[Smt-talk] Theory of "Intercultural" Composition

Ildar Khannanov solfeggio7 at yahoo.com
Mon Apr 27 08:55:49 PDT 2009

Dear Daniel,
a remarkable discourse on cultural diversity of music! Thank you!
Of course, that "we are solving it" is an exaggeration. However, inside Russian context, it is a positive trend to start noticing 200 representatives of the Other (there are 200 ethnic groups in RF).
And, as Victor Grauer mentioned in his posting, the West has to be redefined first, before mixing it with the rest of the global world. From the theory paths on this list, I have discovered that although everybody seems to agree that "Viennese" theory rules, most of the concepts (cadence, conterpoint, harmony, chord, dissonance, motive, tonality, etc.) come from Italian and French treatises, from Tartini, Padre Martini, Zarlino, Rameau. Is not this strange? 
Ildar Khannanov
Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University
solfeggio7 at yahoo.com

--- On Sun, 4/26/09, Daniel Wolf <djwolf at snafu.de> wrote:

From: Daniel Wolf <djwolf at snafu.de>
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Theory of "Intercultural" Composition
To: "smt-talk Talk" <smt-talk at societymusictheory.org>
Date: Sunday, April 26, 2009, 10:40 AM

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

> 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
Smt-talk mailing list
Smt-talk at societymusictheory.org

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