Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dead White Guys

We humans rarely get it right. We set in motion weird notions of relationship where some have the power and privilege and the rest are subservient to it with few choices beyond obey or resist. When enough resist and those with power are overthrown, the new folks take over and anything good that grew in that former swamp of relationship is thrown out as well. As the philosopher Montaigne said, “To straighten a bent stick, we first have to bend it the other way.” Maybe. But if you don’t release it, it will just stay bent in the other direction. (And even when it is straight, what’s so great about a straight stick? Montaigne needed to work on his metaphor a little more.) And so back and forth we go.

Dead White Males, the holders of so much privilege  (well, at least while they were alive. Is their hierarchy in Heaven?) have been held in low esteem in the past few decades. Universities have revised their syllabi and for young hip intellectuals and advocates for social justice, anything that comes from the pen of the DWM is suspect, dismissed, re-interpreted in the light of revisionist and deconstructionist theory.

And I myself have participated in this, shouting “Amen” to Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over, Beethoven,” loving to tell the stories of Horowitz and Rubinstein coming to hear Art Tatum play jazz piano, habitually including Zora Neale Hurston, Emily Dickinson, Basho, in any list I make of writers, Thornton Dial and Gee’s Bend quilters in lists of artists, Charlie Parker, Tito Puente and Ravi Shankar in lists of musicians and always putting the Nicholas Brothers before Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in my list of tap dancers to help enlarge our notions of the playing field. (I showed my 8th graders Fred and Gene dancing in the song The Babbit and the Bromide and then a clip of the Nicholas Brothers from the film Down Argentine Way. The kids were outspoken as to who were the more vibrant dancers and outraged that the former were more well known. Two more dead white males shot down and I helped load the pistol!)

There is no question that so many have suffered—and continue to suffer— from a culture of selective inclusion. And not just the people excluded. The whole culture misses out on the possibility of being refreshed by extraordinary people who were denied a leg up to share their gifts more widely. Wouldn’t the world have enjoyed two Mozarts, both Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl? Could it have encouraged Clara Schumann a bit more than it did without taking a single note away from Robert? Wouldn’t we be uplifted to hear music from the countless remarkable musicians in cultures worldwide whose names we will never know? Wouldn’t it have been fantastic if the Nicholas Brothers had made as many films as Fred Astaire? Well, we don’t get to re-write history and instead of whining (still February, after all!), we can be grateful for those we do know and remember to keep the choices and opportunities open so that the next genius of any class, race or gender can refresh us with her or his work.

But yesterday I spent in company with a bunch of dead white guys named Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Ravel and got up from the piano with my mind clearer, body refreshed and heart more open than when I sat down. I couldn’t help but think “Damn! Those guys could write!” And again, in a world dominated by the notion of music history beginning with Palestrina when Western harmony began to develop, I’ve done my part to celebrate the beauties of a musical world so much larger than Europe between 1600 and 1900—the vast repertoire of music in the pentatonic scale, modes with drones, African polyrhythms, gamelan forms, the complexity of Indian rhymes and melodies and so much more. West Africa drum choirs put Bach in rhythmic kindergarten, Indian ragas put Schubert in melodic preschool and the Balinese gamelan angklung shows Western composers that they can do much more with 4-notes than they ever dreamed possible.

But none of it negates the Western genius of functional harmony—it just puts it in balance with the particular genius of other musical cultures. But genius it is to create a system of harmonic tensions and releases that pluck the strings of our hearts with so many subtle shades and gradations of feeling. And to take musical ideas through so many variations of harmonic accompaniment, different textures, related themes reveals a mind at the height of intelligence. Western classical music may seem so-two-hundred-years-ago, but its intricate structures and harmonic variations will help build a sophisticated mind and nuanced heart in any player or listener willing to do the work.

So friends, while opening the doors to the riches of all artists and thinkers, let’s not slam the door in the face of Socrates, Shakespeare, Goethe, Brahms, Dickens, Whitman, Bill Evans and others. We needn’t exclude Dead White Males in order to widen the circle of inclusion. Of course, I have a vested interest in this since, worthy of remembrance or not, I myself will be a DWM some day. Please don't hold it against me. 

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