Open Sign Through The Glass Of Window
Close Listening: Music and Race

Close Listening: Music and Race

Open Sign Through The Glass Of Window

Last week I wrote about the thorny nature of genre classification in music. Today I’d like to dig deeper into the thorn bush and talk about an even more problematic form of classification: race.

At the outset, I’d like to make sure we all agree that, scientifically speaking, race does not actually exist. However, because of the actions of racists past and present, we are stuck with a society that is rife with systemic bias toward people of color (and this, of course, will not come as news to the people of color reading this post). As the author of the article linked to above put it, “Race does not exist, but racism does.” Conscious steps must be taken against the latter every day, by all of us, including becoming aware of the role race plays in the music industry.

A couple of years ago I was introduced to the music of Santigold (via my Radiohead station on Pandora; yay, metadata!), whose music I instantly classified as indie pop. After hearing a few tracks, I knew I was going to be a fan and looked her up on the internet to see if she was a new act. One of the first things I stumbled upon was a 2008 NME article in which she speaks out against people classifying her music as hip-hop and R&B (when in fact she doesn’t even like R&B) purely based on her race. She states in the article that she “made sure” her album is a pop record. [N.B.: The article’s author appears to have confused Santigold’s name and the title of her first album, Santogold.] No doubt it was in reaction to these false classifications that Santigold, in a 2012 interview with Lucy Jones, stated that her music is “genreless.”

Around the same time that I came into contact with Santigold’s music, I was also introduced to the music of Julius Eastman. As an erstwhile Morton Feldman scholar, I remember being shocked and ashamed that I’d never heard Eastman’s name before. As this post by Matthew D. Morrison points out, while we remember many of the SUNY at Buffalo Creative Associates (Crumb, Kotik, Rzewski), until very recently Eastman’s name has been largely absent from the canon of post-World War II composers. In fact, as Renée Levine Packer cites in her fascinating book on new music in Buffalo, Kyle Gann called Eastman “one of the least-recognized and most imaginative minimalists…a pioneer,” in his 1990 Village Voice obituary for Eastman. Packer’s firsthand accounts of the Creative Associates’ activities make it clear that Eastman was an active member of the group and his talents were well-received and appreciated, so why have we heard so little about him in the 25 years since his death?

These two encounters with the work of very different artists got me thinking about the ways in which factors external to the sound and production of a given piece of music might result in its misclassification—or non-classification, in the case of Eastman. This in turn got me thinking about the music I chose to write about, the pieces I suggested for concert programming, and the concerts I decided to attend (back when I was doing more of all those things). Was I unwittingly perpetuating the systemic bias I claimed to oppose with these choices?

The truth is that, while I spent quite a lot of effort making sure women musicians—particularly composers—were equally represented in my activities, I did not spend nearly enough time making sure I gave people of color the same consideration, particularly as composers. I attribute this lamentable lapse in my judgment to the two issues I discussed above, both of which boil down to one outcome: lack of visibility. I didn’t know very many composers who are people of color, nor did the press releases I received often come from or include POC composers. It was my responsibility, then, to seek out these people and rectify the situation, and I failed to do that.

We must address the fact that we are missing out on certain new music because it is being classified for different communities, or not being classified at all. This fact is likely attributable to the new music scene’s ideas surrounding pedigree and style; inclusion on a new music concert program often depends on a certain type of training and the avoidance of certain stylistic signifiers. To be frank, it should make us all deeply uncomfortable how white the new music scene is. I say this not to discourage anyone; I say it because I am invested in this scene and want to see it grow by embracing what may seem at first like unfamiliar voices.

In my next and final post in this series, I will examine the question of criteria for inclusion in more detail as I consider who the holders of power are in the music industry.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

12 thoughts on “Close Listening: Music and Race

  1. jeffrey mumford

    Where do I start?

    With all due respect, this just scratches the surface and I do look forward to what you say in future articles.

    This issue is both complex and simple. I teach a course on the challenges artist of color (mostly composers) have ace over the centuries. and what constitutes “Black Music”. Therein much of the the complexity lies. I challenge student to look critically at who is and who is not represented on symphony and chamber music concerts, how seasons are put together and the notion that “history is written by the winners” As people of color we must also look inward. In one of my classes I played a work bu T.J. Anderson, and asked a student to discuss it in the context of what “is and is not “Black Music” and he (sadly but honestly) replied “This piece (“Variations n a Theme by M.B. Tolson” for mezzo and chmber ensemble) is much too complex to have been written by a Black person. Both the student and T.J. Anderson are Black. We have so much work to do!!

    Reply
    1. Meg Wilhoite

      Thank you for your feedback, and agreed, there is much work to be done!! And in an 800 word think-piece like this I definitely only touch on issues that are fathoms deep. I think this is an under-examined issue wrt the music industry in particular.

      Reply
      1. jeffrey mumford

        Appreciate yoir efforts of course! Also check out violist Ashe Gordon and Composer/ Pianist Anthony Green and their organization “Castle of Our Skins” (www.castle-of-our-skins.com) They are doing outstanding work!

        Reply
  2. Allan J. Cronin

    I hope that you will look at the suppression of politically left black composers. Those who don’t threaten or challenge are much more likely to be heard in the concert halls.

    Also check out Bill Doggett productions in the Bay Area and the Center for Black Music Studies at Columbia College in Chicago.

    And thank you for this much needed conversation.

    Allan

    Reply
    1. Meg Wilhoite

      Thank you for this! Yes, that’s a good point about taking into consideration political ideology — there’s no doubt in my mind that Eastman’s left-ness is part of the reason why he was excluded from much of the minimalist narrative.

      Reply

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