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March 1, 2016

Panel Parses Through Questions Of Race, Class In The Concert Hall

Last Friday, the University of Chicago’s student-run Chamber Music Organization (CMO) collaborated with the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture (CSRPC) and Student Government to host Studying the Score, a panel discussion on race, class, and privilege in classical music, in the Performance Penthouse at the Logan Center.

According to CMO President and third-year Lily Chen, the idea for the panel was born from her observations of social dynamics in symphony orchestras, especially as an Asian-American violinist.

“My experience has been that orchestras are very classed, raced, and gendered: for example, you tend to see Asians in the string sections, and bass sections are usually white and male,” Chen said. “Being a musician just means that you’re part of [that dynamic], and you see it all the time.”

The event featured seven panelists, most of whom were affiliated with the University’s Department of Music: violinist and pedagogue Lucinda Ali-Landing, violinist and alumna Meredith Aska McBride, the Department of Music’s Director of Public Relations Rashida Black, associate professors of music Steven Rings and Travis Jackson, and Ph.D. students Lauren Eldridge and Braxton Shelley. The discussion was moderated by Ph.D. student Lindsay Wright, whose dissertation addresses musical talent as a Western construct and its relation to social privilege in the U.S.

Wright opened the discussion with a disclaimer, acknowledging the limitations of the terminology used in the discussion:

“‘Classical music’ is a deceivingly complicated term…. Music scholars sometimes talk about ‘Western art music’ as though when they put it that way, it’s no longer ambiguous. It’s also been described in certain textbooks as a body of ‘literate’ European music, which also raises a whole set of questions,” she said.

McBride (A.M.’12, Ph.D.’15) expressed her skepticism toward the implications of certain outreach and educational campaigns—something fellow panelist Shelley later identified as a “theme of a therapeutic effect of whiteness.” She drew upon her experience doing fieldwork with a music education program in Albany Park as an example.

“The theory of change behind that program was that low-income children, largely children of color, would raise their grades and become better citizens through classical music,” McBride said. “It was explicitly intended to be this engine of social mobility, by basically mapping this notion of gaining talent on a European instrument to other sorts of social opportunities.”

Rings agreed that such mapping is problematic. He cited a recent “hydrogen bomb” set off within the American Musicological Society (AMS), regarding a personal essay by musicologist Pierpaolo Polzonetti about his experience teaching an opera course in prisons. Polzonetti was immediately challenged by other AMS scholars who claimed his writing made unfair, even racist assumptions about the inmates in his class.

“The hoary trope of classical music as the ‘universal language’ serves many purposes,” Rings said. “It’s a particular manifestation of…this cringe-worthy notion of social betterment: by seeing some scene in Don Giovanni, criminals are going to be rehabilitated, or something.”

Panelists continued to challenge other buzzwords that arise when discussing representation in classical music. Ali-Landing, a black third-generation musician, pointed out that even the word “diversity” can be limiting.

“Are we talking about black people? Or are we talking about all kinds of people? That’s really important, because in my world, black people have always been in classical music, whether you see them or not,” she said. “Are we talking about black people getting the highest-paying jobs—the good jobs?”

For example, the Chicago Symphony, which in 2012 was the highest-paying American orchestra, currently counts its first and only full-time black musician among its ranks: trumpeter Tage Larsen, a member of the orchestra since 2002.

McBride pointed out that for many musicians of color, getting a spot in a top orchestra is less a matter of talent than having a strong network—networks which are not yet well-established in professional ensembles or conservatories. She mentioned the Sphinx Organization in Detroit, which supports the careers of talented black and Latino musicians, as a leader in building these networks.

“Some orchestras had genuinely never thought of [Sphinx’s approach] before and were happy to have their insight, but others were like, ‘Oh, that’s too hard; that’s not how we do it. We’ll just sit here and complain that we can’t find any good people,’” she said. “It’s more a matter of whether [orchestras] really want to do it, and if they do, they need to change a few things about their tools.”

One conclusion emerged from the 90 minutes of discussion: for orchestras to truly diversify their ranks, more than just the orchestras need to change. As Black aptly said earlier in the discussion, “Are we talking about classical music as a cause or product?”

Though many questions posed at Friday’s panel lack clear answers, Chen is happy to have started the conversation.

“People do create change, and I see the initiatives and the work that people do to try to combat these larger social infrastructures that [perpetuate] forms of privilege,” she said. “All these panelists were so excited to be a part of this event, and that excitement makes me hopeful.”

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