In this second part of the Identity series, I would like to briefly (very briefly) discuss the concept of expectation in music as it relates to race and gender. The first time I ever truly contemplated this issue was in 2009, after a piece of mine won a competition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. There was an article about the event, and a blog post that linked to the article. Both contained snippets of comparisons that contained EXTREMELY loaded messages, the first of which you can see in a screenshot below.
I remember when I first read the line More Coltrane than Beethoven, I was at first utterly confused, then rather annoyed almost to the point of anger. The ensuing article proceeds to mention that I played gospel piano (which I did) without mentioning that I first played Chopin, Bach, Debussy, and other classical repertoire. Then the article proceeds by comparing my piece to Gershwin and Copland, even though if you listen to this piece, you will immediately hear that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to their music, neither to the music of Coltrane.
Part of this blog entry is also in response to a review that a South American colleague of mine received last year, in which the reviewer highlighted the Latin-American influence and sound of the reviewed work. The problem is, there is absolutely NO Latin-American influence of any sort in this piece, and that point is rather obvious upon listening.
I know that critics have an impossible task, especially when it comes to unknown Classical music The task: make this music cool and accessible (whatever this word means), while coming across as knowledgeable about the piece and the Classical music world. Some critics (including the one who reviewed my piece) also feel the need to stress that Classical music is not dead or dying. This type of approach, to me, seems to be an attempt to speak to everyone at the same time. What ends up happening, though, in trying to appease both the in-crowd and the external crowd is that the critic ends up lying to one and offending the other, as was the case in both of the aforementioned examples.
But I must ask: why? Why, as a Black or a South American or a Female or an African composer, must there be traces of "Blackness" or "the Latin sound" or "femininity" or "Africanism" in the music? When, for example, Ligeti composed his piano études, he used West African rhythmic theory ... but he is Hungarian. When a composer composes music, she is free to use whatever is available, so long as it is used with respect. With that said, I am a composer. My music does not remind of Coltrane or Gershwin in the same way that a female composer does not always compose music with a "feminine sound" (whatever that means). Composers have these options, yes. A Black composer has the freedom to compose music in the style or reminiscent of Coltrane. A Black composer also has the freedom to compose music in the style of Beethoven. This is, contrary to popular belief, okay and - dare I say - cool too.
Two years ago, I was asked by a good friend (around 75 years old) why my music doesn't sound Black. I asked this friend to define that sound. Can anyone?