This week we asked our Youth Choir and Sarabande conductor Shane Raman to talk about some of his formative music experiences. As Shane will tell you he is a BIPOC, queer artist, and we are very honoured that he has been willing to share some of his experiences with us.
I stepped into the world of classical music as a young person. More specifically, I stepped into the world of classical vocal music as a young person of South Asian descent. As a first generation Indo-Canadian, a son of immigrants from historically colonized countries, a liberal, progressive Christian, and an out and proud married cisgender man, the complexities of my intersectionality are numerous. They have always existed in my relationship to Western European Classical music and have been especially magnified in the past few months.
During my childhood, I loved pop music, musicals, opera, and some classical music. It wasn’t until I heard the soundtracks of Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon that I really discovered my intense passion for complex music and musical theatre! I remember poring over sheet music to see who sang what harmonies and how they overlapped. I loved how detailed and ornate the music was. Philip Lawson’s a cappella arrangement of Sun and Moon from Miss Saigon emerged as one of my favourite choral pieces from these genres.
While studying at Douglas College and then UBC, I fell in love with the music of J.S. Bach. Sonically, it was so satisfying and intricate – I loved trying to listen to all of the details simultaneously. It was so different than anything I had heard up to that point. To this day, my favourite cantata is Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV 140, movements of which were performed at my wedding. One of my most beloved memories is walking down the aisle towards my husband to a live performance of its first movement.
Reflecting back, I realize most of the classical music I’ve participated in has been from Western European traditions. While I knew that this would be the dominant repertoire when starting my music education, I had thought there would at least be some people of colour represented in our music history textbooks. Sadly, I can’t recall a single classical conductor, composer or singer who was not white. BIPOC artists only came into play when we studied jazz, musical theatre, pop, rock, hip hop and even opera. Besides Hildegard von Bingen and Fanny Mendelssohn, I also didn’t learn about any composers or conductors who identified as female or outside of the gender binary until much later in my career. I suppose if I had taken some more niche classes like world music and ethnomusicology as electives, I would have had more exposure, but my schedule was already overwhelmed with the French, German, Italian and Latin classes I needed to fulfill my degree requirements.
The real take home for me was that my particular voice and the voices of other BIPOC, women, and people of different faiths were not present or needed in this specific history. I am so thankful that we are starting to hear other voices now – voices that have always needed to be present. Through Marques L.A. Garrett’s wonderful research, I’ve discovered a myriad of works by Black composers. In the last few months, there are two works that have really spoken to me: Resignation by Florence Price and I Will Wash My Hands in Innocence by David Hurd.
Reflecting on another intersection, everything throughout my musical education was viewed through the lens of the gender binary and heterosexual experience. The instant assumption was the composers we learned about were heterosexual, and if that was questioned, we were subsequently told about the terrible disease they died of.
In performance, men wear tuxedos and women wear gowns without exception. In practice, the reference to sopranos and altos as “women” or “ladies” and the tenors and basses as “men” or “guys” was always troubling to me. It wasn’t until I sang with Cor Flammae that I learned to call singers by their vocal section and using the terms upper and lower voices to help everyone feel included, no matter their gender expression. I also learned there is power in safe, non-threatening spaces with people who share similar struggles. The Cor Flammae website has a great collection of LGBTQ+ composers. Co-founders of Cor Flammae and wives, Missy Clarkson and Amelia Pitt-Brooke write of this choir:
“Cor Flammae is a project by queer singers and conductors to explore unsung queer perspectives in classical choral music. We create choral music experiences for queer people, by queer people, and deepen the understanding of historical and modern queer experiences for everyone.”
Two of my favourite pieces from this experience are Pauline Oliveros’ Wind Horse and our own Stephen Smith’s setting of Whitman’s poem, From this hour, Freedom!
Most, if not all, of the music I learned about in my high school and post-secondary education was created by white cis-gender, heterosexual, affluent males from cultures and countries who colonized most of the world, including the countries of my parents and ancestors. In the last few years, I have started to grapple with that truth, and 2020 has shone an even brighter spotlight on the complexities and hard truths of the world of classical music.
However, I have also discovered a wealth of amazing and articulate artists who don’t fit this description – some of whom have produced some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard that reflects the intergenerational trauma of my colonized past. I have been introduced to, and worked in different ways of, making music that are enormous in scope, intelligently crafted and highly emotional. In one of my favourite choral pieces, Castel-Nuovo Tedesco’s Romancero Gitano, there is one moment I find myself deeply connected to. In the fourth movement entitled Procesion, Lorca describes a local religious parade and the person dressed as Jesus:
his locks of hair burned,
his cheekbones protruding
and his pupils white.
Now I am not comparing myself to Jesus Christ, but it is one of the few times I found someone who may have looked similar to me within a choral piece.
I am able to remember times where the colour of my skin and my ethnic heritage made me different from other predominantly white colleagues I’ve worked with. As someone who was born and grew up in Canada, it took some time for me to realize why I was often front and centre in the marketing, or why I was cast in certain shows about far off exotic lands. Often being the token person with melanated skin, it sometimes felt I was there to prove to the audiences that the community is diverse. In some ways it is, but in all the ways that matter – in the minute details and in the larger infrastructure of classical music – it isn’t.
I can often see how this infrastructure plays out in comments like, “Your German diction is very good.” or “I would never think that you would have that voice.” These backhanded compliments were not compliments at all, but microaggressions. In a masterclass where my German diction was complimented, all of the other singers were white, as was the clinician, and they weren’t praised for their diction as I was. This led me to wonder, is my German diction actually understandable, or is it “good enough”, coming from someone with my skin colour? Was I performing on a different stage with different standards than others?
There have been countless other microaggressions I have experienced in the world of classical music. These have all been said directly to me:
- “ Where are you from?… No where are you really from?” (They are always asking, “How many generations are you from your family in India?”)
- “Oh, your parents are from Fiji and Trinidad? Those are better places than India.”
- “Isn’t it great that the British brought Indian people to such beautiful places?”
- “Isn’t it wonderful that the English culture is taken up so well by Indian people?”
- “Your English is perfect and you sing in French and Latin as well – you must be very smart!”
- “What do your parents think of your choice of music as a career? They probably want you to be a doctor or something, right?”
- “Oh, you’re the conductor? I never would have guessed!” (This usually comes after someone – usually a taller white man – has been asked where the choir should stand on stage.)
To all these remarks, I usually smirk and try not to roll my eyes. I have witnessed other BIPOC choristers regaled with such charming questions – we share that knowing look. These days, I often end up explaining my background and afterwards I ask, “And where are you and your family from?” They are often taken aback by the question.
For me, singing, composing, and writing music is my profession and I enjoy it immensely. I have sung in many choirs and worked as a paid singer at a few churches. I have had the privilege of seeing our country and other amazing parts of the world. I’ve sung in some of the most awe-inspiring spaces. The ritual of those rehearsals, services and performances have been part of my life’s schedule for so many years, it is so strange to not have that structure. I’ve been missing singing and conducting in person during this pandemic and I can’t wait until we can all sing together again! I miss the members of my choral community, as they have become great colleagues, friends and chosen family.
One of my favourite memories is singing Imant Raminsh’s setting of Ave Verum Corpus in a beautiful cathedral in Northern Quebec with musica intima. I remember how the acoustics of the church and the harmonic language of the piece created vibrations that ran through my body as we were singing. I was surprised that I remained standing and didn’t break into a flood of tears! I also had the same experience when performing Mendelssohn’s Te Deum. To this day, that piece speaks to me in ways I may never truly understand. Largely the religious music I’ve sung has been based on Christian texts, and though I identify as a Christian, I often wonder how it feels for someone of a different religion or spiritual belief. I would be interested in talking this through with other choristers of different faiths.
I am glad that I have met people from all different ethnic backgrounds who also love and participate in vocal and choral music, and yet, I haven’t necessarily seen that diversity in classical choral culture itself. There is a certain amount of diversity in choral music here in Vancouver, but there could be more. Choirs could be more intentional about making themselves accessible to people of different backgrounds. Publishers could seek out BIPOC composers and composers who identify as female or outside of the gender binary. Boards of Directors, Repertoire Committees and Conductors could prioritize performing music from these composers and reaching audiences they don’t currently capture. The actual membership of the Boards of Directors could be so much more diverse than it is now. There are now choirs prioritizing such initiatives and continue to do so.
I am grateful for the work that is being done and for having had the ability to work within this art form. I know things are changing and I want to be part of that change. I want to learn about, program and support the artistry of underrepresented choral artists. I want to take time to listen and learn about the composers, conductors, and singers that our textbooks often forget about because they weren’t considered important enough to remember. I want to do better. I want us all to do better.
Written by Shane Raman and edited by Anna Anaka