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 Sunday Reading Roundup [2.12.17]

I haven’t done one of these in a while (almost a year, geez) so hang tight, there’s a lot of reading material here. In the interest of organization, these will be roughly grouped by theme. Obviously the groupings are roughly drawn, and there’s a lot of overlap; I recommend that you just read all of them, though admittedly it might take a while.

Grief, tragedy, and hard things

The New Yorker: “When Things Go Missing” by Kathryn Schulz

I genuinely can’t pull a quote from this beautiful piece that sums it up; it begins, innocuously whimsical, and then crescendos in depth and intensity.

GQ: “The Man Who Cleans Up After Plane Crashes” by Lauren Larson

Jensen doesn’t have any harrowing rescue stories. He’s looking for something of more abstract value—a piece of a person, literal or figurative, that he can bring back to a victim’s family to say “We tried.” He knows from experience that when a person’s life has been obliterated, even the tiniest shards can bring solace.

New York Times Magazine: “‘I Have No Choice but to Keep Looking‘” by Jennifer Percy

“I expected it to be difficult,” Takamatsu said, “and I’ve found it quite difficult, but it is the only thing I can do. I have no choice but to keep looking for her. I feel closest to her in the ocean.”

New York Times: “Patton Oswalt: ‘I’ll Never Be at 100 Percent Again‘” by Jason Zinoman

“Grief is an attack on life. It’s not a seducer. It’s an ambush or worse. It stands right out there and says: ‘The minute you try something, I’m waiting for you.’”

Glamour: “Stanford Sexual Assault Case Survivor Emily Doe Speaks Out

“Victims are not victims, not some fragile, sorrowful aftermath. Victims are survivors, and survivors are going to be doing a hell of a lot more than surviving.”

The Guardian: “Monica Lewinsky: ‘The shame sticks to you like tar’” by Jon Ronson

Lewinsky’s outlook on her scandal has been doggedly non-ideological from the start. “I’m endlessly fascinated by how people derive meaning in life,” she says, “the chasm between how idealised people pretend life is and how complex we really are.”

Cracked: “This is What Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings Actually Are” by Isaac Cabe

Trigger warnings and safe spaces get so conflated because they’re both meant to evoke the same criticism — that we’re coddling college students instead of exposing them to new ideas. But if a student has been so damaged by a previous experience that they literally can’t focus on the lesson, then something needs to be done to help that student. We’re not “preparing students for the real world” by re-exposing them to things from the real world that have already messed them up pretty bad.

History

Buzzfeed: “The Past Hundred Years of Gender-Segregated Public Restrooms” by Shannon Keating

Concerns about secretions, disease, and physical threats to the body are vessels through which deeper and more significant anxieties — regarding gender, sex, shame, and power — have been codified into law and reified by social norms over the span of decades.

Lucky Peach: “The History of Pho” by Andrea Nguyen

Vietnam is a country with a history spanning more than 3,500 years, but pho is a relatively new food. It was born at the beginning of the twentieth century in and around Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, located in the northern part of the country.

Smithsonian: “‘The Hatpin Peril’ Terrorized Men Who Couldn’t Handle the 20th-Century Woman” by Karen Abbott

“If the men of Chicago want to take the hatpins away from us, let them make the streets safe,” she said. “No man has a right to tell me how I shall dress and what I shall wear.”

Note: The above quote was from 1910.

London Review of Books: “Royal Bodies” by Hilary Mantel

Women, their bodies, their reproductive capacities, their animal nature, are central to the story. The history of the reign is so graphically gynaecological that in the past it enabled lady novelists to write about sex when they were only supposed to write about love; and readers could take an avid interest in what went on in royal bedrooms by dignifying it as history, therefore instructive, edifying. Popular fiction about the Tudors has also been a form of moral teaching about women’s lives, though what is taught varies with moral fashion.

Immigration

New York Times: “Refugees Encounter a Foreign Word: Welcome” by Jodi Kantor and Catrin Einhorn

As sponsors sign the paperwork that commits them, no one really explains the potential range of their unofficial duties: showing a newcomer to spit in a dentist’s sink by miming the motions, rushing over late at night to calm a war-rattled family terrified by a garage door blown open by the wind, or using Google Translate to tell children who lived through war and exile that they are supposed to wear pink at school for anti-bullying day.

New York Times: “What Does it Mean to Help One Family?” by Jodi Kantor and Catrin Einhorn

The family was living through the first refugee crisis in history in which people without countries or homes could communicate instantaneously with one another. Previous generations of refugees often ached for any information about relatives, but now messages zipped back and forth around the world on free apps. The joy of such regular communication came at a steep cost: constant updates on the misery of relatives left behind, intensifying worry and impeding progress for those trying to carve out a new life. 

Note: There’s a third part to the series that this and the above article belong in, but I have a backlog of several hundred (!) articles to get through and I haven’t gotten to that one yet.

Washington Post: “How to be an American: Syrian refugees find a home in Trump country” by Robert Samuels

“Now I am concerned about how they will treat me if they agree with the president, if they will treat me in a racist way,” she said. “I worry this ban will change how I feel inside, that it will cause me to worry more for me and my kids. We did not come here to cause trouble. We just want to live.”

Washington Post: “Trump says Syrian refugees aren’t vetted. We are. Here’s what we went through.” by Linda J.

Each member of the family told their story, and those stories had to be consistent with interviews given by other people who knew us. If our answers didn’t match information U.S. officials already had, or if they couldn’t validate our information, we didn’t progress to the next step. I had only a glimmer of hope that this would work — and that we could have a safe life for my daughters. We lived on that hope.

Washington Post: “Anne Frank and her family were also denied entry as refugees to the U.S.” by Elahe Izadi

But as the Frank family filed paperwork, immigration rules were changing — and attitudes in the United States toward immigrants from Europe were becoming increasingly suspicious, Breitman wrote. The American government was making it harder for foreigners to get into the country — and the Nazis were making it difficult to leave.

Refinery 29: “I Work Alongside You Every Day —But Depending On Who Wins The Election, I Could Be Forced To Leave” by Fiona Marlie Rezei

In my case, a win for Donald Trump could mean leaving my immediate family, my friends, and my job to return to a country I haven’t seen since I was 10 years old. 


The fear of losing the life I have built for myself over the past 15 years crystalized when I turned in my final college assignment almost three years ago. I should have been ecstatic, relieved, and happy; excited for what the future would hold like my other cap-and-gown-donning classmates.

New York Times: “Dalai Lama: Behind Our Anxiety, the Fear of Being Unneeded” by the Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks

This helps explain why pain and indignation are sweeping through prosperous countries. The problem is not a lack of material riches. It is the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies.

Note: This isn’t just about immigration, but I’m kind of stuck as to how to categorize this, so here it stays.

Classical Music

The New Yorker: “Making Art in a Time of Rage” by Alex Ross

What is the point of making beautiful things, or of cherishing the beauty of the past, when ugliness runs rampant? Those who work in the realm of the arts have been asking themselves that question in recent weeks. The election of Donald Trump, and the casual cruelty of his Presidency thus far, have precipitated a sense of crisis in that world, not least because Trump seems inclined to let the arts rot.

The Guardian: “Lemony Snicket: ‘The problem with being interested in classical music is that people look at you funny” by Daniel Handler

You might be sitting with friends talking about pop music, or what you’ve read or seen on television, and everyone’s on the same page. And then you say “Yeah, it reminds me of that Shostakovich quartet, that chord at the end” and there’s a chill in the room, and the mood is killed. I thought if I seduced more people into the world of classical music I wouldn’t be as lonely and wretched.

Huffington Post: “Why Musicians Need Silence in an Always-Connected World” [Interview with Stephen Hough] by Carlos Gardels

So there is a need in the arts to delve deep, and to live with the material and let it be absorbed. This is very important. It’s related to any kind of growth. The Internet tempts us to think that because an email or a new website can be accessed in seconds that everything works at the same instant speed. Art is more like the growth of a plant. It needs time and space.

Creative Review: “How the Toronto Symphony Orchestra uses graphic design to guide audiences” by Mark Sinclair

Instead of quoting the article, I’m just going to tell you that I got a nerdgasm from this, having gotten a minor in graphic design in addition to my major (and another minor) in music.

Feminism & Toxic Masculinity

Bustle: “On Newt Scamander, Toxic Masculinity, and the Power of Hufflepuff Heroes” by Emma Lord

Newt Scamander takes every trope we know about the Male Hero — the toxic tropes that we have grown up with, that are so internalized in traditional narratives that we don’t even blink at them anymore — and flips them on their head.

Newsweek: “Women of the CIA: The Hidden History of American Spycraft” by Abigail Jones

Women have been central to American spycraft since 1776, and they continued to play important roles in the World War II–era Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA’s predecessor. Even so, the agency has a long history as a chauvinistic old boys’ club rife with sexism. “People treat it as only men have a calling to serve their country and it’s unnatural for women to do it,” Bennett says. “Women have been extremely involved and integral! It burns me up to no end. Women in intelligence is not new. We’ve always been important, and there’s nothing strange with us wanting to do this role.”

The Atlantic: “Not Wanting Kids is Entirely Normal” by Jessica Valenti

American culture can’t accept the reality of a woman who does not want to be a mother. It goes against everything we’ve been taught to think about women and how desperately they want babies. If we’re to believe the media and pop culture, women — even teen girls — are forever desperate for a baby. It’s our greatest desire.

Cracked: “7 Reasons So Many Guys Don’t Understand Sexual Consent” by David Wong

No, the alternative is to recognize that ridding guys of toxic attitudes toward women is a monumental task. I’ve spent two solid decades trying to deprogram myself, to get on board with something that, in retrospect, should be patently obvious to any decent person. Changing actions is the easy part; changing urges takes years and years. It’s the difference between going on a diet and training your body to not get hungry at all.

Vox: “The research is clear: electing more women changes how government works” by Sarah Kliff

Changing the conversation can have an effect on the laws that Congress eventually passes: One recent study of Congress since 2009 found that the average female legislator had 2.31 of her bills enacted, compared with men, who turned 1.57 bills into law.

Boing Boing: “To find Hillary Clinton likable, we must learn to view women as complex beings” by Caroline Siede

Our movies, books, and TV shows are filled with attractive female love interests, badass female warriors, hissable female villains, and bumbling female leads. But we don’t have very many female protagonists who are allowed to be flawed in ways that are messily realistic not just charmingly endearing. We haven’t been taught to empathize with flawed women the way we have with flawed men.

Miscellaneous Fascinating Things

Racked: “Perfume, Power, and God” by Arabelle Sicardi

Perfume made you lose your head, forced you to face God sooner.

I’m fascinated by this connection between god and perfume and power. What’s the power of smell and how is it linked to politics? And have they always been linked like so?

The Economist/1843 Magazine: “Demand Curve” by Brooke Unger

The authors of “Signalling status with luxury goods: the role of brand prominence”, which appeared in the Journal of Marketing in 2010, do so by dividing the rich into two groups: “parvenus”, who want to associate themselves with other rich people and distinguish themselves from have-nots, and “patricians”, who want to signal to each other but not to the masses. They theorise that more expensive luxury goods, aimed at patricians, will have less obvious branding than cheaper ones.

New Republic: “Across the Broken Bridge” by Suki Kim

Shenyang and Dandong, filled with North Korean defectors, contract workers, and government officials, are notorious hubs of sensitive information on North Korea, and I was hoping to learn something new.

NY Mag: “10 Extremely Precise Words for Emotions You Didn’t Even Know You Had” by Melissa Dahl

Priceonomics: “The Campaign to Make You Eat Kimchi” by Sarah Scharf

As it turns out, so-called ‘gastro-diplomacy’ is gaining traction as a valuable form of international relationship building and stimulus for tourism. As Public Diplomacy magazine notes, these countries “have recognized the seductive qualities food can have, and are leveraging this unique medium of cultural diplomacy to increase trade, economic investment, and tourism, as well as to enhance soft power.”

Outside Online: “The Bears Who Came to Town and Would Not Go Away” by Sarah A. Topol

First there were a few, then a dozen, then many more—the bears were showing up around Luchegorsk at a rate of up to ten per day. They moved in elongated convoys, following each other down the same paths through open fields, like they had all locked onto the same GPS route and the coordinates led straight to Luchegorsk. 

Priceonomics: “How an Ad Campaign Made Lesbians Fall in Love with Subaru” by Alex Mayyasi

This was the type of discovery that the small, struggling automaker was looking for. But Subaru had been looking for niche groups like skiers and kayakers—not lesbian couples. Did the company want to make advertisements for gay customers? At the time, in the mid 1990s, few celebrities were openly out. A Democratic president had just passed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and after IKEA aired one of the first major ad campaigns depicting a gay couple, someone had called in a bomb threat on an IKEA store.

Buzzfeed: “How Taylor Swift Played The Victim For A Decade And Made Her Entire Career” by Ellie Woodward

By teasing the press and public in this way, Swift has been able to control the narrative around her relationships, ensure sustained media attention, and bolster record sales. She has created a narrative so compelling, so regular in its offerings, so melodramatic, that it’s reminiscent of a soap opera – it’s impossible to look away. Each instalment is thoroughly analysed: Of course we want to know the next episode. She’s taught the public – gradually, cleverly – to cling to the next development. Why are the public so obsessed with her relationships? Because she makes them irresistible.

LA Times: “Framed” by Christopher Goddard

 This is a long read in six parts, but it’s extremely interested and really well-written; highly recommend.

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