Friday 25 April 2014

Some thoughts on colour and culture

Hi there,
It has been a while since I have written about any thing that has struck me as important enough to ask for your attention. However, since last week I have been trying to get onto my blog site(with some difficulty) I am now 'granted' access through the original e-mail address that I used.
Anyway enough of that, my reason for writing was the full page spread of no doubt heart felt opinions on racism in classical music made by Candace Allen in the Evening Standard edition Wednesday 4th July.
Her beef is that there is snobbery, also there aren't sufficient 'black' people in orchestras/classical music etc etc.Further more she described her discomfort at feeling out of place in the Barbican Centre (a place where I have performed numerous times if only in humble fashion as one of the quite nicely paid, thankyou very much, foyer events.In addition I performed some wonderful pieces which included unaccompanied Bach suites at the Basically Bach at the Barbican Festival.

It was always a joke of the now deceased, Sammy Davis Jnr (cabaret/jazz singer and dancer member of the 'rat pack' of Sinatra and Dean Martin) when on television on stage at the Palladium or wherever, to look into the orchestral/band pit and ask loudly why there weren't any black musicians there.I suppose I am saying that these remarks made by Candace Allen are by no means new and do not only pertain to 'classical music' Yes in Jazz and popular music these days and athletics and football,Formula 1 racing and golf, tennis and dance, fashion design/haute couture, and modelling, the paths are trodden already by black people and now thank goodness in Opera, but that has only been relatively recent, in fact, since the 1950's in the USA.

I am dismayed that the televised amazing performances given by predominantly black/mixed race and white european classical musicians of many creeds/ethnicities myself included was drawn from many parts of the UK,for the nationally recognised Celebration of the Abolition of Slavery at Westminster Abbey, two years or so ago,given before Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip and decendants of William Wilberforce and others, does not seem to have registered on her radar.We are about you know. We performed music written by Chavalier St.George a baroque black virtuoso violinist and composer, amongst other music. I am fully aware that one swallow does not make a spring however maybe it is nicer to be dotted about in various quarters of the music profession rather than be part of a militant onslaught.I illucidate my views as to why music recruitment is as it is, further on in this blog.

More to the point.I think that Candace Allen is perhaps looking down the telescope the wrong way. Sparceness of people of colour performing in high culture is only partly to do with race, but it is also mainly to do with 'culture'. Classical music for many children of any race in today's musical climate is very often a no go area.Sometimes, because there is no interest or encouragement at home for them to play violin, clarinet or anything else,This is in spite of relentless start up programmes devised by educational departments of borough councils, and programmes organised by our leading orchestras to have open days and programmes going into schools to reach children,which are intended to sow seeds of interest.With many of the borough councils, the aim is to make playing an instrument accessible for everyone and to a small degree it does but by no means does it go far enough. Strumming guitar and piano,have not suffered to the extent that other instruments have, in their take up numbers by children of any race.Rock and pop have never been short of wannabees and lets face it, how many start up guitar playing boys and girls are sorted out enough in their minds to organise and be in performing bands.

Perhaps the bar has been set too low. Simply giving children an 'instrumental musical experience' and not teaching them the 'real thing' is a huge cheat.This view is echoed by some teachers of sports such as cricket for example.The youngster participants do not get the same 'thrills and spills' with a watered down quick fix one size fits all approach.Therefore the elitism that is levelled at classical music anyway (lets leave colour out of it for the moment) continues because it comes back to there being only insightful/music loving/educated/ financially comfortable parents being in a position to send their children to private 'proper lessons' with a teacher who will do the correct job of teaching them the essential ground work in an easy manner on which everything can be built.

Ideally, the home is the hub of the childs centre of approval/disapproval and taking this one stage further, if there is a total lack of interest or understanding of what the child might be trying to achieve in its weekly shared lesson of twenty minutes or half an hour the seeds are ending up on stoney ground in the home where the lions share of the work is done.There are tales not myths,of state school children of primary school age being ridiculed at home when they are taking their baby steps on instruments where there has never been a tradition of study be it academic or otherwise and/or practise.

With both my performance experience alongside my Masters in Ethnomusicology I feel that I can state that quoting/citing the Sistema programme as an example of musical excellence is worthy. However, this said system I understand is one that has not just appeared over night but has taken twenty five years to build. In other words to transfer this to the UK which people have sought to do, it would be the children of current ones who started and gave up but put their children to music, and then the next generations' children's children would be the vibrant rearing to go members of a Sistema style UK orchestra.The core sentiments of the Sistema system is to embed the orchestral group with a sense of worth, and of life affirmation away from the environments of poverty and lack of hope.The orchestra is a life line albeit a cultural one, and a huge transfusion of positive energy and care for each of the participants.The children are 'hungry' I believe is the correct term for the experience of performance and of all that the music and the life within the music has to offer, which is emotional breadth and beauty and of course the camaraderie and discipline.

Now my final point relating to colour is this, quotas are really awful. No one wants to be a token number in any organisation. We want our credit and worth validated. The focus on colour could be put in perspective by asking 'How many Tasmanian musicians are there in orchestras or in classical music? How many Sami musicians are there in classical music? Do you see my point?.
Not only is colour kind of a limiting gauge, black people or mixed race people are not a block group, that is racist thinking,I refuse to adopt this hegemonic manner of thinking. We are made up of many strands and ethnicities and are not all the same, any more than 'home counties middle class are not the same as upper crust Edinburgh dwellers or folks from Gottenburg or Sydney Australia.

To develop musically aware people, teaching and demonstrating will pay off ultimately, I am convinced. By going into state schools and developing huge drives to bring all young people into contact with the performers and performances of classical music will win in the end but it is thankless to begin with, but will pay off. However, not yet but in the future.Please note I have left out the work of private schools, specialist schools and the Junior Departments of the colleges of music in London and the UK.I can breathe easily here as music is thriving and elementary hurdles I have outlined concerning lack of parental encouragement and non positive environments for learning, are long ago and far away in such vibrant lively places.The assumption of support is a given if the child has got that far.

I was interested to read the comments made by concert violinist Nicola Benedetti which were given front page publicity in The Daily Telegraph yesterday the 10th July 2012.She upholds the view that young people need culture. In the BBC Radio 4 programme 'Front Row' which is an Arts review and events calendar and is broadcast each evening at 7.15pm. The same day 10th July 2012, Wynton Marsalis was featured and interviewed on the 'Front Row' programme, as he currently has a residency at the Barbican Centre London. He also affirmed her words and lamented the limitation of youngsters tastes.
We should seek to BROADEN their tastes and I emphasise the following word, LEARN with an open mind, to enjoy all music not just one tiny prism of sounds and words.
My thoughts on 'culture' are as follows and can be summed up in a few words.Culture is not one thing.It is every aspect of creativity in language in both the spoken and the written word,in art, dance, music. In other words it is everything we uphold in this country and society.
*It might be good at this point to ask you to re- read again my Blog on Values.

Short of a dictatorship (joke), we are not able directly to influence others tastes in what they uphold as long as they are on the 'right' side of the law of the land. Initially we start out with the idealist view, believing that all tastes have equal worth in a democratic society. How provocative is this comment I have made.
I respond to this provocative comment by stating that certain activities are more enriching than others.'Who says?' the dissenter cries.
Marsalis in his interview touched on the point I am about to make.I am stating now that some things in life, improve, enrich, inspire, uplift, encourage, create positive attitudes to life and others, and engender some self-reflection and self respect and create a life affirming sense of wellbeing in some cases.
Whilst people are young and hopefully open to hear wisdom from others (now there is a bone of contention).Our youth culture has created in some cases, not all, a group of people who are catered to as a separate group(teenagers) they are a distinctive culture with their own language clothes, styles etc.
Reverence and appreciation for things of quality is developed over years and is an expensive process. It requires consideration and in my blog Values see what the Pakistani businessman said in general, and in particular, pertaining to me, that I dutifully copied and added my own thoughts to my blog.
I do not think that appreciation of culture can appear over night, not even in one generation.
***Please note In the same 'Front Row' programme we were informed that funding for musical instrument teaching in secondary schools has been cut.Pick yourselves up and carry on reading.
I wonder what has happened to the drive of the previous government to ensure that primary school children have a quota of 'culture' each week/month which involves trips to art galleries etc etc.The platitudes about what would be nice and what is ideal are still in la -la land as they sound good and the process to bring them about must be powerful in order to make youngsters or anyone else step out of their familiar comfort zone to what is an exciting and interesting artistic world. Is it not wonderful that there are scientist music composers who are composing using the scientific components of DNA. Barrier down!
Is it not important to appreciate music, fine art, architecture and language all that has created the European world in which we live and have inherited?.
I find it curious that many young people are not curious and live in closed worlds . Yes culture is a slow and deep and expensive process and is for many unfamiliar and challenging.
It is such a pity that 'classical' music lives in one place on our radios. Many would never go there. I remember as a child between programmes instead of trailers for programmes there would be an excerpt of exquisite music. Orchestral or piano or what ever. By default people were familiar with the sounds they flowed into their consciousness and were as much part of peoples lives as anything else on the radio. Would a revival of this, help?I remember my mother calling me into the house when I was in the garden playing as a very small child, just so that I could hear a particular piece of music.
The market place is another problem. As long as popular music and popular anything is worth squillians of money and that being sometimes the only consideration, but if it is the primary consideration of some individuals, of what has worth and value, the values are skewed from the offset.Culture is a refinement and none of us are not born naturally refined. It must be an acculturation of sorts, yes that is it. It is learning to be appreciative of European culture that has come to us through the generations.Then there can be appreciation of what is current today in a proper context and an understanding. It should then be apparent why the music, painting, literature, dance of previous times is important to keep alive (notice I did not say preserve) Each performance is a re- birth of a work, and each generation looks upon artistic endeavour hopefully in a fresh way. We appreciate context and culture more easily in hindsite.This acculturation process is education of course.