I Don’t Know Nuthin’ ‘Bout Listenin’ To Mozart, Ms. Scarlett!

I’m on vacation, which means I’ve been ignoring those faint twinges of guilt about not posting for a while. After all, if Drew would spend the proceeds from these blogs on the bloggers instead of the beautiful new website ….. oh wait, he’s taking a page from the Minnesota Orchestra. Never mind.

I was hoping to get out of June without starting an internet spat but I just can’t resist sounding off on this topic. An article came across my radar a couple of days ago and I completely ignored it, only to be goaded into reading it by a colleague who had obviously paid more attention to it than I had. Well, I’ve just got to post a rebuttal, so –

First of all, only in the context of the completely outdated thinking prevalent in some areas of the orchestra music establishment would the notion that these once-a-year run-out concerts (the most obvious example being the ubiquitous MLK JR concerts that many orchestras seem wedded to) might, just might, be a colossal waste of time be considered a ….. gasp……. shocking revelation! I’ve been saying it since the day I got in this profession (as have many others), but what the hell do I know? After all, one of my favorite nicknames was ‘Double Stuff,’ and wiser heads than mine have determined that these concerts are very valuable outreach opportunities.

None-the-less, with the exception of the Atlanta Symphony I don’t know why any orchestra even bothers with the MLK JR concert anymore. I have yet to see any truly positive impact because of it, whether that be attendance, philanthropy, or long-term community outreach. The only reason it seems to continue is that no one has a better idea and everyone is terrified of being labeled as insensitive racists by dropping it. I haven’t met one person, or even heard of one person, who started regularly attending classical concerts because of a MLK JR performance. I’m sure there’s one out there, but …

Let’s leave that topic for a minute and explore some other issues raised here. The article actually reinforces the very issues it tries to address. For example:

Lee says that she herself  is a diversity conundrum, since she’s an Asian woman whose manner is entirely white. White people may not know what to make of her, since she looks Asian but doesn’t act Asian. And the biggest trouble she has, she says, comes from other Asians, who truly don’t know what to make of her.

Honestly, I just don’t even know where to begin here (and I can’t wait to hear from all my Asian friends since they all think alike…. except when they’re White). But it gets more interesting:

If you think that what I just wrote — which is exactly what she said — trades in stereotypes, she had an answer for that. A stereotype, she said, is something you expect (so wrongly) to be true of every member of an ethnic group. With no exceptions.

My Mother, an award winning sociologist, must be spinning in her grave about now. Here is the sociological definition of ‘stereotype’ – “a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group.” There is a subtle but very important difference between Ms. Lee’s definition and the real one. The article goes on to say –

But she contrasted [stereotypes] with what she called archetypes — traits that really are prevalent within any ethnic group, traits you’re not wrong to look (or look out) for, but which of course don’t show up in every individual.

– which I find to be a lot closer to the actual definition of ‘stereotypes’ than ‘archetypes.’ To be completely honest most people make this mistake, and the only reason I’m harping on it is because my sociologist mom drilled it into me. Perhaps someone should look up the true definition of these words before throwing them around.

Where I think Ms. Lee, and this article, really fly off the rails is –

How’d she describe [orchestra] culture? “White, low affect, respectful.” And a culture like that, she said, may well have trouble with Latinos and African-Americans, because their cultures are far more expressive — more outgoing, less deferential — than white culture is. You can see that (or hear it on recordings) in gospel music.

Really, if I see one more reference to black folk and Gospel music I’m going to scream. Talking about stereotypes! (Sorry, Mom.) Honestly, the first thing I thought about when I read this was another great scene from Blazing Saddles:

But it gets worse –

Even time, Lee said, can be a problem. When someone from white culture says a concert starts at eight PM, that’s when it starts. But in non-white cultures, maybe not. Maybe an announced eight PM start means anywhere from eight to a quarter to nine.

Yes, let’s trot out the old “Colored People Time” issue! Admittedly, I constantly rib my neighbors about Jewish Standard Time (they’re Jewish), and I’ve heard and dealt with Filipino Time, Island Time, Jamaican Time, and Greenwich Mean Time, along with a couple dozen others. And believe you me, if you’re ever invited to an AME Baptist Sunday service which is supposed to start @ 10 am I would strongly urge you to make brunch plans and then mosey your way over to the church. Trust me on this one. This, however, is not where I would be expending my limited resources when trying to reach out to another culture. There are so many other issues to discuss that focusing on what time the concert starts is….. well, like talking about the weather.

Then to add insult to injury here’s the payoff –

But time, of course, is only one issue. Lee’s bottom line was simple but profound. If we want people who aren’t white to go in any large numbers to classical concerts, we have to diversify the culture those concerts display. Which doesn’t just mean playing Latin American (or African-American) composers. It means presenting a not wholly white — not wholly low affect and respectful — face.

Let’s ignore the implication that these non-white cultures might not be “respectful.” I’ll just let that one slither off to whatever corner it came out of.  But, in order to make classical music accessible we have to turn it into something that it isn’t? You do realize that this is classical music, right?

And can you imagine this conversation?

Your Orchestra Outreach Person: Good morning, Reverend! I’m here to invite your flock on down to the orchestra. We’ve made some changes just so You Folk will feel welcome. We have a special concert where you can shout during the music! It’ll be just like Gospel! Hallelujah….. and all that!

Reverend: Deacon, kindly pass me my shotgun.

I’m sorry, but this isn’t going to work. Matter of fact, this is going to be even less effective then those MLK JR concerts. If this is the type of cultural diversity the League is pushing these days then please, I beg of you, shut down your “cultural diversity” program. Even this poor ‘Double Stuff’ guy can smell a condescending smack upside the head from a mile away, and any ‘outreach’ along these lines will do way more harm than good. Let me add a couple words to that definition list – condescending, paternalism, supercilious – that will do for starters.

The only way you are going to get black folk, or latino folk, or ANY folk interested in classical music is to not look at these people as black folk, or latino folk, or anything else. Look at them as people. Stop worrying about what race/culture they are and just push music education, whether that’s classical, jazz, pop, rock, funk, world, disco, whatever. Push the instruments and the music, and the positive effects that those things have on the culture at large.

Even if this happens on a large scale I don’t expect everyone to suddenly download the complete Ring cycle. But enough people will filter over to classical music to make it worth while, and we should be satisfied with that. I’ve been a critic of the El Sistema system but they got one thing completely right – it’s about reaching the children, regardless of race, creed, sex, or anything else. And as far as I’m aware when the El Sistema kids hold a concert at 8 pm it starts at 8 pm. No CP Time allowed.

To be blunt, this article, and whatever it expresses, is nothing more than Authentic Frontier Gibberish.

A couple of months ago some guy knocked on my door and invited me over to the neighborhood church. He was well meaning and all, and there’s absolutely no way he could have know about my own spiritual journey, fascination with early Christianity, and embrace of Taoism. I politely demurred, but he was insistent. Perhaps, he suggested, I’d be interested because the church sometimes had Rap music during their service.

I’d give my salary for this calendar year for a picture of my face at that moment.

21 thoughts on “I Don’t Know Nuthin’ ‘Bout Listenin’ To Mozart, Ms. Scarlett!”

      • I just picked the first reply box to respond to. As I told you on Facebook I have been the house electric bass player at 3rd Baptist Church of Chicago for the past 6 years as well as playing bass in the Chicago Symphony for the past 30 years.

        My basic comment was that music is like language and just because you can speak one language doesn’t mean you can speak another. As to the question of ignorance between these two musical genres I think there is ample if not equal ignorance to each other in both camps. As to the question of program themes, education, audience development and outreach I would simply say nothing ventured, nothing gained.

        On July 14 I have arranged for a string quartet from the CSO to play along with two African American youth choirs from Chicago’s Southside. We did the same thing last year and I can only say that I have never experienced anything quite like this at anytime in my life.

  1. Thank you for putting it so eloquently. I was shocked by Ms. Lee’s statements to the League, as I wondered how I could get a gig making things up like that?

  2. Great rejoinder, and +1 for the Blazing Saddles clips! That film, ridiculous though it is, is one of the must cutting and honest portraits ever made of race relations in the US.

    The foundation of any kind of successful outreach to another human being must be respect. Lee and Sandow fail that basic test.

  3. About the only thing “diversity consultants” are good at is making a bundle of money by providing political cover to their clients.

    Should classical music lovers expect Black churches to start doing Bach cantatas as outreach to us “low affect whites?” Wait, I think I’ve just been stereotyped!

  4. Fantastic response to a unilaterally dumb idea…but I would argue there’s a big difference between 8 pm in Germany and 8 pm in Italy. Even on Broadway (NYC), 8 pm means 8:07…Never mind. Program for people, not ethnicities is the idea here. Bravo maestro.

  5. Nodding, appreciatively, respectfully, staying seated, with as little visible affect displayed, as is humanly possible.

  6. This is a great post with many excellent points! The casual racism of orchestral programming/outreach is so widespread and so disgusting.

    But I have to say I think your solution is sort of a non-solution. I agree that music education of all kinds is important (although anyone who says they’ll educate you about World Music might be better served working for Pandora or the Starbucks label), but there is also a place for dialogue between diverse musical traditions, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an embarrasing pandering mess.

    Sandow says “we have to diversify the culture those concerts display” — yes, this is icky; but to me, the icky word here is “display,” not “diversify.” (As if nonwhite audiences will see some nonwhite musicians “on display” and be like, “oh i guess this orchestra isn’t just about white stuff after all, I should become a subscription member.” Yes, that’s super pandering.)

    I have a problem, though, with the assumption that diversification of a classical music concert *necessarily* changes the essence of what classical music is. It sounds a little bit like you want orchestras to be a living artistic entity but you are thinking of classical music as a dead genre that can only be appreciated if museum-ized.

    Classical musicians live in the same world as hiphop musicians, and there are tons of fascinating commonalities between the two traditions that can and should be explored. (The same could be said for many genres, but I’m using hiphop because for some reason you didn’t bring it up in the list of genres that people should receive music education in.) There are artists doing this very well, and there are even more artists that would do incredible work if they had any support from The Orchestra. Maybe you’re right that the first thing this kind of project brings to mind for most of us is that cringe-worthy conversation between the Outreach Person and the Reverend, but that’s only because most orchestras are such conservative entities and most orchestral personnel have no respect for hiphop or the people who love it! To me that’s the biggest problem, and most orchestras won’t diversify their audiences until they diversify their own personal listening.

    • Ted, you bring up some important points.

      But maybe, just maybe, Western Orchestras aren’t well equipped to be particularly diverse organizations. And there are other large ensembles which are filling market niches such as the orchestras I mentioned above (i.e. New York Arabic Orchestra, Michigan Arab Orchestra, and California Chinese Orchestra) playing repertoire for large ensembles from other regions of the world. I think that until we realize European Art Music is simply one of many Art Musics in the world me might keep trying unfruitfully to go down the diversity road.

      Then again there’s the Chicago Sinfonietta (now conducted by Mei-Ann Chen). In a book from 2008 (Entering Cultural Communities) as of the printing of the book fully 55% of its audience were ethnic minorities. The group (in 2006) included 21 African Americans, 4 Latinos, 2 Asians, and one Native American. 50 percent of the board is comprised of African Americans (as was the Conductor) and four to five works per year are written by composers of color and performed by guest artists of color.

      How did this translate into audience figures–as well as the racial demographic composition of the audiences, these are some of the numbers given:

      * Its subscriber base of eleven hundred has been augmented by five thousand to ten thousand single-ticket sales annually, a number that is likely to increase dramatically as the organization expands its repertoire to reach a broader audience
      * Its subscriber base has grown 24 percent from 2004-2006, and the goal is to keep that base growing by 8 to 12 percent every year.
      * Creative collaborations like the one with Chicago-based Rock group in 2005 in original and remixed performances of Dvorak’s new world symphony attracted a significantly younger audience of rock fans or the collaborative performance with Fareed Haque and Zakir Hussein which melded Jazz, Classical Indian Music, and Classical music which brought in a new audience of South Asians, “99 percent [of whom] had never been to a Sinfionetta concert before” (Hirsh interview 2005)

      Executive Director, Jim Hirsh, says their goal has been:

      to stretch how people perceive orchestral [music]: what orchestra music is and [what it] can be, and trying, hopefully, to open some doors so it becomes relevant for a broader range of people…We have one foot in the traditional orchestral world–we did Tchaikovsky’s Fifth [but we had] the first half of the concert with [Chicago’s Mexican folk band] Sones de Mexico and this young, African American cellist, Patrice Jackson, who kind of blew the doors off the place….We just want to explore [new musical combinations]. (Hirsh interview 2005)

      They billed theirselves as “The nation’s most diverse symphony orchestra [that] shatters traditional boundaries through its collaborations, creating synergies between classical, dance, theater and other musical styles including jazz, rock, and world music.”

      So it seems to be working for at least one smaller orchestra.

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