ArtsWatch guest post: If They Care, Shouldn’t We Listen?


Kenji Bunch

Kenji Bunch


Last week’s coincidental intersection of Olympic sports and violin playing was notable not just for the novelty of such exposure, but also for the startlingly negative reaction to the news within the classical music community. Just like the clip of Charlie White scratching out a few notes on a violin for Al Roker, the recent news from Sochi about violinist Vanessa Mae’s skiing exploits for the Thailand Olympic team was met by fellow musicians on social media not with support, but with a significant heaping of snark and vitriol.

We musicians are a funny lot. We talk incessantly about “outreach” with missionary fervor, but deep down, we don’t really want to reach out. Like shaking hands, that term implies an extension — meeting someone else halfway; a gesture that would require compromise and the capacity to entertain another perspective. Feeling misunderstood and unappreciated by the masses can be lonely and painful, and it’s easier to swallow with the protective coating afforded by an air of superiority. I know, because I used to do that a lot. I think we musicians often would rather feel like an elite cognoscenti with the ability to safely snicker at those not “in the know” than to risk the vulnerability implicit in an honest attempt to find common ground with them.

Yes, Charlie White’s violin playing is nowhere close to even the most basic entry level professional quality, and is, in itself, not worth being celebrated on-air on NBC. But the young man just won a GOLD medal at the Olympics, and if he wants to use his moment in the sun to demonstrate something else in his life that he’s proud of, then hey — good for him. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Will people see this clip and believe Mr. White to be as exceptional a violinist as he is an ice dancer? Or they’ll think that rhythmic clapping and some sort of seated Cossack dance is an appropriate way to listen to Vivaldi? Isn’t it possible that if one young kid out there saw this on TV and thought, “Hey, maybe violin isn’t so lame if this Olympic gold medalist likes to play it,” then it might be worth these risks?

Similarly, Vanessa Mae’s body of work is not impressive to professional, classically trained musicians, and we often meet her enormous success with resentment and scorn. I’ll admit the little I’ve heard of her music feels like enough for this lifetime, but that’s only because, as a composer and string player myself, I’ve developed enough of an understanding of how and why her music is put together the way it is that I don’t feel the need to explore it further.

I think it’s unfair, however, to dismiss it out of hand as worthless to anyone else, as many of my colleagues do — and as I used to do. What, exactly, is so threatening to us about Ms. Mae’s lucrative violin career? Is it that some listeners may assume she is at the pinnacle of violin virtuosity and her music is finely crafted classically based composition? Isn’t this initial misunderstanding something we can live with, if it serves as an entry point for just one listener out there who might develop the curiosity to look deeper into the tradition of string instruments and classical music?

And why does it bother us so much that she used skiing for the Thai Olympic team as a way to pursue a lifelong dream and also reconnect with her estranged father? Is it because she flaunted her considerable resources to traipse around the Alps in order to qualify for the Olympics by her pet “Chihuahua’s whisker,” as she, herself, puts it? Isn’t this display of opulence tolerable if just one little girl out in the world sees and is inspired by a woman who earned enough money from her violin playing career to follow such a daring dream? And as a side note, isn’t it okay to come in dead last in a race, if that race happens to be the Olympics?

There’s a TV show in the works on called “Mozart in the Jungle.” Guaranteed, it will also be met with a chorus of snickers, groans, and OMGs from our classical community. To be fair, it will probably miss on a lot of details of our line of work that we will find insulting and reductive. But doesn’t that happen routinely to trial lawyers, ER doctors, and forensic pathologists? Isn’t it possible that getting the small stuff wrong is something we can live with so that those who don’t belong to our little club can at least be exposed to the notion that we are real people with rich lives worthy of empathy, behind the caricature of our concert dress?

About a year ago, a member of a major American symphony proudly declared to me to be unaware of the existence of Beyoncé and Jay-Z, as if this ignorance was some kind of badge of integrity. I read the comments of another very distinguished musician who zealously proclaimed the emotional impact of a Beethoven or Shostakovich symphony to be far beyond that of any current pop music.

Hmmm. Is it possible that such a Eurocentric worldview is somewhat dated and limiting, if not frankly racist? We let out a unison condescending chuckle when anyone misunderstands the minutia of our craft, but then we turn around and say things like “rap isn’t music,” a phrase I’ve heard more than once by my classical friends. Can anyone who has uttered these words talk intelligently about the history and nuances of that genre for more than 30 seconds?

What exactly are we afraid of? Is it that if we listen honestly and with open minds to hip-hop, hardcore, salsa, top-40, or the musics of other cultures, we’ll love Beethoven any less? He’s a big guy who has endured a lot over the years, and I think he can also withstand this.

Yes, there are many people out there who prefer other music to our own, and would rather keep their headphones on than set foot into a concert hall. What if we attempted to recognize that what they’re listening to actually has value and commonality with our music, and that their emotional experience in listening to it is just as valid and not subordinate to our own tastes? If a 16-year old girl gets misty-eyed listening to A Great Big World’s “Say Something” on her car stereo, are her tears any less legitimate than those of a gray-haired concertgoer listening reverently to “Missa Solemnis?”

We’re bringing a masterful boeuf Bourguignon to a potluck, but then we proceed to devour it ourselves without trying anyone else’s dish. Is it possible that “outreach” could extend beyond our effort to educate and prove our value to others, and include a gentle look within our own ranks? We claim to possess the world’s most sophisticated ears, honed from years of training and dedication. Would it hurt to open our minds, our hearts, and these Olympic-caliber ears of ours to make room for all kinds of music, not just the precious tunes we already have in our heads?

Portland composer and violist Kenji Bunch wrote this essay for, where it first appeared.

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7 Responses.

  1. Jeff Winslow says:

    I had the same thought about “Mozart in the Jungle”, that it can’t be any less realistic than “Boston Legal” or “Law and Order”. Or, if the latter does have more realism than classics like, say, Perry Mason, it’s only because the field is so crowded that its practitioners look to the real world for ideas that will beat out the competition.

    I, too, say “hip-hop isn’t music”, but not as a putdown. It’s missing many of the elements other musical genres have, but it makes up for it by overlapping broadly into drama, poetry, and dance. It’s really an art form unto itself. I suspect it got attached to the art category “music” merely for historical reasons.

  2. bob priest says:

    I was @ North Carolina School of the Arts when the writer of “Mozart in the Jungle” was learning her trade. I’ll do the fact checking on NCSA content. It will be great to re-live some of those steamy times!

  3. Heidi Yorkshire says:

    Hurray for Kenji Bunch! As a lifelong amateur musician, I have learned that a polished, professional-level performance is not the only goal of practicing, studying and performing. We play and sing for the joy of it, for the fun of collaborating with others, for the opportunity to get inside the music in ways that “mere” listeners do not. We amateurs appreciate, more than anyone, the remarkable accomplishments of professional performers, and we are showing up (and paying money) to see them. And we appreciate some recognition for the heart and the work we put into our music, even if it will never win a Grammy or, as Joni Mitchell puts it in For Free, will never be on your teevee.

  4. Kenneth Conway says:

    Is the “emotional impact of a Beethoven or Shostakovich symphony” far beyond that of any current pop music”? Well, duh!

  5. Sarah Sap says:

    I applaud the notion that musicians of ALL levels of experience and professionalism should actively demonstrate, and even incorporate, their many interests into their identity. I think the singular notion of success demanding nothing less than 100% of one’s life’s work is misguided and frankly, limiting, and risks making less than well-rounded artists.

  6. Right on, Kenji. The Fortress Europa vision of classical music is dated. And it’s not historically appropriate. Some examples: Famous European composers incorporated jazz ideas into their works as soon as the music made it to Paris. Derek Bermel has always acknowledged his debt to rap, among other nonclassical styles. Gabriel Prokofiev (Sergei’s grandson) has been a hip-hop producer and garage music composer (and for orchestra, he has written two concertos featuring turntables). Lukas Ligeti (Gyorgy’s son) co-founded Burkina Electric, mixing African popular styles and electronica. And few in the current, younger generation of musicians care anything about genre boundaries. Many are capable of making good music in multiple genres. And it’s not new: Genre-mixing goes all the way back in European music.

    I totally support your comments about Charlie White. Making fun of enthusiastic amateurs is poor form, and a little sad. I think you nailed the reasons for it in your second paragraph. I’d only add that, referencing your last analogy, some people reductively divide musical art into boeuf Bourgignon on one side and McDonalds hamburgers on the other. A person with that mindset is ill-equipped to do the work you’re suggesting here.

  7. Thanks for this, Mr. Bunch.

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