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.)