A Violinist on How to Empower Asian Musicians
I was not surprised by the recent violence against Asian Americans. I vividly remember being scared as a kid in Illinois in the 1980s.
At that time, Japan was seen as an impending economic force invading the United States. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American, was beaten to death by two white men who thought he was Japanese, here to steal American jobs. The perpetrators were fined $ 3,000 and given probation for killing a man who looked like my father. The message was clear: the lives of Asian Americans were of little value.
This message spread to my elementary school, where my classmates broke eggs in my hair and hit me almost daily for five years because I was not white. And yet, I was grateful to be Asian American. After all, we were the model minority.
This myth that all Asian Americans are silent, diligent, and prosperous was invented to pit minority groups against each other, making racism acceptable by giving distorted praise to Asians and falsely promising them access. to the white American dream. The myth delays the kind of solidarity among minorities that could threaten entrenched racial power structures.
This myth also hides truths: currently in New York, nearly a quarter of the Asian population lives below the poverty line; Asian immigrants have some of the highest poverty rates in the city.
A beneficiary of changes in US immigration policies that imposed quotas on non-white immigrants, I am the daughter of refugees from the Korean War. During her childhood, my mother witnessed horrific violence and experienced overwhelming fear and hunger. Although my family history is common to Korean Americans, it is part of Asian American history largely ignored in this country. But perhaps even less well known is what it is like to be an Asian American woman in classical music.
Having had few opportunities in their childhood, my parents offered me many extracurricular activities, including violin lessons. But when I was growing up I saw very few people in music who looked like me. In 1980, according to the League of American Orchestras, 96.6% of the country’s orchestral musicians were white. At that time, the “oriental presence in classical music,” as a New York Times article put it, was a topic of discussion.
Today Asians are often referred to as overrepresented minorities. In the most recent data from the League of American Orchestras, 86.8% of orchestral musicians are white and 9.1% are of Asian descent. Among classical music executives, 91.7% are white. The percentage of ethnic Asians in these leadership positions is too low to be included.
It is very misleading to say that Asian Americans are overrepresented in what remains a predominantly white and male field.
Classical music is often referred to as “universal,” but what does universality mean when the field has been built for white men who still hold much of the power? In my nearly 30-year career, I haven’t even seen a handful of ethnic Asians – let alone Asian American women – step into leadership or leadership positions.
I have witnessed throughout my career that those of us who are ethnically Asian but were born, raised or trained in America and Europe, are overwhelmed by the belief that musicians of Asian descent are diligent, hardworking, and technically perfect – but cannot understand the true essence of music, has no soul, and ultimately cannot be real artists. Early in my career, an influential conductor told me – who had never heard me play – that I could never be a real artist because he did not understand Chinese music, and therefore, Chinese people could never understand classical music.
American historian Grace Wang uses the term “innate ability” to describe the belief that different types of music come from specific groups of people from specific places and therefore belong to those places. The assumption that a musician can be a great performer of a composer because he is from the country where the composer lived is often expressed, both implicitly and explicitly. Technique can be learned, from this perspective, but the ability to truly understand the essence of classical music can only be learned through lineage and race.
In 2007, it was revealed that Joyce Hatto, a white British pianist, had stolen recordings from other pianists – including those of Yuki Matsuzawa, a Japanese woman – and released them as her own. Tom Deacon, long regarded as a keeper of classical music, a former record manager and a widely traveled competition judge, had written on a classical music bulletin board about Hatto and Matsuzawa’s recordings, not knowing that they were the same.
Of what he believed to be Hatto, Deacon wrote, “Oh my God, this is a beautiful recording of Chopin’s music. The coins flow so naturally and so completely, without precious effects. Hatto, he added, played “octaves so incredibly soft they seem to flow from his fingers”
From what was labeled, correctly, as Matsuzawa: “Faceless, typewriter, neat as a pin but utterly flabby performances with little poetic gestures added like so much red on the face of a Russian doll.”
A torrent of hatred and violence against people of Asian descent in the United States began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Context: Community leaders say bigotry was fueled by President Donald J. Trump, who frequently used racist language like the “Chinese virus” to refer to the coronavirus.
- Data: The New York Times, using media reports from across the country to capture an idea of the rising tide of anti-Asian prejudice, found more than 110 episodes since March 2020 in which there was clear evidence of racial hatred.
- Under stated Hate crimes: The tally may only be a small part of the violence and harassment given the general undercount of hate crimes, but the broad survey captures episodes of violence across the country that have increased in number amidst hate crime. of Mr. Trump’s comments.
- At New York: A wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout from the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to Asian-American communities in New York City. Many community leaders say racist attacks are ignored by authorities.
- What happened to Atlanta: Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta on March 16. A Georgia prosecutor said the Atlanta-area spa shootings were hate crimes and that she would pursue the death penalty against the suspect, who has been charged with murder.
Aside from the obvious contrast between his praise of Hatto and his hatred of Matsuzawa for the exact same performance, what fascinates me is the language. Deacon sums up almost all stereotypes of Asian musicians: he writes that Matsuzawa’s performances are “faceless”, while those of a white woman “flow naturally”; the Asian pianist is technically ‘neat as a pin’, a ‘typewriter’, not organically creative and only able to copy the innate ability of a European.
Classical music continues to perpetuate these other stereotypes, including through the continued use of yellowface – white artists painted with yellow makeup and slanted eyes – in opera productions. Yellowface normalizes caricatures of Asians and fetishes Asian women, exoticizing them through stereotypes of them as alternately submissive and hypersexual.
So how can classical music strengthen and create space for all members of our community?
Ask Asian Americans to plan and create works – not just on Asia, with symbolic Lunar New Year concerts, but on our unique experiences and contributions as Asian Americans.
Hire and commission Asian and Asian American singers, instrumentalists, conductors and songwriters to shatter stereotypes and amplify our individualities and complexities.
Mentor of Asian Americans at the start of their musical career. Sponsor and promote Asian Americans in arts management and administration. Recruit Asian Americans to the boards of arts organizations.
And, when you have Asian Americans in your advice, listen to them – give them the opportunity to reframe the discussions on inclusion and equity, and give them the freedom to publish statements about violence. against those who look like them. Learn the history of Asian Americans and create paths to engage with everyone in your community.
My mentors fought for my inclusion in the classical world. It is now my responsibility to help build a more inclusive domain for future generations. I invite musicians and musical institutions to create these new spaces with me and my avant-garde colleagues.
#Violinist #Empower #Asian #Musicians