Historical Performance in the West and Asia: An Ethnological Assessment

Joyce Chen: “Historical performance and early music can only thrive on a healthy economy of artistic labor.”

Note: This piece was originally conceived as a conference paper in 2019. Joyce had been working on it for many months, and it was coincidentally due to be published this spring; little did we know just how apropos the timing of such an important piece would be. The examples used here are mostly from East Asia, but the original research was more extensive and included other parts of Asia. We support and value Joyce’s opinion, and welcome the difficult conversations that emerge. We invite you to read the statement from Early Music America on Discrimination Against Asian-Identifying Musicians.

OPINION — I made my international debut as a solo harpsichordist at the Musica Antiqua Festival and Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium, in 2018. Despite not progressing far in the competition, I had hoped for constructive feedback from the judges. I was therefore surprised when one juror praised my playing by saying that I “do not sound like a typical Asian harpsichordist, because [I was] such an interesting player.” Then the judge went on to ask me about my “cultural and musical backgrounds,” even though Taiwan/USA was clearly listed next to my name on the program. The judge was apparently confused because the quality of my performance contradicted their preconceived ideas about how I should have played, based on my nationality and physical appearance.

This is but one example of the kind of prejudice and insensitivity that I and many colleagues have long experienced in the field of historical performance. This may seem counterintuitive, given the progressive tendencies of the early music movement. But fundamental attitudes, such as an anti-establishment approach and emphasis on individualism, have created a tight and closed circle of musicians, many close-minded and self-righteous, who — in their efforts to attain a kind of ideal music making — do not welcome any other voices or representation outside of the norm (being primarily white, European-trained). Drawing both upon my own professional experience in the field of music, extensive interviews, and sociological approaches to understanding cultural capital, my research shows that there is an imbalanced, circular relationship between Western and Asian HIP communities, exacerbated by a persistent tension between modern sensibilities and century-old musical practices.

Cultural and Social Capital Required for Success in HIP

The measure of success that I and my colleagues might achieve in the field of early music is measured in terms of what is referred to by sociologists as cultural and social capital. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu provides a particularly useful framework for understanding these phenomena: Cultural capital is a symbolic element that is not materialized but can be acquired through the style of speech, mannerism, or knowledge. Cultural capital can be divided further into three main categories:

(1) Embodied cultural capital as the knowledge and way of thinking that can be acquired through either actively imitating, learning, or passively inheriting as a result of being exposed to another culture. The mastery of a foreign language is an example of linguistic cultural capital.

(2) Objectified cultural capital includes materialized objects such as specific brands of clothing. I would argue that the HIP industry can be seen as a commodity, and thus, going to a HIP concert by white performers can be viewed as an objectified cultural capital in Asia.

(3) Institutionalized cultural capital. This is highly relevant in the context of academic degrees and diplomas, which attribute to the overall prejudices to different schools of training, especially in Asia and Europe.

Social capital also plays a central role in making a musician appear more desirable for hiring and collaboration. I vividly recall how some HIP teachers dismissed concerns about weaker players: “Oh, I’m not worried about X because (s)he is the kind of person that musicians would want to hang out with.” The implication is that their white students would be hired primarily because of social connections and their ability to blend into the existing framework. A first-generation immigrant or an international student who does not have the requisite social or cultural capital must work that much harder just to earn a chance to succeed.

Asian Cultural Upbringing as Diversity Barrier

In most Asian cultures, obedience 聽話/従順な and hard work 努力are highly valued. In modern orchestras, one finds many Asian female string players, as they have acquired extraordinary technique, follow directions well, and in general have great work ethics. However, proportionally there are few Asian soloists, since the Western, white soloists are typically valued for their showmanship and individuality. The early music movement from the 1960s partially emerged as a reaction against mainstream classical music in which HIP musicians constantly looked for new, creative ways of interpreting and playing music. In this insular world, creativity and personal branding trump virtuosity. Thus, Asian musicians may attain a high level of virtuosity but seem to lack expressivity or authenticity. In short, the seemingly positive cultural elements of obedience and hard work that have been positive for Asian musicians in other contexts are often disadvantages in the HIP world.

Members of the Gleam Ensemble Taiwan: Shio Ohshita, Yi Chang Liang, Martin Chiang, Duan-Ting Chang, and Wei Wang

Other Asian cultural traits include the desire to avoid trouble or confrontation, or even the inability or unwillingness  to acknowledge mistreatment. (Chinese even has the specific term 逆來順受for this phenomenon.) Some of the people I interviewed for a conference version of this article blame their musical abilities, rather than discrimination, and many are uncomfortable talking about race at all. In Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White (2002), Frank Wu notes that there’s no universal pan-Asian identity, but rather people share a sense of identity because of similar experiences they have encountered as minorities in the West.

Asian HIP Practitioners’ Experience in the West

How might these prejudices manifest themselves? Sometimes language is the culprit. Teachers have endless patience with European students whose English is weak but have difficulty engaging with Asian students who might have better comprehension of English than their speaking abilities suggest. I saw this firsthand in a master class with Japanese students when the teacher turned to me and said, “Could you please go speak Asian” to them? The laughter the teacher subsequently shared with the other students revealed their lack of tolerance. In other instances, Asian students can easily feel intimidated when they are told they must learn additional European languages to understand either primary literature on performance practice or performing instructions on facsimiles. Thus, the assumed embodied cultural capital for HIP musicians creates additional hurdles and alienation.

Racial and stereotypical prejudices are apparent within the professional environment that relies primarily upon freelance gigging and part-time teaching positions at colleges, visa and immigration status aside. There is a lack of institutionalized organizations to facilitate and champion social mobility and racial diversity and an overreliance on social capital whereby HIP teachers provide more opportunities for their American/white students, creating further disadvantage for Asian and minority students who are culturally conditioned to avoid self-promotion.

Training and Diversity?

Asian HIP musicians must also battle institutionalized cultural capital, namely the sense that legitimate training — the ticket to enter the exclusive HIP club — could only come from a select group of European conservatories and teachers, with only a limited number of American institutions (such as Juilliard) gaining acceptance recently. However, in the wake of affirmative action and activism on anti-racism and diversity, BIPOC musicians and students still face implicit prejudices, as they doubt whether the admission decision has to do with their qualifications or the fact that they stand out as a racial and cultural minority. Educational environments in the West may appear to be welcoming, but the number of Asian students who end up getting opportunities remains extremely limited.

One way to address this problem has been to institute blind auditions and competitions, where Asian HIP musicians have done relatively well. However, the acousmatic, pure listening assessment is criticized by many HIP musicians/teachers, as this audio-only critique is too similar to the mainstream classical music audition and hiring process, since individual aura and performative showmanship are unseen in a blind competition. Nevertheless, I believe that Asian HIP musicians can benefit from winning or placing in a competition as a way for them to be recognized in either their home countries or other countries in Asia.

Emerging HIP Centers in Asia with Emerging Problems

There are vibrant HIP scenes in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, with more early music concerts, ensembles, and orchestras in the last decade, many supported by annual grants from national endowments. However, many soloist and leadership positions are taken up by white performers from the West (typically European), with relatively few (in some cases less than 20%) native players. This idolization of European musicians tends to defeat the goal of making early music not only accessible to the public, but also fostering the skills of the next generation of Asian artists.

Formosa Baroque

Marketing tools often exacerbate this (mis)representation of historical performance. Posters and social media posts often include sensational titles, such as “…come hear XXX player, who is the French ‘national treasure’ and would bring the most authentic French baroque music…,” creating an illusion that the European Baroque lifestyle and aesthetics are attainable by attending these concerts performed by white performers. My research has uncovered numerous instances of unfair treatment to Asian HIP practitioners from Asian organizers, including drastically lower pay (such as ¼ of the normal amount for white performers), minimal exposure, and missing acknowledgement of the performers on posters and even programs.

Sometimes even a choice of a catchy name — done innocently — may have darker implications than the performers had anticipated. For example, Formosa Baroque is a pioneering early music ensemble that has brought many phenomenal musicians together to perform in Taiwan. The term Formosa — which means “a beautiful island” in Portuguese — was originally a colonial name for Taiwan during the 17th century. Thus, unwittingly, these Asian musicians once again became colonized, passive recipients of imported knowledge and expertise, essentially choosing to be secondary citizens and artists.


As we have seen, stereotypical prejudices against Asian HIP musicians due to alleged language and cultural barriers have resulted in their marginalization in the United States and Europe, while in Asia the veneration of generally white musicians has further mystified Western early music and historical performance for Eastern practitioners. The resultant sense of superiority and ownership of the early music Western musician thus impedes the promotion of people of color as independent performers and educators. By recognizing this circular relationship, we — the future HIP community — can improve both the educational and professional environments for Asian musicians in the West and, more broadly, people of color.

How might we do this? In addition to grappling with racial, social, and cultural inequities, we also need to make HIP accessible to broader demographic and socioeconomic classes. Richard Stone, co-director of Tempesta Di Mare, advocates for accessibility of early music by providing free, low-cost tickets to students through college and other low-income groups, though they would likely attract a broader audience if there were more successful HIP minority musicians for the next generation to emulate. Arreon Harley-Emerson, who directs the Choir School of Delaware, advocates for diversified pedagogical approaches to historical performance, proposing, for example, to use hip hop to understand Bach cantatas: He and his colleagues teach these kids — who are often musically illiterate — to recognize the imitation patterns and create bodily rhythm that help them memorize the music kinesthetically.


As I looked back at some of my journal entries from previous years, I noticed how often I wrote about the impossibility of realizing a career in Historical Performance as a minority. I urge the HIP communities in Asia to value their own artists and musicians. Historical performance and early music can only thrive on a healthy economy of artistic labor. The current insularity that creates a larger white, European circle is in fact limiting the artistic potential of HIP. A more diversified musical community will bring fresh artistic ideas and opportunities to look at this music from different perspectives, rather than imitating one or two schools of thought. I look forward to a future in which we can join together to affect the kind of radical changes that will only make the historical performance community stronger, fairer, more diversified, and more artistically vibrant.

A native of Taiwan, Joyce Chen is a Ph.D. candidate in Historical Musicology at Princeton University, working on her dissertation, “Musica Experientia/Experimentum: Acoustics, Aesthetics, and Artisanal Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century Europe,” with Wendy Heller. Chen holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in harpsichord performance from Stony Brook University and a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from UC Berkeley. She has studied harpsichord with Charlene Brendler, Arthur Haas, and Davitt Moroney.

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