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.


L. said...

***Apologizing in advance for the long comment.***

First of all, this post made me Youtube Angel Romero and within 2 minutes of the clip I watched, I was yelling "Get the f*ck outta here!" I couldn't believe that was coming from one person.

I'm glad you mentioned that the cultural differences most likely come from class differences. But I'd also like to point out that there could possibly be some religious influences as well. It could have been something as simple as being in the church setting.

"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."

When I read that, the first thing that came to mind was the differences between the stereotypical "white" church and the stereotypical "black" church. The former has the reputation of being very non-expressive and rigid in structure; there is service, communion, a couple of hymns, and you leave. The latter has the reputation of being the exact opposite; the choir sings a couple of songs, there is service, there may be praise dancing, church announcements, more singing, people falling out in the aisle, folks sobbing and speaking in tongues, some good ol' Jeremiah Wright-styled preaching (I'm kidding, but only slightly)...

Though I've been to predominantly-white churches that were exciting and featured fully outfitted bands and a lot of jumping around and dancing, the widely held perception is that the good ol' (traditionally) Protestant way is the proper way. Our society is still very heavily influenced by sociocultural norms founded in the (traditionally) Protestant church. Similarly, one of the foundations of African-American culture is the black church (more specifically, AME). Therefore, I would think the mainstream society, being influenced by the Protestant church, has deemed that outbursts of expression should be kept to a minimum. And following in it's own church's tradition, African-American culture has encouraged expressive behavior. And this could possibly be extended to other ethnic groups, as most PoC do not (or have not historically) belong(ed) to the Protestant church(I'm assuming).

Seeing as though rock and hip-hop are counter-cultural forms of music, it would follow (IMO) that the principles and norms associated with these movements would differ greatly from those associated with mainstream culture. Again, the culture of the dominant group decides the norms and traditions of society at large.

But then again, I could be(am probably) completely off. Whatever the reason, I need to see a show like that live someday.

Anonymous said...

I think it's more accurate to say it's a cultural norm coming from class differences _in this country_.
My former boss is an upper-class Chilean and she couldn't understand AT ALL how Americans could sit still and quiet through music performances - where she grew up, it was normal to get up and dance, move your body, shout with excitement and approval.

I remember going to a flamenco music performance once in a major city here in the US, and it was just as you say - the white, 40+, elegantly dressed folks were all sitting quietly. BUT the 40+, elegantly dressed Europeans and South Americans (and those of us "others") were on our feet, dancing more often than not, in the back and in the aisles, complete with the shouts of approval and awe when warranted. I expected some of the white folks to join in, but they never did. Interesting...

CVT said...

@ Anonymous - You're absolutely right. I should have specified "in the United States" - which is usually what I do, and what I, indeed, meant.

@ L. -
Long comments are perfectly welcome. I was a long-commenter myself (still am, I guess) - and that lead to me feeling the need for my own blog to cover everything that came up.

As for the religion angle - that makes a whole lot of sense. A Protestant lens has colored much of the cultural mores of this country, so music appreciation shouldn't be any different.

That said, I don't think literally being in a church for this particular performance changed how folks acted - but I think the Protestant history did.

CVT said...

@ L. -

Oh, and speaking of videos of Angel Romero - watch this clip of the Romero brothers playing "Malaguena":

And then compare it to this one of Jose Feliciano playing the same:

Makes you appreciate how much of a master Angel Romero is (when he can do one-handed what Jose Feliciano has to play with two).

glotto said...

This is a really interesting thread of conversation.

@ CVT's last comment: Just to throw in 2 cents from the psychological literature on priming, there's reason to believe that being in a church could indeed have influenced how the audience responded to the music -- just as voting in a church could influence how you come down on stem-cell research:

"After analyzing data from Arizona’s 2000 general election, the Stanford researchers found that voters were more likely to support raising the state sales tax to support education if they voted in schools. This bias remained even when results were controlled for voters’ political views and demographics. In a follow-up laboratory study, subjects were asked to vote on a number of initiatives, including California’s 2004 stem-cell-research financing proposition. Before casting a vote, each subject was primed with a picture of a school, church or generic building. Voters were less likely to support stem-cell initiatives when presented with images of a church.

"It’s a discomfiting insight: a person’s vote, a hallmark of democracy, may be biased by polling environment. Yet this has nothing to do with dirty politics or foul play. Rather, it’s a fairly basic principle of psychology — the idea that environmental cues can trigger ideas and affect our behavior without our being conscious of it. If you’re voting in a school, then the part of your brain that values kids and education might be activated, whereas if you vote inside a church, your ideas about spirituality might be invigorated. For some people, it seems, a change in location is enough to change a vote."

This isn't to say that one's own history, influenced by Protestantism or any other religion, wouldn't play a larger part in how we respond to music, but just to say that settings -- and the associations we have with them -- do matter.

I'd also expect that being in a church would prime different kinds of responses in different people, depending on what "being in a church" means to that person -- if my church culture is about clapping and shouting and singing along, then that's what would be primed, whereas if my church culture is all about quietly listening and taking it in, that's what would be primed -- so you'd maybe expect any racial difference to be more extreme in a performance in a church.

Anyhow, there's some thoughts. I like the post and the thread.

quote from the New York Times:

CVT said...

Glotto -
Great use of the psychology. Don't you ever stop bringing those studies into the fray.

So I guess simply being in a church probably did make a difference . . .

Anonymous said...

This has been covered before. Something not many people know is that "classical" performances used to be rowdy parties when it was upper class-attended only. When there was a rise of the middle class due to the industrial revolution, the pretentious aspirations of this group formalized the proceedings, because it was a "big deal" to be hearing such a great performance. Check out the book Musica Practica for more details.