“We write symphonies.” – Donald Trump
This relatively subtle bit of white nationalist sentiment is quoted from a speech given by Trump in Warsaw in 2017. The soundbite made headlines because of its context within a paranoid xenophobic rant on forces “from the South or the East” undermining Western values. Although tame by comparison to his other statements, as a composer, I couldn’t help but feel personally involved by his choice of words.
The underlying meaning is predicated on two falsehoods. The first is that “we” (Europeans and Americans) are ubiquitously descended from and indebted to Western tradition. The second falsehood is that the product or aesthetic of Western tradition is of higher value than others. The symphony as a rhetorical symbol for the accomplishments of the Western world excludes huge bodies of work, particularly those of non-white and non-male composers. It assumes the superiority of Beethoven’s 9th over Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. Mahler over Monk. Brahms over Bjork. Elgar over Gwar.
And based on their concert programming, it appears that most major orchestras agree with Mr. Trump. According to a survey of the top 21 American orchestras, only 3.4% of pieces programmed in the 2018-19 season are written by women. The statistics for racial minorities are similarly distressing with New York, Chicago and LA each programming only 4% for their total season. There is an exclusive club of dead white male composers whose works are prioritized over a more diverse group of contemporary composers. This is caused in part by a prevailing aesthetic conservatism which regulates the tools of “legitimate” expression.
In 2018, Kendrick Lamar’s album Damn won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, sparking controversy among composers. Although the Pulitzer Prize had been awarded to jazz artists in the past, (in 1997 to Wynton Marsalis and in 1999 to Duke Ellington who was denied the prize in 1965 and received it posthumously) this was its first time awarded to a rap artist. Traditionally reserved for contemporary “classical” compositions, that is to say, music performed mainly on acoustic instruments in a concert hall setting, the inclusion of Lamar’s work challenged an outlook of cultural elitism. Although it’s a step in the right direction for the Pulitzer, it’s about forty years late in recognizing the validity of rap as art music.
In some circles, Lamar’s work was met with criticisms of vulgarity and simplicity. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a 6 voice canon titled Leck mich im Arsch “lick me in the arse” (k. 231). But the same standards don’t seem to apply. Complexity can depend upon what you’re listening for. The intricacy of Beethoven’s melodic development is balanced with a very limited timbral palette by comparison to a digitally produced rap album.
No one is trying to topple the monuments to Mozart. But we must be actively making room for today’s artists. Holding a classical-romantic European aesthetic as a standard continues a colonialist disregard for the heritage of critical portions of the population. It limits our ability to hear other voices at their true intensity.
As audience members and as artists, we need to consider how tightly we cling to Western tradition and what that excludes from our experience. Can we listen with the same sincerity to a Salsa band as we do to a string orchestra? Can we challenge our notions of beauty, form and process to hear the morning commute with the same depth of awe as a Mahler Adagio? Can we set the same assumption of value and craft to other cultures’ artists as we do to our own?
If we can learn to listen inclusively, we can learn to think inclusively. We can find new empathy and innovation. We can write far more than just symphonies.
Works by Jacob Elkin: