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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.

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