Never gonna happen

Yesterday (in a post called “Missionary Work”) I quoted passionate testimony about what’s actually a pretty famous piece of classical music outreach — a joint Berlin Philharmonic/Carnegie Hall project to bring Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to “inner city youth” (in the words of the passionate statement).

This is a parade it’s painful to rain on, because kids were dancing to the music, and classical music people who watched them were quite literally in tears. “This music is and must be for everyone,” said Clive Gillinson, who runs Carnegie Hall.

So why am I uncomfortable with this?

Because it’s a top-down, one-way view of culture. Our music, we like to think, is for everyone. But is their music for us? Carnegie Hall and the Berlin Philharmonic go running off to the inner city to bring it culture. But would they welcome inner-city people into Carnegie Hall to impart some culture of their own?

I’m not talking about the occasional black-themed program that might show up on Carnegie Hall’s stage. (And often enough, at least in the past, making the African-American community sigh, knowing that they’re a base that gets touched, and then not quickly returned to.) I’m talking about Clive Gillinson going salsa dancing, with people from New York’s Puerto Rican community. Or being taught by, um, “inner city youth” all about hiphop record production in New York.

No, better than that — he might even take hiphop lessons from some “inner city youth,” so he can learn to rhyme, and lay down some beats.

You might think I’m joking. But consider the imbalance here. Clive Gillinson going up to Harlem (or wherever), to watch some inner city kids dancing to Stravinsky? Path-breaking, makes us weep! But Clive Gillinson learning to rhyme, writing his own hiphop songs? Not happening.

And why not? Because classical music is just more important than hiphop, or salsa. Or isn’t that what — in the end — a lot of us at least implicitly believe? I don’t mean to say that people at Carnegie Hall or the Berlin Philharmonic would consciously subscribe to what I called, in my latest book riff, “the myth of classical music superiority.”

But even so, they’re caught up — or so I think — in the ripples from that myth. So they’re far more eager to preach to Harlem than to let Harlem preach to them.

There are huge cultural issues lurking here, especially in an age with an emerging no n-white majority. But there’s also, much more simply, an elementary lack of…should we call it marketing smarts?

If you’re going to bring your music to people who aren’t like you, shouldn’t you learn a lot about them — which would include their culture, and especially their music — before you start?

(Somebody is sure to answer, “But we all know about hiphop, and the kids in Harlem don’t know Stravinsky.” To which I’d respond with the never-gonna-happen vision of the entire senior staff of Carnegie Hall going out salsa dancing. And not just once.)

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  1. mags says

    This is a compelling puzzle. But, I don’t think one needs to participate in a specific music to acknowledge and appreciate its existence. It is important, though, to be aware of what others have to offer.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the superiority thing since your earlier post. The end result of those old attitudes seems to be that (some) classical music people have shut themselves out of the larger community of musicians. That can’t be a good thing. I was just wondering yesterday why our small city orchestra doesn’t rally their players to do a chamber music concert as part of our annual Homegrown Music Festival featuring local music. That would be a great way to start making those connections.

    Sorry to be long-winded, but I have some more thoughts on the superiority issue. First, the way I see it, different genres of music merely use different musical tools to express ideas. Each genre has within it the full spectrum of poorly executed to well executed use of those tools as well as varying degrees of complexity, appeal, etc. An analogy would be to different mediums used for making visual art. Does anybody really think that (all) painting is inherently superior to (all) print-making or that (all) print-making is inherently superior to (all) photography?

    Secondly, I think it might be time to just put that whole debate to rest. Because, really, the more we debate it the more it is perpetuated. There is no debate here, just bias. Those who want to cling to bias can do so, but there’s no reason to try to argue it out because that just doesn’t help anyone. If classical music organizations cling to that bias they will eventually be completely marginalized. Their loss.

  2. ken nielsen says

    Wise observations, Geg.

    It is much wider than “marketing smarts” though. It goes to the whole approach to the ”product”.

    But I totally agree with your last two paras.

    Much wider, I agree. I decided not to use charged expressions like “bringing culture to the natives” or “colonialism.” I brought up the marketing smarts really as a piece of irony. With all the huge issues at stake, there’s also this small one — don’t you want to study your prospective audience? That classical music institutions should miss taking that step, because they’re so besotted with the importance of classical music, is a real eye-opener.

  3. Tristan says

    I think the problem starts and ends with the word “everyone”. No music is for everyone. Lady Gaga was music for many millions of people, and even she wasn’t for everyone.

    Taste is bigger than “I like Mozart better than Beethoven,” some people don’t even like the sound of strings. (I can’t stand the sound of pizzicato strings, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. On the other hand, I love the sound of the melodica, which a professor of mine dismissed as cheap and plastic.)

    I fondly remember a story of an anthropologist who put on Hamlet for an isolated Nigerian village, and then was shocked when they didn’t like it, because it was supposed to be “universal”.

  4. says

    I can’t help but laugh when an orchestra of all white, classical music lovers, run by a Board of all white, classical music lovers, can’t wrap their head around why their core audience consists of all white, classical music lovers, when classical music is supposed to be universal. The solution? “Let’s bring in a black soloist to play white music. That will bring in black people, and we’ll convert them into classical music lovers!” Why has no one figured out that it doesn’t work? *Sigh* is right! Thanks for your post.

  5. mclaren says

    Alarmingly similar to the 19th century European missionaries who went to Africa to play Bach on phonographs in order to civilize the ignorant heathens.