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WANT TO SOUND ORIENTAL? Just play the black notes!

September 30, 2011

by Adam Gustafson

Where is the Orient? What does it sound like? The term Orient is an oversimplification, representing a plurality of unique cultures and geographies. It is odd to suggest, for example, that Russia and Polynesia share much beyond their being regions that are east of Western Europe. European countries such as Albania maintain a strong Muslim identity that could be classed as Middle Eastern as much it is European. Over eleven percent of Canada’s population is now comprised of “Oriental” citizens, begging the question: is Canada, at least in part, becoming an Oriental country? After all, if you follow the circle, all things are east of Europe.

This 1742 painting "The Chinese Garden" by Francois Boucher may show more about the pastoral ideals and fantasies of mid-18th century than about China.

Since 1978, when Edward Said published his seminal book Orientalism, the notion of Oriental has been reshaped. Once implying a geographic region, Orientalism is now considered a set of value judgments born from a European colonialist mindset. Indeed, “Oriental” isn’t a set of cultures at all, but  a set of values assigned to one culture by another. And while his understanding of the term, rightfully so, is as a western invention that sees all things Oriental as negative and conquerable, it might be more generic to state that Orientalism and the Orient has been as much an act of defining ourselves as it has historically been an act of defining another culture. The songs being presented in this cabaret are not out to capture the spirit of another culture. Rather, they show the hopes, fears and general identity of the cultures producing them. In short, these songs are more about us than they are about them.

Inherent in Orientalism is the idea of the Other, which is the exposure to an identity that lies beyond our notions of normal. Interactions with the Other happen quite often: country kids watch television about city kids and vice versa; Republicans watch Michael Moore movies. Interaction with the Other sharpens understanding our own identities and values by relief when those values are thrust upon (or against) those with whom we are interacting. This dehumanizing effect can assume both positive and negative characteristics. Ever wonder if all Native Americans, who were considered Oriental at one point, actually care as much about the seventh generation as media portrayals of them would suggest? By them, I of course mean they’re all the same. How is it that the same cuddly and wise Native American, who emerged only after the first Earth Day, was at one time considered a dangerous, heartless heathen who would scalp you if he had the chance? There is a reason that Custer gets the monument rather than Crazy Horse.  These identities are impositions rather than realities. They reflect the values of a culture imposing itself; they do not reflect the cultures being portrayed.

How does Oriental music sound? Is there an authentic Oriental sound? Orientalism, which is one culture’s fascination with another, is not a description of culture but an imposition. Sounding Oriental, then, is quite easy to do. Take a bunch of stereotypes and string them together. Boom. Oriental music. The opening pentatonic phrase in the pop hit “Turning Japanese” by The Vapors is indicative of a band sounding Oriental not because it sounds like anything from Asia, but because it makes a sound that we accept as Oriental. Think of Will Ferrell’s George Bush versus actual George Bush: Ferrell’s caricatures of Bush’s vocalisms are now accepted as more W than W. Knowing that Orientalism is a construct about the performer’s culture rather than the culture being portrayed helps to shape our perspective of the music. Rather than merely chalking up most Oriental music – remember that Oriental is a Western construct – to being misguided appropriation or often downright racist, we can look to these songs as reminders of how our culture views itself.

Despite the obvious stereotypes – the names, the costumes, the silly pentatonic flourishes and, well, the entire show – Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado is as much a satire of an uptight Victorian England obsessed with the reproduction of Japanese culture as it is about anything actually Japanese. Unfortunately, much like the legions of NASCAR fans who didn’t understand that Ricky Bobby was making fun of them, much of The Mikado’s satire was lost on Gilbert and Sullivan’s audience, and it was relegated to another example of cutesy Japanese pastiche, as can still be seen in John English’s 2003 production for ABC in which the opening number is turned into a statement of Western ignorance about Asians – which is in itself a statement about the producer’s own biases, but I digress.

1919 D'Oyly Carte Opera Company publicity poster for The Mikado. Illustration by J. Hassal.

If Gilbert and Sullivan were using cultural distance to avoid a direct satire, Puccini’s Turandot was an attempt to portray what much of Europe believed was a barbaric Chinese society in the early 1900s. China was in the public spotlight at the turn of the twentieth century, as it sought to re-invent itself as a nation. China’s growing pains were tumultuous and included the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in which China – in a nice touch of the Other Othering someone else – demonized and tried to ostracize foreign influence from the country, resulting in the deaths of thousands of foreigners and the killing of thousands of Chinese soldiers as western powers put down the rebellion. Rather than dealing with the complexities of the time, Turandot dismisses Chinese leadership as fickle enough to kill over riddles – the only cure, the reintroduction of love into the life of its ruling elite.

On the other side of Turandot, Miss Saigon, which is based on the story of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly,  depicts the Orient as a victim of fickle U.S. power during the Vietnam Era. Miss Saigon doesn’t miss the mark by far in relation to Puccini’s opera, which during an age when colonialism was beginning to be questioned, asked Western culture to look at itself and the effects of its own policies. And while Madama Butterfly captures the early stages of colonial decline, it is Miss Saigon that offers the death knell, despite its being virtually the same story.

The Clash move us into the postmodern version of the Other in their attempt to call into question all modes of power as inherently corrupt, regardless of their cultural moorings. “Rock the Casbah” is an Orientalist account of censorship in the Middle East that is defeated by the universal power of rock. While this seems a straightforward knock to policies of the Middle East that any freedom-loving Westerner could enjoy – this song was praised by conservatives at the time – there is more to the story. One year earlier, the band released London Calling, a criticism of all things British and American, including nuclear power, financial insecurity and cultural paranoia – sound familiar? – suggesting that the postcolonial age became more about distrusting power than culture.

India: that wonderful place that gave us Yoga pants, cool George Harrison and yummy food. Long held as a place of spiritual escapism, Indian culture has been a focus for the West’s various identity crises for hundreds of years. Gustav Holst, who was at once a beneficiary of colonial Britain and respectful of the value of Indian culture, based many works on Hindu stories. This is a testament to the exposure that he gained by being a citizen of an occupying power. However, his sensitivity to that culture is a testament to how he valued it.

So how do we perform or hear authentic Oriental music? Musicians, more so than any other artistic medium, are obsessed with the idea of presenting authentic performances. So the theory goes, if we can understand the cultural context and truly understand the music being produced, we can provide for our audience an authentic performance. Thus, a folk song such as “Muko Yokocho” can be authentically performed for an audience in a pub in Chicago so long as the musicians learn the proper pronunciations for the words, the notes, etc. However, these acts of authenticity are still not about the culture being represented. As with the previous songs, even a performance is an assertion of cultural value by those performing and receiving the music. Despite perfect Japanese pronunciation and spot-on singing, “Muko Yokocho” as sung by VOX 3 is more an expression of an educated, upper-middle class need to reinforce notions of cultural and historical sensitivity, perhaps even superiority, than it is an authentic presentation of Japanese music. Woe be unto singer who mispronounces a single word. That no one listening understands the text in the first place (thus starving the entire room of the meaning and emotive affect that music and text combined can produce), is less important than giving an authentic performance. This begs the question, is faithful, accurate musical representation more authentic than a performance that aims to capture the spirit of the piece? Is it more authentically Asian to sing in Japanese or to feel what Japanese people feel? Is any of this possible?

In the end, no matter how many folk songs we incorporate, no matter how many times we call out the racist, colonialist or stereotypical qualities of an Orientalist work, the fact remains that we’ll be no closer to an authentic sound or representation of Oriental culture because presenting the other isn’t about that. The only authentic Oriental experience is that which comes from the West because it is a byproduct of Western culture. The reality is that the actual places that lie within the Western construct of the Orient contain any number of cultures and people and sounds and artworks that are as varied as anything. In short, we are more Oriental than the Orient.

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