Guest Blog: Expanding the Canon

Expanding the Canon by Katie Pieschala

Note from ACSO: The author of this blog, Katie Pieschala, was ACSO's 2020-2021 Program and Membership Intern and her internship was generously supported by a grant from the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture.
In recent years, the classical music field has become increasingly anxious about its relevance. Music magazines and newspapers sound the death knell of the art form and executives wring their hands as their audience numbers decline. While some of this fear is overblown -- do we really believe that orchestras are exclusively populated by octogenarians and destined for imminent extinction? -- classical music is currently not nearly as culturally significant as it has the potential to be. As a young composer and performer, I believe the key to the growth of this field is expanding the canon, using fresh perspectives to reinvigorate existing audiences and engage new ones. We can begin this work re-examining our perception of excellence in classical music.

Currently, most classical music institutions operate around teaching and programming the Great Composers. Almost exclusively White, male child prodigies who wrote for the symphony orchestra, these composers are associated with a sort of supernatural genius. Children’s CDs advertise the brainpower benefits of listening to Bach; program notes and biographies speak in reverent tones about how young Mozart was when he wrote a particular symphony. When we view composers become unnaturally brilliant, we transform them from artists into untouchable standards. Conservatory admissions require this Beethoven sonata or that Tchaikovsky concerto; orchestras are expected to play a steady diet of Mahler and La Mer. Great Composers are not people so much as concepts. When is the last time, talking among other classical musicians, that you used Vivaldi or Haydn’s first name? (Antonio and Joseph, respectively). Being a contemporary composer becomes impossible: you are human, so you can’t be perfect; you are imperfect, so you can’t be Great. A few recent composers, such as Bernstein or Gershwin, have managed to scrape their way into the canon, but they had the major advantage of fitting the White, male prodigy profile.

Nothing is wrong with the work of the Great Composers. In fact, these composers produced beautiful, moving and technically masterful art. The famous pieces continue to be relevant and important to the field for both their history and their emotional impact. However, while the Great Composers produced exceptional works of art, the Great Composers mythology is not about their art. It is about power. Potential audiences, performers and composers are deterred by the expectation that they arrive at the concert or the rehearsal already possessing an extensive knowledge of the canon, and they resent the way the Great Composers have been used to uphold oppressive racial, gender and socioeconomic dynamics through the (incredibly subjective) guise of genius. It’s no coincidence that the Great Composer was a child prodigy: classical music all too often likes to pretend that great art is inherent, not, in fact, a product of experience, talent, training and social status. When we insist that only an exclusive group of composers are brilliant, we prevent anyone who does not fit our pre-established criteria from breaking into the field of classical music. There is no reason that Barbara Strozzi or Julius Eastman or Lili Boulanger shouldn't be played regularly other than that we insist that, because we haven’t heard their works ad nauseam, they are not up to par.

So how do we dismantle the Great Composers mythology?

As with all diversity, equity and inclusion work, the process begins with internal examination. Question what you were taught and what actions you take. Did you only play certain composers in your music studies? Have you ever proactively searched for new music? The next steps are reassessing your education and concert programming, two places where the traditional canon is most endemic. As a current music student, my theory and analysis classes focus mostly on Bach chorales and lieder; however, when my TA brought in a Beatles song to demonstrate functional harmony, I learned the concept equally well, if not better because of the variety it introduced into a frustratingly homogenous course. Ultimately, rejecting the Great Composers mythology is about finding joy in exploration, opening our eyes and ears to something unexpected.

About the Author: Katie Pieschala is a composer and vocalist who attends Stanford University as a Music Major, concentrating in Music Science and Technology. She is highly involved in Ram's Head Theatrical Society, Stanford's oldest and largest student theater group, with roles including composer for Gaieties 2020 and assistant vocal and assistant music director positions. From 2017-2019, she was a Fellow in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Nancy and Barry Sanders Composer Fellowship Program. In 2020, she was a Finalist in Composition in the National YoungArts Foundation Competition. Her composition recognitions include an Honorable Mention in the Tribeca New Music Young Composers’ Competition and two finalist designations in the ASCAP Morton Gould Awards (2018, 2019). From 2009-2019, Katie was a member of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (LACC). Through LACC, Katie sang with the LA Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl under conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel and Susanna Mälkki in performances including Adam’s El Niño, Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland, Bernstein’s Mass and Andrew Norman’s A Trip to the Moon. She has performed in the children’s chorus of LA Opera productions of La Bohéme, Tosca and Carmen.

About our Guest Blog Series: Our membership network is full of incredible people with a wealth of life experiences, talents, and diverse perspectives and backgrounds. We want to share their insights, points of view, and wisdom with all of you, as well as raise the voices of individuals who are making a difference for the classical music field. Our guest blog series features people from different communities throughout California and the western region, from different sizes and types of classical music organizations, and with different jobs and responsibilities. They share what they have learned, express their opinions about the sector, and ask challenging questions that will help us shift our thinking and be better advocates for this art form that we all love.

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