Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

West Meets East (Again): A Defense of the New Orientalism

Andante, September 2002

Ta'ziyeh. Photo by Stephanie BergerIn the past decade, Asian music and culture has spread throughout the West like poppies. Yo-Yo Ma’s nomadic Silk Road Ensemble has been encamped near the top of the Billboard charts for over three months now, and its concerts sell out regularly. Paris and New York have staged historic performances of the ancient Persian religious drama, the Ta’ziyeh. Meanwhile, composers from Bright Sheng to Terry Riley have been weaving Eastern idioms into the tapestry of their Western-produced scores. One of the most spectacular products of this impulse was Ang Lee’s 2000 film-epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which used a shimmering soundtrack by Tan Dun as a backdrop for its gravity-defying martial-arts sequences.

But that grumbling you hear isn’t just the sound of Tuvan throat singers. Some in the West have complained that the exotic trappings of the Silk Road Project have obscured what is essentially a commercial vehicle for a Western celebrity performer. In the New York Times, John Rockwell suggested that Silk Road Ensemble audiences were being treated like “imperialist wanderer[s] in a field of gorgeous but mystifying blossoms.” The Ta’ziyeh has provoked similar objections. Edward Rothstein worried that the work has been completely decontextualized in its Western performances, and that the result was merely “undistinguished melodramas spiced by intriguing melismas and mediocre town-band-style accompaniments.” According to Hamid Dabashi, chair of the Middle Eastern and Asian languages and cultures department at Columbia University, the Ta’ziyeh had been “theaterized, stylized, orientalized, anthropologized and ultimately museumized.”

These are troublingly familiar charges. Orientalism, imperialism and cultural appropriation have long been recognized as Very Bad (Western) Things. Edward Said, the Palestinian-American activist and classical music critic for The Nation, has famously condemned Western “Orientalism,” which he describes as a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority” over the East. Colonial rule was often “justified in advance by Orientalism,” which provided a critical tool for the spread of Western imperial power. And included in Said’s indictment are paintings, novels and operas, many of which “lent support to the global enterprises of European and American empire.” Even the New Grove Dictionary now concedes that nineteenth-century operas often reflected the West’s “colonialist and male-dominated outlook.” It’s enough to make you wonder: is our current fascination with Asia simply perpetuating a pattern of imperialist exploitation?

Before you throw away those tickets to Madama Butterfly (and cancel that pre-concert meal at Wagamama), you might want to consider one episode in the history of musical “Orientalism.” Three centuries ago, Europe was obsessed with “Turkish” music. Ottoman ambassadors visiting Europe often brought along their own ceremonial bands called mehter. The musicians blew piercing wind instruments, crashed cymbals and triangles, and most dramatically, thumped on an enormous bass drum. For those accustomed to the more refined sound of European court orchestras, the effect was thrilling. Before long, Turkish fashion swept European capitals. Many European courts employed their own mehter, and Western music underwent subtle (and not so subtle) changes. The piccolo grew in orchestral prominence, while fortepianos came accessorized with pedals that could operate “Turkish” cymbals or bells. The Turks, meanwhile, did some cultural appropriation of their own, abandoning their straight trumpets for the looped-tube variety invented in Europe.

Alla turca” music became the rage. Mozart’s 1782 opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, is one of the best-known examples, though countless symphonies and sonatas of the time were also embellished with “Turkish” themes or movements. By the time of Beethoven, experimentation with Turkish instruments hardly raised an eyebrow — they had been swallowed up in the standard European orchestra. When was the last time you heard the ecstatic finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, and identified the section with bass drum, triangles and cymbals as a “Turkish” march?

There’s much to celebrate in this story. Both cultures were enriched by their encounter, both were changed, both were “guilty” of cultural appropriation. Cultural promiscuity is almost always a profoundly creative act. Music and the arts thrive when they open themselves up to foreign influences. When they remain insulated and protected, they often become fossilized rituals devoid of emotional relevance.

Of course, other examples of musical “Orientalism” can be more troubling. Madama Butterfly might be a tragic love story set to exquisite music, but the fact that it quotes a dozen authentic Japanese folk melodies, and is orchestrated with tubular bells, a glockenspiel and a tam tam, does not make it a reliable guide to Japanese culture. Butterfly‘s plot exemplifies the narrative conventions of Western operatic exoticism, as capably sketched by Ralph Locke:

Young, tolerant, brave, possibly naive, white-European tenor-hero intrudes, at risk of disloyalty to his own people and colonialist ethic, into mysterious, dark-skinned, colonised territory represented by alluring dancing girls and deeply affectionate, sensitive lyric soprano, incurring wrath of brutal, intransigent tribal chieftain (bass or bass-baritone) and blindly obedient chorus of male savages.

On the other hand, those who have condemned such operas as ideological weapons in the service of Western political hegemony miss a larger point. Butterfly‘s world premiere at La Scala took place in February 1904 — one week after Japanese torpedo boats launched a surprise attack on the Russian navy in Manchuria. By the following year, Japan had annihilated two Russian fleets, setting in motion events that would lead to the downfall of the Russian empire and the decolonization of the Far East over the course of the twentieth century. In other words, if Madama Butterfly was an Orientalist weapon for dominating and having authority over Asia, it proved about as effective as a squirt gun. Bullets and bayonets — not Japanese bells — are the true weapons of imperialism.

Which is why it’s worth remembering that cultural appropriation is a much broader, and less alarming, phenomenon than many theorists of “Orientalism” would have you believe. Butterfly is regularly denounced for its cartoonish stereotypes of Japanese culture. But Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West, which performs similar offences against American culture, earns only indulgent smiles. Similarly, Aaron Copland’s bold acts of cultural appropriation are universally admired — even though they’re rarely recognized as such. Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, and The Tender Land have become iconic musical works embodying the traditional values of the American heartland — despite being written by a gay, socialist, Brooklyn-born Jew. And Copland’s own music was brilliantly “re-appropriated” in 1998 by the African-American film director Spike Lee. In He Got Game, Lee created a moving tribute to urban black culture (and to basketball, its unofficial sport) with the help of Copland’s soaring music.

This tangle of appropriations might be one reason why music is often misleadingly called a “universal language.” The organizers of recent performances of Asian music have certainly tried to present their concerts in such a light. Ma has stated that by “listening to and learning from the voices of an authentic musical tradition, we become increasingly able to advocate for the worlds they represent … We discover transnational voices that belong to one world.” That’s a worthy goal, to be sure, though it’s difficult to conceive how music can promote the kind of understanding that makes effective “advocacy” possible.

Maybe it’s better to keep things simple, and to think about what musicians throughout the centuries (in both East and West) have asked themselves when faced with the unusual or exotic: how can we use it? A sure sign that art is speaking to us is if we also want to speak through it. In that respect, perhaps the Ta’ziyeh is simply too strange for us, or doesn’t answer a need in the West’s political or artistic conscience. We are uneasy about glorifying martyrdom, suspicious of mass emotion. Or perhaps the Ta’ziyeh simply needs better salesmanship: the Silk Road Project benefits from the leadership of Yo-Yo Ma, one of the greatest cultural tour guides in history. The Project’s enormous commercial and artistic success suggests a deep resonance with its Western audience.

What is the West getting out of its encounter with Asian music? One hint can be found in David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise, a merciless dissection of the West’s new upper class of “bourgeois bohemians.” Bobos, writes Brooks, try to “get away from their affluent, ascending selves into a spiritually superior world.” They relish “People Who Really Know How to Live — people who make folk crafts, tell folk tales, do folk dances, listen to folk music.” This is gentle mockery, but it also illuminates a basic truth. Cultures need to evolve in order to thrive, and outside influences often contribute fresh and necessary ways of thinking or expression. In this respect, Asian music, which has captivated, inspired, and changed Europe and North America for centuries, has now become as essential a part of Western culture as the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven. Maybe it’s time to stop feeling guilty about it.