Wednesday, March 16, 2016

On Music/Art Pedagogy, Integration, and the Institution's Role in Creating Change

The Sphinx Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra

So I had this idea for a pedagogical article or blog post or some such on how to integrate people of color into classical music courses. I was going to point out that even if the recording you're going to play in class is straight-up Mozart, you can always show someone who does not look like Mozart singing it, like Reri Grist:
Reri Grist at the Salzburg Festival in 1966 performing in Le Nozze di Figaro

Speaking of opera singers: it's really not that hard to find a diverse array of opera singers to secretly sneak into your classes. Marian Anderson, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, tenor Ramon Vargas, Leontyne Price, and soprano Sumi Jo are a few that come to mind. You can then also casually ask your student what they might know about said singer - where they grew up, where they trained and studied, etc.

You can of course also play this game with instrumentalists: Yo Yo Ma, Sphinx Orchestra recordings, etc.

Additionally, if you're going to give students an example of sonata form or a rondo, you can always turn to composers of color from the past to give a quick demo. In other words, you can have your cake and eat it, too: feel free to play that Beethoven piano sonata because it IS so canonical (and effing awesome) while also supplementing your canonical material with other works.

Another idea: you can show how other composers utilized well-known and historical musical techniques for their own compositions. If you're talking about 19th-century German choral music, for example, you can point out how some of the colors and textures of choral arrangements found their way in the music of African American composer Nathaniel Dett. Why and how did he utilize them? What did he find useful in historical choral arrangements that he wanted to incorporate into his music?

Here's what I'm trying to say to be entirely blunt about it: if you manage to teach an entire classical music class without a single person of color in it, that mess is on you. Because it's not that hard to find ways to add different performers and composers to your class. You just weren't looking. And by not looking, by not even trying to look, you ended up reifying Western art music as white, everything else as Other, and encouraging your students to do that, too.

I'm not a fan of having one day or one concert dedicated to "The Music of Mexican Composers" or "African American Concert Music," either. Especially if that's the only way audiences are going to hear them. That smacks of tokenizing. Integrate that stuff into your courses and into your concert halls, people!

So that's what I was going to write about....

...And then I discovered this article by a music professor named Lucius R. Wyatt, called "The Inclusion of Concert Music of African American Composers in Music History Courses." And do you know when it's from? 1996.




Wyatt had already proposed this. He'd already promoted these very same ideas. But using less angry language.

So how are we in the same position today that we were in twenty years ago? And more importantly, how do we get out of it?

A Day of the Dead altar on display at Harvard's Peabody Museum

I've been having a conversation with a colleague of mine who works in Museum Studies, and she pointed me to a really great collection of essays in the journal, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics. Several years ago, scholars and curators from several museums got together to ask the question: how do we bring together art, archeology, and anthropology in the museum?

The reason why they were concerned with this question has to do with how Western museums have historically understood the difference between art objects and anthropological objects. The decision to place an object from Nigeria in an anthropology museum instead of in an art museum was sometimes quite arbitrary, and revealed clear Western biases in aesthetics ("this isn't art because it's not an oil painting;" "even though this is actually a really important local religious object, it's pretty so let's place it in an art museum anyway even though that's not it's function").

The editors Ivan Gaskell and Jeffrey Quilter ask the questions, "Why are some things admitted as art while others are excluded? Who is entitled to decide what constitutes art and what should be treated as anthropological material? Do things look different from other cultural viewpoints, and, if so, how might those viewpoints be represented in both art and anthropology museums?" (RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 52, Museums: Crossing Boundaries (Autumn, 2007 ), p. 5)

One of the conclusions drawn from this conference was that the institution that's best suited to try to change how the public interacts with objects is the university museum. As Henry S. Kim explains, "Whereas most nonuniversity museums must relate to a wide public audience, university museums have a natural group of key stakeholders who engage with them in direct dialogues, between specialists in objects and their counterparts in the faculties, between experts and the students they teach. Perhaps the most important responsibility of a university museum is the role it can play in teaching the undergraduate and graduate curricula." (RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 52, Museums: Crossing Boundaries (Autumn, 2007 ), p. 45)

Not beholden to the public, the university museum is the most free to take risks, and the most able to shape the next generation of curators and art directors, too.

Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is an example of this call to re-arrange objects and place new ones together put into action. They deliberately re-organized their museum spaces, placed different objects in conversation with one another outside of the usual geographic boundaries, and provided lots of new descriptions to re-contextualize the objects viewers saw on display.

That's all great for art historians, anthropologists, and archeologists, but how does this relate to musicology?

I'm wondering what might constitute a risk-free space for music schools to try something similar. What would that space look like? Who has to be on board in order for this project of diversifying the music curriculum to be carried out? According to the authors in this special issue of RES, it's the university art school or music school that's in the best place to radically try something new. What institutions, what spaces and places, are in the best positions to try out something different?

Yes, there's the traditional concert hall at a music school. But I'm already imagining the complaints that would come of that ("students are there to train so they can join an orchestra. They need to learn the standard repertoire."). And the point isn't to stop students from playing Debussy, is it? The point is to put Debussy's music in conversation with other musics, and to find ways to support people of different backgrounds who want to play Debussy, too.

And yes, we can focus on teaching new works in the classroom, but the lesson learned from Harvard's Peabody Museum is that you need to have both the classroom setting and the museum space working together to shape new conversations on art and aesthetics.

What does it take to create radical change in the classroom and in the concert hall? To answer this question, it is worth thinking seriously about the institution's role in intervening in aesthetic discourses, in shaping or challenging what we teach and how we teach it, in interrogating what we love and why we love it. Art museums, concert halls, music schools, and universities create the structures for affirming or negating what we know, love, and understand.

Which institutions have tried to overhaul their music history programs? Which ones are currently struggling with this question and working out their own solutions? I'm curious to hear your reports back.  I'm all for a variety of positions on this topic. I just want to know that institutions are trying.


  1. Also note often arbitrary art/craft definitions deployed to make men artists and women crafters.

  2. YES. This is also a huge gender problem, too. Thanks for bringing that up!