[Smt-talk] Theory of "Intercultural" Composition

Daniel Wolf djwolf at snafu.de
Sun Apr 26 08:40:33 PDT 2009

On Fri, 24 Apr 2009 20:17:55 +0200, Ildar Khannanov <solfeggio7 at yahoo.com>  

> Yes, I agree, then, with Fyodor, there have been some problems with the  
> transcultural music and musicology and we are now solving them.

The nature of the "problem" needs to be specified a bit more, but, however  
specified and now putting on my ethnomusicologist hat, I'm highly  
skeptical that we should be talking easily about its solution!

To a certain extent, cross-cultural borrowing is so much a part of music  
making that one need hardly remark about it when encountered.   For J.S.  
Bach to reference French or Italian styles is one form of such norrowing,  
and Telemann's poularization of Polish dance forms was perhaps the  
earliest in an unbroken series of popular enthusiasms for musical exotica,  
including the rage for the Janissary style (itself including Turkish  
enthusiasms for African musical traditions) in the classical era.  (A very  
useful exercise is to read the earliest pan-European music histories, like  
Burney or Martini, as ethnomusicological records).  Henry Cowell's plea to  
UNESCO for "hybrid musics" was perhaps, ultimately, a realist position,  
recognizing that most musics are hybrids in origins.

(That said, it is important to distinguish between affinities for musics  
outside of ones own tradition and actual hybrids.  Debussy's positive  
impression of a gamelan (in all likelihood a madenda (western natural   
minor scale) instrument played by Sundanese musicians) receives notice in  
all manner of standard reference works and even in national music  
curriculae, and is often described as "influence", yet there is not a  
single example in the works of Debussy subsequent to the encounter  
evidencing a direct borrowing in terms of melody, rhythm, instrumentation  
or even, most broadly defined, texture from any known Sundanese or  
Javanese musical repertoire.  Debussy, based upon works he had already  
composed, had an affinity for gamelan, recognized similar tonal and  
textural concerns, but was not concretely influenced by the music.)

Our contemporary concerns, both technical/methodical and ethical are  
probably mostly intimately connected with the experience of nationalism in  
music.  The assertion of musical identity, and specifically an otherness  
with regard to highly esteemed traditions is naturally a sensitive  
issue.   What does it mean to take local "folk" materials and imbed them  
in the instrumentation, voice leading, forms and textures of the  
heretofore privileged "classical" styles of the previously hegemonic  
traditions?  Doesn't this simply preserve the position of power, prestige  
and modernity associated with the hegenomic traditions?  Alternatives  
viewpoints do come, however, in near parallel, in the early 20th century,  
with the French tendency to "frame" ethnic materials in such a way as to  
emphasize distance, with Bartok's clear initial position that folk musics  
were to be investigated as a direct material source of new musical ideas  
rather than as an expression of a particular national identity, and the  
more complex relationship to Russian materials used by Stravinsky (and so  
brilliantly treated by Taruskin).   (Another interesting approach was that  
of the Berlin-trained Japanese musicologist and physicist Tanaka Shohei,  
who attempted to derive a complete system of cadential voice leading based  
upon traditional Japanese tonal materials).

The present situation is even more complex, and particularly so due to the  
plasticity of musical materials available in recorded form.   Context,  
unless one is ethically committed to it, now may well mean nothing rather  
than everything.  Borders -- whether geographical, political,  
sacred/secular, serious/popular etc. --  are erased with the ease of copy  
and paste editing, not to mention mixing and montage.  Stockhausen's  
_Telemusic_ is perhaps the most thorough example of an assertion, both  
theoretical and practical, by a composer that any other music might be  
subsumed to his own.  This contrasts strongly with the approach of Cage in  
his _Roaratorio_ in which the music chosen was strictly on the basis of  
connection to the immediate project (not a larger theoretical scheme) and  
each of the participating musicians was involved voluntarily and received  
compensation for their participation.

This is a large and difficult topic and these notes are necessarily  
sketchy, but may I suggest an interesting, and music theory-intensive path  
into it?   What happens when we take the local theoretical and  
compositional traditions seriously before jumping into a project of  
synthesis with western classical musics, and what kind of charge does that  
seriousness bring to cross-cultural composition?   Marc Perlman's study of  
tonal theory and pratice in Central Javanese music is one example that  
theorists might usefully pay more attention and Michael Tenzer's  _Gamelan  
Gong Kebyar: The Art of Balinese Twentieth-Century Music_ likewise begins  
with the premise that the music practice in question has a sophisticated  
theoretical tradition, in this case more associated with orchestration.   
Building on Colin McPhee's landmark _The Music of Bali_, Tenzer raises  
profound issues about the nature of an orchestral music, both  
specifically, in Bali, and in general, the relationship between  
traditional and innovative materials, and the formal invention of Balinese  
composers in their orchestral works.  Tenzer, himself a composer, and many  
of his colleagues in the Balinese music scene (Wayne Vitale, Dieter Mack,  
Evan Ziporyn) have created a large number of innovative works, alone, and  
in cooperation with Balinese composer colleagues.  It's a very interesting  
and musically exciting scene and one less burdened by post-colonial or  
post-imperial relationships.

Daniel Wolf, PhD
composer, Frankfurt

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