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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper


Updated: Sep 6, 2020

One Small School's Efforts

Preamble: I teach music history and literature at Southwestern University (SU) , a small Liberal Arts university about thirty miles north of Austin, Texas. Like most of Higher Education in the U.S., and despite some appreciable improvements in the situation, SU remains very much a White space -- and this is arguably all the more so of our Music program, which centers on the undergraduate core "classical" canon, arguably one of the Whitest of all spaces in U.S. culture generally.

A few years ago, with a new cohort of students in whom I perceived a different spirit, a special eagerness to challenge themselves outside rather than inside established parameters in order to do better so that they can do more good for their world, I undertook a broad-based experiment that would play out over the four back-to-back semesters of Music History that most SU Music majors have to take. We are now in the fourth and final semester of that experiment. While the final results are yet to be seen and we all have our work cut out for us following through on what we started back then, I am optimistic that in adopting an antiracist stance and moving forward in their own futures as performers, teachers, and listeners, this cohort will prove to be a generation of hope. These students are admittedly few in number, but they have greatness within them -- the opportunity to transform the soundscapes of U.S. music's future from (often-excellent, sometimes less so) rehearsals of the specific brand of greatness that Brandon Keith Brown labeled "sonic refuges of Whiteness" into a broader, more inclusive and equitable, and even greater sonic refuge for the joys of the musical art as envoicings of the human spirit in all its joyously diverse and brilliant manifestations.

What follows is the assignment I've given this extraordinary cohort for one of our classes this next week (lightly adapted for context). The theme for this semester's course is "Freedom, Movement, and Migration in Music." While I unapologetically focus the course on "classical" musics -- specifically in order to challenge head-on the never-stated but powerfully implied widespread assumption that BlPOC don't write concert music, but also because our Music Literature sequence is designed to be of a piece with our broader Music curriculum, which is centered on concert music. (Also, the assumption that POC don't write concert music is fueled by the tokenizing and/or omission of music by POC that pervades U.S. concert-music instruction, and I have no desire whatsoever to be a part of that problem.)

Enough of that. Here's the assignment. (The "we" refers to our cohort as a whole.) (Also, responses welcome):

Preface: As we begin this class, recall our discussion of the canon near the beginning of MUL I. Recall how I asked you, near the beginning of MUL I, to list every composer and every piece of concert (“classical”) music you could think of; how we then surveyed our names and pieces and talked about what we saw and did not see there; and how we then observed that hardly anybody knew of any BlPOC composers (or composers of color, for that matter) and how hardly anyone knew any actual music by any BlPOC or composers of color generally. Without much difficulty, we agreed as a class that we did not believe that there have been no great BlPOC composers; nor did we believe that there are no great works by POC; nor did we believe that the White composers (most of them men, most of these European) whose names and music we all know possessed any kind of “key” to musical greatness or significance that had somehow eluded women and composers of color generally – except, of course, that they were White men. We then agreed (is this coming back to you?) that we found history’s exclusion of women and POC from the canon of music that is taught, learned, performed, and studied to be deeply troubling, a problem. And we as a class resolved that we wanted to be part of the solution to that problem of the exclusionary canon, not a part of it.

We made real progress on that front in our MUL II and MUL III classes, achieving something approaching real (50/50) gender parity in the repertoire and/or performances we studied, as well as a stronger and less tokenizing appreciation of the contributions of composers of color than either your textbooks or anthologies achieved.

However, the events of the spring and summer of 2020 – especially the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and of course many others (including violinist Elijah McClain as well as the attack on Jacob Blake) – have lent new fuel to the community of scholars and other musicians of good will who have realized that the problem of racism is embedded into the worlds of concert music at such a deep level that it, like any system, will self-perpetuate ad infinitum unless we specifically apply diligent and sustained effort toward solving it, curing it: just as our world now desperately needs a cure for COVID-19 (with more than 188,000 deaths as I write – at least a thousand more humans will have died in the U.S. by the time this class meets five days from now), and just as a cure for this deadly plague can be found only through sustained, diligent, hard work, so, too, will we – the community of antiracist people of good will – have to look hard at the cultures of concert music, its histories, and how systemic racism has embedded itself in its core ideologies, in order to be a part of the solution rather than the problem – the problem, in the words of Berlin-based Black conductor Brandon Keith Brown, that allows “classical concerts [to] continue to exist as a sonic refuge of Whiteness [emphasis added].”

So let’s get to work.

Today we’ll start by reading a superbly documented, thoughtful, and brutally honest piece by Mark MacNamara about classical music’s systemic racism. Here is that piece. Read it thoroughly, carefully, thoughtfully – and whenever you have an immediate, knee-jerk response that would argue with one of his intentionally provocative statements, first remember that immediate, reflexive responses are a primary symptom of deeply embedded assumptions that, rationally examined, might not hold up so well. So then examine that response rationally: find the fault of the statement not by asking a rhetorical question, posing a whataboutism, or evasive holisms (“just because [x], that doesn’t mean [y),”) but by rephrasing that question’s answer as a statement, focusing on the subject at hand, and insisting that evidence must be refuted, not just rebutted, to be invalidated.Use your mind, not your reflexes – because the latter are conditioned, and conditioning is where racism lives.

Read MacNamara’s piece, prepare to discuss it and apply it to what we’ve learned in MUL I, II, and III. Next week we’ll turn up the heat.

TODAY’S ASSIGNMENT: Here’s the link to MacNamara’s piece: Mark MacNamara, “The Last Water Fountain: The Struggle against Systemic Racism in Classical Music,” San Francisco Classical Voice, 1 September 2020). (accessed 5 September, 2020).

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