Friday, October 11, 2013

Why is the contemporary classical music community so white?

I went to an evening in the series Resonance with Cheryl E. Leonard. I've been tired from the more rigorous work schedule of the school year, so I did a half-distracted self-kindness meditation before the curator of the series Wayne Grim gave a quick intro and mentioned the vastness of the sound system in that space. It was donated but cost a fortune to install and tune.

Cheryl E. Leonard makes contemporary style music using found sounds and objects. The focus of the evening was her work in Antarctica, featuring instruments made from contact mics, water mics, and mics for amplification; and local materials like penguin bones and stones.

At one point, prompted by host Sarah Cahill to describe what an abalone-like mollusk, the limpet, was, she said it was shaped like "Chinese hats". I spent the rest of the night trying to recover from this unintentional reminder of embedded racism in the classically-trained music community -- deep sadness and anger flowed through me. Why should I participate in a community whose norm silences my differences? (For those of my white readers who haven't yet had opportunity to accept, in 2,000 years of history the Chinese have sported a few different hats, and the conical shape Ms Leonard was after can be found in many east and southeast Asian communities.)

Of course the audience of 150 was all white with 4 or 5 Asians and Latinos, so I'm sure her meaning got across flawlessly. Ms Cahill simply nodded understanding and moved on.

Stereotypes aside, the complete lack of a personal dimension and motivation further distressed me: a progressive, learning institution presents a whole program of Antarctic wildlife and melting and murmurs not a word about climate change and the role of artists as agents of cultural change. It disturbed me.

My whole body ached in that chair: legs, shoulders, back. I stood up between pieces to move around but it was not enough and I still felt pain on the ride home. I regularly sit in stillness for 30 minutes and I know my usual discomforts: this was pain of circumstance.

The first piece was set up with metal fish-hook-like pendants strung across the stage. One by one, the composer, with musician Phillip Greenlief, hung home-made icicles on the hooks to drip into glass beakers. The ponderous, melodious polyphony brought me some ease. I also made a game of guessing where the light sources were because the icicles were lit blue and cast only one shadow on the projection upstage, where close-up video of the instruments in play faded in and out. As they added more hand-directed percussion to the colorful dripping, though, the sound crossed a threshold from meditation and discovery to ambient/random noise music.

Later there were rain tubes filled with sand and salt to slide back and forth and a kelp stem saxophone or kelp-ophone hissing and groaning over taped birdcalls. By the third piece I began to hear the intentional sounds as softly indistinguishable from environmental tape sounds, a woody knocking clattering not unlike cracking and tumbling ice.

I wondered why so many of the audience left after the first piece, but the Exploratorium was open and I suppose not everyone attending Resonance could resist the Siren song of 650 exhibits. Perhaps there's a more compelling explanation.

Maybe it's all just "cool sounds" to Ms Leonard, but in my ear all the ambiguity of entitlement, access, resource exploitation, exclusion, and sharing banged through the evening. I recognize that the audience's experience of a piece has as much to do with our own emotional state and ear as with the physical vibrations in the air, and I would argue that by neglecting her own story and motivations and her hopes for her listeners, Ms Leonard had lost us before the first tinkling tones.

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