…lot of discussion by classical music folks on Twitter lately regarding the notion of DWG‘s, aka Dead White Guys. It seems to have grown from talk of how Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic have programmed a number of new works in their season (most notably, Stockhausen’s Gruppen), but have neglected to program music by women and/or non-whites.
I’ll say this as a general sort of disclaimer: I’m white, and I’m male. I’m pretty damn white at that, too. I realize that the status quo in our society benefits me. At the same time, it’s really difficult to comment on this phenomenon without coming across as an apologist, which I’m not. I’m also not an insensitive jerk (at least not always…at least not intentionally…), so I’ll try to say what I want to say as plainly as possible and hope that everything works out.
I, like many people who have never been discriminated against, believe that the game of who gets programmed and who doesn’t should (but doesn’t, yet) be determined meritocratically. This, I’ve been told by people who have been discriminated against, is impossible. The closest I’ve felt to discrimination is thinking about the hypothetical notion that I would be denied a composition opportunity because somebody else entered who was a woman or non-white. And that, to my knowledge, has never happened.
But man, the thought of it makes my blood boil! (I’m particularly selfish/competitive when it comes to opportunities, though. If there are three spots on a concert for new works, I’m not happy unless I have all of them. It’s kind of terrible. I’m working on it. Seriously.)
There is a general rallying cry across the twitterverse for there to be more music of women and minorities programmed across the board. After talking with my friend Imani about this, she was quick to remind me that the overwhelming majority of the repertoire has been written by DWG’s, and as such will always command a significant number of performance slots, statistically.
The problem seems to be self-sustaining: white men occupy the most slots, which doesn’t attract the following of female and non-white composers, which keeps the bulk of music being produced by white men. Somebody oughta do something, right? But when it comes to cutting back on white men, all I feel is blind indignation. It’s probably a little of white non-white and female composers feel about white men sometimes.
At dinner, and afterwards with my friend Maura, I started wondering aloud about the eighth blackbird competition. A colleague (and twitter user as active as me), Melissa Dunphy, was quick to criticize 8bb for not having enough women or non-white composers as honorable mentions or finalists. At first, I was upset that it seemed that she was shitting on my happy day with some white male guilt (sorry, Melissa), but I ultimately got what she was talking about. One thing puzzled me, however, was that the competition was blind: we were asked to use pseudonyms. There was no way that they could have known for certain which of us was male and which of us weren’t. (I, for one, used a woman’s name as my pseudonym. I actually thought that most, if not all pseudonyms would have been male names, so I figured that using my mom’s name would have made me stand out from that pack. Did it work? Who knows…)
The results got me thinking, and I started spitballing with Imani and Maura (separately) about it:
If white men have dominated classical music for centuries, then it would stand to reason that so have aesthetic characteristics that they preferred. If our notions about what “good” classical music is have been infused with the aesthetic sensibilities of white men (assuming that those haven’t changed much over time), then there will always be bias toward white men in classical music. Unless there is a drastic restructuring of classical music’s aesthetic principles, women and non-white composers will always be forced to conform to these white, male aesthetic principles of music in order to gain recognition amongst their white male counterparts.
This spitball session has a SERIOUSLY MAJOR flaw in it, namely that it assumes that compositional style can be influenced directly by gender and race. That’s a really slippery slope. I have overheard a few drunken rants by colleagues (white male ones, for the record) that demonstrate that people believe this to be more or less true, but I don’t think that it’s something you can prove. I think that if you sat people in a room and played them music and asked them the race and/or gender of the composer who wrote the piece, they couldn’t get it. What I do think people do is apply racial/gender stereotypes to pieces written by people. If a society believes that women are more “emotional” than men, then they will struggle to hear more emotional music from women, even if it means discarding music that doesn’t conform to their beliefs.
Ultimately, I don’t know much about this sort of thing. I know that, despite being a living white guy, I’ll never get to be a DWG. They are part of history, and history has a way of velvet roping people out of it once it’s gone by. I think that, despite peoples’ race and gender, composers today are in the same boat. I think that we should be advocating for new music, not simply music by women or by non-whites.