A lot of folks in the New York City classical music community were very upset last week over a list published in Time Out New York magazine of the fifty greatest New York musicians of all time. Each was honored with a photo, a brief description of their contribution to music history and a recommended CD.

Not a single person cited on the list was someone who worked primarily in classical music. Sure, John Zorn, Duke Ellington, and John Cale (the Velvet Underground was TONY‘s number one pick) all wrote symphonic works, but those were never mentioned anywhere. That said, the list was full of variety and arcana: everyone from Broadway diva Barbara Streisand to free jazz tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler to salsa vocalist Hector LaVoe (although salseros know that his most enduring contributions to the genre were the result of frontman/trombonist Willie Colón’s work).

A similar list a few months back in Time Magazine made my blood boil even more. To me, lists like these reveal the mainstream media’s total cluelessless when it comes to classical music. It’s not just innocent ignorance: the folks who spin such news perpetuate the myth that classical music is dead and not at all a part of contemporary life. To Time Out‘s credit, they published a letter by NYC Opera dramaturg Cori Ellison expressing disappointment that Time Out‘s list could ignore New Yorkers like George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Maria Callas, and Beverly Sills. That said, a close reading of TONY Music Editor Mike Wolf’s response is revelatory. (Bold emphasis below is mine.)

“[O]ur primary mistake was in not specifying that classical music artists were, in fact, excluded from consideration for the “50 Greatest” list. We felt we needed to do this partly because classical has its own section in the magazine, but also because Gershwin and many others chiefly proved their greatness off the stage. Measuring the greatness of Public Enemy versus Billie Holiday was some challenge; adding Beverly Sills to the mix would’ve killed us.”

It’s somewhat disingenuous to claim classical musicians “chiefly proved their greatness off the stage” in defense of omissions on a list featuring recommended recordings. And indeed, if it would kill adjudicators to consider Sills or Gershwin when faced with applications from Lady Day and P.E., people concerned that it could be the death knell for recognition for contemporary classical music if awards like the Pulitzer and the Grawemeyer were open to all genres of music have good reason to fear. Of course, there are people who understand the bigger musical picture. Time Out‘s own classical music editor, Steve Smith, is a musical polyglot who could argue the comparative merits of Anthrax, Robert Ashley, Missy Elliott, and Charles Wuorinen. All the more pity that his voice seems conspicuously absent from that list. Or, more importantly, that such a broad view of music really can’t be found anywhere. At the end of the day, having a separate section or separate awards for what we do really doesn’t allow us to reach out to a wide audience, yet not having our own things would keep the smaller audience who is interested from ever finding out about this stuff.

As the Civil Rights movement showed us two generations ago, separate is not equal; we should not be content with a small corner of the playground whether it’s a single page among hundreds in a magazine or a handful of Grammy Awards that we’ve been exiled from collecting on prime time television. Twenty-five years ago as an undergrad at Columbia, a fellow student expressed shock when I told him that I composed things like sonatas and concertos. “Really? No one’s written that kinda stuff for a hundred years.” When I described to him the history of classical music in the 20th century, he was incredulous. “Never heard of it. Classical music died with Wagner and then there was big band jazz. Jazz died after World War Two and there’s been rock and roll ever since.” At the time, I thought he was an idiot. Now I realize that he’s merely a byproduct of the American education system who got all his information about cultural history from reading and watching mainstream media. We have the power to reclaim the media by writing and by speaking out.

15 Responses to “Separate But Not Equal?”
  1. Ivan Sparrow says:

    “At the time, I thought he was an idiot. Now I realize that he’s merely a byproduct of the American education system who got all his information about cultural history from reading and watching mainstream media.”

    He’s still an idiot.

  2. As we’ve learned from the media’s political coverage, it’s in how issues are framed that counts (Howard Dean is a radical crazy, Gore is a bore, Bush is a regular Joe – all of which proved to be not true). We’ve given a lot of power to the media, but especially with the corporatisation of it, it’s time to step back and question it’s fairness and accuracy.

    Besides, the Time Out list is so flawed as to be laughable. If it had been identified as one person’s top 50, then ok. How about Leonard Bernstein, who at one time was the musician most identified with New York through his television show? How about the Brill Building people, Tin Pan Alley – I could go on and on and not even touch classical.

  3. Steve Smith says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful essay, Frank.

    Mary Jane, you raise excellent points. Without wanting to seem as if I’m agreeing with the decision to omit classical composers and performers from the Top 50 list (I assure you I did not), I would at least like to point out that a separate sidebar article addressed essential New York “scenes” — i.e., areas of music that could not be ignored, even if individual contributors were not included in the main list.

    Among those “scenes” were Tin Pan Alley (citing George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin); Broadway (Porter, Rodgers & Hart & Hammerstein, Bernstein, Sondheim); Greenwich Village Folk (Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dave Van Ronk, Oscar Brand, Fred Neil, Joan Baez and Phil Ochs); The Brill Building (Goffin and King, Barry and Greenwich, Mann and Weil, Bacharach and David); The New York School and Minimalism (Cage, Feldman, Young, Glass and Reich); and New York hardcore (Agnostic Front, Murphy’s Law).

    Obviously this is far less than many would have liked — myself and musical theater-cabaret critic Adam Feldman especially. But at the very least, it was an appreciated gesture on the part of our resident rockists, poptimists and jazzbos, who INSISTED on the inclusion of that sidebar as the least the magazine could do.

  4. Jason says:

    There’s small issue of “New Yorker” definition as well. Ayler was from the fair city of Cleveland. Cale, while a New Yorker by residence, is no more a NY than is Nancarrow a Mexican. Beyond that, New Yorkers blindly celebrating their New Yorkerness is, to my Ohio mind, nothing more than business as usual.

  5. Elaine Fine says:

    In spite of some of the ways people imagine it to be, “classical music” is not a “scene.” The people who perform it, study it, and write it in New York, as well as the people who have performed it, studied it, and written it in New York, could not ever be ranked properly or ever be limited to fifty. Isn’t it funny that it is almost plausible for popular music to fit in such a ranking? As a person who has always has “classical music” as the center of my life, I was actually relieved not to see the people who write and perform “classical music” included in the list.

  6. Evan Johnson says:

    Isn’t it funny that it is almost plausible for popular music to fit in such a ranking?

    You think so?

  7. Elaine Fine says:

    On second thought, no.

  8. Frank J. Oteri says:

    I was actually relieved not to see the people who write and perform “classical music” included in the list.

    ???

    How would including someone like Leonard Bernstein or Beverly Sills on Time Out‘s list be harmful to classical music? Sorry to say it, but unfortunate comments like this from people in our own community have also helped to make classical music marginal to the mainstream of contemporary society.

  9. Elaine Fine says:

    But think of the thousands of highly worthwhile and highly important musicians (many who are not household names like Bernstein or Sills) who would be left off the list!

  10. Frank J. Oteri says:

    Well, this is the inevitable problem with lists, theyr’e ultimately always subjective and always incomplete. But, if readers, through reading such a list, discover Bernstein and Sills, might it eventually lead them to Irving Fine, Julie Styne, Bruno Walter (for three possible LB directions), Mirella Freni, Lucia Popp, Phyllis Curtain (from Sills), etc. I too have best-ofs, but there’s got to be an entry point and by saying we’re “too good” to play their game, we always lose. It’s like the Lotto cliche: “You gotta be in it to win it.”

  11. Rodney Lister says:

    It’s a little aside from the main point, but it seems to me debatable that Gershwin chiefly proved his greatness off the stage.

  12. Steve Smith says:

    It’s a little aside from the main point, but it seems to me debatable that Gershwin chiefly proved his greatness off the stage

    It seemed that way to me, too. Shows what I know.

  13. Frank J. Oteri says:

    And, adding insult to injury, the Rolling Stone/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s definitive 200 album list is now making the rounds. It’s no surprise that not a single recording of “classical” music, either contemporary or earlier repertoire, has made the list, unless you consider Andrea Bocelli to be classical music. Yet, their list has room for highlights from the original cast album of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera and a disc by Kenny G! Great rockers all…

  14. Seth Gordon says:

    And, adding insult to injury, the Rolling Stone/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s definitive 200 album list is now making the rounds. It’s no surprise that not a single recording of “classical” music, either contemporary or earlier repertoire, has made the list, unless you consider Andrea Bocelli to be classical music.

    I wouldn’t sweat any list that ranks Santana’s “comeback” album, Supernatural, over Abraxas. Seems like they went out of their way to rank newer (post-2000, say) albums higher so as to make it look “current” or something.

    Who made this list, anyway? Critics? Reps for RS or the Hall of Fame? A closer look reveals… nothing. Doesn’t say. And since when do “best of” lists have “participating retailers” and such? It wouldn’t surprise me if each of the “big four” – Warner, Sony/BMG, EMI, Universal – had exactly 25 albums each on there. I suspect someone’s got 1,000,000 overstock copies of Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ and at least as many Andrea Bocelli’s Favorite Romantic Comedy Theme Songs (or whatever freaking album it is) in their warehouses that aren’t moving.

  15. J Palarino says:

    I think this article offers a look into the often over looked issue of semantics in musical, and artistic labeling. That is categorizing art into a “period” of sorts. To be sure, as humans we and the way we think (though argueable) seems to prefer categorizing things. We say this and that is color…this and that is food. More refined: this is classical and that isnt. This is high art and that isnt. Thus forming a whole different dilema. The problem we have here is perhaps coming up then, from a lack of distinction in the `Time Out New York` magazine of what is to be labeled as “great… musicians”. Surely…as we all can agree, all forms of music fill a certain niche of expressive quality and therefore serve their own purpose. So the two main questions become……”what exactly makes a great musician?” and “which of these qualtities is this rag trying to write about?” AS Seth Gordon just mentioned…who made the list? and why really?

    Personally I always half shudder at “best of” musical compotions and top ten lists etc. It is like a neccessary evil yet at the same time seems to go against everything that is aesthetically enjoyable about all forms of art.

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