Sharp’s remarks fall flat: classism and racism in classical music

Queuing outside a London venue some years ago, a staff member asked if I realised I was about to attend a classical concert ‘what are you doing here?’, he asked. I sheepishly and apologetically explained that I was attending the first performance of one of my pieces (!)…eventually he stepped aside. As unbelievable as this sounds it is one of several overtly racist incidents in my experience as a classical composer, this is before we get to the several hundred occasions I was asked by students and tutors during my time at music college what the jazz course was like, or whether I was a tenor or bass on the opera course?

As petty as the latter may seem, after several hundred conversations reinforcing that I am not the social archetype of a classical composer–it wears you down, the imposter syndrome experienced by so many artists (and academics) is compounded tenfold. Perhaps the growing sense of alienation expressed by the Spectator et al. [9/4/2018] on the CeNMaS/Ligeti quartet’s efforts to diversify through the implementation of a “two ticks” policy, allowing BAME composers through to the first round of their composer-workshop opportunity (as is often the case with positive discrimination initiatives, it made little difference to the eventual selectees, who were all white), or SAM’s move towards gender equality gives many in new music a soupçon of what some of us swallow on a regular basis?

This rather antiquated conservative argument asserts the notion of meritocracy without acknowledging the reality of implicit bias and explicit discrimination. Nor does it recognise the historical dominance of gender and race politics in Western art music, i.e. maintaining and reinforcing a status quo merely on the basis of race and gender. The British composer Elisabeth Lutyens (1906–83) is a prime example of just how terrifyingly formidable a female personality had to be in order to claw a place among the 20th Century musical canon.

The “meritocracy” argument fails for several reasons:

1. It’s an assertion that presumes a level playing field.

2. If true, then talent should continue to be disproportionately the domain of middle-class white men, as it was in the past.

It also implies that the increase of women scholars since the 1920s in places like Oxford was merely the result of a political agenda, and in no way based on actual ability, that nepotism has never formed the basis of selection criterion that favours a specific social group, and the still appalling lack of BAME students at Oxford is because they never were/are/never-will-be deserving of a place.

The central flaw in Sharp’s piece, however, arises from the binary BBC Proms hypothetical (his very own kind of virtue signalling taking the form of a rudimentary maths problem); there is a real danger of a shortfall of talent because the 50/50 gender split commission pledge would automatically discriminate against talented composers in favour of less talented ones, when in reality there are simply too many composers, talented or otherwise.

My concern about the emerging dialogue in identity politics, particularly in new music, however, is in its consistent failure to acknowledge the ever-increasing class divide in classical music–and it’s one that I do not see the champagne socialists, or compassionate conservatives addressing, although to be fair, Sharp touched upon it in this article.

His criticism of the lumping together of various minority sets under CeNMaS’s two ticks policy, and the absence of class in this discussion raises some interesting questions of intersectionality; do different minority groups (of race, gender, and sexuality) really experience the same kinds of setbacks in classical music? However, the changes afoot are exactly the result of [a different group of] composers being incensed because their music has taken a back seat to their race or gender.