Thursday, June 7, 2018

On "Cultural Appropriation" - Yours and "Theirs"

I have gathered from talking to my college junior niece, home for summer break,  and from what I've heard on the CBC and read that what's being called "cultural appropriation" has become a big thing with the college age crowd.  I hadn't thought about writing about it until the other day, posting the unusually fine performance of Robert Schumann's Fantasiestucke played by Sabine Meyer and Alexander Lonquich, I remembered Sabine Meyer was the clarinetist who was the center of a huge story when the all-male Berlin Philharmonic was horrified to find that Herbert von Karajan, of all people!, had hired Sabine Meyer to play in the clarinet section of the orchestra.  The all-male orchestra acted like a total and complete bunch of pigs, with very few exceptions, forced her to withdraw and hastened von Karajan's retirement by their reaction.  She has gone on to have a long and distinguished career as a soloist and chamber musician, probably becoming better known than most of the males who didn't want a girl playing in their orchestra.*

The reason that made me decide to write about "cultural appropriation" is that that was one of the reasons given by many male musicians and music directors and conductors to exclude women from orchestras:

Since the top conductors work internationally, correlations are found between their views and the patriarchy of these international orchestras.  For example, Lorin Maazel, a frequent guest of the Vienna Philharmonic, has openly defended their categorical exclusion of women.  In an interview in the widely read German magazine Bunte, he was asked why there are only men in the Vienna Philharmonic: 

"Because it is a guild like the Meistersaenger.  Only the sons or male students of the musicians were allowed to enter.  It is, therefu ore, the only orchestra in the world that has held on to its own style for over 150 years.  The members decide who directs each new years concert.  In 1996 I will do this for the ninth time."

The orchestra maintains its style and uniformity through the continuity of a male hierarchy that passes on special knowledge that women cannot know.  For Mr. Maazel the tradition is something sons can maintain, but not daughters.

You should read the article at the link because the quotes from conductors and male orchestral players are shockingly awful. 

Before Wolfgang Sawallish became GMD of the Philadelphia Orchestra he held the same position at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where discriminatory views can be more openly expressed.  For example, Hans Pizka, the opera´s first horn, has rigorously defended the Vienna Philharmonic´s gender discrimination on both the Orchestra-list and International Horn Society-list of the internet.  He elaborates on the importance of uniformity:

"Again a word about the Vienna Philharmonic: the same educational, musical, and ethical background, together with the same male feeling created this unique body of music, or is there any doubt?  An all women orchestra with all having the same educational, musical, and ethical background will sound fantastically harmonic also, no doubt, but how about all the intrigues?  Men used to have intrigues also, but seem to handle them easier." 

We see again the perceived importance of "the same male feeling" which creates a "unique body of music".  Mr. Pizka attributes the lack of uniformity caused by gender integration to physical and psychological differences between men and women: 

"And be fair to me, isn't the general spectrum of feelings (psychic sensations, enthusiasm, sadness, etc.) different between man and woman?  Isn't the same the case between nationals and no-nationals [sic]?  It is, believe me.  And because of this particular uniformity, the Vienna Philharmonic has this very particular sound and expression and success and success as the best selling recording orchestra.  This is the success secret of the Vienna Philharmonic.

In short, they were claiming that women playing "men's music" was a form of cultural appropriation,  that the music really only belonged to men who were the composers and, explicitly, in racist language, to the nationalities to which those composers belonged.

As the article points out, that was an argument which the Nazis had made.

An obvious implication of these ideologies is that the most authentic performance of western classical music can only be created by the ethnic group or nation of the composer.  This was advocated by the Kampfbund der deutsche Kuenstler (Fighting Group for German Artists) during the Third Reich: 

"Since we do not value, that a watered down internationalism is identified with German artistic genius, we must require, that in the future German art is represented abroad only by German artists, that carry in their person and their attitude of mind the seal of the purest Germaness."

t was, even before the Nazi period, the reason that the infamous incident in the  career of  the great Tenor,  Roland Hayes, happened when he first performed German Lieder in Germany.  Even before he sang he was condemned in the press because as a Black Person, he was stealing the cultural heritage of the White German People.  Hayes proved them wrong as, facing boos when he first appeared, he changed his program and began with Schubert's Du Bist Die Ruh so well that they couldn't deny his right to sing it (as he still demonstrated decades afterwards, well after his prime singing days).

The idea that male composers wrote "male music" is best shown to be absurd by the fact that so many of them wrote music that could be sung only by women.  I never heard any man claim that Mahler's writing for women's voices was some kind of aberration.   And it's especially absurd for someone in the Vienna Symphony to make such claims.   If their claims were true, then they are guilty of cultural appropriation every time they play non-Viennese composers, including Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, . . .

All it is is an excuse for excluding women and people who aren't in their tight, ethnic and racially exclusive groups.  It's men being sexist, racist pigs.  It's a lame excuse with no intellectual basis and, certainly, every moral objection to it.   Sabine Meyer certainly didn't violate Robert Schumann (who wrote so much of his music for the performance of a woman, HIS WIFE CLARA!) and her performances of Mozart and every other composer who was the pride of the German-Austrian tradition, not to mention music composed by people outside of that tradition proves that she has every right to play that music.

The issue of "cultural appropriation" is more complicated than that, of course, but the emphasis should be on respect for the artistic, intellectual and moral integrity of performances than it is on the racial, gender, national and cultural identity of those who are performing.  That's as true for making music or acting or cooking or anything.   Artists who don't learn and imitate and borrow and, sometimes, steal from outside of their own experience are boring as hell and don't produce anything interesting. 

But it's a lot easier to deal in the superficial and easy than it is the substance of things and, whatever else can be said, college aged people are so prone to be swayed by what's easy and to go along with the coercion to conform to the common-recieved  and always facile, way of thinking.   It's hardly something that ends then, just look at most blogs where geezer college-grads hang out.

Were these two guilty of "cultural appropriation", because all I hear is a fine performance. 

Robert Schumann - Fantasiestucke, Op. 73

En-Chi Cheng, viola
Fuyuka Kusa, piano

* The German Greens hardly covered themselves with glory over that issue.  In Germany orchestral politics are related to political politics. 


  1. Was Beethoven guilty of this when he wrote his Turkish march theme? How about the appropriation of folk music in "classical" compositions? I suppose Vaughn Williams did it by taking music from the Scots and the Irish? Where, exactly, did those "English folksongs" originate?

    "Cultural appropriation" is bosh. Yes, there is stereotyping by using Japanese kimonos or copying geisha dress and makeup, for example. But appropriation? Did Picasso appropriate African art? Did Pound appropriate Chinese poetry?

    Everything in human culture is "appropriated" from some other culture. To even start to point out who "appropriated" from whom is to simply engage in a power play where the person complaining sets themselves in judgement over those complained of. Their position of superiority is a teetering one, built on shifting sand.

    It can be insulting to think you know what "geisha" means because while makeup and silk dresses; as stupid as saying "Mexican" means sombreros and sarapes, and "German" means lederhosen and Trilby hats. But if I wear a sombrero, am I "appropriating" from Mexico? Or am I covering my head and wearing sun protection, and acknowledging the wisdom of the design?

    There is a line; but it is about respect, not about pointing fingers.

    1. Beethoven is an interesting case because, before they fell out, as Beethoven did with so many people, he dedicated what, after the falling out, became known as "The Kreutzer" sonata to George Bridgetower, a Black violin virtuoso. They played it together in public. There were people who speculated that Beethoven had African ancestry, as well, though that isn't established.

      I think the 'cultural appropriation' stuff going on is a sign that they aren't giving college students enough rigorous stuff to think about so they waste their time on that kind of nonsense. It's hardly feeding the poor, getting them medical care, housing, etc. saving the environment, ending war, . . .

    2. It's an excuse to claim moral superiority rather than, as you rightly say, learning moral actions.

      I understand the impetus behind it; I have no use for the actions it generates. And wow, I had no idea those orchestras were such pigs.