Andrew Zhou © Nidaa Aboulhosn
Andrew Zhou © Nidaa Aboulhosn

Discussing Diversity with Andrew Zhou

  • Andrew Zhou

    Raised in British Columbia and California, pianist Andrew Zhou was the second-prize laureate at the 2012 Concours International de Piano d’Orléans, garnering four special awards, and has collaborated closely with today’s leading composers, including Unsuk Chin and Matthias Pintscher. He has received grants from the Arts Council of Ireland, the Galaxie-y Funds, and the Fromm Foundation. As half of the piano duo HereNowHear, he has commissioned boundary-breaking works centered on performances of Stockhausen’s Mantra, and has been a member of the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble and Ensemble Ulysses. He currently serves on the team of Contemporary Leaders for the Lucerne Festival.

    Mr. Zhou received degrees with distinction from Stanford University, New England Conservatory, and Cornell University. His most recent album Présences Lointaines (Solstice) features rarities spanning 300 years of French keyboard music. Currently, he is working on a biography of the violinist Paul Zukofsky.

Many people commented on the diversity among the composers chosen by the Contemporary Leaders for the first edition of Lucerne Festival Forward in 2021. Was this something that you had placed a special focus on or did this happen naturally?

The possibility of the most expansive programming is always on my mind and with contemporary music, in particular, there is no excuse not to program as inclusively as possible. I am very fortunate to be able to collaborate with such a great team of Contemporary Leaders. I think that most musicians who move in contemporary music circles are sensitive to the needs of their communities. Still, I think we aimed to do something special with Forward that explicitly highlighted not simply diversity in identity and aesthetic, but also in methods of creating music and experiences that moved away from the model of "ensemble onstage, audience in their seats."

It was important for me that we didn’t stay neutral in the programming or limit ourselves to the kind of vague, dialed-down language sometimes seen in blunted diversity pledges. It is also important once programming has been decided to create environments in which the composers feel a complete sense of agency in the artistic process, inclusion in the project and programming as a whole (an often overlooked but crucial element), openness to speak about their work, and the ability to direct their own narrative. The collaborative ways in which we rehearsed and interacted during the Festival itself, the webinars in the months leading up, and on-stage pre-concert interviews, I think, went a long way in doing this, but there is always more we can do.

You are a fierce advocate for historically erased musicians and their works. Can you tell us more about the work you do in order to re-establish our perception of this part of musical history?

You say "musicians" and not composers, and this is important. Many institutions are only now realizing the shortcomings of teaching music history from a composer-centric, "great man" model. One step in the lateral direction allows us to see the historical contributions of patrons, pedagogues, and performers, in addition to composers. This leads to a far more complex and diverse view of who was actually contributing to music-making. Approaching history from an institutional, network-based perspective allows us to produce a more realistic, not to mention inclusive narrative. One has to remember that Beethoven’s posthumous legacy was shaped by powerful critics like E.T.A. Hoffmann and that Clara Wieck tirelessly promoted Robert Schumann’s then-unloved music in her concert tours. Historically effaced figures are brought back to life, and this can upend wrongheaded, harmful assumptions about who was actually present in music making. That is the link between these two categories: they ask us to interrogate the forces of history that lead to one person’s fame and another’s obscurity.

I think an assumption educators in the individual lessons model make is that mastery of the Western musical canon (i.e. white European, male-dominated) takes priority over the learning of historically erased repertoire. Part of this is an unwillingness to look outside one’s own education. Some see it as pragmatism: with limited time, Rachmaninoff would be better than R. Nathaniel Dett. But what is really driving this? I want to be charitable. I think there is an issue of preparing young musicians for auditions and music competitions, which have, with few exceptions, remained embarrassingly conservative. I have even encountered the (very erroneous) idea that Black composers made little to no contribution to concert music. Consider that canonized composers have had scholars and publishers of the highest standard lavish unceasing attention on them. In contrast, many works by marginalized composers remained unpublished during their lifetimes and needed independent scholars and presses, not to mention committed performers, working tirelessly and thanklessly to bring them to light. I not only seek to discover more un(der)performed music and make more resources accessible to educators and students, but also ask them to reflect on their unconscious biases and perceptions of how this music fits into their artistic lives.

A deeper issue that I often cite is that of diversity, equity, and inclusion practices as "cultural currency." I am reminded of Foucault’s concept of épistémè, which is, roughly put, a set of background assumptions that govern a set of cultural practices and behaviors. He talks about it in reference to science, but when I apply it to the present discussion, I mean that we need to examine the current codes that govern our choices regarding diversity and inclusion. Let me give two examples. Many American universities, companies, and organizations, particularly after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and the Atlanta shootings of Asian women in March 2021, felt the importance of addressing diversity and inclusion in public statements. That makes it easier for people to “buy in” to discussions about issues of identity and representation, though I don’t always see the increased valuation of pressing for deeper discussion and understanding. But let’s say one wants to enter a competition and nowhere in the prospectus is there any encouragement of diverse programming. As we move between spaces, there is always a certain reading of the situation and the question: "Is diversity being valued here?"

A better question would be: "Can we as artists be committed to diversity and inclusion as a consistent practice?" – especially in circumstances when the environment might not value it. If and when we find ourselves in a position of authority – as educators, performers, writers – we need to acknowledge our privilege as the ability to speak and act in the interest of inclusivity when it is not necessarily valued. I think that a large cultural institution with as much influence as Lucerne Festival, by making not only committed, but deep statements about diversity, equity, and inclusion, could raise this valuation in the broader public’s eyes. I do hope that the summer theme this year will mean consistent commitments to it in the future.

This summer you will be coaching the participants of the Lucerne Festival Academy. Are you going to broaden their minds to variety both in repertoire and in playing style and if so, how do you plan to do this?

I reread Joy Guidry’s response to the implications the Academy audition repertoire list has historically held, how they note that the repertoire has tended to be very "old school contemporary" and that it gives a good indication of equally old school programming. It is very true that there is a particular aesthetic that has defined the Academy, given its origins with Boulez. It is a body of music that holds a special place in my heart, but we have to evolve as well. This year the auditions across all instruments permitted a free-choice contemporary piece, with listed pieces only as suggestions; there was excitement to introduce new, fresher names more representative of who is making music, and down the line this will most likely need further development; these lists have determinate power and what is placed on there will influence what musicians learn.

Is aesthetic preference deeply intertwined with unconscious bias and identity? I think the answer has to be "yes," but the "how" is complex and individualized. Buying into an aesthetic implies self-identifying with a certain community who also buys in, but it can also carry exclusionary overtones of what it is not. What to do? Recognize how narrow our conceptions might be of what we deem to be "good music" and advocate for a future of inclusive multiplicities. This requires that we possess ever more sensitive inner ears when we read a score and that we acknowledge our biases when faced with something new.

If there is a younger generation of musicians interested in contemporary music, there is already some curiosity driving them. Still, they are influenced by the values of their environments. The simplest thing I can do is create one in which expansiveness is valued, introduce them to the repertoire I believe in, encourage them to partake in works and practices that push them beyond their training, and tell the stories of these works and composers as best as I can, all while modeling the importance of this in my own artistic life. I also want them to get excited about discovering new new music. We are fortunate as musicians to be able to create experiences of quasi-utopian spaces – how amazing is that?

In one of your essays, you quote fellow musician Jonathan Bailey Howard: "[…] to suddenly be asking for more representation is skipping a few steps. Shouldn’t we be asking for more of a connection to the country/city/community in which these institutions are based first […]?" How do you relate to this statement and do you feel the topic of diversity in classical music is discussed differently in North America than it is in Europe?

I think the pandemic made many of us see the vital relationship between ourselves and the physical space around us, and I see this statement as a call to understanding the relationship between the creators and actual audiences of music. There are voices whose works have particular resonance in the communities they find themselves in. Who is producing interesting work just a few steps away? That person or organization might be the community’s most relevant cultural ambassadors. At the same time, the creators should be asking whether they are reaching the audiences in that community and offering them something worthwhile.

To your second point: the US and Canada have had some moments of reckoning in the past years that have made discussions of land, race, and power far more explicit, mostly due to visual documentations of violence past and present. There are problematic nuances in reconciliatory efforts everywhere, but at least there are steps. In Canada, for instance, I have seen a more unified effort in recognizing First Nations artists and musicians. The recent Pulitzer win of Raven Chacon might spur on more recognition of indigenous artists in the US. In Europe, the US can be held up as a bogeyman because of its explicit legacy and recent manifestations of institutionalized racism, even though many European nations have participated in acts that are no less horrific. My impression is that it can be easy in Europe to hold on to old ideas of social cohesion and national identity, while not acknowledging that, as in the US and Canada, inequities are firmly rooted in the colonialist legacies created by its very best people. Each country has its own sets of present and historical circumstances it must confront. This is my current feeling and I would love to hear others’ perspectives on this.

Speaking of diverse interests – I read that you also create crossword puzzles for the New York Times?

Yes! The puzzling community is also making strides, through mentorship programs and new editorships, for example, to find fresh, interesting, diverse voices. Language and knowledge are intimately bound up with personal history and experience. A puzzle in one solver’s wheelhouse will not necessarily be in another’s. Folks get really passionate (and vocalize it) when they think some entries are unfair. We have to be courageous enough to remain humble when faced with our own ignorance.