Last year in our survey class I struggled with how to react to the traditional telling of music history–one that too often focuses on, and thereby values, the output of a select group of mostly dead white male composers to the dismissal of the music of composers who also happened to be women, to be people of color, or to come from non-Western musical traditions.
I came into our Music of Paris in the 1920s class, then, hoping for an opportunity to learn about composers and music I had never heard of before–perhaps because of their failure to fall into the above traditional categories–and thereby to introduce more complexity at least into my own understanding of music history if not, in some small way, into the prevailing narrative of music history in general. To accomplish this goal, I researched Jane Evrard and her all-women orchestra (the Orchestre feminin de Paris) for my first paper. For my second paper, I learned more about the opportunities and difficulties that Black musicians encountered in 1920s Paris by reading about the Bal negre, a night club specializing in biguine music of the Antilles. I wrote my paper from the perspective of Jane Nardal, co-founder of and writer for La Revue du Monde Noir who, according to Jennifer Anne Boittin, helped to initiate “a transformation of ideas about race in interwar Paris which [she] then helped to sustain.” I contrasted the scene at the Bal negre with Josephine Baker’s performances and the objectifying and “spectacle” aspects that performances such as hers were based on and helped perpetuate.
For my first and second papers, the most frustrating and exciting component of my work consisted in the fact that so little research has been done on these topics. This was frustrating for a number of reasons: first of all, it underlined the fact that these people and institutions have been overlooked; secondly, it made it hard to learn as much as I wanted to about these topics and especially to access primary sources; and lastly, it proved challenging to avoid running in circles and repeating myself due to the lack of diversity of sources. But these challenges were exciting, too: I was more motivated to do my work well, because I knew that not enough others were investigating these topics. Furthermore, each discovery or connection I made seemed all the more meaningful and personal when I considered that some of our course readings weren’t focusing on these issues and therefore weren’t making these connections for me.
In my third paper, I researched a work by one of the most well-known composers of this period, Maurice Ravel. I was delighted by the plethora of resources on Ravel that I found even in minimal preliminary research…then equally disturbed when I remembered how different this research experience was from the investigation I did for my first two papers: the difference in the amount of material dealing with Ravel compared to the sparse amount of sources I scrounged up for my first two papers was significant. The piece I researched for this third paper was Ravel’s Chansons madecasses, a song cycle based on poems from a collection by the same name, written by Evariste-Desire de Parny in 1787. These poems are presented assumedly from the perspective of inhabitants of Madagascar, and it is possible that some of the timbral techniques that Ravel uses are meant to invoke either his imaginings of Malagasy music or his recollection of Malagasy music he may have had a chance to hear at the World’s Fair held in Paris in 1900. The text of the second movement warns of desecration wreaked by “the whites;” was this an attempt by Ravel to decry France’s long history of destructive colonization and otherwise oppressive treatment of Blacks? Certain components of Ravel’s piece suggest this more positive interpretation of his intent, but others reflect the established trend of taking advantage of and inauthentically representing exotic Others.
This third paper especially has helped me reflect more on how I treat the subjects that I study. I think that too often I’m tempted to denounce and dismiss the musicians or compositions that can easily be labeled as “bad” or “wrong:” those that appropriate and distort music of other cultures, institutions that privilege men over women, etc. But the ambiguity of Ravel’s intentions in Chansons madecasses prompted me to reevaluate these tendencies.
Yes, I think it is of utmost importance that we ensure that the interesting, beautiful, challenging, and otherwise valuable music that we learn about, teach, and listen to includes a diversity of voices.
Yes, we need to talk about how music and musicians inadvertently and purposefully maintain racism, sexism, classism, and a myriad of other insulating and oppressive practices–and we also need to figure out how to act once we are made aware of these problems.
But maybe it is just as important to engage with the people and pieces that perpetuate the unacceptable. Instead of only redefining what we consider to be valuable and worthy of attention, and redirecting our focus to those things, I think we need to reconsider how we react to the components we list under both our “acceptable” and our “unacceptable,” or “worthy” and “unworthy,” categories.
My research this semester has helped me remember that people are complex: that no one is all good or all bad. I’ve been pushed to acknowledge the triumphs and the sometimes egregious shortcomings of the musicians whose lives and works we’ve studied, while remembering that neither can define them in a comprehensive way. Instead of uncritically celebrating underrepresented composers while rejecting certain better-known composers who sometimes engage in objectionable beliefs and practices, I’m learning to approach research in a more holistic way. With this attitude, I can eagerly and cautiously immerse myself in music that is new to me and consider music that I already know about through fresh–and multiple–lenses.