How classical music confronts its colonial past and present


No work of Western classical music is more closely associated with the Christmas period than that of the German-born composer George Frideric Handel Messiah, which was established in 1742.

In recent years, audiences have been able to choose between performances modeled on those of the composer’s era, performances following the 19th century tradition of massive choirs and modern instruments, and even staged and choreographed interpretations of the work. When COVID-19 reduced live performance, online video presentations became a new medium.

This was following global protests over the murder of George Floyd and a global revitalization of Black Lives Matter. Among artists from different industries, black classical artists like baritone Andrew Adridge, in conversation with writer Michael Zarathus-Cook, called for classical music to solve systemic problems. He noted, “There is a problem with race in… arts organizations because there is a problem in Canada” and “avoiding conversations” will not help.

In a separate article, Zarathus-Cook wrote of how “we need to recognize that the protests we have seen are being spurred both by the urgent need for a radical assessment of the police force and of how they interact with [Black, Indigenous and people of colour], and the more subtle, culturally diffused everyday racism that is not triggered by a prematurely triggered trigger, but by words and social cues that remind racialized people in this country that they are irrevocably looking from the outside. “

Even before the global Black Lives Matter protests, a 2018 report prepared for the nonprofit Orchestras Canada by writer and arts consultant Soraya Peerbaye and violinist and ethnomusicologist Parmela Attariwala documents “systemic inequity and coloniality in Canadian orchestras ”, ranging from orchestral leadership and governance structures to their repertoire and working methods. Music scholars also grappled with the colonial legacy of classical music, including Handel’s investments in the slave trade.

Two interpretations of “Messiah”

In December 2020, Against the Grain Theater (AtG) in Toronto and Soundstreams produced pre-recorded films based on Handel’s work. Messiah which was streamed for free on YouTube. The two organizations have shown creative ingenuity to pivot quickly into the pandemic to produce digital content and provide jobs for artists in the early months of COVID-19 as the precariousness of artists’ livelihoods grew increasingly Claire.

How these two Canadian companies chose to respond to our contemporary context of anti-racist appeals by interpreting Messiah provides the opportunity to have a conversation about how performers and audiences of Western classical music can more fully engage in anti-colonial and anti-racist work.

To these questions we, two white settler academics, bring our combined research expertise into 18th century music and how independent opera companies in Canada are helping works of the past address contemporary issues. One of us (Nina) is involved in a project, “Exploring New Collaborative Models in Indigenous-led Opera in Canada”. This collaboration is with Amplified Opera, a Toronto-based collective that inspires audiences to “embrace diverse and stimulating cultural experiences.”

Against the ‘Messiah / Complex’ of the Grain

The new interpretation of the theater Against the Grain Messiah, Messiah / Complex, hoped to support indigenous and under-represented voices as part of their mandate to present familiar pieces “in innovative ways and in unusual places.” They decided to present Handel’s orchestral music as originally written, which was to be performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, but they hired all the native, black or racialized solo singers, 12 in total.

Joel Ivany, Founder and Artistic Director of AtG, partnered with Reneltta Arluk, Director of Akpik Theater and Indigenous Arts at the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity to co-lead the production. Ivany said artists are encouraged to choose the setting and language of interpretation for their performances. The film features segments in Arabic, Dene, English, Inuktitut, Inuttitut, French and Southern Tutchone.

Features in the New York Times, BBC (endorsed by Margaret Atwood) and other major media have garnered more than 138,000 views in 44 countries. Art journalist Brad Wheeler, writing in the Globe and Mail, described it as an “impressive lesson in reconciliation and inclusion”, while a New York Times The title of the story of the writer Dan Bilefsky declared that Handel’s work was “free from the bonds of history.”

Soundstreams’ “Electric Messiah”

Another production based on Handel’s work, Electric Messiah by Soundstreams was billed as “a complete music video that reinvents Handel’s classic for the world today” and “brings the past to life in a new way that reflects the city we live in”.

In keeping with Soundstreams’ mandate to showcase the work of living composers, the company has made minimal changes to the lyrics. Instead, the artists combine these lyrics with new music with influences from electronic dance music, pop and hip hop.

Electric Messiah was also well received, but reached a smaller and predominantly local audience.

The colonial legacy of classical music

In the report Orchester Canada de Peerbaye and Attariwala, they call on Canadian orchestras “to create non-hierarchical environments in which artistic inquiries of Indigenous artists and artists of color can take place.” Engaging in “broader conversations about the experiences of Indigenous peoples, people of color and other equity-seeking communities” will enable orchestras to “cultivate equal and reciprocal relationships that meaningfully support artistic research. current ”.

These recommendations are included in Hungry Listening: Resonance Theory for Native Sound Studies, a recent book by Stó: lō researcher and artist Dylan Robinson. He notes that the problem with the inclusion of more diverse artists and traditions, without changing existing working methods, is that even the “best integration intentions continue to strengthen and maintain the hierarchical dominance of artistic music by as a genre to which other music must conform. “

Fair collaborations with musicians from other traditions will involve working in new ways. Robinson also recommends highlighting the irreconcilability of different musical traditions. Allowing these differences to be heard could foster greater openness to the idea that reconciliation cannot be achieved by “including” Aboriginal people in existing colonial models.

New interpretive frameworks

In Messiah / Complex, some artists have expressed the Indigenous resurgence by singing in Indigenous languages ​​or challenging Western classical and colonial tropes. Baritone Nêhiyaw-Michif (Cris-Métis) Jonathon Adams described their performance as a “commentary on what it means to be Two-Spirit and Aboriginal in Alberta.” The performance juxtaposed shots of an oil refinery with the surrounding lands and waters of their homeland.

Jonathon Adams sings “Thus Says the Lord” + “But Who Can Dwell” in “Messiah / Complex” at the Against the Grain Theater.

AtG has featured singers outside of the Western classical tradition, many of whom are also songwriters or songwriters. However, their composition skills were not showcased. AtG’s decision to ask the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to provide the backing tracks may suggest that, to combat the industry’s dominant whiteness, nothing in the sound of Western classical music needs change – that all that is needed is to employ more indigenous, black and racialized artists. But this approach ignores criticisms of how the sounds and values ​​of classical music can “be a structural barrier to diversification,” as noted Chris Jenkins, violist, musicologist and associate dean at the Oberlin Conservatory.

Agency for singers and musicians

Soundstreams has given singers and musicians more agency over music. Adam Scime, composer and musical director of the 2020 edition of Electric Messiah, notes that they invite the musicians involved in each iteration to “bring their own voice to sculpt the project” and that they “give everyone a collaborative equal footing”.

In accordance with Robinson’s recommendations, the individual artists of Electric Messiah maintained sovereignty over their segments. Meanwhile, viewers are encouraged to appreciate the differences between, for example, the platinism of SlowPitchSound, the Métis, and French-Canadian composer Ian Cusson. dead, oh grave, and Scime’s chorus “Hallelujah” reimagined as a dance party on the beach. In doing so, Soundstreams not only explored new and more equitable ways of working together, but the sonic results challenged the hegemony of the Western classical tradition.

Messiah / Complex is available for streaming on demand until January 9, 2022. Soundstreams will release a new version of Electric Messiah in April 2022.


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