‘How is this classical music?’ Composers’ fury at Grammys shortlist

Outraged musicians say nominations have been ‘mis-categorised’, allowing pop and jazz artists to compete

When is a classical music composition not actually classical? This is the conundrum now at the heart of a heated row over the shortlisted songs for the Grammys, the annual awards that will be handed out in a few weeks’ time to recognise outstanding contributions to music.

A number of musicians have collectively expressed their outrage that nominations for the “classical music” awards include recordings they consider anything but classical. Letters of complaint have been sent to the organisers, the Recording Academy, arguing that the tracks in question – by two separate artists, Jon Batiste and Curtis Stewart – have been “mis-categorised”.

Their objections have absolutely nothing to do with quality, but genre, say the musicians. They believe that “mistaken categorisation” jeopardises the credibility of the music industry’s highest honours.

Though not disputing the brilliance of the Oscar-winning Batiste, they believe that his track, Batiste: Movement 11’, should not have been nominated for best contemporary classical composition. While they similarly admire the multi-Grammy nominated Stewart, they believe his album, Of Power, should not have been nominated for best classical instrumental solo.

Composer Marc Neikrug, a former Grammy nominee, told the Observer that Batiste is a pop musician and that nominating his recording for a classical music award is baffling. “How much sense do you think it makes to a serious novelist when Bob Dylan gets a Nobel prize for literature?”, he said. “It’s not that what Bob Dylan does isn’t magnificent in what it is. But it’s not Nobel literature.”

Curtis Stewart, whose album Of Power has been nominated for a classical Grammy.
Curtis Stewart, whose album Of Power has been nominated for a classical Grammy. Photograph: Sachyn Mital/Rex/Shutterstock

In a letter to the academy he wrote: “As a serious, dedicated composer of what has always been considered ‘classical’ music, I am dismayed. I have spent 60 years studying and labouring at this precise craft. It is unfathomable that an organisation which is supposed to have some inherent knowledge of music would choose to re-categorise an entire segment of our inherited culture.”

The Recording Academy represents “all music professionals”, from performers to engineers, all of whom are eligible to vote for the awards. It stages the 64th Grammy awards show on 3 April, recognising the achievements of recordings released in the year until September 2021.

Professor Apostolos Paraskevas of Berklee College of Music, Boston, is equally perturbed by the inclusion of Batiste and Stewart. “I’m not going to say that classical music is better than jazz. I love both genres,” he said. “Both of those musicians deserve the recognition for their work. But we cannot compare apples and oranges.”

He added: “If you look at the nominees for the best contemporary classical composition, you see amazing musicians who write operas and symphonies. Batiste’s piece is two minutes long, someone playing sequences in the jazz style. If this person gets an award, this is a big slap on our face. It’s a message to everyone that we should give up and just do this.”

He, too, has sent a letter to the academy, telling it: “I am a voting member of the Recording Academy and I have seen minor inconsistencies over the years in the results, but nothing in comparison to what is happening this year.” He added: “This jeopardises the credibility of the Grammy awards.”

Asgerdur Sigurdardottir, a classical producer and the head of Tonar Music Management, which specialises in classical guitarists, also questioned whether the music of Batiste and Stewart belongs in classical music categories.

“My argument is: why should I personally be able to even vote in the gospel category or reggae? I have no expertise in that field, but yet I am able to vote. This also means that people that have no classical expertise are able to vote in the classical fields.”

Stewart, who studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, has performed as a classical soloist at the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and held chamber music residencies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He said that he does not need to justify his music’s inclusion in the classical music category but hopes that it “can connect a divide that has hurt and ostracised classical music from a world of listeners for decades”. He added: “My work attempts to draw question marks to categories. I think of myself as a classical musician.”

On his classical music blog Slipped Disc, Norman Lebrecht, a British music journalist and author who specialises in issues concerning classical music, wrote that he had received numerous complaints that this year’s Grammys were muddying the classical award sections with non-classical entries.

His report sparked a flurry of Facebook comments, with one supporter telling Stewart: “Your musicianship is of the highest calibre however they want to categorise it.”

Batiste studied at the world-renowned Juilliard School in New York City. In 2018, he received a Grammy nomination for best American roots performance. In 2021, he won the Oscar for best original score for the Disney/Pixar film Soul, shared with fellow composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Batiste’s record company and the Recording Academy were approached, but declined to comment.


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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