It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die.
That is the title of the article that popped up on the Band Director’s Facebook group of which I am a member. There were lots of comments and lots of reactions to it, but I wanted to see for myself. Why would anyone call for the death of classical music?
So, I read the article. And then I read some more of Nebal Maysaud’s work.
I found myself disagreeing with the vast majority of what Nebal Maysaud writes in the “It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die,” but only on a logical, semantic level. There’s so much hurt and hope and drive mixed all together in Nebal’s writing. Nebal has a gift for weaving experiences and the creative process into a narrative form.
Before you read further, I’d encourage you to spend about 11 minutes and listen to Decolonized Arabesques with an open mind. I find that listening to a composer’s music allows you to better understand a person. It’s quite humanizing, in fact.
This particular piece was born out of Nebal’s experience of going through college and early adulthood grappling with issues of identity and cultural dissonance between the West and Nebal’s Lebonese family in Lebanon. It is especially interesting as it results from Nebal’s long hard look into the music of his family’s culture and yet struggling to learn more. I have a special place in my heart for Middle Eastern music as it is, and truly enjoyed the weaving of the quartertone aesthetic within the classical idiom (though in the article “I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way“, Nebal states that the goal was to write a piece free from “unwanted Western influence”).
After reading and listening to Nebal’s work, I wanted to share some of my reactions and thoughts on the article calling for the death of Classical Music.
The Arguments and a Discussion
The article, in my opinion, starts off with a very interesting premise: that, metaphorically, classical music is the abuser in an abusive relationship in which musicians of color or the LGBT lifestyle inside the world of classical music are victims. This is an intriguing metaphor, and is further fleshed out in the article “Am I Not a Minority?“. In that article Nebal describes some aspects of that abusive, unspoken paradigm:
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.
I am not here to debate the merits of these specific arguments, so I will leave them for your consideration. Suffice it to say that, from Nebal’s perspective, the abuse is real and should not be trivialized just because the calling for the death of classical music as an institution is anathema to many.
Nebal goes on to explain some reasons for calling for the death of this abuser. The first is the declaration that Classical music is “inherently racist.” Here is a quote from that section:
Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness. It’s a combination of European traditions which serve the specious belief that whiteness has a culture—one that is superior to all others. Its main purpose is to be a cultural anchor for the myth of white supremacy. In that regard, people of color can never truly be pioneers of Western classical music. The best we can be are exotic guests: entertainment for the white audiences and an example of how Western classical music is more elite than the cultures of people of color.
I’d like to discuss and refute some of these assertions. I’d agree that music is not about culture… music is only about whatever it’s composer intended. Music is about beauty or sharing an experience or emotion. To label an entire genre of music about whiteness robs the intent and meaning of every piece of music inside that genre. For instance, a classical piece I wrote (It’s Not Fine) is about abuse, coincidentally, not whiteness.
Also, I’d agree that whiteness does not have a culture; geographic areas and familial/ethnic collections of people have cultures. However, I do think that some cultures are superior to others; I’d much rather live in the ancient Chinese culture that values honor, respect, and dignity than the ancient Canaanite culture which allowed and encouraged the sacrifice of babies on molten-hot statues while beating on drums so the mothers couldn’t hear their babies screams. If you agree one culture is preferable to another, then you must agree that it is possible to have a single preferable culture over all others.
But leaving that aside, even if we grant Nebal’s premise that Western classical music’s main purpose is to be a “cultural anchor for the myth of white supremacy” (which I don’t), what do we do with the fact that there truly are pioneers of color in Western classical music? What do you do with Duke Ellington? What do you do with James Carter, arguably the best musician in the world right now?
Do we label them as token black artists just to make Nebal’s assertion work? Is James Carter just an exotic guest for my entertainment just because he’s a black man and I’m a white guy in the crowd? I should certainly hope not. To do so would diminish their talent and hard work just because they’re black, and that would be racist.
- (As an aside, this actually happened! Back in March, Carter played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra… I was there, and it was magical!! Anyway…)
I think Nebal realizes a fundamental problem with the argument deep down.
It’s not uncommon to love your abuser. I know the experience, and can understand how hard it is to leave. Despite all that classical music has done to me, I still can’t help but marvel at the religious splendor of Bach’s works for organ. Nor can I help but weep at Tchaikovsky’s raw expressive power.
I will forever love my favorite composers. It is possible to be critical about the way classical music is treated and to adore the individual works which inspire you at the same time. I am not making a judgment call on specific works in the canon, but instead their function in modern classical music institutions[.]
So the argument here is not against classical music per se, but rather against its function in “modern classical music institution[s].” The skills those composers have developed are passed down through the generations by institutions as others try to mimic and expand upon what made those composers and performers enjoyable to their ears.
But Nebal treats this passing on of knowledge and wisdom as analogous to the scars handed down by abusive parents. I have two responses to this:
- A technique is independent of the person who uses it. If this were not true, the concept of leitmotif would be just as anti-Semitic as Richard Wagner was.
- The beauty of Western culture is that you can choose not to use the tried and true methods and experiment. The scientifically grounded concepts of consonance and dissonance is at constant odds with what an audience perceives as “good” or not. That is the nature of art. Having rules makes the bending or even breaking of the rules that much more effective. Beethoven comes to mind!
These two things in turn make me excited for Nebal because of statements like these:
While most composers of color are responding to a calling, that calling is to create artwork in our own voices not to behold ourselves to the social construct of Western classical music.
Great!!”Classical music” is just a label. New music like what Nebal writes is just as cool to me as David T. Little‘s work. I’d still label it as “classical” music because, to most people in Western culture now, “classical” music is synonymous with “art” music.
But when Nebal says, “By controlling the ways in which composers are financed, it can feel like our only opportunities for financial success as composers are by playing the game of these institutions”, Nebal falsely equivocates the music itself with the institutions like record labels, publishers, and schools of music. Yes, it’s hard to make it as a minority composer. But do the capitalistic pressures that make it hard to succeed as a composer diminish the art that they create? Perhaps. “Playing the game” by writing what people want (ie, what pays the bills) versus writing what’s in your heart is a constant struggle every artist faces, regardless of color or lifestyle.
So yes, I agree that there are not be as many classical composers who are minorities that make it big or get a lot of play. And yes, it will take time and creativity to change that. But what I as an educator and musician am concerned about is this:
Is it good music?
Music is not good because of the color or lifestyle of the person who wrote it.
For instance, I LOVE City Trees by Michael Markowski. I don’t love it because Markowski is a white male. In addition, I love it independently of the fact that it was commissioned to celebrate a lifestyle with which I strongly disagree. I loved it before I discovered the commissioned purpose, and it didn’t take anything away from the music after the fact; actually, I realized that that revelation enhanced it’s transcendent existence as a piece of art for me.
I’d also like to point out that this piece was shared with me by one of my students. That’s how Markowski grew another fan; his art was good enough to share. I discovered Nebal’s music through an article good/shocking enough to share. One goal has been achieved in all this: one more consumer of music is now interested in Nebal’s compositions!
This is the power of the internet! In this brave new world, if a composer is good, they will be shared and performed and gain popularity not because of the color or lifestyle of the composer, but because of the content of their art!
Art comes from people. People learn to make good art by developing their craft. And unfortunately for Nebal’s arguments, developing craft require institutions.
Institutions (which include the institution of family, as Nebal discusses in “I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way“) are precious since they preserve knowledge and tradition. If Nebal laments the loss of Lebanon’s musical traditions and institutions because of colonialism, isn’t it hypocritical to call for the abolition of other musical institutions, even if they promote “whiteness?”
Wouldn’t that just be… revenge?
And what would we gain? Just more lost musical traditions, right?
In the end, it seems to me that Nebal doesn’t actually call for the abolition of Classical music at all. Instead, the solution that Nebal espouses at the end of hte article seems to be for people of color and those engaged in the LGBT+ lifestyle to exit the system entirely and build a new one. This is, I suppose, positive; it’s a proactive solution that takes advantage of what makes Western culture great: ingenuity, independence, hard work, and the freedom to go for it. This surely worked for the Jazz and Hip Hop genres. Serious musicians doing serious work operating outside the “system”.
But is this really what we need in the classical world? More division?
Don’t we have enough of that in society at large?
Instead, let us dispense with the militancy which divides our society and lead by example in the arts. Minority musicians who produce good music, who work hard and advocate for themselves in creative ways, will individually become known and eventually successful, especially in lieu of the internet. It may not be as easy for a black LGBT+ musician in poverty to make it as a rich white musician, sure, but difficulty does not inform or define what is possible. Saying so disregards and disrespects the strength of character of people like Nebal who work their butts off every day to make it in this world.
Dizzy Gillespie is a great example of this. A poor black man who taught himself how to play trumpet (no institution) rose to international stardom on the strength of will despite his color. Eventually, he became an institution in and of himself. And we look up to him and his memory because of that!
In other words, difficulty of success does not mean that we must tear the whole system down.
One last thing. Disparaging me because I’m a white classical musician just because I’m white and lumping my whiteness in with jerk conductors, studio executives, and educators who also happens to also be white… well…
… doesn’t that sound kind of racist to you?