Anti-racism

On the Wisdom of Undine Smith Moore

walkerhillI have been reading Helen Walker-Hill’s splendid book From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and their Music, and learning many enlightening things. Today I’m going to share with you some of the thoughts of Undine Smith Moore. I already knew I liked her music, but it turns out that she was also a percipient cultural critic with many insights to share.

Two particular thoughts leapt out from Walker-Hill’s account, both to do with the way those who are excluded from a dominant culture can have a clearer view of that culture than those who are inside it. I’ll quote at length because the clarity of expression is part of what makes her clarity of thought so palpable:

The Cultural Politics of Authenticity

Social media is often a colossal waste of time, but you get an interesting and nuanced discussion on a subject that is both practical and principled just often enough to make it worth keeping looking at it. I’d like to reflect on one such discussion I saw amongst a group of choral directors recently, as the various contributions teased out a range of perspectives on a thorny question.

The question was whether a British choir should assume Puerto Rican accents to sing songs from West Side Story. A director had asked their choir to do so, but some of the choir’s younger members were ‘appalled’ at what they considered a racist request.

Some of the participants in the discussion supported the conductor on the grounds of musical authenticity. It would sound silly in choral British accents, they contended, and recommended reference to the original film as a guide. (Though I’d think reference to the recent remake would be a better guide from this point of view, since it uses actual Latinx actors for those roles, not white actors in brown-face as many are in the 1961 version.)

Check out the Daffodils

daffodilperspective

You probably think it’s a bit too early for daffodils, even in an era of global warming, unless you live in one of the more sheltered bits of southern England, but the Daffodil Perspective I am referring to today is a year-round phenomenon. Elizabeth de Brito’s fortnightly podcast is a cornucopia of classical music by those female and global musicians who were omitted from our education.

If you have ever said, ‘I’d like to programme more music by people who aren’t dead white dudes, but don’t know where to find it,’ Elizabeth is systematically providing the solution to your problem. She also offers consultancy services, so if you find listening back to several years of podcasts a bit much all at once, you may find paying for an hour or two of her time a more efficient way to bring yourself up to speed.

HALO on Race and Real Talk

HALOworkshopmar21Last Saturday the British Association of Barbershop Singers held a training event for its Musical Directors on diversity with a particular focus on racism, led by the quartet HALO. They have a well-developed programme in which they use the musical relationships within the barbershop style as a metaphor to help clarify various aspects of a productive dialogue about inclusion and race.

After presenting the core concepts and working through some of their implications, they use it as an analytical tool to tease out insights in the discussions between workshop participants. I came away with a sense of having some powerful new tools for understanding, and a deep admiration for their facilitation skills. If you ever get the chance to attend one of their workshops, take it.

Lenticular Vision as an Analytical Tool

mcphersoncoverToday’s post is reflection on a concept I learned from Tara McPherson’s Reconstructing Dixie - which I highly recommend as a detailed and nuanced analysis of the meanings accrued by the American South from the mid-20th century through to the 1990s. If you’re interested in the cultural construction of nostalgia, there’s a lot of food for thought there, but today’s theme is specifically her central image of ‘lenticular vision’.

A lenticular lens is one that magnifies different images when viewed from different angles, and is used to produce pictures which change with changes in the position of the viewer. McPherson introduces this concept via the example of a picture of an old plantation house which from one angle showed the White people that owned it, from another, the Black people who serviced it.

On Schenker and Schenkerians

Sometime towards the back end of last year (I only happened across it in the last week) a group of European music theorists published an open letter in response to the events surrounding the Journal of Schenker Studies edition last summer about Phillip Ewell’s work. There are many aspects of it to raise an eyebrow, but I tripped over the first sentence of the second paragraph and got stuck there:

We were at first surprised that Prof. Ewell chose to illustrate his legitimate concern with the situation of the SMT and of American universities mainly by an attack against Schenker, who died almost a century ago.

My immediate response to this was:

We were surprised that anyone objected to the Confederate flag being waved inside the Capitol Building, as the civil war finished over 150 years ago.

Music Theory’s White Racial Frame: Thoughts on Knowledge and Power

It is of course a cliché that knowledge is power. I have always thought about this in terms of why education is valuable. Knowing about stuff enables you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to; having more information allows you to make decisions that will fit the real world better and thus achieve your ends more effectively.

Philip Ewell’s blog posts on race and music theory, however, have shown me new ways to think about this truism. The generalised understanding still works, but Ewell also draws attention to ways in which the construction of knowledge within a discipline is a means to accumulate, wield, and confer power within the institutions that curate and validate knowledge.

I explored one aspect of this a few years back when reflecting on why it is so difficult to get women and composers of colour into the canon of western art music. I noted how our confidence as well-educated musicians is constructed through familiarity with its canons, and thus how it feels when we are asked to do engage with something unfamiliar: profoundly disempowering.

Researching the Background to Your Music

Regular readers may remember how earlier this year Elizabeth Davies raised the ante for the project of relegating racist repertoire from the barbershop stage to the history books in her articulation of the Power of Boo. This prompted me into becoming more proactive into trying to ensure I never need to enact this power.

So, I’ve had an article about the problems with these old songs come out in both Harmony Express and VoiceBox over the summer, and on Monday night I taught a session on Researching the Background to Your Music for the LABBS eOnline programme as a follow-up to that article. I figured that if I’d drawn attention to a problem, it would be helpful to offer ways for people to solve it.

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