The Racial Awakening of Classical Music – Was It All a Mirage?


Until very recently, the long-established tradition of classical music organizations was to base their programming on the music of the Western European canon. From small chamber music series to large performing arts venues, most programs have focused on works and artists that are “bankable” with audience members. Maybe we’d see a piece or two from an underrepresented composer, or a separate series featuring artists of color. But still, those moments seemed rare in the general performing arts landscape.

The racial awakening after the 2020 murder of George Floyd sparked a knee-jerk reaction among white arts organizations to program underrepresented composers and performers. And with venues closed due to Covid, and no concert places to be filled, why not take a “risk” and present a virtual concert of works by Jessie Montgomery, Carlos Simon or William Grant Still? What’s wrong?

But why did it take a brutal police killing and a global pandemic for presenters to start programming musicians of color on their show? And now, two years later, where are we?

Well, as the Magic 8 Ball says, “answer foggy…”

I am a professional flautist who almost did not become one for lack of models. Although my classes were diverse, my extracurricular activities alternated between ballet, flute lessons, and Jack and Jill of America, an organization of mothers with children ages 2-19 dedicated to educating future African-American leaders. I never thought being a professional musician was something someone like me could do.

As a young freelancer in New York in the early 2000s, I rarely encountered other instrumentalists who looked like me. My first professional encounter with a black songwriter was only when I worked with David Sanford and the New York ensemble Speculum Musicae in 2008. I played his piece, Dogma 74, and completely identified with him. David’s music is both serious and playful, taking elements of jazz improvisation and modernism and merging them into a lively yet virtuosic style that is unique and accessible. The work is imbued with sounds reminiscent of avant-garde jazz and playful improvisation, and it brought back the music I listened to all through college: Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor.

More people deserve to have that experience of identifying with music on our classical music stages. But despite the recent influx of diverse programming by influential arts organizations, the field remains overwhelmingly white. In The roots of white supremacy in the artsBenjamin Douglas discusses the concept of “whiteness as a property– the assumption that when we speak of ‘arts’ as a genre, we are referring to Eurocentric traditions and repertoire. These access control practices manifest when people at the top of the food chain make inherently proprietary programming and funding decisions based on concepts such as “quality”, “marketability” and “name recognition”. . As a result, classical music organizations are turning to composers and performers who support rather than challenge the “white by default” ideology. An example is a recent study of the Helicon Collaborativewhich showed that most arts funding is controlled and allocated to large white organizations.

In 2002, Okwui Enwezor became the Germany-based global art festival’s first black artistic director documentation for their 11th edition. Reflecting on Enwezor’s leadership, art historians Anthony Garner and Charles Green have stated that documenta 11 “relentlessly challenged the North Atlantic’s hegemony over the definition of contemporary art”. In The Decolonization of New Music in Eight Difficult StepsGeorge Lewis asks: “Surely there is no reason why festivals and other important institutions that support contemporary music cannot do the same. [as documenta 11]. Why don’t they?

The answer often given by arts organizations is that they are accountable to their donors and to their audience. Without annual donations from loyal patrons and season ticket holders, there is no funding to sustain the events that support and bring a city’s community to life. Fear of alienating the traditionally majority white audience drives many programming decisions, favoring Ludwig van Beethoven over Adolphus Hailstork.

So what is the way forward?

Performing arts spaces need to be saturated with music from diverse composers and performers, but we cannot do this performatively. Throwing a special concert in February to celebrate Black History Month won’t be enough. We can gain so much by providing more varied perspectives on our stages. Increasing the number of people of color in our spaces allows us to expand our repertoire and discover new works that uplift us, move us, surprise us, and inspire all the other emotions that come with the beauty of live performance. And perhaps most importantly, more diverse performers and songwriters on stage will bring more people of color to our audience. Institutions must commit to welcoming diverse composers and performers, providing space for new opportunities, and paving the way for the cultivation of a more inclusive audience.

Last year, places began to program works by artists who had not received the recognition they deserved during their lifetime. The works of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Jules Eastman, Florence Prizeand Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint George now fill orchestral and chamber programs across the country.

2022 was also a year to celebrate new affiliations, residencies and performances. We saw a GRAMMY nomination for by Curtis Stewart album inspired by improvisation Power and several announcements of residences and creations of composers, including Jessie Montgomery with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Allison Loggins-Hull with the Cleveland Orchestra, and Marcos Balter premiered with the New York Philharmonic. The New York Philharmonic also celebrated the reopening of David Geffen Hall with a monumental work by the trumpeter and jazz composer Etienne Charles which pays homage to the San Juan Hill neighborhood that was demolished to build Lincoln Center.

In addition to major institutions, we are beginning to see a shift with some of the most renowned chamber ensembles. The Takacs Quartet recently released an excellent recording by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor String Quartetand the Juilliard Quartet is on tour with the music of Eleanor Alberga and Tyson Davis. But the list of ensembles with the political clout to direct programming is considerably short. Chamber Music America (where I serve as Chairman of the Board) has focused its funding on commissions for new work by members of the ALAANA communities (African/Black, Latina, Asian/South Asian, Arab/Middle Eastern, and Native American). However, until all ensembles include underrepresented repertoire in their programming, we end up with the same hierarchy, with presenters in charge.

Some organizations strive to create new audiences by programming works that cross multiple styles and genres. The Nude Deco Set, based in Miami, defines itself as offering “genre-blending orchestral experiences” and has a much younger audience than most other classical music organizations. And the string trio, time for threemade a career out of “defying convention and boundaries” with their musical programming at “the intersection of Americana, modern pop and classical music”.

Individual artists can also help shape the narrative and bring significant cultural change to the current landscape. The more often we see established artists advocating for a diverse repertoire in their performances, the more venues will need to embrace cultural diversity in their programming. My recent album of works for solo flute and piano, Through broken time (New Focus Recordings), is a reflection of this call to action. The album is a collection of works at the intersection of Afro-modernism and post-minimalism by composers Tania Leon, Alvin SingletonDavid Sanford, Valerie ColmanAllison Loggins-Hull, and Julia Wolf.

As so often happens in the arts, the new music community is leading the way when it comes to diversity and inclusion. More and more artists are finding their way by rejecting the white supremacist model of performing arts series and hosting concerts in their own spaces. The revolutionary set Imani winds and the sets of Organization of the Sphinx paved the way for the formation and growth of other groups, including Catalyst Quartet, PUBLIQuartetand that of London Chineke! Orchestra. flautists Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull, violinist Curtis Stewart and cellists Seth Parker Woods and Jeffrey Zeigler have carved out incredibly successful careers as advocates for their compositions, incorporating world music and improvisation.

Visiting high schools is part of my recruiting obligations for my academic position as an associate professor at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. I recently visited a school where the majority of students were black. As I entered the classroom, I noticed several students staring at me. At the end of the session, a young woman approached me and told me that she had never seen a black professional musician before. This young woman had the same experience I had when I was her age – 30 years ago – which shows how much we still have to do in our “progress” on diversity and diversity. inclusion in the arts.

Let’s fill concert halls with artists of color and include programming that challenges the traditional hierarchy of white supremacy that has existed for so long. Broadcasters can do more to seek out and include qualified composers, musicians and arts administrators of color to have a seat at the table. All artists, especially those “at the top,” need to incorporate underrepresented repertoire into their programs. The momentum gained by the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and the circumstances of the pandemic must be continued and intensified.

The revival was real, but a lot of work is needed to strengthen it and keep it from fading into the past.

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