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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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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