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Critiquing the Unfamiliar: Cultural Sensitivity and Music Appreciation

This article has been originally published dated September 7, 2023, on Darmstadt Summer Course 2023 Words on Music.


Darmstadt Summer Course 2023 (c) IMD / Kristof Lemp

In contemplating our role as listeners, how are we to engage with and evaluate works conceived by composers of diverse ethnic backgrounds? The textbook response would be to be humble about unfamiliar cultures, listen to what the person with the unfamiliar cultural context has to say, and learn with an open mind. This statement seems to be a perfect answer to me, and I imagine many devil’s advocates will have difficulties challenging it. So: what are the underlying issues with this seemingly ideal response?

I am presently participating in the 51st Darmstadt Summer Course from Japan, reconnecting with Germany after an extended residency spanning nearly five years in this foreign land. In the Summer Course, the lectures and lessons are predominantly communicated in English, but when I perk up my ears to the conversations happening around me, I hear German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, and a tapestry of other languages unfamiliar to my ears. Irrespective of whether one would deem this sufficient or not – there are discrepancies between the numbers of composers programmed from advanced and less-advanced economies – to my perspective, there seems to be a decent amount of racial diversity in the programming. It is worth noting that this year’s cohort of guest tutors comprises approximately 20% white males. The Summer Course’s historical connection with a predominantly European male narrative in the realm of art music has witnessed a transformation, at least on paper.

Notably, this year’s festival began with Anthony Braxton’s compositions taking centre stage and there was a two-day symposium delving into Braxton’s life and works. Although the composer himself is not enthusiastic about emphasizing his racial identity, stating in a conversation with George Lewis during the conference that he feels he has “left blackness behind”, it is pertinent to acknowledge that both Braxton and Lewis are Black Americans.

During the initial week of the Summer Course, an overheard conversation caught my attention and made me stop and think. After an evening concert, I heard two white audience members reviewing the music. “I really didn’t think that piece was very good at all, especially for Darmstadt”, said one, followed by an agreement from his companion. However, they swiftly shifted their negative stance to a positive one when they learned the composer’s Black American heritage. Curious about their reasoning, I had a conversation with these two audience members. One stated, “I feel uneasy criticizing a Black composer’s work, because I haven’t had the same experience of a Black person.” He added, “I don’t want to be seen as a racist, too.” 

I felt a tangible consensus amongst select groups of white attendees whom I interviewed subsequently. When discussing non-white composers’ works, these attendees were extremely careful with words, and did not forget to praise the work whenever possible. Curiously, some of my own works have had similar receptions in the United States and Europe. I am a Japanese composer and have written several compositions for Japanese instruments, such as “Mimi Spelunking” (2019). Some listeners strive to tiptoe around potential cultural insensitivity and are hesitant in offering constructive critique. Might the very textbook response I mentioned above – the one that seemingly guides our appreciation and engagement of cross-cultural works – inadvertently pressure some audiences to stop critiquing works in a genuine way, ushering us into an echo chamber of accepting works with no in-depth thoughts at all? Should such scenarios persist, and we continue to disengage with “foreign” works, the discourse on “diversity and inclusion” at Darmstadt becomes a mere show – an act of virtue-signalling – a self-congratulatory pat on the back. 

This discourse disregards the earnest participation of Darmstadt’s audience; individuals who have genuinely engaged – and by engaged they may have had a positive or negative response, or anything in between and beyond – with works composed by people of ethnicities different to their own. This audience obviously exists not in small numbers and hopefully as a majority. I personally do not like categorising individuals into racial boxes, as it often oversimplifies the discussion into a dichotomous Euro-American framework of “oppressor” versus “oppressed”. While I understand that recognising one’s race can still be valid in numerous respects, this perspective overlooks the intricate nuances that define our world, especially the ones outside of the Western discourse. However, in this article, I feel the need to be specific about the racial identities of individuals, as so often we blur race in a difficult conversation in order to avoid facing the problem head on.

During my two weeks in Darmstadt, I had a chance to sit down with George Lewis to discuss this phenomenon of feeling “fear” in critiquing works by composers of different ethnic origins. I studied composition with Lewis in New York City ten years ago when I was living there, and it was a great pleasure to reconnect with him at Darmstadt. While he believes one should be afraid to get collusively involved in racism, he disagrees with the act of differentiating works with the composer’s ethnicity. “This is your basic, garden-variety exoticism”, says George. “It is designed to draw sharp distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the ‘oppressed’ – so that we are not obliged to regard everyone’s work as coming from the same identity stream of classical music”. 

Lewis’s words effectively underscore the widespread problem of exoticism, a mechanism that intentionally creates stark divisions between “us” and “them”. However, I find this issue to be incredibly complicated; I have felt that more than a few white participants at Darmstadt are actively working towards cultural sensitivity and minority inclusion, which paradoxically has been hindering their genuine engagement with compositions by non-white composers. Excessively criticising this disposition could potentially amplify genuine concerns for the white listeners about facing consequences such as being labeled as “racist” or being “cancelled”, which might ultimately exacerbate the existing fear.

Dai Fujikura, a Japanese composer who has lived in the United Kingdom for more than half of his life, also draws attention to an interesting point, saying the word “minority” is often used from a predominantly “Western” lens in the art music world. In a conversation I had with him during the Summer Course, he noted that “the definition of ‘minority’ changes in where you are, because if I go back to Japan, everybody looks like me – and I’m not a minority anymore.” This insight underscores the contextual nature of the term and emphasizes the importance of considering diverse viewpoints beyond the discussions occurring within the Western closed-loop discourse when discussing such nuanced concepts.

I am glad I overheard the conversation that led me to explore this issue, and profoundly grateful for the two audience members who shared their honest thoughts on having difficulty criticising a Black composer’s work. Many individuals who are conscious of being racially sensitive exhibit a veritable effort to avoid inadvertently transgressing the boundaries of diverse cultures and ethnicities – a sentiment I also align with. But at the same time, it should not impede the discourse when genuine inquiries or opinions arise concerning the unfamiliar. The apprehension of appearing uninformed or insensitive should not become an obstacle to addressing potentially intricate or contentious subjects. The reason is that, when one refrains from posing sincere questions about uncharted cultural or ethnic terrain out of fear, one must accept the "answers" from the "figure of authority" without truly understanding the essence of the topic. This applies to all of us.


Listening to music is messy work. Many emotions take place in one’s mind which are not able to be explained by “positive” or “negative” binaries. We all are allowed to like or not like a work, and the composer’s ethnicity has nothing to do with it. Dai Fujikura says with a big smile on his face that “what I think we should aim for in the world, at least in the music world, is to create an environment where we don’t have to address the ethnicity of the composer or the listener because the programming and the audience is naturally diverse, balanced and equal. That kind of utopia would be nice to have in the future. I know it’s very simplistic and naïve, but that will be very nice”.

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