Saturday, 26 March 2011

China | Music | Musientalism

This article takes this week’s theme, China, as a jumping-off point into the concept of Orientalism, namely the clumping together of a collective ‘east’ as an exotic, dangerous, and different single entity. Whether such a leap is itself problematic, despite this article’s attempt to highlight other Orientalist problematics, is for the reader to judge. I can only apologise if it is interpreted as such, it wasn’t my intention. Obvs.

As with so many facets of the racism inherent within so much of the contemporary geopolitical scene, Team America nailed a phenomenon that I have decided to call MUSICAL ORIENTALISM within, like, a single minute of it starting. I refer, of course, to what happens 1:50 into the following YouTube clip:

I mean, of course, the appearance of an A-Rab being accompanied by the quavering, unstable, wailingly other sound of the generically ‘eastern’ vocal that has made it into pretty much every cinematic and televisual depiction of the Middle East (not to mention India, Pakistan, Tibet and beyond) of the last ten years. And to the implication that I believe this trope exists to facilitate, namely the following associative chain:


I believe that it functions as a kind of musical shorthand designed specifically to suggest unfamiliar religious malice, in the same way that minor chords suggest threat and a rolling sax equals sass. And I believe that using it as a way of introducing an individual or, even worse, a location constitutes a statement that INDIVIDUALITY BE DAMNED, because everybody here/who looks like this is the same, a terrorist or an ally of terrorism. And if they’re not the same, they’re deviating from the norm, which is terrorism. And that we can only trust that they have indeed deviated from the norm if, when they appear onscreen again, their appearance is accompanied by nice instruments like luscious violins and cellos and trumpets and clarinets. Or even better, Top Gun guitars.

Consider the following two trailers, which took me a total of twenty three seconds to find. And, specifically, the way the (ironically, considering the whole point is that it is supposed to represent unfamiliarity) familiar wail interweaves itself between terrible explosions, images of shifty-eyed dusky folk and memorable statements such as ‘these humanitarian runs – I don’t like them – we’re always putting ourselves in danger’...

I consider this ubiquitous trope to be a blatant form of the kind of cultural Orientalism that we like to think we’ve moved on from, because contemporary travel literature doesn’t read quite as embarrassingly as Flaubert’s adventures, or T. E. Lawrence’s tales of desert buggery. Consider the following fragment of Edward Said’s definition of Orientalism:

In a sense the limitations of Orientalism are, as I said earlier, the limitations that follow upon disregarding, essentializing, denuding the humanity of another culture, people, or geographical region. But Orientalism has taken a further step that that: it views the Orient as something whose existence is not only displayed but has remained fixed in time and place for the West. So impressive have the descriptive and textual successes of Orientalism been that entire periods of the Orient’s cultural, political and social history are considered mere responses to the West. The West is an actor, the Orient a passive reactor. The West is the spectator, the judge and jury, of every facet of Oriental behaviour.

What is the definition, via music, of Arab culture as universally suspiciously Islamist if it is not considering the Orient’s ‘cultural, political and social history’ as ‘mere responses to the west’? And what is the assumption that ‘Arab’ music hasn’t changed in a few thousand years – is still best represented by something based largely upon a style of music as ancient as Islam itself – if it is not the Orient ‘fixed in time and place for the West’?


Of course, this phenomenon has crept a problematic path into contemporary western music also. Two examples immediately spring to mind – Taken By Trees' 2009 record, East of Eden, and the opening track on Laurie Anderson’s latest, entitled Transitory Life...

Actually, both of these are pretty thoughtful meditations upon East/West cultural collision, and I feel bad criticising Laurie Anderson because, firstly, she’s fucking awesome and secondly, I think the role of the opening voice in Transitory Life is as much about counterpointing Anderson’s violin as it is its own connotations. However, I think the important point of comparison is this: whilst Victoria Bergsman’s East of Eden project came burdened with some alarming trappings, such as what Pitchfork called ‘an accompanying National Geographic mini-documentary’s whiff of cultural condescension’ and an album cover that couldn’t be more Gap Yah if it tried, it represents Pakistani instrumentation, Qawwali and so on informing an elegant take on folk-pop that remains distinctly Swedish, in terms of everything from its lyrics to its pervading ambience. It is about Pakistani culture educating a Western music, without that Western music attempting to use that culture’s otherness for lazy ‘exotic’ and ‘mysterious’ gain.

Whereas whilst I have no doubt that Anderson is more respectfully receptive to other cultural traditions than the vast majority of musicians working today, I can’t listen to the opening of Transitory Life without thinking that it’s doing just that, appropriating, using a voice dripping with otherness in order to set an ambiguously strange scene. Anderson’s whole life has been spent synthesising ambiguous strangeness, building her own instruments, manipulating electronics a generation before her peers. She doesn’t need this kinda world music lite bullshit. And frankly, neither do the myriad utterly different cultures that are bracketed together by the conception of a collective Orient that its existence continues to perpetuate.

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

No comments:

Post a Comment