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Who Gets to Define Classical Music?
When Curtis Stewart heard the news that his album Of Power was nominated for a 2022 Grammy Award in the category of Best Classical Instrumental Solo, he was overjoyed. He was also a little surprised. “I just didn’t think I would have much of a chance there,” he says. But “the fact that I got that nomination was extremely heartening for me.”
Then the backlash began.
Alongside the well-known pop star Jon Batiste—who was also nominated for a Grammy, in the category of Best Contemporary Classical Composition, for his piece “Movement 11’”—Stewart’s inclusion in a classical Grammy category has sparked anger from critics who say their music is simply not classical enough.
According to a lengthy report in The Observer, “Letters of complaint have been sent to … the Recording Academy, arguing that the tracks in question,” by Batiste and Stewart, “have been ‘mis-categorised.’” Marc Neikrug, a Grammy-nominated composer, said in his letter to the Academy, “As a serious, dedicated composer of what has always been considered ‘classical’ music, I am dismayed.” Neikrug found it “unfathomable” that the Academy “would choose to re-categorise an entire segment of our inherited culture.”
Stewart is a classically trained violinist and composer who plays in PUBLIQuartet, a nontraditional classical music group he calls a “new music improvising string quartet.” He is also a faculty member at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. Although his music stretches the traditional definition of European-origin classical music from past centuries, he is bewildered at the vitriolic responses to his and Batiste’s nominations, given that the field has constantly benefited from musical innovations over the centuries, and especially recently from new, young composers over the past decade.
The part of Neikrug’s critique that Stewart finds “most hurtful” is the idea that his music does not fit the composer’s definition of “our inherited culture.” Stewart is the child of two professional musicians, and says, “I have literally inherited the music of my mother and father.” His mother, the late Elektra Kurtis, was a Greek American composer and violinist who straddled the world of classical and jazz music, and his father is Bob Stewart, a Grammy-nominated tuba player and music educator.
“I am a classical musician,” he asserts.
How Does One Define Classical Music?
“What exactly about what I’m doing is invalid, and not classical?” asks Stewart, saying that classical musical themes are “baked into the actual composition” of the pieces on his Grammy-nominated album Of Power. Still, The New York Times op-ed columnist John McWhorter summarized the thrust of the controversy over Stewart and Batiste’s nominations when he claimed that the Academy was merely trying to be “inclusive.” McWhorter said he felt insulted that “music that isn’t classical” was nominated.
Another critic, Apostolos Paraskevas, a professor at Berklee College of Music, went further, complaining to The Observer about Batiste’s nontraditional style of classical music, “If this person gets an award, this is a big slap on our face. It’s a message to everyone that we should give up and just do this.”
Stewart takes issue with such criticisms. “Listen to [my] music and … if you feel it’s watered down, please, let me know. I will better my craft!” he says. He sees the backlash as an indication of fear within a traditionally White-dominated industry where people of color are slowly but surely breaking in and taking up space. The critics are “projecting that fear of not being heard and represented onto me and Jon Batiste,” he says by way of explanation.
Black Influence on Classical Music Through the Ages
Political analyst and radio host Earl Ofari Hutchinson has long examined the role of people of color, particularly African Americans, in classical music. He has written two books about the genre, including Beethoven and Me: A Beginner’s Guide to Classical Music in 2015, and It’s Our Music Too: The Black Experience in Classical Music in 2016. “I’m not really surprised there would be some controversy” over Batiste and Stewart’s Grammy nominations, he says.
According to Hutchinson, the traditionally accepted definition of classical music is based on “17th, 18th, or 19th century Western European or Russian music.” However, today, he says, “You’re blending more things into classical music that have traditionally not been there,” such as jazz, rock, and pop. Jazz in particular has been fused into classical music for decades, and Hutchinson says that “many of the ‘purists’ take exception to that.”
That puritanical approach—and the racial dynamics at play—may be informing the backlash to Stewart and Batiste’s nominations, Hutchinson says. “There’s sometimes been an overt, but more likely subtle, undertone of ‘Wait a minute, Blacks in classical music? That’s like the sun and the moon!’”
Hutchinson cites numerous White composers who were influenced by composers of color, particularly jazz musicians, including Americans like George Gershwin, French composers like Maurice Ravel, and, to an extent, Russia’s Sergei Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich. “They were influenced by African American jazz rhythms,” he says.
Similarly, Stewart sees classical music itself as the result of merging influences. “I’ve seen musicians of many cultures bring their culture into the world of classical music and either be recognized for it, or not,” he says. “There is literally a classical tradition of violinists taking music from one world and bringing it into another world.” Stewart does just such a thing with his classical violin interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s pop classic “Isn’t She Lovely” on his album Of Power.
Black Classical Music Matters
The Grammy controversy is the latest flashpoint over racial belonging within the classical music field, and it is fueling ongoing debates about how the music is defined and who gets to define it. A genre that has long been associated with White European highbrow culture has struggled for years to embrace musicians of color, especially Black musicians. Stewart speculates that perhaps “this year is a reaction to 2020” and the nationwide racial justice uprisings from nearly two years ago. “They’re afraid of what being ‘woke’ will do to our field,” he says.
“I have always been deeply interested in social justice,” says Stewart. When the pandemic hit and the quarantine-era mass protests against the police killing of George Floyd gripped the nation, Stewart, who was participating in the protests while also caring for his sick mother, produced his Grammy-nominated album in his living room.
“We were all stuck in our little bubbles, and I just needed to put my anxiety and my feelings somewhere,” he says. Of Power is a musical documentation of a society in turmoil, encapsulating the reactions of a Black musician during a moment of racial reckoning. “I was using these recordings as a kind of journal, as a way to … react to what was happening in the world,” says Stewart.
Among the pieces on his album that Stewart is most proud of is a solo violin arrangement of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem. “To call that ‘not serious’ [classical music] is hurtful,” he says.
Fighting to Be Seen and Heard
When asked why there is such a reluctance in the world of classical music to accept Black people, Hutchinson says that racism is one reason. “There’s a lot of money in classical music,” he explains. “The whole genre is very well-endowed.” That wealth creates a kind of “protective layer” around the genre, he explains. Although there are increasing numbers of people of color, and particularly African Americans, entering the classical music profession—especially on orchestras—the pace of change remains slow.
“You still have the old guard out there who are very protective of their interest in classical music,” says Hutchinson. Nevertheless, he is about to start hosting a classical music radio program on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles, becoming one of very few, if any, Black classical music show hosts nationwide.
In thinking about what his craft means to him, Stewart invokes Nina Simone, an American musical icon who was also considered to be the first classically trained Black pianist in the U.S. Simone famously said she was turned away from the Curtis Institute of Music—even though she passed their audition—simply because she was Black. Stewart cites Simone’s regret in being introduced as a jazz musician instead of as a classical musician during her debut performance at Carnegie Hall. “I refuse to have that sense of regret,” he says.
Stewart plans on continuing to innovate musically without tamping down his unique cultural influences. “The field of classical music needs this. I want to hear more people like me in my field!” he says, smiling broadly. “It just makes me excited, it makes me joyous.”
Hutchinson is heartened that, despite the pushback, the Recording Academy took a courageous and progressive stance in ensuring that this year’s classical Grammy nominations included nontraditional compositions and performances like Stewart’s and Batiste’s. “I’m glad to see that, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see more of that in the future.” He sees it as progress and the “recognition that Blacks are in classical music, and they’re here to stay.”
“To be seen is like this is joy, it’s a release, it’s a catharsis,” says Stewart of his Grammy nomination. “There are plenty of musicians of color in the classical music field that deserve that.”
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com