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The enchanting exotic

An exploration of 'otherness' in Classical music.

Art by Resha Tandan

The exotic is no stranger to classical music. Whether it’s the Arabic scales and Indonesian folk melodies throughout Claude Debussy’s Estampes suite for solo piano, or Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, a story of an Ethiopian princess set in the Old Kingdom of Egypt, the concept of ‘otherness’ has always been alluring to composers. Cross-cultural influence is inevitable, but several composers throughout history have sought to sonically capture the essence of a foreign world, sometimes even inventing their own idiom to represent the ‘other.’ Exotic inspiration is consistently filtered through western ideals, and we hear this throughout classical music history. 

Typically, ‘classical music’ is used as a blanket term regarding the western art music tradition, which spans from Medieval plainchant sung by monks in the sixth century to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in the 18th century; Beethoven’s Symphony No.5  all the way to avant-garde atonalism in the 1900s; even sometimes used to describe film music scored for orchestra. But more specifically, Classical music with a capital ‘C’ refers to music written between roughly 1730 and 1820. All issues of periodisation aside, music from the Classical era had simpler, lighter textures than the complex polyphony of Baroque music and the dense expression of Romantic music to come—the music is marked by cantabile (song-like) melodies, homophonic chordal accompaniment, fixed forms, and a general air of elegance. To refer back to classical music in its broader sense, the term is simply too all-encompassing to produce any definitive understanding of what it actually is. But generally, there is one thing in common between all eras: systems of notation.  

In Medieval to Baroque music, scores merely gave indications to performers—it was expected that performers know how to fill in the rest, usually through improvisation. Scores from the Classical era onwards were increasingly prescriptive in their directions to performers, who were expected to follow the composer’s markings for speeds, dynamics, articulations, and expressions. And notation is, of course, an issue when it comes to expressing non-western music, much of which relies on aural traditions, through western systems. This is exacerbated by general connotations of superiority regarding western traditions, and score-based performances in general. 

A parallel example can be made with the issue of notating spirituals, deeply rooted in aural traditions and often created spontaneously. Philadelphia musicologist and piano teacher Lucy McKim Garrison wrote in 1862: 

“It is difficult to express the entire character of these negro ballads by mere musical notes and signs. The odd turns made in the throat; the curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different irregular intervals, seem almost impossible to place on score.” 

On another note, musical thoughts often have their genesis in notation. But notation can also limit and misrepresent the music that exists outside these predetermined systems. 

Exotic inspiration exists in music of all eras, but it was especially popular in the nineteenth century. At this time, Europe was fast becoming an interconnected and cosmopolitan continent with increased travel between countries and, on a darker note, expanding colonialism. The world beyond Western Europe became even more seductive, representing fantasy, mystery, and even danger and sexual freedom. An especially popular image was that of the Middle Eastern woman, with her darker beauty and serpentine dancing. Opera was an especially large proponent of exoticism, presenting on stage colourful sets and extravagant costumes. And the music itself often became more suggestive—Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, for example, explores pulsating rhythms and tantalising melodies. Carmen spends much of the time entertaining those on stage, rather than expressing her emotions through song, as was typical of operatic heroines. The suggestiveness of the music itself represented female sexuality unhinged, something perhaps even more foreign to audiences.  

In his thesis ‘Romantic Exoticism: The Music of Elsewhere in the Nineteenth Century,’ Josiah Raiche defines exoticism as “the evocation of distance to create a sound perceived by the listener as belonging to another music tradition.” He goes on to identify three ways that composers conveyed ‘otherness’ in music.

The first way of expressing the exotic was to utilise extra-musical elements to create interest, such as costumes or sets in dramatic works, while still relying on Western forms and melodic elements. Exoticism was attractive and marketable, and the oriental grandeur of foreign places drew crowds. For example, Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio is set in a Turkish harem. Yet the libretto is German, and the opera itself adheres quite closely to the Singspiel genre in three acts.  

The second method is through romantic exoticism, which relied on how the audience perceived a place. For example, the second piece in Debussy’s Estampes, titled “La soirée dans Grenade” mimics guitar strumming to evoke images of Granada, Spain. At the time, Debussy had only spent a few hours in Spain and was largely unfamiliar with the folk music. Yet Spanish composer Manuel de Falla said of this movement, “There is not even one measure of this music borrowed from the Spanish folklore, and yet the entire composition in its most minute details conveys admirably Spain.” Debussy delivers the sonic image that we might have already constructed in our minds, playing on the audience’s collective (and romantic) imagination of Spain.

The third and final way of conveying otherness was through realistic exoticism, in which gestures and extra-musical features are borrowed, or represented with as much accuracy as possible. Think Béla Bartók, Hungarian composer and musicologist, who travelled around Eastern Europe with a phonograph, collecting the folk songs of gypsies and peasants. As opposed to the stylised idioms of Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian music, Bartók aimed for highly detailed transcriptions of Eastern European music. In his 1921 journal he wrote: 

“The study of all this peasant music was of decisive meaning to me, because it opened the door to the liberation from the former tyranny of the major and minor systems. … while also containing the greatest variety of the most liberated rhythmic patterns and meter changes, in both a kind of rubato [roughly, expressive freedom] as well as tempo giusto [“in exact time”] performances.”

The problem with defining and exploring the exotic, however, is that it is rarely possible to understand it on its own. Identified as ‘other,’ it exists in constant opposition to ‘us.’ The exotic is the reduced and totalised ‘other’ against which we construct our understanding of ourselves. Musical orientalism is all too often a matter not of authenticity but of conventions, most of which are invented. Bizet’s Carmen, for example, is the work of a musician born in Paris, based on the novel of a Parisian author, and adapted for the Opéra-Comique by Meilhac and Halévy. The opera was thought to be quintessentially Spanish, and yet Bizet had never travelled to Spain—for Spanish ‘flavour,’ he sought out folk songs written by Spanish composers. Foreign music was to be used in palatable doses. As Jonathon Bellman writes in The Exotic in Western Music, “The exotic equation is a balance of the familiar and unfamiliar: just enough ‘there’ to spice the ‘here’ but remain comprehensible in making the point.” 

In September last year, a book was released called The Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions. Promisingly, European music is but one chapter, and brought level with the rest. The book surveys the classical music of south-east Asia to North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, from North American jazz to Chinese opera, all analysed according to the same framework. Each ‘music’ is described in terms of modes, scales, theoretical systems, instruments, forms and aesthetic goals. The authors, almost all schooled in the western tradition of musicology, but some accomplished performers in their music of study, resolve to a broader meaning of classical music, irrelevant of geographical location: 

“A classical music will have evolved in a political-economic environment with built-in continuity … where a wealthy class of connoisseurs has stimulated its creation by a quasi-priesthood of professionals; it will have enjoyed high social esteem. It will also have had the time and space to develop rules of composition and performance, and to allow the evolution of a canon of works, or forms; indeed, the concept of a canon, validated by a system of music theory, is a defining feature of all classical music.” 

Furthermore, the authors dispel the notion that classical music is elitist, since almost all classical music has vernacular roots, and there is no hierarchy of superiority ascribed to any one classical music.  Just as the authors themselves demonstrate, a western education can equip us with the tools to study other musical cultures, and without constant reference to our own. We can view exotic influences as gateways to understanding musical worlds beyond our own. Or it is hopeful to think so, anyway.