Decolonizing Classical Music


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I hate articles like this.  I hate non-specialists intruding into specialist territory.

Instead of shrugging, "Who cares what Music Conservatory students study at particular schools?" Stories like this are met with a ridiculous summoned rage.

Who cares what is considered in the Canon?  Not most of the people pretending they care, that's for sure.

Obviously, some of us fogeys on Maestronet care, but there's no reason for mainstream news to cover the topic so breathlessly with so many buzzwords.

The article gives Black Lives Matter all the "credit" for modernization of the curriculum, and BLM is definitely a catalyst, but anyone who's graduated from a top tier music conservatory in the past decades can tell you that the "broken curriculum" is well-trodden ground.

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I never studied music beyond highschool but would have loved to study at a conservatory and learn all of the standards in classical music.  Honestly, to me, nothing better than Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Mahler, Bartok, etc... In fact, if I was good enough to study at a top tier music school and I had to learn K-pop or Bluegrass (no offense to either), I would be disappointed. That is my personal taste.  

Now, if one were to look at my itunes collection, the last four songs played are Charlie Daniels' Orange Blossom Special, CN Blue, Hendrix All Along the Watchtower, and Lauryn Hill's Killing Me Softly.  Doesn't mean I want to study these genres.  

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4 hours ago, violinnewb said:

I never studied music beyond highschool but would have loved to study at a conservatory and learn all of the standards in classical music.  Honestly, to me, nothing better than Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Mahler, Bartok, etc... In fact, if I was good enough to study at a top tier music school and I had to learn K-pop or Bluegrass (no offense to either), I would be disappointed. That is my personal taste.  

Now, if one were to look at my itunes collection, the last four songs played are Charlie Daniels' Orange Blossom Special, CN Blue, Hendrix All Along the Watchtower, and Lauryn Hill's Killing Me Softly.  Doesn't mean I want to study these genres.  

So, I think you've identified the issue pretty well.

Updating the curriculum wouldn't remove Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Mahler, Bartok, etc...  You named essential names at the heart of the canon.  They'll be retained for the next several decades, no problem.

But, I'll tell you, Bach shines less brightly when in the context of a smattering of high Baroque and Renaissance composers. Palestrina, des Prez, Gesualdo, duFay, Monteverdi, de Lassus, Dowland, Ockhegem, Byrd, Handel, Rameau, Vivaldi, Purcell, Lully, Couperin, Corelli, etc. . . etc. . . 

And those Romantics you listed... obviously, there are dozens of contemporaries of theirs you didn't list, and you made it as far as Bartok... let me tell you, until you've been forced to "understand" the "theory" of the Second Viennese School, you've haven't been subjected to arcane knowledge.  And then the minimalists and the composers obsessed with stochastic music and the introduction of electronics, etc. . .

All of these various avenues of study were legitimate enough.  All of them taught me something.  I won't argue against them particularly.  But, surely, you see that if students are forced to take 5 semesters of music history in a row, there is room to update the curriculum.  Plenty of room.  5 semesters of core history and then elective semesters!

Same with the theory. 4 semesters of Theory followed by an elective semester.  Multiple levels of Keyboard skills and Aural skills courses are also normal.

There is so much room in the curriculum!!

(Obviously, the article said something about removing Beethoven or doing less Beethoven, but that seems much less likely than shrinking the bloated Renaissance/Baroque curriculum.  I happen to love that stuff, but some places still spend a whole year on it.)

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Perhaps the media and academic people who are agonizing over this issue are too focused on their colons to begin with.  :ph34r:  :lol:  outtahere.gif..gif.0117a8de37793633d2417f410e289a0d.gif

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There's something I keep missing in all of this...and I don't quite understand how to frame the question/confusion...but here goes nothing:

I understand that certain classical composers might be overrepresented, and less prominent (but just as talented) composers might be underrepresented.  Those composers include women and people of colour (by that I mean non-caucasians).

I understand that all music degrees need not be standard classical music degrees.  And why not?  Lots of music out there to learn about!

But I don't quite understand why classical music, which is predominantly written by rich white men, needs to be 'watered down' (for lack of a better phrase) to make it more accommodating.  It is what it is.  If you change things too much, it won't be the study of classical music anymore.

If I wanted to learn, for the sake of argument, Hindustani music - it wouldn't occur to me to demand that non-Indian composers be included or that instruments I'm more comfortable using should be used instead of traditional instruments, or that I had to sit in a chair instead of on a floor (er, unless for health reasons), etc., because the point of my being there is to learn that style of music.

So, when I read things like:

Quote

According to the documents, faculty members, who decide on courses within the music degree, also suggest learning skills like playing the piano, or conducting orchestras, should no longer be compulsory. Academics say these skills “structurally centre [around] white European music”, causing some “students of colour great distress”.

..then I really don't understand.  If white-guy classical music requires knowledge of playing the piano (even at a very basic level) and/or conducting...but students are distressed...why are they even there?  You don't HAVE to go to University to become a musician.

However, if the crux of the matter is that institutions just need to expand the variety in their music departments, then that's fine.  Why not have basic introductory classes...and then the student can major in what ever they like, be it classical, folk, Hindustani, etc., just like most departments do.  I have a major, I have a minor, in my field of study.  I even have a major/minor in my Fine Arts program (never completed, due to life interfering...but am only a few classes short...so I almost made it!).  BTW...in my Fine Arts program (visual arts) I had to take music classes and drama classes...it's part of a well-rounded Fine Arts education.

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3 hours ago, Rue said:

But I don't quite understand why classical music, which is predominantly written by rich white men, needs to be 'watered down' (for lack of a better phrase) to make it more accommodating.  It is what it is.  If you change things too much, it won't be the study of classical music anymore.

I went to Music School not Classical Music School.

My degree is in Music not in Classical Music.

I studied Music Theory not Classical Music Theory.

I studied Music History not Classical Music History.

 

Some will say this semantic distinction is unimportant.  I think it represents an important way we think about and talk about music.

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5 hours ago, Stephen Fine said:

I went to Music School not Classical Music School.

My degree is in Music not in Classical Music.

I studied Music Theory not Classical Music Theory.

I studied Music History not Classical Music History.

 

Some will say this semantic distinction is unimportant.  I think it represents an important way we think about and talk about music.

Of course it’s important, but you learned western music. You play it, teach it, think in it, it dominates your musical world. And it should. Just as”Man” or “Mankind” refers to “Humanity” so too does “Music History” refer to western music. That’s why we identify the specific niche if we are specializing in NON western music, such as Ethno music history.
it is entirely possible to enjoy/teach/play reggae or sitar or Erhu, but those are peripheral to Western Music. It impossible to conceive of a Musical universe without Beethoven, or even without Gluck, but it is easy to ignore any of the peripheral genres without losing anything.

I haven’t read the article but I feel strongly that we learn the composers who deserve to be learned: for non-musical reasons, because they were historically significant, like Spohr, for instance, or because their music still lives, and that’s what matters.

There are rare composers who have been undeservedly forgotten, and I love discovering them. I’ve found a few who deserve general resuscitation, like Godard, but I have found no geniuses.

But we have plenty of geniuses, and studying them is both a duty and a delight.

Edited by PhilipKT
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When I read reactionary things like this article I wonder what people are thinking. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven I'm sure as white overlords treated their slaves very well (much sarcasm intentional). Bartok was not so well treated so to think of him as a privileged white guy is ridiculous, he struggled. To even use the phrase "white European music from the slave period" doesn't even apply to the situation. 

Possible changes to undergraduate courses include reducing the focus on canonic classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven, in a proposed move away from “white European music from the slave period”.

 

It was reported that professors questioning the music curriculum’s “complicity in white supremacy” also proposed a lighter focus on western music notation, allegedly described in the documents as a “colonialist representational system”

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9 hours ago, PhilipKT said:

Of course it’s important, but you learned western music. You play it, teach it, think in it, it dominates your musical world. And it should. Just as”Man” or “Mankind” refers to “Humanity” so too does “Music History” refer to western music. That’s why we identify the specific niche if we are specializing in NON western music, such as Ethno music history.
it is entirely possible to enjoy/teach/play reggae or sitar or Erhu, but those are peripheral to Western Music. It impossible to conceive of a Musical universe without Beethoven, or even without Gluck, but it is easy to ignore any of the peripheral genres without losing anything.

I haven’t read the article but I feel strongly that we learn the composers who deserve to be learned: for non-musical reasons, because they were historically significant, like Spohr, for instance, or because their music still lives, and that’s what matters.

There are rare composers who have been undeservedly forgotten, and I love discovering them. I’ve found a few who deserve general resuscitation, like Godard, but I have found no geniuses.

But we have plenty of geniuses, and studying them is both a duty and a delight.

If there were just a few schools studying Western Art Music AKA "Classical Music" you would have a good point, but in this melting pot of a country, almost every last one of our "Music Schools" teaches the same Western Art Music curriculum.

I'm glad we both agree that article is garbage.

Let me put my music history class thoughts in another way... Why spend 1 day on Ravel and Gamelan music but weeks or even months on the development from plainchant to counterpoint.  I see no reason why Gamelon music, geographically removed, is less relevant than Renaissance Music, temporally removed.  They are both important, they both are valuable to study.  They both inform what we do today.

 

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"learning skills like playing the piano, or conducting orchestras, should no longer be compulsory...[because it causes] some “students of colour great distress”.

Wow.  Really?  I would need to read the transcript of the actual interview with these faculty members.  Let's pick this one apart, shall we?

1. Learning skills like playing piano.  Piano is one of the, if not the most, universally standard instrument to learn.  And by the way, my piano is brown with yellow sun damage and black and white keys.  Pretty diversified if you ask me.  "Great distress"  C'mon.

2. Conducting.  Um...believe it or not, conducting is pretty much just leading, but in a much more comprehensive manner.  Let's stop having a concertmaster.  Let's stop having a band leader, or lead guitarist.  Let's stop having choir directors.  WTF does leadership, understanding the balancing of melodies and harmonies, understanding the balancing of dynamics, and arm calisthenics have to do with causing students of color "great distress?"  In fact, the modern conductor should be given credit for recognizing minorities and celebrating them.  The modern conductor began letting viola sections sit on the outside in place of the cello section and also reorganized the bass section so that we can see them by placing them more centrally.  To me, that's celebrating minorities! 

3. Compulsory?  Let's look at the polar opposite end of the spectrum.  Perhaps replacing compulsory piano and conducting with learning auto-tune and rhythm guitar would make things better? Wow.  

I hate articles and stories that: 1) do not fact-check, 2) do not use context, 3) use non-sequiturs, 4) present a perceived issue without presenting the correlating alternative, and 5) pretty much suck.  This article was poorly conceived, poorly written, and should be poorly received.  

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1 hour ago, Stephen Fine said:

If there were just a few schools studying Western Art Music AKA "Classical Music" you would have a good point, but in this melting pot of a country, almost every last one of our "Music Schools" teaches the same Western Art Music curriculum.

I'm glad we both agree that article is garbage.

Let me put my music history class thoughts in another way... Why spend 1 day on Ravel and Gamelan music but weeks or even months on the development from plainchant to counterpoint.  I see no reason why Gamelon music, geographically removed, is less relevant than Renaissance Music, temporally removed.  They are both important, they both are valuable to study.  They both inform what we do today.

 

I thought about that, and I did not spend one single minute studying plain chant, or Ambrosian chant, until I was a fully-fledged adult and was doing it on my own for pleasure. I did not study the history of notation, although I should have. But I strongly deny that gamelon music or tekno, or funk informs what I do today, even though I am constantly seeking out new music to study and enjoy.

The great composers seek inspiration everywhere. Haydn is perpetually Amazing because according to his own story he did not have any of that. He had to get guidance from himself. 
But back then travel was limited, you couldn’t get inspiration from the wilds of Africa or from a Caribbean island. If one had studied Ethnomusicalogy then It would have been limited to narrow niches within the European continent.

I know very little popular music, and some of it I like, much of it I detest, and little if any of it has lasting value(That is not necessarily a negative thing. Lots of old music was written for today and ignored by tomorrow.) and if all of it were gone, the only thing I would miss would be those elements that were effectively borrowed by Skilled composers who had something to say. I don’t like jazz, but I appreciate those elements of jazz used by Barber or Bernstein or Gershwin in their masterpieces, for instance.

The premise of this article is stupid. And I use the word literally. It is stupid to suggest that because a list of the hundred greatest composers would include 99 white males, that therefore music is culturally evil is ridiculous. It is even more stupid that someone might believe it.

Was Haydn a bad man because he accepted society as he found it? Of course not.

Wagner Was definitely a bad man. If it had suited his needs, he would definitely have been a racist, but in white Europe, he didn’t have a major opportunity. But he was without a doubt an anti-Semite, And was apparently without scruple of any kind. So what. His music speaks to us. His music forces us to remember him. And that’s OK.
 

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The article is not an outlier.  It reflects an influential broader cultural movement which is growing quickly.  It can't be dismissed with simple appeals to common sense--because it is an evolution from ideas about morality and knowledge that have been woven into our culture for a long time.

If 'the underdog' is your standard of value in ethics; or you believe that objectivity is a false idol, then you are part of the historical current of which this article is just one symptom.  To that extent you won't be able to fight the underlying movement because your arguments will be self-contradictory.  Such arguments are easy for a cultural movement to topple on its path to change.  They are just part of the process, they are cobblestones rather than barricades.

If you want to oppose this movement, then you'll want to educate yourself about its foundations, and carefully consider the various arguments and fundamental ideas of the public intellectuals who are attempting to challenge it.

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Cultural change is always slow, never in a straight line, and painful to those who want to preserve the status quo becuase they are the ones who benefit most from its preservation.

One only needs to study the biography of Marian Anderson, one of America's great classical singers, to understand the tremendous resistance she faced and how American culture and the status quo of the day changed because of her.

If the article says that a curriculum “structurally" centered around white European music taught by an “almost all-white faculty” is causing some “students of colour great distress,” then we should ask why that is rather than dismiss it as "stupid."

And @PhilipKT' s statement:

"The premise of this article is stupid. And I use the word literally. It is stupid to suggest that because a list of the hundred greatest composers would include 99 white males, that therefore music is culturally evil is ridiculous. It is even more stupid that someone might believe it."

This is a complete straw-man argument because nothing - nothing - in the article itself says anything about what he thinks is "stupid." Nothing in the article suggests that any music is "evil," and no list of the 100 greatest white male composers is even mentioned. 

I, for one, welcome the discussion on how "to think about widely taught ideas – from music, to history – in a more globally connected way." I think we all should welcome that discussion.

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1 hour ago, GeorgeH said:

I, for one, welcome the discussion on how "to think about widely taught ideas – from music, to history – in a more globally connected way." I think we all should welcome that discussion.

Thank you for getting to the heart of how and why the curriculum should shift.

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When people have been marginalized or even excluded from a society, it isn't surprised to see them reject the culture of the oppressors.  As for "classical" music there is much appreciation by members of minority groups, for example many African-American jazz musicians appreciate the materials of classical music.  There are music conservatories that offer studies from outside the classical mainstream, such as Berklee College of Music in Boston, and there are others. 

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18 hours ago, Andres Sender said:

The article is not an outlier.  It reflects an influential broader cultural movement which is growing quickly.  It can't be dismissed with simple appeals to common sense--because it is an evolution from ideas about morality and knowledge that have been woven into our culture for a long time.

If 'the underdog' is your standard of value in ethics; or you believe that objectivity is a false idol, then you are part of the historical current of which this article is just one symptom.  To that extent you won't be able to fight the underlying movement because your arguments will be self-contradictory.  Such arguments are easy for a cultural movement to topple on its path to change.  They are just part of the process, they are cobblestones rather than barricades.

If you want to oppose this movement, then you'll want to educate yourself about its foundations, and carefully consider the various arguments and fundamental ideas of the public intellectuals who are attempting to challenge it.

For me, its not about opposing the changes.  Its about making a cogent and logical argument.  The article fails to connect the dots as to why certain curriculum like conducting causes great distress amongst a minority group.  Now, if there was systemic and purposeful outing of minority groups to become conductors, okay...make that argument.  But outing, let's say the brass section of a symphony in its entirety, because Asians aren't well represented, or some non-sense like that, these arguments do very little for the movement.

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I didn't want to start a new thread, since this is also part of the conversation:

https://www.vulture.com/2021/03/tulsa-opera-fires-composer-one-line.html

Again, I understand the "big picture", but does this sort of thing help the big picture?

Has it come to point that any criticism or suggestion of an edit can be interpreted as racist?

Or do we have to go through these growing pains to achieve a balance?

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34 minutes ago, Rue said:

I didn't want to start a new thread, since this is also part of the conversation:

https://www.vulture.com/2021/03/tulsa-opera-fires-composer-one-line.html

Again, I understand the "big picture", but does this sort of thing help the big picture?

Has it come to point that any criticism or suggestion of an edit can be interpreted as racist?

Or do we have to go through these growing pains to achieve a balance?

Objectively speaking, and just based upon the article, I am confused as to how censorship of one word becomes racist because the composer is a minority and the subject matter of the opera is genocide.  

I recently watched an episode of a sitcom where a mixed race child refers to her grandparent as "black grandma."  The parent suggests just calling her "grandma."  There is a level of censorship that the parent suggested.  But, which party bears a race-driven motivation?  The parent or the child?  Clearly, the mixed-race child has no racially motivated reason to label her grandmother as black.

Now, fact of the matter is, the Tulsa Opera decommissioned this man's work.  That is their prerogative.  They commissioned the work knowing the opera would be about the senseless deaths of black people.  Then, the Tulsa Opera disagrees with a lyric that says "God damn America."  All of a sudden the motivation changes from encouraging a minority to compose a race-subject opera to cancelling him and the opera because the Tulsa Opera is racist?  wut?  I am simply not seeing enough facts to justify this as a racist move.  Maybe a religious discrimination move because how dare anyone say "God" damned America?  Maybe a political move because it isn't "patriotic" to say "God Damn America?" I dunno.

For the record, the reason for decommissioning the opera based upon the lyric, however legal it may be, was just plain stupid.  Also, opera? Really? Sorry not a fan of opera.  

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37 minutes ago, violinnewb said:

Objectively speaking, and just based upon the article, I am confused as to how censorship of one word becomes racist because the composer is a minority and the subject matter of the opera is genocide.  

Because the white artistic director (Tobias Picker) should not have been suggesting changes to the black singer to soften the lyrics without even discussing it with the black composer. Furthermore, Picker's comments afterwards continue to show a complete insensitivity to why the black composer objected to his actions.

 

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Not quite.  I've 'colour-coded' the following  (because colour is part of the issue):

Daniel Roumain (black) composed (and was paid for) an aria commemorating the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Denyce Graves (black) didn't want to sing the words "God damn America".

Curator Tobias Picker (white) and co-curator Howard Watkins (black) suggested a change to "God help America'.

Daniel Roumain refused the word change.  

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36 minutes ago, Rue said:

Curator Tobias Picker (white) and co-curator Howard Watkins (black) suggested a change to "God help America'.

It is complicated!

On reading it more closely, after Graves emailed Roumain and Picker that she “bristled” at the line, only Tobias Picker suggested the lyric change in his emailed reply to back to both Denyce Graves and Daniel Roumain.

Picker suggested that Roumain could repeat “God bless America” or change to “God help America. 

As best I can tell, Howard Watkins only confirmed the events took place.

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33 minutes ago, Rue said:

Not quite.  I've 'colour-coded' the following  (because colour is part of the issue):

Daniel Roumain (black) composed (and was paid for) an aria commemorating the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Denyce Graves (black) didn't want to sing the words "God damn America".

Curator Tobias Picker (white) and co-curator Howard Watkins (black) suggested a change to "God help America'.

Daniel Roumain refused the word change.  

Exactly.  The article is truly about lawful censorship.  That is it.  

Look, I am a racial minority.  I protested with #metoo, BLM, and recently with Anti-Asian racism protests.  But I am also a sufficiently intelligent person.  For media to convince me that racism is afoot, media has to do it within the realm of logic and facts, which in turn can lead to reasonable inferences.  This article, and the OP article, fails to do so.  

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