Bright Sheng Thread

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pianoman
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Bright Sheng Thread

Post by pianoman »

This is a 2014 disc released by Naxos of three works composed by Bright Sheng. Somewhat surprisingly to me, Sheng has a fairly large catalogue of works that are readily available. This disc is the 6th album of Sheng's music released on the Naxos label alone.

Image

This album is, quite probably, the most Asian CD I have ever owned. It consists of three orchestral works composed by a Chinese composer, performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic with Sheng conducting, and featuring five soloists who are all Asian, two of whom play traditional Chinese instruments, the sheng (mouth organ, no relation) and the pipa (plucked lute instrument). The soloists are: Hui Li, pipa; Tong Wu, sheng; Trey Lee, cello; Sa Chen, piano; and Pius Cheung, marimba.

The fist work, Song of Dance and Tears, was written in 2003 and revised in 2013. In the liner notes, Sheng states that this work is inspired by the folk music he heard while visiting the areas of the Silk Road "within the contemporary Chinese border." This is apparently a collection of separate "songs," yet there is only one track division. Much of this work sounds vaguely latin. The pipa is plucked in a tremelo style like Spanish guitar. The piano is used largely percussively or ornamentally. The sheng sounds a little like an accordian.

The second work is my favorite on this disc. It is essentially a concerto for marimba :lol:, and is performed by my new favorite Asian classical musician Pius Cheung. Shockingly, it was actually commissioned by the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra in 2004 for a different marimba player named Evelyn Glennie. The marimba wanders wistfully and cross-currently over a soft, reflective orchestra, with just a hint of sadness, then builds gradually to a semi-frantic allegro non troppo as the orchestra begins more and more to assume the role of sound effects generator. This strange brew simmers down before boiling over and you get a recapitulation of the first texture.

The third piece lends its name to the album, the Blazing Mirage. In the liner notes, Sheng writes that it is inspired by a site called the Dunhuang Caves that date back to the 4th century. The caves apparently contain the greatest collection of Buddhist art and culture ever discovered, as well as documents and frescos that relate to other religions such as Taoism, Nestorianism, and even Judaism, in several languages. They also contained music written in a lost but reconstructed system of notation. The "Blazing Mirage" comes from the legend of the inspiration for the first cave. A buddhist monk had a vision of "a thousand Buddhas glittering in golden lights."

The Blazing Mirage is essentially a one-movement cello concerto. It begins with a long solo cello "recitative," almost three minutes before the orchestra plays a single note. This work conveys a feeling of mystery, portent, antiquity. Of the three pieces on this disc, it is probably the most serious and the most "refined" in the sense of appealing to contemporary musical tastes. It does not build to a climax the way that you might expect from a Western composer, but is instead broad, inconclusive, laterally-conceived. The cellist here, Trey Lee, is actually quite good. His playing stands out on this disc.

The only comment I want to add here is that Sheng is working in a long contemporary tradition of appending stories and texts to a work. This is almost de rigueur these days, but it brings up an issue I have with Asian composers that have been accepted and allowed to create in the West. In its essence, music is sound organized into patterns. Ultimately, the inspiration or textual justification for a piece of music should not take the place of the music itself. The work must compel musically, not politically or theoretically. If Asians are ever going to create their own musical traditions, Asian composers must one day stake a claim to organized sound in the abstract.

pianoman
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Re: Bright Sheng "The Blazing Mirage"

Post by pianoman »

I'm making a deliberate decision to spend more time in the "composers" section of this website, despite my screen name. Here is an article about Sheng that appeared last year in an arts and culture magazine in Oregon. Half biography and interview, half promotion for works being performed. Around 2016, Sheng produced an opera version of the 18th century Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, with Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang co-writing the libretto. This website has about ten minutes of excerpts from the opera:
https://sfopera.com/1617-season/201617- ... o-gallery/

Article is here (a few good links to some audio, including the work for marimba and orchestra reviewed above): https://www.orartswatch.org/bright-shen ... -emissary/

Excerpts:
Bright Sheng interview: cross-cultural emissary
The Shanghai-born American composer, whose music is featured at Chamber Music Northwest this weekend, explores and extends Chinese music traditions
JULY 20, 2018

by ALICE HARDESTY

Bright Sheng is a pianist, conductor, and composer of music in various genres, including opera, orchestral, and chamber music. He’s also a teacher and musicologist, having studied both Eastern and Western music extensively. His resume includes heavy-duty recognition, such as the Guggenheim Fellowship and the MacArthur “Genius” award.

This weekend, as part of its Behind the Cultural Revolution series, Chamber Music Northwest presents two performances of Sheng’s opera The Silver River and other compositions. I spoke to him last week.

Image
Bright Sheng

Born in Shanghai, Sheng was nearly ready for music school when the Red Guard took away his piano and sent him to the the province of Qinghai in Eastern Tibet. Fortunately, the seven years he spent there were not wasted. His hosts found out that he could play the piano (the only piano there), and he became the local musician and entertainer. With no teacher or books, he taught himself music theory and made an intensive study of the local folk music. After the Cultural Revolution, he made up for lost time. He got a B.A. at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, left for the U.S. and earned a doctorate in composition from Columbia University where one of his mentors was Leonard Bernstein.

The name, “Sheng,” means “grand,” and “Bright” is the actual translation of his Chinese name, “Liang.” He explained with a chuckle, “I didn’t really want a Western name, so I chose ‘Bright’ and I think it helped with my career because it sticks.” He’s lived up to his name.
Sheng believes that the next hundred years will bring much more cross-cultural music, that the lines between musical genres will be even more blurred than they are now, and that things will merge naturally. “I have a theory that I didn’t get a chance to practice myself, but ideally, all races should just mix, and that will erase the racial and political tensions. The U.S. is the foremost country doing that. You know, interracial marriage is not a big deal anymore. But it still is other places.

Sheng acknowledges that a side-effect of this merging will be the loss of some of the unique elements of certain cultures. He talked about how with the influx into Hong Kong of people from the mainland, the demand for food has changed and the authentic Cantonese cuisine has started to blend, as has the Cantonese language. But now you can get authentic Cantonese food in Beijing! It’s all a matter of demand. It takes an effort to preserve valued elements of the old cultures. It is an effort that engaged him as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, and engages him still as a musicologist.
As he did in Silver River, Bright Sheng selected the well known playwright David Henry Hwang as his co-librettist for his full length opera, The Dream of the Red Chamber. The opera premiered in San Francisco in 2016 to public and critical acclaim. The opera is based on what he called the most beloved novel in Chinese history, written by Cao Xueqin in the mid 18th Century during the Qing Dynasty. Scholars in China, known as Redologists, can spend their whole lives studying this book.

Sheng recounted how these scholars scrutinized the performances he conducted in China. “A whole fleet of Redologists came without letting me know. They followed us on our tour in China. Then they said they wanted to have a public symposium on the opera and the Dream of the Red Chamber. It was the five major media, TV and all that, and I was really nervous!”

Sheng said that in the end, they all agreed that the opera was okay. They acknowledged that Sheng and Hwang and changed it a bit, but it was a good story and the spirit of the novel was still there. “Most important,” said Sheng, “they were moved. One high-up scholar said in the beginning he was analyzing it, but by a quarter of the way into it, he was totally absorbed by the story and the music. He said, ‘I didn’t care. By the end I was touched.’”

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Re: Bright Sheng Thread

Post by pianoman »

The woke mob has come for Bright Sheng. A few weeks ago, Sheng screened a 1965 version of Othello with Laurence Olivier in blackface and now some of his charges at the University of Michigan want him fired. Sheng is the last person one might think would become the target of such tired antics, but of course reason was never the strong point of American activism:

Original report, with a copy of the letter demanding Sheng's termination: https://slippedisc.com/2021/10/michigan ... ace-video/

https://slippedisc.com/2021/10/its-the- ... cancelled/
It’s the students who should be fired, not the professor they want cancelled

Norman Lebrecht

October 03, 2021

Following on from Friday’s exclusive report on the furore at the University of Michigan, where a mob of students want to have composer Bright Sheng sacked for showing a blackface Othello video, here’s a salient reader’s comment:

The author Sammy Sussmann, for all his protestations of being “shocked,” “horrified,” and “saddened” by the showing of the video and the admin’s response, makes clear his real agenda midway through the “article.” As is always the case with individuals who wish to use incidents like this to destroy careers, there’s some axe grinding going
on that has nothing to do with the matter at hand.

After rehearsing the alleged shock and anguish caused by seeing Olivier’s version of Othello, the writer gets to the crux of his piece: Sheng is apparently rude to his colleagues and students, having the temerity to watching videos on his phone during meetings. Worst of all, he left the writer’s UM entrance interview mid-stream, an unforgivable sin. How dare he have tenure, preventing Sammy Sussman from exacting his revenge?

It is becoming more and more nauseating to witness the temper tantrums of these mini-Madame Defarges, these hypocrites who claim to have a higher purpose in mind (the purification of academia and the world achieved by driving out the alleged racists, sexists, homophobes, and transphobes), but who in reality just want to hurt those who have bruised their fragile egos, or worse, harm people who think differently than them.

I find Olivier’s performance in “Othello” to be cartoonish; it’s certainly his weakest Shakespearian performance on film. Would I show it to a class? No, because it’s a rotten rendition of a role that has been done much better by others. Does Sheng have a right to show it to his classes if he thinks it’s a good performance that demonstrates his
points when discussing the Shakespeare? According to what is now apparently an antiquated notion of free inquiry in a university setting, yes, he does. If the students don’t like it, they can drop the class, or write their thoughts on Sheng’s teacher evaluations.

If Sammy Sussman doesn’t like the fact that tenure exists, then he should attend a school like Liberty University or Bob Jones University, neither of which offer faculty any protection from arbitrary firing. If he and his ilk can’t see that they are joining hands with the extremists on the other side of the political divide, then they deserve what they will eventually get: the total destruction of the university system at the hands of left and right-wing fanatics.

pianoman
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Re: Bright Sheng Thread

Post by pianoman »

. . . and the mob is thrown a scrap of meat to chew on. Sheng was removed from teaching his freshman music composition class but will remain a member of the faculty.

As bizarre as this story already is, the most interesting article on this event comes from a socialist website that I have never heard of or knew existed. Not only do they denounce the campaign against Sheng, they actually do a fairly thorough analysis of the 1965 Olivier production of Othello and argue that it is actually anti-racist. Agree or not, there is a socialist in Ann Arbor who has watched a lot of Shakespeare:

https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/1 ... 1-o11.html
Oppose the right-wing, racialist attack on composer Bright Sheng at University of Michigan

International Youth and Students for Social Equality at the University of Michigan

The International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE) at the University of Michigan denounces the racialist smear campaign against renowned composer, conductor and pianist Bright Sheng. The claim by a group of students and faculty that he committed a “racist act” by screening a film version of Othello with Laurence Olivier is as badly informed as it is false. All serious and democratic-minded students should refuse to be intimidated and come to Sheng’s defense.

On Friday, David Gier, the dean of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD), announced that Sheng would stop teaching his undergraduate music composition course this semester but remain on faculty. The decision came a month after Sheng screened for the class the 1965 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello, directed by longtime theater and television personality Stuart Burge and featuring the great Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier playing Othello with black make-up.

Sheng, the Chinese-born Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition, is a world-class composer, who has been teaching at the University of Michigan since 1995. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and was given a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2001. The Foundation described him as “an innovative composer whose skillful orchestrations bridge East and West, lyrical and dissonant styles, and historical and contemporary themes to create compositions that resonate with audiences around the world.”

The “crime” for which Sheng has been forced out of teaching the class has only been made possible by the whipping up of racialist frenzy on the university campuses and in the media. No honest or fair-minded individual could find anything remotely offensive about Olivier’s performance or the film as a whole.

Sheng was “turned in,” according to the Michigan Daily, by one of his freshman students, Olivia Cook, who took note that Olivier was playing Othello in black make-up. “I was stunned,” Cook said. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”

Cook, who evidently knows nothing about the play, its history, or Olivier’s career and intentions in his 1965 performance, has thus far been fully supported by the university in the baseless claim that Sheng’s showing of the film and the film itself were “racist.”

After the September 10 class and the subsequent manipulated uproar, Sheng issued an apology to the students and canceled a planned Othello project for the course. According to the report, SMTD Dean Gier and several faculty members rushed to accept the claim that Sheng’s showing of the film was a “racist act.”

In a statement to the Michigan Daily, composition Professor Evan Chambers—who is replacing Sheng in the course—wrote, “To show the film now, especially without substantial framing, content advisory and a focus on its inherent racism is in itself a racist act, regardless of the professor’s intentions.” Chambers presents absolutely no evidence to support such an outrageous claim. The public is apparently simply expected to take his word for it. Gier reported the “incident” to the university’s Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX.

Sheng then issued a formal department-wide apology on September 16. The letter conveyed his opposition to racism and pointed to his many collaborations with artists of different races, genders and ethnicities to demonstrate that he “never considered myself discriminative in any way.”

The formal apology was then seized upon by a group of SMTD graduate and undergraduate students and several faculty members, as supposedly “inflammatory” for “implying” that Sheng was “responsible” for the “success” of the artists noted in his letter. The collective issued this denunciation in a letter to the dean, demanding that Sheng be removed from his position for the rest of the semester, because he had created a “harmful environment.”

After the open letter was issued last week, however, Sheng removed himself from instructing the course at Gier’s urging.

The whole incident is foul and shameful. For all the hand-wringing about students “needing context” and “trigger-warnings” about the play, there is virtually no discussion of the actual work or film adaptation.

Othello, likely first performed in 1603, is one of the masterworks of the English-language theatrical canon. The title character is a Moorish general in the Venetian army who has secretly married Desdemona, the daughter of a leading senator, Brabantio. The latter first accuses Othello of using magic and witchcraft to carry off his daughter, until Desdemona appears and reveals her great love for her new husband. Iago, an ensign in the same military, hates Othello and plots successfully to make him jealous of his bride. The stoic general of the first half of the play gradually succumbs to Iago’s maneuvers in the second half, and the tragedy culminates in Othello’s murder of Desdemona in a fit of blind, jealous rage. Othello is a deeply sympathetic, tragic figure, undone by the Machiavellian Iago.

The play has been performed countless times over four centuries in every corner of the globe and adapted in many forms, including opera, most notably by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi in 1887.

There are several film versions, including a legendary 1951 effort directed by and starring Orson Welles (with Irish actor Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago), a 1981 version with Anthony Hopkins (Othello) and Bob Hoskins (Iago)—directed by Jonathan Miller—and a 1995 adaptation (Oliver Parker), featuring Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago.

The 1965 Burge-Olivier version is a faithful and important interpretation. Though the Michigan Daily reported that the film was “controversial at the time,” it was in fact strongly praised in many quarters. All the lead actors in the film were nominated for Academy Awards, including Frank Finlay (Iago), Maggie Smith (Desdemona), Joyce Redman (Emilia) and Olivier.

Othello, “the Moor of Venice,” is commonly understood to be of North African origin, from the region of present-day Morocco. It was highly uncommon for Moors to be featured in plays of the time (Shakespeare included the villainous Aaron the Moor in his Titus Andronicus), and numerous critics contend that Shakespeare consciously introduced race as one of the sources of tension in the play, most obviously between Desdemona’s father and Othello, as well as one of the motives driving Iago.

The Soviet critic Aleksandr Smirnov made a strong case that Shakespeare demonstrates his humanism in Othello, writing that “Desdemona loves Othello despite his race and color. In their tragic passion, the racial problem as such does not exist, nor does it influence the Doge’s [the Venetian ruler] attitude towards Othello. Shakespeare solves the race problem in a more radical fashion than in The Merchant of Venice. In the latter, only one monologue, which is not even an integral part of the play, treats the problem whereas in Othello, the theme is treated in full. Othello is a thorough representative of the new age.”

The denunciation of Olivier’s performance, which he had previously given on the British stage, is particularly reactionary in that the actor was attempting to take on the timid, semi-racist approaches to the Othello character that had prevailed for a century and a half.

In representing Othello as black, as an African, Olivier was rebuffing various commentators appalled at the thought of the white maiden Desdemona falling head over heels in love with a black man. As Elise Marks commented in a 2001 essay, “Olivier was one of the first light-skinned actors to play Othello in black makeup since 1814. … In his autobiography, Olivier boasts that his black Othello was more genuine, more daring, more forceful than the ‘pale’—he might almost have said ‘diluted’—Othellos of his immediate predecessors.” Indeed, Olivier goes on to explain in that memoir that the dominant “coffee-colored compromise” had arisen “out of some feeling that the Moor could not be thought a truly noble Moor if he was too black and in too great contrast to the noble whites: a shocking case of pure snobbery.”

Laura Reitz-Wilson, in “Race and Othello on Film,” points out that the “1965 Othello is more revolutionary than the previous two [versions], bringing the issue of race to the forefront. Laurence Olivier plays a very black Othello. Most of the racial language in the play is included. Even small references, those of Emilia and Desdemona, are not cut. Othello’s references to his race are kept as well and are interpreted, by Olivier, as Shakespeare intended them.”

Any suggestion that there is a hint of racism about Olivier’s performance is preposterous. The actor takes pains to bestow his character with the greatest possible dignity and humanity. The Michigan Daily wrote that in a letter sent to the Daily Sheng explained “that the original intent was to show how the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera. Since cross-casting was frequent in opera, he did not think Laurence Olivier’s performance was ‘intended to be the same as the minstrel performances which did degrade African Americans.’”

Moreover, whether it is fully intended or not, Olivier is also paying tribute to the performances of the great African American actor and singer and Communist Party supporter Paul Robeson, who played Othello on numerous occasions. In a 1956 interview, Robeson described Othello as “a black man in a white society,” which goes some distance toward explaining the character’s desperate reactions to Iago’s plotting, which preys on his isolation and vulnerabilities.

In his interview, Robeson refers approvingly to the writings of British critic A.C. Bradley, who strongly argued that Shakespeare “imagined Othello as a black man” and attacked the “horror of most American critics … at the idea of a black Othello.”

The International Youth and Students for Social Equality unequivocally condemns the campaign against Sheng, which has absolutely nothing to do with left-wing or progressive politics. Those students crying about “safe spaces” and a “harmful environment” created by the showing of Othello should grow up and actually learn something. That is what a university education is supposed to be about.

The IYSSE calls on all students and faculty concerned by what has been done to speak out against it. The campaign of intimidation against any critique of the noxious framework of racialist and identity politics must be rejected and opposed.

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Re: Bright Sheng Thread

Post by pianoman »

African-American linguistics professor John McWhorter offers a classically liberal perspective on the "cancelling" of Bright Sheng at U of M. McWhorter has had intelligent things to say about college admissions and public education in NYC, including the specialized high schools:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/15/opin ... sheng.html
What I See in the Latest Blackface ‘Scandal’
Oct. 15, 2021

By John McWhorter

Opinion Writer

At the University of Michigan recently, the music professor Bright Sheng — who’s had a superlative career as a composer, conductor and musician — wanted to share with his students how Giuseppe Verdi transformed Shakespeare’s “Othello” into the acclaimed opera “Otello.” That transformation is a rich and instructive topic in music composition.

In September, Sheng showed his undergraduate composition seminar the 1965 film based on the Royal National Theatre’s stage production of “Othello,” with Laurence Olivier playing the title role in blackface makeup, in line with the custom of the era.

Some students took offense: One told The Michigan Daily that she was “shocked” and that Sheng failed to first contextualize what the class saw. Sheng apologized. Days later, the dean of Music, Theatre & Dance wrote that “Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our school’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion.” Sheng apologized again, and in an apparent effort to mitigate, offered examples of his professional support over the years for people of color. That drew criticism from grad students, undergrads and faculty, who, according to The Daily, called it “inflammatory” in an open letter calling for Sheng’s removal as course instructor.

In a Medium post, a writer identifying as a member of the class took Sheng’s department chair to task for, reportedly, recommending that the issue “may be something you ought to first discuss with Professor Sheng.” (The audacity.) The same post implied that Sheng’s alleged transgressions were as grave as, for instance, incidents of sexual harassment and abuse. If you want to read more, Cathy Young has provided invaluable coverage of what she correctly describes as yet another “moral panic.”

Sheng has left the class.

A common response to occurrences like this is to condemn the students involved as being overly delicate — snowflakes, in today’s parlance. However, merely leveling that charge doesn’t facilitate a constructive discussion about what fuels these sadly routine events. The underlying issue isn’t the students’ fragility, it’s that their approach illustrates the difference between radicalism and progressivism. It’s an example of a strain of thought permeating campuses (our whole society, really), one that blithely elides that difference in favor of preaching only of “social justice.”

Start here: What happened to Sheng would have been much less likely a generation ago. In the late 1990s, I showed a class of white, Black and Asian American students a scene from a film with white performers in blackface. Beforehand, I mentioned that this was a very old movie and that we were going to see a practice that nobody would venture today, but that the film was instructive for other reasons. None of the students batted an eye, at least that I could see. If anything, some of the Black students (and maybe some of the non-Black students) snickered at the performers for how ridiculous they looked.

So, here’s our query: Is the response of Sheng’s students an advance on those of my students a generation ago? Were me and my students missing something upon which our modern era is more enlightened?

Before we tackle that, there are two important points to address. First, as Young notes, Olivier’s performance does involve a degree of cartoonish swagger beyond what some blackface performances of the era entailed. But it’s reasonable to assume that Sheng’s students would have had a similar response to more restrained blackface portrayals of Othello, such as Orson Welles’s.

Second, Sheng should indeed have made clear that he was about to show his students something that would require them to put on their “history glasses,” as I sometimes put it. But the question involves degree: Should he now be barred from the class amid rhetoric that makes him sound like a pitiless bigot, unfit and out of step with an enlightened society? I’d say no.

Now: Let’s break down what the crux of objections to showing a blackface performance ever at all are.

The typical idea is that blackface is a reminder of the reign of minstrel shows, in which white performers wore blackface makeup and engaged in clownish distortion of Black speech and dance styles. Minstrel shows were core American entertainment for most of the 19th century, and well into the 20th. It was a filmic depiction of a minstrel show, in fact, that I showed my class: Al Jolson in 1930’s “Mammy.”

Minstrel shows were disgusting, all the more so in how utterly central they were in American entertainment for so very long. But is there no statute of limitations on how long a people will feel actual injury about such a thing? In 2021, there is barely a person alive who attended a minstrel show performed as mainstream, professional entertainment. Even those who may have caught ragtag amateur groups keeping the tradition alive are likely now quite elderly.

The idea seems to be that we (relatively) younger Black people and our non-Black fellow travelers are nevertheless so viscerally stung by seeing any manifestation of this bygone tradition that to show dated footage of a white British actor in blackface, as part of an academic colloquy, qualifies as a grievous insult. But I like to think of Black Americans as a people of pride and forward thinking. I miss those qualities in this submission to an insult leveled by perpetrators now very, very dead. And since no one can seriously argue that Sheng’s intent was to revive or exalt the practice of blackface — and not to teach something about the operatic adaptation of a seminal literary work — to treat him as an accessory to those dead perpetrators seems more a kind of performance in itself than a spontaneously felt insult.

Another idea would be that to imitate a Black person by trying to darken the appearance of one’s skin is, inherently, to ridicule that person. But is it impossible in the logical sense that someone might costume oneself as a Black person one admires and put on makeup to darken one’s face simply as part of seeking to look like that person? Many will heatedly object: “Impossible!” But we must attend to why. If the answer is minstrel shows, then see above.

These days, we’re expected to recoil, under any circumstances, at the idea of a white person attempting to make their skin look like the color of a nonwhite person’s, as if this were the automatic equivalent to using a racist slur, or worse. But context matters. A lot.

Is blackface being shown as part of a collegiate-level discussion, as in the Michigan case? College students shouldn’t need protection from an old film used to help them think about and debate the conversion of a classic over time. Sheng was using the film to stir and inform artistic consciousness. To read that situation otherwise is deeply anti-intellectual.

Is blackface being deployed comedically, not to make fun of Black people, but to lampoon the absurdity of racism? For example, in one episode of the sitcom “30 Rock,” Jane Krakowski’s character is made up in blackface and wears men’s clothing; Tracy Morgan’s character is made up in whiteface, a blond wig and wears women’s clothing in a “social experiment” to see who has it harder in America — white women or Black men. In another episode, Krakowski is made up in blackface and dresses as the Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann, who’s not derided in any way, the bit being a clever play on the movie title “Black Swan.” [No mention of Tropic Thunder?]

Last year, not long after George Floyd was murdered, three “30 Rock” episodes that involved blackface, including those two, were taken out of syndication. The show’s producers, including its star, Tina Fey, may have concluded they had no choice. But we might ask why the sheer matter of the makeup was an insult to Black people. It’s not self-evident that pulling those episodes was morally necessary in 2020 because of careers like Jolson’s. The shows’ flashes of wit didn’t set Black people back in any way. It’s hard to see how a lighthearted plotline about racism and sexism, even with blackface, harms Black people — or how taking it off the air helps us. My horse sense tells me that the vast majority of us get that a joke can be a joke.

These are my own observations. They are up for debate. But those condemning Sheng seem to consider their ideas not just opinions, but truths — the predicate for an inquisition. Yet, the view that blackface makeup is so uniquely revolting that a professor should be hounded from his class for showing, in a scholarly setting, decades-old scenes of an actor wearing it is a point that many find extreme. It is a position that requires some serious lifting and a vast transformation in common modes of thought, even among people with good-faith concerns about race relations, and would look odd to time travelers from just a few decades ago. A position like that is not simply “antiracist,” but radical.

This radical proposition, like so many on race of late, is being put forth as if it were scripture that no moral actor could question. It misses the point, then, to dismiss the students as fragile. Their claim entails that people were injured by such usages of blackface before, therefore must still be now, and that we should redefine the bounds of permissibility to bar such images from general experience. They think their recoil from the very sight of decades-old racist imagery is uniquely enlightened, a resistance to abuse endemic to our society’s past, present and future. To them, their response isn’t only appropriate, it’s mandatory.

But that’s a proposition they must assert in the public square and assume as subject to discussion and dissent.

And let’s face it, in that discussion, this radical proposition would likely be voted down. Its adherents would deem this as racism winning out. But many others would see it as a victory for common sense, seeing the current fashion as a performance, a kind of, yes, virtue signaling.

Or just maybe, the people who witch-hunted Sheng could defend their position better than I am imagining. I’d be happy to observe the attempt. But from where I sit, we’re seeing a radical agenda not proposed, but imposed. Upon what authority are they allowed such primacy of influence in how we speak, think and teach in our times?

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Re: Bright Sheng Thread

Post by pianoman »

Almost 700 U of M faculty have published an open letter defending Sheng:

https://slippedisc.com/2021/11/universi ... ght-sheng/
To: Dean David Gier
Cc: Provost Susan Collins, President Mark Schlissel, Professor Bright Sheng

Dear Dean Gier,

We are writing to protest the campaign that has been waged against SMTD Professor Bright Sheng and to express our concern about his being removed from his class without due process. The case has been widely discussed in the press; see, for example, recent coverage in The New York Times, Fox News, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In his undergraduate composition seminar, Professor Sheng showed the 1965 film “Othello” starring Laurence Olivier, to inform the process that led from Shakespeare’s famous play to Verdi’s opera libretto. In the role of Othello, Laurence Olivier wore blackface, as did many actors playing the role since Shakespearean times. Students were not prepared for this and some complained.

Recognizing the discomfort some students experienced with Olivier’s stereotypical portrayal of a Black person by a Caucasian, Professor Sheng sent an apology to his students the same day. He told them that they would not finish watching the video and that they would discuss the issue in the next class. Professor Sheng’s apology should have been sufficient. Instead, what followed was a campaign by some students and faculty in SMTD to portray the showing of Olivier’s Othello in class without content warnings as an inherently racist act that made the classroom an unsafe space and to demand administrative sanctions against Professor Sheng.

We have seen this play out on other campuses. The assertion of creating an unsafe environment is used to silence, intimidate, and to justify administrative sanctions. While claiming safe space for themselves, Professor Sheng’s detractors deprive him of it and are willing to go as far as to disrupt his livelihood and teaching process.

The very public campaign against Professor Sheng has harmed him and the students in his seminar who wish to study with him. Furthermore, it has damaged the reputation of the University of Michigan as a place for thoughtful discourse on difficult matters. As concerned faculty, we deplore the treatment meted out to Professor Sheng and the denial of due process. We further decry the efforts to besmirch his reputation.

As a first step towards redressing this harm we ask that you reverse the sanctions imposed on Professor Sheng and that he be reinstated as the instructor for his composition seminar, if that is his wish. We believe that a public acknowledgement that the sanctions against Professor Sheng were wrong and that the University will keep its commitment to free speech will go a long way to remedy the situation. Finally, we suggest that the University use this incident as an opportunity to explore the issues of race raised in Shakespeare’s Othello, the question of representation of Black identity by non-Black actors, the concept of freedom of expression as well as its limits, and the right of faculty to teach controversial subjects in their classrooms without fear of sanctions.

Meanwhile an African-American composer and apparent film buff from Harlem named Kevin Scott had the following to say about blackface in film:

https://slippedisc.com/2021/10/a-compos ... ght-sheng/
First, Bright Sheng is one of today’s finest living composers. His record, in my opinion, is quite good. I remember meeting Bright back around 1987 or 1988 at a Brooklyn Philharmonic Family Concert where he performed one of his compositions for solo piano. He was very friendly and gregarious when we talked, and I had hoped to hear more of his music in the coming years (which I did).

Cut to 2014 when he was one of the composer mentors at the Detroit Symphony’s EarShot! reading session sponsored by the American Composers Orchestra, Bright offered great advice to the composers that participated, yours truly included as he had wonderful things to say about my symphonic essay A point served…(In Remembrance Arthur Ashe), and even suggested that I expand the middle section of the work as he felt the work needed more expressiveness and more heart, something that I took to heart when I expanded and revised the work upon my return to New York.

Since then I have listened to more of his work, and occasionally viewed his FB postings. But when a friend of mine forwarded this article via Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc column and I read it, I was downright livid.

First, I never hear tell of Sammy Sussman either as a composer or journalist or performer. I will review his work after I finish writing this post as well as read some of his writings. That said, this young man and his classmates cringed at seeing this classic film which is heralded as one of the finest screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s immortal classic, though I also hold Orson Welles’ version from 1950 in high esteem on all levels as it is one of the most surreal versions ever filmed.

Now to say that this film demeans Blacks in any way is an outright joke unto itself. As mentioned, up until the last three, possibly four, decades, we have seen many actors, both leading and character, play roles outside of their birth race. Yes, many a White, and even Jewish, thespian have played people of color on both stage and screen. I know my ex-fiancé cringed in seeing Sam Jaffe portraying Gunga Din in George Stevens’ 1939 epic adventure film, one that I grew up seeing as a child on television and was also one of my father’s favorite films when he was a kid, yet Jaffe did a very good job even though he was quite old to take on the role at the time (he was in his late 40s), as opposed to Sabu who was originally cast for the role. Yet by today’s standards, both the portrayal of the character and how Rudyard Kipling deals with him in his poem, is construed as racist and demeaning, yet we do have to take into consideration both the time the poem was penned (1890) and when the movie was released (1939) that these attributes were accepted as the norm.

Yet when we do see the likes of Al Jolson in blackface, it may come off as noble either in 1927 (The Jazz Singer) or even 1945 (his cameo in the Gershwin bio-pic Rhapsody in Blue singing “Swanee”), but today many folks will cringe at this, just as they would in seeing ANY actor or actress doing this back then. Better still, J. Carroll Naish, one of Hollywood’s finest character actors, could play anyone: A Russian in “Beau Geste”, an Italian in Don Siegel’s “Star In The Night” and also in the 1943 WW2 pic “Sahara”, a Native American chieftain (Chief Sitting Bull, no less!) in “Annie Get Your Gun” (talk about a film that can be called on the carpet for everything wrong about portrayals on all levels!!!), and as a Japanese spy in the 1943 serial version of “Batman”. And even though several Japanese folks mentioned that they liked his portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi* in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, Mickey Rooney was called on the carpet then (1960) and even today for what was considered a demeaning stereotype. All of these portrayals, no matter how well they are acted, would be called demeaning to all ethnicities and nationalities today instead of seeing why they were done in the time frame mentioned.

On the other hand, what of Black and Latino actors who have played ethnicities outside of their spectrum such as Jose Ferrer, Frank Silvera, Raul Julia, Jennifer Beals, Ricardo Montalban, Dolores Del Rio Lena Horne and especially Woody Strode? I don’t think White or Asian folks criticized any of these actors. I could name other films where White actors played Asians and should never have, such as Luise Rainer and Paul Muni (another character actor who played just about everyone!) in “The Good Earth” and Katherine Hepburn and Walter Huston in “Dragon Seed”, and especially two films about Genghis Khan, namely Dick Powell’s now-cult classic laughfest “The Conqueror” with John Wayne (which turned out to be a tragedy in more ways than one) and the 1965 film “Genghis Khan” with Omar Sharif (an Egyptian!) playing the title role alongside Stephen Boyd, Francoise Dorleac, Telly Savalas, James Mason, Eli Wallach and many others playing Mongolians or Chinese (and, yes, even Woody Strode played a Mongolian!!!).

Who is to blame for all of this? Your nice Hollywood moguls of yesteryear, such as Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, Jack L. Warner, Samuel Goldwyn and many others who ruled the major studios with an iron fist. All were first-generation Americans of European Jewish heritage (Russia, Poland) who wanted to create a very WASPy, white picket fence and very clean living America. Jews portrayed at a minimum. Blacks made to act in subservient roles except in certain cases where they could be gangsters or African chieftains or tribesmen saying “Umgawa” and “Bwana”.

Yet the case of Othello is, for lack of a better term, an exception. For one thing, Othello has been classified NOT as a Black man, but a Moor. Moors are indeed dark-skinned, but for some reason or another have been made to look African in various portrayals. Yes, it would have been nice to lure Paul Robeson back to the silver screen to do Othello as he did it on Broadway back in the 1940s (and with Ferrer as his Iago), but the likes of Cohn, Goldwyn or Mayer would have none of this. Olivier acted this role not because he wanted to demean Black people, but because first and foremost this is what and how Shakespeare portrayed the character, and to step into character is what we call acting. Moreover, Oliver always played outside his comfort zone – A French-Canadian in Powell & Pressburger’s “49th Parallel”, the German vampire hunter Van Helsing in “Dracula”, General Douglas MacArthur in “Inchon” (also considered one of the world’s worst films) and even a Midwestern tycoon in “Harold Robbins’ The Betsy” (definitely worth watching if you want a good laugh!).

So if Mr. Sussman and his classmates had a rough time with Olivier portraying Othello, how would they respond to his playing the Mahdi Muhammed Ahmed in the 1966 film “Khartoum”, which I saw as a nine-year old and was blown away not only by the movie but by Olivier’s noble portrayal? Probably a lot worse, I’d imagine, but this is what acting is about – to step out of character and portray someone else outside of your own sphere, be they of the same race, creed, ethnicity and sexual orientation or contrary to them. Besides, how many straight actors play gay? Many gay actors have certainly played straight for eons (and many still do, on and off screen), but do you see a straight actor being called on the carpet by the LGBTQIA+ community??? It all depends on how accurate the portrayal is.

Dr. Sheng did not owe anyone an apology. He did this to make a point about the Bard of Theatre and the Bard of Opera. This “cancel culture” and shaming people has to cease. Instead of accusations, hold a meeting of the minds and an open discussion, which should have been held right then and there in the classroom…period. If you and your colleagues were still not impressed or moved by his comments, then you take it up with the chair [who, in turn, should have held a forum with Dr. Sheng and the students involved in this matter.

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