Classical music must die

Since I arrived at Lawrence in fall 2015, significant strides have been taken to decolonize the conservatory curriculum at large.  In fall 2018, the musicology department brought a curriculum to the conservatory faculty, switching from Western music history to the Intro to Musicology sequence. The new sequence eliminated the costly, Western-centered textbooks in exchange for a variety of readings from peer-reviewed journals, books, etc.  Even before this new sequence, courses honed in on the agendas and motives behind the Burkholder (Western) texts.  For example, Mozart and Haydn had entire chapters dedicated to them, while women composers, queer composers and composers of color were allotted a paragraph or two if they were even mentioned at all.  The new curriculum best suits the current state of the field at large, as well as providing the tools which are necessary for students to conduct their own research and form their own opinions about the music they play outside of indoctrinated values.  Not only does the new curriculum encompass lesser known composers and music from around the world, it begs questions about where we draw the line for what music is and what it is not, what constitutes high art, and how music can be systemically marginalized and silenced.

 This curriculum was barely passed by the conservatory faculty. Of course, there were many who embraced the shift wholeheartedly, but others feared that students would not be prepared for the “real world” outside of Lawrence.  Lawrence’s conservatory markets itself as a “conservatory of the 21st century,” meaning it should prepare us for life post-grad in the “real world.” But what does that look like? 

The reality is that the majority of us will not  get orchestra jobs. I am not trying to knock any of my peers here, because we have so much talent among us. But these are the most difficult and most sought after jobs in our field.  They may be financially stable and come with great benefit packages, but the stakes are high. Many folks spend decades auditioning around the country trying to land auditions for top tier orchestras in major cities.  

On top of that, orchestra ticket sales around the country have steadily declined in the past couple decades.  There will always be rich old people who will pay to hear Mozart and Beethoven, and that is because classical music is/has been created for and serves the white elite.  Conservatories, including ours, are overwhelmingly white in part because European musical traditions are valued over musical traditions of people of color.  Those who perpetuate these European (i.e. white) musical traditions are highly rewarded through employment, financial gain, and if you are lucky, fame.

Nebal Maysaud ’17 puts these notions into words far better than I ever could in their article “It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die” on New Music USA’s blog “New Music Box.”  Maysaud is a queer Lebanese composer whose music is described on the New Music USA website as a “convergence of faith and identity, using their artwork to advocate for the traditionally silenced.” In the beginning of their piece, Maysaud compares the relationship of composers of color to classical music to an abusive relationship, where classical music is the abuser.  This analogy is extremely powerful in illustrating to allies the horrors and abuses experienced by composers and performers whose ideas, opinions, voices and music are not deemed valuable .  

Maysaud claims that classical music is inherently racist.  “[It’s] not about culture.  It’s about whiteness … a combination of European traditions which serve the specious belief that whiteness has a culture — one that is superior to others.  Its main purpose is to be a cultural anchor for the myth of white supremacy.”  This ideology is perpetuated in Lawrence’s conservatory, from before Maysaud was a student until now.  Even though Students For Free Thought has not existed as a known collective on this campus since 2017, white supremacist narratives are implicitly pushed in the classroom.  The Lawrence Symphony Orchestra itself has not programmed one black composer in the five years I’ve been here.  William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony was performed by the orchestra when the piece was on the Freshman Studies’ syllabus in 2013, but that has not been in any recent student’s memory. It was Associate Professor of Music Stephen Sieck, not the LSO, that programmed works by Adolphus Hailstork for the 2018 combined choir and orchestra masterwork. The Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble collaborated with the orchestra with Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker in the fall, but the orchestra itself played Tchaikovsky, not Ellington.  The orchestra performed Jennifer Higdon’s “City Scape: Peachtree Street” last spring, and this piece was the first programmed from a female composer in recent memory. There have only been a handful of contemporary pieces played by the orchestra since 2016, and an alumni or student’s composition has not been featured by the orchestra since 2015.  Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” an opera renowned for its narrative of sexual violence and minstrelsy, is frequently programmed in our conservatory’s Opera Scenes.  The opera department’s 2018 production of Rossini’s “Count Ory” undertook a similar narrative of predatory sexual behavior with a revisionist ending of the main character being squashed with a larger than life Terry Gilliam-esque foot.    Admittedly, it is difficult to get the rights to groundbreaking contemporary operas.  Nonetheless, the focus is on the works of the “masters.”  

There is a fear that students will not be prepared for life after Lawrence if we do not learn the pieces deemed important by professors indoctrinated in a white supremacist musical narrative.  But life after Lawrence does not look like an orchestra or the Metropolitan Opera for most students.  Even highly regarded orchestras, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, are diversifying their programs to serve audiences beyond the white elite in an attempt to make high art music accessible to everyone.  

There is no simple solution for  an entire institution in which white supremacy is the foundation.  But there are small steps each of us can undertake.  Those of us who have recitals next year and/or need to fulfill chamber group credits can look into programming works outside the standard repertoire.  The Composer Diversity Database makes it easy to find pieces in a specific genre, instrumentation, country and/or demographic.  Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube channels such as Score Follower, incipitsify and Mediated Scores provide a wide array of recordings and scores to follow along with.  

Many of us in school are bled dry of any extra income to allocate anywhere besides tuition and the necessities to be academically successful, but any financial support to marginalized composers is the most direct way to amplify their voices. Maysaud calls for their fellow composers of color to create their own post-classical communities.  “I am not advocating for a formalized group … [that] runs the risk of trapping ourselves within the nonprofit industrial complex … [which is] essentially using the tools of our oppressors to try to liberate ourselves.  Instead, we need to look at how our cultures have historically gathered, and use active decolonization as a larger community to decide how we want to organize ourselves.” As allies, we must listen to folks like Maysaud, and help support and celebrate these spaces, for they are essential for all of our musical futures.