Racial Diversity in Classical Music

How many of you winced upon reading the title? It’s hard to discuss race without involving strong emotions, because there’s usually a perceived confrontation of some kind. There’s also an implied demand for change, which always goes over well. /s

Speaking about race in classical music is no exception. In fact, there’s a special, strange kind of slipperiness that’s attached to the subject in our art form. Good people have attempted to make it stickier so we can grapple with it, and I’ll try to contribute to the cause.

First things first. A few of you must be thinking, “What is this classical music of which he speaks? The terminology is problematic. ‘Classical’ is merely an era in the history of our art. Composers have evolved in very surprising ways that barely dangle from the scalp of historical tradition by a malnourished hair. It’s not all Vivaldi and Mozart.” Verbatim, right? 

As a starting point, let’s use a standard definition. Classical music is a Western musical tradition that uses a sophisticated and fairly standardized method of notation, with rich examples and methods for organizing and developing musical ideas, and with which certain instruments and types of ensembles are typically associated.

Even if we try to escape from the weight of stuffy associations to create a more dynamic identity by calling what we do “art music”, let’s be honest: We can’t escape the historical paper trail.

We also can’t escape the fact that classical music/art music/whatever-you-call-it is basically a white art form. (Full disclosure: I’m not white. I’m Indian-Korean-American. Depending on degree of exposure to sun and fresh air, I vary from a deep brown to something unpleasantly tinged with green.) If we say that historically, the majority of composers and performers of classical music have been and are white, would we be far from the truth? As an aside, we could say the same about classical music’s first cousin, film scoring.

Calling something white arguably ignores the diversity within that appellation. Can we truly put Italians and Brits in the same group? Haven’t Europeans warred against each other since time immemorial, and doesn’t each nation have its own well-defined culture? Which populations in America would qualify as white? Haven’t there been people currently considered white that have historically suffered from discrimination?

Yes, “white” is a fluid and unsubtle term, but I think most people would agree that it’s hard to ignore the historical evidence that it has substance. The fact of the matter is that white is a reality today, and it’s a term that has useful application. When racial diversity is mentioned in the classical music world, we all know that white is the status quo. (I’m focusing on race in this post, but let me just say WTF about an entire gender being excluded from the status quo.)

Here’s an ingredient in the slipperiness I mentioned. You might argue that the concept of race is a symptom of ignorance rather than the truth, that humans are so genetically similar that skin color is trivial; therefore, race shouldn’t be applied to art, which reflects even greater truths. Race doesn’t matter in art, does it? Race doesn’t really matter in life, right? We’re all human and bleed red. As a mixed child who grew up in America, of essentially three cultural heritages, I of all people should see that race doesn’t matter.

It sounds superficially nice, but saying “race doesn’t matter” is problematic. First, many people believe that race does matter, which has very real and terrible effects on many other people. Second, there are incredibly important and beautiful ways in which different races and cultures approach life, which should be celebrated. Third, saying race doesn’t matter doesn’t actively advance the cause of making the idea of race obsolete. Fourth, racial diversity can be an indicator of how well an art form addresses common human experience.

If race doesn’t matter, then our art should pass some simple tests. How many people of different colored skin attend classical music concerts? Let me put it another way. If we look at the entirety of the repertoire that forms classical music/art music, how often is the music sourced from yellow, brown, or black people?

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Classical music is essentially a Western tradition, so its historical whiteness is not surprising. Enough people find the current lack of diversity surprising enough to start discussing remedies. The weight of history, social and economic causes, biases, and other things with a lot of inertia contribute to the status quo. I have a theory about another ingredient that contributes to the elusive slipperiness, something that prevents meaningful conversation about meaningful diversity. It’s a myth perpetuated by musicians, presenters, and organizations.

In an interview during my early teens, I was asked what I love about classical music. “It’s a universal language!” I enthused in an earnest, breaking voice. I cringe now, because looking back, the lie to that answer was basically at home. My grandfather, who is Indian (from India) used to tell me, “I frankly don’t understand the sounds that come out of your violin, but I think they must be okay because other people applaud when you’re finished!” He’s a very well-read, cultured man with a poetic soul. I used to be baffled when other Indian relatives would imitate the music I played by moaning in a strangely tuneless and rhythmless fashion. Now I understand: That’s what a lot of it sounds like to them! They’re not unmusical people. They can charmingly sing Hindustani music in tune and in time.

You might be thinking: Maybe Kevin’s violin playing is strangely tuneless and rhythmless. My point is that we treat classical music as if it’s a universal language. When I use the term “universal language”, I don’t just mean that it’s something everyone can speak and understand. We also think it’s capable of expressing everything worth expressing. And we think it’s transcendent.

We musicians reinforce each other’s belief that we’re engaged in a purely artistic pursuit, that our idealism is necessary to properly serve the great treasure of music that humanity is entitled to and which we are fortunate to play. The music itself powerfully embodies so much of the human condition. Then there’s the beauty of the interpretive art, which goes from one extreme to another. On one hand, it presupposes that we each have souls that are unique from all others, made from mysterious and elemental material, which we constantly try to reveal from beneath all the human dross. On the other hand, there is the entire range of human experience to explore, with all its flaws and virtues, from the most terrible to the most glorious. In either case, there is very little room for expressing much beyond our inner worlds. And can we really claim authenticity for anything more than our own individual interpretation? I’m American, but my concept of America can be very different from another American’s. The same can obviously be said for any two people of any race, gender, or culture.

We’re trained to believe that the clearly articulated expression of one’s soul and a deep connection with the written music are supreme and central to our art. If we connect to each other as individual human beings first, how can race, gender, and culture fail to dissolve before the face of our Art? Teachers, colleagues, and personal conviction all push us towards believing that classical music is universal, that our art transcends any differences to express the core of the human condition to everyone.

That’s what it means to us, on a good day. It’s also why talking about race seems to be beneath us, maybe even crass. We may reach that colorless state of consciousness while performing, but there is something important to acknowledge. Regardless of our admirable intentions, we communicate through a specific language that we spend years learning and refining. Our listeners may or may not comprehend that language.

We need to be high-minded about our art, but we can’t hold it apart from the world. Classical music isn’t a universal language. Different cultures and different times have their own musical languages. There’s a difference in the scales and modes used, the harmonies, rhythms, ornaments, aesthetic values, the sonic idioms that become commonplace and recognizable, the cultural touchstones. It’s difficult for some people to understand a particular language if they don’t grow up listening to it. They may even find that the language doesn’t truly capture the particular juiciness of their emotions and thoughts. These aren’t new ideas, yet the myth of universality is persistent. I think it’s quite naive and maybe dangerous.

Do we as a community sometimes behave like anyone who doesn’t “get” classical music is lame or would understand it if only they were educated or improved in some way? The music might express the mystery of existence or some immortal truth if you understand the language, not despite that important aspect. It’s just one musical way to approach an ultimate revelation or state of consciousness. To say otherwise would be like saying only one religion is the right one.

We also risk false inclusiveness and glossing over biases to operate from a position of immunity. Why has classical music been divorced from general societal conversations about recognizing and overcoming problems concerning gender and race?

The intersection between universal language myth and race is here: When we think of an essentially white art form as a universal language, it leaves very little room for racial diversity. Changing this understanding is something musicians, presenters, and organizations can easily act upon.

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What about East Asian performers? Doesn’t their growing involvement show that classical music is universal and racially diverse? I think we need to carefully define racial diversity in classical music. 

The fact that some East Asians are seen on the biggest stages isn’t an argument for the universality of classical music. It just means that those particular people have learned the language extremely well, so they can communicate the greatness of the music effectively. Of course, these fantastic performers bring something of themselves to their interpretation. But the musical language doesn’t change. I’d argue that their involvement is a lesser type of diversity that affects performance culture. (The same applies to minority American performers.)

Diversity is about variety in content. It’s about inviting in different racial and cultural experiences and traditions. In the case of classical music, it’s about inviting in different languages in composition.

Classical music can become more diverse on a large scale if we collectively stop pretending it’s a universal language, and if moving forward we eliminate “Western” in its definition. In short, if it becomes more racially colorful in content.

There are literally billions of people to invite to contribute to our art form, with an untold number of geniuses among them. We could warmly welcome the continents of Africa and Asia, not to mention African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans, and all -Americans. We already question what it even means to write in a classical style anymore; our musical language has been deconstructed, stitched back together, and used in bizarre and creative ways since the Romantic era. The very act of trying to distance ourselves from powdered wig music is a further claim on universal language status; and yet, isn’t it odd that even when we try to rebrand as “art music”, the majority of the world still isn’t included?

If we define classical music simply as “notated, with neat ways of developing musical ideas, and usually performed by certain instruments,” we have a wonderful and flexible musical system that should be able to accommodate any number of musical languages. Classical music as an organizational and developmental musical tool has the capacity to be a giant repository for interesting music from around the world, including our local communities. Who wouldn’t want to work with highly disciplined ensembles and musicians who are obsessed with interpretational nuance? We would be a dream for almost any composer from anywhere, if we accept that there is so much more of value to embrace and express.

Do we truly believe that there is a monopoly on transcendence? What is the fear, or what kind of gatekeeping is taking place? Are we worried that attempts by people of color to compose classical music might be naive or lacking in sophistication? Do we worry that addressing race will muddy the waters when it comes to maintaining certain “standards” regarding quality and excellence? Even a subconscious belief in the whiteness of classical music can manifest in different ways.

Here’s yet another slippery ingredient: the term “world music.” (I’m not referring to music that has a dance beat and riffs from non-Western cultures.) It’s a flexible term that we use to describe a variety of circumstances. We pull it out when talking about non-Western musical experiences. I’ve often heard it in connection with music, performed at a classical music concert, that includes musical languages we’re not used to, most often sourced from Asia or Africa. Apart from relegating billions of people’s music to two words, it’s troubling that we have a term that specifically keeps other musical languages at arm’s length. And it’s simply lazy. How hard is it to reference specific cultures? And once we do, can we accept it simply as classical music? If composers call their creations classical music, isn’t that enough?

I’m not talking about Westernizing or classicalizing other art forms. I’m suggesting that more major organizations immediately and aggressively invite non-white/Western composers to explore what classical music has to offer and use our tools to create something original. We’re not looking for a Nigerian Beethoven or an Indonesian Philip Glass. We’re hoping for people who can communicate powerfully using their own musical language.

Another characteristic of classical music frequently glossed over is that individual works are almost always composed by only one person. Look up the credits to a popular song, and you’ll usually see many people contributing to its creation. Maybe we could put this to the test. Planned collaborations would ease composers into each others’ worlds, with more accurate translation and notation for classical performers. There’s no reason this can’t be a more recognized and valid form of composition. Organizations like Shastra (shastramusic.com) are helping composers connect with each other’s traditions.

Diversity of content would change everything. More people of different races will find ways of learning instruments so they can participate in musical languages with which they have a connection. And when the music becomes more diverse, so will what we value in performance.

I know that Debussy was entranced with Javanese gamelan music, that Ravel had an affection for jazz. I’m aware that many people since then have consciously and unconsciously allowed the music of other races and cultures to influence their compositions. I’m not attempting to take away from their accomplishments or the beauty of their creations. I revel in them. But we should acknowledge that in the context of classical music, these people are usually white. While some may know other musical languages as well as their native ones, others treat aspects of those languages as exotic elements rather than with a more matter of fact familiarity. Some might point out the success of one or another non-white composer, but the dearth makes them outliers and exotic.

I don’t think the audience is the obstacle. Most listeners seem to enjoy hearing something different and beautiful, even if they don’t necessarily understand all of the nuance. Who understands all of the subtleties of any masterpiece upon first hearing? No, aside from everything mentioned above, the problem lies with the musicians.

We’ve all probably run into this scenario: You’re playing music written by a composer outside of the traditional classical world or who includes other musical languages. Some of your colleagues roll their eyes at the “world music”, indicating that it’s too simple, or at best, naive. Strangely, the opposite might also be true. Since they haven’t trained in a new tradition, musicians sometimes fear being seen as phony and inauthentic. The accompanying shyness obviously kills the vibe. It’s hard to be enthusiastic when you’re worried that you suck or are posing.

We need to do better. Some of the most moving classical music is simple and direct. And how can we grow if we’re afraid to stretch ourselves? More importantly, how can our art form include more people if we don’t dive into learning more musical languages? Believing classical music is a universal language, that it expresses everything worth expressing and is transcendent, is a huge obstacle to even feeling a need for greater inclusion of other musical languages.

With new languages comes different states of being to experience, more to study, more to express. The prospect is completely energizing!

I’m aware that other organizations have taken up the cause. Salastina has come upon diversity serendipitously. We’ve worked with outstanding classical composers who have demonstrated that the inclusion of other musical languages can have beautiful results. We’ll be releasing our first podcast episode featuring Derrick Spiva’s piece “American Mirror,” and here’s an example of Reena Esmail’s work:
https://youtu.be/CuryVFIg-h4
Our resident host, Brian Lauritzen, recently curated a program for us that seamlessly blended Tchaikovsky and Strauss with female and racially diverse composers.

Clearly, I’ve written here with a bias towards racial diversity. Some people may have a different view. Why should classical music invite in different musical languages? After all, we don’t see the traditional art forms of other cultures making a concerted effort to diversify. Should classical music become more diverse?

Others argue that classical music has historically appealed to a small group of people. After all, not everyone enjoys high philosophy and advanced math. Why should we try to change things? It’s an interesting question, one that involves moral, artistic, and economic imperatives. I hope to address the topic in Part 2.

Thanks for reading,
Kevin