Can Classical Music be Saved?

One issue I am exploring as part of my mission to decolonize my own music from western imperialist practice and in turn find a way forward as a classically trained composer of color is the perpetuation of class dynamics in classical music. While musicians, composers, and audiences listen to classical music to witness something profound, it simultaneously reinforces a dynamic between the elite and the common people. That distinction is still strong, and will not break down unless we reevaluate our recital spaces and repertoire.

What I mean by this class distinction is that the upper class, formerly the nobility starting in the Baroque period through the Classical via patronage, desired to listen to music as distinct from their subjects as possible. For example, waltzes in Vienna were not allowed to be too fast because they would mimic peasant dances. Despite the move away from patronage to public recitals in the 19th century, Classical music never ceased to be emblematic of the elite. It’s my suspicion that is why atonal music became popular with academics as a way to contrast from Jazz which was becoming much more popular.

We see this attitude today in recital halls; the strong separation between performer and audience, how performers often don’t even speak, or won’t chat with the audience afterward.

The unfortunate truth is that the classical music industry is one of the most conservative fields in the country. It has fewer women graduate than in almost every field, save for philosophy and an abysmal retention rate for people of color.

Photo by Manuel Nägeli on Unsplash

While composers are now starting conversations about why that is, I don’t see much reflection on the music we perform or study. Racist repertoires are abundant in the classical canon. I detest Salome for its racist portrayal of my ethnicity. Women don’t have the hope of even surviving in an opera, and solo and chamber recitals are littered with pieces that show insulting displays of exoticism. Folks want to talk about attracting minorities to the field, but why would a Black composer want to hear their music shared in a recital with Debussy’s G*lliwog Cakewalk.

Again, this disparity between the need to diversify the field and a racist repertoire goes back to the idea that classical music’s role is to create a distinction of the upper class as better, smarter, and more sophisticated than the lower classes — It is part of the skeleton that makes the classical music tradition. Asking how classical music can be more diverse is like asking a monarchy how they can be more democratic.

When one goes to a classical music concert, that itself carries a stigma of conservative elitism. One must be well-dressed, must know when to clap and not to clap, must not sleep or make any sound during a performance… and God forbid they sneeze.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

A solution is to deteriorate the concept of genre entirely. Genres inherently have their own target audience: when we deteriorate or decolonize the concept of genre, we are then free to decide who our target audience is and tailor a concert familiar to them. Musicians who study classical music today already know how to play for upper-class white people, so why don’t they broaden their horizons and ask themselves what would be familiar to other, often ignored groups? I myself live among the working class, mainly immigrants, who work 12–16 hour days of hard labor. They come home to a large extended family all under one roof to play cards and take care of their kids before sleeping for a few hours. They don’t listen to Bach, but they listen to their own traditional music like “Qadukka al-Mayyas,” a traditional upbeat song for when they want to forget about work and enjoy themselves for once.

One thing I ask myself as I’m composing is, “how do I write music that relates to these people I am close to?” I know these are the people I belong to, and that my responsibility as someone with the privilege of getting a strong education is to help us survive.

I took Qadukka al-Mayyas and put it in a set of canons as J.S. Bach would. In it, I expressed something new and profound, the combination of two cultures, the bridge between my tradition, and this new world I was forced into. Brahms doesn’t speak to working-class immigrants because he’s a white man from a long time ago, but I was delighted when relatives said they connected strongly with my piece, and were relieved to find an artistic expression of the cultural dissonance specific to them that is not acknowledged in the arts.

As for what other musicians can do to decolonize the classical tradition — let them explore as many communities as they can. Go out and study your target audience, and make it specific. You can’t write music for everyone of every race, but you can appeal specifically to people who are often left out. And that doesn’t mean a white guy should go to Harlem and study Jazz to get hip with the Black folk, but that they should learn to feature Black composers instead of average white dudes, and to make sure their repertoire is not rooted in any anti-Blackness.

But also, don’t do it for diversity’s sake. Having a program selling one broad concept of diversity doesn’t do much, and it’s horrible advertising. Get out of your genre, collaborate with rock bands, hip-hop, producers, gamelan, whatever, and now have a repertoire of different genres, you can build a wide set of tools to appeal to any audience you like. For example, instead of a concert of Debussy, how about a concert dedicated to working-class lesbians? Instead of producing a classical concert, how about trying what my collaborator, Ethan Valentin, did in his last concert where he premiered my piece, and invite different groups with a wide range of genres to come together for one night of diverse music dedicated to one idea? Can you imagine, for example, a benefit concert for trans equality that starts with an opera scene, then transitions to Punk Rock, followed by a string quartet playing to an electronica/hip-hop fusion, then moving to a sonic meditation before finishing off with a new Symphony written by a trans lesbian? Doesn’t that sound awesome?

Photo by Trust "Tru" Katsande on Unsplash

What I have written is one solution, and even though this article is not brief at all, this topic can get so much deeper. The lack of diversity in classical music is not an easy fix, it requires us to decolonize the concept of classical music altogether, and to open ourselves to experience what our target audience does.

If I can sum up my advice for any musician, it’s this: Find your target audience, make sure they’re underrepresented, and get to know them deeply and intimately. Work with them, not on behalf or instead of them, and use your privilege as an artist and a music maker to lift up their voices. Do it with humility, and always do it for them, not for you. It does decrease racism, but it also creates a valuable human connection you can’t get anywhere else. That connection is why I became an artist, and I’m grateful every day I make music for that gift of intimacy between myself and the voices that need to be heard.

Written by

Lebanese composer, writer, and freelancer based in the Washington D.C. area.

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