Multiculturalism and Play: Lessons from the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra

12/16/2010 04:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Sunday, Nov. 28 the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra premiered a series of new works by composers focused on inter-cultural music. All of the works were incredible and all of them had a deep sense of play -- not just in musicians playing instruments but also in the sense of play the composers/conductors showed in presenting their works and the sense of play and obvious joy shared by the musicians on stage.

It is to this notion of play I want to turn. Too often our notions of inter-cultural relations and pluralism starts with a default assumption of the white, Christian middle class -- the WASP -- coming to accept their diverse, brown, Muslim and Jewish neighbors as being part of the community. We recognize and welcome the other as a form of removing barriers between people and communities.

The problem of beginning the conversation of inter-cultural conversation and community with a notion of an other is that we must become reconciled with is that it assumes that the default white, Christian middle class culture is the standard by which otherness must be measured. To do this, what more often than not happens is that the WASP culture wants them to stop segregating themselves and acting apart from mainstream North American culture but fails to recognize that we ourselves have never made any real strides to be welcoming. Growing up in the American south I heard many foreigners referred to as bad or good depending to the extent by which they had begun to mimic and mirror the middle class lifestyle, by the extent that they began to look and act like use.

But what if the WASP culture began by identifying its own biases and assumptions, namely around where and how power is constructed and how we decide on what is and is not normative? What is required instead of an other is a partner in play. Play requires that the participants remain who they are truly and deeply but also imaginatively engage in the construction of a shared space.

This, it seems to me is what the Inter-Cultural Orchestra was hinting at and is the task that is before all of us. Multiculturalism will only happen when we stop talking about the other as one we must be conformed to or who must conform to us and instead welcome the neighbor as one we can play with as partners in mutual discovery. For the more conservative among us, this will lead to fear -- fear of them and how they will change our culture, fear of practices and attitudes we do not share, etc. But play is less about preserving the past but more about creating the future out of the materials and being of the assembled participants. Play requires a strong sense of the past as a form of opening into the future and its unnamed possibilities.

In their final piece of the night the orchestra performed a piece that was written in fragments. With the composer/conductors help they assembled the final composition on the fly with the composer/conductor indicating which section they were going to play by lifting a finger to cue the players. The inter-cultural aspect of this piece -- multiple instruments from multiple places of the world, each playing with its own voice but woven into a larger whole, each unique but participatory -- was rooted in play. May we all begin to play together in order to make the world a more beautiful place.