Let’s Get Some More People in This Party

Photo of a most excellent statue of Angsty Beethoven, from a recent trip to the Naples Conservatory of Music; my favorite thing about this statue is that from the side, you can see that Ludwig has draped himself on this rock like everyone’s favorite mermaid.

When you’ve been performing music for as long as I have (and I’ve been performing since before I had any understanding of what a job or career was) you can go a long time before you realize that you’re complicit in a quiet and unstated kind of hypocrisy.

And that hypocrisy is this: classical music is universal, right? It spans languages, cultures, distance, age, and time. It’s extremely powerful stuff that everyone—and anyone—can relate to.

And yet! Although people of every sort have been writing music for as long as written history exists, and a whole freaking lot of classically trained musicians exist in the world (seriously, have you noticed how many of us there are? it’s nuts!!), the suspiciously vast majority of music performed is music written by a relatively small sample of white European male composers.

How universal is that, really?

The thing that I used to think, and that unfortunately a lot of people still believe, is that this is simply because women and people of color haven’t contributed much to the classical music canon. This type of thinking is easily debunked, though, if you put even the tiniest, laziest amount of research into music history, or even just history in general. Women and people of color (POC) have been a big part of the story, but when it comes time for us in the present to curate selections from the historical record, we end up reinforcing the idea that only a small subsection matters.

“So you’re not being inclusive of enough dead people,” you say. “Big whoop.”

Well, Reader-Who-I’m-Imagining-is-a-Sullen-Teenage-Me, it is a big whoop. The way we represent history can lead to unfortunate perspectives on culture that end up affecting modern society, and how we see people today.

The way we frame history has actual, real-world consequences. The way we tell a prologue can affect how we choose to continue the story.

So while it may seem laughably trivial to say “Hey, why don’t we play more classical music by people who aren’t just dead white dudes?”, I think it’s one of those little things that subtly shapes how we view people and culture as a whole. Perpetuating the myth that exclusion is a normal component of something legitimizes the excuse that exclusion is necessary for maintaining the status quo. It is also a little messed up that the choice to be more representative of a real collection of voices from history requires a conscious deviation from an established canon, but hey, this is a messed up world sometimes.

Anyway, that is the arduous thought process behind my realization of “holy crap, I really need to play some music by women and people of color.” It’s not an earth-shattering change, but it’s what I can do with my power as a musician—and hopefully it’ll convince other musicians to follow suit, and audiences to listen with open ears.

Now here is where you, dear reader (who I’m no longer assuming is Sullen Teenage Me), get to help.

  • My goal is simple: to incorporate music by composers who are female and/or POC into my concert repertoire. Currently the number of pieces in my hands that fit this criteria is 0.
  • I’ve been doing my research, but I am positive that there’s a wealth of composers out there I just haven’t heard of yet. So if you know any women/POC composers who have written works for the piano, please tell me via comment or tweet! (I might compile my list into a future blog posts so other pianists can have at it.)
  • If you are a somebody or you know a somebody who organizes or promotes concerts and would like to support a concert featuring inclusive programming, please let me know!

P.S. You can read more on my thoughts on classism in music or the role of art in the world on this blog, and if you’re the type of person who digs interesting articles, I have a few more lists, and I often share cool things I read on Twitter

P.P.S. I just got back from wiggling my fingers in Italy and here’s the proof

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The Three Most Important Problems in “Beauty and the Beast”

(Image from Animation Magazine.)

I had very little inclination to see the live-action Beauty and the Beast after seeing multiple clips and hearing half the soundtrack, but as it so happens I am in love with a certain someone who wanted very badly to see this movie, and we all make concessions in the name of love, as clearly demonstrated in the aforementioned movie. I have many strong opinions about so many things in this movie (then again, I have strong opinions about basically everything), but these are the three things I have deemed The Most Important Problems.*

*Those of you who know me may be surprised that the aggressively mediocre singing is not one of my three Big Problems with this movie, to which I say this**: yes, the bland auto-tuned, digitally constructed lifeless android singing voice of the otherwise lovely Emma Watson is cringe-worthy, and Gaston’s lack of deep baritone goodness is a crime, but Disney was kind enough to warn us all going in by pre-releasing recordings. Hats off, actually, to the sound engineers, who are the real heroes for creating something out of almost nothing and preventing this from becoming a Les Miz/Mamma Mia/Phantom of the Opera-level, aurally offensive mess.

**I told you I have very strong opinions about basically everything.

Problem the First
Before the “Be Our Guest” scene, the harpsichord comes out to play and the other enchanted objects urge him to play more quietly. “Sotto voce,” the harpsichord responds in confirmation.

Ahem.

HARPSICHORDS HAVE A FIXED VOLUME AND CANNOT PLAY MORE QUIETLY AND THE HARPSICHORD HIMSELF SHOULD KNOW THAT. SHAME ON YOU, HARPSICHORD.***

***”But it’s a double-manual harpsichord, so he could simply play the quieter manual and that would count as playing quietly!” you protest. That was my thought too, reader, but I’m pretty sure I saw both manuals going so either Mr. Harpsichord is full of it or he’s just too fed up to correct his friends.

Problem the Second
Yeah, it’s the harpsichord again. In another moment in the movie, he plays the theme from the “Funeral March” movement of Chopin’s second sonata as a gag.

Excuse me, but the movie is pretty clearly set in the baroque era, SEVERAL HUNDRED YEARS BEFORE CHOPIN, AND THEREFORE THIS THEME, EVEN EXISTED. #SORRYNOTSORRY FOR THE CAPS LOCK, THIS PARTICULAR ANACHRONISM REALLY IRKS ME.

Problem the Third
Finally, not a harpsichord problem! In the closing ballroom scene, it appears that the violinists are playing with modern and not period bows. For a movie that took such great pains to make a period-appropriate harpsichord come to life, it’s a real shame they couldn’t rustle up some period bows for the violinists. ARE THE VIOLINISTS TIME-TRAVELERS? EXPLAIN YOURSELF, DISNEY!

That is all. I bring this post to you because the internet is already saturated with a deluge of thinkpieces about whether this remake is too derivative of the animated original, whether LeFou’s outrageously rampant gayness is awesome, terrible, or will cause the world to implode upon itself, how the movie is too feminist, how the movie is not feminist enough, etc. etc. etc. I can promise you that hardly any of these essays will talk about accuracy in harpsichord portrayal, or musical anachronism in a movie where none of the musical numbers are remotely close to being in the baroque style. So here I am, a random person with strong opinions who picked a weird hill to die on, to offer my thoughts. You’re welcome, internet.

But Disney, I have to give you credit for featuring a harpsichord as a character. A+ for effort in raising harpsichord awareness.

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Death of a Snob

Photo I snapped of Hamo Thornycroft's "Lot's Wife" at the V&A in London last month.

My mom mentioned the other day that at some point when I was young, I went to a playdate at a house that had a piano. So I sat down and played a difficult little piece for a very polite audience, and when I was finished one father said, “That’s nice. Hey, can you play anything by the Beatles?”

I think that’s about the time I became very stuck-up about music—I’d realized at that point that outside of my parents’ house and my piano teacher’s studio, no one seemed to be listening to the type of music I was playing. So, like all young people who feel misunderstood when they like something non-mainstream, I became very snobby about music.

Like many quietly horrible things, like gelatin-based salads and casual racism, the music snobbery came from a place of misguided good intentions. Classical music had always captured my heart, lit up my imagination, and described all the complex emotions that defied language, and I couldn’t understand why people would turn their backs on so sublime an art in favor of the nonsense that came out of the radio. I erroneously decided that such ignorance had to be intentional, and as such deserved mockery.

I like to think that I was a nice kid, but my snobbishness knew no bounds, and got worse the older I got. It’s a miracle I made it out of high school with any friends left. If someone told me they liked “the Moonlight Sonata,” I’d snort. “You mean you like Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, Op. 27 No. 2 in C-sharp minor, right? Have you even heard the third movement, or are you one of those people who just listens to the first and thinks that’s the whole thing?”

I was also so utterly convinced of the objective superiority of classical music that I was certain that, if one blasted Liszt’s “La Campanella” enough times in the hallway, the sheeple would snap out of it and recognize true greatness. Come to think of it, I think that’s the exact same reasoning that explains why people stand on street corners waving signs about Jesus.

Luckily for all the people who stuck around to put up with me, I had a couple of realizations:

1. The obvious thing: classical music, like all forms of art, is deeply personal. There’s no one magic piece, genre, or style you can use to get everybody hooked. My gateway drug was a “Classical Masterpieces” compilation CD set, but for somebody else it might be a Bugs Bunny cartoon or Fantasia. I spent so many years pooh-poohing John Williams as a Hollywood hack that it came as a surprise to me that his movie scores have led many people down the rabbit hole and turned them into real fans of classical music. Even after you’ve discovered the wonderful, wacky, colorful world of art music, what turns people on can vary wildly. I’m pretty sure there’s a dopamine center in my brain that’s exclusively activated by Beethoven, yet I know plenty of people for whom his music doesn’t do anything. (I have since repaired my friendships with these people despite their obvious shortcomings.)

2. The hard truth: if you exclude other fans of classical music because their reasons for loving it aren’t good enough for you, you’re not going to have a lot of allies left. You know, besides the really pedantic purists who analyze everything to death and insist you won’t truly appreciate this piece until you’ve read this one book in the original German by candlelight. I have met people like this (heck, I’ve been one of those people) and they are not very pleasant. Classical music lovers are classical music lovers, and concerts are way more fun with more people in the audience.

3. The really uncomfortable truth: classical music gets painted as an exclusive institution because it is. As much as we musicians and music lovers like to trumpet (pun intended) the universality of music, it is an unpleasant fact that the groups of people allowed to write, perform, criticize, curate, and preserve art music have been, and still are, limited to a small cohort defined by privilege. Often, when we talk about “classical music,” we really mean European and American music, and when we talk about European and American music, we really mean music written by European and American men, and when we talk about music written by European and American men, we really mean music written by European and American men of the upper and middle class and…you get the point.

And hey, the classism affects audiences, too. While enjoyment of music can be had at all levels of familiarity, people with more music education and experience are more likely to appreciate and support the arts. But music education isn’t exactly universal. Most kids who get to learn to play music are kids with parents who can afford to get them lessons and instruments and take them to concerts. Music classes aren’t offered in all schools, they’re usually the first thing to go when the budget cuts roll around, and music appreciation often isn’t something that’s taught along with history, math, or science (even though it’s a direct application of all three things combined). Classical music is a massively important cultural keystone, but it’s also extremely daunting for those not familiar with it, and its reputation for snobbery can turn people off from seeing what all the fuss is about. Writing off people for having no knowledge of music when they haven’t been given a chance to be exposed to it is…well, it’s as exclusionist as you can get without straight-up building a #*%^ing wall.

This combination of epiphanies killed my inner snob pretty quickly. A couple of years ago, if I heard a snippet of the William Tell Overture outside of a concert hall (which describes 100% of the times I have heard it), I’d sigh theatrically and say, “Poor Rossini.” Now? Sure, it’s a little annoying that Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and Vivaldi’s “Spring” are constantly churned out by commercials, movies, wind-up toys, et. al…but it’s admittedly also kind of cool that tunes from classical music are woven into the fabric of modern culture and kept alive in the ears of people who might not otherwise ever hear those melodies.

So what does it mean that I’ve renounced my snobbish ways? It hasn’t necessarily changed my tastes—I’m still pretty picky about what I listen to and like, and I have a very limited range of tolerance for most pop music—but my attitude has evolved a lot. I make it a point not to condescend to people who don’t know much about music, and in fact it’s kind of fun to figure out how to explain something I learned very technically in a way that’s approachable and relatable. I’ve learned that if someone likes something even tangentially related to classical music—movie scores, video game music, classical crossover, or heck, Für Elise—it means they like music, and it gives me an opportunity to indoctrinate them into my cult introduce them to other pieces or composers I think they’ll like.

It’s also affected the way I perform; there’s less “Let me show off for you and make a point about how amazing I am by playing all these notes” and more “Let me show you how amazing this music is and why I love it so much.” I think it comes through, for performances that have a lot more heart and substance.

And if nothing else, being un-snobby about music has made it so much easier to get along with other people who, when it comes down to it, love classical music for the same reason that I do: because it’s awesome.

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