Monday, January 12, 2009
On Race and Class Through Musical Culture
Saturday night, I went to a classical guitar performance (Eliot Fiske with Angel Romero, for anybody interested). The show was held in an old church with two levels of seating - a perfect scene for two masters to play Spanish-influenced classical music on the guitar.
And it was one of the better musical performances I have seen in a long while. Not only were the two musicians playing at the highest level, but they also seemed to be honestly enjoying the experience of performing and playing together. My emotions constantly pinballed between amazement (what I call "holy sh--" uncontrollable awe) and a sense of fun, musical joy throughout the whole two-hour show, and I came out of it inspired and lighter on my feet.
In fact, I am currently searching for some Spanish-style classical guitar pieces to sample for some of my own creative expression.
Of course, I couldn't help but notice the make-up of the crowd at this particular performance: predominantly white, middle-to-upper class, 40s and older, dressed elegantly. There were a number of Asian folks, some possibly-mixed folks, but not a SINGLE black face in the crowd.
And there's nothing new there. Between the price of the ticket ($30 a pop), and the cultural associations of classical music, I wasn't really expecting a bunch of young folks of color to be there.
But, oddly enough, it wasn't really who was there (or not there) that struck me the most. Instead, I kept thinking about how the crowd behaved throughout the performance.
Basically, the performance alternated between complete silence (and stillness) of the audience while the music was being played, to controlled applause and murmuring in between. Again - exactly as expected.
But, for some reason, it felt really odd to me this time around. Because the thing is - the type of guitar they were playing was far from "traditionally" passive classical music. The Spanish flavor (specifically the Flamenco influences) infused their playing with a penchant for dramatic flourishes, a bit of showing-off, and emotion. Energy was interspersed with a catching rhythm and bursts of jaw-dropping feats of ridiculous guitar aptitude (I can't even begin to describe the crazy sh-- Angel Romero did with his guitar). Half the time, I had to catch myself to keep from yelling out loud or nudging my friend (A.) and saying, "Did you f-ing see that!??" It was sick. In the good way.
And that's the crazy thing. The overall feel of this show (in terms of the actual performance) reminded me more of watching a b-boy battle or hearing a ridiculously-talented emcee flow to an equally-talented dj's beat than a "typical" classical performance. There was just so much energy and bravado.
And yet - the crowd just sat still and silent, waiting until the end to applaud (loudly, but still seated - and just clapping). When the whole show was over, the crowd got a little livelier, but it blew my mind how strict cultural rules can be. These two men were blowing the lid off the place, and we were all just sitting there (myself included).
And it seemed such a perfect example of cultural norms in action: the generally white, (but more importantly) upper-class mentality of controlled emotions versus the generally PoC, (but more importantly) not-so-upper class mentality of let it out and be heard.
I mean, to sum it up - folks were just sitting around, getting excited, but holding it in and waiting their turn to show some appreciation through controlled clapping when - I felt - we all should have been screaming at the amazing parts and stomping our feet to the rhythmic parts - maybe even dancing a little bit.
And I know I wasn't the only one. I could see the physical reactions from the folks around me at the "oh-my-f-ing-G did he really do that!?" parts - and I wasn't the only one that wanted to say something. I heard the excited murmuring after each piece, and I knew I wasn't the only one who wanted to be a little bit louder. I saw bodies rocking a bit to the rhythms - not just mine.
But none of that happened - because of the cultural rules of watching "classical music." The same rules that say the ticket price must be exorbitant, and the dress code is formal. The same rules that implicitly make folks of less means (and of color) feel out of their element and keep them away.
Because it's not just hip-hop fans who let loose - any loud-ass rock show will be filled with screaming fans. In fact, I bet everybody in that church with me at the show has also screamed their heads off and moved their bodies at a different kind of musical performance in the past.
Just not there. And it makes me wonder - how did this come about? Did everybody used to respond to music emotionally and loudly (as seems most natural) until the upper-class tried to distance themselves from the "peasants" by acting differently? Did some group of Free-Mason-esque Illuminati sit down and draft the "rules of upper-class spectating"? Did some upper-crust Freud-disciple decide that "controlling one's emotions" was most "civilized" and then adapt that to every aspect of their world? Did white folks see how folks of color did it, and then change their own rules to make sure that they acted noticeably different - and make it easier to exclude the PoC?
It just makes me wonder. Because how we all behaved at that show was so unbelievably unnatural, and yet it was completely unsurprising at the same time.
Just like the ridiculous "rational" behaviors people demonstrate when confronted by race.
Expected. Normal. And so totally insane.