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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper

TAKE THE CHALLENGE: GIVE THE CHALLENGE

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

The disruption in day-to-day life wrought by the global COVID-19 pandemic has been profound, and the full extent of its consequences won’t be known for some time. For us to fantasize about a “return” to normal is natural. But we should also remember that the “normal” whose return we fantasize about had plenty of problems – many of them longstanding and seemingly intractable.


So maybe the catastrophe of COVID-19 is also an opportunity, a disruption of problems as well as desirable things. That’s an intriguing scenario, because problems are never so easily remedied as when they’re disrupted. Disrupting problems is a good thing.


Here’s an example from the world of concert music (“classical music”), together with a challenge: for nearly a century musicians have been grappling with the seemingly unshakeable stranglehold that the traditional Western concert canon, overwhelmingly populated as it is by men, most of them dead and most of them European, has exerted on musical life – not only in the world of recordings, but also in the concert hall, in lessons, and in the academic classroom. It is unaccountable that “only” 249 recordings of a given Beethoven or Mozart symphony or “only” seventy-five recordings of the Mozart/Süssmaier Requiem are somehow “not enough,” that we need another recording or performance of those pieces, and that we feel more comfortable making that 250th recording or giving that 76th performance (this year) than we would be in making the first recording or giving the first few performances of a work by someone who, somehow, managed to create wonderful music even though she was not European, not male, and so on. (The sarcasm should be palpable.)


Yet that’s what has passed for “normal." And we neither need nor want to return to it.


But most of the venues that have felt compelled to perpetuate the canon’s stranglehold on modern life are now at a virtual standstill. That is a golden opportunity, unprecedented in our lifetimes, to break free of that stranglehold – to let voices come forth that have been corralled into the sidelines as we exercised our addiction to already-familiar sounds in the dead-white-European-male (DWEM)-canon-dominated “normal” world. Now that concerts are being reprogrammed, curricula are being rethought, and musical instruction reframed in the wake of the changed circumstances made necessary by the COVID-19 cataclysm, it is easier than ever before to break free of the canon, to learn new music and let those previously silenced voices be heard.


So I gave it a shot. Here’s what I did:


I gave my students a challenge. I told them to take advantage of this caesura in musical life to find a composer and/or a piece of music they never knew existed, then to learn it and learn to love and understand it, and then, finally, to perform it when things return to “normal” one of these days.


They’ve started doing it, and I've gotten excited e-mails and other reports with subject lines such as “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!,” supplemented by reports on whatever it is they’ve discovered. The rewards of un-silencing those voices, my very good students are learning, are immense. They are delighted and surprised. IMSLP.org is a wonderful resource in times like this: some students used that database’s (admittedly awkwardly worded) “Female People” category to find works by women composers; one student refined the same category to find an Argentine woman composer (Celia Torrá, 1884-1962), specifically her En Piragua for violin and piano; a cellist discovered the Hungarian composer Emánuel Moór (1863-1931) and now wants to play his Second Cello Sonata. Another student – a first-year student and very good hornist – decided to delve into the music of Celestina Masotti. And so on. I knew some of the composers and works, but – wonderfully for me – didn’t know some of the others. Teachers love learning from their students, so this is great for me.


I teach at a very small Liberal Arts university, but this challenge has encouraged about 30% of my students to prepare to return to school (this fall, one hopes!) having learned a piece of music that never would have been realistically accessible to them as long as they were trapped in the curricular fetters imposed by the DWEM canon. If my colleagues – even only my colleagues who teach music history – at large conservatories and colleges of music were to issue this challenge, then hundreds, maybe thousands of musical voices that until now have remained unheard would be able to break the silence imposed on them by our world's addiction to the DWEM canon. The results would be multiplied many times over if studio instructors and ensemble directors were to issue a similar challenge.


I love some – many – canonical works and celebrate them, whatever their national, linguistic, or geographic provenance. Nor does the E in DWEM in any way take issue with European musicians. Quite the contrary: in this age of pandemic-mandated apartness, it is, I believe, more important than ever for all of us to be consciously international and intercultural in our outlook -- to deliberately immerse ourselves in music and composers to who would by default fall beyond the pale of our immediate worldviews.


What I do not celebrate, then, is the DWEM canon's stranglehold on musical life and its crushing effects on musicians’ thinking critically about music, its contexts, its histories and herstories -- indeed, even their awareness that they are not thinking critically. So a 30% blow to the DWEM canon’s stranglehold is something to celebrate, not only because challenge is a good and necessary part of education, but also because voices that have been pushed aside so that we could get that nth performance of this-or-that canonical aria or sonata will now be able to speak, possibly for the first time since the composer’s death. Maybe -- as in the case of the infinitely witty and imaginative Celestina Masotti, whose music I did not know --  this challenge will help us to hear the voices of composers who (gasp) are still living. If we disrupt the uncritical acceptance of the canon's stranglehold that has defined so much of concert music's culture in recent years, then our individual acts of resistance against pandemic-response quarantine can help to ward off the equally toxic consequences of cultural quarantine that naturally emerge when in a time of necessarily limited travel and cultural interchange. We need to seek out and enjoy anything that falls beyond the exclusionary pale of the canon: in resisting its exclusionary stranglehold, we can affirm ourselves and our shared humanity.


Additionally -- and symbolically, but for that very reason possibly most important -- this gives our students agency in confronting the greatest crisis of our world in their time. It tells them that they have some control over their musicianly self and a vital role to play in shaping the future of their musical world.


Teachers teaching students to teach them: it is a beautiful thing, and it can change our world.


I challenge you: give your students this challenge. (And let me know what they come up with!)


[Updated April 20, 2020]

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1 comentario


Erika Berroth
Erika Berroth
17 abr 2020

I love the intentionality of inclusion and the trajectory of discovery-practice-performance. With all the extinctions in progress around us, every name remembered and every voice recovered will enrich us all beyond measure. Hope.

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