The racists are among us

At a concert at my own university, my husband and I felt excluded by the behaviour of other, racist audience members. The fact that this could happen also had something to do with the choice of programme.

Last Saturday, my husband and I attended the opening concert of the “crescendo” festival at the University of the Arts in Berlin, an institution I have been associated with since 2017 as lecturer in music theory. Since I was diagnosed with cancer in mid-2022 and have been undergoing continuous medical treatment, I, or rather we, no longer go to concerts very often. Since then, I have tended to save my significantly reduced energy for friends, family, my recovery and my reduced but constant university teaching.

As my health is currently stable enough again, I decided togo to this concert, partly because a number of my current and former studentswere playing in the orchestra. On arrival, my first priority was to ensure thatI could take my small backpack, in which I carry medication and liquids that Ineed to have at the ready at all times, into the hall, as this was generallynot permitted due to safety concerns. The possibility of exceptions was notmentioned on the announcements, which is at least not unproblematic for disabledpeople from an accessibility point of view.

Unfortunately, I noticed only relatively late that my husband, who has a darker skin colour, was immediately and continuously subjected to penetrating stares from other members of the audience. When we repeatedly had to get up from our seats in the hall in order to let other audience members pass, my husband was mostly ignored and only I was thanked. Both of these behaviours – penetrating, dismissive staring as well as disregard for him when I, as a white man, was addressed – were clearly microaggressions.

According to the Critical Diversity Glossary of the University of the Arts (here), microaggression refers to “individual comments or actions that unconsciously or consciously demonstrate prejudice and enact discrimination against members of marginalized groups.“

To be clear, my husband was wearing black trousers and a polo shirt, so the staring could be explained only by his darker skin colour and racial stereotyping by racist audience members. This became particularly clear to us when we noticed a singular other adult with a darker skin colour sitting with her child a few rows further to the front, who also seemed to be constantly subjected to racist stares from older white audience members.

The Amadeu Antonio Foundation defines racism (click here) as “an ideology that devalues people based on their appearance, their name, their (supposed) culture, origin or religion. In Germany, this applies to non-white people – those who are seen as non-German, i.e. not really belonging. When people are judged and devalued not according to their individual abilities and characteristics or what they do personally, but as part of a supposedly homogeneous group, then that is racism. [...] Racism is expressed not only in physical violence, but first and foremost in thoughts, words and actions. [...] Racism doesn’t actually fit the world view of a tolerant, modern society. And yet it is omnipresent. For many people in Germany who are considered ‘not German enough’, it is still a sad part of everyday life. They are ostracized as ‘not normal’ or ‘different’” [my translation of the original German text].

Beethoven was not understood

The evening's programme featured Ludwig van Beethoven's 9thSymphony, which had had its first performance on 7 May 1824, almost exactly 200years ago. Immediately preceding this, a composition for soprano and orchestra by Udi Perlman, entitled “Vehigianu” and written in 2021, was played without interruption from the Beethoven that followed. It is not my intention here to review the engaging and successful performance, for which my students rehearsed hard and with full commitment. Unfortunately for me and my husband, the performance was overshadowed by the negative, deeply hurtful experience described and I cannot help but see a connection here with the choice of programme. Let me explain.

As perhaps most people are aware, there is a problem with the concert-going audience of so-called classical music: the average age is usually very high, around or above retirement age, and the audience is almost exclusively white. Although German society has changed considerably in recent decades, not least in terms of its ethnic and cultural diversity, the composition of concert audiences has – alarmingly – remained largely unchanged, a fact which has also been observed in other countries such as the US.

This means that the financially strong but old “core audience” is slowly dying off and fewer and fewer younger people are able to develop an interest in this form of musical experience. This is not necessarily regrettable, but it does present musicians and institutions such as the UdK (University of the Arts) with major and ever-increasing challenges. There are certainly a number of causes, but I will focus on the problem of racism.

Just as the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, a far-right extremist political party which is under investigation by Germany's federal domestic intelligence agency) is just the tip of a much broader racist consensus in this country, microaggressions such as dismissive staring are just the tip of the iceberg that is the racist or at least racist-infiltrated concert audience. And it is precisely those concert audiences who exclude people who look different –whether through actions such as staring or by inaction or denying the problem –who actively help to ensure that the audience cannot renew itself. They prefer to remain “among themselves”. This problem has also been recognized by the League of American Orchestras. Even if the proportion of racists in the audience is less than half (and I'm not even sure about that, unfortunately), the behaviour of this part of the audience is so damaging that consideration should be given to how to keep such people away or at least make it unmistakably clear that their disgusting behaviour will not be tolerated.

It seemed almost pitiful that Norbert Palz, the president of the UdK, asked for donations from the audience at the end of his welcome speech. In spite of the worsening funding situation for the arts, he should perhaps have said: “Please don't donate if you don't share values such as humanity and diversity, because we don't want or need your dirty money!”

The white, racist audience is like a cancerous growth that needs to be treated. The chemotherapy used to fight my own cancer destroys cancer cells, a necessary destruction that makes healthy cell growth possible again. In the same way, the white, racist audience, which will die off in the next few years anyway, should be kept away from classical concerts so that people who are otherwise excluded by these racists dare to go there at all and actually find a welcoming venue.

This is where programming comes into play: unfortunately, there was nothing in the programme that would have irritated the racists. The fact that the short opening piece by an Israeli composer set a Hebrew prayer to music is unfortunately hardly enough in this context. The humanist message of Schiller's text and Beethoven's setting, addressed equally to all people, was not really understood. Of course, the 9th Symphony had also been easily appropriated and performed the Nazis, whose ideology was just as blatantly at odds with the actual message of the music and the text. This is precisely why concert programming needs to irritate, contextualize and question. Unfortunately, I found this completely missing, so I went home not only unsatisfied, but with the decision to avoid such concerts in future and thus leave these to the racists instead of continuing to be part of the problem. My husband, who was a successful RnB singer before leaving his music career and only developed an interest in the classical repertoire through me, doesn't need to pander to these racists, but he also has a right to feel comfortable and not marginalized when attending concerts. This is another reason why I won't be attending any comparable concerts in the foreseeable future, not even at the UdK, my own institution, as long as I cannot be relatively sure that not only I, but also my husband and other people of colour, including darker-skinned people, would be welcome there.

Gravediggers of the classical repertoire

This is also an expression of my refusal to be a gravedigger of this repertoire. Gravediggers are those who see no problem with continuing to present such concert programmes and thus allow concert halls to be reduced to archives in the long run, archives in which music is only preserved and no longer celebrated as living art.

I would also like to clarify why I am writing so openly about this. I'm not trying to shame the UdK as an institution or any individual decision-makers. I see the UdK as an institution where there is (still) a real opportunity to change things for the better and make our industry fit for the future. We should support those who are already working on this, against the blockheads who would rather not change anything and are therefore in reality the gravediggers of our industry.

On the same weekend (but not clashing with the aforementioned concert), a workshop on Indian classical music was organized by students of the Tonmeister (music production) course. A workshop on Iranian art music and the Dastgah modal system is planned for 14 June, organized by my music theory colleague Sarvenaz Safari. There are also better concert programmes as part of the “crescendo” festival, such as that of the “Musica inaudita” series. Significantly, however, this takes place on a weeknight in the middle of the festival. The opening concert and even the closing concert still offer conventional programming and are thus segregated from the more interesting concerts, which are pushed into the background.

Of course you don't have to listen to Beethoven. But do we want to continue making access more difficult for younger, more open-minded people? Does it really help to include a handful of concerts in which everything less conventional is played so that the “core audience” can still enjoy its “core repertoire” untainted? And do we want to continue to prevent the renewal and rejuvenation of the audience, instead of actively promoting it?


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