28 Nov 2009

Composing in a bi-cultural environment - a European composer and the gamelan experience

Abstract After years of dominance of post-Adornoist historicism - "…The rules are not created arbitrarily. They are configurations of the historic pressure of the musical material…"(Adorno on Schönberg's dodecaphony, in: "Philosophie der neuen Musik", Frankfurt 1958, page 61) - the time has come to acknowledge other "pressures" with a more spacial character. In this realm, Indonesian gamelan music has increasingly played a significant role for Western composers since the late 19th century in various ways. 
 
Yet, my personal occupation with another culture or its respective forms of musical expression has never sprung from being fed up with the European world, and therefore has also never been a form of escape. My occupation has also nothing to do with the search for new kicks or as it was polemically formulated by Helmut Lachenmann, the search for "non-European fresh meat". My interest was based exclusively on a genuine curiousness, to learn about the life, mentality and thought of other people in order to learn for the sake of learning.
 
However, to learn something has nothing to do with a false compensation for various artistic shortcomings. Since my creative beginnings, it was self-evident for me that historical responsibility could not be the sole measure for my artistic and cultural orientation. Moreover I am convinced that the occupation with the present is of utmost importance, especially in a time of potential globally disseminated simplifications and superficialities. 

Differentiation and cultural differences have to be continuously cultivated and even in some cases re-established. The experience of diversity and the otherness, the experience of another history of art, and the possibility to view ones own culture critically from outside through the filter of another culture has become of higher importance for me than an exclusive critical or dialectic discourse within my own culture alone.


About three years ago a well-known critic stated after a concert with my "Kammermusik II" that this piece is influenced by Indonesian gong-sounds and - cycles. In no way better is my short biography in the new encyclopedia "Geschichte der Musik im 20. Jahrhundert" ("History of 20th Century Music"), which says that I am in search of a global musical language, including traditional Indonesian instruments.

Please note two interesting irritations. First, what does a global musical language have to do with instruments from a certain culture? Second, in case of Indonesia, the author labels instruments as "traditional". Does anyone ever speak about traditional European instruments in Western contemporary music?

The list of such quotes, misunderstandings, and even misjudgements would be endless. As being partly the object or source of such interpretations, I am moved to ask myself: Am I living my life without recognizing my own music? Or do the critics and musicologists simply derive pleasure and satisfaction from creating myths upon myths....?

20 Years ago I would not have spoken about myths but about threat assessments:
Critical positions towards my involvement with other cultures usually took on an aggressive character, endlessly repeating more or less Adorno's ill-fated, though at his time quite understandable, statement:

"…The rules are not created arbitrarily. They are configurations of the historic pressure of the musical material…"(Adorno on Schönberg's dodecaphony, in: "Philosophie der neuen Musik", Frankfurt 1958, page 61)

Fortunately these times are over, although other "pressures of a more spacial character took over partly. Even some fundamentalists of the historicistic-dialectical aesthetics agree, though half-heartedly, that today there might exist other ways of orientation than their own ones.

But could it also be possible that those persons mentioned in the beginning make such unqualified statements because of a genuine uncertainty how to deal with artistic expression of a person with bi- or multicultural background? Do they perhaps desperately attempt to create so-called "archimedic points" of orientation in the plurality of contemporary music? I could not blame them at all. Nobody is able to know all the musical languages and semantic systems of this world. Thus no one can be expected to judge or evaluate the question of potential influences or the logic of an intercultural aesthetic at all.

Therefore I would like to begin my presentation with an important basic statement:

Especially BECAUSE I have lived in another culture for many years - including active participation in its everyday life, especially BECAUSE I practice the music of another culture on a more or less professional level, it never occurred to me to execute a form of imitation or adaptation of that foreign culture. It has never been an artistic consideration for me. Such a myth has been exclusively propagated by others.

I would agree with Helmut Lachenmann, who - during a discussion in the House of World Cultures in 2005 - stated that ultimately, there is a certain possibility of a real existential experience. It may happen, only when one abandons a mere touristic attitude of walking around in a foreign culture, in favour of a radical intrusion into the other culture and its peculiar type of life-form. Only then might a real creative activity on a bi- or multicultural basis be developed.

And this is exactly what I have tried to live over the last 31 years, in contrast to many so-called multi-or intercultural artists, who just jumped on a temporarily popular train of world music's "gado-gado". The banal and conscious adaption of elements of a foreign musical language has never appealed to me, but only in-depth study on a practical and partly theoretical level.

Remarks on Prejudices in the Intercultural Discourse

I think it is not wrong to state that the reception of the music of other cultures has some similarities with the perception of contemporary music or even very old music. Up to a certain degree we perceive those musics as something always with new codes that have to be learned.

In other words, according to my opinion, temporal distance and spacial distance imply a similar problem of perception in the era of global availability. An iso-rhythmic motet may be perceived as far way or very close; but so might an Indian raga. And our occupation with both may lead to new experiences, as long as differences are stressed and not superficial simplifications.

But it becomes problematic when - due to increased international cultural exchange - our cultural system prefers those foreign representatives who are supposed to be closer to Western standards, disregarding completely whether that happened consciously or unconsciously by the artist. This is a phenomena that I have addressed in my second lecture on "Weltmusik", because it still reflects a certain hegemonic attitude where the Western development of contemporary music - consciously or unconsciously - became the framework for those developments in other cultures. You all remember my beloved example from the Contemporary Music Festival in Donaueschingen in 2004.

But we should also be careful with another mistake. Due to a misunderstood political correctness, it often happens that a Westerner demands that a Japanese composer has to sound "Japanese", a Korean composer "Korean" etc. - but once again, only according to our criteria. Such a process of ethnicising artists creates greater polarisation instead of mutual understanding and exchange.

About My Own Development and Approach 

Perhaps it has already become clear that during my search for an own artistic identity and vision as a composer, my bi-cultural experience was never especially placed into the foreground.

This is in concordance with my conviction, that artistic identity and autonomy has to be developed and cultivated apart from all collected personal experiences and interactions. Only then, when I am able to risk a degree of distance from myself, do I gradually approach this, admittedly quite personal, utopia. The conscious step of leaving all one's personal networks and dependencies may partially "pull the rug out from under one", especially if one favours an artistic concept that tends to avoid any non-musical relations or deconstructive attitudes as I do.

Nevertheless, my continuously growing aptitude for such an approach has been achieved on the background of those, mainly bi-cultural experiences. And, after a certain time, the wandering between two cultures became a mere status quo for my life. It enabled me to always have a critical distance from culture A while living in culture B or vice versa.

However, the bi-cultural experience was of central importance for my social sensibility and responsibility. If my life - even during students' times - was defined by the conviction that, as a composer, I belonged to an elite group, the various phases of living and studying in Bali caused a significant change towards a so-called "local responsibility" and relation.

But this new attitude did not cause a change of my musical language to become more easily accessible for those local people. I still believe in the artistic autonomy and the necessity of an elitist position as a contemporary artist. But I started to become much more involved with the common people of my local environment, giving them the feeling that socially, we are dealing on the same level.

How this can happen? The background of my new life orientation was the long-time experience of a culture where collective consciousness is the basis of its society, while at the same time individualistic aspects where possible as well - and even had always been asked for.

In other words: The living consciousness that I experienced in Bali was communicated to me as an individualistic one. But the individualistic was - and still is - always transformable into the collective. This exchange or continuous mutual infiltration of two quite contrary social concepts of living was one of the most fascinating experiences for me. I gained the conviction that this phenomenon also includes something that I call "the trans cultural", a term that was often mentioned by the American composer Lou Harrison as a fundament of his artistic approach.

By that I do not favour a superficial musical universalism, but I believe in the fact that every culture and its respective music contain something "transcultural" that goes beyond the locally related semantic elements.

Both aspects are of importance for me.
Coming back to my personal orientation, such experiences mainly caused a new way of thinking, creating a complete balance or equivalence in the temporal and spacial orientation. Living in another culture, the gradual daily adaptation to another rhythm of living, another concept of life etc. have finally and step by step "relativized" my own space-time-network during my search for an artistic identity.

My occupation with another culture has never sprung from being fed up with the European world, and therefore has also never been a form of escape. My occupation has also nothing to do with the search for "new kicks" or - as it was polemically formulated by Helmut Lachenmann - the search for "non-European fresh meat". My interest was based exclusively on a genuine curiousness, getting to know about the life, mentality and thought of other people in order to learn for the sake of learning.

Since my creative beginnings, it was self-evident for me that historical responsibility could not be the sole measure for my artistic and cultural orientation. Moreover I am convinced that the occupation with the present is of utmost importance, especially in a time of potential globally disseminated simplifications and superficialities.

Differentiation and cultural differences have to be continuously cultivated and even in some cases re-established. The experience of diversity and the otherness, the experience of other histories of art, and the possibility to view ones own culture critically from outside through the filter of another culture has become of higher importance for me than an exclusive critical or dialectic discourse within my own culture alone.

Nevertheless I do not avoid such a discourse.

The Vanishing of the Points of Orientation

It has been various factors, that gradually crystallized themselves as principal elements of my own culture during my occupation with another culture or which led me to that what I call "my own personal culture". The experience of the Other has initiated certain reflective processes. But they have always been autonomous and musically immanent on a so-to-speak "non-cultural" level.

Mostly important for me is the fact that:

Through the occupation with another culture, the necessity of points of orientation for my artistic work - or in the words of philosopher Harry Lehmann, the "archimedic points" - gradually seem to vanish. Only in this way do I come closer to what I call my own culture. By that, the experience of another culture became more and more a catalyst for my own consciousness. This somewhat exegetic process was - and still is - quite painstaking, but includes at its centre, an evaluation of my consciousness and my artistic work based on that consciousness.

Given that in almost all societies the normative - those "archimedic points" - is considered as a basic necessity to get by in life, then such an attitude is unquestionably counter-productive in an intercultural discourse. "Archimedic points" for one's own sake and stability, impede the real acceptance of the Other. Consequently, a consciousness that eschews these archimedic points would be an - although utopian - ideal state of mind, including an utmost degree of tolerance. Unfortunately such an ideal consciousness is still seen negatively and labelled as a symptom of a post-modern "anything goes" mentality, but I disagree completely with that notion.

Personally I believe that the artistic ability to decide something must not necessarily be connected with such points of reference, without being accused in the same moment of favouring an uncritical post-modern aesthetic. In this regard, I would like to refer to a main aspect of the so-called "Koan" in the Zen-Buddhism.

A "Koan" is the instructive formulation of a problem which, because of its inherent contradictions, defies a rational understanding. Only an encompassing occupation with the problem may lead to its transcendation, in a way that goes beyond that simple contradiction. But this may only be experienced individually and defies any form of verbalisation.

We could compare it with an artistic process of decision making, far away from all traditional dialectic processes, but also far away as well from any post-modern aspects of dissolution.
From my point of view, one may gain a new form of artistic freedom of decision, which is neither irresponsible nor signified by an inherent dependency on self-restraint. An expression by Stephane Mallarmé supports my thoughts quite well:

I have created my work only by elimination. And each truth, that I have gained has been coming out of the loss of an impression, that has destroyed itself in the very moment of its appearance and which - because of the freed darkness- , allowed me to get deeper into the feeling of the absolute darkness.

Also this quotation - from a time that hardly can be accused of postmodern thought - implies the lack of those "archimedic points", without loosing orientation or without falling into, what Lehmann calls "total subjectivity".

Let us have a closer and critical look to that last term by Harry Lehmann. It is evident that Lehmann refers to a complete lack of criteria. By that, he wants to problematize the real lack of freedom that comes of making an artistic decision in the cauldron of arbitrariness.

But one may understand that term the other way around as well, as a radical demand for personal responsibility which determines itself only out of the fact itself. Mallarmé's exegetic touch is similar to that process of self-transcendence that should be experienced by an artist during the process of creating, in order to achieve an objectification of the subjective. Lehmann's way out of the dilemma is what he calls "provoking of new self-descriptions of the society as a point of objectification" and I would agree with that.

But it seems not to be the only solution. I would like to suggest an alternative or an extension, more related to Mallarmé's concept. It is the idea of a virtual or imaginary point of objectification in the Self. But once again, such an exegetic process cannot be expressed verbally nor can it be predicted. One may only get into it and accept that so-called "darkness".

Consequences for my Compositorical Principles and the Role of the Gamelan Experience

Based on those philosophic means mentioned above, the following compositorical principles have forced themselves into the foreground in my music over the last years:

- a special attendance to the aura of a musical instrument
- Creating sound colour with a peculiar mixture of instrumentation, harmonization and voicing.
- the functionality of colotomic structures
- Energetic expression and ritual collectiveness of, e.g., unison playing
- Musical concepts that increasingly address aspects of the psychology of perception
- Concepts of musical syntax in connection with a more additive concept of music.

As I have already pointed out, the term "gamelan experience" in the title may lead in a wrong direction, because it was a) more "the other culture experience", and it was b) just a small brick in the wall of my whole realm of life experiences, in music as well as in other fields.
All six points mentioned above can be connected with Balinese gamelan, but at the same time as well with other forms of music that had been of peculiar relevance:

1. The aura of an instrument is perhaps less relevant for my musical language. It is more a subjective attitude that has certain "do's" and "not-to-do's" as a consequence. In Bali it is not allowed to step over the instruments, and the big gong is supposed to be the place of the main spirits. A good violin is also often looked at as something magic and treated like that. It transports an aura that in the hands of a responsible person may create unexpected experiences.

2. To compose sound colour has even less to do with Balinese music, though the Balinese also use parallel "mixture"-like playing in unison passages. But it is quite standardized. Only in recent compositions, some composers are experimenting with new combinations:

a) the consequence of point No.1, which impedes the use of special playing techniques that - according to my opinion - would destroy the aura of the respective instrument; but also

b) my studies in French music and acoustics.

3. The functionality of colotomic structures is probably the closest relation to gamelan music. Formal frameworks defined and marked by gong cycles is a basic feature of the formal structure of gamelan music. Even the rhythmical counterpoint of the drums has a certain connection with it. However, the marking of a formal structure by mainly percussion instruments like gongs and bells can also be traced back to various religious practices in the Catholic church. Furthermore, compositions with a more additive structure (see Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen and others) also use such formal devices. A good example is also Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Telemusik" from 1966,

4. The ritual aspect and the energetic physicality of unison playing is also something that I would consider to have a transcultural character. Energetic physicality through unison playing is at once an obvious issue and it is not exclusively owned by Bali. Just listen to a lot of, for example, Frank Zappa's music. However, the term "ritual" is much more complicated because it implies a lot of contradictive connotations. As we do not have the time to discuss the content of that term, just allow me to state that I believe in the positive and even contemporary function of ritual experiences in the widest sense of its meaning, without any peculiar religious (ceremonies) nor social collective (soccer field) character.

5. Even this fifth point concerning musical perception is less attached to any peculiar culture. Psychoacoustic research has revealed an incredible amount of phenomena while listening to music, whether it is physically or socially related. Recalling the fact of the non-existence of a common musical language in contemporary music, research on perception became increasingly interesting for me. in order to improve the dramaturgy of each composition.

6. This last point is one of the consequences of point 5. It had become obvious to me that all music forms that are based on a more additive concept have to deal with similar problems. In regard to musical syntax, there is a striking evidence of similar formal solutions, for example in the music of Mozart, Balinese Gamelan, Stockhausen, and even myself. Please apologize that I cannot elaborate on these issues in detail because of limited time.

Conclusion

All six aspects that are of a certain prominence in my music may actually be related to Balinese music. But they may also be found in other musical art forms like rock or jazz, from other cultures again or even from the 14th century in Europe, just to name a few possible sources. The important question is, how a composer with open ears and genuine curiousness is able to design and execute his or her own exegetic process, in order to transform this bundle of experiences to become his or her individual form of expression, to become his or her own culture.

- Prof Dieter Mack (Vice-President, University of Music Lübeck, Germany)
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