed a threat to the order within Telharmonium Hall: the sounds of their barrel organ disrupted the concert. In response, the hall’s manager, who had been giving a demonstration of the instrument, directed the players to begin a performance of Robert Schumann’s “Träumerei,” assuring the audience that this would “put an end to the hand organ.” As predicted, the performance silenced the street musicians into awestruck and dumb appreciation.

Every aspect of this New York Times story carefully designates the Telharmonium as an instrument fit for white bourgeois society, using the immigrants on the street as a foil that drives the point home. The bodies inside Telharmonium Hall (both the “society folk and prominent New Yorkers” in the audience and the management) are racially unmarked, and therefore white, unlike the “swart” immigrants outside. The “great massive tones” and the comparison with the pipe organ connected the Telharmonium to Western art and sacred music traditions, while the sounds of the street musicians registered as disruptive noise rather than music. The Telharmonium’s repertory—mostly slow, lyrical “classical” and popular melodies—likewise drew on white Western traditions in contrast to the “syncopated” music of the street musicians, which easily could have been a popular ragtime tune with roots in Black musics.

Even the “unreal” status The New York Times assigned to the Telharmonium’s music appears as a (racial) merit that signals a freedom from materiality, not unlike the supposed immateriality of sine waves. In describing its sound as “unreal,” the author emphasizes the ephemerality of music emitted by hidden sources beneath Telharmonium Hall and transmitted over wire. In contrast, the physicality of the street music is almost excessive. Its means of production—the barrel organ and its player—are not only visible but conspicuous, marked as outsiders by their speech and skin.

At the Telharmonium keyboard

At the Telharmonium keyboard, A. B. Easterbrook, “The Wonderful Telharmonium,” Gunter’s Magazine (June 1907)

The End of Underground Music

After the promise of the Telharmonium’s first season, the instrument’s fortunes nosedived. Unable to navigate the enormous legal and logistical challenges of delivering music via telephone wires to subscribers across the city, the instrument’s financial backers extracted themselves from the project and Telharmonium Hall closed permanently in the spring of 1908.

Even if the Telharmonium’s backers had managed to create the infrastructure the instrument required, its success was hardly guaranteed. Despite the accolades from the white press, the instrument was notoriously inept with popular music of the day like ragtime. While the Telharmonium offered performers an array of controls for dynamic expression and timbre, Cahill seems to have thought little about how the instrument handled music that relied on rapid rhythms and clear attacks.

The Telharmonium’s history points us to a version of electronic music history rich with meaning and uncomfortable truths about how musical sound comes to matter to us. Its brief popularity suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that we have long located profoundly human qualities in electronic musical sound. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the humanity we find there is a deeply troubled one, rooted in our nation’s ongoing struggles over race, identity, and belonging.

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.

New Music Wants to Help

The recent American presidential election inspired calls to action that rippled through various communities: Muslims, Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, LGBTQ people, people of color, the disabled, educators, and social justice activists to name but a few. One of the communities that responded quickly was the new music community.

In New York, National Sawdust hosted a November 10 town hall moderated by Paola Prestini, Courtenay Casey, Daniel Felsenfeld, and Roger Bonair-Agard. In Los Angeles on November 10, the Artist Council at The Hammer Museum scrapped their agenda to “deal with the more urgent situation at hand,” asking, “What can we do? … How can we protect the vulnerable and defend rights we have come to take for granted?” On November 16, NewMusicBox published Gary Ingle’s essay on Decolonizing Our Music. In Los Angeles on November 17, Nick Norton and ArtShare hosted Understanding and Action for Artists and Thinkers: An Open Forum. This meeting asked how we as artists and musicians could help marginalized communities that would be adversely affected by the new presidency. On November 28, Andrew Norman, having won the Grawemeyer Award For Music, made strong comments about privilege to NPR’s Tom Huizenga, an important statement I’ll discuss later. And 
recently, critic Alex Ross wrote about Making Art in a Time of Rage, looking at artistic responses from Leonard Bernstein to Ted Hearne’s recent politically charged work. Maybe you heard about some of these meetings. Maybe you attended some of them.

I was fascinated and encouraged by these prospects. The new music community wants to help marginalized and vulnerable communities? This could be a potential win-win that benefits both the oppressed and our own rarefied artistic community. Let’s go.

Before we propose remedies and strategies to help the marginalized, I believe we need to take a hard look at the new music community itself. There’s a paradigmatic assumption that our activism is a response to outside forces like the new presidency, but now is an opportunity to look within. As the sayings go: Think globally, act locally; Change begins at home.

Structural and systemic issues have allowed institutional exclusion to be rigid and persistent.

As performers, educators, composers, creators, and producers of music, we typically see ourselves working for a greater good, fortunate not to have our art and labor support the war machine or aggravate climate change, for example. However, we must acknowledge that the new music community has an established history of exclusion.

Structural and systemic issues have allowed institutional exclusion to be rigid and persistent. These issues begin with education and continue through the moderation of opportunities, career development, and audience-building structures including marketing, promotion, grants, and the dissemination of information.


Structural issues begin with early education; geographic, social, and economic privilege facilitates access to music lessons, and can affect how family and cohorts encourage childhood interest in music. Developmental psychologist Steven J. Holochwost has studied inadequacies and inequalities in access to music education in the United States. Holochworst notes there are cases where proactive outreach strategies have helped young students to become more involved in music.

With sufficient interest and success as children, many of us progressed to studying music within higher education. The conservatory, a central institution of Western art music, is based upon the conservation of musical tradition and established values, principles, and systems. (The exception often proves the rule; musicologist Nadine Hubbs describes how midcentury academic advocacy of serialism, while certainly revolutionary in many ways, served to ossify exclusionary heterosexist networks and hierarchies.)

Musicologists and sociologists have studied conservatory culture and dissected its various dysfunctions, often discreetly euphemizing names of institutions and pedagogues. Bruno Nettl looked at the “Heartland University School of Music”. Henry Kingsbury looked at the “Eastern Metropolitan Conservatory of Music,” whose entrance is on or perhaps near North Street (hint, hint). Andrea Olmsted brazenly studied Juilliard; outside the rigors of socio-musicology, Juilliard was also strongly suggested in films such as Food of Love and Whiplash. While Whiplash seemed extreme to the uninitiated, what conservatory denizen has never seen a percussionist with bloody hands, a violinist with an inflamed neck rash, or a music professor who abuses students? (According to the CBC, physical injuries contribute significantly to conservatory drop out rates.)

Professional and institutional networks intentionally bear resemblance to biological hereditary hierarchies and their concomitant racial exclusions, like a line of royal descent.

Socio-musicological investigation of conservatories finds a powerful mythology of musical genealogy, the concept of mystical secrets passed from teacher to student. This in turn helps form professional and institutional networks that intentionally bear resemblance to biological hereditary hierarchies and their concomitant racial exclusions, like a line of royal descent. Furthermore, intense conservatory experiences forge connections and communities in the same way these are formed by hazing at a fraternity, a sorority, or elite athletic or military institutions. The resultant effect is a self-perpetuating exclusionary system, much like an Etonian “old boys club” with similar socio-economic consequences, transposed into the realm of music as a profession.


Prizes, awards, and competitions—particularly those on the entry-level or semi-professional end of the spectrum—do not often function as prizes and awards per se, but as a form of gatekeeping to further professional development. Consider prizes that offer an opportunity to work with an orchestra, either as a composer or concerto soloist. It’s not like contestants habitually work with an orchestra and win a statuette or purse judged upon that work. The prize is the opportunity itself.

Prizes have been widely criticized as a thinly veiled means of fundraising, and this intersects with socioeconomic concerns. For fledgling ensembles and nonprofits, having a competition is a no-brainer; when students have already spent tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, what is a mere $25-$50 entrance fee? While this can raise a little bit of money for the ensemble or nonprofit, it infrequently offers long-term nurturing; instead, it fosters expectations that maybe someone else will become interested in the winners’ work as a result of the competition.

Criticism of the competition complex has been widely restrained because the field is small and no one wants to offend colleagues or arts organizations. Bill Doerrfeld addressed ageism in composer opportunities. Dennis Báthory-Kitsz humorously mocked the system by flipping it, creating a Performing Ensemble Competition offering $1000 and the opportunity to perform his music; no travel expenses covered, and a $75 entry fee. Ben Phelps penned a poignant, tongue-in-cheek advice column, How to Win Composing:

The competition is thus the apotheosis of cultural musical expression. This is why so many average music listeners refer so religiously to such famous competitions as the Masterprize when deciding what new music they are going to like. With competitions holding such a valuable and important place in the career paths of young composers, many justifiably want to win as many as possible, so as to secure admission to more prestigious graduate schools of composition and thus win more coveted teaching positions at more prestigious universities.

Phelps’s essay does not intersect class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and marginalized communities with its savvy takedown, but its parody reveals institutional biases and prejudices couched within musical demands. (See also Frank Oteri’s interview of Wendy Carlos that discusses how academic stylistic expectations mirror prejudice and misogyny.) Strategies for winning that Phelps recommends include using crotales, nested tuplets, and having a title with parentheses, like “Inter(rupt)ions”. This parodies new music and protectionist, institutional biases.

Efforts to define “new music” frequently align with exclusionary institutional biases.

A board member of a mid-sized nonprofit talked to me about their efforts to address diversity. The board member felt her organization was trying to combat racial and gender exclusions and explained, “Well, we have a call for scores, and it’s a blind call, so all the scores are anonymous, no names or information.” A problem with this common methodology is that a savvy panel can distinguish racial and socio-economic identities in anonymous scores through the very formulae that Ben Phelps so wryly advocates. I emphasize that having a diverse board of directors is great, and anonymous scores are great, but you still have an issue with the nested tuplets. There is a lingering means of identifying educational background and insider membership even amidst efforts to be fair and unprejudiced. One might argue that the savvy panel is merely trying to ensure that selected scores appropriately exploit new directions and extended techniques. Yes, of course, but efforts to define “new music” frequently align with exclusionary institutional biases.

Locked gate with a trick

Image courtesy pbkwee

The Workplace

Issues of diversity and marginalization are complicated by career concerns: Is engagement with new music a vocation, avocation, or appreciation? (Consider Charles Ives.) Are we free from or financially dependent upon establishment structures? How does new music engage us financially as purchasers, consumers, audience members, creators, performers, and laborers?

If new music is a career either directly or tangentially, we are looking at real world issues of hiring and tenure in academia, bookings and guarantees on the concert circuit, fees and honorariums for clinicians, as well as commissions, grants, radio airplay, recording contracts, and distribution deals. These concerns can impact how we present our politics, program our concerts, or choose what ensembles to book at our venues. We will rely on existing networks in the community to determine who gets the gig.

Diversity hiring is not about creating an unfair advantage for the marginalized. It’s not necessarily about helping underserved populations or any particular candidate, but primarily about correcting deficiencies and inequalities within the hiring institution. It is not about patronizing a candidate or applicant as much it is a course correction for the institution. This likewise applies to commissioning.

If a “call for scores” only results in winners from an existing circle, something is not right.

If a “call for scores” only results in winners from an existing circle, something is not right. If you are not commissioning outside your professional network, there is little reason to have a call for scores. If you want to keep things “in house,” this is perfectly fine; there are positive benefits from cultivating ongoing relationships. Nevertheless, it benefits audiences and encourages composers when conductors and music directors take it upon themselves to research and discover talent outside of their network. While it seems counterintuitive, there may be more equitable and challenging programming with fewer calls for scores and more promotion of work originating outside existing circles.

Musicologist William Robin examines these “micro-social” circles in his dissertation, A Scene Without a Name: Indie Classical and American New Music in the Twenty-First Century. His “approach is indebted to recent studies of the politics of social relations between composers and performers of new music.” Robin writes:

My focus on institutions allows for an orientation towards the micro-social. Their creation and preservation is predicated on overlapping networks, both internally—among composers, performers, and administrators—and externally—with music critics, funding sources, and audiences.

Robin shows that micro-social circles are driving forces in the new music industrial complex and workplace today. Robin briefly looks at ageism and New York geo-centrism, but he misses opportunities to interrogate how micro-social connections might also be affected by racism, sexism, socioeconomics, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and so on. These biases and prejudices surely affect new music micro-social circles and the new music professional landscape.

Remedies and Strategies

Particularly where music intersects education and social activism, there is a growing body of published research and recommendations. Oxford University Press has published a Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education that is “concerned with ameliorating social inequities affecting marginalized or underserved children and groups.” It looks at policy reforms, emerging feminisms, ableism, gender and sexual diversity, youth in detention centers, and a myriad of other concerns in 42 chapters. This is an excellent entry point for educators in both K-12 and higher education.

When our children do not see teachers who look and live like they do, they may not envision themselves in positions as teachers, conductors, composers, and leaders themselves.

College educator Joshua Palkki wrote in a Smartmusic blog post, “Because our classrooms are a microcosm of society at large, it is worth exploring how issues of diversity and inclusion influence music education. Furthermore, when our children do not see teachers who look and live like they do, they may not envision themselves in positions as teachers, conductors, composers, and leaders themselves. If we do not provide those models, we are not fully serving our students.” Palkki recommends creating safe environments, creating community, being inclusive, aware, reaching out, and championing the stories of others.

A tweet from African American activist Kayla Reed stands out as a powerful recommendation for folks who would like to help. Reed proposes four behaviors or mindsets for people who would like to be an “ALLY”:

A- always center the impacted
L- listen & learn from those who live in the oppression
L- leverage your privilege
Y- yield the floor

I would like to look at these recommendations and translate them into concrete examples.

A: Always Center the Impacted

Throwing a benefit, fundraiser, or town hall should not be a means of self-promotion. It should not be seized as an opportunity to moderate or present oneself as an authority on social justice activism, even if such mantle may be rightfully claimed. If organizational leaders are knowledgeable or active within social justice movements, this is an opportunity to welcome impacted colleagues to lead, present, or moderate a discussion. If organizational leaders do not know impacted people, this is a great opportunity to reach out and make those connections. Activism often involves research, communication, and the building of bridges and consensus. Sometimes the best way to help is for institutional leaders to step aside and center impacted communities and colleagues.

Here’s an example of an event that went terribly wrong. The Hollywood Reporter hosted an Animation Roundtable: Seth Rogen and 6 More on Avoiding Ethnic Stereotypes and How to “Break the Mold” of Princesses. What could go wrong? Well, it was widely noted within the animation community that the impacted were not centered; the panel was made up of seven white men. Criticism appeared right away in the Huffington Post, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and on the industry site Cartoon Brew. No doubt these men were important figures in the world of animation. But the failure to center the impacted undermined the panel’s legitimacy and underscored how their films and perspectives, although well intentioned, still failed sensitivities to ethnic and gender stereotyping.

A better approach would have been to invite women and people of color who work in animation at any level to come and discuss the same subject. What are their experiences? What are their recommendations? What can they tell us about the current crop of animated films?

L: Listen & Learn from Those Who Live in the Oppression

If you’d like to help, it might be best to listen rather than reiterate your punditry. To ask how new music can help the marginalized and vulnerable begs the question: shouldn’t we be reaching out to affected people directly and asking them what they need, as opposed to soul-searching in isolation?

If you’d like to help, it might be best to listen.

Within our music community, there are a variety of existing organizations we can reach out to for advice and expertise. There’s an online community around the Africlassical blog. There’s the International Alliance for Women in Music, Women in Music, New York Women Composers Inc., and The Alliance for Women Film Composers. There are hundreds of LGBTQ choruses with an umbrella organization, GALA Choruses. There are academics studying the transgender voice. On social media, there are groups such as the National Museum of African American Music, Black Composers, African American Classical Music, and The Asian American Librettists, Composers and Lyricists Project. These groups and many others offer an entrée into a world of musicians who are already engaged in social justice concerns and have existing expertise, contacts, ideas, and strategies.

We should take care not to presume to know someone’s story, to assume how they are privileged or marginalized, without learning their history or background. Many things do not always appear on the surface: gender identity, racial identity, disability, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status, history of activism, civil disobedience, or arrest record. There are many possible intersections, and many surprises. One classic moment happened with vlogger and cultural critic Jay Smooth, founder of Ill Doctrine, in conversation with CBS commentator Nancy Giles on the subject of Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign. Giles seemed to believe that Smooth was “appropriating black mannerisms.” Smooth quipped, “I’m a rap guy,” then spelled things out for Giles, “I’m actually black, but you assumed otherwise, and this is the sort of awkwardness we can look forward to at Starbucks across America.”

We can listen and learn from many in our own community. Much of the musical avant-garde has come from radical queers, women, and people of color who have thrived outside traditional avenues of “success,” people like Julius Eastman, Pauline Oliveros, Bob Ostertag, Arthur Russell, Claude Vivier, Pamela Z, and M. Lamar, to name a few.

L: Leverage Your Privilege

We should acknowledge that those of us able to work in music are quite privileged. Even if we struggle to pay rent on a tiny apartment, we are privileged to work in a field of our choice in a rarefied community. There are ways for us to leverage our privilege.

Andrew Norman

Andrew Norman, winner of the prestigious Grawemeyer prize, spoke to Tom Huizenga of NPR and used the opportunity to address systemic racism and misogyny in new music:

This award has been given to three women out of its 30-year history. And to me that’s kind of an issue. And in all honesty, I’m a white man and I get lots of commissions and there are systemic reasons for that, reasons we should all be talking about. There are so many talented composers out there. Rather than giving me another commission, why aren’t we giving those people a commission? The canon is so overwhelmingly white and male, but we can use new music to fix that problem.

Norman, still young, has enjoyed a meteoric rise. It would have been easy for him to internalize his success and affect his own exceptionalism. The arts industrial complex has a habit of heaping awards upon the same “usual suspects” like a slowly rising conveyor belt you better jump on while you are young. A communal notion of exceptionalism encourages the idea that “new music” can “help.” These notions of exceptionalism are not unique to high art. Critic Ann Powers, in “The Problem With The Grammys Is Not A Problem We Can Fix,” notes that:

For white people, to acknowledge institutional racism is to recognize our place in it and to become prepared to move from that comfortable spot. Yet the little voice of assumed exceptionalism often convinces us that we can stay there and fight the good fight. Feeling exceptional is a privilege in itself. … Exceptionalism contradicts systematic truths and seems to solve the most deeply embedded social problems. And we all crave it. Everyone who benefits from these structures wants to believe they are natural.

Norman leveraged his privilege by speaking out on NPR. Perhaps one day he will sit on a committee himself where he can commission marginalized composers. Not all of us have the opportunity to speak on NPR, but there are other ways of leveraging privilege beyond the bully pulpit: lobbying organizations from within; writing a check; providing legal or logistical assistance to people engaged in civil disobedience; using our connections to board members and major donors to help shift commissioning and concert programming; using our connections to the media to help set agendas and shift coverage; and so on.

Y: Yield the Floor

On February 12, the Artists’ Political Action Network (APAN) held an organizing meeting in Los Angeles. Members of the Hammer Artists Council organized the meeting, but it was not held at the Hammer Museum, but at 356 S. Mission Road, a gallery space in the gentrifying Boyle Heights area. Defend Boyle Heights anti-gentrification activists picketed, interrupted, and protested the meeting with chants such as, “A gentrifying space is not a safe space.” This was an opportunity for APAN Hammer folks to yield the floor rather than counter that “gentrification” was already listed in their PowerPoint. Yielding the floor creates opportunities to listen and learn. Both groups, APAN and Defend Boyle Heights, are well positioned to do good work; afterwards, some people from either group met outside and talked, sharing concerns and ideas.

During the APAN meeting, attendees came up with a list of 150 potential subcommittee issues. These included issues like immigration rights, gerrymandering, and environmental issues, but only one issue related to the arts: diversity in gallery representation. This is one issue where a group of visual artist-activists really have especial knowledge and opportunities. It is here they could really affect change and use their connections and expertise.

My point is that if you really want to work on immigration rights or gerrymandering, for example, there are many existing groups for that, and it would be beneficial to look for people and groups already doing that work. There is nothing wrong with donating time or money directly to groups like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. The idea of creating a new “immigrants rights committee” to speak for others when the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and many other organizations already exist seems a little self-serving. You may have special expertise within your field that allows you to do unique work, and that is worthy of consideration.

I ask us to consider what we can do that is unique to our own knowledge and access. We have systemic racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and misogyny within our own institutions and micro-social networks. I believe that by tackling these issues within our own institutions and networks, we can affect change in a meaningful way. We should certainly partner with other organizations and build bridges to other communities in the arts and social justice worlds. But helping others demands humility and self-awareness as well.

Now I yield the floor, to you.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky

Jack Curtis Dubowsky is the author of Intersecting Film, Music, and Queerness (2016 Palgrave Macmillan), and composer of Harvey Milk: A Cantata.

Sonic Uprising: Songs for Freddie Gray

Baltimore Uprising

Photo by Noah Scialom

It was Saturday, April 25, 2015. The intersection of Light Street and Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore was filled with protestors and cars were trapped in a gridlock, unable to move through the throngs of marchers. Drivers honked wildly, but not the angry, frustrated honking that normally comes from cars stuck in traffic. It was a ceremonious group-honking coming relentlessly from at least ten different cars. A solitary protestor walked between lanes chanting, “All night, all day, we will honk for Freddie Gray!” The cars honked in solidarity with the thousands of protestors on foot, and for a nerdy composer like me, it was a symphony of microtonal polyrhythms. I got out my phone to take low-quality audio field recordings.

It’s been four months now since the peak of the Baltimore Uprising, city-wide protests sparked by the death of the 25-year-old African-American man Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. As a white member of the arts community in Baltimore, I’ve felt a heavy combination of the pressure to do something paired with a total loss as far as what I should do ever since. If there is one thing I have learned in the past weeks, it’s that the first thing to do is listen. Sit down, quiet your mouth and your mind, and just listen.

I’ve been listening. I’ve heard folks talking about how they or their sons could just as easily have been Freddie Gray. I’ve heard an artist question why the African-American arts community in Baltimore isn’t more welcomed into an annual city-funded arts event. I’ve heard Maryland State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announce the charges against the six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, ruled at that moment officially as a homicide, in an impassioned speech that served as a turning point in the unrest. I’ve also heard a lot of creative work generated in reaction to the Uprising. Music has a unique way of giving voice to feelings, and it’s no surprise that Baltimore’s local musicians responded quickly and intensely.

One potent example came from jazz pianist and composer Lafayette Gilchrist, in collaboration with R&B singer-songwriter Brooks Long. Titled “Blues for Freddie Gray,” this piece of music ends with the lyric, “We’ve been waiting for so long,” set against the swirling horns that Gilchrist has assembled for the signature strange, full, and beautiful sound of his band, the New Volcanoes. Whenever I catch the group, which plays semi-regularly at the Windup Space in Baltimore’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District, I’m reminded of the denser parts of one of my favorite Radiohead songs, “Life in a Glass House.” The difference is, Radiohead sets that mood for about 25 seconds, while Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes routinely let it go on for upwards of 25 minutes. In “Blues for Freddie Gray,” the horns sound like that feeling we all had in Baltimore right after the really intense part of the Uprising, the Monday of Gray’s funeral, when protests turned violent and Mayor Stephanie Rawlins Blake called in the National Guard and imposed a city-wide (and a lot of people say, unconstitutional) curfew. The best word I can think of to describe the feeling is overwrought. But better than a word is the sound of the music. Long’s lyrics here are powerful, but general. You can hear this same phenomenon in so many protest songs. From Bob Dylan’s “The answer my friend/ Is blowing in the wind” to Rage Against the Machine’s “Fuck you/ I won’t do what you tell me” to the African-American spiritual “We shall not be moved,” the non-specificity of the lyrics allows room for people to attach their own particular interpretation to the songs, and to feel a deep sense of solace, at least for the few minutes the song lasts.

I was amazed by how quickly the hip hop community responded to the crisis by posting recordings online. It’s as if they were sitting at home at night—because they couldn’t be out after 10 p.m.—making immediate and potent music about what was happening in the city. Before the six-night curfew had lifted, Damond Blue dropped “Oh Baltimore,” produced by D Banks. The song opens with a BBC news clip about the Uprising and continues with searing verses about the struggle of being a young African-American man in Baltimore, combined with quotes from Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” from 1977 (and covered famously by Nina Simone the next year). Blue uses quotes from the song, rather than actual samples.

On May 20, rappers Young Moose and Martina Lynch released “No SunShine,” a song and video about the Uprising. The video opens with a lengthy sample of Bill Wither’s famous ballad “Ain’t No Sunshine” (1971) with footage of protestor Larry Lomax wearing a “Fuck the Police” shirt while being maced in the face at point blank range and pulled by his hair to the ground. This is followed by video of Kollin Truss being punched by Baltimore police officer Vincent Cosom at a bus stop back in June of 2014 and then it cuts abruptly to footage of the violent protests of 2015, cut with shots of Young Moose and Martina Lynch rapping within a crowd. Much of the rapping takes place in front of street artist Nether’s giant mural of Freddie Gray’s face, painted onto a wall at the site of Gray’s arrest in West Baltimore. The most heartbreaking part of the video is the young kids standing with the rappers, holding up their fists in solidarity. Martina Lynch packs an incredible amount of information into 35 seconds of rapping about the situation, with an especially poignant line “the police don’t know me, but they wanna take out my whole team.”

It is notable that both rap songs include quotes from songs from the 1970s. Just like the traffic cone 18-year-old Allan Bullock picked up to smash a police car window on the day the protests turned into riots, the musicians grabbed pre-existing material in order to react as quickly as possible to what was happening in their city. Bullock became famous for doing the right thing and turning himself in, under his parents’ guidance, only to be held on $500,000 bail—higher than any of the six police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest.

Lafayette Gilchrist, Brooks Long, Damond Blue, Young Moose, Martina Lynch: Are their voices being heard outside of Baltimore? I wonder if anyone reading this essay who is not from Baltimore has ever heard any of their work. But I’ll bet you’ve heard the work of Beach House, Dan Deacon, Future Islands, Animal Collective, or Lower Dens, or at least have heard their names. The so-called “Baltimore sound” is being created almost solely by white artists. Don’t get me wrong, I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for these voices. Lower Den’s singer Jana Hunter just wrote a thought-provoking, shit-stirring op-ed for Pitchfork titled “White Privilege and Black Lives in the Baltimore Music Scene.” But just as saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter” is offensive because it minimizes the racism built in to our current system, we need to try to figure out how to make changes in order to hear more African-American voices in the arts. Hunter was clearly thinking along these lines when she used her essay to also create a platform for rapper Abdu Ali to speak directly to Pitchfork’s readership. However, it begs the question: why didn’t Ali write the article himself? Why didn’t Pitchfork reach out to him for an op-ed?

After reflecting on Hunter’s essay and countless others echoing similar sentiments in the past three months, it seems to me that the same systemic problems that sparked the Baltimore Uprising in the first place have hindered the possibility for African-American voices to communicate about these issues across geography. Creative work in a time and place of crisis is essential to a community coping with tragedy and can become a necessary and powerful agent of change. If we truly believe that black lives matter, it’s essential that we commit to hearing what their voices have to say.

Rest in peace, Freddie Gray.

Baltimore Uprising

Photo by Noah Scialom


I generally feel a sense of self-righteous satisfaction when scientific research (the kind with reproducible results) once again reveals evidence supporting my personal non-peer-reviewed theories and beliefs about music functioning as a fabric to weave and tailor the wardrobes of our lives with. So, I was happy to read about the research from Finland that proves that we are able to respond to music before we are born. Although the idea has been tossed around for quite a while, the study echoes one conducted in France nearly three years earlier that, while using different methods, came to the same conclusion: human beings are capable of apprehending and remembering music while in the womb. The concept that memories of our watery symbiotic prenatal sonic environment are transported into the world of air-breathing individuation lends support to a theory I have about the practice of regulating the temporal experience by dividing it into a series of motoric units. These units, be they global (hours, minutes, seconds) or local (whole note, half note, quarter note), are as arbitrary a way to measure time as equal temperament is to measure an octave.

Given that our gestational sonic environment is unarguably rich, the predominant sound heard is the uneven rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat with a ratio that approximates the Golden Mean. (The ratio varies, though, depending on one’s general health, state of mind, and level of physical activity.) The tempo of a heartbeat for an adult at rest ranges between 60 and 100 beats per minute and, moreover, the volume levels of the two beats making up the rhythmic pattern are different. The heartbeat that an unborn human hears when its mother is healthy, relaxed, and in a good frame of mind sounds very similar to the drumming patterns that accompany Native American round or “friendship” dances. In Native American music, evenly spaced drum pulses are mostly used in competitive or “fancy” dances. They sound similar to the heartbeat of someone engaged in intense physical activity.

My theory goes that we unconsciously equate irregular rhythms with security, safety, and community, especially rhythms that resemble the human heartbeat, such as the Charleston rhythm of jazz or the bombo – ponche bass line heard in the tresillo-style tumbao of Latin music. These rhythms, I believe, were in common use in America before the arrival of European colonists. Modern American music, though, is primarily the result of Eurocentric philosophy, technology, and pedagogy, and its largely tacit hegemonic foundation of super-cultural fathers currently supports the idea that these rhythmic elements were imported to the New World as part of the African Diaspora. This would suggest that jazz, which is officially America’s indigenous art form and born out of a push for inclusion of African Americans in mainstream American culture, is non-inclusive of the indigenous New World cultures that predate by millennia the trans-Atlantic colonization of the Western Hemisphere. But the push has been an obvious success, despite the inability of so many melanin-challenged brothers and sisters to accept that white supremacy is very near the root of our nation’s woes, and there are many who believe that African-American inclusion will lead to an egalitarian culture recognizing a broader base of diversity. So hope stays alive while artists like Vijay Iyer, Fred Ho, Jennifer Leitham, Fred Hersch, Cynthia Hilts, Joris Teepe, Cecil Taylor, Bobby Sanabria, Joanne Brackeen, Arturo O’Farrill, and Wayne Wallace exemplify how, no matter how one negotiates the Great American Culture Machine, diversity is key.

As a side note, I would like to think that the Kaheri Quartet, who celebrated the release of their first CD last month, is part of this trend, especially since—along with guitarist Omar Tamez, pianist Angelica Sanchez, and drummer Satoshi Takeishi—I’m a member of it and we plan to record our second CD in a few weeks. Kaheri’s music is about improvisation, both structured and not. While it’s not a new concept, what is unique to the group is the addition of non-African elements to the mix. While it is truthfully said that all human experience can be traced to Africa, its musicological influence in Kaheri is filtered through several layers of diasporic timelines that include the pre-European indigenous elements that inform Tamez’s playing. Sanchez is well-known on the new music scene, especially for her collaborations with saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Tom Rainey. Takeishi is from Mito, Japan, but spent years working in Columbia, South America, on projects that combined elements of folk, jazz, and classical music.

The international aspect of Kaheri is one that mirrors how jazz studies has become international as well, and the publicly funded Jazzinstitut Darmstadt offers a service that scans through the headlines of leading newspapers for jazz-related news items. One story that caught my eye was an interview with saxophonist Dave Rempis. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Rempis has made Chicago, Illinois, his home for the last 15 years. Like Tamez, Rempis is an organizer as well as a performer and improviser. He performs as part of a group, The Vandermark 5, that takes a unique approach to alternative groove-based jazz. Rempis’s playing is high energy and steeped in the aesthetic of post-Albert Ayler avant-garde and free-jazz movements. In his interview, he is asked the question that I feel is at the heart of this post: “Do you ever think of social progress and playing music in the same breath?” His answer, although coming from the right place, reflects a problem with how jazz as an American art form is perceived and/or taught in America:

The history of jazz and social progress are deeply intertwined on every level, from the first racially mixed groups that Benny Goodman led and made no compromises with, to Max Roach’s groundbreaking Freedom Now Suite, and up through current times, whether it be in regards to the various wars this country has undertaken in recent years, or to social movements such as gay rights. On a less explicit level, jazz is inherently a music that allows for meaningful personal expression without necessarily sacrificing group integrity, and the balance of those things between the musicians offers a model for possibilities within the society at large.

As was mentioned in a previous post, the racially diverse groups led by Benny Goodman were formed at the behest of his agent, John Hammond; Goodman’s participation was a compromise. Besides, the push to include subaltern musicians in “mainstream” society went back at least to James Reese Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra playing at Carnegie Hall in 1912, twenty-six years before Goodman. (Notice that his first name is abbreviated to “Jas.” on the poster.) If one wants to suggest a “great white hope” for integration in the jazz age, probably credit should be given to Vernon and Irene Castle, the ballroom dancing stars who popularized the fox trot and employed Europe’s “Society Orchestra” to accompany them in the same year. Another problem is to use the We Insist! (subtitled Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite) (Candid Records, 1960) as an endpoint for jazz as a force for social change. John Coltrane recorded “Alabama,” dedicated to the victims of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama, in 1963 and New Thing At Newport (Impulse!, 1965) mostly featured the politically outspoken music of Archie Shepp. Saxophonist Joe Henderson’s Milestone release, If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem, was recorded at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach in 1970. Jim Pepper’s first recording as a leader, Pepper’s Pow Wow (Embryo, 1971), includes two Peter La Farge tunes, “Senecas (As Long as the Grass Shall Grow)” and “Drums,” both about the mistreatment of Native Americans, as well as the traditional, “Nommie Nommie (When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder),” a tongue-in-cheek version of the Methodist spiritual. Mingus alumni and trumpet virtuoso Jack Walrath recorded his A Plea For Sanity in 1983 for Stash Records, and the work of Fred Ho (Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon!, Innova Records, 2010) has never been disassociated with his political activism. In short, jazz is still very much part of the push for social change.

The music/social commentary connection isn’t limited to contemporary African-American musical forms either. Part of the Mozart effect could be the inclusion of the political views suggested in The Magic Flute or Zaide. Of course Dimitri Shostakovich is another figure from European art music who managed to include social commentary in his music. In America, Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and John Corigliano have all used music to promote social commentary, but these are and were individuals whose vision was tp use their talents to create great music and see it performed. To the Great American Culture Machine, music is still mainly seen as a pastime marketed primarily to sexually frustrated adolescents with enough money to buy new releases. My concern is that the new research mentioned earlier won’t lead to the creation of a consumer class via pre-natal indoctrination. While this suggestion might be nothing more than the result of a fatalistic imagination working overtime, there are social issues that need to be addressed with louder voices more now than ever.

To be continued…