A photo of a skeleton with left arm raised so that the left hand is close to the mouth
It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die

It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die

Introduction

There comes a point in some abusive relationships where the victim wakes up out of their Stockholm syndrome and learns that they need to plan an escape. As you communicate with others and you get a taste of freedom, you learn that the force you thought was protecting you is in truth keeping you in danger.

For those who haven’t encountered abusive relationships, you may support the abuser, or wonder why the victim doesn’t just leave. But you don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where you can’t tell truth from myth.

For the victims who aren’t ready, you may have an urge to push away those of us seeking to help you and stay with your abuser, believing them to be a source of protection.

Unfortunately, not everyone can escape. But having the knowledge that your abuser is an abuser itself can be freeing. It can help you find the next step in your journey towards liberation. But you need a community to fall back on. You need people to talk to so that they can keep you safe, so that they can help you understand the truth, and so that they can teach you the abuser’s techniques and how to fight them.

My fellow musicians of color: it is time to accept that we are in an abusive relationship with classical music.

My fellow musicians of color: it is time to accept that we are in an abusive relationship with classical music.

Classical Music is Inherently Racist

In my previous articles, I laid out my experiences and reasoning for coming to this conclusion. I started with “Am I Not a Minority?” to explain the everyday racism people of color experience and how it manifests on an institutional level. If you haven’t read it already, I encourage you to explore how institutions uphold their power by choosing which minorities to give access to.

The few scraps given to minorities are overwhelmingly white–occupied by white cisgender women or LGBT+ individuals. The few PoC who are given access to institutional space are most often light skinned and non-Black while also exoticised and tokenised.

And that led me to my second article, “Escaping the Mold of Oriental Fantasy“–a personal history of isolation and colonization, of how Western classical music participates in the act of destroying culture and replaces it with its own white supremacist narrative.

Finally, I shared my attempts at reviving my culture and my tradition, along with the barriers I faced on this journey. My third article, “I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way,” chronicles the difficulties (and the near impossibility) of engaging with my own cultural musical practices in a proper, authentic way.

From three angles I shared my attempts at being an authentic composer. These articles bring to light the many ways in which the dreams of low-income people of color are obstructed in the Western classical tradition.

Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness.

Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness. It’s a combination of European traditions which serve the specious belief that whiteness has a culture—one that is superior to all others. Its main purpose is to be a cultural anchor for the myth of white supremacy. In that regard, people of color can never truly be pioneers of Western classical music. The best we can be are exotic guests: entertainment for the white audiences and an example of how Western classical music is more elite than the cultures of people of color.

A screenshot of an Instagram image from @Nikyatu with the caption

What to Do About Our Love for Classical Music?

It’s not uncommon to love your abuser. I know the experience, and can understand how hard it is to leave. Despite all that classical music has done to me, I still can’t help but marvel at the religious splendor of Bach’s works for organ. Nor can I help but weep at Tchaikovsky’s raw expressive power.

I will forever love my favorite composers. It is possible to be critical about the way classical music is treated and to adore the individual works which inspire you at the same time. I am not making a judgment call on specific works in the canon, but instead their function in modern classical music institutions

It is possible to be critical about the way classical music is treated and to adore the individual works which inspire you at the same time.

And there is still the question of what to do about the skills these composers taught us.

I would like to return to the analogy of the abusive relationship.

Many of us have learned a lot from our abusers. Some abusers are even our parents. Their abuse can follow you wherever you go, and escaping them entirely may be impossible. Whether we like it or not, we are forever changed by our abuse.

This abuse can appear as a scar. We will need each other to heal from the trauma. But we also need to survive and nurture the spirit which requires us to create.

While most composers of color are responding to a calling, that calling is to create artwork in our own voices not to behold ourselves to the social construct of Western classical music.

We can do that using the tools we learned as classical composers without contributing to our own abuse. As I shared in my previous article, we can get to a better understanding of our own cultural traditions little by little if we just start exploring.

In order to leave our abusive relationship, we need a community.

It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die

Western classical music depends on people of color to uphold its facade as a modern, progressive institution so that it can remain powerful. By controlling the ways in which composers are financed, it can feel like our only opportunities for financial success as composers are by playing the game of these institutions.

It’s time for us to recognize that engaging with these institutions, that contributing to the belief that our participation in composer diversity initiatives is doing anything to reshape the institution of classical music, and that classical music is an agent of cultural change instead of a placeholder to prevent composers of color from forming our own cultures, is ultimately furthering colonization and prevents us from creating artwork capable of real, genuine expression.

Writing for an audience of rich white people is no longer a priority of mine.

Writing for an audience of rich white people is no longer a priority of mine. Instead, I want to create music for my community. Instead of contributing to white culture and helping them erase my own narrative, I want to use my ability to create art to keep my culture alive.

As long as people of color are making art, culture stays alive.

This mission is entirely against the nature of white supremacy, which seeks to replace non-white cultures with their own fantasies. Therefore, I will not find support in this endeavor.

Let’s Create Art for Our Own Communities

My fellow musicians of color, we need each other. While I wish to break away completely from this system that I have poured my soul into only to be diagnosed with PTSD in return, I admit that we can never fully break from classical music as long as capitalism exists.

White gatekeepers still control funding. And we are fortunate enough to have a few allies in these positions. We will need to cooperate in order to stay afloat. It is possible to engage without inflicting cultural harm. Simply knowing when you’re being tokenized is a major step in the direction towards decolonization.

Simply knowing when you’re being tokenized is a major step in the direction towards decolonization.

But while we’re getting our funding, we need to create our own communities. We need to find each other and make music together. We need to ally ourselves with artists from all walks of life in order to create the cultures whiteness has tried to take from us.

We have a massive task ahead of us. It’s not easy to connect ourselves, much less to connect our art and experiences to our own communities. But I believe that we were called to music for that purpose, not to entertain elite guests.

What Does a Post-Classical Community Look Like?

I am not advocating for the formation of a formalized group. Formalizing ourselves runs the risk of trapping ourselves within the nonprofit industrial complex. It’s 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.

I have no clue what that coalition will look like. If it were possible for one individual to organize it, it would have been done already. But as the creative minds of our generation, I am sure we can find a solution so long as we start the conversation with the belief that a future free from the constraints of classical music is possible.

Imagining a Post-Classical World

Instead of stealing from other cultures to create a facade of white supremacy, cultures from around the world are able to present the endless beauty and infinite histories of our traditions.

This freedom will extend to everyone, including white musicians who will be more prepared to handle the traditional music and practices of their own ancestors. White musicians will come to realize that they have given up a lot to be white, and that they have a culture too that they can explore. White composers can spend time analyzing their own history and influences on that history – i.e. Gregorian chants and their influence from the Middle East; Pagan and other minority religions; minority histories within Europe; or traditional Celtic, Greek, and Italian music. A lot of has been explored in European tradition, but since the Romantic era, too many works have been explored from the belief that white Western culture is superior to all others. Abandoning this vantage point can lead white composers to explore a more nuanced, more accurate history than the one presented to us.

White classical musicians don’t need to take stories from other cultures.

White classical musicians don’t need to take stories from other cultures, they can go back to the point before they came to be known as white and collaborate with other composers to explore a more accurate history and culture of their own people.

This community, this coalition based on ideology, will be run as it always has: not by the ones with the most institutional power, but those with the least. We will no longer depend on white elites to fund diversity initiatives and hope it trickles down. Instead, we will be guided by the belief that when our most oppressed are liberated, we are all liberated.

I am referring specifically to LGBT+ Black women, who manage to successfully create these spaces every day. Everything I have learned about social justice is rooted in Black liberation work by LGBT+ Black women, and it is time that we as non-Black people of color and other allies recognize that our liberation will not come without theirs.

My Plan

I have pondered on how to bring this community to fruition. It is something I have struggled with, and I want to share ways I am personally and professionally mitigating it.

Not much action needs to change upon this realization. I am still accepting commissions and am still looking for a future learning with other composers and even applying to graduate school.

By knowing how Western classical music treats me and composers like me, I do not want to limit myself and my opportunities, and I don’t think I have to. I believe you can participate in this system to get what you need without actively declaring yourself a member.

You can participate in this system to get what you need without actively declaring yourself a member.

I have gotten through the cognitive dissonance of calling for a break from classical institutions and working with them through viewing myself as someone who is outside of their system and viewing other gatekeepers in classical music not as friends or peers, but as clients who can help me in my career.

This way, I get what I need from them to further my career without putting myself in danger.

This way of thinking is a stark departure from a practice of making your clients your best friends. Many of the musicians I know interact with no one else but their circle of colleagues. I personally find that practice to be a way of implicitly making people of color feel unsafe and unwelcome. By keeping my distance, I not only keep my mental health under control, but I also get the chance to connect with my own communities and give them access to an art they never thought they needed.

Other musicians have taken different paths. Some people create community in their universities, some manipulate their positions of tokenism, and others work to find and heal with as many musicians of color as possible. You need to find what is best for you, and work with your community so that everyone is working to build and defend this coalition with their strengths.

Conclusion

Our movement will still have white allies present. There are those (although very few) who are willing to put themselves in danger and go against the institutions. Others are willing to work within institutions to protect and defend us people of color as we create our coalition. There are already those ready to leverage their privilege to establish a more equitable future. Because they too have learned that they will not be liberated unless everyone is liberated.

While some might argue that this coalition is impossible, that it will be stopped or that change from within is more likely, I would like to point out that this process is already happening.

People of color are done being tokens and our calling to create is not being fulfilled. We are already connecting with communities and building a future free from the confines of our boxed-in genre. Every day, people of color are conversing with each other about possible ways to combat racism in the field of music, and these coalitions form as a natural result.

In a world where we are surrounded by whiteness, we need the courage to share our voices and speak the truth.

My hope with this article is to put a name to this process. I want to use whatever platform I access to connect with musicians of color. Whiteness gentrifies, and that means that we will have white ears in the room. This article, for example, is going to be read by many white people before other people of color have a chance to read the message. But in a world where we are surrounded by whiteness, we need the courage to share our voices and speak the truth no matter how much the white institutions disapprove of our message.

If just one musician of color finds hope and inspiration to work towards a future independent of the institutions they now recognize as their abusers, I will have done my job.

So my fellow musicians of color, please reach out to me, and let’s build a future where we are liberated.


If you enjoy their work, Nebal also manages a Patreon which features a weekly blog and exclusive content.  Nebal Maysaud is a queer Lebanese composer based in the Washington D.C. Metro Area. Since buying their first notation software in 2009, Nebal (pronounced [niˈbæ:l]) has grown to become an impactful, socially minded composer. Their music is a convergence of faith and identity, using their artwork to advocate for the traditionally silenced. Their music is influenced by different artists of various traditions, including Vaughan Williams, Khalil Gibran, Arvo Pärt, Walt Whitman, Fairuz,... Read more »


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.

39 thoughts on “It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die

  1. Brielle

    Dude, this sentence is beyond misguided.
    It’s delusional.
    “Classical music is inherently racist”.
    It’s….. errrrrrr…. just music.
    And the best of it will inspire and enrich the human spirit forever.
    Long after…. thankfully…. “stuck in our heads politization” of things grounded folks gratefully cherish and adore….
    Have been laughingly cast aside.
    All music belongs to everybody.
    Any true musician will tell ya that.
    Over and out.

    Reply
  2. Rob Haskins

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful essay. I agree with your premise, but I would like to add that there is another constituency here: whites from a lower-class to lower-middle-class background who are also marginalized by the classical music establishment, which has always privileged wealthier students. For me—I count myself among that number when I was a student—my love for classical music in the European tradition is not bound up with any feelings that it is superior to other music. Rather, it became a means to experience a connection to a great tradition, to add to my own knowledge and cultural awareness, and to help provide an outlet for feelings that could not be readily expressed as a queer man in the early 1980s. I will say that certainly continue to feel like an outsider to the institutions and societies of classical music. I would say, too, that at least some presenters, patrons, press agents, and grant committees don’t know as much music as they used to, leading to a kind of “flavor-of-the-moment” approach to programming and commissioning that really does very little to address the systemic marginalization that you’ve so eloquently described. We need to become more fluent with the various traditions of our own culture as well as those of others, and in this case education has also failed us—for education is still a kind of “concern-of-the-moment” activity as regards the attention it pays to marginalized groups, and not enough attention is being paid to a deep historical understanding of music produced by all of these groups, let alone our own. This is a complicated problem that needs to address many contributing factors. I hope that those who have the strength and will to do so will remember to cast the net widely as they find solutions.

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  3. Astrid schlegel

    I as a white musician think you are being just as racist as you claim wr are. How is classical music racist
    What about the great pianist Andrew watts who is b look black and plays classical music much better then I ever good the great black soprano leotyne price.probably the greatest opera singer the world has ever known and Beethoven’s ode to joy all men shall be brothers.music is the universal language and these great composers wrote this music for everybody.they just happened to be a part of European society what’s wrong with that.the great Leonard Bernstein had many different elements in the show west side story. I think with your way of thinking we will never get along

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  4. MOV

    As a black man, I believe it is troubling to compare one’s love of classical music to an abusive relationship. Classical music gives me joy, the same is the case with jazz, latin music, the music of Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Shirley Bassey, to mention a few. When it comes to music, no one should issue a prescription of what others (white or of color) should listen to. I’ve always been of the belief that if you don’t like it, then don’t listen to it. With all due respect, this perspective of classical music is simply arrogant. Where does it stop? What should we eliminate next? Western attire? Western books? Western food, technology, philosophy? Western medicine? Paintings, sculptures? One’s opinions should not become the norm for an entire people, whether they are white or of color.

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  5. Curtis Stotlar

    When I think of all the servants abused by their rich, powerful master-composers, these composers are a sick, deprived, depraved bunch of overpaid, overfed monsters. Down with them all! Down with their genius that doesn’t include us all!!

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  6. Devon

    Oh, my God. This is so ridiculous. Everything is eventually going to be white supremacy, isn’t it? Isn’t this a great way to make ppl want more POC to enter classical music? It’s blatant now. Identity politics is a part of a larger agenda to destroy western society. It has attacked every single cultural institutions, almost all of which have happily opened their arms to non-white ppl and have even prioritized their success in the field. There are groups helping POC to gain professional orchestral jobs. How’s that white supremacy?

    The west is absolutely the least racist and most tolerant society on the planet and, most likely, in all of human history. It’s opened itself to outsiders of all different backgrounds, so much so that in some nations the very demographics are shifting to a white minority. How’s that racist? The west were who abolished slavery worldwide and enforced it, many white ppl losing their lives for it. Hundreds of thousands of whites died in the American civil way to end slavery. How is all that racist? How long can you hound someone for a mistake that they didn’t even make, that their predecessors made? Westerners aren’t allowed to celebrate the good of their ancestors, so why tf should they be condemned for the crimes of their ancestors? That’s illogical and a double standard. And it shows the true intentions behind identity politics.

    There’s not much need for identity politics in the west anymore, everyone is equal under law, and that’s why IP has become absolutely corrosive to society. Look how divided we see now. That wasn’t the case until identity politics became a dominating force. It is nothing but authoritarian and totalitarian. It is never satiated. And it’s a losing ideology, and if you can’t see it, then you are blinded. The track it will go is pitting everyone against everyone else and everything against everything else. It is toxic. Once whites are fully shoved off into a corner, where they will certainly fall back on uniting finally along racial lines, finally your beloved white racism, identity politics will then pit the next two groups against each other on claims of who had it worse, and then again and again until everyone is 100% divided. It will eat itself and destroy western society.

    Why not go and tackle REAL RACISM where it really is elsewhere in the world, because it certainly is rampant in the world; slavery still exists in the world! But it’s not really about opposing racism, is it? It’s about opposing western society (which many ppl of all different backgrounds are and can become a part of, it isn’t exclusionary racially). That’s why my LGBT community say NOTHING about the twelve countries that still execute LGBT ppl. Because it’s not white countries doing it, they’re all Islamic countries. Yet they will endlessly demean and attack western society despite western society being the only place on the anet where ppl like me can marry whom they want and become just as successful as anyone else. Instead, the LGBT community even covers up and excuses Islamic countries killing their own gays and lesbians and trans ppl.

    It’s become too blatant, and that’s why trump is in office. Ppl were with the supposed betterment of the live of POC and LGBT in our nation’s. Ppl were very on board, but they’ve seen that it isn’t really about that and it’ll never end, they see that it is only becoming more and more authoritarian and totalitarian. I mean, any criticism is called racism and banned. That’s fascistic. That’s very anti-individual and freedom of thought. And that’s why ppl are turning against it and the left in droves. I’m an alienated liberal. I’m gay, and I ahbe to oppose my own community often because of their radical, dangerous ideology.

    No doubt my comment will be removed for some racist violation, even though I’m mixed and my argument supports racial harmony and is against racialism, which is no different than the Klan or white supremacists. It’s just the other side of the coin. But go ahead and practice the authoritarianism that is inherently a part of modern identity politics. Go ahead, destroy peace, harmony, and beauty some more.

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  7. Hayden

    So… You’re actually against diversity? You want only whites to be involved in classical music. You’re a segregationist, simply put, at least in this regard. And isn’t black ppl performing classical music cultural appropriation by the very ideology to which you undoubtedly subscribe?

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  8. Hayden

    And it sounds like you’re letting racism/racialism take something away from you that could be an incredible enrichment to your life, and even worse, you’re trying to take it away from others, over something so deluded and silly(and I don’t mean anything to be insulting, just precise). Classical music isn’t exclusionary whatsoever, and neither is modern western society. Glance at any great orchestra anywhere in the west; it’s is multiracial. In many orchestras, there are more Asians than whites. Whites have opened their culture fully, and all it’s resulting in is radical ideological whackaloons wanting to ruin it for ppl of all races and backgrounds by attacking every single western cultural institution with claims of “white supremacy.” It never ends. Everything is now “white supremacy” to your crowd. And it’s nothing but divisive, inaccurate, racist, and hateful. It’s very negative. Identity politics is unquestionably corrosive. It’s like the early stages of Nazi Germany, to be frank. It’s started out as slow demonization of a certain group and is now becoming a full blown attack against them in everything you do, regardless of the truth, of reality. Something like this is racism. It’s anti-diversity. This is segregation. I hope you know that. Good luck to you. I really hope you allow yourself to truly think about this objectively, without the influence of the cult you obviously subscribe to. I don’t want you to leave classical music. It’s such a great thing. But if you want to introduce divisiveness to it, then it probably is better for everyone that you leave.

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  9. D Merkamp

    Every culture has it’s “uniqueness” and is worthy of value. However, we only know what we know due to our environment. Every environment is different and I am saddened that the culture surrounding classical music has made you feel marginalized. But realize this….it is not the music itself that has done so, it is the culture surrounding the music. Cultures, over time, can change. Those who consider themselves “tokens”, regardless of race can find their niche as champions of any art form. For example, jazz is primarily a music whose roots come from African Americans, but it is championed by a multiracial community. It has gained acceptance through an agreement among musicians that the music itself is of value. I would challenge you to discuss changing culture for the better rather than stereotyping classical music with the simplistic blanket statement that “classical music is racist”. There are bigots among all arts and professions, but there are also wonderful, caring people who are offended to be labeled by a bigoted statement based on their taste in music. You serve to further this divide among races when you should champion the noble among all races who work to heal the divide rather than widen that divide with insensitive rhetoric.

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  10. Brian

    “But in a world where we are surrounded by whiteness, we need the courage to share our voices and speak the truth no matter how much the white institutions disapprove of our message,” says the person who lists Vaughan Williamss (white man), Arvo Pärt (white man), Walt Whitman (white man), and J.S. Bach (white man) as musical influences of various traditions in your bio.

    Reply
  11. Earl

    Really? When I listen to Classical music I hear music. When I listen to Jazz, I hear music. When I listen to Rock, I hear music. I don’t understand what the deal is. Music is for everyone. Don’t understand why some folks have to have race involved in everything. People of all races have some they consider lower than themselves. What I love about music is that you can meet someone from another country, not speak a work and still be able to play music together. It is sad that some many wonderful things in this world have to be drug in the mud by those who foster hate. Just my thoughts.

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  12. Matthew Weflen

    Mr. Maysaud,
    You did not mention, so far as I can tell, whether you would be abandoning “western” orchestral instruments and musical forms on your new path. As such, I can’t tell whether you’re advocating some new form of music, or rather just “rebranding” an old one.

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  13. Mark Shulgasser

    It’s well known that ‘classical music’ has been dying for decades. It now occupies a negligible economic and social niche; as a cultural phenomenon it is really something of a joke, an antique affectation. Surely hip-hop is far more important, dominant, and equally if not more racist as well. The author should concentrate on finding a place in that great community of poc musicians, and maybe fighting against the cultural appropriation by whites of rock and blues. Surely the Rolling Stones and Eminem have robbed the poc community far more than Mozart did or does.

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  14. Isaac Malitz

    There is an aspect to the classical tradition that you are not noticing at the moment: It has been and continues to be a “home” for outsiders, rebels. Beethoven (think Grosse Fugue), Schoenberg, Boulez, Cage, Julius Eastman, Ustvolskaya, Nancarrow, Chris Newman (Miss Moth) , innumerable contemporary composers. Ironically, your vehement diatribe places you in that tradition!

    I want to distinguish the above tradition from all the ancillary stuff that gets attached to it: Rich white guys getting dressed up and falling asleep during Brahms Symphony#2, and all that. “Experts” who are stuck in the sound world of the Classical Style. And so on.

    It seems to me that the Real Tradition is expanding and morphing rapidly. Connecting with all kinds of traditions and cultures. Best “classical” work I have heard recently: Catherine Lamb’s String Quartet, a long, slow, ultra-microtonal work – which my ears tells me reaches into cultures far from Western Europe.

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  15. Ray H

    Thank you for this, Nebal. Best of luck forging the reactionary waters of mainstream classical musicians (good lord, these comments), but this essay needed to be written sooner or later. Any conservatory that doesn’t cover imperial/nationalistic theory and history aren’t doing their jobs to students (almost none do), and most large performing arts institutions will probably never seriously consider their dominance by white supremacy.
    Most major cities have decent experimental/improv/noise/avant- scenes, which are far more open-minded, queer, and racially diverse (although often still pretty white, certainly less colonial undertones). They tend to be full of disaffected conservatory and art school kids, and the work is way more interesting :) The obvious problem is the lack of institutional funding, which makes full-time work pretty much impossible, even in big cities. However, the creative payoff is far better than scrounging for symphonic commissions that don’t particularly want your voice. There are also promising professional chamber groups in most places (not academia, usually), if you’re committed to notation.

    Breaking institutions are hard. Breaking institutions from the inside-out is near-impossible, especially when tokenized. And there’s always more layers of white exclusivity than you’d think… Remember, white people literally moved out of their cities rather than integrate neighborhoods and school districts. They’ll burn down the Symphony before de-westernizing it. I think alternative space, ideally with institutions (educational, financial, social, plus safety nets—getting paid is less of a deal-breaker without student debt and healthcare costs) are a best, if utopian, hope. And don’t discount allies, there are plenty of white folks who have an abusive relationship with western art music and would be happy to see it broken up or truly integrated.

    In solidarity,

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  16. Jason Spencer

    Would the author mind clarifying “whiteness”? He is Lebanese, which is technically Caucasian.

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  17. Sandra Seaton

    You talk about composers and musicians of color.
    In your article, I see a list of influences:
    Vaughan Williams, Khalil Gibran, Arvo Pärt, Walt Whitman, Fairuz, and J.S. Bach.
    Where are the composers of color on your list?

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  18. Kit Baker

    Reading this was an odd experience. Premieres of chamber works by George Lewis and Tyshawn Sorey were highlights of my musical decade, as was a performance by the Wayne Shorter Quartet with a classical orchestra that was pretty much the best of the dozens of classical orchestra concerts I’ve seen at Carnegie Hall – and I’ve definitely never seen such a spontaneous and immediate standing ovation there. Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding are now creating an opera together complete with score for classical orchestra. Vijay Iyer, Michael Morgan, Anthony Davis, and (contemporary music making just as sophisticated as what I hear in the classical concert hall) Pamela Z are all figures moving in or at the edges of the classical music world who are doing great and important work. Plus there’s always more I don’t know about and want to discover – I see more and more articles appearing about African American women composers of the early 20th century previously unknown to me, and if I were in London on August 15 you would find me at the Proms for a premiere by Errollyn Wallen (https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ezv9hn). The classical music world definitely has its issues, and I can certainly appreciate that it’s not the easiest world to move in, but this article just doesn’t connect with what I’m seeing.

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  19. S. K.

    Funny how all of these comments are, essentially, people bristling at the mere mention of “white supremacy” and racism! Really shows you the depth of their morality.

    I think, for such a strong opinion on a delicate subject (let’s face it – classical music has honestly never been the, ur, most progressive of musical communities), it was also quite strongly worded and threw people off guard.

    Anyway, to be honest, the pill I found hardest to swallow here was that we should “let [classical music] die”.

    I don’t speak for all of us here, but I know I’m not alone when I say as a person of color- I’ve been raised with classical music my entire life. From the crib up to even today, where I play the violin in an orchestra and my father continues to spend hours shuffling through his boxes of recordings in search of the perfect piece to listen to on a particular Saturday night. It’s beautiful and complex and rich with history. And while I am not among those who loudly turn up their nose against modern music and praise classical music as the epitome of “culture” (a term that is, upon introspection in contexts like these, steeped in years of elitism and often racist comparison), I can’t help but regard it in a different way. I love it so.

    I cannot deny its often unspoken, unknown, downplayed historical aspects (which are discussed in this article). But it’s come a very long way and, though you compare it to selective assimilation into a continuing colonization of sorts, a viewpoint I can certainly understand in the large picture, I also want to say that maybe it IS /changing/. Slowly and reluctantly, sure, but it is changing. As people are finally listening to the eons-long cries for diversity and inclusion, classical music in the traditional Western way is at the very least reaching to hold hands with non-Western music and genuine influences. I’m a teenager in a youth orchestra, have been for years (this is not an appeal to credibility, just an explanation of where I am), and every Sunday when we get together in Oakland to rehearse, I look around the room to see other youths of every ethnicity and background coming together to make music that we love. This is not to say we think it’s better than other forms of music, or that we’re ignorant of the way our ancestors had their names erased, their voices spoken over, or aspects of their culture “borrowed” to taste in the making of the said music. At the very least, the very basic, and the most fundamental – we love it because it sounds beautiful. We discuss the background of our pieces with the conductor (a man of color, too) before fully settling to perform, and more often than not we acknowledge the darker aspects to their histories. We also make sure to reach out to local artist-in-residence and composers, etc. of varied ethnic backgrounds for our concert sets.

    We can’t uproot classical music entirely, though its sins are definitely there – stupid reason or not, it’s beautiful and many are too attached from the years to give it up. In a world learning bit by bit to recognize past and ongoing pains suffered by minority groups, the most we can do is continue to spread awareness, and work to connect it to music of various other cultures as equals, not inferiors. Fusion is not the same thing as assimilation.

    I, a girl of color, can’t tear myself away from classical music. But like I listen to, say, John Lennon, but do so while acknowledging (openly and without trying to make excuses for) his history of abuse, I do the same for this.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  20. Doug

    I appreciate your thoughts, and willingness to articulate them in a manner and forum sure to generate some heady pushback. I think this piece could better argue the case, though, with a little more clarity, construction, and examples. After reading the piece multiple times, I’m still unclear exactly what you consider “classical music,” and “whiteness.”Without a clear and consistent use of what we’re letting die, I’m hesitate to support its euthanization

    At times in this piece, “classical music” refers strictly to the literal music, e.g., compositions, those who make the music, e.g., composers and performance musicians, and the larger cultural structures supporting music, e.g., symphonies, conservatories and the like. Each component contains unique and distinct issues related to race and culture, but lumping them all together muddles up the ability to understand and act upon those issues.

    And the same goes with”whiteness.” Throughout the piece, “whiteness” refers to all of western civilization, American white culture (redundant statement, I suppose), western Europe, the white people in those systems, white musicians and composers, and many other iterations. But do Hungarians like Bartok and Liszt operate in the same system of whiteness as Russians like Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky? Or, rather did Liszt and Tchaikovsky operate in the same systems of 19th century whiteness, while Shostakovich and Bartok operate in 20th century structures of whiteness?

    White people, white Americans at least, have given up many cultural and historical ties by simply identifying as while. But that identification – white and nothing else – only really exists among whites in the U.S. This is not to say Europe lacks its own troubling issues with white nationalism. But simply that musicians and composers in Italy, Ireland, and Greece certainly explore the history and musical influences of their cultures.

    All of this is to say, I suppose, is this piece, while discussing topics as important to discuss as often avoided, lacks the nuance on musical and racial matters necessary to properly digest the subjects and impart change.

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  21. BJH

    I appreciate the author’s effort to tackle a broad, timely and difficult subject by being open and vulnerable. That takes courage. I must agree with some of the criticism above, however. This article is based on broad and sweeping generalizations and premises that require more exact description in order to hold up to rational scrutiny. Most glaringly to me is this term “whiteness”. Some of us may need a clearer definition of what it means in order to process the author’s arguments fully. I think this is especially necessary for white readership, whose experiential framework may make it difficult to see the situation from the author’s perspective despite their best of efforts. I for one am part of that white readership. I acknowledge the limitations of my perspective, and have a genuine desire to see through the author’s lens as best I can.

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  22. Ben

    I found this article exasperating to read. There may be some good points in here, but they’re obscured by sloppy generalities, confused construction, and essentially what comes down to poor writing. Perhaps worst of all, it sets up the inevitable bind in which anyone who objects to the arguments, sentiments, or even to some technical of the article is painted a bigot, white supremacist, racist, etc. As some others have pointed, there’s just a confusion of terms, between the general and the particular, between categories.

    It sounds like the author has found a platform and direction in which to develop his musical voice, and I’m glad to hear it. I hope he and many others like him from all traditions and walks of life will contribute dynamically and amazingly to this thing we call “new music.” And I hope we can find constructive and clear-eyed ways to identify and diagnose the aspects of our institutions that are (knowingly or unknowingly) constructing barriers.

    Reply
  23. Will Wilkin

    The comments here bring me great heart that I am not alone in seeing identity politics as exacerbating and entrenching social divisions that are at best dysfunctional in modern society. I wish Nebal Maysaud well, though I find his articles disturbing as literally the most racialist (and therefore racist) and corrosive ideas I’ve read since reading about the teachings of Nation of Islam leader Elija Muhammad decades ago when I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I still recall reading also how, before Malcolm split from the Nation of Islam, he had met with KKK leadership to somehow find a way to advance their parallel agendas of racial separatism, something which I detect here in this bizarre article.

    As a former marxist revolutionary (who now considers myself apolitical, now both liberal and conservative…and neither….rather just human) I understand from my own youthful thinking decades ago how easy and comforting it can be to see everything in an ideolological way that makes the thinker feel assured of “deep understanding” and moral superiority while criticizing society. I have since found my way to what I believe is a much less “comprehensive” (though much more accurate) and much more human and genuinely historical approach: do not judge other times and places (and their people) by the standards of today’s politics, and do not let ideology block a continuous questioning and changing of one’s own understanding. Instead of condemning all western civilization because a contemporary (and ultimately and inevitably simplistic) ideology does not accept the ethics and ideas that ran through its history, I try to find older functional explanations for those social ideas and practices that might not be as functional now as they were when they emerged. I hope Mr. Maysaud will somehow find peace and happiness, and continue to grow into more mature and subtle understandings and feelings about this civilization and culture we share, maybe someday to look back on his present writings as a phase he had to go through to give full consideration to the dominant ideas of this moment on his way to something more constructive and satisfying than agitating for racial separation and destruction of what he hatefully labels as white culture. Only time will tell…some thinkers continuously change while others ossify.

    Meanwhile I’ll search for articles on music that are actually about MUSIC!

    Reply
  24. Lance Hulme

    I am certainly empathetic to the author’s experience, if perhaps not to the violence of the conclusions. As a theory professor with predominantly Black non-classical students, I am acutely aware the western European “classical” tradition does not represent their musical heritage and my focus is on the motivations (restless innovation) and techniques (functional harmony, counterpoint, development, etc.) which that tradition developed which can and have been absorbed into other musical traditions. My concert series recently featured a Libyan oud performer whose original composition used Classical-era developmental techniques. Last night, I danced the night away in a bar in Asheville with Afro-pop group which invited community members – including one with a didgeridoo – to join in. It may indeed reveal a patronistric bias, but I get excited seeing where we go forward in an attitude of open acceptance and curiosity.

    Reply
  25. Aiden Feltkamp

    I’m really disheartened, but not surprised, by most of the comments on this post. Nebal’s piece is well-structured and realistic. Black, indigenous, and artists of color in the classical realm face huge barriers. Not only does our music education leave out almost all of their contributions to the art form, but contemporary symphony orchestras very rarely perform their works. According to the Institute of Composer Diversity’s breakdown of the last season, only 6% of the works performed were by composers from underrepresented racial, ethnic, and cultural heritages. (https://www.composerdiversity.com/orchestra-seasons)

    All of these stats and realities aside, the comments here and on Facebook show that racism is a massive issue in our industry. I suggest listening to our BIPOC artists instead of getting defensive. I suggest educating yourselves on the structures of racism in our society and learning to advocate for underrepresented composers instead of attacking or dismissing them the moment they speak up. We all have something to learn.

    A good starting place: So you want to talk about race? by Ijeoma Oluo

    Reply
  26. John Kennedy

    Somehow it seems in the bleakness of the Trump era that the forms of resistance and cultural critique take on our selves and our own practices. I may wish for all the privileged energy debating this to instead be directed at the white men in Washington wreaking havoc on the rights of other people, but I read this piece and its viewpoints as part of the important churn that fuels moments of profound cultural reassessment. That said, to me, dialogues involving “race” only sustain the oppressive cultural hegemony paradigm, because race is a false construct. There are four blood types we all share and skin color is in the chromosomes, and if we believe in moving towards a liberated global culture, then the tribalisms of ethnicity need to be renounced before we can progressively fix the wrongs that have been sustained through those paradigms.

    The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl was a white man, but he said “There is no such thing as bad music. Just the fact that it’s music is so positive.” We can disagree and joke about that, but to me the spirit of his statement is important. Music is not the enemy.

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  27. Malesha

    This piece of writing is so needed. It articulates so many things I have not been able to get out of my head, but I have experienced for the entirety of my involvement in classical music. From the very beginning, when I started learning piano at 7 years old to my 37 year old self doing a recital, I have felt all of these things and not been able to articulate it. BRAVO. This article made me scream out loud. Please continue this conversation and DO NOT STOP. It is the Truth. And for those who have no experience with the statements made in this article, please take a moment to Listen.

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  28. Jian

    Why is classical music mostly a product of white men? Probably because it historically is a product of white men. How is this being overlooked? In the modern era multiculturalism is taught to be a wonderful thing, and that all cultures and backgrounds and that all peoples are to be respected. But for some curious reason this excludes those of European descent and the fruits of European culture. Why is this? Why is it that those preaching the virtues of multiculturalism prove themselves time and again to be racists, and to devalue the culture of Europeans? In their myopic worldview, Europeans are not allowed to take part in or take pride in any of their cultural achievements, and in short, that if they don’t hand them over wholesale to non-Europeans and vanish without a trace then by default they’re somehow concocting some manner of inviolable evil. It is absurd how far this toxic argument has come. Do you think people in China would accept being told by a non-Chinese that we must destroy our own culture for you? Music is universal. Anyone can take part in it, and the West has gone out of its way to open its doors and share its culture including its music. It has become the most tolerant society on Earth. Yet you’re effectively arguing one huge facet of their culture and history should be destroyed simply because persons of non-European descent are now allowed to participate. You’re basically saying we should have been kept out, and that Europeans would have been right to exclude and be exclusionary. If you genuinely believe this, then I invite you to leave. Others, like myself, will happily continue playing.

    Reply
  29. Will

    Interesting essay, but I think you may be a little detached generationally. Young classical musicians who actually make it are continually less white and less hetero. I think space has opened up for these musicians, who will Ben given the reigns, at least creatively.
    Maybe a more appropriate target would be arts administration. Classical music itself is never going anywhere, despite the wails of people who claim it’s dying. It’s not any less popular now than it was 50 years ago. Arts administration is nearly all white and all female, with men somehow ending up in top positions. They are the ones who uphold the wall between classical music and the classes (which are inextricably linked to race). If we can abolish the fundraising system, we can increase access.

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  30. Garrett McQueen

    Dear Nebal,

    I want to thank you for writing this. For the past year or so, I’ve been looking for “freedom”, and your words perfectly outline so many of my concerns as a black classical musician. I’d love to interview you on this topic for my new classical music podcast, TRILLOQUY! I hope that we can find a time to chat – thank you for opening yourself up, and for doing your part in cultivating a community to dismantle the oppressive institutions surrounding classical music.

    Best,

    Garrett McQueen

    Reply
  31. Gordon H. Williams

    Thank you for the article Nebal. I do not imagine that this was an easy piece to write or share, so I appreciate your courage in doing so. I am hopeful that we can work together as a community to address the issues that you are bringing attention to in your article.

    Reply
  32. E.J. Tulson

    There are some very good arguments in this essay. There are also some very flawed ones. While classical music may have it’s roots in times of white elitism, it has evolved to much more. You mentioned that the romantic period is where racism began to truly manifest itself in Western music, but I believe quite the opposite. During that era, people were encouraged to contribute to the art they love in any way they felt they could, to break free from all rules. I believe that stands today. If you’ve studied 20th century music you’ll know anyone can compose anything, and it could barely even be called a culture. Asking people to step away from all other cultures to only embrace your own is just creating segregation again. If you love music, it’s because you’re a human. If you happen to be black, it doesn’t matter. Music is for everyone. People should be allowed to explore other cultures and even participate in them respectfully. There is American music, and you can be a part of it. You are free to develop your own style with any influences of whatever culture you wish – but it doesn’t have to be a new culture. You can call it Western music, and it is your unique style. It is music from the Western world. That’s the only viable definition. You say you love classical music but it should die. This is perhaps the most flawed view here. If you love certain music, listen to it! It exists for many reason, but hating black people is not what makes music good. If you want people to tolerate your “new culture” then you should also tolerate the classical Western music traditions.

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  33. ted

    Composers write what they hear. I was listening to Copland when I read your piece here. Fine music, like Copland’s, will never die. Copland grew up in a conservative Jewish family. Look at his history, which he could not have chosen. How would he have gotten color into his music? I have written my own music now for 50 years. I probably would sound to you like the sound I hear in my head. And it came naturally. However it comes, I write it down. To hear you say: “Time to let classical music die”, is laughable. Artists don’t choose what they create. They just create it as they are moved. Do you really think Mozart, raised in ultra-white Germany, will ever die? Not likely, not ever. Don’t believe everything you think, Nebal, because the human mind creates some ridiculous ideas that should be examined and discarded. I know that after 70 years. I’ve abandoned many erroneous ideas. I don’t care about any artist’s color. I care about the art he or she creates. If music sounds good to me, for me it is good. And I will spend my life making it live.

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  34. Eve

    Oh, good grief. If classical music could be “let to die” on its own you wouldn’t be writing this. You obviously want to throw open the shades, tear down all the curtains, and sweep away all the cobwebs of what you believe to be an unacceptable source of enjoyment for a diverse group of people. That shows a puritanical, revisionist ferver, not “letting something die.”
    You obviously don’t know Beethoven was part black along with Chevalier de Saint-Georges, aka “Black Mozart” (1745-1799),
    George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Marian Anderson, William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds, Paul Robeson and Florence B. Price. I hope you know about Scott Joplin! Tchaikovsky was gay, as was Franz Schubert, Handel, Aaron Copland, and Francis Poulenc. There aren’t as many female composers, but some of them are quite well known: Clara Wieck (Schumann), Hildegard von Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn to name a few.
    The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, headed now by an African-American, does outreach to the schoolchildren of Baltimore and they’re not doing that to promote “whiteness.” Do you know what? People of all ethnicities really like the stuff and contribute to it. “Whiteness” is a slippery term, apparently encompassing everything you hate, but your reality is just that – only yours. Also, “classical music” was popular in its day. YOU are the one investing it with “whiteness” and a formality it was never supposed to have. Paganini and Liszt were rock stars in their days. I suppose you’d get rid of Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson because they are now “passe?” Would you do away with ballet too (so much for the City Children’s Nutcracker held in Minneapolis featuring ordinary kids from diverse backgrounds), and opera (we just lost Jessye Norman) just because they are also, according to you, “white?” If you’re going to get rid of everything “white” why not do away with televisions too, and airplanes, and every other thing “white” people invented?
    You will get older, and life with look less, er, black-and-white than it does now. Then hopefully you’ll see music as the unifier it is and won’t be such a Carrie Nation [warning: she was a white woman too] about it.

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  35. TJ Martin

    I would argue that the powers that be within classical music controlling the money and by inference the majority of classical radio airplay , concerts , festivals etc are inherently prejudiced against anyone ( including white contemporary composers such as myself ) who doe not stick to the script as they see it . Not only that they are equally as prejudiced against string instrument makers – insisting half dead Strads etc are so vastly superior to anything made today that no ‘ serious ‘ or successful string player would ever perform on anything but one of the holy trinity string instruments … which conveniently the powers that be own because the price of those instruments has exceeded the incomes of even the superstar performers … making it easier for those powers to control the repertoire of all performers they’ve loaned their ‘ collector ‘ instruments to .

    I would also argue ( from first hand knowledge ) that not only are the powers that be within classical music at the very least bigoted if not racist … but that they are also extremely ‘ Class Oriented ‘ By that I mean that regardless of talent and abilities a musicians path to success is almost solely dependent on who with and where he/she studied etc

    So though the author has a point … albeit a somewhat exaggerated , overly generalized , under informed , excessively biased and politically correct point … his premise is lacking substance missing out on the simple fact that classical music is and has been a bigoted class oriented genre that neither tolerates nor encourages diversity creativity ( seriously how many times must we record yet another Bach Chaccone ) since the late 1800’s becoming an inbred travesty of its former self that the great composers would sneer at from the grave if it were physiologically possible for them to do so

    e.g. The problems with classical music extend far beyond any individual , race or class …. and as age and maturity will teach you .. if you’re going to confront such a cluster of problems one needs to look well beyond one’s self … looking at the broader picture before attempting to define … never mind mitigate the problem .

    In conclusion .. classical music does not need to die .. it needs to get back to being the ever evolving art form that it once was with the addition of both race and gender inclusion

    Reply

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