Category Archives: Participant Post

How Chineke! is Changing the Game

This post is written by network member Ishani O’Connor.

‘For too long, classical music has looked like the preserve of a certain kind of person performing for a certain kind of audience. Many have likely seen little wrong with that, largely because they saw themselves in the picture. But the world keeps reminding us again and again that there are those who scarcely see themselves in the picture and consequently feel that they don’t belong there…’ — John Gilhooly, Chair, Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) – citation for the Chineke! Foundation on winning the first Gamechanger Award at the RPS Awards, 28 November 2019

‘I hope by us, the Chineke! Foundation, being recognised positively as Game-changers, that it’ll carry a message throughout our industry that we all focus not on what is lost, but by what is gained by creating greater diversity, inclusion & ultimately, belonging. We recognise that change isn’t always or necessarily for the better, however, we hope and believe in this instance a serious game in terms of history and tradition has been changed in a positive direction’. — Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, accepting the RPS Gamechanger Award.

Founded by renowned double-bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE in 2015, the Chineke! Foundation’s mission statement to ‘champion change and celebrate diversity in classical music’ has been practiced and enacted over its four short years of existence with a rapid ascendency in the classical music industry: impacting classical music seasons with the music of historically neglected Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) composers and commissioning many new works from contemporary BME composers; nurturing and supporting new BME talent entering the industry; increasing the diversity of audiences; establishing partnerships with learning departments of concert venues and with music hubs to work extensively in schools and community spaces across the country; and in its media presence in newspapers, on TV, radio and online. Chineke!’s work has changed the perception of classical music and the musicians who belong on the greatest stages of the world, but the ripples go beyond the industry and into the wider society, at time of great social division and inequity.

At the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the proportion of black and minority ethnic (BME) representation in orchestras worldwide falls considerably short of reflecting the ethnic make-up of the population as a whole. In the UK 1.7% of the membership of our 14 leading professional orchestras are BME compared to the overall population of BME representation of 15% and as much as 50% or more in major cities. Young BME musicians have few role models in the classical music world or in the media to inspire them to take up a musical instrument or to consider seriously a professional career pathway in music.

Through the work of Europe’s first majority BME Chineke! Orchestra and its sister project, the Chineke! Junior Orchestra for young BME musicians aged 11 to 22, and with a Learning & Participation Programme that has taken the joy and stimulation of creative music-making into inner-city schools across the UK, Chineke! is changing the perception of who can and should play in our professional orchestras and who belongs on stage; it has had a remarkable effect in attracting large numbers of BME people to concerts throughout England and in Europe.

The impact the professional Chineke! Orchestra has made on the annual concert seasons of the major venues of the UK and the new talent which the Chineke! Junior Orchestra has nurtured have almost single-handedly created the right conditions for young BME talent to blossom and therefore, in turn, has transformed the classical music sector in recent years.

Chineke! has commissioned eight new pieces of music by contemporary BME composers including Errollyn Wallen, Hannah Kendall, Daniel Kidane, James B. Wilson and Roderick Williams. Classical artists such as cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his sister Isata Kanneh-Mason, the concert pianist and recording artist, have passed through the Chineke! stable.

For the past four years, Chineke! has led the way as a learning organisation whose active mentorship of new BME talent and effective engagement with BME audiences is demonstrating to the wider industry how to increase ethnic diversity in classical music and therefore increase equity within the ranks of its orchestras.

However, after this initial burst of energy, how can we sustain support and commitment and where do we go from here? Now that some of the changes in perceptions are actively shifting the balance of power within the gate-keepers of the industry, how will this important work be supported, grown and developed to increase the likelihood of a lasting commitment to BME musicians who are still in the minority and thus create an established legacy and a secure future for everyone? Do we have the leadership in the marketplace, at institutions and in the media, who are courageous and representative enough to show a real commitment to change?

Ishani O’Connor has been the Learning and Participation Manager for the Chineke! Foundation for the past two and half years. Along with an expert and dedicated Chineke! management team, she manages the Chineke! Junior Orchestra’s annual calendar of concerts which take place on the stages of the Southbank Centre, where both Chineke! orchestras are resident and also at other private and public events. She also works closely with Chineke! partners – venues, music hubs and other charities to bring Chineke! musicians to schools and community spaces across England. Ishani has an MA in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy from Goldsmiths College, University of London and a BA in American & Commonwealth Arts from the University of Exeter. Ishani has played violin for 40 years and is a trustee of Dulwich Symphony Orchestra where she devised and ran an orchestra outreach project in a local state comprehensive school for three years. Ishani has worked closely with communities delivering arts-based, socially focused projects to bring people together. She helped to register a new charity for the residents of the Draper Estate in south London where she was a fundraiser and organised cultural festivals, classical music concerts and theatre for the community. In the past, Ishani has worked for BBC TV as a researcher for Specialist Factual-Arts and as a producer for an independent TV company making educational films for schools and universities. Ishani has a deep belief in the power of mentorship, having had such a positive experience of music teaching and performing in youth orchestras growing up, she feels that developing support for young people in music and arts education is fundamental to our society.

Curating Diversity in Classical Music

This post is written by network member Uchenna Ngwe.

Over the past few years, more work is being done to actively confront the lack of diversity within classical music. Some important and progressive projects have created new spaces and opened up existing formats to encourage more active participation from communities and individuals who have traditionally been underrepresented in the arts.

While this work has proved invaluable, interventions tend to focus on contemporary performance and composition without exploring the full historical cultural richness of participation in classical music.

The way we interact with classical music today relies on myth and legend to excite audiences with tales of the ‘Great Composers’. Concentrating ‘diversity’ solely on performances of work by canonic composers continues to give the false impression that the societies Mozart and Beethoven were composing in, for instance, were culturally homogenous. A growing body of work is recognising the contributions women have made in the field as musicians but the Western-centric lens that this is viewed from often fails to consider the existence of historical participants of Black British, African and Caribbean descent — male or female — when selecting material for performance. In this way, ‘inclusive’ programming can reinforce ideas that Black composers simply didn’t exist until the mid-20th century at the very earliest.

The plainsightSOUND research project challenges narratives within classical music that exclude the stories of participation by performers and composers of Black African and Caribbean descent and aims to facilitate curation of more representative programmes in classical music spaces.

Unlike traditional concert programming, where there are certain conventions that an audience might expect — for instance, interval placement, type and order of repertoire — curating involves more than placing a work of art in a space or a piece/performer in a concert. A complete context of the presentation needs to be considered, alongside an awareness of how the curator’s artistic and creative decisions can affect not only the audience experience but those of the performers as well.

If we are to say that we truly care about uncovering and amplifying diverse voices within classical music, we must consider not only its full history, but the complete environment that we frame performances in.

Uchenna Ngwe is a second-year PhD student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Her explorations in creative practice investigate the lives and work of historical Black classical musicians in Britain from the perspective of a performer-curator-activist. Based in London, Uchenna is a freelance oboist, music educator and artistic director of Decus Ensemble – a flexible, mixed-instrumental group dedicated to performing lesser-known classical music works for chamber ensemble. 


Invisible canons: towards a personal canon of female composers

This post is written by network member Dr. Angela Slater.

There are many instances where the pedagogical canons that professional and amateur musicians were exposed to during their formative years have left generations after generations of people unaware of the existence and wealth of works by female composers. As evidenced in numerous political speeches, and academic research, the powerful sway that the canon wields through our educational institutions and beyond have ensured the continued hegemony of repertoire and, by association, the suppression of women composers and their works, consciously or otherwise.

My own experiences as a female composer working in the contemporary classical industry gives both substantive and anecdotal evidence how this has come to be, and its continuing influence. For example, it was only in my PhD on composition that I began to realise in any formal way that there had been female composers of the past. It did amaze me how I had not come to question this before such an advanced stage, and how by asking this question, I was suddenly exposed to a world of far more music from diverse human experiences. I think this is proof of the acceptance and power that common discourses have over us as they go by unquestioned as the seal of worth and approval.

Through my research into women composers and their works, I began to reflect on my own pedagogical journey by digging through my old graded exam books and syllabuses. The process made me question the formal structure of the canon, its manifestations, and its inner workings. Exploring the writing of Marcia Citron and Anne C. Shreffler, who offer perceptive insights into issues of gender and the canon, is revealing. For example, Citron perceptively observes that ‘Canon formation is not controlled by any one individual or organisation’ (2000: 19). On this point, Shreffler identifies key aspects of canon formation as ‘frequency of performance and academic engagement, both of which show a presumption of longevity and staying power; frequent programming well after initial honeymoon period; and historical significance, realised in retrospect’ (2011).

Related to this, Lucy Green’s (1997) work has shown how this becomes embodied in practitioners’ perspectives on the ability of female students. In a number of cases, teachers judged the work of girls to be of lower quality than that of boys, quantifying this in loose terms tied to concepts of musical ‘genius’ and unity of form. All of this builds a picture of how women’s creativity has in the past and continues to be undervalued and undermined in our societies.

I surveyed the ABRSM examination board piano syllabuses from 1999-2019 so I could begin to substantiate some of the things that had emerged anecdotally. This survey reveals unsurprising but still startling evidence that illustrates a structural imbalance in graded music examinations as a whole. The survey shows overall representation of women composers within their syllabus for piano grades 1-8 remains low from 1999-2019 with a peak of 11% in 2011-12. Across the overall time period of two decades we can see that women composers only account for 3.4% of composers presented. The picture worsens when you delve deeper into which works actually make it into the main examination books, a significant barrier to access to these works for teachers and students.

Such syllabuses hold enormous weight over our views of music. Citron observes ‘Textbooks and anthologies, the repository of the canon, wield enormous power as determinants of canonic status’ (2000: 24-5). We might see these educational resources becoming certified endorsements of what is worthy of being taught. Challenging such hegemony is important as we move forward.

Through looking at the pedagogical and broader societal canons to which I was exposed it is plain to see that women composers were largely excluded from these. I doubt my musical education was particularly different from many other young people growing up at the same time. As noted above, canons are both created and sustained through a large group of people with shared values. We might see the formation of an established societal canon as emerging from a number of influential individual canons coalescing around a common body of works. The influence of this conceptual structure is almost inescapable, and I acknowledge this from the outset, even as I begin to critique it. Therefore, when I started to discover and engage with a body of works by female composers, I began to conceptualise these as my personal canon of female composers.

Through this I realised that if we can influence the personal canon of many concert- going members of the public then we can begin to in some small way infiltrate the larger canon. Illuminate Women’s Music was founded on this mission to begin to introduce and educate the larger concert-going public, arts organisations, university communities and digital communities about the historical lineage of women composers and the living women composers working today. By taking these works across a broad geographical area to a range of concert venues and demographic of concert-going audiences, and offering repeat performances by emerging professionals, this music is receiving some of the necessary elements of works that potentially go on to reach canonic status.


Citron, Marcia. Gender and the Music Canon (University of Illinois Press, 2000).

Green, Lucy. Music, Gender, Education (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Shreffler, Anne C. ‘Musical Canonization and Decanonization in the Twentieth Century’, in Der Kanon der Musik: Theorie und Geschichte. Ein Handbuch, ed. K. P. M. Wald-Fuhrmann (Munich: Hanser, 2011), pp. 1– 18.

Angela Elizabeth Slater is a UK-based composer and the founder of Illuminate Women’s Music. She is passionate about bringing music by women from the past and present to audiences around the UK and beyond. In her AHRC-funded PhD at University of Nottingham, Angela developed an interest in musically mapping different aspects of the natural world into the fabric of her music. She frequently associates these concepts and phenomena from the natural world with ideas of movement, forging close links between her gestural language and techniques found in dance. Angela enjoys working with professional and amateur musicians with equal enthusiasm. Highlights include the Atea Wind Quintet, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Bozzini Quartet, Assembly project, Aurea Quartet, BBC Singers, and Psappha, amongst others. Recent significant achievements include being a Britten-Pears Young Artist through which Angela worked with Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews and Michael Gandolfi, developing Soaring in Stasis which received its premiere at 2018 Aldeburgh Festival. Her work Eye o da hurricane (for string quartet), was shortlisted in the British category ISCM world music days in 2017. Angela recently became the New England Philharmonic’s 2018 call for scores winner resulting in the world-premiere of her orchestral work Roil in Stillness in April 2019. Angela also became the 2018 Young Composer of the Year for the London Firebird Orchestra, leading to a new work, Twilight Inversions, which received its world-premiere on 11th June 2019. Angela was the 2019 Mendelssohn Scholar resulting in her furthering her studies with Michael Gandolfi at NEC this year. In June Angela has had further exciting performances including the Hildegard National Sawdust ensemble performing Shades of Rain for piano trio in Brooklyn, New York followed by a world-premiere of her work Of Spheres by the Semiosis quartet as part of the IAWM conference at Berklee College of Music (Boston). Angela also had her piece A Pattern of Shadows performed in Finland by the Avanti chamber orchestra as part of the Savellyspaja 2019 festival. Angela has also recently attended the prestigious Choreographer-Composer Lab at Phoenix Dance Theatre with the intention of furthering her artistic ambition and collaborative practices with other artforms.


Let’s talk about inequalities: why increased awareness and discussion of inequalities does not necessarily lead to social change

This post is written by network member Dr. Christina Scharff.

Over recent years, discourse around diversity and equality in the classical music profession has been gaining increased traction. There have been a range of initiatives to promote women, musicians with disabilities, as well as Black and minority-ethnic players. Keychange, for example, is an international campaign which encourages music festivals and conferences to sign up to a 50:50 gender balance pledge by 2022. HERA is an intersectional, feminist opera company and SWAPR’ra was formed by a group of artists in the opera industry, who seek to effect positive change for women and parents in opera. formidAbility promotes accessibility and inclusion for those with disabilities in the opera scene, and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Resound is a professional disabled-led ensemble. In 2015, the double bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku launched the Chineke! Foundation, which supports Black and minority ethnic classical musicians working in the UK and Europe. The foundation’s flagship ensemble, the Chineke! Orchestra is Europe’s first majority BAME orchestra. These initiatives have been widely discussed in the classical music industry; indeed, a recent announcement for a talk by Chi-chi Nwanoku states that “the lack of diversity in British orchestras, and the arts in general, is at the forefront of current debates in the UK classical music industry”.

This presentation explores how classical musicians respond to and make sense of recent efforts to diversify the classical music profession. Based on qualitative in-depth interviews with early-career, female musicians, the presentation traces shifts and continuities in discussions about ongoing inequalities. In particular, the presentation contrasts and compares how two cohorts of female, early-career musicians talked about gender, racial and class inequalities in 2012/2013 (n=64) and 2019 (n=18). While inequalities, and particularly gendered hierarchies of power were overwhelmingly disavowed in the earlier study, the 2019 research participants openly discussed classed, racialised and gendered exclusions. Thus, wider debates about inequality in the classical music profession seem to have had an effect on how female, early-career musicians make sense of the industry they work in.

Drawing on a discursive analysis of the interviews conducted in 2019, this presentation provides a detailed examination of how inequalities are talked about. The analysis shows that many research participants were aware of the lack of diversity in the classical music industry, used political language to discuss inequalities, and provided incisive accounts of ongoing hierarchies of power. As opposed to earlier research findings on the ‘unspeakability’ of inequalities in the cultural and creative industries, including the classical music profession, the research participants’ openness to talk about ongoing exclusions certainly marks a shift. However, there were also some striking continuities, mainly in relation to the use of neoliberal rhetoric in talk about inequalities, and the reliance on individualist responses to ongoing hierarchies of power. For example, numerous research participants shared experiences of sexual harassment, but stated that they had not reported it. All research participants worked on a freelance basis and felt that the reputation-based nature of informal recruitment meant that they could not speak out against sexual harassment. In this context, they often invoked the image of a strong, empowered woman standing up to call out inappropriate behaviour and conduct. Possible, collective responses were rarely mentioned. Sexual harassment, and its inappropriateness, was thus discussed amongst musicians and this marks an important shift. However, the research participants’ reliance on individualist solutions meant that the awareness of sexual harassment did act as a first step towards facilitating wider, structural change. Instead, the focus on individualist solutions often led to a sense of powerlessness and sometimes even failure, where research participants blamed themselves for ‘failing’ to speak out. The research participants’ engagement with sexual harassment, along with their wider use of neoliberal rhetoric in discussions about inequalities, cautions against providing an overly celebratory account of musicians’ increased awareness of racialised, classed and gendered exclusions. As is the case in relation to wider industry initiatives that seek to tackle the lack of diversity, careful, scholarly attention has to be paid to the ways in which inequalities are conceived, talked about, and what is done to mitigate against their persistence.

Dr. Christina Scharff is Reader in Gender, Media and Culture at King’s College London. 


Diverted Diversifications: When Attempts at Inclusion Backfire and Fortify the Canon

This post is written by network member Dr. Penny Brandt.

The Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy has been tracking representation of music by women composers in “regular season ‘Classical’ programs” of the top twenty-one orchestras in the United States for the last three years. Their research reveals a very slight trend upwards in the numbers, which are delineated by different metrics (composer numbers vs. works numbers, for instance) on their website.[1] WPA notes that the numbers would be different if they included non-mainstage performances. “For example, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has a fantastic new music series titled Green Umbrella . . . [with] many exciting new commissions by contemporary women.” Similarly, the Seattle and National Symphony Orchestras are presenting music by women in “Family Concerts.” The trend of including women in non-mainstage programming is not exclusive to orchestras. The Metropolitan Opera of New York announced last year that it will be working with composer Missy Mazzoli, but added that the company will “venture beyond the walls of its opera house to collaborate with the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Public Theater” — an admission that the Met Opera production of Mazzoli’s chamber opera is slated to take place outside of Lincoln Center.[2]

In his 2005 Oxford History of Western Music, Richard Taruskin recommends the practice of “mainstreaming” — an activist practice of including lesser-known works by women composers in order to advance the political and social causes of women in present times.[3] He credits this practice for his inclusion of a cantata by Barbara Strozzi (1619–1677) in his History of Western Music in lieu of one by “the more famous and prolific [Giacomo] Carissimi” (1605–1674), with the hope that “mainstreaming may constructively counteract the unfounded assumption that women are lacking in innate capacity to compose.”[4] Many scholars (particularly the so-called “new musicologists” of the latter half of the twentieth century) have worked to identify the ways in which our aesthetic sensibilities have generated an exclusive canon full of “dead white men in wigs.”[5] Taruskin correctly identifies ways in which our societal concept of “greatness” is closely aligned with maleness, but while we can applaud his decision to “mainstream” women into his textbooks in 2005, we can also see the damage done when he framed his decision as a choice with the goal of performing activism and by immediately comparing Strozzi to Carissimi.

Artistic Directors and scholars must take care that they do not undo their own activism in the course of executing diversity initiatives. Advocates and allies for inclusion in music negate their own efforts when they tokenize and “other” composers through clumsy programming and marketing efforts. If music organizations want audiences to embrace diversity in programming, they cannot apologize for inclusion of composers from historically underrepresented groups by over-justifying their decisions or by relegating their music to lesser spaces. How can anyone expect audiences to believe there is great music by composers from historically underrepresented groups if audiences never see these composers programmed in series a titled “Masterworks” or “The Great Classics”?

The Institute for Composer Diversity, in addition to its award-winning database of composers and their music, offers resources for “Best Practices” in programming for inclusion and diversity. Utilizing these resources can help groups to avoid a misfire that inadvertently reinforces the canon. These resources are available on the Institute for Composer Diversity’s “Best Practices” page.


[1] “2019-2020 Season: By the Numbers” at Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy Blog. Accessed November 29, 2019 at

[2] “The Met Is Creating New Operas (Including Its First by Women)” in The New York Times. Accessed November 29, 2019 at

[3] Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 2, Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 78.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sophie Fuller, “Dead White Men in Wigs: Women and Classical Music,” in Girls! Girls! Girls! : essays on women and music, ed. Sarah Cooper (New York: New York University Press, 1996).

Dr. Penny Brandt is Adjunct Lecturer in Musicology at the Butler School of Music, University of Texas at Austin, the Artistic Director of the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, and a freelance musician, scholar, and writer.


Redefining the Idea of the Orchestra

This post is written by network participant Doug Bott.

The National Open Youth Orchestra (NOYO) is a world first, an ambitious ensemble launched in September 2018 to give some of the UK’s most talented young disabled musicians a progression route. NOYO promotes musical excellence, empowering disabled and non-disabled musicians aged 11-25 to train and perform together as members of a pioneering orchestra.

NOYO is co-delivered by Barbican / Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Bristol Music Trust, the National Centre for Inclusive Excellence and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Young disabled musicians have come to NOYO through a range of other accessible programmes including Orchestras for All, Drake Music and Open Orchestras. For NOYO to succeed we need to continue building a national ecology of accessible opportunities in music, together with an expanding number of partners, to ensure that young disabled people nationwide:

  1. Have equal opportunities to learn a musical instrument, acoustic or electronic
  2. Can develop their musicianship through a range of programmes at different levels
  3. Have the option to pursue a career in music

NOYO aims to create the conditions for young disabled musicians to shape not only their own future, but also the future of orchestras. Here’s Jamie, NOYO saxophonist, on their first six months with NOYO:

I feel powerful. Like, the preconceptions that other people have had, and that I have had about myself, I’ve beaten those. Because I’m now part of this group, I can beat those ideas.

At NOYO, we believe that young disabled musicians can redefine the very idea of ‘the Orchestra’, tackling inequality, inspiring new musical instruments and creating new musical forms for the 21st century. NOYO can be a catalyst for the evolution of the orchestra as a vital artistic force in contemporary culture.

NOYO is informed by a Sound Connections Feasibility Study and rooted in the Social Model of Disability, aiming to remove barriers that might otherwise prevent talented young disabled musicians from fulfilling their potential. Such barriers can include:

Instruments: musicians who may not be in a position to play traditional orchestral instruments are excluded by the four conventional sections of an orchestra (strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion). NOYO accommodates a wide range of both acoustic and electronic instruments including the Clarion, which can be played with any part of the body, including the eyes.

Music: the inviolable nature of much orchestral repertoire presents barriers to disabled musicians who may require more flexibility (reasonable adjustments) in certain aspects of their music-making. It also limits the potential diversity of instruments that orchestras might otherwise include. NOYO commissions ‘modular’ [1] repertoire to enable a greater diversity of both players and instrumentation.

Entry requirements: many young disabled musicians haven’t benefitted from a music education that can equip them with musical qualifications. NOYO is developing a more equitable but still rigorous set of entry requirements to recruit young musicians who can demonstrate musical ‘passion, potential and perseverance’, without the need for ‘grades’.

Low expectations: a lack of disabled musical role models hampers the expectations of young disabled people, their families and teachers. NOYO aims to create new role models by publicly showcasing the excellence that young disabled musicians can achieve, through a progression route that develops the professional disabled musicians of the future.

Overcoming these barriers presents significant challenges not only for the National Open Youth Orchestra, but also for the ‘orchestral sector’ as a whole. I look forward to discussing these challenges with other network members.


[1] Please note, our use of the word ‘modular’ in this context doesn’t follow the definition coined by Stefano Vagnini. It’s possible that we need a new name for our approach.

Doug Bott is the Musical Director of Open Up Music, which he co-founded in 2014 to make orchestras accessible to young disabled musicians. Starting out as a Salisbury Cathedral chorister, Doug spent his early music career playing with the experimental rock band, Angel Tech. From 2000 he increasingly focussed on breaking down disabling barriers to music, with extensive experience as a music leader, arts manager, consultant, trainer and facilitator for organisations such as Drake Music, The British Paraorchestra, the OHMI Trust, Youth Music and Sing Up. Since 2014, Open Up Music’s programmes have had a huge impact for young disabled people. Open Orchestras won the Music Teacher ‘outstanding SEND resource’ award in 2019 and is now the biggest community of practice for accessible youth orchestras in the UK. The National Open Youth Orchestra is the first disabled-led ensemble of its kind anywhere in the world and its predecessor, the South-West Open Youth Orchestra, won the Royal Philharmonic Society ‘Learning and Participation’ award in 2017.


Perspectives on Authenticity in the Representation of Classical Music in Contemporary Fiction

This post is written by network contributor Dr. Emilie Capulet.

 “Authenticity will be the buzzword of the twenty-first century”

–Michael Crichton, Timeline (1999).

Never more than today has the search for authenticity been headline news. It affects our political choices (Shane, 2018), the music we listen to (Peterson, 1997; Speers, 2017; Barker and Taylor, 2007; Dolan, 2010), the artwork we appreciate (Benjamin, 1969; Jenson, 1994), the food we eat (Zukin, 2008), the holidays we go on (Reisinger and Steiner, 2006) and the way we portray our lives on social media (Salisbury and Pooley, 2017). In fiction, authenticity is, for obvious reasons, a more problematic concept, and we find that authenticity is not just linked to notions of plausibility (Stoltzfus, 1988), realism (Funk et al, 2012) and historical accuracy (Brantly, 2017), but it raises the issue of a particular understanding of the text in relation to the figure of the author (Gunning, 2012), or what Ana María Sánchez-Arce has argued is “the discourse or grand narrative that legitimizes knowledge on the grounds of it originating from essential identity characteristics or subjectivities” (2007: 143). Authenticity is felt when in the author’s personal voice, we recognize our own unique individuality, often within a community of individuals who share that same narrative. For this reason, authenticity is strongly linked to the notions of identity and common shared values. Speaking about authenticity in the performance of popular music songs, Allan Moore has argued that “authenticity of expression […] arises when the originator (composer, performer) succeeds in conveying the impression that her utterance is one of integrity, that it represents an attempt to communicate unmediated form with an audience” (2002: 214). In other words, if we trust the legitimizing framework of a shared perception of an artist’s artistic sincerity and their integrity as a story-teller, we consider their voice as being authentic, even if the work itself is an artificial construct.

Authenticity is a concept which plays a significant theoretical role in two particular artistic areas: transnational and transcultural writing (cf. Dagnino, 2012; Brantly, 2017) and musical performance. As musicologist Richard Taruskin has argued, authenticity “is knowing what you mean and whence comes that knowledge. And more than that, even, authenticity is knowing what you are, and acting in accordance with that knowledge” (1984: 3). Moving away from the objective reality/authenticity correlation of the positivist approach which searches for (an elusive) truth within the work itself, from a constructivist point of view, authenticity will be found at the crossroads of subjectivity and social networks. Within this context, in the words of Allan Moore, “in acknowledging that authenticity is ascribed to, rather than inscribed in, a performance, it is beneficial to ask who, rather than what, is being authenticated by that performance” (2002: 220).

Contemporary novelist, Booker Prize and Nobel Prize winner, Kazuo Ishiguro is at once considered a transnational/transcultural author (Walkowitz, 2007), and one who is profoundly musical. He once said that:

I used to see myself as some sort of musician type but there came a point when I thought: actually, this isn’t me at all. I’m much less glamorous. I’m one of these people with corduroy jackets with elbow patches. It was a real comedown. (2015)

Here, Ishiguro is arguing that the authentic Ishiguro is fundamentally musical — having only rejected the craft (or “glamour”) of the musician (music’s inauthenticity) to keep the essence of music within his writing. So doing, his musical inspiration serves to validate the authenticity of his writer’s voice, and also serves to affirm the notion that music is intrinsically authentic as a true representation of our subjectivity and emotions.

In this presentation, I will be focussing on Ishiguro’s five short stories, Nocturnes, subtitled ‘Fives Stories of Music and Nightfall’, published in 2009, and the way in which he creates a correlation between the musical experiences featured in the stories and his characters’ ambivalent relation with concepts of authenticity and identity. I will be arguing that Ishiguro is challenging the traditional representation of classical music by placing it within a popular music framework and using authenticity to blur the traditional distinctions between art cultures. Whilst Ishiguro offers us a mise-en-scène of musical practices/authenticities within the fictional worlds he is creating, he is also encoding the authenticity of his own voice within a metanarrative on artistic creation understood as musical performance.


Barker, H. and Taylor, Y. (2007) Faking it: the quest for authenticity in popular music. New York: Norton.

Brantly, S. (2017) The Historical Novel, Transnationalism, and the Postmodern Era: Presenting the Past. Abingdon: Routledge.

Benjamin, W. (1969) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, In: Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, transl. Harry Zohn, from the 1935 essay. New York: Schocken Books.

Dagnino, A. (2012) ‘Transcultural Writers and Transcultural Literature in the Age of Global Modernity.’ Transnational Literature Vol. 4 no. 2

Dolan, E. I. (2010). ‘“…This little ukulele tells the truth”: Indie pop and kitsch authenticity.’ Popular Music, 29 (3), 457–469.

Funk, W., Groß, F. and Huber, I. (2012) The Aesthetics of Authenticity: Medial Constructions of the Real. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.

Gunning, D. (2012) ‘Ethnicity, Authenticity, and Empathy in the Realist Novel and Its Alternatives, Contemporary Literature’, Fiction Since 200: Post Millenial Commitments, Vol. 53, No. 4, 779-813

Ishiguro, K. (2015) Interview in The Guardian with Kate Kellaway[accessed 30 Aug 2019)

Ishiguro, K. (2009) Nocturnes. London: Faber and Faber

Jenson, R. (1994) Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-siècle Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Moore, A. (2002) ‘Authenticity as authentication’. Popular Music Volume 2 1/2, 209-223

Peterson, R. (1997) Creating country music: fabricating authenticity.Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Reisinger, Y. and Steiner, C. J. (2006). ‘Understanding existential authenticity’, Annals of Tourism Research 33 (2), 299-318.

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Emilie Capulet is an award-winning international concert pianist, lecturer, writer and musicologist. She regularly performs as soloist and chamber musician in festivals worldwide and has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Radio Canada and France Bleu Provence. She has recorded works by Beethoven, Chopin and Henri Tomasi. Holding an interdisciplinary PhD on musical aesthetics in Modernist literature, her research on transmediality, historical and contemporary performance practices, pedagogy, and music in healthcare has been published in leading peer-reviewed journals as well as other high-impact media and public events and has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Arts Council UK. She regularly appears on Sky News International as one of their music experts. Emilie is Head of Classical Performance and MMus Performance Course Leader at the London College of Music, University of West London. 

Space Operas, Opera Spaces, and Musical (In)Humanity in Contemporary Sci-Fi Media

This post is written by network participant Dr. William Gibbons.

Perhaps the most memorable scene of The Fifth Element (1997) takes place at an opera performance on a spacefaring cruise ship. Seeking help from the opera singer Plavalaguna, protagonists Dallas (Bruce Willis) and Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) catch up with the blue-skinned diva at a performance that begins with “Il dolce suono” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, then segues into the newly composed “Diva Dance.”

Plavalaguna’s alien body is exoticized in a visual counterpart to the literally inhuman sounds that emanate from it; to create the “Diva Dance,” composer Eric Serra wrote music that exceeded the upper and lower range of a human soprano, then digitally manipulated the singer’s voice to render it “alien”—the alien-ness of the music and its performer perfectly matched. At the same time, however, this scene is also one of The Fifth Element’s most poignant moments of humanity. Dallas’s hardened emotional walls soften enough to allow him a moment of introspection with major consequences for the plot—only when he can admit his feelings for Leeloo is she able stop the film’s villain.

This scene from The Fifth Element thus brings together two seemingly opposing aspects of how the genre is often represented in contemporary media: opera as “alien” and opera as profoundly “human.”

On the one hand, opera—and the singing voice in particular—creates alien experiences. Michal Grover-Friedlander, for instance, describes the sound of operatic voice as “artificial, stylized, eccentric, extreme, extravagant, exaggerated, excessive, grotesque, bizarre, irrational, and absurd. It is a voice at the limit of human capacity, bordering on the unnatural. It is ‘superhuman’ in its pyrotechnic acrobatic display.”¹

On the other hand, The Fifth Element also exemplifies what I call the “teardrop” moment in media—moments when a spectator (typically an emotionally unavailable opera skeptic) experiences a visible, visceral emotional response to opera, revealing their hidden emotional depths.² These “teardrop” moments capture the second half of Grover-Friedlander’s assessment of the operatic voice: it’s also “seductive and irresistible, and engenders states of ecstatic listening, passionate identification, introjection, the play of fantasy, and secret yearnings. It elicits physical, bodily, erotic responses…”³

The Fifth Element showcases all these: exoticism, eroticism, and emotionality. Although Plavalaguna is clearly marked as “alien,” she is nonetheless eroticized in both her appearance and in the way the “male gaze” of the camera approaches her. And the frequent cuts between the diva and close-ups of Dallas’s face suggest the emotional impact of the music; it’s not quite teardrops, but close enough.

By juxtaposing opera’s capacity for alienation with its capacity to humanize, this example exhibits extreme versions of two cinematic tropes: the “alien” opera singer is literally an alien, and Dallas’s teardrop moment literally saves the world. Perhaps the most remarkable thing, however, is that this scene isn’t alone in this kind of extreme juxtaposition.

My research for this project identifies several other examples from post-1990s sci-fi media in which the blending of opera’s “alien” and “human” elements creates crucial opportunities for characterization. In examples encompassing three Star Trek series and the Mass Effect trilogy of video games, I illustrate how opera scenes emphasize contemporary perceptions of opera and its performers as “inhuman,” yet also employ opera as a way to “humanize” emotionally distant male characters.


[1] Michal Grover-Friedlander, “Voice,” in The Oxford Handbook of Opera, ed. Helen M. Greenwald (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 318–319.

[2] Examples of the “teardrop moment” would include Moonstruck (1987) or Pretty Woman (1990), films in which operaphile men take their love non-operaphile love interests to the opera (Puccini’s La Bohème and Verdi La Traviata, respectively), and in both films the women are visibly moved by the experience, illustrating the emotional depth lurking beneath their characters’ hardened exteriors. In both cases the characters specifically attend Italian opera—Puccini’s La Bohème (Moonstruck) and Verdi’s La Traviata (Pretty Woman)—perhaps calling to mind stereotypes about the emotionality of Italian opera in particular. On Moonstruck’s use of opera, see Marcia Citron, When Opera Meets Film (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), chapter 5. On what I call the “teardrop” scene, see also Kordula Knaus, “Emotions Unveiled: Romance at the Opera in Moonstruck (1987), Pretty Woman (1990) and Little Women (1994),” Muzikoloski Zbornik (Musicological Annual) 48 (2012), 117–128.

[3] Grover-Friedlander, “Voice,” 319. Moreover, as Nicholas Till observes, “if opera is customarily exoticized, and queered in film, it has also consistently been feminized, being associated in particular with the ‘feminine’ attributes of emotionality.” Nicholas Till, “Opera and Our Others; Opera as Other,” in The Cambridge Companion to Opera Studies, ed. Nicholas Till (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 318.

Dr. William Gibbons is Associate Professor of Musicology and Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Texas Christian University. His interdisciplinary research explores topics including musical canons and repertoires, as well as the history and interpretation of music in multimedia. His newest book, Unlimited Replays: Classical Music and Video Games (Oxford University Press, 2018), examines the complex relationship between these two media from a variety of perspectives, addressing topics from the prominence of classical music in early game soundtracks to the rise of orchestral game music concerts. His 2013 book Building the Operatic Museum (University of Rochester Press) addresses similar topics in a very different time and place, exploring issues of nationalism and historicism culture through the evolution of the modern operatic repertoire in France. In 2014 Gibbons co-edited the essay collection Music in Video Games: Studying Play for Routledge Press. He is currently co-editing a second volume for Routledge, Music in the Role-Playing Game: Heroes & Harmonies, to be published in 2019.

Periodisation and Timelessness: Perspectives on ‘Art’ Music in Visual Media

This post is written by network participant Dr. James Cook.

The use of pre-existent music in visual media such as film, television, video games, and stage productions is certainly nothing new. Attitudes towards this have shifted over time and differ greatly across media, and yet it is my contention that a broad consensus can be viewed for approaches to what we might call ‘art’ music, which cross genre boundaries and can be linked to aesthetic – and indeed historiographical – approaches to the framing of certain musics. My starting point today is therefore what we might describe as ‘classical’ or ‘art’ music.  I strongly prefer this latter term since, as well as avoiding chronological confusion with either the classical period of music, or classical antiquity, it also hints towards the unique aesthetic position in which this music is held.

For my argument here, I borrow heavily from J. Peter Burkholder, whose description of the ‘historicist mainstream’ in music of the past hundred years is important in understanding a number of aspects in the apparent use of art music in popular media. According to him, for largely nationalistic reasons linked to the birth of German nation and the need for its social and cultural justification, a body of past works (by German composers) were lifted from their position of historical works and reified as eternal and immortal works of genius. Through analysis built predominantly to diagnose and justify this ‘genius’, the belief that these works were autonomous and could be understood purely in and on their own terms, grew up. New and (sometimes) non-German works were gradually added to the canon by using precisely the same analysis to find similar traits – eventually forming what is generally understood as our canon of ‘great’ works. There is more too it, especially with reference to tendencies in newly composed work following the canon, but the most salient part of his argument for present purposes, which I find very persuasive, is that ‘art’ music is held to be autonomous – it has and indeed requires no links to history, culture, or external programmatic narrative in order to have meaning or power. It is, in short, music for eternity – not for the time in which it was created. We see the after images of this viewpoint everywhere, from the belief in the universality of western art music and its power to ‘improve’ the lives of other cultures, the tendency for art music concerts to programme works from across history with no apparent need for explanation of context, and the (often problematic) clarion call to focus ‘on the music itself’. In visual media, this equates to a tendency for art music to be treated as entirely ahistorical and a-cultural – the use of pre-existent art music in general is more likely to be used to refer to a number of things, for example, a reference to high culture or the upper strata of society, or genius, or indeed psychopathy.

There are, of course, many examples where this is not the case. But I would argue that each of these are related to particular attitudes towards this music – namely a desire to historicise it. In these cases, the music which might usually be described and understood as ‘art’ music, is instead treated as Early Music. In these cases, recordings used are more likely to use period instruments, to utilise historically informed performance practices, and indeed to treat the music diegetically. A good example is the BBC film Eroica which focuses on the composition of Beethoven’s symphony, and makes diegetic use of Beethoven’s music performed on period instruments. Importantly, this music does not necessarily need to be from the ‘right’ period in order to be historicising. Take, for instance, the coronation scene in the pilot of Showtime’s The Borgias, which makes use of ‘Zadok the Priest’ centuries too early, or the use of Bach for a collapsing medieval Cathedral roof in The Pillars of the Earth.  In both cases, the music is nonetheless explicitly historicising, making use of historically informed performance and period instrumentation to demonstrate that this is taking part in the past.

I would argue that these tendencies play out further still – to repertoires not normally considered ‘art’ music, often through the careful interplay of diegesis. In these cases, some popular musics are treated as ‘art’ music – namely those which have gained an almost canonic status (generally through in-depth analysis). This interplay of crossing functions between ‘art’ music, popular musics, Jazz, and Early Music is the current focus of my research.

Dr. James Cook is BMus programme director and lecturer in early music at the University of Edinburgh. He works on music c.1300-1600, as well as popular medievalism, and more broadly on music in TV, film, and especially video games.


Classical Music in the Media

This post is written by network participant Martin Cullingford.

Classical music is still explored today with rigour and expertise, and in great depth, in the specialist media – in print magazines, on radio stations, and online.

In the general media, however, the situation is not so encouraging. There are newspapers that devote feature space to covering classical-music-for-classical-music’s-sake. But not as much as once was the case. And rarer today is the time when classical music is covered in a general news or even features section in articles whose aim is to celebrate or explore the music itself. There needs, now, to be another angle.

You may think I protest too much, but greater coverage is given to, say, literature (the winners of leading prizes), to theatre (the opening of a major play), and certainly to pop concerts and artists. For classical music, it’s generally only given when there’s a story: sometimes a scandal, but more often when something challenges preconceptions. After all, journalists know their audience and their craft: at such times they’ve simply seen a story with wider resonance.

So rather than bemoan the current situation, what I’ll instead be exploring is what insights can be gained, through looking at how, when and why classical music does feature in the general media, into how the artform is perceived in the wider world. Some of those perceptions may be inaccurate – but some might actually prove rather on the mark.

Just these past weeks we’ve been offered two intriguing examples. An unsigned Guardian editorial both equated classical music today with exclusive society events such as Ascot and Wimbledon, as well as describing it as a means for dispersal of trouble-makers. And an Evening Standard column by the CEO of English National Opera argued that its next artistic director should be as well-versed in Love Island as in bel canto composers. Both generated much comment.

But it’s also worth reflecting that if I’m asked by a mainstream outlet to comment on the appointment of a female conductor, and not for equally (musically) exciting appointments of men to podiums, then that is because there are few female conductors. That’s not just a perception problem, that’s a difficult fact.

There are canny promoters who know that the unexpected can grab column inches which would otherwise cover other subjects, but there are also genuinely inspired initiatives and events that deservedly stand out, for challenging public perceptions, but also for perhaps rightly challenging the classical music world itself.

How much does coverage of classical music in the general media reflect perceptions, how much does it reinforce them, and how accurate are those perceptions?

After all, sometimes it can be healthy to be reminded of how the rest of the world sees you…

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.