Read Kira Thurman’s article “Playing Beethoven in the #BlackLivesMatter Era” here (also in your course reading packet).
Below you will find videos of the pieces Dr. Thurman references in her essay.
Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Concerto in D Major, which Kira Thurman imagines Draylen Mason playing:
Two of the pieces Kira Thurman played for her music school audition:
The piece that Thurman says she is “obsessed with playing and listening to”:
An excerpt from Cycles of My Being by Tyshawn Sorey:
The Spark Catchers, by British composer of African descent, Hannah Kendall:
This is the essay Thurman cites by artist and critic Coco Fusco: “Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till”:
Dana Schutz, “Open Casket” (2016), in the 2017 Whitney Biennial (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)
In Langston Hughes’s short story “Home,” Roy Williams plays the following pieces in his mother’s house when he returns from Europe:
The most famous of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms (called “The Gypsy Dances” by Hughes):
Roland Hayes singing “The Crucifixion” (for more on Hayes, including the poem Langston Hughes wrote on the assault on the great tenor in Georgia, see here):
The “Meditation” from the opera Thaïs by Jules Massenet:
It’s worth noting in the context of the Hughes story that, in the 2018 film Green Book, composer and pianist Don Shirley does not play classical music for white audiences, but rather his own jazz-classical hybrid form, a choice that makes white listeners more comfortable with the separation between him and themselves; in a sense, Hughes tells us, it’s the blurring of race and musical genre that leads to Roy’s death. For Don Shirley in the film, it’s only in a black bar that he’s finally allowed to play the music that he loves the most.
For more about the real Don Shirley, the subject of the film, read this.
Thurman observes that:
Sometimes . . . orchestras and schools of music suddenly “discover” people of color in nearby neighborhoods. In rhetoric that smacks of a civilizing mission, they declare their intention to bring classical music to “the urban youth,” hoping to save black teenagers from themselves, as if, to paraphrase Alain Locke [an important black writer in the early twentieth century, called the “Dean of the Harlem Renaissance”], they were a problem in need of solving. Classical-music institutions have been seized by this tantalizing thought of mass conversion since at least the 1970s. When their initiatives fail—and they inevitably do—the musical missionaries routinely blame the ignorant for rejecting their gifts. They use essentialist notions of race and culture to explain away their failures instead of recognizing the agency and the desires of their potential converts. It is as though they cannot comprehend that someone might listen to a symphony, understand its merits, and choose a different musical preference.
Thurman does not provide any examples of this phenomenon. Your task is to find one and be ready to discuss it in our next class meeting.
P.S. Art imitating life, or life imitating art?
The Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, about a fictional New York City orchestra, set an episode during its 3rd season (S3E7) in the notorious jail complex on Rikers Island, in which the orchestra engages in one of the outreach programs Thurman describes above. The episode was filmed on location, and the inmates were real inmates in the jail, not actors. You can read more about it here:
We will watch it in class if we have time.
Do you think the outreach efforts of the fictional New York Symphony to the real jail population at Rikers fit Dr. Thurman’s description?