Every now and then my phone rings, and the program director of a German cultural institution or orchestra informs me that they are planning an India concert or project. India having become economically important, they ask me for some pointers on Indian orchestral works. They have already sourced something Indian-esque by Massenet or Holst, or Roussel or Messiaen, and there is also this young German composer who recently spent a couple of weeks in India (she is already working on a piece inspired by her sojourn there), but they have not yet found anything authentically Indian. Money is tight, it is not possible to fly in any Indian musicians, but they would still like to programme a short work by an authentic Indian composer – could I please suggest a few names and works?
That sounds like a perfectly fair call, doesn't it? Why then do such requests provoke only annoyance on my part? Well, it often becomes clear very quickly that I was only contacted on account of my Indian name. None of these managers would get in touch if my mother, rather than my father, were the Indian parent and I were known as Michael Stauffer, for example. I was born in India, but I have lived in Germany since I was five years old. I went to school here and studied conducting and composition in Munich – it is not the background one would expect from an expert in Indian music.
But more to the point: I cannot be an expert on “Indian orchestra music” – because such experts cannot exist. India has its own classical music system which does not deal in works for orchestra. In Indian musical life, the presence of eurological art music is as marginal as that of Balinese music in Germany. The few composers with an Indian name who have written orchestral works did so for orchestras in Europe and North America. But these composers – and I count myself among them – cannot be classified as “authentically Indian,” however one might wish to define the term; by bloodline, by place of residence, or according to the musical tradition in which one is trained. Moreover, for people like me who juggle multiple cultural contexts, such an emphasis on “the authentic” always rings with an unpleasant, if not threatening, undertone. A kind interpretation might hear it as someone just being unaware of the fact that every culture is in itself an iridescent patchwork. But all too often, such an emphasis on “the authentic” is a clear indicator for right-wing sympathies.
Then: it is clearly an exclusionary negotiation strategy to emphasize one’s tight budget right off the bat – and it is one that intercultural music projects seem to get more than their fair share of. A few years ago, the program director of a Berlin concert hall wanted to set up a series with star musicians of classical Arabic music. But in private he was outraged by the excessive fees they were charging – sometimes “almost as much as he would pay for a Western classical musician!” Were they not invited to play in his fantastic venue? In Berlin! How ungrateful... Most likely, he had never heard of the generous fees that these musicians – masters of their tradition – can command in the Gulf states.
Now imagine if somebody were to display a similarly blatant ignorance of a European musical tradition, and a similarly condescending stance while interacting with experts on John Ogden, or Portuguese renaissance music, or Galina Ustwolskaya. No, let us rather not imagine that! Our classical music managers are far too dedicated, too educated for that. They do actually care for their music (as much as for their reputations). But apparently, when it comes to non-European music, it simply does not occur to them to do a little research. For example, to check whether India even has orchestras, and what kind of music they play. They simply assume that Western classical music must be everywhere. And if they are truly honest with themselves, they also assume that the real reason why they have never heard of any Indian orchestral composers must be because their work is, ultimately, of secondary relevance. For them, their India project is simply a kind of affirmative action, not a matter of genuine artistic interest.
All these, I am convinced, are not instances of bad faith. Rather, they shine a light on a tacit attitude which even those mostly liberal and thoughtful people who professionally engage with classical music are hardly aware of – because their entire environment is imbued with its assumptions. What are these assumptions?
In October 2019, I gave a keynote lecture at a congress of German music theorists in Zurich. The topic was simply "Music Theory," which at face-value would suggest the topic at hand to be, quite comprehensively, THE theory of ALL music. After reviewing the program however, one participant dryly suggested that even in the 21st Century, German music theory is still almost exclusively concerned with European music of the last 1000 years, with particular emphasis on the period between 1700 and 1950, even though the name of their field stipulates no historical and geographical limitations. Why do they not name it appropriately: “Theories of Music Written in Europe between 800 and 2000 CE”?
Do German music theorists maybe secretly believe that eurological art music is the most evolved – that they quite simply study the most advanced model of music? In this perspective, all other ways of making music can then be nothing more than withered or dead-end branches on the tree of musical evolution. Music historian Cristina Urchueguía caricatured this silent assumption in her keynote speech at the same congress:
»1) Some cultures have actively taken part in this evolution. These are the advanced cultures. (Congratulations!)
2) Other cultures did not take part. These are the primitive cultures. (Too bad!)
3) Others still at some point missed the connection and were left behind. (That’s on you!)
4) Many cultures have at some point recognized and accepted the superiority [of the European musical tradition]. (THERE you go!)1
The so-called “serious” music of European extraction is seen by many of its proponents as the pinnacle of enlightened, universalistic musical progress. Compared to it, all other ways of making music must be considered as certainly respectable and even charming – but ultimately inconsequential undertakings.2 They thereby implicitly construe a spurious parallel between technology and music: The triumphal march of Western technology is seen to have absorbed and superseded all others to such an extent that non-Western technologies now appear as nothing more than its more or less primitive precursors. In their logic, eurological music alone cruises on an autobahn towards the fertile land of the future, whereas all other forms of music are not more than whimsical, nostalgic detours. One hopes, of course, that these poor souls will ultimately indeed see the light – be it that of Haydn’s Creation, or the weekday glow of Stockhausen’s LICHT.
Perhaps though, there are even many who do not really want that either. Every now and then, I am haunted by the nagging suspicion that the so-called "serious" music scene of Europe and North America is perceived by its enthusiasts as a kind of sonic levée – a protective dyke against the rising tide of cultural globalisation that they are increasingly forced to engage with in literature, the fine arts, in cinema, and in theatre. That for some of their audiences their symphony concerts, and even more their chamber music concerts, are among the very last places where one can reasonably expect to remain unbothered by cultural relativism; where one can still enjoy a cultured evening “among one’s own kind.”
Devotees of “New Music” would, of course, vehemently reject such cultural narcissism. A willingness to go beyond the “comfort zone” and a yen for expeditions into “the Unheard-of” are the proclaimed hallmarks of their scene. Nevertheless – or perhaps precisely because of this – a cultural-evolutionist narrative of salvation through art has been deeply woven into the discourse of New Music since the 1920s: “Avant-garde music will redeem us,” it seems to say, “and not just the educated citizens of Western cities: no, all of mankind!”
One hundred years ago, the International Society for New Music was founded in order to disseminate and promote music based on the European-American avant-garde model on a global scale. This campaign was a success – there now are national associations of the ICSM in many countries. At the society’s World New Music Days festival, which annually migrates around the world, one can hear works by composers whose names come from a large variety of cultural backgrounds. And they all – with minor local variations – write music in a characteristic eurological “Avantgarde Music” stance.
Sometimes the Gospel of New Music occasions curious aftertastes. One of them is a story I have heard from almost all composers with names or roots or origins in Asia, Africa, and often even Latin America who came to study composition somewhere in the West: They obviously could only have passed the entrance exams at this university because they had perfectly absorbed the eurological tradition. Nevertheless, soon after their first lessons, their teachers would inevitably nudge them to engage with the “traditional music” of "their own" culture. They were made to understand that without this "authentic" colour, their "eurological" music could seem too blatant an imitation. It is as if, to these teachers, composing for violins and pianos is, at its core, a matter for people with white skin and European sounding names. This benign kind of structural racism is commonplace at music academies and in the classical music business where an “exotic” cultural identity is also a handy way to brand an artist. Curiously, such covert musical racism actually increases when people are aware of colonial history and oppression, and therefore try to be extra nice. Here, too, half-knowledge is more insidious than ignorance.
In such constellations, any openness to the uncomfortable and the unfamiliar seem to be largely absent. Instead, the world at large is asked to flatter the West by imperfect imitation – and thus vindicate how revolutionary and unique European music has been over the past century: so much so that the technical and musical achievements of the composers resonating through Europe’s concert halls are now mimicked even in the “former colonies.” Such a complacent attitude, however, seems to be just another instance of cultural narcissism, this time on the global stage.
To continue to call such music "Eurocentric" or "Western" would then, be misleading – at least geographically speaking. For some years now, I have therefore used the term "eurological" for all forms of music that, wherever on the globe they are practised, are consciously grounded within the cultural logic of Europe – e.g. the New Music of the ISCM.
The global ubiquity of musical practices once developed in Europe has led many in the eurological contemporary and classical music scene to believe that their own musical practices have become the measure of all things musical. And likewise, to think that the geographical reach of these musical practices is mainly due to their transcultural persuasiveness and unsurpassed quality.
In a way, it is almost endearing that the friends of eurological music view the world with so much idealism. In linguistics, however, there’s a well-known cynical definition of the term “language”: "A language is a dialect with an army.” The fact that the eurological musical tradition is considered by many to be the world’s musical lingua franca is not only co-incidental to, but rather a direct consequence of Europe’s violent colonial expansion.
Take the example of Claude Debussy for example, who in 1905 became curious about non-European musical traditions. He asked a music connoisseur friend to tell him about the fabulously beautiful music of the Pacific peoples, on whose seas this friend would soon be cruising as a French naval and colonial officer. After a while, Debussy received an extensive essay by the title of “Voix Mortes” (Dead Voices), which pretty much says it all. In it, Victor Segalen, who would later become known as a theoretician of exoticism, described how the indigenous music of the Maori and Polynesian people seemed almost non-existent at the beginning of the 20th Century. Christian missionaries, with the active support of the French army, had displaced the traditional songs with their own hymns. Segalen realized with great sadness that occasional strange intonations in the islanders’ singing, strange turns, and a certain vocal roughness, were the last traces of their now lost musical traditions. His report to Debussy makes for a depressing read, even if the gradual resurgence of Polynesian music after 1945 suggests that the Maori people maybe had secretly continued to cultivate their own vocal tradition.
A lot of indigenous music has, however, indeed been eradicated over the centuries of European colonization: in militant cultural missionary processes, through economic marginalisation – and too often through quite comprehensive genocides. No wonder that for a long time a central mission of ethnomusicology was to "salvage" such vanishing musics. In a race against time, ethnomusicologists would attempt to document the world’s immaterial artefacts as best they could, before they were devoured by the predatory eurological culture. In doing so, they sought to save these pre-capitalist traditions from being forgotten. Since the late 19th century, ethnomusicologist took wax cylinder phonographs and soon tape recorders along on their missions – and ever since, wonderful music that nobody now alive can sing or play has slumbered in countless university and museum sound archives.
Sometimes though, they do re-awaken: A few years ago, Canadian tenor Jeremy Dutcher discovered ethnomusicological recordings of his own Wolastoqiyik people in the sound archive of the Canadian Museum of History. The recordings included songs which elders remembered with joy, but which they were no longer able to sing. He took on this task on their behalf, and it deeply moved me to experience his journey as he gradually sought to revive these lost voices within himself – and within a contemporary cultural context.
Incidentally, this example bears striking parallels to the debate taking place in the museum world about the restitution of so-called "looted art." One often encounters defensive arguments here too: Do we want to make today's musicians and listeners – innocent of this history – pay for the atrocities of long-buried colonial politicians, multinational corporations, and even the other arts, and in doing so ostracize their beloved classical music? After all, examples of real violent contexts in the history of musical migration are rather far and few between. Does the medium’s lack of materiality not mean that there can be no direct parallelism to “looted art” – and, therefore, no such thing as “looted music”?
It probably is not quite so simple as that. On the one hand, the processes of economic globalization continue to eradicate music today – and if this music was recorded by ethologists shortly before its disappearance and then continues to live on elsewhere, such a sound archive might indeed be deemed to contain “looted music.” The fact that music isn’t an object could sometimes facilitate its return, even if this turned out to be an immensely complicated process due to music’s nature as a form of immaterial heritage. One might also speak of “looted music” when – as is so often the case at New Music festivals for example – a composer declares their superficially-altered eurological music to be “intercultural” after a relatively short engagement with another culture. In other words, when someone exploits the political or aesthetic capital of another musical tradition to further their own career or status. This often also affects composers with “non-Western” names who are forced into self-exoticization by the market forces of New Music.3 Or when a melody is taken from its non-Western context and plagiarized without making its origin clear - and any royalties or fees make their way into the bank accounts of the looters. Musical practice, its living reality, the phenomenon that Filipino musicologist meLê yamomo calls the “sonus” of music, cannot, of course, be stolen in any literal sense. But is it not stealing when someone does not ask for permission when they appropriate these sounds in their own music? And indeed, when someone loots ideas and sounds without any interest in their cultural origin, in the aspects that make this music precious to its practitioners.
So, if many of the world's musical traditions today seem, even in their homelands, to be weak and marginal in comparison to the Western classical tradition, it is precisely because they were unable to rely on powerful political, military, and economic structural support. In many countries around the world, governments that want to preserve their indigenous musical traditions are driven to implement deliberate, sometimes restrictive conservation policies: desperate acts of institutionalized cultural resistance against a eurological music business that wants to continually conquer new markets and audiences.
In some of these countries, even their own elites clearly see European classical and romantic music as a tell-tale token of prosperity – to be able to afford an orchestra, or even an opera house, is to conspicuously display one’s economic and cultural potency. As a result, those states in Asia (and some in Africa) who find themselves on an economic and political upward trajectory repeat the same gesture of social upgrading that 19th Century European and North American burghers enacted when they brought “classical” music from royal courts and country estates to the newly established concert halls and philharmonic societies in the hearts of their cities. Those on the rise to power borrow cultural prestige through the art of their decadent predecessors. It is no coincidence that the term “classical” was deliberately derived from the “classici” – those citizens of Ancient Rome who were the richest taxpayers, and therefore the de facto tastemakers. Around 1830, by which point Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were already dead, some critics regarded “classical” as that music which retrospectively appeared to serve as a model for everything else.
Only India has so far managed to avoid this particular cultural corollary of economic competition. It is the only Asian country where, especially in the ears of its educated citizens, the art music traditions evolved in their own land rank far ahead of Western art music in every respect. Maybe I should, after all, have been more forgiving towards those orchestra directors with their India programs: How could they have possibly known that of all the countries in Asia that are on the rise globally, India alone does not aspire to eurological art music? That it alone does not seem to feel the absence of eurological art music institutions and traditions as a shortcoming that must be fixed as soon as economically possible?
We could marshal many more examples, but this much seems clear: Music is not immune to world’s social, economic, and political inequalities. Quite the opposite, they are deeply ingrained in its aesthetic weave. As “the West’s” military and economic dominance unfolded, first eurological art musics and later African-American-derived popular musics could establish a “natural” privilege on presence, attention, and appreciation through concerts, the media, and research – a privileged position that in turn unavoidably silences many other musical cultures and traditions.
How then, can music making navigate in a globalized society with its manifold forms of social, infrastructural, and aesthetic inequality? Can it embrace and signify both the dissonances and their resolution? Can making music even contribute to a greater good?
What then would need to urgently change in the “Western” ideal of what music and sound art are, and to what end they are pursued? How could the practice of making music, as well its organizational and experiential dimensions, grapple with these inequalities – and thus enter into a humane, socially productive, and aesthetically enriching process of expanding the realm of what music can be?
In order to do so, we would first have to come to an understanding what it could mean to have a true “world music.” Presently, two different but complementary ideas about music making in a global context circulate in Europe and North American.
Firstly, the notion of a “Universal Music”: This is the fiction that there is only music in the singular, that music is the only real universal language. This is, at its core, the culturally-Darwinist, colonialist perspective detailed above. This notion tempts many organizers and listeners to believe that concerts with participants from different cultures playing Brahms with each other are just as much an expression of a global consciousness as New Music festivals in which composers with Indian, Arabic, Chinese, etc. names and backgrounds write works for string quartet, orchestra, electronic instruments, and so on. Because music is a supposedly universal language, it does not matter that other musics are less present – in this world music they are thought to be simply subsumed into the more comprehensive eurological musical praxis and thought.
At German universities – with few exceptions – a fine distinction is still made between “musicology” or “music theory,” which is primarily interested in eurological music, but maintains a thoroughly universal self-image, and "ethnomusicology” or “systematic musicology," which is supposed to cater for all other "local" sub-forms of music (Clarence Barlow once sarcastically proposed to call the field of ethnomusicology by its true name: “Heidenklangkunde” – “Sonology of the Gentiles”). The relatively new trend that ethnological research also delves into the sacred realms of classical and New Music is disturbing for the scene and is viewed with suspicion – how can the avantgarde be the object of ethnomusicology? Such objectifications must be reserved for the “Others” of Western Classical Music who do not belong to this “universal music,” but rather are subsumed under.
World Music: A marketing term invented in the early 1980s by a consortium of commercial recording labels.4 It was intended for music stores as a label for all eurological music that had clearly discernible and even dominant non-eurological components. Such recordings often were the result of an “arranged marriage,” a strategic meeting of musicians from different traditions. Soon, all traditional forms of music were promoted under the “World Music” label. This kind of “world music” elegantly served a liberal audience who sought to assuage their middle-class guilt by simultaneously turning away from both classical concert music (which they found too elitist) and ubiquitous pop music (which they found too commercial). But since it obviously was music made mainly for record albums, it did not quite fit into their criteria for high artistic value – for many in the chattering classes, sellable music and high art are antipodes. The ‘world music’ phenomenon thus helped cement their prejudice that all forms of art music outside the “European art music” paradigm must be subordinate forms of expression.
Rather unintentionally, though, the easy access to this “world music” since the 1980s catered toward the expansionist aspirations of many eurological composers and musicians. Inspired by the colonialist vocabulary, they aspired to the “as yet unheard”, aimed to “discover,” “conquer,” and “claim” uncharted “virgin” musical territory, often inspired by these “pristine” sounds and world musics they encountered in their record stores.
It seems that especially to these enlightened musickers, the diversity of global music making, backwards and limited as it may appear, nevertheless was worth preserving for one precise reason: As a kind of musical biodiversity resource, useful for the occasional invigoration of eurological music. Any serious and sustained engagement with its forms and theories e.g. in school and music university curricula, was (and still is) simply too much - and probably not worth the effort. You do not go to the trouble of learning Hindi just because you want to eat a curry.
Well-meaning people in the music business who are, by all intents and purposes, thoroughly invested in the music “of the others” often become defensive when confronted with such observations: Have not European intellectuals, propelled by insatiable wanderlust, immersed themselves in these cultures for centuries? They have found priceless intellectual treasures and exalted them – from the I Ching to the Rigveda, from Basho’s haiku to the poems of Rumi and Hafiz. That is correct. But none of these coveted discoveries were – music. And even today: are not Indian, African, Arabic, even Gamelan music well respected in the German music scene, do their concerts not attract countless fans? True again: but their concerts and festivals are almost always ephemeral initiatives of individual promoters, often from their own diaspora. At the most, they may be exhibited as a curiosity in a museum or an academic context, at some remove from “real”, “serious”, “classical” music. By contrast, all of the esteemed and state-financed German music institutions, operas, foundations, orchestras, academies, broadcasters, and publications dedicate themselves with enormous energy to the training for, the professional presentation and the critical reception of eurological art music in past, present and future - to the near exclusion of anything else.
One would therefore have to change the institutions, or the institutions would have to examine their own colonial attitudes. But there the question arises: Are there alternatives to these two models, both of which in their way ooze with colonialism? What, then, could a model for an equitable global music ecosystem look like? We will discuss this question in the second part of this essay. ¶
1 From Cristina Urchueguía, “Kartöffelchen am Stiel oder semiotisches U-Boot? Die Note, diese bekannte Unbekannte.” Keynote: XIX. Jahreskongress der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie, Zürich 4.10.2019
2 See also the magnificent essay on this topic by historian Jürgen Osterhammel, “Globale Horizonte europäischer Kunstmusik 1860-1930,” published in the 2012 journal Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 38th year, issue 1, pages 86-132.
3 An insightful case study here is Yara El-Ghadban's text “Facing the music: Rituals of belonging and recognition in Western art music,” in American Ethnologist Vol. 36 no. 1 pp. 140-160. (2009) ISSN 1548-1425
4 See also: Simon Frith, “The Discourse of World Music” in Western Music and its Others, Born, Hesmondhalgh (eds.), UC Press Berkeley 2000, pp. 305-322. and Glaucia Peres da Silva's book “Wie klingt die globale Ordnung? Die Entstehung eines Marktes für World Music” Wiesbaden, 2016.
Wir nutzen die von dir eingegebene E-Mail-Adresse, um dir in regelmäßigen Abständen unseren Newsletter senden zu können. Falls du es dir mal anders überlegst und keine Newsletter mehr von uns bekommen möchtest, findest du in jeder Mail in der Fußzeile einen Unsubscribe-Button. Damit kannst du deine E-Mail-Adresse aus unserem Verteiler löschen. Weitere Infos zum Thema Datenschutz findest du in unserer Datenschutzerklärung.
OUTERNATIONAL wird kuratiert von Elisa Erkelenz und ist ein Kooperationsprojekt von PODIUM Esslingen und VAN Magazin im Rahmen des Fellowship-Programms #bebeethoven anlässlich des Beethoven-Jubiläums 2020 – maßgeblich gefördert von der Kulturstiftung des Bundes sowie dem Land Baden-Württemberg, der Baden-Württemberg Stiftung und der L-Bank.