Part 1: How is gender reflected in “new music” and classical music?
What is “new music?” Why do most orchestras and chamber groups play such a small percentage of it? Why is there so little diversity in the identities of the composers we perform?
Before I was part of UMS’s Marketing Team, I studied double bass and clarinet at the University of Michigan. Most days, I toed the line, practicing standard repertoire to prepare for auditions. While doing so, I realized that every composer I learned about was dead. Every composer was a man. Every composer was white. Every composer was from Europe. Once in a while, I would play something not on the standard audition list! I’d play something new — and by that I mean, written after the 1950’s. Even then, most of the composers I come across were white men from Europe or the United States.
I wanted to find out about other women’s experiences at the University of Michigan, so I asked several recent graduates and current students to share their thoughts about diversity in the arts, and about performing, creating, and listening to new music.
Annika Socolofsky, vocalist, fiddler, and composer
What makes music “old” or “new?”
I think there’s often this dichotomy created around the concept of “old” and “new” music. But in reality, time is continuous–there is no old and new, there’s just music. And I think that maintaining that notion of a dichotomy only hurts music. It says, “These old guys are from another world, another time,” and it simultaneously says, “This new music is different. It doesn’t have melodies, harmonies, or meter in the styles that I am used to.” Of course there is no point in time that labels something old and something else new. Often times Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky are presented as “new music,” but Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is over a century old! Why is it being presented as new? Is it because it’s dissonant? Decidedly non-romantic?
I think the music being created today is more diverse and genre-obliterating than ever before. It’s a really exciting time to be creating because we are not bound to the notion of harmony or melody or rhythm in the way that composers once were.
Noniko Hsu, flutist
Do you have a preference for “old” or “new” music?
I think that for performers and audience members alike, playing old and new music is equally important. I’m always excited to play music that is inspiring, tells the audience a story, and means something to me on a personal level. In the end, both new and classical music were created by composers to inspire people through all ages. The problem I see with the lack of diversity in the identities of composers we perform is that we mistake what the listeners really want. People go to a concert for an experience; it can be comforting, challenging, or moving, and how we achieve that as performers can vary. We sometimes mistakenly think that we can easily satisfy music listeners by playing them music they already know and love. This can be true in some ways, but if we can start from the point of view of storytelling, we will have a more colorful palette to play with in terms of which composers we choose!
Mackenzie Sato, percussionist and teacher
What is the role of a K-12 teacher in presenting a broad range of pieces to their classes?
As a band and orchestra teacher, repertoire is really the cornerstone of my performance curriculum. However, only recently have I become comfortable breaking away from the classical music “canon” and teaching music that incorporates not only new, 20th century composers, but also late classical composers of color and female composers.
I think that composing music is a kind of culmination of experience, so to introduce new experiences to my classroom allows my students to ask questions we may not otherwise cover. For example, when one student pointed out that we only played one piece by a female composer that year, she asked why we didn’t play more pieces composed by women. I asked her to name 3 famous women composers. Not surprisingly, she couldn’t. This opened a long conversation about the different kinds of expectations, opportunity, and identity validity society has for men and women, for whites and people of color.
So after a little research, my students found that as time has moved forward, more identities–more experiences–have appeared in the compositions in recent years. Do they like all of their pieces? No, not necessarily (20th century music has allowed us to talk about the trajectory of music theory and history quite nicely). But, as they are all students of color, they’re interested, because music is starting to welcome other identities besides white men. They begin to see themselves in the music in a different way. And that certainly doesn’t mean that we don’t love to listen to Bach or Brahms or Wagner, but it does allow some the perspective to enjoy different kinds of music, which is really all I can hope for as a teacher.
Pavitra Ramachandran, vocalist
Can you share a moment when you learned something new about “new music?”
I used to be incredibly hesitant about performing new music. I always thought new music was mostly atonal, and I am someone who loves a melodic framework that a composer expands upon. However, when I heard Songs from Letters by Libby Larson, I was awestruck. The work may be atonal, but the modal structure of the piece evoked a nostalgic expression and such intense emotion. As described by the title, in this work Larson borrowed text from letters written by Calamity Jane, a cowgirl from the Wild West who was separated from her daughter. These letters were composed to connect with her daughter and retell her life story. I sang this piece at my graduate recital and worked very hard to embody her powerful struggle. The response was overwhelming. My advice to those wary of new music is: “You never know until you try.”
As a woman of color, how do you reconcile that a majority of the music you perform is created by European men?
Sometimes I actually like music from the canon a bit more than contemporary music. Brahms, Mahler, Verdi, and French impressionism speak to me, emotionally, in a way much modern music doesn’t. The leading role of melody and harmony — as opposed to story painting, sound effects. or dissonance — connects to things I feel but don’t know how to say.
When they were composing, many of these composers were writing about very serious life issues: death, exile, political extremism. Their works were positive outlets for the frustration, anger, and depression of ignored, marginalized, and persecuted community members. Their experiences parallel the highly polarized political and cultural situation I find myself living in today.
By participating in the classical music scene, I am actively rejecting and disproving the notion that classical music is “white people music;” my participation says “I am here,” and it demands the kind of social responsibility and diversity outreach that other institutions have been working on for far longer than mainstream classical music has. If I’m not in the audience, the music school, or the sheet music store then they don’t have to worry about who is on their stage, faculty, or shelves. Who else will call on them to address the absence of people who look like me?
Tsukumo Niwa, oboist
Why do you want to play new compositions or styles of performance?
Composers tell narratives through their music which performers interpret and retell. As someone who engages in social justice work as well as classical music, I always struggle with the reality that almost all of the main ‘narratives’ for my instrument are provided by dead white European men. Even though I appreciate the beauty of their music, I also find myself not wanting to recreate the stories of eurocentrism and (cis)sexism which are already too ubiquitous in our daily lives. That’s why I want to perform new compositions, and learn new styles of performance. I want to tell my own stories and enhance the stories of others who are often silenced or ignored.