Classical Music’s Diversity Problem

I sometimes wonder if, unbeknownst to me, other musical traditions have their own diversity wars. Do the Chinese lambaste their operatic tradition for not having enough white people? Do Indians feel shame at the lack of sub-Saharan Africans performing Indian classical music? Do Indonesians moan about the underrepresentation of Hispanics in gamelan music? No, I imagine not. How lucky they are.

The reason I bring this up is that I just read an article titled ‘Systemic Discrimination: the Burden of Sameness in American Orchestras’ on the music site I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. The author, Douglas Shadle, argues that there is a ‘lack of diversity on concert programs [that] is built into the institutional structure of American classical music organizations, leading to systemic discrimination against women, people of color, and other historically underrepresented musicians.’ Orchestras therefore need to commit to having ‘inclusive’ programming, and audiences should hold them to account if they don’t.

There is a core disagreement between those like myself, who believe that music can be judged aesthetically, and those like Shadle who believe that the quality of a piece of music is inextricably linked to its reception and cultural milieu. He writes:

…the underlying premise here is the false belief that greatness is a quality inherent in a piece of music, rather than a culturally conditioned designation given by someone else.

Ask yourself: do you love Bach’s music because someone told you to like Bach, or do you love it because it is great music?

Shadle later continues the theme:

Drop the singular focus on phony subjective concepts like “great symphonic music” and “the highest level of artistic excellence,” since these in no way conflict with diversity.

This is the pernicious reality of egalitarianism. Merit is substituted for equality and diversity. Therefore, if I see that the first violin walks onto stage and he or she is black, or if I see an ethnic minority or a woman composer being championed, a voice in my head whispers ‘affirmative action’. And I feel horrible for it, as it brings into question the merit of someone who is most likely an extraordinary musician or composer. This is the dangerous egalitarian game we are playing. Surely it can only breed disillusionment and resentment?

I say it is a ‘dangerous game we are playing’ because, contrary to what Shadle suggests, these diversity policies are already in place. One orchestra he singles out for its systemic racism and sexism is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Well, like most orchestras the CSO has an explicit commitment to diversity. From their website: ‘The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is an Equal Opportunity employer which values and encourages a diverse workforce’. You will find the ‘Equal Opportunities’ stamp on most orchestras’ websites, and if you are applying for a job you may well be asked to fill out an ominously titled ‘Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form’ detailing your ethnicity, gender, and any disabilities you may have.

In a recent Telegraph interview, the great baritone Roderick Williams, who happens to be half Jamaican, made a brief but revealing comment about how his ethnicity has affected his career:

Has my colour stopped me being cast in certain roles? Well, that’s something I’ll never know, because I never hear what gets said on audition panels. But nowadays I imagine that our obsession with diversity means that, if anything, it works in my favour. Quite honestly, I would rather people judged me on the basis of my singing.

How wonderfully sensible. It’ll never catch on.

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Purcell’s King Arthur at the Barbican

Brexity Brexity Brexity Brexit. This might as well have been the revised title of this opera. That, or A Brexit Fantasia with Purcellian Interruptions. Or more prosaically, King Arthur and the Knights of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee.

King Arthur is an English semi-opera — that is, a combination of theatre and opera where the protagonists are actors and do not sing. As a result, little of the music makes explicit reference to the Arthurian legend, enabling director Daisy Evans to discard the story and in its place create a ‘debate piece’, as she called it, on contemporary British politics.

Her reasoning is thus: King Arthur is a symbol of Britishness; the nationalist sentiments in the opera cannot be convincingly sung by a modern singer in light of modern developments; therefore we need a production that probes and questions. Evans does this through an incoherent miscellany of poetry spoken in between the songs and music (which needless to say she has radically reordered). From the programme:

This production isn’t about King Arthur the legend, it’s about the idea of King Arthur and the values that he embodies. The full title of the original piece is King Arthur or The British Worthy, and what we’re exploring here is whether that really is the model of British worthiness we still want to stand up for.

These kinds of questions are invariably posed by people who already have a very firm answer, but wish to be sly about it. They can always pull a face and feign innocence, saying ‘what, I was only asking a question?!’

The opera began with the singers, dressed causally, descending into the hall like a flock of latecomers. Each singer wore a plastic rectangle hanging from their neck, either in red or blue. A sign to the left of the stage read ‘Leave & Remain’ (later signs included ‘men and women’, and the inevitable ‘us and them’). Narrator Ray Fearon took centre stage and began reciting a poem from Ali Smith’s post-Brexit book Autumn:

All across the country, people felt unsafe.
All across the country, people were laughing their heads off.
All across the country, people felt legitimised.

And so on. This was set up as call and response. Fearon would shout ‘All across the country’ and the singers would shout back ‘people felt legitimised’. The scene ended with Fearon reciting The Bloody Sire by Robinson Jeffers while the singers filmed him with their smartphones.

Later ‘highlights’ included the singers ripping up newspapers — fake news! — and a group of drunken (loutish?) men rowdily singing ‘Old England, Old England, And heigh for the honour of old England.’ One suspects this was meant to ridicule, or at least portray suspiciously, working class patriotism.

Then there was a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V and the triumphant song ‘Come if you dare’, neither of which one can object to in and of themselves, and the latter of which is one of my favourite songs to sing in the shower (‘Triumphant with spoils of our vanquished invaders!’) The interval came and I left. Fifty minutes of politicised and ‘modernised’ Purcell was already too much. So this is a sort of semi-review of a semi-opera, I guess.

The most annoying thing is that there was no reason for it to be so bad. Superb orchestra, superb cast, superb music, and superb story. But a spanner had to be thrown in the works because the director wanted the production to be relevant. Yet the Arthurian legend is one of the few remaining historic cultural bonds. It’s not exactly an out-of-date of irrelevant myth that needs to be overhauled in light of contemporary events. But obviously Ms Evans disagrees. She would rather substitute the rarity and wonder of an opera for the banality of politics.

Adorno the Right-Winger?

Theodor Adorno, despite his Marxist credentials, seems to get mistaken for a conservative rather often. I recall being in a politics seminar in which we discussed his idea of a ‘culture industry’ — that popular culture is a capitalist industry pacifying the working classes. Admittedly, I doubt anyone read the chapter in any depth. But the general impression was something like, ‘man, this guy’s conservative’. If you don’t like Hollywood, jazz or popular culture, you must be a conservative, so the logic goes. And indeed, were he to come out with these ideas today, he would surely be vilified. It is a delicious irony, then, that Adorno and the Frankfurt School have since been used to validate popular culture. You have to love the way history sweeps men and their ideas from any intended course.

I write this because I just started reading Philosophy of New Music. One should know one’s enemies and all that. Actually, that’s somewhat unfair. I kind of like Adorno, once past the ideological guff. He’s definitely not a conservative, but he might just be a reactionary underneath it all. I’ll leave you with an extract from his Minima Moralia, which is a collection of brief but interesting reflections in this vein. Compared to this, I’m a liberal:

Melange. – The usual argument of tolerance, that all human beings, all races are equal, is a boomerang. It opens itself up to easy rebuttal by the senses, and even the most compelling anthropological evidence for the fact that Jews are not a race at all, will in the case of a pogrom hardly change anything at all, since the totalitarians know very well who they want to kill and who not. If one wished to proclaim the equality of all those who bear human features as an ideal, instead of establishing it as a fact, this would be of little help. The abstract utopia would be all too easily reconcilable with the most devious tendencies of society. That all human beings would resemble each other, is exactly what suits this latter. It regards factual or imagined differences as marks of shame, which reveal, that one has not brought things far enough; that something somewhere has been left free of the machine, is not totally determined by the totality. The technics of the concentration camps was designed to turn prisoners into guards, the murdered into murderers. Racial difference was absolutely sublated, so that one could abolish it absolutely, if only in the sense that nothing different survived anymore. An emancipated society however would be no unitary state, but the realization of the generality in the reconciliation of differences. A politics which took this seriously should therefore not propagate even the idea of the abstract equality of human beings. They should rather point to the bad equality of today, the identity of film interests with weapons interests, and think of the better condition as the one in which one could be different without fear. If one attested to blacks [Neger], that they are exactly like whites, while they are nevertheless not so, then one would secretly wrong them all over again. This humiliates them in a benevolent manner by a standard which, under the pressure of the system, they cannot attain, and moreover whose attainment would be a dubious achievement. The spokespersons of unitary tolerance are always prepared to turn intolerantly against any group which does not fit in: the obstinate enthusiasm for blacks meshes seamlessly with the outrage over obnoxious Jews. The “melting pot” [in English in original] was an institution of free-wheeling industrial capitalism. The thought of landing in it conjures up martyrdom, not democracy.

Politics at the Proms

Imagine that a conductor ends a concert with an ardently pro-British speech. Imagine that he speaks of the enduring constitution of this country, how it has provided such liberty and stability and such a rich common culture. He continues by telling the audience how we must educate people to better appreciate this. He remarks on the greatness of the nation-state and the long-established principle of national sovereignty. The audience is told that an impersonal international system that cannot animate the people of the nation will be ruinous. The conductor explains that it robs people of a sense of home and blurs the diversity that nation-states foster.

Of course such a speech would never happen. Instead, Daniel Barenboim made a speech at last night’s Proms concert against emerging ‘isolation tendencies’. He said that ‘if you look at the difficulties that the European continent is going through now, you can see that, why that it is, because of the lack of common education. Because in one country they do not know why they should belong to something that the other countries do.’ The audience laughed approvingly.

When someone says, in effect, educate people so that they agree with me, they are patronising their opponents and veering dangerously towards ideological certainty. You would think musicians would be humbler about doing this. After all, they have an awful track record. For the last century, and perhaps longer, they have been among the most vulnerable to utopias and idealism.

The Proms aspires to be a national festival, one that’s diverse, welcoming and open to all. It would do well, then, not to alienate the 52% of the electorate who voted leave, and those who don’t care much either way. The Proms will invariably be a hospitable place for those liberals and leftists — Barenboim’s speech was really more a sermon. Yet it’s plausible that most classical music listeners are Leavers. And Barenboim has the arrogance to accuse them of jeopardising European culture and to tell them that they are ill-educated.

Indeed, Baronboim makes the common mistake of equating the trend away from European political union with the disintegration of European culture. This is sheer short-sightedness. Just as a nation continues to exist through revolution, invasion, and so on, so will Europe survive, as it has for millennia. Moreover, there is a great cultural danger in pursuing European political union. It promotes homogeneity and discourages diversity and local autonomy. Some would say that this bland internationalism is an unfortunate feature of post-war musical culture.

People often say music and politics shouldn’t mix. I disagree, and think that they will inevitably mix. Beethoven and Napoleon, Verdi and Italian nationalism, Shostakovitch and the Soviet Union, Peter Maxwell Davies’ anti-Iraq War string quartet, etc. But there is a substantial difference between political inspiration and political speeches. One is suitable for the concert hall, the other isn’t. A speech at a concert claims the music for one’s ideological side. It is surely wrong to be a ventriloquist for a dead composer, and arrogant to decide that music itself conforms to one’s own ideological beliefs (in Barenboim’s case, humanism and internationalism).

Musical Politicians

The BBC Music Magazine must be one of the last of its kind in existence. The only other is Gramophone. When I was in America I looked out for any equivalents, and all they had were these two British magazines.

In the latest issue of the BBC mag, Richard Morrison wrote an article titled ‘Do talented musicians really make cultured and benign politicians?’ This is the BBC, so we don’t actually get an answer. (Mine would be an emphatic No!) His article is nonetheless a fun diversion, looking at the sometimes surprising musicality of our political leaders.

Nixon visiting the Trumans

The article was prompted by the election of Emmanuel Macron, who it would seem is an accomplished pianist, and whose few comments on the subject show genuine musical sensitivity. This isn’t that rare in a world leader. Both Nixon and Truman were capable pianists too. Nixon was even kind enough to call Truman ‘certainly the most distinguished and accomplished pianist ever to be president’. (There’s also a rather charming video on YouTube of Nixon playing his own little composition alongside ’15 Democratic violinists’.)

But do these politicians’ talents for music make them better politicians? Goodness, no. These three are perhaps the most world-changing political leaders from twentieth century: Lenin, Hitler and Sayyid Qutb. And what do they all have in common? Yep, you guessed it: they were all classical music fans — and I use ‘fan’ in the proper sense of ‘fanatic’.

Musicians and composers themselves often show appalling political judgement. So many flirted with communism and, yes, fascism. However, a delightful exception is Verdi. He may have supported nationalist revolution, but he was on the whole somewhat conservative. The Italian politician he effectively worshipped was Cavour, easily the least radical of Italy’s ‘founding fathers’. Following the Italian Unification, Verdi was actually elected to parliament and later appointed to the Senate. But he rarely attended, and made essentially no political contribution. Dare I say, that’s my favourite kind of politician!

I am scratching my head trying to think of contemporary musician-politicians besides President Macron. The only name that comes to mind is Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State under George W. Bush. She is a very capable pianist. There’s an excellent interview with Rice about her playing. The instrument obviously means a lot to her, and she’s something of a Brahmsian, it would seem. I am not overly fond of her politics, I must say, but one is struck here by her elegance and culture, so unlike most modern elites. Peter Robinson, as usual, does an excellent job interviewing her.

Of course there is always Anthony ‘Tony’ Blair who relished the opportunity to be photographed with a guitar in hand. It was none other than the mischievous Roger Scruton who once remarked that ‘the electric guitar owes much of its immense appeal to the obvious fact that it is strapped on and brandished like a dildo’. Here’s ‘Tony’ with his, erm, guitar:

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You know, I owned — in fact I still own — that exact guitar. The Fender Stratocaster HSS, identifiable by the humbucker (the two pickups joined together). I was, I’m ashamed to say, something of a Blair admirer in my younger years. Did I unconsciously mimic him? I shudder to think.

One of the most interesting recent uses of classical music as a political statement was by Russia. After Russia helped the Syrian army retake the historic city of Palmyra, Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra in city’s Roman Theatre. The first piece, starting at 11:55, is Bach’s majestic Chaconne in D Minor.