It is time to start respecting musical boundaries

Visiting the ECM website is rather like attending a Salvation Army service. You know there are worthy and wonderful things happening. But there is also a feeling of stasis. Take for instance this description of a new release:
Moroccan-born singer Amina Alaoui presents her own border-transcending project. When Alaoui sings there is “no need to discuss the origins of fado, flamenco or Al Andalusi” for the music itself explores the common crucible of the styles, and Amina’s delivery makes the interconnections impossible to miss.
The third question asked by Bálint András Varga in his invaluable book Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers is "How far can one speak of a personal style and where does self-repetition begin?" Now I will be the first to acknowledge that in the past On An Overgrown Path has featured more than its fair share of border-transcending projects. But that it not going to stop me saying that in world music, which Philip Glass famously described as the new classical, self-repetition has not only begun but is now in a pretty advanced state. Do we really need yet another border-transcending CD featuring this week's permutation of oud, clarinet, sitar, violin, daph, saxophone, and tabla? Well, I suspect the answer is the record companies need it more than their customers. For as Virgil Thomson famously told us:
Never underestimate the public's intelligence, baby, and never overestimate its information.
Today's audience for art music certainly should not be underestimated. It has developed a healthy taste for non-Western sounds via rock music and has created a thriving market for authentic performances via early music. So why does so much non-Western music have to be drowned in a fusion sauce before it can be served up? Titi Robin recently wrote about colonial attitudes within Western music and surely it is time to stop transcending musical boundaries and instead start respecting them. Which also means respecting those traditional non-Western musicians who have worked within perfectly valid stylistic boundaries for centuries. What would be the reaction if Copland could only be played in Scotland with an improvised part for bagpipes or Elgar in China with pipa obligato?

But there is more to this than a lack of respect. Through its obsession with fusion projects the music industry has missed two important sales opportunities. The first is the demand for authentic performances of traditional non-Western music; for instance the musicologically correct Master Musicians of Jajouka's (seen above) Apocalypse Across the Sky reached the top ten of Billboard's world music chart and was chosen by two influential critics as their record of the year in 1992. The second missed opportunity is the market for the exciting fusion-free new music that is being created outside Europe and North America, and there is no better example of this genre than a remarkable new CD from Turkish pianist Seda Röder who is seen below.

Listening to Istanbul aims to introduce the unexplored world of Turkish contemporary music to an international audience. Harvard Associate Seda Röder has commissioned six works for solo piano from leading contemporary composers from Istanbul. These have been recorded on the new CD and are being performed in a series of concerts around the world. Recording venue was the Fraser Studio at WGBH Boston and the producer is Harvard Fellow and husband of the pianist Matthias Röder.

Musically the CD is a triumph. But the importance of Listening to Istanbul transcends the music. The disc showcases a new generation of Turkish composers, yet the influences on them are truly cosmopolitan and include Brian Ferneyhough, Tristan Murail, Wolfgang Rihm, Lukas Foss and Haci Arif Bey. There is not a quotation from Rumi or a mystical sounding ney to be heard on this outstanding new release, yet by respecting musical boundaries Seda Röder has created a genuinely border-transcending project. Listening to Istanbul comes from a musician owned record label and this kind of deserving low budget disc relies on classical music's viral loop to achieve any market traction. So here's hoping.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Listening to Istanbul and Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers were supplied as requested review samples. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


JP said…
Great post. A facile 'fusion' tends to dominate a certain rung of the music scene here and it's sad how heterogeneous the end results are, with none of the vitality and distinctiveness of any of the styles being fused.
Pliable said…
To expand on the comment above, Jayaprakash writes from Bangalore, India.
Civic Center said…
"So why does so much non-Western music have to be drowned in a fusion sauce before it can be served up?" is a great line.

However, some of the fusion stuff is important and actually creates something new, for everyone, as you have well documented over the years.
Pliable said…
Quite so Mike. But the question "where does self-repetition begin?" is also important, and not just in the context of world music.

Self-repetition is becoming a substitute for creativity in many fields, and without creativity art becomes entertainment.

I am sure I will feature more fusion stuff here. But checks and balances are also important. That was the purpose of my post.
rchrd said…
Seda Röder's cd Listening to Istanbul is a "triumph" as you say! Who knew? But in these days of infrequent live performances of music by living composers (no matter the country), and even less exposure possibilities on the radio, it is encouraging to see recordings like surfacing thru vast wasteland of today's music scenes. Turkey, Iceland, Norway, new music lives.

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