On Musical Genre and Personal Identity

By · Illustrations Christian Gwiozda (CC) · Date 12/1/2016

In the very first episode of the critically acclaimed ESPN documentary “OJ: Made in America,” the sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards contemplates OJ’s racial self-distinction during his college days in the 1960s. OJ thought he should be “judged not by the color of my skin, I want to be judged by the content of my character and most of all the caliber of my competence…that’s all I want to be judged by.” Finishing the final episode one week after the surprising and revealing (though not revelatory) results of the U.S. election, I found myself thinking about identity in another field where people claim that competence comes first: classical music.

OJ’s call to be taken not as part of a group but as an individual, irrespective of race, was somewhat similar to the philosophy shared by contemporaneous post-black artists who, as Thelma Golden wrote, were “adamant about not being labeled ‘black’ artists, though their work [is] steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.” This ties in with another, particularly conservative strain of black thought. In a 1998 speech to the Commonwealth Club of California noted conservative economist Thomas Sowell remarked, “History, geography, and cultures are influences but they are not predestination. Not only individuals but whole peoples have moved from the backwaters of the world to the forefront of civilization. …Far from painting themselves into their own little cultural corner and celebrating their ‘identity,’ these peoples sought the knowledge and insights of other peoples more advanced than themselves in particular skills, technologies, or organizational experience.”

In the arts and classical music specifically, no less than in other fields, there is a tendency to decouple individuality and one’s broader group identity, or at the very least to minimize the complex interaction between identity, opportunity, and inclusion in the larger society. OJ’s sentiment resonates with the reluctance of some contemporary composers to be identified or labeled by genre. They don’t want to be defined—and subsequently limited—by classifications of identity that, they believe, don’t represent the totality of who they are.

Some time ago, I wrote that these musicians “have always grown up listening to, enjoying, and playing all types of music: rock, funk, South Indian classical, or bluegrass, as well as art music. With this native exposure and fluency in various styles and genres, these composers and musicians organically subsume the disparate elements and influences in a more fundamental and holistic way than previous generations; not necessarily in a conscious ‘break’ from stylistic concerns, but rather insouciance with whether or not their musical statements fit any one prescribed genre definition. For these composers, and for the similarly nonsectarian contemporaneous audiences that listen, this aesthetic is in situ; their lingua franca, it is who they are.” The recent presidential election has brought concepts of identity—particularly white identity—into the public conversation. Besides the luck of growing up in the “right” neighborhood, going to the “right” school, having financial stability and the “right” background, whiteness confers something that is infinitely aesthetically valuable: the privilege of flexibility.

In his campaign rhetoric, the President Elect has conflated the actions of individual people of color with their entire communities, saying that “the blacks” live in ghettos and don’t respect law enforcement, and that “the Mexicans” are criminals and drug mules. Whites, on the other hand, enjoy their individuality—the militants who occupied the Mahler National Wildlife Refuge were treated as distinct from general white culture. People of color have long been cognizant of these ideas.

This kind of harsh rhetoric is not usually prevalent in classical music. But an analogous flattening of identity is sometimes found. People of color, or women, are often relegated to the category of “special interests.” Black composers are often featured on orchestra programs and in institutional performances in February, but are rarely part of the repertoire during other months of the year; women are nearly completely absent from the seasons of many major orchestras. The institution of classical music is reflective of broader society: a white male majority enjoying the privilege and benefits of an ethnocracy whose overtures toward inclusivity, while lauded, sometimes come with an air of implicit (and at times explicit) “bless their hearts” condescension.

In a 2012 interview with the Village Voice, Philip Glass discussed casting an all-black chorus for his opera “Appomattox”: “ ‘David [Glockey, former director of the Houston Grand Opera], this is the Civil War! We’ve got to have black people on stage! To which Gockley replied, ‘Yeah, but where am I going to find them?’ Well, he found them. We had a whole chorus. The only problem was [laughing] they weren’t as black as I wanted them to be!”

I’m sure the Glockey and Glass exchange was without ill will, but it is, nonetheless, problematic. The idea that a chorus wasn’t quite black enough is a good example of this flattening; and painfully references the long history of the larger public’s often narrow strictures of blackness that is still pervasive in music and society. Composer Jeffrey Mumford, speaking at the recent BBC 3 conference on Diversity and Inclusion in Composition said, “It seems that in certain parts of our culture we have not been ‘given permission’ to embrace what touches us despite it not coinciding with that which others may define as ‘Black enough.’ ”

The flatness of identity is not only the provenance of people of color. In an October 2016 Facebook post, the composer Sarah Kirkland Snider wrote, “The other day some female composer friends who have children were talking about their discomfort posting pictures of their kids, for fear of being taken less seriously as a composer. I admit, I have the same anxiety. I find myself avoiding discussion of my family in professional situations…So it’s a small thing but I promised myself I’d post a profile picture of myself being a mother, because I am one, I’m proud of it, and we need to stop sending women the message that career and family are mutually exclusive, particularly in the arts.” In other words, she refuses to allow her identity to be flattened into that of a mother only; she challenges the classical music world to accept her as a person in her multiplicity, something which in the post-election world will become increasingly essential.

On my blog, I’ve written that those of us critical of classical music “for not reaching its potential don’t have any less belief that it’s possible, despite the long history to the contrary. In particular those of us brown and black faces who often have the greatest reasons to distrust or believe, often are the ones that continue to cling to the hope that one day, that promise could fully include them/us as well.” As composer Andrew Norman recently said, “The canon is so overwhelmingly white and male, but we can use new music to fix that problem. There are so many voices who should be heard in the concert hall today, of people whose music reflects a wide variety of experiences. That, to me, is the most important issue right now for contemporary classical music and classical music generally—how to get what happens in the concert hall to reflect the diverse society that we are…I think that orchestras have such an opportunity, especially now in this really conflicted, contentious moment, to say something powerful and meaningful about our own time, with all of the voices of our own time.”

If American political institutions, some of which already had real experience with diversity, could suffer a setback as radical as this election, then what of our classical music world? The new political climate and the unearthed nativist climate around identity make it difficult to see hope for systemic change. “[Black people’s] hope is tempered by a deep awareness of how thin is the veneer of white civility. Our grudging acceptance that progress and diversity are fragile bits of spun glass looks like hopelessness because it doesn’t absolve. But, it is the most enduring kind of hope,” wrote Tressie McMillan Cottom, and that is the kind of hope I will hold onto as well.

A hope for a day to come where America’s original promise will be achieved; where people in power and influence, as well as those shouting with plangent voice to be acknowledged and heard, will understand Reverend Cecil Murray words about OJ Simpson, and which really applies to us all: “You may be at the top house in Beverly Hills, and I may be in the basement of a place in Watts, but we are connected.” ¶