The first part of this essay concluded with the question: What could an equitable global music ecosystem look like?
Over the last 15 years, numerous initiatives in the German music scene have actively addressed something they call “the decolonisation of music.” The most prominent of these was “Defragmentation,” a joint effort by the Donaueschingen Festival, MaerzMusik Berlin, Ultima Festival Oslo, and the Darmstadt Summer Course. A number of attempts with similar goals can be observed all over Germany, with a wide variety of formats and innovative processes. As somebody who has been involved in a number of these initiatives, both as an invited thinker and as an invited artist, there are three aspects that stand out.
Firstly, the experts brought in on this topic are mostly thinkers from the Anglophone – and occasionally the Francophone – academic discourse, where a "New Musicology" has been active since the late 1980s. This “New Musicology” has tried to address precisely questions of decolonisation, gender, and other concerns in the humanities, but also increasingly seeks to collaborate with the neurosciences and other scientific disciplines.
So far, Germanophone musicology as a field has not taken this turn towards this kind of “New Musicology,” nor to its offspring disciplines (such as artistic research in music) – and, of course, this lack of curiosity rubs off on the classical and contemporary music scene. Thus, when it comes to decolonisation, Germany’s musical discourse is unable to summon any distinctive approach of its own, a take on the subject that would be informed by its own colonial, musical, and intellectual history. And this in spite of the fact that one can indeed discern a German discursive tradition of pre-colonial and pre-culturally-Darwinist thought that would be different from the English and French-language debate: From Magnus Hundt’s and Otto Casmann’s 16th century definition of modern anthropology, to Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s ambitious (and unfinished) project of a global music history in the 18th century, Goethe’s idea of “Weltliteratur,” (world literature) and Heinrich Brunn’s notion of “Kunstwollen” (artistic intent) in the mid-19th Century. This intellectual tradition is almost never mentioned, much less developed in current debates – hence this abiding sense that many of these German debates in music and musicology do not really look ahead, but are instead primarily concerned with catching up.
Secondly, despite its purported openness, the German debate continues to be conducted as an internal, eurological music dispute. Perspectives from other musical traditions are barely ever acknowledged, discussed, or represented in central music events. It seems to me that even with the best intentions, the vast majority of these initiatives and events are more concerned with developing an expanded intellectual and musical arsenal in order to bolster the “supremacy” of German music (as Schoenberg had imagined it) and the German music scene for a few more decades. The creative traditions, ways of thinking, and ways of listening to musics beyond the eurological ken remain either ancillary or completely inaudible in these deliberations. In other countries, it would be rather unthinkable to conduct such debates exclusively “among whites.” In Germany, this is still relatively common.
And thirdly, it is remarkable how much discursive fuss the “classical/contemporary” music scene tends to make when they finally do address questions of decolonisation and musical diversity at one of their festivals or forums. Such self-congratulatory hyperventilation clearly shows that, at least to them and their audiences, diversity still is not simply a matter of everyday reality in a modern pluricultural society.
It often seems to me as if this country that once had bitterly bemoaned their late arrival to the feeding frenzy of colonialisation, now once again seems to be late when it comes to the process of decolonising. There is still is some work ahead before a real, every-day, steady decolonisation can come to the German-speaking music scenes – not to mention a musical listening and making praxis that would genuinely want to move towards anything like a “global music awareness.” In the last part of this essay, I would like to sketch a basic framework for such an awareness.
In his book "Epistemologias do sul" the sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls for a reorientation of the way in which we perceive our environment and construct meaning. According to de Sousa Santos, knowledge does not arise in a unique, universally valid way. Rather, knowledge is perceived, used, and negotiated differently in different cultures and contexts. For him, the recognition of the diversity of epistemologies is essential for global equality.
The parallels with music are clear – there, too, is no universal way of being music. In this context, a rethinking of the relationship between tradition and modernity seems to be central to any reorientation of musical epistemologies. In contemporary music debates, these two are often presented as polar opposites: music theory and notation here, oral tradition there; the contemporary here, the traditional (i.e. the obsolete) there. Such dichotomies are not only inadequate, but downright misleading.
We must reconsider the very notion of tradition, because eurological “New Music” is, of course, also a traditional form of music, albeit a neurotic one. Its self-image insists upon the presentation of its own music scene as continually anti-traditional, as if engaged in an institutionalized revolution. But its praxis fails to live up to this claim: For 70 years, since Adorno’s eponymous essay, people have noticed the “Aging of New Music.” It has become a musical praxis in which techniques, aesthetics, and sounds have become stubbornly entrenched, and in which a modest fanbase now zealously guards its memories of their vintage “music of the future.” Moreover, anti-traditionalism as an aesthetic imperative is in itself a centuries-old tradition of eurological music: When, in 1322, Pope John XXII banned a new style of art music from church services, its practitioners immediately wrote a manifesto in which they called their music “Ars Nova” – a clean break with the established “Ars Antiqua.” Ever since then, the necessity of breaking new ground beyond the old and known has been the only aesthetic constant in European musical history. The avant-gardists of the 20th Century are thus quite emphatically a part of this intellectual and musical tradition. Making new music self-consciously is one of many traditional ways of sounding the nexus between music, society and time.
So what are the insights we would need in order to further the acceptance of other types of music in the German contemporary music scene? One of them would be the acceptance of difference in listening: musical practices and ways of thinking tend to differ in the aspects of sound they pay attention to. One tradition may listen to pitches and rhythms, another to roughness and groove, another to the social relationship between listeners and performers, or to the gender of the performers. Others may enjoy how the space around the music sounds, or how the audience is dressed.
In each tradition, each of these aspects is assigned different weight. And it is precisely this individual weighting that often distinguishes one tradition from another. Thus, to de-centre and de-hierarchise the aesthetic value systems around sound would be an important step towards a less parochial music scene.
Then: the idea of a steady progress in music, all of its pathways inevitably leading to the pinnacle of eurological music of the 21st century music, is patently nonsensical – if only because the aesthetics of different traditions have never shared a common genealogy. There is no common phylogenetical tree of music around the world. Rather, ways of listening to and using sound have tended to come together in unique musical epistemologies that are specific to each unique cultural and historical situation – in large part also because musical transmission relied on communities, not, as in art, on tradeable objects. The music of Verdi’s time is not a late descendant of the music of the ancient Egyptians, and the music of the Noh theatre did not evolve from that of the Greek theatre. Jazz is not a variant of Balinese music, and the various Austrian twelve-tone theories from the beginning of the 20th century owe no heritage to the twelve-tone music theory of 18th century Carnatic musicologist Venkatamathi.
There are, of course, signs of mutual influence – Edouard Glissant calls them “traces”:
“If we leave behind this thinking in systems, it is because we realize that they have enforced an absolute standard for being. This was their depth, their greatness – and their limitation. [...] Thinking in traces stands in contrast to thinking in systems, as when going astray can show us the right way. [...] Creole languages are one such trace, and jazz is a another, a re-constructed trace that runs across the world”1
In seeking the reality of our musical existence on this planet we should maybe rely less on narratives of progress and development, and much more on such traces: we may lose them at times, they may become submerged and some of them may return only as shadows. Living traditions are constantly and radically contemporary; they always interpret the past in a pragmatic way, as a toolbox for the present. If we parse tradition in this way, historical truth and therefore aesthetic rebellions are simply a waste of time. Today’s reconstructed early music performances, historically accurate as they may be – and precisely for this reason – must radiate a radical sense of the present and a resolute interest in contemporary sensibilities. Anything else would be fake.
Creating and listening to music cannot be devoid of traditions – how else would musical communion come about? Moreover, if we want to comprehend the richness of artistic phenomena around the world the term “tradition” works much better than the term "culture.”
A music culture is something one is born into. But a musical tradition is something one must consciously adopt, and in most cases actively learn. Nobody on the planet has a particular “music in their blood”: All music is learned, absorbed, transfigured tradition. And every musician must navigate the strong currents of one or more traditions, especially if they want to row against or across them.
Moreover, almost all “music cultures” are home to several, clearly distinct musical traditions – indeed, it can sometimes be trickier to navigate a culture’s own musical divides than those between traditions from different cultures. So, when we try to picture all music making in this world, the term “musical tradition” affords us a higher resolution than the somewhat nebulous “musical culture.”
This view of music making as invariably tradition-oriented would not only provide a level playing field for the various global forms of music, it would also release all those musical expressions of the past from the role assigned to them in the progress narrative: to be “mere precursors” or “under-complex” forms of music. To amateur listeners, such a classification might seem strange - but this is how these musics, unfortunately, are often still discussed – and even taught in the academy.
L.P. Hartley once wrote: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Freeing ourselves from the aesthetic narratives of progress can indeed be key to a true equality between musical traditions. Every tradition that today vibrates the air, made by living musicians, would be just as contemporary as any other – a motet by Machaut as contemporary as a kriti by Thyagarajan, a p’ansori as contemporary as an Anthony Braxton solo, Mei Langfang’s Guifei Zuijiu (The Drunken Concubine) as contemporary as Monteverdi’s Lettera Amorosa (love letter). Older forms of music are not historically obsolete, they simply move within a by now unfamiliar musical-aesthetic land whose peculiar customs, however, can be learned. Musical traditions are precise, real and richly developed connections between the perception of sound and its practice – and each one is a concrete selection made from a theoretically infinite number of conceivable and physically possible constellations.
Of course, our question about a model for a more equitable world music ecosystem can have no simple answer. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a model of music-making in the world that is much more sustainable than the eurocentric models of "universal music" or "world music." It would be based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's concept of "Weltliteratur" (world literature) – and UNESCO’s later idea of an intangible world cultural heritage.
Goethe proposed his concept as a kind of constantly updated anthology of those literary works that can extend beyond local interest and speak to all people. This view has sometimes been criticized because it was misunderstood as a "selection of the best" – and would Goethe not have applied eurocentric quality criteria to such a selection? But Goethe's term actually does not say that at all – and he himself never established such a canon. He merely suggested that, for any curious reader, there could be something excellent to read from everywhere – that a true reader must transcend the confines of one’s own culture and language. In literature though, the language barrier and the need for translation will always constitute a bottleneck that prevents some authors and texts from even reaching a global public.
Music has a certain advantage here because it does not rely on concrete semantic meaning. Studies show that people are able to be deeply touched by music whose “sonus” and cultural context they do not know at all. In this respect (and only in this respect) music indeed functions like a universal language, albeit one that is effective despite constant misunderstandings. If you wear sunglasses, an oil painting may still fascinate you with its richness of colour and its formal language, but the colours you see are likely not the same as those used by the painter. This is also how music works across traditions: what you hear is always filtered and re-interpreted to fit into your own aesthetic presets.
And here lies the rub: for if we admit the above, all misunderstandings must be equally valid. I once experienced such an inspiring misunderstanding when dhrupad master Uday Bhawalkar listened to Anton Webern’s Variations Op. 27 as if their twelve-tone row were a very interesting raga. He waxed enthusiastic about its combinatorial richness. The only criticism on his part was that the composer had developed so little music from it: “He could have unfolded that over several hours!” This “inappropriate” interpretation, which runs counter to our own understanding of the piece, must then be just as valid as those undeniably successful, eurological musical misunderstandings of Ottoman, Indian, Balinese, Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese music in the works of Mozart, Roussel, Boulez, Puccini, Holst, Debussy, Messiaen, Cage, Murail, and Hamel for example. Or as acceptable as misrepresenting spectacular Hindustani court music as spiritual, meditative music.
Such creative misunderstandings conjure up a vision of global music in which we all become listeners to everything. Not in a hedonistic, consumerist sense, though – we would be as engaged and attuned towards music as a mode of expression as all traditional listeners are in their respective contexts. It could become a significant part of one’s aesthetic experience to explore the faults and folds between the musical intention of the creators and the musical understanding of the listeners – similar to the way in which some traditions know the pleasure of comparing different interpretations of the same musical proposition.
It would be worth considering whether event organizers who want to engage with the world’s music should not also more clearly take into account this differential logic of listening. Why not create more music festivals and series that are programmed in well thought-out curatorial settings, and which cross boundaries of genre, tradition, and style? 2
This kind of global music listening would in turn mean a different way of thinking about what we understand as musical activity. In his book “Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening,” published 20 years ago, Christopher Small makes a plea for music to be understood always as an activity, a “becoming” rather than as an object, as had become common since the invention of the record. And this process of becoming essentially includes not only those who play music on stage, and those who invent it (if they are different people), but also and particularly all of those without whom a concert would not take place – audiences, the staff at the venues, programmers, even the architects. Small argues that all of these people trust that “musicking” has a fundamental significance in their society and lives – and that this means that they are indeed active participants in making this music happen.
In his book "Music as Social Life," Thomas Turino even further expands this perspective by categorizing musical practices according to the different importance they allot to participation on the one hand and presentation on the other – who participates, to what extent, and in which role, and what is presented to whom. One tradition may insist that all listeners contribute to the overall sound and dramaturgy of the music (e.g. by comments, clapping, or other influential actions). Another tradition may know simpler and more difficult parts which would allow musicians of different skill levels to take part. A third tradition might not permit any human musicians at all, would not even force people to be still and listen - but permit sound to be produced only by those mysteriously powerful minimalist sculptures known as “loudspeakers.”
The eurological concert ritual of sitting still in silence is so familiar to us, both as a way of organizing and as a social listening concept, that we hardly ever question it. Many concert halls, even many new ones, invariably work with fixed seating arrangements. Concerts almost always take place in the evening between work and bedtime. This organization of our “musicking” favours some musical traditions more than others. The hall, the ambience, the form of presentation, and even the movements of musicians and listeners are part of “musicking” in many musical traditions – it is not just sound that makes music. It is therefore of particular importance that we do not understand openness solely to be an open invitation “others” to come and sit on the plush sofa on which we sit so comfortably; to come to those halls, rituals, and conditions with which we are so familiar. Musique en marche (music in motion) – what a compelling thought!
Much is already being attempted to change our listening habits, to configure musical experience in new ways – concerts at other times of the day, concerts with the audience laying down on mats or stretchers, ambulatory concerts, sound installations, music in public spaces, etc. Such self-examinations and experimentations with our habits is indeed an important step towards the equal aesthetic presence of different musical traditions within our cultural consciousness.
Curiously however, it is often precisely those organizers who present music from non-European contexts who are the most conservative in this respect – such events often are presented in conventional concert halls and emulate their rituals – sometimes to the point of caricature. Perhaps these organizers know that this non-eurological music, however artful, is even today still seen as “exotic” and “other,” and that its sophistication and relevance must be demonstrated, that it must be “elevated,” as it were, by presenting it in a context that listeners in this country associate with the presentation of “classical” art ?
It must be clear that such reflections ultimately are reflections only about ourselves – about how the European and North American music scene can reposition itself in world affairs. How its players can understand that while, for many decades, they were fortunate to have had such a dominant, even bullying voice in the orchestra of global music, the time has now come to step back a bit, to listen again to the other music traditions, and to let their contributions be heard. The dramaturgy and sound of this comprovisation3 in which we all play a part, and which we call "the world," will and cannot be allowed to become a monoculture. For over 20 years now, sociologist Deepak Chakraborty has therefore been asking us to intellectually provincialize Europe: he proposes that we should never regard our just and important attachment to our cultural homeland as anything more than a provincial impulse. Let us no longer ask what the music of the world can do for our music, but rather let us consider what we can do for the many musics of our planet.
I hope to have outlined some insights and strategies for this: but insights into our historic actions and pervasive prejudices alone will hardly change our “musicking.” Nothing will change unless we engage in the active and humble act of listening to the sounding, singing world around us. ¶
1 Edouard Glissant, "Traité du Tout-Monde," Paris 1997, p.19/20.
2 Four such recent festivals come to mind, all of them on a high musical level: the Musi[name of the month] festivals (i.e. MusiMars or MusiOctobre) which Denys Bouliane and Walter Boudreau organized in Montréal from 1999 to 2008, and which in each concert combined a variety of both European and non-Western art music instrumentations and musical styles according to a musical or conceptual theme. The two Faithful! festivals 2012/2014, curated in Berlin by Elke Moltrecht (and in 2012 by Björn Gottstein as well), explored the question of musical interpretation beyond style, tradition, and genre. Then the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, which has regularly taken place since 2009, in which changing curators from pop, classical, jazz, and new music (Steve Reich, Bryce Dessner, Terry Riley etc.) program a festival of American music across boundaries of genre and style. Since 2007 in India, there’s the RIFF Festival Jodhpur, which is similarly inclusive in the context of South Asian music forms. However, I currently do not know of any carefully curated festival at which all of the world's music forms could in principle appear on an equal footing.
3 “Comprovisation” is a hybrid term, derived from "composition" and "improvisation,” which like Small’s “Musicking,” is intended to make it clear that every performance of music contains both planned and unforeseen elements, is “composed” both before and within the concert – and that traditions may also be distinguished from each other by the way in which their praxis negotiates between these two poles.
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