(ONE AMONG MANY VOICES)
I’m a working-class person from Buffalo, New York. I attended public institutions from middle school through college. My father earned an associate’s degree in business from a community college; he held a good union job for almost thirty years. My mother, one of seven children in an Irish-Italian Catholic family, worked several odd-jobs and as a secretary during my childhood. She earned a graduate degree just before I started high school. I also have two sisters, one helps people, the other helps animals.
I wanted to hide, to squeeze into dark spaces, to change my appearance just enough to fit in. I read the New Yorker, have cultivated a personal library of used books and brew my coffee with an Aeropress. The coffee is black, my wine is red. I write with a Waterman fountain pen, like Claude Lévi Strauss, after whom my kitchen cactus is named. There were no formally trained musicians in my childhood home nor are my parents academics. We didn’t have a home library when I was a child, but we did frequent the public library in a neighborhood close by. Little did my parents know that by reducing our television service to basic cable, they would end up with a classically trained musician who took advantage of free public library activities during breaks and weekends. Being the middle child that I am, I bamboozled my parents by demanding my own instrument – a $100 viola purchased by my grandparents on eBay. My classical training included “1-per-minute” private lessons as my mother called them, transportation to and from rehearsals and auditions, as well as repeated interruptions during Sunday football (Go Bills). My parents did their best to navigate this upside-down world, but this unfamiliar music that I played was something with which they didn’t identify. In fact, the only symphonic concerts I attended with my parents were after a minor-league baseball game and a screening of The Wizard of Oz. Given America’s current political climate, telling a working-class story seems imperative.
I felt my working class background for the first time after enrolling in an honors public school. Predominantly funded through property taxes, public education in America is far from equitable, and the process for which this is upheld is inequitable and undemocratic. A complex, bordering incoherent web of money that entangles political gerrymandering with racism, thus preventing changes to how education is funded, leaving schools in less affluent neighborhoods without adequate funding, sometimes even leaving neighborhoods entirely without any public schools. Treating schools as more workforce training camps than enrichment opportunities limits student exposure to the arts, widening the gap between those who can and those who cannot participate in music. Districts, however, are able to shift funds. My school did cultivate a semblance of diversity within its student body, but I was still the fat girl with working- class parents among the typically-shaped children of doctors, engineers, architects, and business owners. Experiencing alienation for the first time, I retreated, allowing my fragility and insecurity to shape my identity. It wasn’t all bad: had it not been for relentless bullying, I might not have been so obsessed with finding love and validation, might not have clung so strongly to the school’s music department – where I found overwhelming love and acceptance – and therefore might not have become a musician at all. A student in another public school is less likely to have a similar, life-changing experience. Recognizing that much of my life was made possible by luck, I find myself battling intrusive, self-conscious thoughts with working-class hauntings: I do not belong in academia.
Until recently, I’ve done whatever I can to be less working class while moving in classical music and academic spaces. Whenever something like “I can’t usually afford that”, “I’ve never had”, “I’ve never been”, “I’ve never heard of”, “I don’t know how to”, “I can’t do XYZ because I work three part-time jobs”, or “I have no paid time off, and won’t be able to pay my rent if I go to that conference” slips out, the ground quakes a bit and whomever I’m talking to becomes perceptively uncomfortable. The conversation has to quickly be turned elsewhere. Humiliated, I would often attempt humor – simultaneously court jester and charity case. I realize now that academia needs to reinforce a specific power structure wherever possible, and these subtle attacks on my worthiness are simply par for the course. Academia is the way it is because the way it is benefits the elite. Classical music is no different.
Classical music is endemic to the same elitist, double-edged charitable ecology. Like academia, institutions carrying on Western art traditions were forced to undergo a performative reckoning after the murders of Black and Brown people were finally shoved in front of enough American eyeballs. Some organizations believed their statements, and new organizations formed around these tragedies. Remedying so much of what plagues Black and Brown people in America would pull the working class, including the white working class,
away from their pernicious reality. This is why most of these white-savior focused efforts will fail. The white elites who possess the power to enact change will not do so, as it jeopardizes their own status. Classical music cannot fix itself because it, in the eyes of the industry itself, will disfigure the genre, leaving it unrecognizable. Chipping away at the elite’s power is unacceptable; American capitalism can only function if there is a subjugated working class, required specific levels of ignorance and interracial tension. As someone without elite means, I sympathize with the working-class instinct to think “why should someone belonging to a minority group get anything just for existing? Life is hard for me too!” This is what the ruling class wants. Writing this essay exposes the pain of being worked against, of being invited into a space to be reminded that I didn’t belong there, to be put in my place like the replaceable worker I am, but the white working class has long enough depended on the strength and intrepid action of non-white peers: If we want change, and I believe that those seeking change outnumber those endeavoring to maintain the status quo, white people must also put in the work.
(THE RICH ARE NOT GOING TO SAVE US, THEY WANT US HERE: A CONVERSATION)
Music is a luxury, poor children don’t get luxuries, that’s what being poor means!
We allow classical music organizers to exploit their communities, using taxpayer dollars to “gift” classical music to people who didn’t ask for it on their own dime. Classical music organizations simply popping into schools or grungy outdoor spaces to take pictures with citizens who would not appear in their pristine concert halls.
These poor people should be grateful! It’s beautiful music!
Music funded through government grants, foundations, and corporations is music subsidized by taxpayers. The middle and working classes are saddled with the burden of paying higher income tax rates while the wealthiest Americans pay nothing. Working-class Americans are even less likely to make charitable contributions, as their paychecks cover fewer and fewer of their expenses. Concert tickets are not in the budget.
In the United States of America, classical music organizations offer free or significantly reduced ticket prices to concerts in public spaces as “gifts” to the community, communities that they would otherwise not serve during a traditional concert season. These “free” concerts
are funded through state and county grants; taxpayers foot the bill, not the organization. Not only that, but these concerts are often requirements of grant reception themselves. It is absurd: the citizen’s money is thrown back in their face as charity.
Classical music is changing! Look at their social media accounts!
Orchestras and opera companies clamoring for DEIA spotlights are not levying this critique against the government, they are not calling for equitable childhood music experiences, and they are most certainly not forfeiting mass sums of money necessary to close the gap between schools with flourishing music programs and those without music at all. How could it be that they are seeking diversity, equity and inclusion if they are not, at the very least, attempting to remedy the system rendering this lack of representation in classical music? Simple: their wealthy, mostly white and mostly elderly donor base would have to pay their fair share of taxes and dismantle their exploitative money grabs in Black and Brown neighborhoods through democratic processes, such as voting for new school-board, city, county, and state officials.
Musicians who spent their childhoods and young adult lives within the safety of their middle-class lives and who are now entering the workforce are giving less and less credence to traditional work models. Young musicians attract massive social media attention and are finding new ways to collaborate and challenge the authenticity of the classical music model. Chamber ensemble models with curtailed or no governing boards of trustees provide necessary flexibility for programming concerts featuring underrepresented artists in non traditional spaces. Removing classical music from the confines of symphony halls – literal monuments of wealth and exclusivity – marks the return of non-profit, publicly funded music back to the community. Holding concerts with minimal carbon footprints – digital programs, easy access to public transportation, locations highlighting nature and encouraging land preservation – and supporting local contemporary artists without emphasizing the diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) conformity of the group are simple, effective strategies for democratizing the musical process. Moreover, the harmful impact of classical music is minimized through reduction in exclusivity. Eliminating governing boards permits free artistic exploration, as well as a removed pressure for framing classical music as a market product. In an ideal world, grants would not have to exist through complex chicanery, and creating music could happen without any financial justification. It would be a world in which art would exist for its own sake – the sake of creativity and
a culture left uncommercialized.
Musicologists within institutions, like any academic whose work is funded through public grants or philanthropy, are beholden to the taxpayers making their research possible, including that conducted by the working class. If institutions want to fulfill their DEIA promises, they must advocate for change. Musicology departments in universities and colleges should support working-class scholarship by working-class scholars (as opposed to observers from wealthier classes).
In its embryonic stages, classical music was a thing created by a subjugated working-class for the purpose of court entertainment or religious ceremonies. Classical music belonged to a pre-capitalist working-class, and it belongs to the working-class of our latestage capitalism hellscape. We are the tax-paying majority fueling public art forms, whether it is through our direct labor, or subsidizing the tax avoidance of the rich. We, the laborers voting against our own interest; we, the workers who are too tired to participate in the culture we fund; we, the counterculture artists evading commodification of our craft need not accept the paltry terms dictated
by the ruling elite. Tuxedos with tails, silent concert halls holding audiences hostage between twenty and ninety minutes at a time, in dazzling, vapid, gilded establishments. The working-class does not need an invitation to enter these or academic spaces: we own them.
Banner: Tony Cokes
Still from Some Munich Moments, 1937–1972 (2022)
Commissioned by Haus der Kunst and Kunstverein München.Courtesy the artist, Greene Naftali, New York,
Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, FELIX GAUDLITZ, Vienna, and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York.
This Contribution was released with the support of Rudolf Augstein Stiftung, Bundesverband Soziokultur, Neustarthilfe, Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien.
 In “Mark on the Spade” of Dreamworlds of Alabama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) sociologist Allen Shelton describes an image of Lévi-Strauss working in the New York Public Library, writing with a Waterman fountain pen. I often revisit this passage, wondering if, somehow, the brilliance of Lévi-Strauss will seep through my pen onto paper, elucidating the complexities of musical form in everyday life. Unraveling the myth of great autonomous art music taking place within concert halls by analyzing music and social structures honors and betrays Lévi-Strauss’ work. For Shelton, purchasing a fountain pen recreates an image, for me, it scratches an image out, generating an entirely new picture.
• Freeman, Jim. Rich Thanks to Racism: How the Ultra-Wealthy Profit
from Racial Injustice. Ithaca, NY: IRL Press, 2021.
• Reich, Rob. Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and
How it Can Do Better. Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press, 2019.
• Ritchey, Marianna. “Resisting Usefulness: Music and the Political
Imagination.” Current Musicology 108 (November, 2021): 26-52.
• Shelton, Allen C. Dreamworlds of Alabama. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2007.