Music appropriation or approbation?

Music appropriation or approbation? McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 7, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 12
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > March 7, 2002 > Music appropriation or approbation?

Music appropriation or approbation?

If music be the food of love, then we're eating a mixed salad these days.

A multiplicity of cultural influences is making its way into the mainstream. World music has proliferated -- a Canadian is as likely to listen to Tibetan chants as Andean pipes as Cape Breton fiddlers. Artists from multicultural backgrounds draw on their diverse roots and produce music that is as pluralistic as they are.

And the folk involved in MusiMarch, a festival of New Music held at McGill, discussed this transculturation of music in the festival's round table Monday night.

Composer and McGill music professor John Rea talked of métissage (a process of creating a new ethnicity when two other ethnicities come together), hybridization, transculture and assimilation.

When Pierre Boulez spoke out against cultural imperialism, the appropriation of exotic art forms for personal use, Rea wondered, was he contradicting himself and his Balinese-inspired music? Is this even new? Musicologists argue that Mozart, in drawing on ethnically diverse and discernible elements, was as transcultural as possible for the day.

The round table included McGill ethnomusicologst Lloyd Whitesell, composer and Société de musique contemporaine du Québec artistic director Walter Boudreau, composers José Evangelista, Alexina Louie, Denis Gougeon, Melissa Hui and guest of honour Tan Dun who won both an Oscar and a Grammy for his soundtrack to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Gougeon believes "influences are everywhere. It's not a new fact, just the way it's been since the world began." For Gougeon, drawing on these influences is a sign of respect. "By being influenced, it shows respect for that music."

Boudreau is frustrated by the attempts of cultural institutions, such as the Académie Française, to keep language, art, music, whatever, pure. "How foolish. We're all impure. Everybody's a mixed bag. Everything is in constant transformation."

Louie is third generation Chinese, ate food from around the world as a child, "but I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra in my home. My parents didn't listen to Asian or Chinese music."

She felt compelled to learn about Asian music in California, after hearing her Italian-American classmate play a Japanese instrument. "Something resonated in me." She adds, "When I played [a Chinese sitar], I came back to myself." She realized, "If my music was to rise up and become noticed, it had to be a reflection of myself."

At age eight, Hui moved with her family from Hong Kong to Vancouver, where she took care to blend in. She easily embraces all forms of music, finding Europeans put great emphasis on being able to tell apart music from different countries, and so "the rejection of hybridization is stronger among [them]."

Her music contains elements of her heritage. Overall, Hui feels that "the most important thing is to be honest. Authenticity is what it means to you."

For Tan Dun, "the phenomenon of making music is a highly personal experience." He grew up within a shamanistic culture in a suburb of the Hunan province capital, part of a family of farmers.

After the Cultural Revolution, he first saw Western instruments, the polished horns a far cry from the reed pipes he was used to. "I'd never seen any instrument so shiny!"

And the sound was so different, too. When he heard the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra play he remembers, "I was shocked." Imagine the first notes of Beethoven's Fifth on ears used to shrill pipes.

He now lives in Manhattan, and China has 7,000 Starbucks. Simply, he urges, "Be yourself. Don't try to escape from the lifestyle and technology of today. You can't. What are you going to do? Smash your computer?"

Whitesell chose to pose more questions. Who owns music? Do people borrow or steal music, or is music in the public domain? Drawing on anthropologist Steven Feld's observations, Paul Simon's Graceland was a blend of rock and roll, Cajun, and South African pop, but Simon is the one who gets the money.

Whitesell believes Boulez's comments reflected a sensitivity and showed respect for political considerations, and raised the thorny issue of how to reconcile authenticity with cultural tourism. Does it have to do with competence -- "how much time is spent learning the music, or is it just surface knowledge?"

There's a belief, Whitesell adds, that music "doesn't have colour" if it's white. We should remember that the "Ode to Joy" is as "ethnic" in its German roots as gamelan is in its Indonesian roots.

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