Asians are represented in classical music. But are they seen?
Asian artists have long been the subject of racist tropes and slurs, dating back at least to the 1960s and 1970s, when musicians immigrated to the United States from Japan, Korea and others. regions of East Asia to study and perform. A 1967 report in Time magazine, titled “Invasion From the Orient”, reflected the thinking of the time.
“Stringed instruments were physically ideal for Orientals: their nimble fingers, so proficient in delicate calligraphy and other crafts, easily adapted to the demands of the fingerboard,” the article says.
Over time, Asian artists have gained a foothold in orchestras and the concert circuit. In 2014, the latest year for which data is available, musicians of Asian origin made up about 9% of large ensembles, according to the League of American Orchestras; in the United States, Asians make up about 6 percent of the population. In renowned groups like the New York Philharmonic, the number is even higher: Asians now represent a third of this orchestra. (In Europe, it’s often a different story: in the London Symphony Orchestra, for example, three of the 82 musicians, less than 4%, have Asian roots, while Asians make up over 18% of the population of London.)
Yet racist representations of Asian artists have persisted. Some have been told by conductors that they look like computer engineers, not classical musicians. Others were described by hearing panels as too weak and too young to be taken seriously. Still others were told their names were too foreign to say or remember.
“You are considered an automaton,” said Akiko Tarumoto, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Tarumoto, 44, who is of Japanese descent, said musicians of Asian descent in the Philharmonic are sometimes confused, and in other ensembles she had heard fellow musicians call new recruits simply of “Chinese girls”.