Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Multiculturalism, Music, and Violence

Just before I was about to post my thoughts about Hewitt’s chapter “Things Fall Apart,” on multiculturalism in 20th century classical music, I took a look at the Arts section of The New York Times. Immediately, I was struck by an apt headline: “In a Meeting of Cultures, Politics Pushed Aside.” (http://nyti.ms/twPSoi) Of course, I had to comment on both.

The article is a review by Zachary Woolfe of “East Meets West,” a concert by violinist Daniel Hope. While Woolfe considers the performance “likeable,” the real interest is in his critique of the politics of the performance (or rather, its lack of politics):

A larger problem was the concert’s presentation of multiculturalism as reassurance. ‘Long before the invention of digital mass media,’ Mr. Hope’s program note said, ‘there were connections between distant places with reciprocal influences and inspirations.’

Nothing troubled this account. In neither the written notes nor in Mr. Hope’s onstage commentary was there even a passing mention that the forces that brought together these different cultures were often violent.

Indeed, our love for fusion, multiplicity, and multiculturalism can all too often become naïve. Beyond merely being uniformed, smoothing over the violence (whether literal or ideological) of colonial history tends to assuage white guilt. Nicholas Cook is certainly aware of the ability of music to craft (or avoid) political narratives. His example of the South African national anthem “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica” as an enactment of anti-apartheid politics stands as a central part of his book.

On the other hand, how does Hewitt deal with this topic? After all, early in Music: Healing the Rift, he claims that sociological perspectives on music are too limiting, and that he intends to bring the discussion back to the music itself (2003: 3-4). Despite his condemnation of social theories of music, one of his points about the dangers of western composers borrowing from other cultures could have come straight from a sociology text. “However the encounter happens, the stranger always has to be ‘naturalized,’ made fit for civilized company. The ‘net’ is no neutral thing at all, but rather a mechanism for engorging exoticisms… Viewed this way, the system seems coercive rather than hospitable.” (Hewitt 2003: 73) The violence and coercion of western borrowing becomes inextricable from colonial violence in this example.

If we simply alter Hewitt’s statement to encompass visual art, we get an even stronger statement of violence. Here is an equivalent statement by anthropologist Wyatt MacGaffey: “The process by which an African object becomes art includes removing it from its context of origin to the accompaniment of varying sorts and degrees of violence. Besides the literal violence of theft, confiscation, and the like, we must include violence done to the object itself, which is often stripped of its accouterments, varnished or even remodeled.” (224 from “Magic, or as we usually say, Art”, available at http://bit.ly/vGUJ96)

Hewitt uses examples of classical music borrowing from other cultures as indicative of its tendency to “fall apart” into greater and greater multiplicity throughout the 20th century. Multiplicity, he claims, also means that each piece of new music (of the classical sort) is its own whole system, rather than participating in a united system, or common practice. “Thus every new music concert – at least, every one containing modernist music – becomes a battleground.” (Hewitt 2003: 117) Violent imagery returns here again.

However, Woolfe’s article reminds us that the battle may not only occur between warring ideologies of different new music composers, but also between multiple traditions that may be expressed in one piece. However, even in “the music itself,” the violent undercurrents of Hope’s concert were minimalized: “The works and performances were just as pleasant as this vision of history, with harmless agreement between Mr. Mazumdar’s consummate sitar playing and Mr. Hope’s violin. Their dialogue took the form of genial synchronization or tame call-and-response, without productive tension or much variety.” By not recognizing the historic tension between the styles it sought to reconcile, the music became boring.

(One last note: this becomes even more complicated when we address classical composers from outside the west who are writing music with fusion, such as Toru Takemitsu, whose works were also featured on Hope’s program. When we are dealing only with western composers appropriating the “other,” it is easy to condemn their work as examples of colonial violence. However, if we level the same criticism against Takemitsu, we run serious risks. Are Japanese composers only allowed to write in a “purely” Japanese style to be considered authentic? This view would reduce Takemitsu to being a timeless native, denying that Japanese culture is also being shaped in the present.)

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