Western or Traditional?

In the context of judging the "World Traditional" category for the AFIM recording awards [now defunct 04/04/10], the question "Is this world traditional music?" often arises. Consequently some thoughts on criteria behind that decision, as well as the relative merits of the question itself, come to mind. On the latter point, in the artificial world of recording category, the question must be answered, and I do my best to answer it. However, more broadly, music is something we hear, and although understanding its origins and techniques is certainly helpful for a deeper enjoyment, ideas on what "category" it falls into with respect to the billion dollar recording industry are not necessarily relevant. One aspect which is relevant is the context in which the artist expected their music-making to operate, and I'll come back to that below.

There are two main techniques by which Western & non-Western traditions can mingle. Traditional themes can be set in Western-style harmony, performed on Western instruments, or perhaps both. These are by no means the only conceivable ways, but they do make up the majority of music in the gray area between the poles. I would characterize true fusion as more sophisticated in nature, whereas the above two methods can be very straightforward. One question to address is why these directions should be the typical ones, rather than taking Western themes and treating them by the methods of other traditions. The latter is not unheard-of (there are Carnatic examples of this technique), but certainly rare. The answer to the instrument question is probably the simplest, namely that the Western mechanized construction generally makes for more durable bodies on which producing a pleasant sound is easier. In many cases, instruments elsewhere are scarce, fragile, and extremely difficult to use (let alone master). I'll submit that this is a simple benefit of commercial factories, but not without its cost. Many Western instruments lack some of the subtleties of tone found in their cousins elsewhere, and that's a big issue for those of us who value such subtleties. The case of Western harmony is also not particularly perplexing, as various systematic treatments exist for setting very many types of melody, and so other themes are easily accommodated. There is little doubt that Western harmony holds an attraction for many musicians around the world, and I continue to believe that a big part of the appeal is about being louder (as remarked earlier). The West is very loud in all its endeavors, if I may be permitted to apply a sonic term across the board, and there are few people indeed who when being shouted at will continue speaking quietly and with self-assurance. It is an analogy which bears thought, or so I think.

From there, the question which must be asked is this: If Western-style harmony is so appealing to everyone, why did it start in Western Europe? The simplest answer, and I mean it in all earnestness, is that it had to start somewhere. A better question is whether it coincidentally started in the region which went on to establish world economic domination, or if the two are more strongly linked. Clearly, many in East Asia believe the latter (that or they're simply taking no chances). Let me back up for a moment and discuss "appeal" as used above. I want to credit historian J. M. Roberts with what I believe is a very succinct and fairly value-neutral explanation of Western culture in this regard, namely that it is the most "corrosive" culture on the planet. By that he means it has shown itself able to enter other peoples' lives, breaking established relationships of order, all the while doing it with those peoples' tacit approval, even if the end result is evidently to their disservice. If we were to adopt a particular philosophical position, as so many people do, such a corrosiveness would be termed "better" in a memetic sense. Well, I reject that notion, although I can certainly see its appeal (as it requires no discernment). Is Western-style harmony like this, i.e. is it corrosive? My loudness argument says "yes" at least to some extent. I hesitate to say more, because there are facts of history which are so far left undone. Art will naturally incorporate everything, and so we can imagine that reciprocal forces will incorporate non-Western ideas into Western music, making certain that available outlets expand on all axes. The relative slowness can be explained by the fact that Western culture is brought to other locales far more aggressively than their culture is brought here. But both do happen, and so the asymmetry might be one of time only.

So what of these musical examples? Is music for Western brass quintet, written with Brazilian themes, in Western harmony, in a Western format, by named composers with University-style vitae, a "World Traditional" endeavor? I say it isn't, but evidently some people disagree. If you take away one or more of those factors, I am more inclined to let it pass, even if I wonder. After all, traditions do build upon other influences and continue in multiple directions. In regions where Western proximity has been very long, any truly indigenous tradition would have to remain totally isolated to meet a strict criterion, and so that is perhaps unfair. Of course, the category isn't supposed to be a value judgement, but that implication can be unavoidable. The truth is that I am rather underwhelmed by rote Western harmonic treatments of native themes, and there are a lot of those. There are "vertical styles" in other traditions (gamelan, etc.), and then other interesting cases of adopting a few Western ideas on the subject while retaining a more thoroughly idiomatic treatment. The latter is fairly developed in the Near East, where symmetric cultural interaction goes back to Ottoman times and beyond. In those cases, the result still sounds Turkish or Iranian or Egyptian, at least to me. I guess that's the main thing, one which is also relatively perceivable in the sort of ego relationship the composer takes with respect to his work. A Romantic attitude shines through sometimes, and that is simply not the traditional context of music-making.

Ideas such as "attitude" and "context" seemingly enter my explicit thoughts more often than would be typical. However not only is ascertaining this orientation important for critical evaluation, I find it crucial for actually relating to diverse music in a direct and personal way. Without the latter, there is little point, and I would not be happy bathing in soundscapes. That's where the question of "category" becomes relevant, because attempting to approach a piece of music inappropriately can only cause frustration for audience and performer alike. While I do not want to slide along this slope to the point of placing so-called "composer's intentions" on a pedestal, it still helps to have some understanding of the particular sort of time which some music was devised to fill. Of course, that understanding can be mediated explicitly by the performer, and transplanted into a context more suited to the listener. In this sense, and especially in music where the composer is less prominent, ascertaining the performers' intentions becomes more immediately critical. This is an area of artistic diversity in which one hopes the typical Western orientations do not become dominant.

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Todd M. McComb