Older readers may recall with fondness Edgar Bergen, a very popular American entertainer who poured his comic routines through ventriloquist dummies named Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Edgar so loved the performing arts, that he created an annual celebration to showcase classical music, dance, opera, and theater, which continues and thrives to this very day: the Bergen Festival.

Okay, that’s not really what the Bergen Festival is, but after hearing a modern composer with a strong Chinese musical identity—Bright Sheng—prop up Scandinavian folk tunes on his knee, and manipulate them to entertain the public, the spirit of Charlie McCarthy—a bourgeois puppet in top hat and tails, monocle in place, spouting low vaudeville patois—was in the air…

More about the American premiere of Bright Sheng’s Northern Lights and the world premiere of Anthony Newman’s Sonata Populare here.

I am very interested in reading your views on stylistic appropriation. Does it only creep out older dudes like me, or is it an affront to all contemporary composers? Why or why not?

2 Responses to “Bright Sheng and Anthony Newman premieres at La Jolla Summerfest”
  1. Garrett Schumann says:

    I heard Bright Sheng talk about his music at my graduate interview at UMich last February and he had some interesting comments about players which corroborate the reviewer’s assertion that Bright Sheng approaches his native culture’s indigenous music from a decidedly western perspective. He surprised most of us in the room when he told us that Western orchestras almost always play his music more to his satisfaction than Chinese orchestras. Mr. Sheng explained Chinese players play his music with an implacable Western affectation that muddles the Chinese folk elements he subtly integrates into the landscape of his compositions. In contrast, Mr. Sheng believed western orchestras approach his music more flexibly, and more easily achieve the unique intermediate atmosphere he desires in his blending of Eastern and Western influences. I found that an interesting paradox given the obvious musical sources Chinese-American composers deal with.

    As to your question about stylistic appropriation, I find it a very challenging question to answer because it is not a black-and-white situation. I agree with Sarah’s comment, but want to add the caveat that we must draw the line of legitimacy when the composer’s individual voice become lost within the context of the borrowed style. There are many American composers who, in my opinion, succeed brilliantly at stylistic appropriation – Ives, Bolcom, Rzewski, to name a couple – because the references they employ are clear, but their music retains the compoer’s personal identity. I feel other composers – George Rochberg after String Quartet no. 3, Kevin Puts, some John Zorn and Alfred Schnittke, and many young composers (including myself, at times) – invest so much in the style they choose to explore that it is hard to tell how much of themselves is present in the music, if any. I am not condemning these composer’s stylistic predilections, just noting that I think they can get too caught up in imitating a frequently anachronistic style and fail to communicate their individual artistry much beyond the tropes required to make their desired allusions. Remember, many common practice composers appropriated foreign styles, but the masters always retained their identities regardless of how far they ventured.

    In my opinion, stylistic appropriation is one of the most pressing and confusing issues in our art. It is also controversial and personal, so I appreciate this posts’ potential to breed a healthy and illustrative discussion on this topic.

  2. Sarah says:

    I think that if a musician hears something she likes, she should be able to incorporate it into her musical experiments without people giving her a hard time.

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