The Crisis of the MET

the met

If you keep a close eye on the news of the classical music world, you may have heard about the financial crisis that have stricken the Metropolitan Opera. This week, the New Yorker published an article that describes the origins and the current status of the Met crisis.

It is clear that the Met’s finances are not healthy. According to the article, in 2013, the Met ran a deficit in the amount of 2.8 million dollars. A number of big donors are withdrawing their donations, because they don’t want to invest in a bottomless pit without a clear prospect of healthy recovery. In fact, many suspect that the Met would go bankrupt in a couple of years, if the current condition persists. Now, who is responsible for this insolvency, and what should be done about it? Answers to these question are not clear. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, suggested cuts in the salaries of full time orchestra members, singers and dancers, and stagehands. These workers, however, emphasize more efficient and responsible management of the company’s economy.

I don’t know every minute detail about the Met, and I may change my view as my knowledge gets updated. But as I read the New Yorker article, I imagined a man who makes, let’s say, $500,000 a year but still worries that his income is not large enough to cover all the expenses. He may say, “my wife wants to buy a new yacht this summer, each of my children wants to go on Caribbean vacation, using their own helicopter, and I want to buy a new house in Monte Carlo. How can I pay for all of these?” I will say, if this is the scale of his consumption, no income is large enough. He will always feel poor, whether he makes $50,000, $500,000 or $1,000,000.

Roughly put, this is the Met’s situation, I think. I don’t have all the numbers on hand, but it is safe to say that the Met has a large economy, large by most – I am tempted to say “all” – opera company’s standards across the world. Despite the large scale economy, the Met is still crying poverty. Why? Partly or mostly because the Met puts on a number of new productions each year. It sounds exciting in theory, but in reality, new productions often call for new equipment, new technologies, new artists and more production time, which means more money. This is where I think a serious problem lies. One of the key words for Peter Gelb seems to be innovation, and there is nothing wrong with pursuing artistic innovation. I fully support it. What I am questioning is if artistic innovation is necessarily synonymous with costly new productions. Gelb says that La Boheme is one of the ever popular operas that the Met stages. The Met is one of the best opera companies in the world, and I am sure their La Boheme is fantastic. But does this necessarily mean that another La Boheme produced by a smaller and less expensive opera company is inferior to the Met’s in terms of artistic integrity? I doubt it. Money certainly helps to execute an artistic vision, but good artworks don’t necesarily require a lot of money. I can easily imagine a La Boheme that is produced on a smaller budget but still offers fresh insights.

As I mentioned above, the Met is one of the best opera companies in the world. It gets support from a number of rich and generous donors. But more importantly, it has a rich reservoir of operatic knowledge, skills, and insights accumulated over multiple generations. When the Met pursues artistic novelty and innovation, I hope it draws more on the second resources than on the first. Breaking new paths does not always require money. It often requires creative thinking, though. To use my crude analogy once again, you can earn $500,000 and still feel poor. However, if you reduce the scale of your consumption and find alternative methods to make yourself happy, you will find that $500,000 a year is a lot of money indeed.

Lecture Review: Jonathan Bliss on the Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Jonathan Bliss

Jonathan Bliss

I heard a while ago about the online lecture on Beethoven’s piano sonatas that Curtis Institute of Music provides via Coursera. The first time I heard about it, I was too busy to listen to it, the second time, the lecture was unavailable, and finally, I am ready and the lecture is up and going! Yay!

The lecturer is Jonathan Bliss, and I remember him from the BBC piano master class with Daniel Barenboim a few years ago. Lang Lang was one student, Jonathan Bliss was another, and I thought then that Bliss was quite impressive. Anyway, Bliss is now on piano faculty at Curtis, and he delivers lectures on Beethoven piano sonatas based on his interpretations of them as a performer.

BBC Barenboim masterclass. The pupil is the famous Lang Lang!

BBC Barenboim masterclass. The pupil is the famous Lang Lang!

There are 5 lectures, and as of today, I went through only 1.5 lectures. And I am quite blown away. What’s so good about his lectures is not necessarily Bliss’s piano skills (in fact, so far, he rarely touched the piano keys!) but his way of explaining the meaning of the Beethoven piano sonatas. Even a random dude on the street knows that Beethoven is great. But why is he great? And why particularly his piano music, not his symphonies or chamber music? These are difficult questions, and I think Bliss does a fabulous job at discussing these questions with people who have little to no background in music.

This is easier said than done. To give full credit to Bliss, I want to discuss for a point of comparison another lecture that I recently listened. My Korean mom recommended me a TV lecture series on western philosophy, and I listened to one on Immanuel Kant. Before the lecture began, I was very curious and nervous at the same time. I was curious about how the philosophy professor would address questions on Kant that are similar to the questions that Bliss raises about Beethoven: we all know that Kant is one of the greatest philosophers. But why? And I was nervous, because I felt that the challenges given to the philosophy professor were harder than the one given to Bliss. Reading Kant’s work is difficult. Very. Unless you’re a serious philosophy student, reading his Critique of Pure Reason is torturous. By contrast, listening to Beethoven’s piano music is more accessible to the general public. You can listen through a whole sonata, whether you like it or not, or regardless of how much you appreciate it. So, I was very curious about how this philosophy professor would address the thorny question on the importance of studying Kant.

The philosophy professor failed miserably. And failed by not even raising this question at all! I was a serious philosophy student at one time. I understood 99% of what he was talking about, but I resented almost every minute of his lecture. Upon the beginning of the lecture, the professor flew right into the central question of Kant’s philosophy: “how do we know?” And he went straight to discuss Kant’s answer to this question. Meanwhile, I was screaming, “So what? who cares?”

I have no doubt that the Korean philosopher was genuinely interested in delivering his knowledge of Kant to the general public and trying to do his best. But what he was missing is that most people NEVER sit down and ask, “how do we know?” We have a real life going on. Most of us feel that how much this month’s electricity bill runs is a more important question than how we know. Nevertheless, the philosophy professor totally ignores real people’s real concerns, forces us to forget who we are and where we are, and puts us in Kant’s position, as if we, people living in 2014, directly share the concerns and interests of a guy who lived in an obscure corner of Europe 300 years ago. We can never understand Kant’s greatness, if we just read his Critique of Pure Reason. Of course, in Critique of Pure Reason, he gives a great answer to the question “how do we know?” But the greatness of his answer is determined within the context of his time. We in 2014 don’t think the question is that important. However, there were certain social, political, intellectual conditions in Kant’s time which made the question “how do we know?” a very important one. Again, he did not wake up one day and asked out of blue, “how do we know?” It was an urgent, pressing question of his time that many people tried to answer. If you want to understand Kant, therefore, you should start by understanding the context in which the informing question of Kant’s philosophy takes meaning. Kant was a great thinker, because, when most people thought that God thrusts knowledge into our mind or the objective world makes indelible marks on our perception, he thought that we create knowledge ourselves due to the strength of pure reason.

The philosophy professor just sucked at contextualizing Kant. He was just so busy explaining what Kant says in his book. But seriously, who cares? I bet nobody listening to his lecture understood how Kant broke huge grounds.

And this is precisely where Jonathan Bliss’s Beethoven lectures shine with brilliance. He does a very good job at contextualizing Beethoven. We’re all busy with concerns of our everyday life, big and small, but while we listen to him, he invites us to time travel to Beethoven’s age and put Beethoven in conversation with his immediate predecessors, such as Bach, Mozart, and Haydn. And he explains how Beethoven pushed conventional rules of piano music and tested the limits of the piano instrument. Beethoven piano sonatas are great, not only because they have so many emotions but because they are so structurally diverse and refuse to be bound by rules. And that’s where we see Beethoven’s revolutionary spirit, a will for the unknown, and indefatigable refusal to compromise. And it is in his piano sonatas that his revolutionary spirit finds the clearest expression.

I highly recommend Jonathan Bliss’s Beethoven lectures. They are accessible here: And the link to the philosophy lecture? You don’t need it.

The Barbarism of Perfection

kyung hwa chung

A couple of days ago, I read an interesting article on the Guardian.( Kyung Wha Chung is a world famous violinist, and she gave a comeback recital in London to break a silence of 12 years caused by an injury in her hand. But in the middle of her performance, she chided the parents of a child who was coughing. According to the Guardian article, the violist said to the parents, “you can bring her back when she is older.

Chung’s statement made headlines in many newspapers, and many criticized her “inappropriate” reaction to the coughing child. The author of the Guardian article, for example, asked, “If, as Chung seems to be suggesting, we reserve the wonders of Bach and Mozart and Prokofiev et al for when we’re older then at what age are you old enough?”

About a week later, Chung posted an article on the Guardian to offer an explanation of her “surprised” reaction. (  Below is her answer to the question raised above:

I think it is important that the very youngest children are taken to appropriate events, where they can feel comfortable to move, whisper and react animatedly. The concept of “children’s concerts”, which foster much more relaxed environments in which small children are actively encouraged to engage with music on a physical level, is the perfect example of this.

Reading Chung’s response, I got baffled. Strangely, the whole episode became a debate on “is it okay to take children to classical music concerts? If so, how old is old enough?” This may be an important question to some people, especially parents of young children, but to me, at least, the Guardian author’s questioning of the violinist’s behavior as well as the violinist’s response both seem fail to address a more important question that underlies the tension of the recital day. By this, I am referring to the violinist’s understanding of music.

In her apology piece, Chung makes a lot of excellent points. She confesses the oppressive pressure that a soloist experiences on the night of a recital. I’ve never given a recital, but I can relate to that. She also talks about intense concentration required to perform music. Anyone who plays any sort of musical instrument will know that without focused attention, you gain nothing but a caricature of the piece you’re playing. In addition to these cogent explanations of her experience as a classical musician, she also makes some valid commentary of larger generality. She explains the importance of developing “the art of true listening.” On this blog, I wrote a post on a similar topic (“Let’s Practice Listening,”, and I wholeheartedly agree with her, when she says, “Learning to listen is a life skill [which] opens us up to a world beyond our everyday experiences and enables us to connect with something transcendental and extraordinary.” I am totally with her, too, when she emphasizes the vitality of music education and the need to introduce children to the magical world of music. However, behind all of these valid statements, I saw an inarticulate but highly problematic premise – that is, classical music is something sacred and unpolluted by everyday concerns and distractions. Something that we put on a pedestal and bow down before. In a word, something unworldly.

Chung, like all other classical musicians, strives for excellence, and I am sure she wanted to perform what she prepared flawlessly. To do so, she had to use the best of her virtuosic skills. However, let’s not forget that her virtuosic skills are not the point of her concert. Why? Because classical music concerts are not a circus. They are not a high end version of America’s Got Talent. Classical music concerts are not about the classical musician’s superb musical techniques. We don’t go to classical music concerts to be inspired by the fast fingering of a violinist or the subtle pedaling of a pianist. We go to classical music concerts and pay attention, because the performer invites us to the process of making meaning. At the beginning of a concert, there is deadening silence. We hear the first sound which breaks the silence, and the performer struggles to create something, some meaning, out of nothing. The performer proposes an idea, explores it, questions it, and discards it, only to reconstruct it later. Strictly speaking, therefore, I think that a classical musician cannot really prepare for a recital. Insofar as s/he considers a recital as an organic process of meaning making, it should happen right there, incorporating and responding to what’s available at that moment. A tree grows at different speeds and in different shapes, responding to the amount of rain and the amount of sunshine it receives. No tree says, “I refuse to grow, because I don’t get the right amount of rain and sunshine that I expect.” I think that Chung was like this tree that night, though.  She seems to have come to her recital, already knowing what she has to say. To her, meaning is like a ready-made product that is already complete in her practice room. The coughing child had to be removed that day because the child was antithetical to the reenactment of the sacred, complete object of music.

I conclude this post by quoting Theodor Adorno. The title of this post “The Barbarism of Perfection” is from his writing. Adorno says what I am trying to say here 1,008 times better.  Darn it!

Perfect, immaculate performance in the latest style preserves the work at the price of its definitive reification. It presents it as already complete from the very first note. The performance sounds like its own phonograph record. The dynamics is so predetermined that there are no longer any tensions at all. The contradictions of the musical material are so inexorably resolved in the moment of sound that it never arrives at the synthesis, the self-production of the work, which reveals the meaning of every Beethoven symphony. What is the point of the symphonic effort when the material on which that effort was to be tested has already been ground up? The protective fixation of the work leads to its destruction,for its unity is realized in precisely that spontaneity which is sacrificed to the fixation. (“On the Fetish-Character in Music”)

Was Beethoven Really Black??


Even those of you who know nothing about classical music will recognize this guy. Yes, I want to talk about Ludwig Beethoven today. About his race, specifically. I am personally a big fan of classical music, and I sometimes spend my time, researching some of my favorite composers and pianists. Today, I learned that there is a Beethoven Research Centre, and while browsing their website, I ended up getting pissed off. The Centre has a FAQ section, and most of the questions they address are borderline imbecile, but one question is particularly imbecile. The question goes, “Was Beethoven Black?” Jesus. Seriously? But, okay, this is an FAQ section. Perhaps people frequently ask this dumb question. Let me forgive it. But I could not rein in my temper any longer, when I read the Research Centre’s answer to the dumb question:

Many people in the African-American community claim that there has been a conspiracy on the part of European-Americans to conceal Beethoven’s alleged black heritage. The theory that he was black is based on the fact that Beethoven’s ancestors came from the Flemish region of northern Europe that was invaded and ruled by the Spanish. Since the Moors were part of Spanish culture, it is possible that Moors were part of the invasion. This theory, however, is not based on genealogical studies of Beethoven’s past, which are available to the public. Rather, it is based on the assumption that one of Beethoven’s ancestors had a child out of wedlock. Another part of this theory is that Beethoven was given the nickname “Spaniard” as a child because he had a dark complexion by European standards. However, it is important to note that no one called Beethoven black or a moor during his lifetime, and the Viennese were keenly aware both of Moors and of mulattos, such as George Bridgetower, the famous violinist who collaborated with Beethoven. (

So, basically, Beethoven was not black because his ancestors were all respectable white folks who never fucked outside marriage. I think this is a super dumb answer for a Beethoven Research Centre to give. Dumb, not because the respectability of the Beethoven family is an honest truth, but because this answer hopelessly falls into the trap that the dumb interlocutors set. In other words, the question “was Beethoven Black?” is a totally misguided one and invites a stupider answer.

How is the question stupid? First of all, I want to emphasize that I do understand where the question is coming from. Most of us are aware of the white male orientation of classical music (as in ALL cultural fields), and by questioning Beethoven’s white identity, these people want to unsettle the idea that most musical geniuses we respect are white men, not women, not people of color. I am totally with these people in wanting to criticize the white male orientation of classical music. It is with their next move that I disagree. Their next move is to reclaim Beethoven as a member of racial minority. In order to do so, they present all kinds of evidence, including but not limited to his death mask with a pronounced African nose. I find most of their “evidence” spurious, but whether their evidence is spurious or not is not important. What concerns me and what I think is much more important is what they try to get at. By showing that one of the most admired composers of western classical music was in fact black, what do the well-meaning critics of racism in classical music try to demonstrate?  Let’s concede to our interlocutors and assume that Beethoven was really a black. What difference does it make? What does it change about our understanding of his music in particular and western classical music at large?

(Disclaimer: please continue to read. “Music is just music, and people are just people, regardless of skin color” is NOT what I want to say.)

What I see in the effort to establish Beethoven’s black heritage – whether it is successful or not – is the desire for assimilation, or the “we blacks never joined that honorable hall of fame, but we also would like to gain membership, and here is our claim to it” thing. Driven by the desire to enter the hall of fame, these critics who argue Beethoven’s blackness lose sight of how blacks got excluded from the hall of fame to begin with. How western classical music evolved to accept certain kinds of music and exclude others, and how those “acceptable” musics promote and are promoted by white male interests – these are important questions we need to ask ourselves to understand classical music. By trying to send one “black” composer through the guarded door of the hall, however, people who say that Beethoven was black forget that the door is guarded, and the barriers are especially high for women, people of color, and non-westerners.

I see often and everywhere this kind of mistake which changes racism from a structural matter to an individual one. People seem to think that we can overcome racism, if women and people of color are treated as white men are. These people often need iconic figures. To criticize racism, they need a Michael Brown. To criticize heterosexual society, they need the new CEO of Apple, who recently declared his homosexuality. But things are not that simple. Accordingly, their effort to criticize racism has the effect of exacerbating racism. To this, I add that the desire of the marginalized for assimilation or their cry of “please let us in, too” does not help the situation, either. So, if you hear someone say, “Beethoven/Mozart/Picasso was actually black/bi-racial,” I hope you say, “you miss the point.”

Let’s Practice Listening

Let’s Practice Listening


Yes, today’s post will be ultimately about music education, but I’d like to start by quoting a student in my writing class. I am having one-on-on conferences with my students, and at the end of each conference, I always ask my students if they have any suggestion to make the class better. One student said yesterday, “oh, everything is going fine. I find your class easy to follow. You talk but you show something on the screen at the same time. Some professors just talk, and I cannot concentrate.”

This was an interesting statement to me. Again, I teach a writing class, and when I show something on the screen, it is some passages from reading material, not any images or video clips. I say, for example, “Author Paul Smith makes this point on page 32,” and the passage that I am analyzing is shown on the big screen for the entire class to see. And I move on to discuss another passage on page 35. But an important part is not just reading the two passages together. The important part is is to get the students to understand why the author moves from the first passage to the second passage and what connects the two passages. The problem is, there is no way to “show” this connection. In other words, point A and point B can be shown, but the connection between the two points cannot be shown. The students have to make the connection on their own, listening to the teacher’s explanation of the connection. And listening requires the activation of a different cognitive process from seeing. Talking to my student, however, I got the feeling that he often fails to connect ideas, when there is nothing to see on the screen but everything to listen.

I don’t want to suggest that this student is a particularly exceptional case. If he cannot listen, it is partly or mostly because he is a 17 year old living in America in 2014. Our culture lays a heavy emphasis on seeing and gradually paralyzes our ability to listen. We really don’t have to listen to anything any longer. We “talk” to people through texts and Facebook. We listen to music all the time, but in the elevator, walking on the street, or doing grocery shopping. The type of listening which requires focused, undistracted attention is either becoming obsolete or has already become obsolete. If Socrates were a teacher in America today, he would get an F in student evaluation. He just talks and talks, without showing anything but demanding that the students concentrate on listening. How can he expect his students to learn anything?

Despite the increasing cultural disregard of listening, however, listening is an important cognitive skill which enables learning and helps us to grow as a human. This is why I think music education is important not only for children for adults. To learn music provides one of the best venues, if not the best, in which to cultivate the important but dismissed skill: the ability to listen. Many people associate the learning of music with technicality. It is true that to play piano, for example, you develop good control of your fingers, to the extent that you play the C major scale, the A minor scale, and all the variants, in a split second. But technical preparation is just one small part of music education, unless you want to go to Juliard and become a world famous concert pianist. For ordinary Janes like you and me, learning music is important because it helps us to become a better thinker and a better citizen. Arguing that “listening is hearing with thought,” Daniel Barenboim explains that to listen to Bach’s fugue in all its complexity is at one with understanding how individual parts are related to the whole and how tension and conflicts are created, to be negotiated and ultimately resolved. He pursues this idea a bit further to maintain that one benefit of music education is our enhanced civic competence. Simply put, learning music, we also learn about our relation to society:

“Expressiveness in music comes from linking the notes, what we call in Italian legato, which means nothing other than bound. This dictates that the note cannot be allowed to develop their natural egos, becoming so dominant that they overshadow the preceding ones. Each note must be aware of itself but also of its own boundaries; the same rules that apply to individuals in society apply to notes in music as well. When one plays five legato notes, each stands in relation to the notes that precede and follow it….A musician must possess the capacity to group notes. This very simple fact has taught me the relationship between an individual and a group.” (“Sound and Thought”)

What Barenboim is calling for is to develop an ability to hear with thought or to listen with concentration. There will be many different ways to develop this ability, of course – for example, listening to your teacher carefully in the classroom – but I strongly believe that learning music is one of the best ways. Seriously, when you play piano or violin or whatever, you’ve gotta listen!

It Pains Me to Hear You Sing

I love Facebook, because I encounter so many different people’s so many different thoughts. Today, I really enjoyed reading a post by my ex-piano teacher. One of my former piano teachers is a choir director at a local church, and she wrote:

I was speaking with our oldest choir member tonight (91 years old!). And she shared something I consider so sad in my profession. She claims she has reservations about singing because a choir director from her youth told her “it pains me to hear you sing.” It bothered her so much that at 91 she still remembers those hurtful words and is afraid to sing out. What saddens me most about this, is that one of the benefits of participating in music is that fact that it can build self confidence! There is so much more to music than just music. Music teaches us about ourselves and each other, please teachers be careful what you say, don’t take the beauty out of music. Help people discover their musical selves, and what beauty music has to offer their lives!

My initial response was, “why was this choir director this harsh?” Apparently, my ex-piano teacher felt that way, and so did many commentators who replied to the post. Then, one person said, “Music is an art. Therefore express yourself in any way that strikes you. There is no right or wrong way to do so.” It was at this moment that I felt, “wait a moment, what’s really going on here?”

As you can guess from the phrase “my ex-piano teacher,” I learned piano, and I am still learning piano. I can go on forever to discuss the benefits and joys of learning music as an adult and as an amateur. I totally agree that “music teaches us about ourselves and each other” and that one of the goals of studying music is to “discover [our] musical selves and the beauty [that] music has to offer [to] our lives.” But, it is one thing to say these things, and it is quite another to say that “express yourself in any way that strikes you. There is no right or wrong way to do so.” When a professional musician makes the second statement towards an amateur musician, I smell condescending musical elitism. When an amateur musician makes the statement towards herself or another amateur musician, I hear the abandonment of effort for musical excellence. Both cases are sad and unfortunate.

When you sing as an amateur singer, you will sing mostly for its aesthetic pleasures, and your singing will be definitely and understandably different from a professional singer’s. It is absolutely ridiculous to expect a world-famous coloratura’s musicality from an amateur singer. If the choir director in the Facebook post quoted above expected such a thing from an amateur singer, the choir director is to blame. However, I am not sure if being an amateur musician necessarily means that she can sing in whatever way she wants and that no criticism is allowed because it can kill her passion for music. I think that all musicians – whether professional or amateur – work toward what they conceive as musical beauty and that the only difference between amateurs and professionals is that professionals can work on their own for their aesthetic ideal (hey, they already have plenty of training to do so,) but amateurs need some extra help from someone who is more musically experienced than themselves. Being an amateur does not mean, “okay, I sing Ode to Joy this way, I immensely enjoyed my way of singing it, and I am good. No thank you to any criticism. Don’t dare kill my joy of singing that beautiful song.”

I want to be cautious about this kind of amateur self-complacency, because I believe it obstructs one’s intellectual growth. Sometimes, some of my students in my literature class say, “I read this novel in this way. I enjoyed reading it very much. Who are you, telling me my interpretation is not good enough?”

I don’t have much to say. I suggest that they study Plato’s allegory of the cave, as explained in Book 7 of Republic.


In this famous “allegory of the cave,” prisoners live in the cave all their lives, “with their necks and legs fettered and able to see only in front of them.”  There is a fire above and behind them, and between the prisoners and the fire, there is a wall on which puppeteers (Plato has sophists in his mind) show all kinds of things, tree, chair, dog, etc. The prisoners, because they can see only ahead of them, see the shadows of the tree, chair, and dog that the puppeteers show. And because they live in the cave all their lives, they believe that the shadow of a tree is the real tree. Plato contrasts these prisoners with a philosopher, who breaks the fetters and ascends towards sunlight at the entrance of the cave. This philosopher will see the real tree, the real chair, and the real dog under the bright sunlight. And here is one of my favorite passages from Republic:

He [a prisoner who is taken to the sunlight for the first time] would believe that the things he saw earlier [in the cave] were truer than the one he was now being shown, and if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, his eyes would hurt, and he would turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the one’s he’s being shown.

Oh, one more. “If anyone tries to free them [the prisoners] and lead them upwards, and if they could somehow get their hands on him, they would kill him.”

So, the music director might be a bit harsh, but I think her/his heart was in the right place. If you have a chance to hear me play piano, please tell me how I can fix my problems. Please don’t say, “I am glad you express yourself in any way that strikes you.” I will take it as an insult.

How is Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” Racist?

How is Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” Racist?

In this post, I venture into an unexplored region of my interests: pop music. I rarely listen to pop music (There is nothing wrong with it. It is just not my cup of tea) by national superstars, such as Beyonce, and when I heard that Taylor Swift released a new song, I could not care less. Then, I had to care when I heard that her new music video provoked a controversy about its racism.

Here is what happened. Shortly after the release of the song “Shake It Off” and its official music video, a hip hop artist named Earl Sweatshirt said that Swift’s music video was offensive for reinforcing racial stereotypes. But Sweatshirt’s criticism was not well received, because he said he did not watch the music video and did not plan to watch it, either. When Mark Romanek, the director of the music video, came around a couple of days later to defend his work and to disarm Sweatshirt’s criticism, therefore, the hip hop artist’s not having watched the video was the first thing that he took an issue with. Romanek emphasized that “if Earl Sweatshirt was open-minded enough to take the four minutes to watch it, he might see what the larger, humanistic, and utterly color-blind message was intended to be.”

The lyric of the song goes like this: a woman (Taylor Swift in the music video) dates with many men, none of them is right, and she keeps “cruising,” “shaking it off” every time she breaks up with a man.

I go on to many dates [chuckle]

But I can’t make ’em stay

At least that’s what people say, mmm-mmm

That’s what people say, mmm-mmm

But I keep cruising

Can’t stop, won’t stop moving

It’s like I got this music

In my mind

Singing, “It’s gonna be alright.”

The music video translates this romantic “cruising” into the woman’s cruising of different types of dance, such as ballet, modern dance, cheerleading, and twerking. And the director assures us, in filming the video, “we simply choose styles of dance that we thought would be popular and amusing and cast the best dancers that were presented to us without much regard to race or ethnicity.” So, what’s wrong with that?

Well, what’s wrong with it is that the music video activates all the racial codes that are at work in American society and transports them to the video in their intact form and without any critical awareness. In other words, when the director “chose styles of dance and cast the best dancers,” these choices are not innocuous aesthetic choices, as the director leads us to think. Instead, the director’s choices are already racially charged ones. When he decides to portray ballet in the music video, for example, this decision, in turn, invokes an interest in twerking. If ballet is a white middle class’s cultural form (note that all the ballerinas in the video are white women), it will be nice to show some black cultural form, such as twerking, as well. Doing so would emphasize the “cruising” of the lyric, on the one hand, and on the other, make the music video look more colorful and more inclusive. In fact, this is what a lot of us think about the racial diversity or equality of our society: “let’s be respectful of minority cultures. Let the blacks in.” The director’s statement cleary reflects this line of well-meaning but highly problematic, racist thinking, which regards black culture as a subculture that should be tolerated.

See they are all white women?

See they are all white women?

Now, some may ask, “what’s wrong with respecting minority cultures? Are you saying that we should stop caring or portraying black culture all together?” Unfortuantely, this interlocutor totally fails to see that the problem is not with respecting or not respecting minority cultures but with how we understand minority cultures to begin with. When black culture is conceived as a foil to white culture or a subculture that should be tolerated or brought into the centre, as it is in Swift’s “Shake It Off” music video, we define white culture as the dominant, core culture of American society and subjugate non-white cultures to it. What we have, then, is, speaking crudely, a nice boss treating his inferiors with kindness and respect.

If you’re not quite convinced by my argument, I suggest that you watch Swift’s music video, paying careful attention to where Swift’s eyes land in each scene. In the much discussed twerking scene, Swift is looking up from under the legs of twerkers and sniggers, as if to say, “wow, these guys are really something.” The white woman is the seer and the twerkers are the seen. Swift is touring. Or she “cruises” through black culture, to “shake it off” eventually.

Wow, these guys are really different.

Wow, these guys are really different.

Let me conclude by answering the question in this blog title. Yes, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” is racist, not by heavy-handedly denouncing black culture but by reinforcing the existing racial hierarchy which places black culture under white culture, waiting for recognition and uplifting.

The Bard Music Festival

The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College

The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College

So, I noticed that over the weekend, the number of visitors of my blog dropped to a single digit. Geeze. I almost shed tears of sorrow. It is necessary to rekindle the burning enthusiasm for Kimchi for Thought, therefore, and I would like to share with you an interesting experience that I had over the weekend.

One of my good friends went to Bard College, a small liberal arts college about 90 miles north of New York City which holds an annual music festival. Each year, the Bard Music Festival is dedicated to one composer, and in 2014, it is dedicated to Franz Schubert (1797-1828). My friend, who used to sell books and CDs at the festivals in his undergraduate days, got informed of Bard’s celebration of Schubert this year and invited me to join him.

My friend was one of these young ushers/booksellers in his undergraduate days.

My friend was one of these young ushers/booksellers in his undergraduate days.

I love Schubert almost all my life, but the Bard Festival allowed me to appreciate his music in such a special and unprecedented way. In order to discuss what’s so special about the Bard Festival, I want to compare it to other famous summer music festivals. Salzburg, Tanglewood, or Verbier may be names that come across people’s minds. The Bard festival is differentiated from these big name festivals in that Bard does not invite star performers. Forget about Yuja Wangs or the likes. Instead, Bard invites lesser-known, but highly qualified and promising young musicians. This is a tremendously important point which establishes, at least in my mind, the special meaning of the Bard Festival. Back in 1993, Edward Said advanced an acerbic criticism of the Salzburg Music Festival: it “hardened into routine and became unabashed touristic promotion,” informed by “alienating opulence” and “dominated by Herbert von Karajan’s imperiousness and cold arrogance” (“The Bard Festival,” from The Nation. January 25,1993). Said did not discuss what caused this deterioration, although he obliquely mentioned the need of an orchestra or an opera company to generate an income during the musical off-season. What I think is – at least partially, if not mostly – responsible for this negative transformation is the star system. In another music criticism piece from 1986, Said asked, “you might be lucky enough to hear a marvelous recital, by, say, Murray Perahia at Aldeburgh. But what are you to make of a performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto at Tanglewood by Seiji Ozawa and Alfred Brendel when you know that Brendel will perform the same piece a week later at Edinburgh with a different orchestra and conductor but in more or less the same way? (“Pomp and Circumstance” from The Nation. August 30,1986)

Bard seems to have made a different – and I would argue wiser – choice by shifting its focus from star performers to its audiences. The word I would use to characterize the Bard concerts I attended would be “educational” or “interactive.” This is to say that their programs are uniquely designed to deliver and animate Schubert’s music in rigorous interaction with audiences. For example, the first program of this year on Schubert was called “The Legacy of a Life Cut Short.” In this program, we experienced Schubert’s music career in entirety in condensed three hours. In three hours, we heard Schubert’s songs, his early orchestral work, his symphony of mature ages, a string quintet, and a four hands piano work (about which my dear husband said, “can you play something that my wife cannot play??” But this is beside the point…). Multiple musicians appeared to feature a small corner of the 3 hour program, but they collaborated in such a way to enact a Schubert universe in 2014 and invite the audience to it. Another concert we attended focused on Goethe’s influence on Schubert. Schubert set to music poems and prose by 100+ writers, but he kept returning to Goethe. The Bard Festival demonstrated Goethe’s influence on Schubert in a creative method: in one concert, the singers sang Goethe songs that were composed prior to Schubert’s time, songs contemporary with Schubert and composed by Schubert and other composers, and then songs composed posterior to Schubert. These chronological and synchronological approaches to Schubert’s work, coupled either with a pre-concert talk or in-concert commentary at each concert, and the thematic arrangement of Schubert’s music throughout the whole weekend are the highlight of the Bard Music Festival that I haven’t experienced anywhere before. Put succintly, Bard enabled music listening to be not a passive action but an active, intellectual engagement between the composer, the performers, and the audiences.

The 2015 Bard Music Festival is dedicated to Carlos Chavez. I would like to conclude this post by inviting you to consider the 2015 festival, on the one hand, and, on the other, by giving you a few practical tips, assuming that I persuaded you into considering the 2015 festival. First, book tickets as early as possible. The Bard Music Festival is popular, and tickets get sold out months before the festival. People get bused from New York City.

. bard 1

Also, early booking ensures good seats. We were late this year, because of my incorrigible procrastinating habits. As a result, we got seats from which we gained a unique view of the stage. To be honest, I liked my seats precisely for this reason, but if you’re not particularly interested in observing the tops of musicians’ heads or a high heeled pianist’s delicate pedal work, early booking would be in your interests.

From my seat, I had a full view of how a high heeled pianist pedaled.

From my seat, I had a full view of how a high heeled pianist pedaled.

The tops of musicians' heads

The tops of musicians’ heads

bard 3

Lastly, I suggest that you find classical music loving friends and rent a cabin or a house with them, instead of booking a hotel room. I, my husband, my friend and his wife rented a nice cabin in the middle of the Catskill State Park. This turned out to be a big money saver. Because we got the cabin, which we should have done anyway and costed as much as getting a hotel room, my friends bought concert tickets for us. Because my friends got the tickets for all of us, they got a free lodging. And, because we brought all the food with us, we saved expenses for eating out, which add up quickly when you’re on vacation. Most importantly, lovely Schubert concerts followed by lovely BBQ in a tranquil natural retreat. And nice friends and gastronomic indulgence. Who does not like that??

We ate a lot.

We ate a lot.