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Christopher W. Chase
- Published on Amazon.com
Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh have edited an impressive volume, "Western Music and its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music." Distinguished by its multipart and very dense Introduction, the work seeks to serve as a literature review and signpost for those interested in sources and hidden centers in both western art and popular music.
The volume's essays, including many by long-standing cultural music scholars such as Richard Middleton, Simon Frith, and Philip Bohlman, seek several main goals. First, to apply portions of Orientatlist and Postcolonial theory to art and popular musics, seeking to identify in the traditions the twin poles of how Western ideology has traditionally sought the "Other"---as Same (assimilation), or as absolute Difference (projection). To this end a historical approach is used by several contributors. Second, to examine points of rupture, such as between subaltern musics, Western Modernist Art Music (like Schoenberg) and Experimental music (such as John Cage) for ways in which autonomy and difference from each other's traditions was demonstrated and non-Western music's role to that end. Third, this volumes seeks to at least temporarily collapse the distinction between Art and Popular music, so that questions about representation can be asked with regard to how both these music treat each other and other Others with regard to issues such as essentialisms, nationalisms, and race, within a global capitalist context.
While essays on the art music tradition were helpful, I found that Middleton, Frith, and John Corbett's essays to be of the most important, so I'll spend most of my time there. Middleton is concerned with combining postcolonial critiques of assimilating and projecting the Other with a psychoanalytic cultural role for the Imaginary (the realm of repressed forbidden denied desires). At the same time, he identifies two strategies of resistance -- subaltern musics showing mastery of form by signifying of projections, and also deformation of mastery by constructing alien spaces against assimilation.
Bartok, Mozart, musical blackface in Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," and others undergo this treatment. Even projections like Duke Ellington's 1929 "Japanese Dream," "Arabian Lover," and his "jungle-band" tongue-in -cheek work "Diga-Diga-Doo" at Harlem's Cotton Club are analyzed. Middleton then brings in African-American literary theory to point out how black artists such as Ellington and Ladysmith Black Mambazo take these representations of the Other and Signify on them for their own uses and agendas. Moreover, he notes Abraham Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) 's work which uses South African popular styles and European musical cliches to construct a space of multivalent open-endedness out of European closure. In this way. Middleton contends that while music can never authentically belong to us (it resists a final interpretation) we can make ourselves at home in it through these sorts of processes.
John Corbett's contribution misses not a beat, recognizing that Orientalist forms have long since been reappropriated and redeployed again and again. Seeking some underdetermined sense of how this has operated in the Experimental Music tradition, Corbett focuses on John Cage, who in his mind began with an inventive, scientific, and indeterminate approach, seeking to free sounds from socio-political concerns. Not sure I buy this interpretation, especially when the "irrationalist" Cage, by Corbett's own admission, and widely held knowledge, read freely among Buddhist and Indian philosophies, the contemporary Esotericism of Aldous Huxley's "The Perennial Philosophy," the nature writings of Thoreau and the anti-modernist works of Duchamp. When Corbett morphs this experimentation into a explorationist, conquering colonialist trope, he may be right--but it is more due to the study of Zen koans rather than any methodological scientific functionalism. While notable for its scope. Corbett is sometimes caught in the authenticity game he accuses others of playing--as when he approves of using "world musics" as inspiration for an artist to make "his own music."
Thankfully he sees that Cage used Other musics to disrupt Western musical preoccupations, more than for their "exotic" appeal, as did Steve Reich and others who sought inspiration rather than imitation. When Corbett tackles Brian Eno and Jon Hassell, he is more successful in framing the power politics of Jon Hassell's utopian Fourth World, an imaginary space where musics can freely intermix and national boundaries dissolve. For Corbett Hassell and Eno are merely imitators. His attempt to deconstruct Eno and Byrne's "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts", however is a failure, as the record's direct quotation of recorded sources approaches Signification rather then Orientalist exoticism. Corbett is reductive, attempting to place the "exotic... echoey" someplace. Except that isn't particularly sounding like anyplace else or any combination thereof, certainly not an "Oriental" space in the Edward Said sense.
If you can't trace where the Orientalism is from, then you should start to at least suspect that it actually might not be there. Otherwise, your interpretive analysis sounds like little more than an article of faith. And that really is the key here. Corbett, as an article of faith, is unmovably pessimistic about the possibility of any cross-cultural inquiry under any circumstances, as opposed to say works of 'surreal anthropology,' as well as Victor Turner, James Clifford, George Marcus, and David Toop. By the time he gets to John Zorn, who actively supports and finances the release of indigenous musics, he's lost his steam. By taking liner notes out of context and holding Zorn and New Albion Records to a standard of unrealistic verbal expression in order to avoid the charge of Orientalism--well, its just not credible any longer.
David Hesmondhalgh's essay explores the politics of appropriating sections of indigenous sounds as backing vocals and possible unity chants for foregrounded Western vocals, along with dance pulses, tabla-playing, and other elements of transglobal dance hall music. Hesmondhalgh correctly recognizes that the "world music" wave of the 80's was derided in the music press for its concern with "authenticity," but suggests that the same politics are at work in music that deliberately cultivates playful pastiche in the 90's as well. Hesmondhalgh is not the first to take sampling by artists such as Peter Gabriel to task for musical "borrowings" (Timothy Taylor, in particular, devotes extensive time to it). Nor is he the only one to point out the ethical problems that arise when artists sampled are not or cannot be paid. But he is notable for ethically accepting the role of live musicians to be used in recordings, rather than samples. Some have argued that any representation of "ethnic" music, even when credited and paid for, is still something of a postcolonial crime--the prime example being Paul Simon and his albums Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. Yet at the same time Hesmondhalgh questions the notion of racial ownership, even via the shared experience of hegemony. So its unclear that any use or ground would be legitimate. D.H. just isn't consistent on this issue of whether musical hybridity is morally justifiable or not.
Frith's contribution (along with Middleton's) is the most satisfying one--as he unpacks the myth of "World Music" marketing in the late 1980's and 1990's-which was inextricably wound with concerns over marketing, commericial appeal, and perhaps most of all, authenticity. In fact, the recruitment of ethnomusicologists as field researchers and respondants for World music field guides placed the question of agency, gatekeeping, and cultural imperialism at the very center of the category. But the question runs both ways, as indigenous musicians appropriated Western musics for their own agency and power as well. This hybridity, for Frith, is the sound of the "Global Postmodern," with internal contradictions, power struggles, and politics in every direction, from accomodation to resistance to appropriation. Even as the boundaries of West and not-West are reproduced and maintained though, the question of authenticity remains. Are "world musicians" the only ones capable of playing these musics authentically (as Timothy Taylor maintains), or does that too simply reproduce the Other as absolute difference between "authentic" and "inauthentic"?