Who defines classical music?


The recent outrage over two black artists’ Grammy nominations in the classical categories is part of a long-standing problem in the white-dominated genre.

When Curtis Stewart heard the news that his album Power was nominated for a Grammy Awards 2022 in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category, he was thrilled. He was also a little surprised. “I just didn’t think I would have much luck there,” he said. But “the fact that I got this nomination was extremely encouraging for me.”

Then the backlash began.

Alongside the famous pop star Jon Batiste—who was also nominated for a Grammy, in the category Best Contemporary Classical Composition, for his piece “11′ movement– Stewart’s inclusion in a classic Grammy category has angered critics who say their music just isn’t classic enough.

According to a long report in The Observer, “Letters of complaint have been sent to…the Recording Academy, arguing that the tracks in question”, by Batiste and Stewart, “have been ‘misclassified’.” Marc Neikrug, a Grammy-nominated composer, said in his letter to the Academy, “As a serious and dedicated composer of what has always been considered ‘classical’ music, I am appalled.” Neikrug found it “incomprehensible” that the Academy was “choosing to recategorize an entire segment of our inherited culture”.

Stewart is a classically trained violinist and composer who performs in PUBLIQuartet, a non-mainstream classical music group he calls an “improvising string quartet of new music”. He is also a faculty member at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. Although his music stretches the traditional definition of classical music of European origin from past centuries, he is baffled by the vitriolic responses to his and Batiste’s nominations, given that the field has consistently benefited from musical innovations over the centuriesand especially recently new, young composers during the last decade.

The part of Neikrug’s review that Stewart finds “most hurtful” is the idea that his music doesn’t fit the composer’s definition of “our inherited culture”. Stewart is the child of two professional musicians and says, “I literally inherited music from my mother and father. Her mother, the late Elektra Kurtis, was a Greek-American composer and violinist who straddled the world of classical music and jazz, and her father is Bob Stewart, a Grammy-nominated tuba player and music teacher.

“I a m a classical musician,” he says.

How do we define classical music?

“What exactly am I doing that’s invalid, and not classic?” asks Stewart, saying the classic musical themes are “integrated into the actual composition” of tracks on her Grammy-nominated album Power. Always, The New York Times columnist John McWhorter summed up the direction of the controversy over the nominations of Stewart and Batiste when he claimed the Academy was simply trying to be “inclusive.” McWhorter said he felt insulted that “music that is not classical” was nominated.

Another reviewer, Apostolos Paraskevas, a professor at Berklee College of Music, went further, complaining about The Observer on Batiste’s non-traditional classical style of music: “If that person gets an award, it’s a big slap in the face. It’s a message to everyone that we should give up and just do this.

Stewart disputes these criticisms. “To listen [my] music and… if you think it’s watered down, please let me know. I will perfect my art! he says. He sees the backlash as an indication of fear within a traditionally white-dominated industry where people of color are slowly but surely surging in and taking over. Critics “project this fear of not being heard and represented onto me and Jon Batiste,” he says by way of explanation.

Black influence on classical music through the ages

Political analyst and radio host Earl Ofari Hutchinson has long examined the role of people of color, especially African Americans, in classical music. He has written two books on the genre, including Beethoven and me: a beginnerThe guide to classical music in 2015, and It’s Our Music Too: The Black Experience in Classical Music in 2016. “I’m not really surprised that there’s been some controversy” over Batiste and Stewart’s Grammy nominations, he says.

According to Hutchinson, the traditionally accepted definition of classical music is based on “Western European or Russian music of the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries”. However, today, he says, “you’re mixing more things in classical music that weren’t there traditionally”, like jazz, rock and pop. Jazz in particular has been fused with classical music for decades, and Hutchinson says “a lot of ‘purists’ take offense to that.”

This Puritan approach — and the racial dynamics at play — may inform the backlash to Stewart and Batiste’s nominations, Hutchinson says. “There has sometimes been an overt, but more likely subtle, undertone of, ‘Wait a minute, black people in classical music? It’s like the sun and the moon!’”

Hutchinson cites many white composers who were influenced by composers of color, especially jazz musicians, including Americans like George Gershwin, French composers like Maurice Ravel, and to some extent Russians Sergei Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich . “They were influenced by African-American jazz rhythms,” he says.

Likewise, Stewart sees classical music itself as the result of a fusion of influences. “I’ve seen musicians from many cultures bring their culture into the world of classical music and be recognized for it or not,” he says. “There is literally a classical tradition of violinists taking music from one world and bringing it to another world.” Stewart does just that with his classic violin rendition of Stevie Wonder’s pop classic “Isn’t she beautifulon his album Power.

Black Classical Music Matters

The Grammy controversy is the latest flashpoint on racial affiliation in the field of classical music, and it feeds into ongoing debates about how music is defined and who can define it. A genre that has long been associated with white European high culture has struggle for years to embrace musicians of color, especially black musicians. Stewart speculates that perhaps “this year is a reaction to 2020” and the national racial justice uprisings of nearly two years ago. “They are afraid of what being ‘awakened’ will do to our field,” he says.

“I’ve always been deeply interested in social justice,” says Stewart. When the pandemic hit and quarantine-era mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd gripped the nation, Stewart, who was taking part in the protests while caring for his ailing mother, produced his Grammy-nominated album in her living room.

“We were all stuck in our little bubbles, and I just needed to put my anxiety and my feelings somewhere,” he says. Power is a musical documentation of a society in turmoil, encapsulating the reactions of a black musician during a moment of racial awareness. “I was using these recordings as a kind of journal, as a way to…react to what was going on in the world,” Stewart explains.

Among the tracks on his album that Stewart is most proud of is a solo violin arrangement of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the black national anthem. “To call it ‘not serious’ [classical music] is hurtful,” he said.

Fight to be seen and heard

When asked why there is such a reluctance in the classical music world to accept black people, Hutchinson says racism is one of the reasons. “There’s a lot of money in classical music,” he explains. “The whole genre is very well endowed.” This richness creates a kind of “protective layer” around the genre, he explains. Although more and more people of color, and especially African Americans, are entering the classical music profession, especially in orchestras, the the pace of change remains slow.

“You always have the old guard there who are very protective of his interest in classical music,” says Hutchinson. Nonetheless, he is set to begin hosting a classical music radio show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles, becoming one of the very few, if any, hosts of black classical music shows nationwide. .

Thinking about what his job means to him, Stewart calls on Nina Simone, an American musical icon who was also considered the first classically trained black pianist in the United States, Simone said she was turned away from Curtis Institute of Music— even though she passed their audition — simply because she was black. Stewart cites Simone’s regret at being cast as a jazz musician rather than a classical musician in her Carnegie Hall debut. “I refuse to have that feeling of regret,” he says.

Stewart plans to continue to innovate musically without stifling her unique cultural influences. “The field of classical music needs it. I want to hear from more people like me in my field! he said with a broad smile. “It just makes me excited, it makes me happy.”

Hutchinson is encouraged that, despite the setback, the Recording Academy has taken a courageous and progressive stance in ensuring that this year’s classic Grammy nominations include non-traditional compositions and performances like Stewartby and by Batiste. “I’m glad to see that, and I hope we see more of that in the future.” He sees it as progress and “recognition that black people are in classical music, and that they are here to stay”.

“Being seen feels like joy, it’s liberation, it’s catharsis,” Stewart said of her Grammy nomination. “There are a lot of musicians of color in the classical music field who deserve this.”

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Sonali Kolhatkar

is currently Racial Justice Editor at YES! Media and researcher at the Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also an animator and creator of Rise with Sonali, a television and radio show broadcast nationally on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won first place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She has also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and was also nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the non-profit group Afghan Women’s Mission. She holds a master’s degree in astronomy from the University of Hawai’i and two undergraduate degrees in physics and astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional journey in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My journey from astrophysicist to radio host”. She can be contacted on sonalikolhatkar.com


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