Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Music without (social) borders

The upcoming NEXT Ensemble concert -- June 1st at Alleged -- is another installment of our "Music Without Borders" series. Last time, we explored music that originated outside the European diaspora. This time, though, we want to think about social borders faced by musicians.

Believe it or not, it is still harder for some people than others to break into the classical music world. At some points in classical music history it was almost impossible for anyone other than a cis-gendered hetero white male to be taken seriously as a composer. Today it's still easier for people like me compared to those who do not fit such a description.

At the concert, we will hear music written by women, non-whites, gay and lesbian composers, and Jews, just to name a few. I'm excited to be part of presenting this music, some of which simply would not have been performed in earlier eras. I'm finding myself struggling with one thing, however:

When I listen to music by a gay composer, am I supposed to hear his "gayness"? If the music is by a woman, am I to hear her femininity encoded into the score? Etc. And if I am supposed to hear those things, what do they sound like?

A previous generation would have answered "absolutely not, the music is the music, period." As if music could possibly exist outside the biographies of its creators. To my mind, the sounds are always a product of the contexts in which they are imagined, created and re-created. (Even when they are not supposed to -- looking at you, serial gang.) But at the same time, it is entirely possibly for me to just hear a piece of music and be moved by it with no knowledge about its context.

What exactly are we saying when we say "here, listen to this music, it's written by a person of color"? Should that fact take priority over other criteria, either subjective or objective? What if the thing turns out to sound like Mozart-meets-Lawrence-Welk? Has the composer somehow failed to represent herself? Or is that her prerogative?

As a musician, a scholar, and occasional decent human being, I want fairness for composers who have previously been excluded from the canon. Everyone has a right to be heard. I'm just not sure how I'm supposed to hear them -- but frankly, that's on me to figure out.

Come join us on Saturday? We'd love to see you there. I guarantee we won't walk away with definitive answers to the questions I raise, nor should we. The progress, the journey, is always in the asking.

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