By Elaine Mitchener
»The struggle of our new millennium will be one between the ongoing imperative of securing the well-being of our present ethnoclass (i.e., Western bourgeois) conception of the human, Man, which overrepresents itself as if it were the human itself, and that of securing the well-being, and therefore the full cognitive and behavioral autonomy of the human species itself/ourselves.»
When I was approached to reflect and respond in writing to the question of decolonization in Western ‘art’ music, I thought I wouldn’t find it too difficult. Actually, it has turned out to be a challenge, because I am a performer, not a writer or essayist. I also have a problem with the word ‘decolonization’ used within this context, because so many responses to it are negative rather than a celebration of the universality of classical music.
I have decided to use this opportunity to find another way to express some personal ideas and feelings around this currently hot topic. There remains an active acknowledgement of and a desire for change to address and redress inequalities, silences and biases that exist in Western classical music. Over the last five years, the focus has been on the under-representation of women composers which has sparked many a heated debate, pledges of 50/50 programing and suggestions of compromised quality to fit quotas. In 2015, The Spectator’s associate editor Damian Thompson wrote a piece headlined »There’s a good reason why there are no great women composers«. Whether you agree with him or not, there’s still no good reason why we are still subjected to the music of mediocre white male composers, a majority of which continues to dominate the airwaves and concert programs. And women composers want to be accepted as composers, not relegated to a category. The same issues arise for composers/performers whose heritage is BIPOC. We don’t want to be boxed in; what we want is equity of opportunity. But before you start compiling your defense against what you believe to be yet another ‘attack’ on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and their friends, I ask you to stop and think. Think about what you are defending – and why.
»A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.«
Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (1950)
»Black people throughout the world have been sentenced by Western man to centuries of silence... It is time for them to speak. Western man wrote his own history as if it were the history of the entire human race.«
John Oliver Killens
Change cannot take place without acknowledging the truth of the problems that exist, finding out why they exist, and thinking about how we can work together to effect positive transformation. In the classical music sector, its various organizations must move beyond their self-denial and accept that they have a problem with what I will call earwax. It can be hard to detect because, as with all hearing problems, the dullness starts gradually and can go undetected for years. This stubborn earwax is built up after years of being taught and believing that Western European classical music is the epitome and apotheosis of musical excellence, by which all other music is to be judged. Anything outside of the Western classical music canon is an add-on, exotic and without intellectual foundation. This backward, reductionist viewpoint is dangerous and has dominated festival and concert programing ideas, music curricula, etc., for too long. It has caused a narrowing of sound world experiences. These long-held views underpin notions of musical hierarchies and serve to undermine anything or anyone that doesn’t look or ›sound‹ like them or what they know. Any attempt to include work usually considered ›outside‹ the canon within a program risks causing major disruption amongst players as well as audiences. At this point the earwax problem is so severe that those suffering from it seem incapable of listening to anything else and, worse still, are afraid to have it removed in case these new sounds completely overwhelm their senses and strip them of their assumed musical superiority, along with those power structures that have enabled their entitlement.
As a musician trained in Western classical music, but also with one foot firmly in the brilliant and wonderful music of my Black-British-African-Caribbean cultural heritage, I haven’t needed help to balance all these musical differences. There are no musical hierarchies. I’m interested in music that ignites my imagination, to which I have an emotional reaction and an experience that lives on beyond the first hearing. It’s subjective, I know, and that’s fine. What I am trying to say is that it’s as natural for me to switch from (and I’m staying relatively mainstream here) Johann Sebastian Bach to Burning Spear to Diamanda Galás to Umm Kulthum to Christian Wolff to The Specials; from The Fall to Ahn Sook-sun to Burt Bacharach to Charles Mingus to Liza Lim to Jimi Hendrix (both of whom have a piece called Voodoo Child, by the way)... I could go on, and I’m still learning. Learning from others who are also musically curious and share in the wonderment of it all. You might be nodding in agreement, which is great, but what do we do with this equitable musical experience?
On 2 June 2020, #BlackoutTuesday, millions posted black squares in solidarity with the fight for social justice following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Western classical music institutions, swept up in the moment and having to face real-life events, looked up, shook the sand out of their once-buried ears and found themselves black-squaring, minute- silencing, ######-ing and sincerely pledging their heartfelt allegiances via social media.
These public gestures of support for BLM – Black Lives Matter were greeted with much skepticism and raised eyebrows by those who have endured working on the perimeters of Western classical music for many years. And let’s be completely honest, the problematic issues of racial bias, inequality and lack of representation in programming did not cross the minds of many white colleagues working in the classical music sector in January 2020. After 2 June 2020, with the issue now at the front of the agenda, much handwringing was followed by calls for time to reflect, learn and change.
These calls have resulted in music colleges, arts organizations, concert halls and opera houses around the world having to take a long hard look at what they’ve ignored in the past, and to consider what they need to do now with their curriculums and programs to present work that reflects the rich and varied musical voices in classical music today. How can they be more representative? How can they embrace the decolonization of classical music and allow it to liberate and open up the genre to the benefit of all?
It’s not enough to shove in a few works and ›tick that box‹. We need to be completely honest, because to be effective these changes need to be meaningful, and this requires a huge amount of self-reflection and humility. There will always be some pushback against new ideas and the need for change. And there will be plenty who disagree and who will actively work to resist challenges to the status quo, but we should not allow those dissenters to act as obstacles to progress. In fact, we need to hurdle them.
»Universality resides in the decision to recognize and accept the reciprocal relativism of different cultures, once the colonial status is irreversibly excluded.«
So, I’d like to suggest that we start by banning the preposterous notion of the ›genius‹ composer/artist/conductor/artistic director, and so on. Let’s unburden these individuals of the heavy tasks laid upon their genius shoulders and replace it with ›collaboration‹. By collaborating, we draw on the expertise of all and therefore widen the circle of artistic experience. What about job titles? Well, what about them? What’s in a name? I understand the need for them in large organizations but being an artistic director doesn’t equate to having the best ideas, or best leadership skills. In my experience, the best directors aren’t afraid to seek opinions or advice from their colleagues; they will publicly acknowledge their colleagues’ ideas; and when called upon in times of difficulty, they will shoulder the responsibility of taking criticism and share the glory with the team. Deep work. Inner work. Deep work. Inner work. Pause and reflect:
Let’s rewind the clock and be childlike for a moment. Children are completely carefree. They’re inquisitive, they’re unafraid of admitting that they don’t understand, or of asking for help. They hear music and respond to it with immediacy, directness, and honesty. In other words, they express their likes and dislikes. Analysis and so-called ›deeper‹ questions of whether music is good, bad, culturally appropriated, colonized/decolonized, etc., aren’t obstacles to the pure enjoyment of what they’re hearing. The music they experience is of itself. A ›childlike‹ listening approach can be a portal to incredible musical journeys. So be childlike.
»Fuck classical music«: these three words, uttered by a friend, left me reeling for a while. Until that point, I hadn’t realized the extent to which I had placed this genre on a very high pedestal. I prided myself for not having an ›either/or approach‹ to music – treating it as an egalitarian, equal music. However, »fuck classical music« felt like an assault. And that led to much self-reflection on ›why‹ I felt the need to defend this institution, which has been shored up by colonization, imperialism, conquest and aggressive globalization at the expense of indigenous cultures. It is indefensible. On top of which, Western classical music’s significance and relevance is declining, and will continue to do so as long as those in positions of influence continue to prevent other voices from being represented within the canon and failing to create a new canon that connects to the 21st century.
The backlash against decolonizing classical music has been going on for a while. It’s driven by a misunderstanding of what decolonizing actually means, and a belief that it requires a ›Year Zero‹ approach to Western classical music. This isn’t helped by alarmist media accounts which do their best to stoke the ›anti-PC‹ fire. For example: »Musical notation has been branded ›colonialist‹ by Oxford professors hoping to reform their courses to focus less on white European culture«. Not at all.
So, what can be done?
Create a platform for change. And what better platform is there than the performance stage? Artists and composers, check your privilege and use these opportunities to effect positive change. As for artistic directors and curators, check your privilege and your egos and trust the ideas and suggestions of the artists you invite to present work and support them. Don’t let fear of box office numbers, bums on seats or disgruntled patrons chain you to the purgatory of middlebrow, mediocre, same-old programs. By this I’m not referring to the mainstream canon; it can equally apply to contemporary new music repertoire. And before you say, »but...«, I am going to leave Julius Eastman out of this because after more than 30 years in the desert, he is now well and truly part of the new music family (props to those who championed him long before he became fashionable – you know who you are!). »What can we programme that shows we’re woke if it’s not a commission?« is the anguished cry, to which I respond: do your research, ask for advice. Do the work.
An example from the archives:
Hans Werner Henze composed El Cimarrón (The Runaway Slave) during his stay in Cuba in 1969-70, having read Miguel Barnet’s Autobiography of a Runaway Slave, about Esteban Montejo. Montejo was born into slavery in Cuba and eventually escaped. He was also a veteran of the Cuban War of Independence. El Cimarrón premiered in Berlin in 1970 with the avant-garde African-American operatic baritone William Pearson as El Cimarrón, and the soloists Karlheinz Zöller (flute), Leo Brouwer (guitar) and Stomu Yamash’ta (percussion) under the direction of the composer. To my surprise, I learned that the UK premiere was in June 1970 at the Aldeburgh Festival with the same forces. This information is of great importance and significance in terms of legacy and understanding how artists can and have worked to decolonize music with the support of institutions. I can’t understand why El Cimarrón isn’t performed more regularly. The work was most recently revived in 2019 with Davóne Tines (bass-baritone) in the title role as part of a series curated by (soprano) Julia Bullock during her season-long Met residency. Like Henze and Pearson before them, Bullock and Tine are artists who have chosen to use their privilege in an effective way to present political work and question the canon, without the need to apologize for their choices.
Of course, Henze is not the only composer who was unafraid to express his politics in music, but I cite this work as an example of a white composer whose »artistic credo was that music ought to have something to say about human emotion and to contribute to contemporary society.« In a conversation with George E. Lewis, Georg Friedrich Haas spoke about his 2014 piece I Can’t Breathe, composed in response to the police killing of Eric Garner: »... it’s not my job to protest in the streets. It’s my job to protest in the arts.« In other words, you don’t have to be a BIPOC to call out racial injustices.
Note to commissioners: the life experiences of BIPOC composers are as rich and varied as those of white composers and should be allowed room to be expressed. If this is enabled, audiences will be able to engage with works for what they are, without the stress of searching for
Returning to William Pearson, the baritone who sang the lead role in El Cimarrón: like his colleague and collaborator Ben Patterson, he enjoyed a good career, based mainly in Europe. Embarrassingly, their work and output were unknown to me throughout my time studying at music college, and they remain largely unrecognized even in 2021. I know this through my teaching experience at conservatoire level. It’s impossible to know everything, of course, but there’s no excuse for musical agnosia. Neither artist was on the fringes or margins of the contemporary new music scene in their time: Patterson (who died in 2016) was one of the founders of the Fluxus movement, and Pearson (died 1995) was the favorite baritone for ›dada evenings‹ hosted by European composers, and whose vocal expertise and extended range incorporating falsetto was instrumental to the development of what later became known as vocal theater. Along with Henze, he worked with new music luminaries Mauricio Kagel, György Ligeti and Silvano Busotti. Hardly on the outer limits of the scene, and as a Black British vocalist studying at music college a thousand years ago, it would have been inspirational for me to have known about such iconoclasts as Pearson, Patterson, Julia Perry and, yes, Julius Eastman. The fact that they’ve been silenced speaks volumes.
This isn’t about either/or, good/bad, accept/reject. It’s about balancing and equity of opportunity. It’s also about the acknowledgement by those in charge – the ›gatekeepers‹ – of their own shortcomings and how short-sighted, blinkered viewpoints have misrepresented the canon. All is not lost. It can be rectified. Drawing on my own modest experiences of curating and presenting work, I have welcomed the expertise, knowledge and experience of my colleagues who devoted their time to work with my ideas of mixing up programs. The most recent opportunity was in April 2021, with my debut at the Wigmore Hall in London performing work by Charles Mingus, Louise Bourgeois, Christian Wolff, Jeanne Lee, Ben Patterson, Katalin Ladik and myself. I smiled at a preview in The Telegraph newspaper, which billed the concert as »jazz«. It certainly wasn’t – but it’s OK, people find a way in.
I am grateful to the openness and support of Wigmore Hall’s artistic director John Gilhooly, who embraced my program and was enthusiastic all the way. I experienced the same with Björn Gottstein (SWR Donaueschinger Musiktage), who supported my concept of a movement performance work based on the writing of Sylvia Wynter, and involving a singer (me), a quintet, two dancers and a choreographer, plus five commissioned works (by Jason Yarde, Tansy Davies, George E. Lewis, Matana Roberts, Laure M. Hiendl). All of this resulted in On Being Human As Praxis, which premiered during the pandemic at the festival in October 2020. I believe it was the first time the festival had ever commissioned work by African-diasporic composers in its 100-year history. My idea for the piece was to be able to present what I understand to be contemporary new music, with its myriad voices standing equally together, and the universality of human experience being the driving force.
Three years ago, I performed Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde at the London Contemporary Music Festival. The audience reception of this concert of experimental or free jazz music of the 1960s/70s was incredible and proved that it is possible to present this kind of work (normally heard within a jazz context) in a programme of contemporary new music and experimental performance/sound art. LCMF is no stranger to provocative/controversial programming and is equally loved and loathed for it. And its rogue ›fuck it‹ sensibility is refreshing in the increasingly risk-averse atmosphere of the classical sector.
And if it requires a ›fuck this shit‹ approach to redress the balance and present a more considered, more true and representative approach to the canon in schools and colleges, concert halls and opera houses, then so be it. If people leave their institutions because they can’t face the change, or they feel their power slipping, or the ability to have a childlike openness has deserted them, or they won’t fix their earwax problems, or they feel on the margins – then that’s OK, too. It’s a simple choice: step aside or be the change. ¶
This essay first appeared in Listen, the first in a series of annual booklets published by Sounds Now, a European network dedicated to the promotion of diversity and inclusion in contemporary music and sound art. Co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. Furthermore it appeared in the reader »Dynamic Traditions« on behalf of Donaueschingen Global 2021, published by Elisa Erkelenz and Katja Heldt.
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