Category Archives: Think-tank

Does Classical Music Support White Male Rage in America?

Racism and sexism in the arts isn’t a new topic. At least since the dawn of the civil rights movement, Americans have been increasingly willing to grapple with stereotypes and discrimination in art works and institutions. As a composer, I’m concerned with how the culture of opera companies and symphony orchestras might relate to the aggressive wave of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that we see dangerously ascendent in our national government, in our discourse, and in our communities.

Token steps forward have often given people a premature sense of resolution. In the 1950’s it was big news when the Metropolitan Opera of New York hired its first black singer, contralto Marian Anderson. And yet the Met did not drop the controversial use of ‘blackface’ in performances until 2015. The company has never produced an opera written by a black composer; it remains almost completely a vehicle for works by white males — their voices, their stories, and often, their cavalier attitudes about gender, ethnic, and racial stereotypes. Here in Portland, a musician who has worked with some of the largest fine arts groups in town related surprise (and approval) that my underground opera Viva’s Holiday employs women in both the stage director and music director positions. This is almost unheard of in the big classical music organizations, even in this progressive city.

Symphony orchestras have less visible content than opera, but are not necessarily more progressive. Before Marin Alsop was appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007, there had never been a non-male director of a major American orchestra. A few black conductors were able to gain such appointments somewhat earlier, including the late James DePreist of our Oregon Symphony, but the director position remains today overwhelmingly white-male-dominated. And both major and provincial orchestras in the U. S. continue to focus programming mainly on works written by white males and associated with the most privileged castes of European patriarchal history. In the U. S. a company is touted as progressive in classical music circles if it occasionally breaks out of this paradigm. It’s a low bar.

I believe that art is not a product of culture; art is the fabric of culture. It’s a matrix of shared human experience and values. And it isn’t only the experience of the audience; it’s also the experience of everyone working to produce the art, which reinforces a community’s shared idea of itself. Programming, artistic direction, marketing, fundraising, production, board meetings, and feedback from audiences, press, donors — these all reflect values and assumptions which create and reuse shared languages and shared experiences. It is not a simple cause and effect equation; this artistic fabric both reflects and constrains who we are. And the more money and prestige and power the artistic production involves, the more it reflects and constrains the moneyed, prestigious, powerful segments of our culture.

Leinwand (um 1618)   Peter Paul Rubens [1577 - 1640]   Objektmaß 224x210,5 cm  Inventar-Nr.: 321

Peter Paul Rubens [1577 – 1640], The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus

But it follows that the shared experience of our conservatory-fueled fine arts institutions is still mostly a white-male-dominance experience. Recently, we’ve been discussing it more. For example, the sexual assault that occurs in Mozart’s Don Giovanni has traditionally been depicted in a lighthearted way, but we seem to be at last questioning sexual violence in male-written, male-directed operas, as writer Micaela Baranella did in a New York Times article from 2015. But when our President-Elect is revealed to have bragged about sexually assaulting women and that doesn’t deter millions of people from voting for him, can we plausibly deny that it’s all part of the same story? Gender inequality, ethnic stereotypes, sexual violence — these features are not uncommon in the works of the canon, and most of the time we don’t address it directly. It’s there in the mix, like nitrogen in the soil, when support blooms for a racist, sexist, fascist demagogue.

In the wake of our recent electoral debacle, I saw a local arts admin vent online at ‘uneducated whites’ — and yet, Herr Drumpf carried a majority of voters who make over $100k a year. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that he may well have the support a large number of board members and season ticket holders of America’s dead-white-male-loving opera houses and symphony orchestras. There is virtually no way for those in a community concerned about growing misogyny, racism, and xenophobia to know if the programming, hiring, and decision-making of a local fine arts organization is partially motivated by deliberate or unconscious white-male superiority feelings. Token exceptions to this dominant paradigm may be sincere (if insufficient), or they could be driven by pre-emptive public relations, intentionally or habitually leaving the less-egalitarian patriarchal foundation unperturbed, usually in the name of abstractions like ‘quality’, ‘excellence’, ‘honoring the music’, etc. Most educated persons will not display opinions as tactlessly as our demagogue-in-chief does. But if we suspect any element of residual white supremacy is part of the story, now is the time to understand it and to explore ways to highlight, engage, and change it.

We are surrounded, particularly in a creative city like Portland, by outsider artists struggling to forge and share conscience, to resist regressive exhibitions of misogyny, racism, nativism, and authoritarianism. But these struggling artists, and the crucial work they are trying to do, are almost by definition working outside of conservatory fine arts institutions. A reason is signified in that word itself: conservatory. The conservatory process grooms people to laboriously absorb well-established practices rather that to utter, to generate, to experiment, to weave new meaning, to be individual. I dream of Generatories. Instead of instilling dead-white-guy veneration and workaholic habits, we should be teaching students how to creatively appropriate the techniques of the old ‘masters’ for their own new utterances that reflect contemporary issues, aspirations, and morals. (In this respect, I do think the 20th century new-music zeitgeist failed us, by letting a cult of shallow combinatorial algorithmic novelty eclipse, in academia at least, less-elitist community-centered creativity open to repurposing the tools of the past — which is more how the pragmatic world of technology actually works). In a generatory-informed fine arts culture, instead of eternally programming the greatest hits of the 17th through 19th centuries and falsely claiming that’s somehow a neutral act, we would as a community be much more devoted to empowering living creators of talent and conscience to make new works great and small and weave them into our present and future. And, those community-supported creators would deliver wonders; expressive and compassionate humans display genius when empowered.

screen-shot-2016-11-19-at-12-50-01-amIn the coming resistance and realignment, I urge decision-makers in our fine arts institutions to be as courageous as possible, starting today. Dare to more thoroughly and self-critically examine whether a practice or assumption permits or even abets the vile qualities of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and authoritarianism. Please do not hold up a fable of neutrality (as Oregon Symphony President Scott Sholwater did online, on November 9). The rise in hate crimes since election day in not a partisan issue that you can tactfully avoid in order to not ruffle donors’ feathers – and if that’s what you’re doing, you’re part of the problem. In the words of Elie Wiesel,

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I also urge progressive-minded donors and cultural facilitators to look around you for living artists who are working to weave a more compassionate, inclusive, and just community. Lend your resources to support active resistance and meaningful utterance. If your current favored cultural institutions remain tacit consenters to the toxic angry-white wave we face, move your dollars to the resistance. In culture as in politics, it’s an unfortunate truth that the winner will usually be the better funded. Do we want to see the culture of white-male superiority better funded than new, progressive, inclusive artistic vision? When we answer this question, we may also be answering the titular one.

Christopher Corbell is the founder of Muse:forward. He writes and produces underground opera and art-song in Portland, Oregon through his company Cult of Orpheus.

The promise of the “Pay Your Wage” sliding scale

A hallmark of post-punk underground culture has been the cheap show. A $5 cover for a night of 3-4 local bands and a $10-15 ticket for higher-profile touring acts in bigger venues became the norm by 90’s — and in Portland, it’s still the norm, two decades later.

While booking quasi-“underground” classical concerts for Classical Revolution PDX, it was really important to me to try and price things at a similar level. The mission of the group was access, and its ethos was irreverent and egalitarian.

And yet, there is the hard fact: cheap live shows are a hard way to break even (never mind make a living). We can cut overhead but at some point even the most DIY garage band will find itself resorting to a kickstarter or other self-funding source in order to record, buy new gear, get a tour-worthy vehicle.

Maybe that has something to do with the fact that $5 is not, in 2015, what it was in 1991. Back then, it was pretty close to the local minimum wage; the federal minimum then was $4.25. That’s half the minimum wage in Portland now, and that wage itself is deflated, with rising income inequality in the US (and gentrification in in the Rose City) not making the picture any rosier.

There are plenty of creative and/or bureaucratic solutions out there. Kickstarters are the viral, DIY option (with a cut going to the corporate tech company,  like everything these days), while small nonprofit-sponsored acts in the art-music space compete for the lottery of grants and ever-thinner streams of arts fundraising. There are limitations and downsides to these strategies.

Many people might not recognize how much at a disadvantage kickarters are compared to nonprofit fundraising. Donor’s can’t write off donations, and unless you’re incorporated that income is going to look like your personal income for your taxes at the end of the year. Moreover, if you don’t have enough business to convince the IRS that your music is a sufficiently profit-making venture, you won’t be able to write off any of your expenses paid for with that kickstarted money, because they’ll legally classify your artistic passion as a “hobby.”

Unfortunately as I found out with CRPDX, nonprofits are not a panacea: you are required to raise half of your funds through donations, you have to have a board of directors who can micro-manage or even fire you, and you’re going to face a lot of paperwork and administrative culture when what you really want to do is create and perform. But whether you’re kickstarting or fundraising, sooner or later you might start to feel like you’re spending all your time begging, which is never the best headspace for art.

Artists need to get paid, not bureaucratized. Some folks think this is the responsibility of the venues where shows happen. But venues often barely cover rent — we’ve seen a lot of great ones go under in the past decade in Portland — so trying to make them foot the bill for better musician wages off of their beer sales hasn’t gained any traction despite the ongoing efforts of groups like Fair Trade Music and the local Musician’s Union.

That’s where Pay Your Wage comes in. We need a fix that isn’t a lottery like grants, that isn’t s perennial begging system like kickstarter or fundraising, and that isn’t a coercive model that puts the pressure on the venues and makes everyone adversarial.

What if our $5-$15 ticket prices at least kept pace with wage levels and inflation? What if, further, those who were doing better than average and still coming to shows — professionals like attorneys, high tech workers, medical professionals — were given a framework that encouraged them (without demanding) to give a little more?

Here’s how it works:

  • Your show has a sliding scale for admission
  • The scale is called “Pay Your Wage”, which means: pay what you make in an hour
  • It’s an honor system; everyone pays what they will
  • You can use the minimum wage as a minimum — which will go up when our so-called leaders find the will in their cold little hearts to hike it — or you can set a lower minimum for the under-employed, or no minimum if you don’t want to turn anyone away.
  • For ticketed events, many systems like Brown Paper Tickets will let you set up several different prices of tickets, so you can even use the sliding scale for advance sales. Pick a small range of prices and have the purchase page say “Please choose a price closest to your hourly wage”. E.g., $10, $15, $20, $25, $30, $40, $50

That’s all there is to it. Once people encounter enough shows structured this way it will become second-nature to them; I’ve seen this happen among the audiences where it has been tried already.

Will everyone really pay their wage? Almost certainly not — but they will likely still pay more than what they pay now. And it only takes one generous person chipping in $50 to make a big difference for a band playing a small room. If the small-venue show averages $10 or $12 a person instead of $5, the bands playing will more than double their (still slim) income. Bigger venues that might currently charge $10-$15 can expect to get closer to a $20 average; when CRPDX used this model for a chamber performance in 2014 we didn’t turn anyone away, had a number of people come in for free or paying an “under-employed” $5, and yet we still averaged $19 per audience member at the gate.

This system also builds in a way for show promoters and venues to gradually shift prices up with wages without pissing most people off. If Portland follows Seattle’s lead and raises the minimum wage to $15, then a new suggested minimum of $15 won’t seem so crazy as long as “Pay Your Wage” is the buzzword.

If you’re in a band or producing a show, try it out! Let me know how it goes, what problems you encounter and how it changes what you make per-audience-member. If you’re running a bigger presenting organization that typically sells higher-priced tickets, maybe you could experiment with this model for a section of your audience or for special outreach performances. I believe the more that it’s tried, the more this system will succeed in changing people’s expectations, by letting them be part of better arts funding directly, at the show, supporting the bands and other performers they like with a few extra bucks — an hour’s worth.

What does it mean to Keep Portland Weird?

Getting back to some emerging-music think-tankery for tonight’s salon…

Our monthly Muse:forward event champions stuff that doesn’t fit into established genres. We’re not alone – there are many venue owners/bookers, impresarios and scene-makers in town who seem to just get it, and that venerable bumper-sticker mantra “Keep Portland Weird” still applies here, despite corporate TV’s attempt to co-opt its diversity for profit and cynical, passive amusement.

Weirdness is a natural part of being human. A person is existentially the strangest mash-up of transcendent consciousness and awkward animal. Anything imaginable is our natural, terrible, playful domain. This is what being human’s about, and what IMO art is about, if one can say it (like life) is “about” anything.

The impersonal is the domain of the institution. Set something up with a creed, a program, a hierarchy. The institution naturally normalizes, classifies, suppresses the weird so that some agenda can be met. “Normal” is the oxygen of the institution, it’s what allows it to predict and control and expand and maximize its interests.

So on this basis I think “Keep Portland Weird” isn’t about the surface, the idiosyncratic style or trend. It’s about making room for the individual to be natural, to be oneself, to be weird, to explore without being corralled by normalizing institutions. What I’m attempting with the monthly Muse:forward event isn’t to curate a preferred weird style, but to provide a forum that resists agenda and groupthink and gives anyone who wants to try something (mainly with music) a protected space to be themselves. And I think that’s not new in Portland; if we have a weird cultural ethos it’s because many have worked, and still work, to foster this kind of individuality that lets us remind ourselves we aren’t just consumers or taxpayers or subjects or TV audience.

Looking forward to discussion, tonight at the salon, and in comments!

Pay Your Wage table card PDF, BrownPaperTickets setup

Want to use the Pay Your Wage sliding-scale model for your next show? Here are a couple of things that can help.

This simple table-tent card explains the scale to your guests. Just print it out on heavy card stock, fold in half and set up at your admission table or box office:

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 8.01.23 AM


You can also set up online advance ticket purchase for Pay Your Wage sliding scale. Here’s a screenshot of a recent show’s configuration – it’s easy to set up, just enter tiers for various wage levels:

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 7.55.33 AM


With a combination of advance tickets and sales at the door the show above averaged over $19 per attendee. There were plenty of people paying only $5, and nobody was turned away.


Pay your wage: a Muse:forward campaign

It’s been a quick think-tanking, but after discussing the brainstorm with a half-dozen trusted and committed people in the local arts scene I’m feeling really confident in the first tangible idea to come out of Muse:forward: PAY YOUR WAGE.

A fix for deflated cover charges, the idea is that we adopt a new norm, a standard sliding scale, for going to shows: pay what you would make in an hour. If that’s minimum wage cool, if you make more that’s great, chip in a little more. This could transform our deflated arts economy overnight in a way that is fair.

But this isn’t a price-hike by bands or venues — it’s an opt-in system like tipping at a restaurant, so it’s all about buy-in from all of us when we go to shows. The great part is, there’s nothing preventing it from starting right now: if you go to a $5 show and pay $9 or $15, they aren’t going to turn it down! But to make it count, we need to let everyone know about the plan and get everyone on board.

It’s a bottom-up fix and in the spirit of the Portland community. Please feel free to share and distribute this image!