Asian Musical Influences In The West

by Marcia Sloane

"All great art begins with imitation." -- Jean Luc-Goddard

In 1985 fusion or non-fusion of eastern and western musical elements may not have yet altered the course of musical history, but a musical partnership between East and West certainly continues to flourish, and the following statements illustrate this across-the-world musical continuum and some of its various blendings.

Chou Wen-chung cites the confucianist Record of Music to the effect that "The greatness in music lies not in perfection of artistry but in the attainment of te . . .'that by which things are what they are.'" In other words, the emphasis is on the single tones and their natural virtue or power by which these tones are what they are. Chou suggests that Eastern and Western music derived from the same source, the West having since diverged toward polyphony, the East toward te.

(from Murmurs of Earth, the Voyager Interstellar Record, by Carl Sagan)

It took Tony Scott, Western jazz clarinetist, to coax two of the greatest masters of traditional Japanese music to join him in an unrehearsed session of purely spontaneous playing. Ordinarily Japanese classical music--as performed on the koto and shakuhachi--is extremely rigorous and formal, but Scott . . . charmed Yuize and Yamamoto into this free-floating improvisation by his skill in playing the clarinet in the mood and style of the bamboo flute.

(Alan Watts, record jacket notes from "Music for Zen Meditation and Other Joys")

JAZZ! Hubert Laws, flute; L. Subramaniam, violin; Neo-fusion sound combining the best of East and West!

(concert announcement, San Francisco Chronicle, January 20, 1985)

What I call the great sitar explosion began in early 1966 . . .The special attraction to sitar suddenly came about when the Beatles and the Rolling stones and some other pop groups used it in recordings of their songs . . .Many people these days think that Indian music is influencing pop music to a high degree. But my personal opinion is that it is just the sound of the sitar and not true Indian music that one finds in pop songs.

(Ravi Shankar in his autobiography My Music, My Life)

PARABOLA: We'd like to start with your thoughts on "listening" and especially the necessity for performers to listen to each other.

Steve Reich: There are a number of facts about my ensemble that are tied into that. Number one: the thirty musicians who played the first piece, "Music for a Large Ensemble," in our Carnegie Hall concert, played without a conductor. That's unusual in most Western situations with musicians anywhere near that number . . .They are listening to each other and playing chamber music--even though that chamber music may be of the size of thirty musicians . . .With a conductor they don't have to listen, and they take it from his or her ears. The only other place on the planet that I'm aware of where you'll find upwards of fifteen or twenty people playing together without a conductor is in Indonesia.

(interview with Steve Reich, Parabola magazine)

Colin McPhee is the person who probably knows more about the music of Bali than nobody else in the world, including Balinese, because he went around and gleaned all of the fine information from everybody in Bali . . .What happened was that hearing a few records in the early thirties he was so fascinated that he and his wife went to visit Bali and they were going to be there for at least two weeks when they went and they stayed seven years instead, building themselves a house, and Colin McPhee himself formed a gamelan . . .and then he got the old men who knew the most about the history and theory of the music of Bali . . .and he took these things and wrote them down in Western notation.

(radio interview with Henry Cowell on the work of Colin McPhee)

In the middle "thirties" John Cage invented a useful, indeed fascinating way of forming a piece. He himself refers to the type of structure as "the whole having as many parts as each unit has small parts, and these, large and small, in the same proportion." Suppose, for example, that one composes a phrase ten measures. The entire form will now be 10 x 10, or 100 measures . . .Interestingly, Young San Whay Sang (the splendid Korean Court work) contains one movement which is perfectly formed in square root form . . .While composing in this way one feel as though using a "lost-wax" process (since one seldom uses the same structure for two different pieces), and the result suggests a Mandala, balanced, and temporally symmetric.

(Lou Harrison's Music Primer)

" . . .I have devoted more time to the study of non-European musical systems than other Western composers, but that is because I took it for granted that a 20th-century composer would need to know and to choose from among many kinds of musical inheritance in the world . . .Every continent has developed literally dozens of musical styles, all of which had beauty and meaning for their practitioners. This great sea of musical imagination seemed to me my natural inheritance, within which I must find my own music . . .How may one learn to live in the whole world of music -- to live, and to create? No single technique, no single tradition is any longer enough."

(Henry Cowell quoted in an article by Oliver Daniel appearing in Louisville Orchestra recording album notes)

Antonio Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" undergo a fascinating change of climate. Here is every note of the Italian baroque masterpiece performed with devotion and a stunning new sound by Japan's virtuoso chamber group, The New Koto Ensemble of Tokyo.

(album notes, "Koto Vivaldi")

Music creates joy . . .Man cannot exist without joy, and joy cannot exist without movement.

(Li Chi - 1st century A.D. Chinese book on music, as quoted in Sagan's Murmurs of Earth)

This article was written by Marcia Sloane, cellist with Ancient Future and lecturer on Eastern music at the College Of The Redwoods here on the Mendocino Coast.


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