BY JASMIN LEUNG, 2017 CUTCOMMON YOUNG WRITER OF THE YEAR – RUNNER-UP
This blog awarded Jasmin Leung a runner-up place in the 2017 CutCommon Young Writer of the Year Competition. It responds to the entry question, Classical music: what’s in it for young people? We publish this story as part of our Young Writers’ Month.
At the age of 22, I have only ever been a young person and I hesitate to proclaim myself as spokesperson for this generation. But ever since I began to uncover the joy of classical music, I’ve been plagued by other people’s doubts about its relevance to my life – from the baffled folk of my country hometown, to the well-educated radicals of my late-teens (instantly wary of anything so blatantly upper-class); and the affluent, exclusive circles who run this circus. All these doubts and projections hold a sliver of truth: in the world we have inherited – with internet, globalisation, rapid-life-cycle-micro-cultures, post-truth, etc. – what can young people gain from a music so far removed from the immediate reality of most of our generation?
Let’s begin with the standard trope that we young people are often assigned: millennials are underserving of perceived luxuries; perhaps even incapable of appreciating them. Either we are belittled for not taking enough interest in the serious arts, or we are ridiculed for wanting to inherit them. Should we add classical music to the list of other commodities for which we are derided, simply for wanting a fair part of? Does it fit alongside affordable housing, careers, avocado on toast?
I think we can all agree that generational claims are a risky business, and I am wary of adding my voice to loud-but-empty arguments. And you probably already agree with the virtues of classical music – its ability to encourage discipline, foster a sense of belonging to something greater than our own meek existence; the incredible fleeting moments when connecting to the complex emotional depths of the human experience paired with the realisation that other people can feel the indescribable things that you feel, too. All cultures use great art to inspire awe and wonder, and what we have in classical music is no exception. So let’s continue, on the premise that young people are as complex and diverse as any group of people – and great works of art have value if we collectively deem them so.
So, classical music. What’s in it for young people? Let’s reflect on how those born without cultural capital are introduced to it – through education.
I vividly remember the day when a string quartet visited my infamously rough primary school in an outback Queensland town. We were so excited to host these mysterious wooden instruments and the four elegant adults dressed in black who played them. Hundreds of kids were crammed into the hall to listen; even the rowdiest of boys were briefly captivated (not a small miracle). The musicians seemed as if they were from another world, and the music they played was a new experience for many.
Back then, it would have been inconceivable to imagine that a few years later, I would travel to Austria to take lessons with some of the world’s leading composers. But this did happen – and only because of Queensland’s music education system, in which the state government issues instrumental music teachers to public schools. This allowed me and others the chance to play and learn music; a privilege often reserved for those with cultural and financial capital.
My brief experiences of music in primary schools (both as teacher and pupil) have let me observe the artform’s transformative power. Taught in large groups on dodgy instruments, this system fostered poor posture and technique, as well as a redeeming chance for young people to feel important and create something meaningful – perhaps the least harmful use of recess time. Not many from this system went on to become virtuoso musicians. But that was never the intention. Instead, it created cohorts of people with a rudimentary knowledge of classical music, and for most, that was enough to nourish a life-long enjoyment.
We shouldn’t keep classical music shrouded in the realm of the privileged – it’s too wonderful for that. Despite its limitations, exposure to classical music is so important in our early days of learning. It ensures that, regardless of class and financial means, we all have the right to experience an art that we all are entitled to inherit.
So, with some luck, we young people have had a few years of education in classical music – perhaps the recorder rendition of Ode to Joy is deeply embedded into our collective psyches, along with the high school orchestra playing every possible arrangement of John Williams’ film music. After these informative experiences, how is classical music made available in our lives outside of well-meaning institutions? Are young people out enjoying concerts of classical music on a warm Wednesday evening?
In my experience, this has not been the case. Concert-going to hear classical music remains the least-integrated part of my social life – despite my best efforts, too often at these events I find myself exclusively surrounded only by conservatorium classmates. But this doesn’t mean that other young people have nothing to gain from classical music.
Earlier this year, I was enjoying a walk along the edge of the Elbe river in Hamburg with some young German people. They were social workers and talented musicians of the folk-rock variety. As they regarded the new Elbphilharmonie glistening on the other shore, they joked about how, despite being active musicians and proud ‘Hamburgers’, none could afford the sold-out tickets to a concert in their city’s newest landmark. Later that night, we played a house gig in one of Hamburg’s infamous occupied buildings, where amongst the punks, radicals and refugees, I did play some classical music. And despite the lateness of the hour and my unrehearsed fingers, it was well received.
Back in Australia, I have forced many friends to accompany me to concerts of classical music – I know too many intelligent, artistic and interested young people who want to appreciate this music, but are put off by its impenetrable walls of etiquette and exclusiveness. And in the rare chance that a more open-minded concert is programmed with music that promises to engage with the zeitgeist of today, too often are they self-congratulatory, overdone with thinly-veiled, pseudo-inclusiveness; and almost unethically emotional voyeurism. This doesn’t fail the notice of young people who would otherwise be the ultimate, elusive ‘new audience’ hinted at by marketing campaigns and misguided strategists. Young people want to be taken seriously and engage with art that is relevant, or at least inclusive. Yet, belittling and boring are most approaches that today’s symphony orchestras, or other ‘forward-thinking’ ensembles, use to entice young people into classical music.
Despite this, I still believe the relationship between classical music and young people can be fulfilling and wholesome. When we create or observe collectively, we transcend the everyday and share an experience that is deeply human – and classical music happens to be an excellent vessel for that.
I hope that in the remainder of my time as a young person, I will continue to find fulfilment and validation through sharing this music, and that the institutions that are its keepers will continue to find meaningful ways to engage with all people, regardless of age.
About Jasmin Wing-Yin Leung (梁詠然), runner-up
Jasmin Wing-Yin Leung (梁詠然) is an Asian-Australian composer, erhu player and improviser. She has written for orchestras, new music ensembles, theatre, ballet and is active in the free improvisation scene in Brisbane. A graduate of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, her honours thesis investigated the process of creating intercultural situational structured improvisations within China and Australia. Her work is focused on the possibilities of sonic and extra-musical phenomena during the live generation of music. Jasmin has studied with Erik Griswold, Gerardo Dirie, Gerard Brophy and Uros Rojko, and has attended masterclasses at the Bosnian International Music Festival (Bosnia and Herzegovina), the Impuls Akademie (Austria), and spent a semester at Akademija za Glasbo Ljubljana (Slovenia). This month, she will be a resident at the Ostrava New Music Days in Czechia.
Check back in as we continue to showcase talented young musicians responding to this question throughout CutCommon Young Writers’ Month.