Changing the Narrative of Classical Music

Shortly after the beginning of the protests against police brutality, many institutions tried to show their solidarity with the POC (person of color) community by posting black squares on their social media, or saying pretty much the same thing their competition says to portray progressive qualities. I, like many of my POC constituents, took that as a nice gesture at face value. But, if you really want to prove you stand with us against institutional bias, actions speak louder than words. There are many institutions that need attention: from banking to the voting booths, but I am going to talk about what I have first-hand experience with as a composer: the orchestras and media. Every orchestra and musical institution that posted a black square needs to take a step back and look at how they program music. Every “call-for-scores” competition needs to take a step back and examine how they judge the music they get. Every educational institution needs to see that even with the best intentions, they’ve still become pawns in a racially biased system. Once they see that, they need to cut those ties that bind them and fix it. 

I had the esteemed pleasure of being part of a large conversation about diversity in the orchestral world facilitated by the Kaleidoscope orchestra, where they allowed musicians of color to speak their mind and grievances about the state of our musical lives. It was a beautiful conversation where everyone had a turn to say what they needed to uninterrupted. Composers, students, educators, and directors from all over the world got to tell their stories and expose the biases plaguing music as a whole. It's because of this conversation that even I learned how certain aspects of the industry are built to repress an art that needs inclusion and diversity to allow a society to flourish and grow. Things that even though I’ve been exposed to in abundance, have never registered as a seemingly benign form of racial inequality. 

In these next series of blogs, I hope to expose these elements, and start a conversation that will help allow new, culturally significant music to be played by orchestras. I can't say that I am an expert in every field regarding classical music or how these institutions function, but I hope to learn a great deal of the motivations behind them, and welcome a quality of conversation that lead to a better understanding of all sides of these matters. As a virtual nobody on the scene, with an overabundance of education and disappointing experiences, it's not easy to start a conversation like this, because it will rub some folks the wrong way.  But moving to a direction of the right side of history is never easy and I hope it does. I hope the clap-backs are magnificent so I can be wrong in my interpretation of this facet of the business. Until then, I see that there is an ever-growing problem in the classical music world, and it starts with how we are educated, and how classical music has become a centerpiece in the delegitimization of Afro-centric music in a global society. 

Right now, I am speaking to your everyday music-lover. The kind of person who has enough interest in music to buy merchandise or go to concerts. The kind of person who fearlessly hits shuffle on their musical library because they don’t have a million unfinished demos to sneak their way into the soundtrack of your life. I am speaking to you, music-lover. What do you think classical music is? When is the last time you were jonesing for an orchestral concert? Who are your favorite composers? When is the last time that kind of music got you up off your feet, increased your heart rate, and spoke directly to your soul? Has it ever? To the untrained ear, classical music can be regarded as any form of symphonic or orchestral music. To one with minimal development, it is known as a collection of old, dead composers that have been played for the last four centuries. That’s where I was while doing my undergraduate degree, and that’s when a mentor took me to the side and told me I was wrong because classical music was based on different stylistic eras. He told me, “Haydn and Mozart... those are classical... Bach is actually Baroque... Beethoven... that is Romantic.” 

It wasn’t until later on in my life that I would realize that such an argument in semantics would only prove to be fruitful for a specific niche of people. People who engage in music recreationally had that generic definition of classical music. People in academia have a different vibe based on all the music history classes they are encouraged to follow. The dictionary has so many different ideas of what “classical” means that it is no wonder we can’t agree upon it.  Even as a writer, I have to choose a generic genre of pop or classical, when registering new music to my performing rights organization. Tucked in the middle of these definitions, is what I truly believe describes it: classical is regarded as representing an exemplary standard; traditional and long-established in form or style. 

KNOW YOUR MUSIC 

Up until now, the listener will mostly consider classical music’s point of origin to be Eurocentric, but music is a reflection of culture and society. Anything with cultural significance tended to have the “folk” label. But classical music in its heyday represented the people. Composers were hired to write everything from royal processions to music for a small intimate dinner setting. You know, when it was just called music. But now, we generally associate the creation and performance of classical music as fancy and beyond our own humbled musings. We forget that there is so much more to history than just what happened in Europe. Africa has a history. China has a history. The United States has a history. Where humans dwelled, there is a history. Who’s to say that there is not African classical music, or Indian classical music? As a born and raised citizen of the United States of America, Jazz (which is a hybridized adaptation of Afrocentric music) should be considered classical. Seeing as it is a hundred years old, and has influenced every modern genre of popular music, why wouldn’t we consider it a point of origin in notoriety for the United States? What makes Eurocentric music more important to orchestras than Afrocentric music when everything we love about today’s music (by which we engage physically, emotionally, and financially) embraces Afrocentric music adapted to cultural evolution. Why is there is constant split between Popular Music and Classical Music? It has to do with a convoluted school of thought that if music has been recorded tangibly then that makes its influence real. 

I should preface that I am not using the term folk music as a genre for this, because folk implies music of the people, and all music is from the people. That being said: African classical music has an oral tradition. It exists. Rhythms and melodic structures were passed down generationally by ear and performance without the necessity of parchment. The syncopation in percussive patterns are so unique and engaging enough that it has transcended time to be a pivotal part of our favorite musical genres. But unless the orchestras are preceded by a POPS label. They stay segregated from programs most of the time. How does an audience even remotely engage with institutions that should be the center of the community, when they (the institutions) don’t embrace the Afro-centric musical elements that most of the community enjoys on a day to day basis? It isn’t even a question of sacred versus secular, because even sacred music has tied in rhythm and blues along with rock and roll over time. It’s not a question of instrumentation, or ensemble size, because even Slipknot was a chamber ensemble all on its own (even if that chamber was probably a dungeon). It can’t be distribution, because classical music have taken up all modern mediums that popular music have over the years from record to streaming. Why isn’t Afro-centric classical music a part of the the orchestral program regularly, when it has influenced and is treasured by everyone? 

African music spread all throughout the world because of the slave trade. In the midst of horror, this art was appropriated and adapted to the Eurocentric musical culture brought by colonists of the States. It was exposed to the indigenous people in shared bondage in the Caribbean islands. To an extent, it was appropriated before it even had a chance to develop a formal writing and just like slaves, the music’s history was erased and generalized. It’s stylistic remnants embedded into a western notation style and placed into a class all on its own to distinguish Eurocentric from Afrocentric. Though, in spite of forced assimilation, it still prevails. There are still rhythms and melodies passed on amongst the newer generations of Africans. In the Caribbean, it turned mento into ska which then brought reggae. On the mainland, jazz brought rhythm and blues, which brought rock and roll and hip hop. Even kids today, who find their religious experiences in trap, and metal, owe their treasured sonic moments to African music. So, how is it not considered classical? Does it need a powdered wig atop a frustrated artist to achieve legitimacy? Does it need an exact date for an already exhausted music appreciation student to memorize? Does it need a white affluent audience to be considered dignified? 

SEGREGATION IN THE SCHOOL SYSTEMS 

Acknowledging these elements shouldn’t be hard right? Wrong. The academic world has its own inherent biases that segregate music all the time. When I was an undergrad at Berklee College of Music, we’d say we had our own way of doing things, but realistically it was a jazz school and only required us to have a handful of traditional classes depending on our degree. Our analysis and history used jazz as a point of origin, while we developed our skills to popular music. When I was working on my Masters, there was no separation of school of thoughts because it only focused on one: traditional (Eurocentric). Sure, we had jazz classes, but no embedded jazz curriculum. Even in grade school, we had symphonic band class, and jazz band as an after school activity. 

Though it was never truly expressed in words, we pretty much knew our jazz harmony class centered around black music, while our “traditional” harmony class centered around white music. I remember when I interviewed for my Master’s degree, the dean told me I was not going to fit in because of my background. I told him I was in a unique position because I have been all kinds of musicians throughout my life: I wasn’t a jazz kid when I went to Berklee, and I wasn’t a trad kid coming into these programs. I didn’t fit anywhere, so that allowed me to adapt to everywhere. But is assimilation really the answer?

Because of the segregation of academic applications of music, we have reoccurring problems with modern composers, orchestras, and the overall listening experience. New music hails from influence, culture, life experiences, available instrumentation, and school of thought. Composers come from all walks of life. It's these unique experiences that influence the kind of music that we write. My parents are Caribbean, hailing from St. Thomas (USVI) and Trinidad and Tobago. The music (calypso/soca) created, performed, and celebrated on these islands are Afro-centric by origin. My hometown is Orlando, Florida. Here, I was blessed to have friends whose backgrounds stem from Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia, Haiti, Jamaica, and other beautiful islands their parents migrated from. Their music is also Afro-centric by origin. It is actually amazing how similar the rhythms and melodic structures are between Latin music and calypso, because they come from the same place, and have just been adapted to the society of their respective islands and languages. Even the lyricism of calypsonians examined society, courted passionate affairs, and challenged establishments with a free-style diction reminiscent of some of the finest hip-hop writers. Also in Orlando, there was a prolific ska (third wave), punk, metal, and rap scene. All of these came into play while I learned the value of Mozart, Bach, Holst, Debussy, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and so forth. Popular music was also absorbing all of these styles and putting out an amalgamation of magnificent sonic couture, which were both manufactured and influenced by the phenomenal Quincy Jones, George Clinton, The Beatles, James Brown, and Prince (to say the least). With all these things considered, it only seemed natural that my musical style would be as aesthetically mixed as I am. Yet, trying to achieve a premiere in orchestras, even those that boast their reverence for new music, proved to be futile when they show preference of nostalgia over progress. 

FILM MUSIC IS NOT CONCERT MUSIC 

Orchestral composers are now permeating the general public through mediums that speak directly to consumers in film and games. But, the style in which these pieces of music are written are not the same as concert pieces because they are created to support the medium. I can’t tell you how many times an action-adventure piece I’ve written has automatically been written off as something that should be in a Zelda game or film when I expose it to a generic listener. But, those concert pieces are energetic and meant to keep people in their seats without visual stimulation. When I score for film, I am supporting a story that’s already been put infront of their faces. Most of the composers that are making a regular living wage (or at least trying to) find themselves relying on mock-ups because the orchestral resources available are highly expensive and only focus on the traditional (Eurocentric) music they are known for. Realistically, a composer should have more than enough opportunities to get their music premiered by their local orchestras (without having to pay to play), but new music is not nearly embraced as much as those old-dead-classics, and since those old-dead-classics have been linked to a genre that shows bias to melanin-deficient music, composers who write differently aren’t considered part of the program. It will take a change in conversation from the people they generate income from to say, “Hey, this orchestra should try this new composer out, because they are utilizing the resources of this orchestra to make music that represents me.” 

Maybe not as wordy...

It is not to say that there aren’t an abundance of unique composers that have mastered not only Afro-centric applications to orchestral and operatic music but other mediums. They are just not getting the stylistic recognition they deserve because either they are bound to the parameters of a film, or they are being drowned out by the likes of Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, and John Williams. Don’t get me wrong: they are brilliant, influential composers (certainly worthy of some iteration of classical nomenclature), who have had to fight their way into the mainstream in order to deliver our music to a crowd that would otherwise have never paid attention to orchestras because of their (orchestras) archaic practices. The only problem is, just like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven... they are household names. When people think orchestral music, they think film composition, and when they think film composition, they can only recall these three white names. Film music is not concert music, though you can use film music in a concert, and concert music in a film. Williams, Elfman, and Zimmer are not the only composers out there, and it is not a white man’s game. 

CHANGING THE NARRATIVE 

What I am trying to say, is that you, music lover, have the power to get refreshingly new music in those auditoriums that you jog past while listening to favorite modern playlist. You can do it by changing the narrative of what classical music is, and letting those who control these places know that the same enthusiasm you show to popular music can manifest into the orchestral world if they embrace programs beyond a traditional Eurocentric school of thought. Just as you would find out about a new punk band, your local composers are paying their dues as well. They have been trying to open for bigger name acts, even if those acts have been dead for centuries. They are competing in a genre that they have been placed in against their better judgement because of their instrumentation, that doesn’t even embrace the kind of music style they make. It starts with making sure you know that all classical music is not orchestral music, and not all orchestral music is classical. It goes further by recognizing that classical music is not from a specific country of origin because many countries have classics and that music doesn’t have to follow the same rules to become notable. While the auditoriums gather their bearings (and funding) for concert seasons post Covid-19, now is the time to demand new music more than ever, and not just new versions of old writings. As a composer, I want to be the first of me, not the next of them. The music I identify with and excel at is not your standard idea of classical or orchestral music. It should be, though. New music (not just mine), with styles that combine cultural experiences with eclectic styles should be what the listening world should seek. It should break boundaries and bring people together. It should be able to achieve the classical ideology, and inspire the next generations of writers to continue the never-ending conversation of what music means. We can’t do this if we compartmentalize styles by origin and instrumentation, and show preference solely to brands that history forced us to be accustomed to. Real change will occur when your music (orchestral or not) is something that represents a standard in exemplary form and style. Real change will occur when new music is acknowledged by its merit and not by its tradition. 

My next blog will address the problematic relationship of the orchestras and composers, and how the business has been polluted by the wrong kind of biases. Stay tuned.

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