Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Orientalist Soundscapes, Barred Zones, and Irving Berlin's China

Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Orientalist Soundscapes, Barred Zones, and Irving Berlin's China

Article excerpt

Through a close lyrical reading of Irving Berlins 1917 tune "From Here to Shanghai," this article exposes how the popular music of Tin Pan Alley, through its unprecedented proliferation via sheet music, theater shows, and the burgeoning technologies of motion picture and radio, promulgated an "Orientalist soundscape." Tin Pan Alley echoed and amplified anti-Asian sentiment and the national politics of exclusion that were embedded in the contemporaneous cartographic prohibitions of the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone Act. Songs such as "From Here to Shanghai" built a sonic environment that pervasively created, remixed, and promoted images of China and other Asian nations and their peoples, one that lives on today in the strategic use of pentatonic scales and lyrical symbolism. This article argues that writing songs for the Orientalist soundscape served as a form of cultural citizenship and a way of performing (White) American identity, particularly for the newly arrived Jewish immigrants who became Tin Pan Alley's most prolific lyricists.

INTRODUCTION

Tin Pan Alley, the name given to the built spaces and to the business of popular music making in the United States from 1880 through 1953, (1) solidified the modern-day sonic tropes of what I call the "Orientalist soundscape," or the sonic environment that pervasively appropriates, creates, and disseminates sounds meant to signify the Orient and its imagined peoples. To begin, I agree with Joseph Lam's assertion that music is "an American site in which cultures and ethnicities are being multivalently negotiated." (2) Importantly Lam recognizes that this site includes "much more than what immediately reaches the ear and meets the eyes." (3) What Lam suggests here is a facet of the soundscape, a term pioneered by R. Murray Schafer to describe "events heard not objects seen," which in turn serve as an indicating "means of fixing social and even political events." (4) Sound events require a source, a landscape and medium through which sound waves travel and get shaped, and a witness to their happening lest a tree fall in the woods without anyone around to hear it. In this physical journey from attack to sustain to decay to release, multiple entities negotiate the nature of these sounds in multiple ways.

One way we negotiate the nature of sounds is in the naming and labeling of sound types or genres. In particular, culture makers in the United States and elsewhere have labeled sounds such as metallic harmonious tones or the bang of gongs as "Asian" or as originating from "the Orient." Per Edward Said's insight, I understand that this discursive work of signifying the Orient draws upon "representative figures, or tropes." These tropes are identified as "alien" and then schematically incorporated into the domains of the operator, such as in prose, on a theatrical stage, or in music. (5) Just as tropes and the language of which they are comprised shift over time, so do their discursive environments. It is with this realization in mind that I take Tin Pan Alley as my environment of study and Irving Berlin, one of the United States' most prolific and loved composers, as my wordsmith of interest. Specifically this paper examines Berlin's song "From Here to Shanghai" (1917) not only for how it contributes to the discursive work of the Orientalist soundscape but also for its historical liming and thematic elements that are still important for contemporary discussions about immigration.

The labeling of certain sounds as "other" during tenuous immigration policy periods can function as a form of cultural nationalism. As the century-long dominant music form of the United States, Tin Pan Alley dictated who or what belonged. It was commercial, rooted in a minstrel tradition that formed the popular music soundscape ever since the 1820s, and was strongly wedded to the emerging art entertainment industries of printed sheet music production, audio recording, theater shows, radio, and film. …

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