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West Meets East (Again): A Defense of the New Orientalism

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  • Paksoy, Hb
    West Meets East (Again): A Defense of the New Orientalism Paul Mitchinson ANDANTE 26 September 2002 With Asian music and culture on display in concert halls
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 26, 2002
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      West Meets East (Again): A Defense of the New Orientalism
      Paul Mitchinson
      26 September 2002

      With Asian music and culture on display in
      concert halls across North America, some critics are
      grumbling about the dangers of cultural appropriation,
      but Paul Mitchinson says just relax ? and enjoy the
      show. In the past decade, Asian music and culture
      has spread throughout the West like poppies. Yo-Yo
      Ma's nomadic Silk Road Ensemble
      <http://www.silkroadproject.org> has been encamped
      near the top of the Billboard charts for over three
      months now, and its concerts sell out regularly. Paris
      and New York have staged historic performances of the
      ancient Persian religious drama, the Ta'ziyeh .
      Meanwhile, composers from Bright Sheng to Terry Riley
      have been weaving Eastern idioms into the tapestry of
      their Western-produced scores. One of the most
      spectacular products of this impulse was Ang Lee's
      2000 film-epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which
      used a shimmering soundtrack by Tan Dun as a backdrop
      for its gravity-defying martial-arts sequences. But
      that grumbling you hear isn't just the sound of Tuvan
      throat singers. Some in the West have complained that
      the exotic trappings of the Silk Road Project have
      obscured what is essentially a commercial vehicle for
      a Western celebrity performer. In the New York Times,
      John Rockwell suggested that Silk Road Ensemble
      audiences were being treated like "imperialist
      wanderer[s] in a field of gorgeous but mystifying
      blossoms." The Ta'ziyeh has provoked similar
      objections. Edward Rothstein worried that the work has
      been completely decontextualized in its Western
      performances, and that the result was merely
      "undistinguished melodramas spiced by intriguing
      melismas and mediocre town-band-style accompaniments."
      According to Hamid Dabashi, chair of the Middle
      Eastern and Asian languages and cultures department at
      Columbia University, the Ta'ziyeh had been
      "theaterized, stylized, orientalized, anthropologized
      and ultimately museumized." These are troublingly
      familiar charges. Orientalism, imperialism and
      cultural appropriation have long been recognized as
      Very Bad (Western) Things. Edward Said, the
      Palestinian-American activist and classical music
      critic for The Nation, has famously condemned Western
      "Orientalism," which he describes as a "Western style
      for dominating, restructuring, and having authority"
      over the East. Colonial rule was often "justified in
      advance by Orientalism," which provided a critical
      tool for the spread of Western imperial power. And
      included in Said's indictment are paintings, novels
      and operas, many of which "lent support to the global
      enterprises of European and American empire." Even the
      New Grove Dictionary now concedes that
      nineteenth-century operas often reflected the West's
      "colonialist and male-dominated outlook." It's enough
      to make you wonder: is our current fascination with
      Asia simply perpetuating a pattern of imperialist
      exploitation? Before you throw away those tickets to
      Madama Butterfly (and cancel that pre-concert meal at
      Wagamama), you might want to consider one episode in
      the history of musical "Orientalism." Three centuries
      ago, Europe was obsessed with "Turkish" music. Ottoman
      ambassadors visiting Europe often brought along their
      own ceremonial bands called mehter. The musicians blew
      piercing wind instruments, crashed cymbals and
      triangles, and most dramatically, thumped on an
      enormous bass drum. For those accustomed to the more
      refined sound of European court orchestras, the effect
      was thrilling. Before long, Turkish fashion swept
      European capitals. Many European courts employed their
      own mehter, and Western music underwent subtle (and
      not so subtle) changes. The piccolo grew in orchestral
      prominence, while fortepianos came accessorized with
      pedals that could operate "Turkish" cymbals or bells.
      The Turks, meanwhile, did some cultural appropriation
      of their own, abandoning their straight trumpets for
      the looped-tube variety invented in Europe. "Alla
      turca" music became the rage. Mozart's 1782 opera, The
      Abduction from the Seraglio, is one of the best-known
      examples, though countless symphonies and sonatas of
      the time were also embellished with "Turkish" themes
      or movements. By the time of Beethoven,
      experimentation with Turkish instruments hardly raised
      an eyebrow ? they had been swallowed up in the
      standard European orchestra. When was the last time
      you heard the ecstatic finale of Beethoven's Ninth,
      and identified the section with bass drum, triangles
      and cymbals as a "Turkish" march? There's much to
      celebrate in this story. Both cultures were enriched
      by their encounter, both were changed, both were
      "guilty" of cultural appropriation. Cultural
      promiscuity is almost always a profoundly creative
      act. Music and the arts thrive when they open
      themselves up to foreign influences. When they remain
      insulated and protected, they often become fossilized
      rituals devoid of emotional relevance. Of course,
      other examples of musical "Orientalism" can be more
      troubling. Madama Butterfly might be a tragic love
      story set to exquisite music, but the fact that it
      quotes a dozen authentic Japanese folk melodies, and
      is orchestrated with tubular bells, a glockenspiel and
      a tam tam, does not make it a reliable guide to
      Japanese culture. Butterfly's plot exemplifies the
      narrative conventions of Western operatic exoticism,
      as capably sketched by Ralph Locke: Young, tolerant,
      brave, possibly naive, white-European tenor-hero
      intrudes, at risk of disloyalty to his own people and
      colonialist ethic, into mysterious, dark-skinned,
      colonised territory represented by alluring dancing
      girls and deeply affectionate, sensitive lyric
      soprano, incurring wrath of brutal, intransigent
      tribal chieftain (bass or bass-baritone) and blindly
      obedient chorus of male savages. On the other hand,
      those who have condemned such operas as ideological
      weapons in the service of Western political hegemony
      miss a larger point. Butterfly's world premiere at La
      Scala took place in February 1904 ? one week after
      Japanese torpedo boats launched a surprise attack on
      the Russian navy in Manchuria. By the following year,
      Japan had annihilated two Russian fleets, setting in
      motion events that would lead to the downfall of the
      Russian empire, and the decolonization of the Far East
      over the course of the twentieth century. In other
      words, if Madama Butterfly was an Orientalist weapon
      for dominating and having authority over Asia, it
      proved about as effective as a squirt gun. Bullets and
      bayonets ? not Japanese bells ? are the true weapons
      of imperialism. Which is why it's worth remembering
      that cultural appropriation is a much broader, and
      less alarming, phenomenon than many theorists of
      "Orientalism" would have you believe. Butterfly is
      regularly denounced for its cartoonish stereotypes of
      Japanese culture. But Puccini's Girl of the Golden
      West, which performs similar offences against American
      culture, earns only indulgent smiles. Similarly, Aaron
      Copland's bold acts of cultural appropriation are
      universally admired ? even though they're rarely
      recognized as such. Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, and The
      Tender Land have become iconic musical works embodying
      the traditional values of the American heartland ?
      despite being written by a gay, socialist,
      Brooklyn-born Jew. And Copland's own music was
      brilliantly "re-appropriated" in 1998 by the
      African-American film director Spike Lee. In He Got
      Game, Lee created a moving tribute to urban black
      culture (and to basketball, its unofficial sport) with
      the help of Copland's soaring music. This tangle of
      appropriations might be one reason why music is often
      misleadingly called a "universal language." The
      organizers of recent performances of Asian music have
      certainly tried to present their concerts in such a
      light. Ma has stated
      that by "listening to and learning from the voices of
      an authentic musical tradition, we become increasingly
      able to advocate for the worlds they represent. . . .
      We discover transnational voices that belong to one
      world." That's a worthy goal, to be sure, though it's
      difficult to conceive how music can promote the kind
      of understanding that makes effective "advocacy"
      possible. Maybe it's better to keep things simple, and
      to think about what musicians throughout the centuries
      (in both East and West) have asked themselves when
      faced with the unusual or exotic: how can we use it? A
      sure sign that art is speaking to us is if we also
      want to speak through it. In that respect, perhaps the
      Ta'ziyeh is simply too strange for us, or doesn't
      answer a need in the West's political or artistic
      conscience. We are uneasy about glorifying martyrdom,
      suspicious of mass emotion. Or perhaps the Ta'ziyeh
      simply needs better salesmanship: the Silk Road
      Project benefits from the leadership of Yo-Yo Ma, one
      of the greatest cultural tour guides in history. The
      Project's enormous commercial and artistic success
      suggests a deep resonance with its Western audience.
      What is the West getting out of its encounter with
      Asian music? One hint can be found in David Brooks'
      Bobos in Paradise, a merciless dissection of the
      West's new upper class of "bourgeois bohemians."
      Bobos, writes Brooks, try to "get away from their
      affluent, ascending selves into a spiritually superior
      world." They relish "People Who Really Know How to
      Live ? people who make folk crafts, tell folk tales,
      do folk dances, listen to folk music." This is gentle
      mockery, but it also illuminates a basic truth.
      Cultures need to evolve in order to thrive, and
      outside influences often contribute fresh and
      necessary ways of thinking or expression. In this
      respect, Asian music, which has captivated, inspired,
      and changed Europe and North America for centuries,
      has now become as essential a part of Western culture
      as the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven. Maybe it's
      time to stop feeling guilty about it. If you would
      like to respond to this essay, please write to
      letters@... <mailto:letters@...>.
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