Site icon

Yes, Except…

Note: This post was pre-written for posting long ago. I set it to autopublish later on, as I won’t be having much internet access for the next few days. I do have it, off and on, but not enough to be logging in and writing posts for the moment.

I’m working on a somewhat complex series of posts that in a sense distill and clarify things I’ve been thinking about (and writing about here) lately for a while, tied to writing, writing theory and writing books, Hollywood, and modern culture in general.

But that “somewhat complex” means it takes time. In the meantime, I was reading reading up on a ton of things over at Ethan Iverson’s outstanding Do the Math blog, and followed a couple of links from there (on this page) to a couple of pieces on strategy for rehabilitating classical music in contemporary American society.

One of those pieces is by Greg Sandow, and leans heavily on comments by a young American woman (presumably, by her name, Korean-American), who expressed some interesting but problematic opinions about the “white culture” of classical music in America:

Lee’s bottom line was simple but profound. If we want people who aren’t white to go in any large numbers to classical concerts, we have to diversify the culture those concerts display. Which doesn’t just mean playing Latin American (or African-American) composers. It means presenting a not wholly white — not wholly low affect and respectful — face. With, maybe, applause or shouts during the music, which Mozart and Handel wouldn’t have found at all uncomfortable.

Bill Eddins replies at length to the more questionable of Lee’s assertions, not just the idea that maybe concerts should run on what he rightly notes would be more bluntly called “Colored People Time.” And really, that’s sort of silly, as if having a set time for an event to start were a wholly “white” thing: sounds kind of suspect to me, and simultaneously, I have to wonder why the looseness in terms of start time doesn’t upset the many white audience members at hip-hop shows. Black as hip-hop may be in its origins, isn’t the music itself located in youth culture that is generally (across racial lines) more lax about start times? As Eddins notes, people of all colors, including white, are often late for things. (I, personally, struggle to be on time for anything, and my mostly-white writing critique group in Seoul was perpetually starting late.) To suggest orchestras should be more lax about starting their concerts on time because of C.P. Time is pretty much the most patronizing thing you could do, isn’t it?

And so, I agree with Eddins here:

If this is the type of cultural diversity the League is pushing these days then please, I beg of you, shut down your “cultural diversity” program. Even this poor ‘Double Stuff’ guy can smell a condescending smack upside the head from a mile away, and any ‘outreach’ along these lines will do way more harm than good. Let me add a couple words to that definition list – condescending, paternalism, supercilious – that will do for starters.

The only way you are going to get black folk, or latino folk, or ANY folk interested in classical music is to not look at these people as black folk, or latino folk, or anything else. Look at them as people. Stop worrying about what race/culture they are and just push music education, whether that’s classical, jazz, pop, rock, funk, world, disco, whatever. Push the instruments and the music, and the positive effects that those things have on the culture at large.

I agree.

Mind you, I happen to think that a culture where people can applaud something remarkable without waiting for the end of the piece, or cry out, might not hurt the music, either. (Because, really, the culture of silence and self-containment we have in classical music concerts today is alien to most of the tradition.) Which is actually why thinking that “letting people shout during the concert” is a “black” thing is not just patronizing, it’s also ignorant of history.

(I’m not sure in practice I’m actually comfortable with people shouting, mind you. Orchestra concerts in Seoul invariably involved some moron’s phone being left on and ringing for a ridiculous amount of time during the concert, and that usually enraged me. But maybe if the aesthetic of concert-going were different, and more expressive… aw, hell, I don’t know.)

To me, the rules of concert etiquette are great for making sure we hear every note that gets played… but they’re not really great for getting people into the music. Really, they sort of reinforce a sense that this music belongs, first and foremost, in a museum, dead and stuffed. Which is a tragedy: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is a century old this year, but it is deeply alive, deeply vibrant, deeply exciting music.

(It’s a fucking ballet about annual pagan human sacrifice rituals of virgins! Composed out of Russian folk songs, some of them actually of occult provenance! (That part of my recently published story featuring The Rite of Spring, I actually didn’t make up!) I mean, basically, Stravinsky out-heavy-metaled heavy metal music before the genre even existed! Iron Maiden and Gwar are tame, conservative fluff beside this stuff!)

And Stravinsky’s just one example…

But anyway, Bill Eddins also takes Sandow (well, really, Lee, but also Sandow for repeating her ideas) to task for a questionable formulation of the idea of stereotypes, versus, well, “true” stereotypes (which she rather goofily calls “archetypes”). Here’s what Sandow wrote, quoting her:

If you think that what I just wrote–which is exactly what she said–trades in stereotypes, she had an answer for that. A stereotype, she said, is something you expect (so wrongly) to be true of every member of an ethnic group. With no exceptions. You’re looking for trouble if you think stereotypically.

But she contrasted that with what she called archetypes — traits that really are prevalent within any ethnic group, traits you’re not wrong to look (or look out) for, but which of course don’t show up in every individual.

Eddins has a serious issue with that, not only because Lee is not using the language in a sociologically correct way, but also, I’m going to take the liberty of imagining, because as a black man in the North America today, he’s met more than his fair share of idiots who’ve never run across a stereotype they didn’t think was an “archetype.” (Hell, he even concludes his rebuttal with the perfect example of such an idiot, some moron who assumes he can know about Eddins’ musical tastes by the color of his skin.)

I agree with Eddins that Lee and Sandow are wrongheaded in arguing that orchestras need to cater to these (imaginary?) cultural norms of nonwhite peoples: I mean, maybe Lee hasn’t been to an orchestra concert in Korea, but guess what? They also start at a set time, and on time. (Or, at least, no more late than orchestras anywhere else.) They also don’t allow applause in mid-piece, or even between movements, and ask people to turn off their cell phones. They also keep the doors shut after the orchestra starts, and don’t let you in until the end of the first piece… or, well, maybe the end of the current movement, but if they let you in, they insist you sit near the back and wait till the intermission to find your proper seat.

In other words, in Seoul, classical music concertgoers are expected (by fellow Korean concertgoers) to generally follow the same rules as any classical orchestra venue/audience in the world.

Sure, Seoul has its share (or maybe more than its share) of ignorant nouveaux-riche dunderheads who attend such concerts more to be seen, or to feel posh, and many Koreans seem still have a sense (one that is dying, if not dead, in the West) that “high culture” is something that ought to be enjoyed, even when they themselves don’t enjoy it… which is why the phones continue to ring, concert after concert, when people who aren’t that crazy about the music attend anyway. I’ve ranted about before.

But the rules of classical concert-going in Seoul are, as recognized by the vast majority of people and enforced by Korean ushers and venue operators, are the same as in Canada or the US. One presumes that this is also the case for orchestral concert venues and audiences in most parts of the world.

But the thing is, I feel like I can see where Lee is coming from. If she is, indeed, Korean, well: the thing is, a lot of Korean people–that is, people who are not assimilated into North American culture, or even in some cases who generally are–behave in ways that really do follow what we would call “stereotyped.” What Lee seems to be trying to talk about is that cultures differ, and that cultures also say something “true” about the people who are enculturated in them.

Which is to say, she’s run up against the fact that “stereotype” in English is a pejorative term, but we don’t really have a non-pejorative term for that same idea, when it’s an accurate depiction of reality. In Korea, I constantly found myself reminding students that “stereotype” means something negative; I’d get asked, “How can I say that without a negative nuance,” and I ended up having to explain that “normal” or “conventional” or “average” was close, though really, there wasn’t a great answer to that question in conversational English, because we tend not to be comfortable with the idea that some stereotypes could be stereotypes because they’re a useful rule of thumb.

(Because, after all, as soon as someone says that, it seems to enfranchise the idiots who are content to believe that every stereotype is a useful rule of thumb. All black people like hip-hop, right? Right?!?)

I found the students tended to prefer the English word “normal” or “usual” because for them, it had a very positive connotation. I would hear people describing themselves as “usual”–“I am a ‘usual’ ajeoshi [middle-aged man]” or “I am a ‘normal’ student, so I have no hobbies.” The hobbies thing is not an accident: the normalness of usualness of people was often used to explain preferences or behaviours. People didn’t seem to have the hangup that we North Americans sometimes have where being described as “usual” or “just like everyone else” troubles us. Rather, many people I met in Korea seemed to like that idea, or even hold that as something to aspire to.

It was culturally so alien that it baffled me at first. It was like people saying, “I aspire to live in the suburbs, and work a job I dislike. I aspire to be solidly middle class and conventional.” Not that plenty of North Americans don’t have the same aspiration, but they tend to either be less conscious of it, or to entertain fantasies to the contrary (often exploited by advertisers), or both.

But I think that in some ways, this is how people everywhere really are, even when we fool ourselves and believe to the contrary. The percentage of what’s said in day-to-day conversations that is absolutely formulaic and unoriginal is hard to grasp unless or until you become a foreign language teacher, and start teaching people the vocabulary and grammar and specific phrases and they need to get through a basic conversation. (Not that this is true of sparkling conversations, but that’s why most conversations aren’t described as “sparkling.”)

This doesn’t make Lee’s comments (about CP time or about the “respectfulness” of white culture–and the implied “non-respectfulness” of other cultures) any less ill-conceived: those stereotypes are silly. But she’s not wrong about the existence of commonalities shared within cultures,or the presence of other cultures in America. Branford Marsalis commented about this once, in an interview I’ve linked here before (yes, an interview for the hated Ken Burns documentary):

One of the things people in the egalitarian sensibility says that everyone is the same. See, but everyone is not the same. I mean, people are simply not the same. And black people are very different in a lot of ways from white people because we come from Africa. And the African sensibility could not be more diametrically opposed to the European sensibility in lots of ways. One of the easier ways is to watch a football game and watch a Michael Irvin score a touchdown and then he starts strutting in the end zone and, and you have one of my friends, a white guy say, “Why does he, why does he have to do that?” You know, and I, I know what a lot of those guys don’t know and I’m like, “Well, you have to understand that it’s a very African sensibility.” There was a time in western Africa when they were losing so many men to war that they… you had a new version of war and it was basically talk and smatter. You know, and they would essentially talk trash to one another and whoever talked the most trash won the war that year. I mean, and it, it, it’s a thing that has been a part of Af…, the African sensibility for thousands of years now. So, it is one of those things that happens when you take a group of people and you move them and you assign them new names and new identity, and you can do that. You can say, “Your name is now, you know, John. Washington. Or, you know, Le…, LeRoy Jones, or whatever the name is, but what you cannot do is go inside their souls and redefine their sensibility.

Of course, to me the most interesting thing about American culture is its mongrel nature: its mixed, recombined nature. But I’m also fascinated by this argument of Marsalis’ because I’ve seen, over the years, white athletes also do the victory dance, and seen white Americans who had somewhere along the way internalized that trash-talking, doing the dozens, aspect of the West African sensibility which always felt culturally alien to me–alien, but interesting.

Considering the question of cultural diversity in America (of multiple cultures within that country), I think of the expatriate Koreans I’ve known over the years–mostly not Korean-Americans, but Koreans who have adapted to life in other places (Canada, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam)–and I find that there are commonalities that seem to often be true, which form the basis of stereotypes about first and even second generation Koreans abroad, but which also happen to be descriptive in general terms: for example, the large percentage of overseas Koreans who are involved in Protestant church communities; or the tendency within ethnic Korean communities towards political conservativism; or those communities’ notorious insularity and preoccupation with Koreanness, Korean identity, Korean pride, and so on.

(Say what you want about whether those traits are positive, negative, or a mix of both; that’s not my point. The tendency is the point, and, I suppose, the observation that it hardly surprises me when someone who’s apparently Korean-American starts talking about ethnocultural traits in the context of American “multiculturalism.”)

I guess what I’m saying is that as wrongheaded as what some of Lee says (and Sandow repeats) might be, hammering at her arguments on the basis of “stereotypes” being universally offensive is probably not the most useful mode of disagreement. There obviously are stereotypes that are offensive, and unfortunately people who live as visible minorities face the brunt end of those… and even more unfortunately, she actually cites some of them directly. It’s enough to make you wince, as Eddins makes crystal clear.

And, well, you know, I’ve experienced that brunt end myself, a little bit: the idea that Westerners are sex maniacs, for example, is one I’ve encountered in many forms in Korea, from young men accusing me of sex mania when I talked to a female bartender (frankly, I was asking what the Korean word for a snack she’d given us was), to having older men attempt sexual passes at (or, yeah, attempt to grope) me, presumably because hypersexual white men will presumably go to bed with anyone.

Those experiences and stereotypes were really unpleasant and flat-out wrong, or in some cases rather dehumanizing. And, note, I’m fully aware that I got my taste of it served alongside a big, heaping side dish of white male privilege, which I’m sure made it somewhat less difficult to swallow. (Though it ain’t much help when stereotypes and jingoism drive a nutball all the way over into violence, and it never covered the foul aftertaste.)

But there were other stereotypes that aren’t so far off the money. My students have assumed that Americans have more of an investment in individualism, while Koreans are more willing to commit to being a group member and set aside their own identity or ego; which, broadly speaking, seems in my experience to be true (whether or not it really results in more individualism in practice among Westerners, or whether or not any individual is actually willing to set aside his or her ego for the group in practice among Koreans). Koreans and expats living in Korea often resort to using simplified shorthands, like, “Most people in Korea think,” or “Most Americans think,” and while some of the generalizations that follow those phrases are wrongheaded and flat-out untrue, and others are sort of so ahistorical as to be confusing or useless, there are some statements that start out that way and end up actually being pretty reliable and useful shorthands on how to navigate or manage your own expectations realistically in the face of another culture.

What I’m saying is, I’m not as ready as Eddins to just Lee’s claim that not all stereotypes are untrue, that cultural difference can be navigated through shorthands if we’re intelligent and self-aware enough not to see them as rules or universals.

It’s just, how are these shorthands useful for the diversity programs of our struggling symphony orchestras?

I’d say they’re mostly not. One might argue that classical music cultures in places like Seoul, or Cairo, or Saigon, or Lebanon, or Venezuela, all took up the “white” culture of concert etiquette, and ought to have done otherwise. The concertgoers in those places, I imagine, might argue otherwise, though.

The few people I knew in Seoul who made a serious habit of going to orchestral concerts all felt that etiquette was good, because it allowed one to enjoy the music, and they were just as angry as I was when random morons’ cell phones were not put into vibrate or silent mode, and went off during concerts–invariably, though momentarily, ruining the quietest part of a piece. Which is interesting, since when you attend a performance of traditional Korean “art” vocal music, pansori, the rules are a lot like in a jazz club: you can shout–there are formulaic phrases to shout, the Korean equivalent of “Woo!” and “Sing it!” and “Go on, go on!” And those do fit the pansori performances, they’re part of them, because the audience knows the rules and etiquette. Which is to say: Koreans are perfectly capable of “code-sliding” in terms of concert etiquette; so are African-Americans, Latino-American, and any other nonwhite group in America, I’m sure.

That’s not to say that people in Kinshasa, where there presumably hasn’t been a long tradition of live classical music concerts, ought to be following the same concertgoing rules as in those other places, now that they have their own orchestra in town. I have no idea what concert-hall etiquette is observed by Congolese audiences of the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra, though I’m actually very curious to know whether they, too, replicated the modern European model, or adopted other, different rules for audience behaviour. (I suppose I’ll have to watch the documentary about this group, which incidentally is billed in several places as “the world’s only all-black orchestra,” when I get a chance.)

But I agree with Eddins that it’s a bit patronizing (and more than a bit ridiculous) to argue that African-Americans and Latin-Americans aren’t going to classical music concerts because the culture of concert hall etiquette is “white, low affect, [and] respectful.” It’s far more reasonable to imagine that blacks and Latinos are not going to their local classical music concerts for the same reason that most white Americans aren’t going: because they, like the vast majority of people in the modern world, are musically illiterate (and thus ill-equipped to enjoy art music), and don’t realize it (and likely wouldn’t care even if they did realize it), and because they’ve become accustomed to the musical equivalent of TV dinners.

And yeah, as Iverson put it:

After all, European Classical Music was the house band for centuries of racist oppressors. Until all those years of hurt have been properly addressed, what good reason will there be for non-white communities to come out and support yet another moneyed white flagship?

That too, yes, though at the same time, questions seem to be raised about why anyone would then bother to start an orchestra in Kinshasa, or why people in Seoul attend concerts at all (even if their colonial conquerors were Japanese, not Western), or why the author and composer Somtow Sucharitkul (S.P. Somtow, to you SF fans out there) worked so hard and went so far out of his way to help build Bangkok’s opera scene, and develop its classical music scene?

Personally, I think that questions of the postcolonial politics of European Classical Music run distantly behind the way the relative nonexistence of arts and music education in North American schools has become normal, and the resulting general musical illiteracy of people today. (In addition to our literary illiteracy, our artistic illiteracy, our geographic and historical ignorance, our innumeracy: what is it that we North Americans collectively are supposed to be good at again?)

I sincerely doubt the problem of musical illiteracy is more profound among non-white Americans than it is among white Americans, but even if it were, I’d be turning first to the question of the inequity of educational opportunities, along with stupid stereotypes abut what musical tastes line up with which race–stereotypes that end up, in youth culture, being tied up with identity and consumer trends and wanting to fit in… in other words, which probably become unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecies.

But that’s assuming it is worse among nonwhite Americans, and I think there’s no real evidence to support that: in fact, my experience suggests that outside of small circles in the biggest cities, everyone–including white Americans, and white Canadians–is approximately equal in terms of their extreme musical (and artistic) illiteracy. I know that when I started middle school (prior to starting my picking up the saxophone) the music appreciation classes I got were so rudimentary that I shudder to imagine what I’d be listening to now if I’d kept along that educational track.

In the end, I’m less hostile to the idea that some stereotypes point to useful cultural differences (though calling them “archetypes” is a plain old misuse of the word, and Lee’s stupid application of the idea to orchestra diversity programs is just crazy-talk), but nonetheless I agree with Eddins (and Iverson): the solution here is to keep pushing education, and keep doing classical music with integrity, keep the fire alive.

Though I have my issues with some of Wynton Marsalis’ comments about some of the music I love deeply, he’s right in what he says in this interview with Iverson:

EI: H’mm. [long pause] Early jazz has sometimes been played – arguably defaced – by a presentation that is sarcastic.

WM: Huh. Well, I didn’t always like that kind of music, either. But I learned as I went along…

It’s a matter of us codifying our culture. We’re still young. But we will. It will be there. We’re not going to produce another Jelly Roll Morton. We’ll produce whatever we’ll produce but he’s there. It’s like Walt Whitman. He’s there. He’s in that time frame. If you want to deal with American writing and poetry, you’re going to deal with him. You will deal with Mark Twain. You will deal with Faulkner. You will deal with Hemingway. You’re going to deal with those people because they exist in that time.

If you want to write counterpoint, you are going to deal with Bach. If you look around, that’s who’s there. If you want to improvise, you’re going to deal with Louis Armstrong because when you actually start to look at it, he’s who’s there. The consciousness to do that and to want to be great at something in the American Arts is not here right now for a bulk of the people. But it’ll come.

Our job is more to keep it going and to conduct ourselves with integrity and keep all the references and get as much of the music in our music as we can get – so that when there are people who want to check it out, it’s there for them to check it out. It’s a bridge for them to develop it however they want to develop it.

As long as there’s not a bridge for them, then it’s hard.

Not just for people who aspire to be artists, but also for people who aspire to have music worthy of them, of their minds and ears and imaginations. Marsalis is talking utopian here–I mean this not to say he’s being a silly dreamer, either. I mean utopian in the positive sense of the word, speaking as a radical and as someone advocating the change we know must someday come, a position sadly few people in the modern West are willing to take about anything.

But it is inspiring to imagine that the masses, top-40ed-ad-nauseam, indeed will someday wake up and realize that corporate disposaculture is leaving them hungry, that they might start looking for something more nutritious, if not to supplant the diet then at least to supplement it. I might have thought that was crazy talk a decade ago, but John Palmer’s and Michael Ruhlman’s books are selling briskly these days. People are getting the equivalent point, to some degree, in terms of the industrialized crapification of their food, right now. Maybe in a generation or two, they’ll realize the same thing has been done to their arts and entertainment–to their culture, really.

In the meantime, the way forward with classical music concerts is not to superficially remodel their concert hall etiquette after hip-hop concerts, or jazz concerts, or whatever it is Lee thinks those non-white people would find more comfortable. Because, frankly, I think Iverson and Eddins are right: that kind of change comes off way more patronizing.

Exit mobile version