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AUSTRALIAN MUSIC PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

A Review in six parts by DEREK STRAHAN

6. TRANSCULTURAL FUSION

In previous articles I have suggested that the attempt by musicologists and academics to prescribe guidelines for the direction of composers has resulted in a suppression of the lyrical and melodic impulse in music, over the past decades, in favour of a more fragmented music described as avant-garde but in fact bringing up the rear of an Euro-American front line. Of course, within these parameters, some composers have happily and successfully developed their own idioms; and there has been some attempt at cultural transfusion through the absorption into Australian music of Asian influences. But, I have suggested, certain elements have been excluded from the evolutionary stream in concert music, in particular, primal influences from popular song and dances. In that these influences have not been excluded from the art music of previous centuries, our present era offers a unique case for study.

On second thoughts, though, perhaps the present rigid division between, on the one hand, a simplistic and often vulgar popular music and, on the other, an increasingly stand-offish art music, has its parallel in the centuries before the Renaissance, when all art was polarised. It was perceived to be either sacred or secular, and if secular probably had in it some elements of profanity. The evolution of art music may be seen as a process whereby this barrier was dissolved. The end result is the music of the Baroque, the Classical and the Romantic periods when the craft developed in the writing of sacred music was lavished on secular music; and when, synchronistically, quasi-religious fervour was invoked to endorse the essentially political concepts of Europe's underground stream - whose standard bearers were mythic male rebels such as Prometheus, Faust, Manfred, Don Juan together with actual revolutionaries such as Egmont and William Tell; and the self-willed heroines of opera, from Beethoven's Leonora onwards.

It is possible to view the twentieth century as providing the consummation of nineteenth century music, not so much musically, as in terms of emotional and psychological acceptance. Seen in the perspective of history, one observes that the revolutionary and individual impulse of romantic music is still very much relevant in a world where the battle to achieve human rights is only just beginning to acquire both moral and practical leverage. Much twentieth century music, however, reflects alienation and disenchantment to the point where one wonders which has been the primary motivating force behind its composition - the desire to use decomponent devices resulting in alienation of the audience; or the desire to alienate the audience, resulting in the use of decomponent devices. Although the end result is the same, there is a profound difference in self-awareness between the two approaches. The former suggests an irremediable habit of composition, the latter an emotional stance of pessimism which determines the musical language which the composer uses.

It is also possible to view the subjugation of the creative impulse in this century to ideological imperatives as being a reflection, in music, of analogous processes in politics. In this century politics has effectively replaced religion as a device for manipulating and controlling social behaviour. Thus, one may view much twentieth century art music as expressing the same subjugation to political doctrine that an earlier music expressed in relation to religious doctrine. Seen in this perspective, the music of the Classical and Romantic periods may be seen to offer a unique flowering of the human spirit and it is this, rather than any specifics of musical language, which explains its continuing popularity. Moreover, it is through such music that the emerging countries of the world are learning to feel and apply the subversive imperative of the free human spirit.

Is there any area of music in this century which has consistently expressed positive energies and which has consistently invoked the desire to break constricting social and economic shackles. There is, of course, and this music is jazz, and its almost infinitely schismatic variants In pop music. As written art music, jazz reached its greatest flowering in the three decades from 1936, which saw the emergence of black arrangers, such as Fletcher Henderson, working for white bands, such as Benny Goodman's, and in the emergence of black composer-arrangers of genius such as Duke Ellington. As I mentioned in an earlier article, all linguistic terms used to denote a jazz style, rhythm or often a specific dance, did double duty in black slang as terms denoting sexual activity, and this is completely understandable and in accordance with the role of jazz, from the turn of the century, as a social catalyst. Dancing to jazz not only provided, and in its contemporary forms, still provides the definitive environment where people go to meet and form relationships; it also quite literally provoked and still provokes release mechanisms which induce sexual excitement, and which enable people to overcome their inhibitions and any inherent insecurities. This it does by inducing changes in body chemistry, and its power to do so derives explicitly from its origins in African tribal music, where elaborate polymetric drumming is used for specific social and ritual purposes.

Upholders of the puritanical western tradition were and are quite correct in condemning jazz and rock music as being of the devil, in as much as they found themselves helpless to prevent the social liberation of which jazz music is both an agent and an expression. Jazz represented a subversive attack on the puritanical moral principles taught by missionaries , and one which was successful because it offered no verbal argument which missionaries could neutralise with counter-argument. Jazz invokes the reality of an alternative culture by reproducing it existentially, in the nervous system, through audio-visual stimulation. Western culture was and is helpless against such an onslaught because it has derived its strength by banning excessive social use of such stimulation. Jazz offers the most dramatic example of transcultural fusion, and of the power for social transformation which such fusion holds.

Seen in this perspective, it becomes clear that it is jazz and popular music which have inherited the socio-political banners of the nineteenth century romantics. Romanticism was, of course, always will be a political movement, The term derives from the French word for a novel ('roman'), and nineteenth century literature was profoundly subversive. Novels and plays and opera celebrated the concept of "love for love's sake" and this, in a class-stratified society, was an invitation to anarchy. We forget that, in their time, the tragic heroes and heroines of the 'roman' were, in their doomed loves, seen as victims of social injustice. The writers and composers who, through art, endowed love with such transcendental power, were creating a force which would smash down class barriers much more effectively than the political ideologues which were to follow them. Later, then, it comes as no surprise to observe how just as in jazz, the populist revolution found expression in music of transcultural fusion, so that same force, jazz, transformed music theatre to create a genre of entertainment in which "love for love's sake", twentieth-century style, was enthusiastically celebrated. It was in America that operetta evolved into the stage musical , and it is no accident that it reached maturity in Jerome Kern's "Showboat" and in George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess", both dramas which addressed the issue of class awareness in U.S. society, in terms of colour. As technology developed, the initiative moved to cinema, which, through the American film musical, became as important a force in the development of music theatre as any other medium.

Cinema itself, is the true inheritor of nineteenth music drama, and, in its eclectic use of music from any source, so long as It serves the interest of the drama, film music offers a much healthier philosophy for art music, than the dogma-bound strictures provided thus far by concert music. However, if a Berlin-like wall still divides concert music from jazz and popular music (with only the occasional escapee surfacing in each opposing camp), the fault does not solely lie with the composers of concert music. Jazz composers and arrangers are as much to blame, for practising their own perverse form of obscurantism! In the May issue of Sydney Music Diary ('The Essence of Cool' - 2) Freddie Hill, to my delight, offered two musical examples to illustrate a notational difference between jazz as it is played, and as it is normally written (*). I refer you to Freddie's quotation from Charlie Parker, and make the additional observation that Fig. 2, written in 4/4 time with alI the phrases marked in triplets, could, with equal accuracy, have been written in 12/8 (without the need to mark triplets).


(*) To illustrate musical obscurantism. From the May 1989 issue of Sydney Music Diary. Jazz - THE ESSENCE OF COOL - 2 Effortlessness- Real or Ideal? By Freddie Hill.

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It is an observable fact that a trained jazz player will read a given line of notes very differently from his classical counterpart. (Let me dispel another myth here -the vast majority of jazzers do read music! The difference lies in the placement of accent and inflexion with which a jazz musician will naturally invest such a line. A fragment such as the following, from Charlie Parker: Scrapple from the Apple.

Fig. 1 May be interpreted as in Fig. 1 by the "straight" musician. Whereas the jazz player will make it sound something like Fig.2

 


A thesis yet remains to be written comparing jazz as played with jazz as written, revealing the obdurate refusal of jazz arrangers to write with metric accuracy. This mostly involves the avoidance of compound time (because it looks messier? Why not write in 12/16?); but one suspects that, behind the use of sloppy metrlc shorthand, is a quasi-masonic plot to guard the mysteries of the craft from outside intruders - such as interlopers from the world of "serious" music!

Of equal obduracy is the insistence or art music composers that, in the final analysis, jazz cannot really be written down, as played. In the cause of this thesis, "swing" phrases are played into a music computer, and solemnly measured to, say, fractions of a seventeenth, purportedly to prove that "true" jazz cannot be accurately notated! Is this motivated by a desire to deter composers from attempting to incorporate polymetric subtleties in their work? One suspects that if a live performance of Chopin were similarly fed into a computer, any phrases played with artistic 'rubato' would fail to accord with the written music. Conversely, for a really bizarre experience, let me recommend that you gain access to a 'state-of-the-art' electronic piano in which the first movement of Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' is stored, press the appropriate button, and listen to the machine playing Beethoven's notes with metric accuracy. The moonlight shimmers with all the-magic of strip lighting in a roadside cafe!

It seems clear that there is some other force at work here which motivates both jazz and art music composers to preserve their terrain. Jazz composers have no rational reason for refusing to notate compound time as compound time; equally, to assert that jazz cannot be written down suggests an intellectual incompetence by which avant-garde composers are not usually disadvantaged. Behind such obduracy lies a mutual assent to division. Behind such assent lies a docile conformity which has not existed in music since pre-Renaissance days. What it adds up to is atavistic music tribalism!

It is indeed ironic that, in this century, once again we find music divided between the sacred and the profane. The sacred is no longer specifically associated with religion, but the practitioners of the craft of concert music are as concerned as the clergy of yore to exclude the noisy music of the streets from the devotional cloisters of their private retreat. The profane is no longer restricted to taverns, festivities and the hideouts of renegade priests, because it now has its own establishment, and its products are now packaged and marketed along with other consumer items. But the two streams flow in separate channels. Exist in separate ghettos. Examples of fusion still surface only as novelty items.

What has been lost to concert music - and it is a loss that began approximately after the end of World War 2 - is a universality which results from fusion. Two distinct but interrelated kinds of fusion are necessary to achieve the global awareness which is our heritage from the Classical, Romantic and Early Modern periods of music. Firstly, the fusion of the sacred and the profane, and secondly, the fusion of art music and popular music, or, if you like, supra-tribal and tribal music. We observe that this twin fusion, which I choose to term Transcultural Fusion, was achieved in Romantic Music by two distinct but interrelated social forces: on the one hand, the supra-tribal ideals of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment (which underscore the supranational ideals of democracy and the human rights movement) and, on the other hand, the essentially tribal ideals of the Nationalist movements. Musically, this gave us, firstly, music of global idealism, epitomised in Beethoven's work; and secondly, nationalist music, in which composers employed source materials of ethnic origin, a genre which persisted into this century, culminating in the work of Bartok.

The abandonment of global awareness in concert music, and, to some extent, in all music since 1945, may be attributed to two distinct but interrelated causes. Firstly, the trauma of two world wars has produced a reaction against the notion of aggressive nationalism, at least in western culture, and it is this alienation, this disgust at our heritage, which is the root cause of alienation in avant-garde music. Secondly, music has been increasingly subject to industrial processes, to specialist marketing techniques. These encourage division in the market place. The record industry seeks categories of music for easy sale. Music which crosses boundaries causes confusion in the minds of buyers, and creates difficulties for everyone in the music industry (except composers). Composers who seek to create fusion in music are regarded as industrially subversive.

Nevertheless, it is only in Transcultural Fusion, that any pregnant future for music can be found. One cannot really quarrel with the musical output of the last three decades, since it is a true and useful record of its times, and it contains much work of value in all areas of music. One can, however, and one must rebel against its narrow parameters, and seek to redefine the social and personal purposes of music, with the aim of creating one's own aesthetic. This cannot come solely from jazz, which is still recycling concepts evolved over the last one hundred years; it cannot come solely from the avant-garde, which has become more concerned with sonics and the orthography of scores than with audience communication; still less can it come from minimalism, a movement which is twenty years old, and still defies definition (probably because there is, by intent, so little in the music which lends itself to analysis!); it cannot come solely from what is now termed (commercially) "world music", that is, pop music of specifically local and ethnic origin, although this is probably the most valuable form of source material. However, with one additional ingredient, music can draw on all these sources to create a synthesis of twentieth century music, for the concert hall and for music theatre, in the decade left to us before the new millennium.

The additional ingredient is passion, without which music is an empty shell. To feel passion (from the Latin passionem, suffering) is to feel with the human species, and to desire the best outcome for our destiny, as a species. To feel passion is to admit to having desires and needs, to feel no shame in expressing them, and to find, in these needs, a community of purpose. In such passion composers may rediscover, in their own terms, the heritage of past music; such passion alone will fire the crucible in which the music of the future will be forged: music of the senses and of the spirit, music of both personal and social passion; music to unite peoples of all cultures. Such unity, such fusion will not happen automatically. It will only happen if it is desired. It is the role of music to express this desire.

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