Daily Bow: Asia’s Classical Horizon

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For an art form that allegedly represents a universal form of communication, classical music–and those who write about it–can be hyper-aware of national, regional, cultural, and ethnic lines. Much of this awareness plays into some of the great qualities in classical music: we write about and perform French music, German music, Italian music, Russian music, American music, Japanese music, Chinese music, Norwegian, Latin American music–you name it, we’ve got it, and the global twists that composers and artists put on the shared idiom are some of the most valuable and most celebrated facets of the art. A lot of the hyper-awareness serves to celebrate society and music’s role in it, too–we are ever on the lookout for remarkable feats of musicianship and humanity in the most unexpected of places. Both historically and currently, though, classical music is dogged by a sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit sense of musical and cultural xenophobia, particularly from the Western hemisphere outward.

Classical music has traditionally been the purview of what we call Western civilization: Europe and her Western hemisphere colonies, both current and former. As such, it has built itself to glory on the largely white, European heritage that it inherited as a natural part of its legacy. In today’s world, characterized as it is by so many converging lines, a largely homogenous heritage cannot survive untouched, which most of us will agree is a positive thing overall. As in genetic populations, artistic populations need new blood, genes, and ideas to survive and remain healthy, and so, as the world has grown smaller and more completely integrated as a global community, the classical music community has followed suit. The rise of globalism in classical music has quite literally changed the face of the art–where it was once dominated by Europeans, the stage has welcomed many non-European artists into the spotlight, too. Asia has given the world a huge crop of preeminent classical musicians in a fairly short time: several generations ago, Asian superstar players were rare. Today, music schools and concert halls the world over reflect the Asian dominance of the classical art form.

For various reasons, much has been made of the meteoric rise of Asian and the Pacific as producers of classical talent. The response of many in the classical community seems to be equal parts admiration and fear. Admiration comes from many sides: the stereotype of the Asian player is that of the technocrat, the high achiever, the player with discipline and great technique. In many cases, the presumption of the Western community is correct: says John Harding, a violinist and concertmaster of the European tour of the Asia-Pacific United Orchestra, “Asia… is the future for classical music. The sheer number of people who study it and the good ones who come out of conservatories, especially those in violin and piano, are astounding.” Looking at the population of the world, it simply reflects the reality of the numbers that in classical music, like many other areas, the majority of people will be of Asian extraction: Asia holds the vast majority of the world’s population. Asian nations have definitively come to represent themselves and their vast populations in classical music, and they are representing themselves increasingly well.

Despite Harding’s admiring projections, or perhaps because of them and others like it, critics and classical pundits alike write of the Asian “threat” to classical music, telling us that Asian values are a threat to the classical values of expression and personal communication. A previous String Visions article writes of the flip side of the great achievement and discipline, technical standards rigidly upheld by parental pressure, even going so far as to say that a move toward an Asian majority in classical music “destroys one of the great pillars that classical music rests upon–classical music as a universal language and a platform for communication. Classical music should never be thought of as something for any specific racial, ethnic, cultural, or any other kind of group.”

Let’s be clear: “Asians” are not any one specific racial, ethnic, or cultural group. Asia is a region that is made up of a number of unique and vastly different cultures and attitudes toward music, society, and achievement, and Western classical music–and the rest of the world–would do well to remember that. I take great issue with the assertion that a world in which the majority of a classical community are Asians would be detrimental in any way. I, the daughter of a Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong, would not be in classical music were it not for my father’s influence, and I’m not talking about the Tiger Parent type of influence. That had no place in my life, and it had no place in the life of many of my successful Asian musician peers. When I talk about the Asian influence on my musical development, I’m talking about the extraordinary passion that my dad has for music and the talent and discipline he instilled in me simply by displaying his love for music.

I’m talking about how he showed me what personal expression could be through example: I listened to him through the wall between my bedroom and the music room in my house when I was a small child–he played Chopin and Brahms on the piano, and I felt that I knew him better and better through the voice I heard in his music. He’s Asian, and he’s not part of a homogeneous mass of people, and neither am I. For that matter, neither are you, no matter what your ethnic and cultural background is. This is 2012, and statements like that begin with generalizations about any cultural group, ethnic group, social group, or racial group have no place in the discussion. Any monolithic group with an unchanging approach to any issue will put it on a path to destruction: a millions-strong population of people who are convinced that any one demographic–like Asians–will take down classical music as we know it will mar the health of the art just as much as any supposed monolithic Asian mass of Tiger Mom/technocrats will. In both cases, there’s no such thing. People are individuals, no matter how much they are influenced by cultural environments, traditions, and stereotypes. That applies to people on both sides of the line in this argument.

There was a time, far removed from the collective classical memory, when Americans were breaking into classical music and fighting their way up. Perceived American greenness, lack of tradition, and tendency to run contrary to convention didn’t end up ruining classical music as our European forebears had developed it. Why should another region of the globe bring about the derailment of a centuries own tradition? The view of Asia as an impenetrable fortress that is incompatible with Western values, influence, and dialogue is simply a narrow and outmoded one. Certainly there are traditions and tendencies and differences–there is no society without them, and that includes Western cultures. But traditions and cultural attitudes change, and they are closely tied to global trends, power shifts, economic development, and the delicate balance of global exchange. Asian players will bring with them neither the future nor the destruction of classical music as we know and value it. The future of classical music lies with people, players, writers, and critics who are capable of seeing cultural groups as not a faceless mass of a handful of simple cultural traits and tendencies, but a mutable, evolving group of individuals who will change as the world around them changes. The future lies with–and depends upon–the erasure of these kinds of closed-minded boundaries and generalizations from the general discourse of music. Above anything, the future of classical music depends on our ability as a global music to focus on–here’s a new idea–classical music.

For the sake of comparison: no one seems to mind the Russian contingent in classical music, and there are some traditionally Russian characteristics that are similar in nature to traditionally Asian traits, many of which are highly relevant to the musical discussion: emphasis on technique, a tradition of competition-minded training, and a legacy of state-run and -dictated schooling come to mind immediately. No one is worried that Russians will or have destroyed classical music, and maybe that’s only because they’ve been in the game longer and have an ownership in the tradition. Asian countries are not so lucky as to be considered insiders in the classical scene.  As John Harding puts it, Asian players used to be “sucked away as if by a vacuum cleaner” by prospects in the West after they studied there, making it hard for a tradition to take real root. But nowadays, he says, “they want to come back to their birth countries, pulled by their culture and history”. As for the playing, Harding sees no difference according to the racial or national background of a musician. “Maybe 50 years ago,” he says, “you could tell apart a Viennese style and a Russian style of violin playing. But now it is so easy to get around the world, so Asian musicians can be just as idiomatic as Europeans.”

Harding is right in an important way: the world is as small as a quick jaunt to YouTube to listen to a recording. What these Asian players supposedly cannot get from their own culture–and that is a dangerous, dangerous assumption and generalization to make–they can get equally well from great recordings made readily available and from paying attention–as good students always will–to the wide world around them. For that matter, Western musicians can learn some of what they supposedly lack (stereotypes say discipline, technical perfection, focus) from the opposite. You don’t feel like Western musicians are undisciplined or technically flawed? Maybe Asian players of various nationalities don’t feel like they’re a cog in the machine. Maybe the differences in tendencies make us look at one another to see what we can learn from each other, and maybe that makes us better and our musical tradition stronger. Maybe the truth is that there are players of all stripes, all personalities, all abilities, and all strengths in any country, anywhere, and if we’re going to talk about how great classical music is as a universal force for communication, empathy, and connection, we should put our money where our mouth is. It’s high time we put aside the petty practice of looking for that which divides us as a community of musicians, because deep down, we are all in this for music, and the way we get there and where we got there from is irrelevant. Perhaps we should pay less attention to an artist’s country of origin and more attention to what he’s saying musically. Music is a force of nature, and it is its own future. Everything else is just noise.

4 Responses to Daily Bow: Asia’s Classical Horizon

  1. Paula Jean Loeffler August 29, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    Another splendid article, Emily! Assertive, lyrical, and identifiably “Emily.” Congratulations. 😉

  2. Cellimom August 29, 2012 at 9:36 pm #

    Emily, I enjoyed your article again and agreed. What I feel strange is that Western countries enjoy K-pops and “Kangnam Style” at youtube. Why they are not willing to accept Asian Classical player? It has same origin and both grows up quickly.

  3. Hans Jensen August 30, 2012 at 5:35 am #

    Great article Emily. Very passionate writing. I hope lots of people will read this because you raise lots of important issues. Congratulations!

  4. Colin Cronin August 31, 2012 at 9:22 am #

    Thanks very much for your comments and referencing my previous article. To clarify one of your points, however, I was not stating that there is an “Asian threat” to classical music because Asian values are inherently detrimental. Being Asian myself, it would be ironic to feel that way about two aspects of my life that have played major formative roles.

    My point is that it is dangerous for people to view classical music as being dominated by an “Asian phenomenon” which some of the articles in question seem to do. Whether your view is that they are going to “save” or “destroy” it, the fact that such people are viewing “Asians” in such a context is a dangerous one. Classical music has never been about highlighting ethnicity or nationality, except as to show the specific cultural and musical influences that have contributed to the uniqueness of a performing individual or group. Rather, like a universal language, classical music is something that speaks to people of all different backgrounds, cultures, and socio-political contexts. It’s a conduit that allows a player born in a poor village in China to speak to American audiences, what draws a musician from Serbia to connect to those from Montreal, and what can empower Israelis and Palestinians to bridge some of their differences, even if only for a moment.

    Hope that offers some clarity. I want to congratulate you on this fantastic article! I hope people get as much value from reading it as I did.

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