Adventures in Fear and Discovery: Learning Music Outside the Canon, Part 1

It’s been a hot minute since the last time I wrote here—between then and now there have been thousands of miles of air travel, a lot of faffing about on Instagram Stories, even more unprofessional faffing about on Twitter, a whole new language learned(-ish), many performances with and without other people, a move to a new city, a wild midterm election, a truly terrible season of House of Cards, several excellent high-grossing movies, some awful movies that made a lot of money anyway, some excellent movies that didn’t make enough money, the discovery of an awesome TV show, and the slow realization that although I haven’t had enough time for all the sleep I should have gotten this year I somehow had the time to watch a lot of movies and TV.

Hmm.

When I wrote last year’s post about branching out of standard piano repertoire (recap: it’s all by white dudes) to explore music by women and people of color, I’ll admit I had a secret little fear that I wouldn’t be able to follow through and that my good intentions would wilt and I’d go back to my usual diet of Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin.

Well, I’ve been chugging along at my personal crusade of searching out and learning music by female composers, and I’m happy to report that 1) I haven’t given up, and 2) I have a lot to say about the journey so far, which has been a roller coaster of fear and discovery (hence the blog title). There are a lot of unique challenges that come with straying from the canon, as well as a lot of really special bonuses that you don’t get playing music from the standard menu.

This post will be a two-parter, because I started writing this and it got…really long. So Part 1 will focus on the challenges I’ve encountered so far, and Part 2 will be all about the wonderful, magical parts of the process that (spoiler alert!) make the challenges worth it.

So let’s get into this, shall we?

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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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On Artists With Opinions // The Sunday Reading Roundup [2.26.17]

One of the things I most often have to defend (sometimes to others, and mostly to myself) is the relevancy of all my non-musical activities to classical music. And lately, as our current socio-political climate has gotten only more charged, I’ve seen an alarming rise in a certain sentiment towards non-political figures who choose to offer their thoughts on the crisis du jour.

Said sentiment, often in need of being cleaned up, can be summed up thusly: “Shut up and go back to making music/dancing/acting/[insert verb for other forms of art-making here].”

The idea is that if you’ve chosen to create art (“art” here being used as a catch-all phrase encompassing all forms of creative expression), you only have permission to create things for others to enjoy, and that you have somehow ceded your right as a thinking person to share your thoughts and opinions with others.

So, before I dump my laundry basket of weekly reading on you, I want to say a couple of things about what art is, and what it is not.

Art is not created in a vacuum.

Art is not meant to be consumed in a vacuum.

Art is not solely a vehicle to beautify the world.

Art is a distillation of its creator’s worldview, shaped by personal experience.

Art is a reflection of the world in which it is created.

Art is meant to challenge as well as inspire.

An artist who uses their medium as a form of expression (and not merely a craft that exists for its own sake) has a responsibility to observe humanity in all its terrible beauty and wonderful dysfunction, and to think critically about that beauty and dysfunction. An artist’s task is to tap simultaneously into that which is personal and that which is universal, and one doesn’t do that by pretending the outside world doesn’t exist.

So don’t give artists grief for thinking about things outside of their craft, because that’s their #$@%ing job.

Now, here are some of my favorite things that I’ve read/watched this week. Some slightly different themes emerged, so I’ve categorized accordingly.

Articles

Excellent pieces whose weird clickbait-y headlines are a disservice

Washington Post: “Refugees are already vigorously vetted. I know because I vetted them.” by Natasha Hall

During nearly four years as an immigration officer, I conducted in-person interviews with hundreds of refugees of 20 different nationalities in 10 countries. I saw countless refugees break down crying in my interview room because of the length and severity of the vetting process. From that experience and numerous security briefings, it’s clear that the authors of Trump’s order are unfamiliar with the U.S. immigration system, U.S. laws, international law and the security threats facing our nation.

Huffington Post: “I, Too, Am An Immigrant. I, Too, Belong.” by Raj Panjabi

(Found, upon reading this one, that the article was primarily an excerpt from a commencement speech, and that while it is indeed a powerful immigrant narrative, its focus was on the power of selflessness, neither of which were reflected in the headline. Oh well, HuffPo, you do you.)

Like many other refugees and immigrants, my journey has not been ”self-made.” As I share below, I believe the Americans who acted selflessly — providing my family with shelter, helping my parents secure jobs, sponsoring our green card applications, and mentoring me as a teenager — helped make my journey possible. I believe the selfless acts that shaped my life matter, as ever, for the lives of refugees and immigrants across America. And I believe no person, no policy, and no institution can strip the power we each have to act selflessly.

Pieces whose headlines could honestly have used a bit more clickbait

Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber” by Susan J. Fowler

(This blog post has gone viral without resorting to having a clickbait-y headline, so really, who am I to fault it?)

When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6%. Women were transferring out of the organization, and those who couldn’t transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organizational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organization. When I asked our director at an org all-hands about what was being done about the dwindling numbers of women in the org compared to the rest of the company, his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers.

Lowrider: “Richard Montanez — Raza Report” by Henry De Kuyper and Mike Landers

(This article is from 2011, so really they’re forgiven for not being clickbait-y.)

His [Richard Montanez’s] enthusiasm is contagious, and his empathy for human struggle is genuine. He’s the product of a low-income Latino family and knows all too well what it’s like to work hard and barely make ends meet. Now he is far removed from that struggle, as Richard is the executive of multicultural sales and community activation at PepsiCo North America—a far cry from his initial job as a janitor with Frito-Lay. 

Pieces whose headlines got it just right

The New York Times Magazine: “The Stir-Fried Tomatoes and Eggs my Chinese Mother Made” by Francis Lam

This paragraph is, as the kids say, my everything:

I knew that I wasn’t going to figure out a recipe for it, because I realized that my not knowing how to make this dish was akin to my Cantonese getting rusty, to not knowing when Chinese New Year is every year. It’s because I’m not an immigrant, only a son of immigrants, and so I know only the frayed facsimile of the world that my parents grew up in. Being part of a culture without living in it is like being in a long-distance relationship. You can make it work with grand displays of affection and splendid visits, but you don’t get to have coffee together on a Sunday morning — the little things, the stuff daily life is built on. 

[Note: my mom (and grandma and aunt) also made this dish, and taught me to make it, but their version is vastly different.]

The New Yorker: “When Immigrants Are No Longer Considered Americans” by Hua Hsu

The history of immigration policy is filled with moments like these, when a group goes from subhuman to superhuman within a few short years, because of political winds beyond their grasp. […] It’s a reminder that the “Creed of Democracy” contains limits—that no amount of assimilation or integration will protect you when an alien requires conjuring; that being a model citizen means little when laws can be enforced arbitrarily, and you no longer qualify as one. Yet many of us still try to live up to such impossible standards.

Language Realm: “Translating Puns in Harry Potter” by…?

So how do you translate a pun? Although there is, obviously, no one solution to this problem, there are strategies and tricks that help. You can hope for a happy coincidence between your source and target languages, unlikely though this is; you can find a close alternative, which sometimes is obvious but often requires considerable thought; or you can recreate the entire pun in a separate fashion, which requires a lot of effort and may fail. 

Buzzfeed: “Muslims Shouldn’t Have to Be ‘Good’ to Be Granted Human Rights” by Sara Yasin

had to smile, to be polite, to dissolve the hostility of those who thought Muslims were savage, alien creatures. I had to accept the explanation that these incidents were either less significant than they felt or just evidence of one individual’s ignorance — and that it was my responsibility to change their minds. I was never supposed to see them as the product of all the vehement anti-Muslim narratives in pop culture and the news that helped justify the surveillance and arrests our communities experienced in the aftermath of 9/11. Over and over again, my non-Muslim friends told me to brush these things off because they didn’t really see them as part of a bigger, systematic inequality: That would have meant thinking about what role they had in changing it.

I don’t know what’s going on, but Cracked is killing it

Cracked: “6 Big Differences That Turn City Dwellers into Liberals” by Loey Nunning

Suddenly multiculturalism isn’t some failed, politically correct agenda, it’s just your neighborhood. Cities are diverse because this is where people come to find jobs, and the vast majority of immigrants, both legal and illegal, live in them. By the time you show up in town, this huge kumbaya-world stew has already been boiling for ages. When you live around people from all over the world, you get to see first hand that most immigrants are normal, hard-working people, just with cool accents and better food.

Cracked: “The Real Reason for the Trans Bathroom Panic” by Ian Fortey

The idea of people being out there who are transgender is difficult for some to deal with. It’s a relatively new idea for some folks. But those people also need to appreciate an important point, and that’s who gives a shit? Who gives a shit if you’re not comfortable with gender identity and trans rights? If it’s not about you, why does it matter to you? 

Cracked: “6 Surprising Things You Learn in the Alt-Right Media Bubble” by Robert Evans

If you want to build a movement, here’s the first thing you should know: The best way to convert someone to a point of view is not to get in their face and scream inflammatory slogans. It’s to simply filter the facts so that they arrive at the conclusion you want on their own. Modern white nationalism has mastered this.

Documentaries

Lately I’ve been binge-rewatching Parks and Recreation and Veep (what can I say, there’s comfort in TV shows centered on ambitious and conflicted women) but I’ve ventured back into the wonderful, beautiful world of documentaries.

BBC Earth’s The Blue Planet

I know this series is going on sixteen years old (!), but I haven’t rewatched it since it came out, and all I can say about it is [heart eyes emoji]. It’s on Netflix!

SOMM: Into the Bottle

Highly, highly recommend. It’s beautiful, it’s informative, it’s thought-provoking, and it’s an inspiring reminder that art is art is art—that the drive and the struggle to create is universal, and that there is meaning to be found in toiling to create something that, in the end, exists for only a moment.

(Photo taken by me, from a 2015 trip to Paris.)

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