Thursday, September 18, 2014

The “Black” problem – a reflection on recent articles discussing Blacks in Classical music

Hello everyone! Anthony Green here, and I wanted to share with you a reflection.

Last month, The New York Times published a short article – “Great Divide in the Concert Hall: Black Composers Discuss the Role of Race”, by William Robin (8 August 2014) – in which Black composers of “Classical music” discuss what it means to be a Black composer today. This article comes in the line of some notable articles discussing various aspects of this subject, including the Guardian article “Class, Race, and Classical Music” by Candace Allen (4 April 2014), and “How African Americans Changed Classical Music” by Leonard Slatkin (22 February 2014). Each article contains one or more theses about this issue, yet one singular article or a collection of articles with a specific (short) length cannot fully address this problem. My immediate emotional response to these articles was mixed. As a Black composer, I am happy that such popular media sources are bringing light to this topic. Similarly, I am disgusted that such articles about “the problems of Blacks in Classical music” are necessary to make changes, rather than these media sources simply publishing more articles about the notable Black artists they have highlighted, but I digress. 

Foremost, there is a problem of expectation. This particular issue was discussed in every article that I mentioned, and – to me – is the biggest issue concerning the presence, active and passive participation, and the promotion of Blacks in Classical music.

Point one: Black artists are not expected to be involved in Classical music. Not only does a majority of the Black community consider Classical music to be “elitist” or plain and simply “bad”, but the institution of Classical music is known to be predominantly non-Black. Therefore, the expectation from non-Blacks to see Blacks involved in this tradition is rather low, despite the long history of Blacks involved in this tradition. Perhaps this last point is more associated with a sort-of non-deliberate institutional racism that looms over the Classical music industry; if this industry is mostly associated with non-Blacks, then it just means we are not wanted. Somehow, certain analogous sports industries have overcome this scorn, golf and tennis in particular. But I still wonder if stars like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters would have such fame if they weren’t Black. Their skin color is a part of their story. By the way, who are the other Black golfers playing today other than Mr. Woods? Does it even matter that they are Black?

Point two: when a Black artist is involved in music in some way, it is expected for this artist to be involved in Jazz or another more popular style of music, and if involved in Classical music, to be a vocalist. While I was studying at New England Conservatory, it was more likely for someone – Black or non-Black – to ask me “are you a vocalist?” rather than “what are you studying?” Even worse, I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard someone say to me “Don’t forget your roots.” I would get such a comment usually from a Black person after telling him or her that I am a Classical composer. I desperately wanted to retort, “Yes, I know much about Chevalier de Saint Georges and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and I love more recent composers like Ed Bland and Pamela Z and Olly Wilson. I count these wonderful composers as part of my ‘cultural-musical’ roots. Have you heard of any of these people?”

Point three: Black composers should compose music that reflects a typical, popular, predominantly Black experience. The worst aspect of the expectation problem comes even further when examining the type of music that a Black composer must compose to be taken seriously. It is expected, even today, that a Black Classical composer should compose Classical music that has some element of Jazz or Rock or R&B or Blues or Gospel or Funk or Spirituals. Sometimes it is even better if the title of the piece reflect this, for example Afro-American SymphonyorFive Movements in Color.I think when people encounter the score and audio to my piece 3 Groups, it causes a bit of confusion. Not only is the title rather vague, but not something generic like Sonata No. 8 or Piece for Chamber Ensemble, but the music is a meditative, unstable, non-4/4 type of experimental music, with a score that looks mostly blank, and has notes without stems. Coincidentally, this piece won a competition where the scores where judged blindly. Since then – since my face and website with my headshots are now associated with this work and can be easily googled, it has not been performed.

It is apparent that I can discuss the issue of expectation alone in a document of about 100 pages, and probably still not exhaust the issue, while still not discussing other issues such as the nature of enjoying Classical music (which is, for the most part, less stereotypically immediate than more popular music), how the changing face of Classical music can never be separated from its silently racist, predominantly non-Black past, and how sub-culture does NOT have a problem with Blacks involved in Classical music, but is rarely taken seriously by the mega-institutions responsible for creating the face of Classical music as it is today. And even then, I would be far away from discussing the non-race-related issues of the Classical music industry (including big prizes given to questionably-deserving artists, indirectly ruining the personal worth of such prizes, and inevitably destroying their status as a symbol of achievement). Such non-race-related issues, in my opinion, get in the way of the race-issue being taken seriously, and also discourage any aspiring Classical artist – Black or non-Black – from entering this highly political world that doesn’t seem political to those who are not involved. But I would like to end my reflection with this question posed by Leonard Slatkin:

“Is going to hear music written by an African-American meaningful – not just to the regular attendees, but is it meaningful within the African-American community? Does it inspire others to want to follow that? I wish I could answer that question. I don’t know.”

Honestly, I don’t know either. But I do know this: hearing music written by Black composers inspired me, and I wouldn’t be attempting to inspire Black and non-Black communities within and outside the context of Castle of our Skins if I had never done so. 


  1. This may be a long response, but I will sum it up as best as I can. There is much truth to what you have said, in that the racism is not voluntary, but there are many non-Black musicians and administrators who simply cannot understand why an African-American composer wishes to write in an idiom totally foreign from their "roots." I was once asked this question over twenty years ago in Detroit, and my response was that Tchaikovsky was accused of the same thing - not being Russian enough in his compositions, but in fact he brought his heritage to the symphony without being obvious about it.

    As I mentioned in an earlier post, many composers of color have composed music in different idioms. Several composers have adopted modernist techniques into your musical syntax, and some have gone further by incorporating these idioms into jazz, which has caused a major schism with traditionalists who felt that the avant-garde was an unwarranted intrusion. Then there are many composers who have included a cavalcade of our musical legacy in original and diverse ways that bring a new dimension of sound in the classical music world. And then you have traditionalists who write in an idiom that melds the great tradition of our legacy within a neo-tonal sound world that has received many accolades from those who have been introduced to their music.

    But yet many composers are still unknown to the majority of classical music lovers and performers because we still don't have enough champions to go out and perform this music. Many years ago, Andre Watts once said to the music critic of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that "just because I'm black doesn't mean I have to play black composers." Can you imagine a Russian musician of the stature of Yevgeny Mravinsky, David Oistrakh or Sviatoslav Richter saying something to that effect about their fellow Russian composers, especially during the height of the Soviet Union's power? They would be castigated by the public and placed in a gulag so fast they wouldn't know what hit them!

    I'm not saying musicians of color who shun Black composers should be incarcerated, but they should continue to fight for us just as much as we need to keep ourselves in the public eye. Opera singers should basically say "Okay, we'll do Porgy and Bess, but you owe us a chance to do an opera by William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay or Anthony Davis!" and they should continue saying it. Educating our brethren in the neighborhoods to show them that we are not selling out and pretending to be something we are not, and show them the legacy of Black musicians in classical music is a major priority, from the schools on down to the home itself. If we don't educate those who are unaware of this chapter in our legacy, all will be lost.

    I want to sum this up by saying the following: Those who say they don't see color in music are right in one sense, yet in another they have not encountered what we have - confusion, indifference and veiled hostility. If they trod the road we have been on, they might see where we are coming from. We don't seek to be included because of our color, we seek to be included because we are composers and musicians who have something special to bring to the table, and that special something is the view of our legacy by using the structure and form of music that has lasted for centuries.

  2. Hi Anthony -- engaging post. I just wanted to tell you that performing Three Groups has been a highlight of my career so far. The piece is just damn lovely, and I can only hope that it gets many more performances. I wish you could have heard it from the stage -- being in amongst the musicians was a fascinating spatial experience that may have been lost a little bit in the wet space of Kilbourn Hall. Thanks for your music.

    1. Dearest Matt - you were really the perfect conductor for "3 Groups." That experience was DEFINITELY among the most memorable of my career as well, and how lucky I am to have met you and the others from it. Thanks for YOUR music too!