Mp3 Blog #79: Anxiety and the Exotic

Enno Poppe:
”Öl” Part 1 (2001-04)
For small orchestra
Performed by the Klangforum Wien, Stefan Asbury Conductor
Available on this compact disc from the Wergo label

Duke Ellington:
”Ad Lib on Nippon”
Available on the excellent Far East Suite

Umm Kalthoum
”Ana Hali Di hawana agab
Available at emusic

* * * * *

For almost two months I’ve been working on gathering and constructing the materials and initial sketches for composition to be played by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne. During I come up with a number of ideas based upon piano improvisations, continued some of my previous explorations in rhythm, harmony/timbre, microtones in OpenMusic, and spent some time taking apart pieces by Lachenmann, Rihm, Vivier, Scelsi, and Grisey. Despite this work I have largely felt that I’ve lacked a method to unify these elements in a manner that would satisfy my formal conceptions for the work. To try and rectify this I’ve spent hours listening to new works in the hope that they might demonstrate part of a solution to my dilemma.

After hearing Enno Poppe’s “Öl” for the first time a few days ago I found what I think is probably be the solution – long exotic melodic lines. In “Öl” Enno Poppe bases most of the music and form around these long melodic lines exotically filled with ornate non-equal tempered embellishments and intervals. Although these resemble and allude to non-Western folkloric melodies they seem entirely in place in Western instruments in this contemporary composition.

Coincidentally these are exactly the types of melodies I have improvised singing and whistling to myself since I began college. A few years ago I had the idea to record a number of these improvisations and then montage and transcribe them for a solo instrument like a clarinet, oboe, or viola. However I have never had an opportunity to realize this idea and, until now, I frankly have been too afraid to even attempt to.

Most of my anxiety towards this material stems from the fact that it alludes to folkloric music from cultures that I am not a part of and, therefore, do not know their their complex and delicate subtleties and implications. Over the last few days and occasionally in the last few months I’ve commented on this fear to a number of my friends emphasizing issues such as “How can I pretend to use folkloric music from cultures I don’t even know?” and “How can I have the audacity to pretend I know this music so well as to insert it into our so-called Western ’art’ music?” Furthermore I’ve long had a deep respect and fondness for various traditional like Afro-Cuban drum chants and Gamelan orchestras and despise commercial world-beat and other world music that superficially use any much more deep-seated folkloric traditions. My real fear is that if I were to use the type of melodies that I like to sing to myself is that I would do so similarly superficially and risk creating the very type of music I despise.

My initial anxiety towards using exotic melodies is similar to my anxiety towards using more popular music elements in contemporary “classical” or “art” music. Because I don’t want this entry to turn into a personal polemic I won’t site specific compositions or composer, but I often that composer who fail in this latter regard do so because they do not fully incorporate this elements into their compositions’ sound world or – even worse – attempt this incorporation as a superficial attempt to make their music more widely accessible.

On the other hand, there are a few contemporary composers I’ve heard who I think succeed incorporating popular music with “classical” or “art” music. For example I think of think of Glenn Branca’s fully conceived guitar orchestral symphonies that practically ooze with the angst and visceral energy of a no-wave punk New York. I also think of Fausto Romitelli and how he completely incorporates certain psychedelic mutations, mutilations, and over-the-top histrionics into compositions like Professor Bad Trip.

Now if one considers our popular music to just be a different form of the world’s continually changing and vibrant folk or folkloric musical traditions there really isn’t too much of a distinction between incorporating exotic and popular music into one’s own so-called “classical” or “art” music.

This immediately brings to mind one of my favorite jazz albums Duke Ellington’s “The Far East Suite.” Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn composed the music for this suite after an extensive tour of the Middle East and Asia. In the liner notes they admit that this tour led them towards the suite’s more exotic elements but they also admit that they did not conscientiously borrow or learn exotic materials or musical procedures. The result is something that, although it sounds at once exotic, also seems more distinctively theirs than any other of their works.

I feel that this is also what Enno Poppe does so successfully in “Öl,” or what Claude Vivier did in works like “Lonely Child” and “Zipangu,” or what Scelsi did with his explorations of Eastern Mysticism, or what Bartok did with Hungarian folk music, or what Ligeti did with the endless folkloric laments in his late works. In fact upon further reflection I can think of almost a countless number of examples to illustrate this point.

To make a long story short, I think I may for myself to overcome this anxiety of the exotic by attempting to let it come fully from what I would do naturally or, in other words, to more strongly bring out the personally exotic in what I already do. For me, I find this often comes out in hypnotically tangling and unwinding visceral laments. To achieve this I’ve begun spend more time trusting my ears, imagination, and more experimental abstract explorations to guide me and it’s starting to become a lot of fun.

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