Listening with Your Ears: Asian Musicians and Racial Discrimination

by Tong Wang

Written for Liberal Arts Freshman Seminar: Doors of

Perception (LARTS 221, Fall 2012)

 

In August of 2010, a dazzling new figure appeared in Paris and astounded the music world with her breathtaking performance of the complete thirty-two Beethoven Piano Sonatas. When Hyun-Jung Lim first stepped on stage, the crowd was taken aback to see a young 24-year-old female Asian pianist ready to challenge the intensely sophisticated masterpieces of Beethoven. However, the moment her fingers struck the keyboard, the audience leaned forward, captivated by the passionate and charismatic quality of her performance. Later, in response to the recorded concert, James Rhodes, reviewer for the London Telegraph who confessed a certain bias toward the Asian pianist, expressed his shock:

And then I heard her play. Nothing prepared me for it—there is an (often unspoken) criticism that the majority of Asian/Korean pianists are all technique and no musicality, pianistic robots. And this album rips that stereotype to shreds. Everything is dangerously invigorating, strikingly original. (Rhodes)

Over the last few decades, a growing stereotype has emerged against Asian pianists. Many contemporary artists such as Yuja Wang and Lang Lang (commonly referred to by the public as “Bang Bang” to criticize the “lack of emotion” in his playing) have become centers of heated controversy over their lack of musicality. I have personally encountered criticisms that I attribute directly to prejudiced attitudes. Racial assumptions should be properly addressed because the careless stereotype that Asian pianists are “all technique and no musicality” is a serious problem in the perception of music.

Biases based on perceptions are not new, and do not occur only in the musical realm. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell cites the example of Warren Harding, who was misperceived by his contemporaries to be the perfect presidential candidate simply because he “radiated common sense and dignity and all that was presidential”(75). Harding’s abilities were judged not on his actions, but on his appearance, illustrating how expectations in our daily lives involving gender, race, and appearances are ingrained into our subconscious. This misuse of rapid cognition is at the root of misperception, a phenomenon Gladwell terms the “Harding Error” (74). The final chapter of Blink recounts the music world’s attempts to prevent this error. During orchestral auditions, screens were put up so that the judges would not “listen with [their] eyes” (Gladwell 251). So why was Otto Strasser, the Vienna Philharmonic’s former chairman, so stunned when the chosen musician was revealed to be a Japanese man? Because “to Strasser, someone who was Japanese simply could not play with any soul or fidelity music that was composed by a European” (Gladwell 247). He already held expectations in his mind and had created an image of what the best musician would look like. Hence, he was shocked by the results of simply listening with his ears.

Despite the growing number of female and Asian musicians in orchestras, the Harding Error still persists. Although the media publishes favorable reviews of Lang Lang and Yuja Wang’s artistry, anecdotal evidence suggests an unspoken assumption that these pianists’ performances are merely flashy and not in the least musical. Of course, all artists have to face the criticisms of the public; however, in this case, the victims all seem to fall under one ethnic group. In a heated online discussion of Lang Lang’s new album featuring the Liszt Piano Concerto No.1, one member wrote, “I think a lot of people that like him, do so because he is the only asian [sic] . . . that has any kind of emotional capabilities—in other words, he is not an android, like 99% of them are” (“Why?”). This writer’s sentiments are not unique.

Criticisms about technique do not take into consideration that technical skill is an asset and not a drawback. Outstanding technique is not in itself an obstacle that hinders the communication of emotions in music; in fact, it is essential to excellent performance because only when the skills have been mastered and one’s attention is no longer fixed on the fingers can a pianist truly concentrate on expressing the music. This idea is presented in the San Francisco Chronicle review of Yuja’s performance: “It wasn’t just the fact that she made [Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano] Concerto’s fabled technical difficulties—its thunderous chordal writing, its intricate passagework, and its wearying length—seem easy, although that was part of it. More remarkable still was the depth and imagination she brought to the entire score, and the way she made the piece’s virtuosic angle just one part of its purpose” (Kosman).

Regardless of the fact that I am a Canadian citizen taught by a Russian pianist who trained at the Moscow Conservatory, when I walk on stage, some judges see only an Asian pianist—a “fact” that will color their impression of my playing. A few years ago at an international competition in Louisiana, I performed a Mozart Piano Sonata and a Chopin Polonaise. My style is representative of the passionate and grandiose Russian School. Having put all my heart into my performance, I felt satisfied, especially when audience members came to congratulate me, exclaiming, “Your performance really blew me away! We were all so moved by your sincerity and passion!” Although I did not place at the competition, I was not overly affected by the results until I had a master-class with a jury member. The moment I walked into the room, he said to me, “Congratulations on your performance! You didn’t even miss a single note! But it would be nice if you could show a little emotion in your playing.”

One of the worst insults to give a musician is to say there was no emotion in his or her playing—far worse than any technical criticism. While I respected the adjudicator’s accomplishments and knowledge, I couldn’t help but wonder if he had succumbed to the Harding Error, as so many others do regarding Asian pianists. Musicians can feel when they are putting their hearts into communicating their emotions. Nonetheless, for many Asian musicians, no matter how much emotion we show, we still get prejudiced responses from individuals who, from the moment we walk on stage, unconsciously decide that we have no capacity to interpret Western music. Style is a different subject. Criticism of an artist’s style is based on personal subjective preference and cannot be eliminated in the world of art. Even if I do not agree with the interpretations of Yuja Wang or disapprove of Lang Lang’s exaggerated gestures, I can still acknowledge their love for music. That passion in itself is musicianship.

Before the emergence of many talented Asian pianists, the aspect of technique was rarely separated from musicality and criticized. For virtuosos such as Horowitz, Kissin, and Argerich, whose performances were stunning, technique never detracted from musicianship. On the contrary, the difficult technical passages and impressive octaves were viewed with admiration and added to the excitement of the performances. Why are Asian pianists derided when they display the same, if not better, technical skills? I speculate that this prejudice is a reaction to the fact that Western music is becoming acquired by another ethnicity. The criticism may be a subconscious way for Westerners to protect their pride. However, if we reverse the situation for a moment, this reaction is completely understandable. If a Western woman with blonde hair and blue eyes walks into a traditional temple in China and starts to play a famous Chinese folk song beautifully on a traditional instrument, the entire audience will undoubtedly raise their eyebrows and look at her disapprovingly. Most likely, they will think, “How can a Westerner understand the 5,000 years of Chinese history and culture behind the music in order to fully express it? There’s no way a European can play Chinese traditional music with sincere feelings!” There may well be cultural differences that affect the way individuals perform their music. But even so, HJ Lim, who studied at the Paris Conservatory; Yuja Wang, who trained at the American Curtis Institute of music; and I, a Canadian pianist performing in the Russian style, should hardly be classified in the category of “all technique and no emotion” merely because of the color of our hair, eyes, and skin.

So what can be done to eliminate this obvious yet unacknowledged prejudice? One reviewer of Lang Lang’s performance noted that, “While I do agree Lang Lang’s playing is often not tasteful, I do feel that he and more importantly other less ridiculous Asian pianists wouldn’t be the brunt of such criticism (all technique, no emotion, etc.) if they looked European” (lilly763). Do we really need to pull up the screens at competitions and even at concerts to protect the musicians from such harsh prejudices and stereotypes? Maybe one day, after years of performances behind screens, the public will be able to accept all human beings as capable of expression emotions. After all, we share the same human conditions and experience the same joys and sufferings even if our cultures are different. Music is a medium for expressing those human conditions. It is universal. People should learn to appreciate and enjoy music without constantly assessing and judging, and to become aware that great music is being created by people of all different colors and circumstances. Music is a language and a method of communication that should connect people, not reinforce culture stereotypes. The first step in resolving this issue is to acknowledge the problem, to become aware of it, and at the very least, to stop separating “technique” from “artistry.” Only when we simply sit back and listen with our ears instead of our eyes can we fully appreciate the music for what it is.

                                                                                                                          

Works Cited

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink. New York, NY: Back Bay, 2007. Print.

Kosman, Joshua. “Wang’s Awesome Rachmaninoff.” San Francisco Chronicle. 18 June 2012. <http://www. yujawang.com/?cat=3>. Web.

lilly763. Reply to “Bang Bang’s Liszt piano concerto no. 1.” ABRSM Forums. 12 Sept. 2001. Web.

Rhodes, James. “Musical Viagra: how a young Korean pianist made me fall in love with Beethoven again.” The Telegraph. 16 April 2012. Web. <http://blogs. telegraph.co.uk/culture/jamesrhodes/>

“Why Do Many Music Critics Hate Lang Lang?” Yahoo Answers. 2010. Yahoo! Asia Pacific Pte Ltd: 2013. <http://ph.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20101016205600AAAEHq2&gt;.

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3 comments

  1. Dear Mr Tong Wang. I am sorry to say that I have not heard you play. But in reply to your article above: Racism in any form is abhorrent. I heard Lang Lang, for example, on the radio and it is true to my ears – all technique and little musicality. I, too, have heard this criticism of other Asian pianists, and I find in many cases I have to agree. But I don’t think this is a result of race – is it perhaps a cultural difference? If so, then cultural differences are supposed (the West is always declaring) to be celebrated rather than suppressed. Could it be that those born into the Western Classical tradition have different sensory responses to this music, just as Westerners have a different sensory response to music rooted in the Asian tradition? For example, I find it hard to ‘identify’ with Asian music, having no terms of reference to the style – it would take a long time to ‘grow on me’ so to speak, I think.

    I think it is all too easy, these days especially, to jump to the conclusion that a criticism is rooted in some kind of ‘ism’ – racism, ageism, sexism! It is also not helpful to anyone involved. It would be more productive to try to explore the different viewpoints – why they really exist. If one is not prepared to do that, then it may be a loss to our further understanding of each other’s musicality, and what we each understand by the term. Otherwise, all we can do is either accept that someone’s performance is not to our particular taste, or resort to labelling one another as ‘racist’ – which I suspect is a lazy way to deal with the issue, and also a very negative one.

    1. Mr. Drago Torbjorn – I am sorry to say that you’re quite missing the point of this well written essay and in doing supporting it. Racism needn’t be an expression of some sort of crackpot theory of genetics; all it takes is making categorical judgments based on perceptions of race. Racism writ as “cultural differences” is still racism, and this is Mr. Wang’s point. How can one say Yuja Wang, who studied at the Curtis Institute of Music, is not a child of the Western musical tradition? You may not have been exposed to Chinese music from a young age, but that certainly cannot be said of the pianists whom our writer is describing. To suppose that a “different sensory response” explains why Lang Lang may not suit your taste still falls back on assessing the face, race, and place – and then coming up with an explanation post hoc. Nature or nurture – if the argument rests on “Oh, the person is an x, and since I know how an x is born and/or raised, this explains why he or she is so” it’s a judgment colored by racism.

      Please do take this as personal attack. “Racist” is indeed a heavy accusation – for a person. However, if the goal is not to attack the thinker but to pinpoint the origin of the thought, then there’s no way around using it in an open discussion.

      Thank you, Mr. Tong Wang for a thought-provoking and personal essay.

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