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Encounters with music (rather than musicians) of other traditions have been momentous, even decisive, for European concert music of the last hundred years or so. The years between 1890 and 1930, when composing in the Western context changed its character so decisively that many classical music audiences even today draw the line at anything written after Brahms, and regard musical inventions made after 1900 as incomprehensibly alien and perverse, these same years also saw the first encounters of composers with the many musical traditions present in Europe’s far-flung colonies and dominions. Even then, such encounters were mostly mediated by both the imperial universal exhibitions and world fairs, as well as by the newly invented phonograph. While it certainly is not a simple case of coincidence equalling correlation, it could be interesting to contemplate the possibility that the musical avant-gardes of the 20th century derived a large part of their transformative energy from the exhilarating shock to their musical sensibility that the encounter with these other musics brought with them. As composers were faced with tangible, living evidence that fully developed musical traditions with completely different music theories and aesthetics actually existed “out there,” they came to understand that a completely different kind of musique savante was not just a fictional possibility. If it was true that other communities could listen to and enjoy music that could not even remotely be explained by European music theory, what else could be possible in music?
It must be pointed out that such encounters fell on fertile ground: European musicking has always been the result of deeply syncretic and hybrid processes — one could almost posit its readiness to absorb other musical ideas, aesthetics and techniques as one of its defining characteristics. European music has always been quite a multi-cultural affair — just consider how French, Italian and German styles (and occasional Turkish Janissary band music…) fused to form what we think of as “Western art music”. 1 European-style concert music has always been the result of absorption and hybridization of traditions, whether inwards (think of 19th century “nationalist” composers who embraced the folk musics of their homelands), or outwards, (e.g. Dvořák’s embrace of Native American music or, Gilles Tremblay’s and other Quebec contemporaries’ encounter with gamelan, as described by Jonathan Goldman in this issue). In a way, Europe’s concert music enacted its own expansion into the first truly global music tradition through its internal logic of continual appropriation and adaptation of other traditions—not necessarily in step with, but in all kinds of ways backed by its widening colonial ambitions, which found its most material realization in the contemporary symphony orchestra that includes so many instruments of non-European origin. 2 In light of this fact, it is disturbing to hear the current occupant of the White House, in a speech given in Warsaw on 6 July 2017, assert that “We write symphonies” as if this were an essentialist marker that distinguishes “The West” from “The Rest” — and not one more example of Western culture’s identity-agnostic syncretism. 3
If the logic of Western music has been the continual absorption and hybridization of traditions, many other traditions positioned themselves in conscious opposition to such perceived aesthetic gluttony. Part cultural defence, part commercial commodification, throughout the 20th century musical traditions beyond the West have tended to play up their musical/cultural identity as a distinct alternative to Western music. While eurological composers until the late 1960s had primarily used the theories and sounds of non-Eurological musical traditions as a catalyst for new musical languages, and had paid scarce attention to the musicians and the social context of these musical systems, new post-colonial sensibilities on both sides immediately took to this identitarian concept of traditional music. Listening to musicians and music from such non-eurological traditions became an important aspect of European and North American counterculture, an audible marker of discontent with the musical establishment: they effectively became the significant Others of Western Music. 4 Of course, this role played by the musics of these Others, namely, to serve as an aesthetic counter-model in the Western imaginary, meant that they needed to be protected from “contamination” by contemporary Western musical thought, theory and practice: the dichotomy could only work with “clean” opposites. Hence, the intellectual needs of Western music dissenters could only be met by so-called “authentic” traditions that were somehow also exempt from Western-style aesthetic historicity. No wonder Asian music traditions in particular were often declared to be living examples of music that was older than historical time. In Asia, in turn, many recently liberated communities welcomed such a flattering invitation to assert their cultural precedence over their erstwhile colonizers. Both sides thus colluded in a strange division of the world into a continually forward moving eurological music scene — and, authentic, eternal, static other traditions.
At the same time, the ever-growing presence of non-Western musicians on Western stages, and Western musicians touring in other countries over the course of the 20th century created opportunities for musicians to interact with each other directly, without any need for theory or mediation through mechanical reproduction. The later twentieth century saw many such attempts to bring musicians from different cultural traditions to play together in the spirit of well-meaning cultural exchange. 5 Most of these encounters have been disappointing from the musical standpoint, to say the least. The overwhelming majority of intercultural musical encounters to this day, if they are not just eurological compositions that use the sound of non-Western instruments without any regard for the musical tradition of their origins, rely on largely naïve “jamming”—the musical equivalent of a friendly handshake with no consequences attached. No wonder, then, that these projects often content themselves with simplistic and threadbare structural, dramaturgical, sonic and conceptual architectures — and mostly subscribe to a pseudo-egalitarian aesthetic universalism that tends to gloss over or even actively negate serious differences and power differentials between the musicians’ musical intentionalities, possibilities and social contexts. Consider, as an example, the fact that such a collaboration usually enhances the career portfolio of the Western musicians involved, whereas it tends to have neutral or even negative repercussions for the reputations of any participating non-Western musicians among their “community” peers—especially if they come from traditions that either subscribe to identitarian self-definition 6 —or just historically ascribe less intrinsic aesthetic and moral value to newness, experimentation or exploration than the euro-logical tradition does. Critics, musicologists, peer musicians and composers in all participating music contexts have often been skeptical towards these attempts at inter-traditional music making. They usually deem them musically and aesthetically unsatisfactory, mainly because such encounters, even though more equitable in their impact on reputation, appear to be framed by musically eurological agendas: the musicians of other world traditions are seen to surrender or pander to the “classical” and exoticist tastes of Western concert audiences, with scarcely any changes demanded from the orchestra in such matters as tuning, rule-based improvisation, audience placement, music dramaturgy, social setting, etc.
Composer and Canada Research Chair in Inter-X Arts Sandeep Bhagwati’s “Re-Assembling Musical Extracts” (fqrsc funded, 2014-2017) sought to re-think the aesthetics of what he calls “intertraditional” encounters 7 by working with two collaborative projects of co-creation, one with a group of performers from multiple musical traditions based in Berlin and another in Montréal, both ensembles being peopled by youngish urban musicians comfortable in learned and improvised, western and non-western traditions. The starting point for this issue of Circuit is this Re-Assembling Extracts project, and the Enquête section of this issue studies the dynamics of both musical groups through participatory observation and semi-directed interviews conducted by Deniza Popova and Julie Delisle.
Of course, Ensemble Extrakte (Berlin), the Montréal ensemble, the latest crop of European intercultural orchestras described by Katja Heldt in this issue and by a leading practitioner of the genre, Stefan Östersjö, artistic director of the Swedish intercultural ensemble The Six Tones, as well as the growing number of Canadian ones described here by Jeremy Strachan, are exercises in hybridity, and as such carry all of the well-known risks associated with hybrid forms, particularly those that touch contemporary geopolitics and the legacy of colonialism. True, some post-colonial theorists, most prominently Homi Bhabha, have celebrated hybridity as a positive value through what he terms a “third-space” that “enables other positions to emerge” by displacing “the histories that constitute it, and set (ting) up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom.” For Bhabha, “The process of cultural hybridity gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognisable, a new area of meaning and representation.” 8 At the same time, many or most contemporary scholars of hybridity are wary of the potential pitfalls of artistic projects predicated on intercultural hybridity. Sarah Weiss, for example, voices this concern in describing stage director Robert Wilson’s production I La Galigo, inspired by the legends of the Bugis people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia: “Depending on one’s perspective, the production […] can be seen as […] an extension of the Western colonial process; a symbolic ripping off of Bugis culture by Indonesians and ‘the West’; a dumbing-down of a complex Bugis story; an authentic representation of aspects of Bugis culture; a vivid example of the possibilities and potential of intercultural exchange on multiple levels.” 9 This unease is voiced in many of the contributions that make up the 2016 volume The Routledge International Handbook of Intercultural Arts Research (Pamela Burnard, Elizabeth Mackinlay and Kimberly Powell, eds.). It is not inconceivable that each of these judgments can be true at the same time, but flattening the nuanced contours of artistic interculturality into a bivalenced value judgment, and thereby silencing the scholarly conversation that can only begin once the nature of the project is adequately understood and therefore researched, is inimical to the goals of this special issue of Circuit.
Of course, the hybridization model in the form it has taken in many intercultural musical projects in the 20th century doesn’t succeed in transcending nationalism, it actually reinforces it, because always based on one culture’s music blending with another, an essence X and an essence Y. It is unsurprising in this regard to observe the depressingly stubborn persistence of categories rooted in the model of nation-states that still infuse the discourse and the decision-making of art music administrators and artistic directors (whether participants in contemporary composer workshops being classified by country of origin, or philharmonic concerts titled “Le destin slave”). In light of this, Jin-Ah Kim offers a particularly timely appraisal of the ways composer Sandeep Bhagwati approaches intertraditional music, through his longstanding exploration of “comprovisation,” a hybrid form in its own right, one that blurs the line between score-based composition and improvisation.
Inevitably, the contributors to this issue pose more questions than they answer, but even if they succeed in offering a modest glimpse of what is “out there,” we will have succeeded in moving the conversation about contemporary musical création in a new and, it may be hoped, fruitful direction.
Montréal, December 2017