simply symphonic

Last night, a friend treated me to an evening at the San Francisco Symphony. In her email invitation, she asked if I liked classical music. I wasn’t sure what answer to give her. I don’t think I ever answered that question, but did say that I’d never been to the symphony before, so I would be delighted to go.

I appreciate classical music; my dad is a pianist, and we listened to classical music more than one would expect a working-class black family in urban Philadelphia to do. I know my father has CDs of Tchaikovsky and Bach. Handel’s Messiah is one of my favorite pieces of music.

But I don’t listen to classical music on an everyday basis, just like I don’t listen to jazz on an everyday basis. And it’s strange, and wrong, and elitist to me for why I don’t, but I’m going to put it out there anyway: it’s because I see those types of music as “art” in a way that I don’t readily associate with other types of music, like R&B, or Hip-Hop, except on rare occasions.

Why do I feel that way? I think it can be illustrated in a conversation I had with my friend as we were leaving the Hall last night. The last piece was Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D major, Opus 11. It’s a piece in which the flute features beautifully, the other woodwinds are prominent, the strings are just gorgeous. Even the timpani – the drum – has it’s role.

Anyway, as we were leaving, I commented to my friend how exquisite the flutist was. She says that she can’t hear the individual instruments like that.

For me, music is an experience, a moment of play for the ears and the mind. In that hall I was continually searching for the instruments, hearing them separately but also as a group. It’s like a fun game to me to pick out a musical instrument when I am listening to music, trying to distinguish between a violin and a viola or a cello. In jazz, hearing the difference between a sax and an alto sax, a trumpet, trombone. Listening for the bass – low but steady, training the ear to hear it.

Hip-hop and R&B sometimes hit these marks, especially in live performance. Last time I was in Davies Hall, where the SF Symphony performs, I was there to see The Roots, who are a band anyway, but live…it’s art. Jay-Z’s unplugged album (again with the Roots band) – art. I’m cringing as I write this cause I know I’m sounding really bougie and really wrong but I think I am just a music purist and instruments played with the hands and breath learned over time with discipline…that’s art. What’s happening in music now – that’s not.

But it’s the same reason why I listen to pop music more than classical and jazz. Cause I want to be able to appreciate the good stuff. I want to be able to sit and ruminate in it. Let it wash over me. The crap can go in one ear and out the other. The good stuff I want to truly experience.

It was problematic, however, when I noticed the demographics of the audience and of the symphony itself. One black woman in the symphony. Less than five black people that I could count in the audience. I don’t know exactly what to make of that. I’m sure my comments labeling classical music as “art” over other types of music feeds into the perception of classical music not being for black folks. Is that the reason I didn’t see more folks in the audience? Is that the reason that more black folks don’t make it being a performer for a living? Or is it just as likely structural barriers as taking music out of schools?

But I am putting jazz up with classical. Black people have been playing jazz for a long time, and the musical complexity is out of this world. I know that learning an instrument is a privilege that many black people don’t have, and won’t get. My response though is not to say that drum machines, autotune, and sampling are now art. I suppose it is to some folks. But still not to me. I want my children to play an instrument. One that makes sound without the need for electricity.

What say you?

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