Monday, March 10, 2008

Classical Music with Soul?

Submitted for your approval:

Look toward the right-hand side of the page, a bit of the way down. See the "Surprise"? Witness the thumbnail photo included--small, but large enough for one to perceive what appears to be an afro worn by this woman. Notice the caption: " Measha Brueggergosman’s debut DG recording makes classical music feel like soul!"

Let's keep going. Click on "Read more", that'll take us here:

Surprise! It's an (at least part-) black woman! It was an afro, then. Let's follow the next link to her actual album website. As we begin to explore this page, observe Gramophone's seeming approval of Ms. Brueggergosman's "big hair" and her "rich, dark" voice which is "an instrument of endless fascination." (Let us pause to note some of the choice verbiage: endless fascination, rich, dark...)

Moving along, then, let's click on the "Insights" tab at the left-hand side of the page. We learn more about this young singer:

"What's in a name? In the case of Measha Brueggergosman, plenty. Should you be wondering (and you will be), it's an amalgam of her married and family names."

Should we be wondering more about Measha (and we are), let's go to her own website:

Scroll down a bit (you can skip all the typical artist hype) and find the link that will tell you "how to pronounce Measha's name." So now we know how to pronounce that curious first name. We also have two ways--one Anglicized, the other properly Germanic--of how to pronounce that unnerving last name. We also now know the nationality of Measha's husband--Swiss.

Now that we've compiled our evidence, let's let it percolate in our minds a while.

big, dark dark chocolate...endless fascination...fascinatin' rhythm...jungle rhythms...heart of darkness...

See where I'm going with this exercise in free association? In pithy bits of racially-encoded language, the Deutsche Grammophon website reassures the consumer that there is nothing to fear. What, besides the fact that some portion of her ancestry could be traced back to somewhere in Africa, makes Measha' performances of songs from the classical repertory sound like soul? To my ears, nothing else--the mere fact of her phenotypical blackness apparently will suffice to guarantee that a certain quantity of soul will come through when she sings the (ostensibly) soul-less songs on the Surprise album.

While DG assures us of Measha's blackness, her own website seems to grapple with the identity gauntlet thrown down by her name/phenotype combination using a different strategy. Here the defense focuses on explicating her names. The pronunciation guides might be taken as a way of legitimating her names, as if to say, "Yes, these words do exist. The existence of a viable way to pronounce them also proves their reality." Her husband's ancestry seems to serve as a kind of apologia: the impossible reality of her surname is accounted for by his Swiss heritage.

I would not blame Ms. Brueggergosman for the way that DG has decided to market her to an (overwhelmingly) white and wealthy classical-music consumer base. Nor would I blame her for the way she (or her management) markets herself on her website. "Blame" isn't the right word; moreover, I think that whether or not Measha possessed any agency in the matter is beside the point. A strain of race ideology seems to be driving DG's strategy: injecting soul into classical music, inciting fascination in the listener by means of her dark voice (and skin) and her obscure heritage.

Brueggergosman is of course not the first black classical singer to come to prominence by a long shot: Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle immediately come to mind (one notices that Measha is conveniently likened to Ms. Norman in a number of the press reviews quoted by DG). The insensitivities of DG are of course not the first committed by the classical music industry against black musicians: Price and Bumbry were part of a generation of African American singers who fought to make their way into the classical scene during the 1950s and '60s (in 1953 Price broke the "opera" color line at the Met to be the first black singer in the company's employment); in 1994, Norman filed a lawsuit against the magazine Classic CD for racial stereotyping (see: Yet all of these women could be called "unequivocally black": all were born in or near the American South, in locations historically inhabited by African Americans (Price in Mississippi, Bumbry in St. Louis, Norman in Augusta, GA, and Battle in Ohio); their Anglo-Saxon surnames would dissuade one from questioning their African American heritage (i.e., the presence of slavery in their families' pasts). Brueggergosman's name, however, offers no such assurances. Nor does her Canadian citizenship ( Canadians do exist).

I will allow for the possibility that Brueggergosman is proud of her mixed ancestry (she has no reason not to be--no one has any reason not to be!). Perhaps she feels there is nothing to hide about her ethnic make-up; or perhaps she would rather be up front about it than have critics, fans, etc. constantly and incessantly wondering, "What's Up with Measha's Name?" But the sharing of this information seems eerily like a confession. And why did Measha (or someone in her employ) think it so necessary to disclose both her and her husband's nationalities? Could it be that deeply-situated notions and anxieties about race dictated that Measha and her management must "speak the truth about herself," as if she had been "incited to discourse," to use Foucault's formulations? We are being given all these answers, and the question that DG and Brueggergosman seem to have anticipated is that classic inquiry about ethnic identity: "What are you?" (As in, "Somoroff, what is that? Russian?" [It's Ukrainian...I think])

On DG's website, Edward Seckerson writes: "What's in a name? In the case of Measha Brueggergosman, plenty." What's in the explanation of a name? Even more.


Anonymous said...

Good post. Indeed, an afro does not a soul singer make.

If "Deutsche Grammophon is Classical Music," as they say on the webpage, then the whole notion that the album "makes classical music feel like soul!" is clearly problematic, because why would serious opera fans want opera to sound like soul? In other words, if the album was being marketed by a label that regularly attracts soul-music listeners, then the above comment could be part of a push to make Brueggergosman's album come off as some sort of "crossover" work. Since that isn't the case, I think your assessment of the situation as racially charged is spot-on.

Finally, I agree that the "Insights" tab on the album page is significant. According to it, the "plenty" in her name is that she's in an inter-racial/national marriage. I know that couples who combine their last names can get a lot of flack*, but combining the two into one pronounceable word in this case basically hides its origins. Would the name Brueggergosman really have warranted so much attention if it wasn't attached to a black woman? I also feel like that whole paragraph is basically saying, "It's ok to gawk at people whose last names don't seem to match what you assume their ethnicity is! Go on, ask 'em! Those in inter-racial/national or mixed families are curiosities the rest of us can enjoy!"

Sorry to prattle on so long!
*Hi Team BoJo!

Anonymous said...


Killer post. You're remarkably generous: my inclination is to say that DG are old-school racist futher muckers out to make a buck pandering to the racialist (and let us not forget gendered) obsessions of its primarily white, largely well-to-do market.


Matthew said...

Thanks for the comment, Gabriel. Yeah, you basically caught onto the undercurrent of what I was saying--you put it in a nutshell, though!

Mr. Bacon said...

finally did something of my own:

link me?

Mr. Bacon