Locating East Asia in Western Art Music

By Lai, Ada Nga-Ting | Notes, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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Locating East Asia in Western Art Music


Lai, Ada Nga-Ting, Notes


Locating East Asia in Western Art Music. Edited by Yayoi Uno Everett and Frederick Lau. (Music / Culture.) Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004. [xx, 321 p. ISBN 0-81956661-6. $70 (hbk.); ISBN 0-8195-6662-4. $27.95.] Music examples, illustrations, glossary, bibliography, index.

The prominence of Asian composers in recent decades is evidenced by the awards and prizes that they have received, along with regular performances of their works at music festivals worldwide, commissions from renowned orchestras, ensembles, and soloists, as well as rising sales of recordings featuring their music. East Asia has nurtured some of the most well-known contemporary composers in the world: Toru Takemitsu, Isang Yun, Chinese-American composer and Varèse scholar Chou Wenchung, and a newer generation including Tan Dun and Bright Sheng, among others. Their works have often been labeled "Eastmeets-West" or "East-West Confection" (introduction, p. xv). The most direct explanation for these descriptive terms combines aspects of the composers' Asian ethnicity, their adaptation of Asian philosophies and aesthetics with musical elements, and their use of the Western musical language as their predominant medium of expression. There is yet another dimension to "Easlmeets-West" in music. Some Western composers have been influenced by Asian philosophies and aesthetics, and others have tried to assimilate musical materials from Asian cultures in their compositions to create an exotic sound. Giacomo Puccini, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Henry Cowell, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, and Lou Harrison are some examples.

As suggested by the title, this volume attempts to locate East Asia in Western art music. The objective is achieved by investigating the music of both Asian-influenced Western composers and Western-influenced Asian composers. As an overview of the East-West mingling in music, chapter 1 not only offers an account of the early days of such cultural mixing in China, Korea, and Japan but also highlights the significance of cross-cultural readings in the study of "Eastmeets-West" music. Yayoi Uno Everett, editor of this volume and also author of chapter 1, observes that syncretism, synthesis, and transference are the basic criteria behind at least seven different strategies used by composers in integrating Asian and Western musical resources.

The eleven essays that follow cover a wide range of topics. Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 6 address historical, social, and political contexts that underlie the compositional process and examine how such contexts can influence the interpretation of a composition. Chapters 8 and 9 are music analyses that unveil the / Ching (The Book of Changes) as the governing principle behind the music of Chou Wen-chung, along with his cultural identity and quasi-diasporic experiences as attributes of his musical syncretism. Chapters 5 and 7 concentrate primarily on Western composers (incidentally, both American): postmodernist John Zorn's distorted and sadomasochistic representation of Asian women, and Henry Cowell's theory of sliding tone as an expression of Chinese cultural heritage. The remaining chapters 10, 11, and 12 are essays written by Cage, Takemitsu, and Chou. The editors point out that the inclusion of "[t]he final three essays provide three composers' own reflections on cross-cultural musical exchanges because we feel that this volume would be incomplete without addressing the composers' voices" (Introduction, xix).

One of the merits of this book is that it includes the study of more than a dozen composers in one volume, a number of whom are still alive and active. The chapters on living composers fail to follow closely their most recent works, however. The study on Zorn is based on his works from the late 1980s and 1990s-the compact discs Spillane (Elektra/Nonesuch 9 79172-2 (CD), 1987), Torture Garden and Guts of a Virgin (Tzadik TZ 7312-2 and Earache Records MOSH 45CD, both 1991), and Leng Tch'ema Elegy (Tzadik TZ 7312-2 and EWA 33004 (CD), both 1992); seven years have lapsed since the world premiere of Tan's Symphony 1997: Heaven, Earth, Man.

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