Discover more from The Podium
The Hospitable Playpen
Questioning the concept of "cultural appropriation" in music
Last week, I came across the following quotation by the Peruvian-Chinese-American composer Gabriela Lena Frank in a promo for a performance of her Concertino Cusqueño by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra: “I’ve long been fascinated by my multicultural heritage and have been blessed to find Western classical music to be a hospitable playpen for my wayward explorations.”
When I read that line, I had a visceral negative reaction that I was loath to explain. At first, I thought it might be the dismissive tone of the word “playpen.” But when I really thought about it, I realized that Frank was describing not only one of the oldest ideas in Western classical music, but one of its best attributes. That is, Western music’s ability to—as Whitman would put it—“contain multitudes.” The ability of artists to take what they want and leave what they will. While it’s hard to imagine Beethoven using the word “playpen” to describe the process that led him to synthesize the fugue tradition of Bach, the string quartet, and his own inimitable genius into the Grosse Fugue, it is clear that he found in those influences quite a hospitable playpen indeed.
No, I realized that my negative reaction to Frank’s remark was something else. It was the realization that the “playpen” of classical music had been, until very recently, a two-way street. And sadness at the fact that it no longer is.
Western Classical Music, a Hospitable Playpen for the World
For hundreds of years, musicians hailing from the periphery of the original classical music world (meaning not from Germany, Austria, France, or Italy) have both enriched classical music and honored their homelands by bringing their native music traditions into the concert hall. Sometimes, they have done so by challenging the expectations of traditional concert audiences with the unfamiliar and uncomfortable. But over time, this process has expanded classical music’s audiences, its composers’ palette of available musical materials, and its cultural relevance.
The process began in Europe in the 1800s with such composers as Glinka in Russia, Dvorak in Bohemia, and Grieg in Norway. It expanded through the European diaspora to North America and Australia, giving us names like Copland, Ives, and Grainger, and then throughout South America and Asia—giving us composers like Revueltas and Chávez in Mexico, Ginastera in Argentina, and Takemitsu in Japan. Each of these composers—along with countless others—treated Western classical music as a “hospitable playpen,” and in the process grew it from a central European tradition into a universal human one. Frank, herself, is part of this process.
But if this openness to new voices enriching classical music through their native traditions is the “yin,” it has (until quite recently) come with a “yang”. That is: the assumption that composers within Western classical music should likewise feel welcome to enrich the tradition by going out into the world and incorporating influences from music cultures that are not their own. In other words, the implicit deal has been that the music of the world should be a playpen for the Western classical musician just as Western classical music should be a playpen for composers from other cultures.
If the yin assumption is alive and well in classical music today, the yang assumption is on life support. And I came to realize that it was the vast and widening double standard between these reciprocal assumptions that explained my negative reaction to Frank’s quotation.
The World, a Formerly Hospitable Playpen for Western Classical Music
It was during the classical period of the late 1700s that the Central European music establishment developed an interest in the sounds of the wider world. In the 1780s, Austro-German music went through its Turkish craze, which gave us such classics as Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio and Rondo alla Turca. Who could forget Salieri’s voice student paramour in Amadeus informing him that “everything this year is going to be Turkish”?
This same attraction to foreign sounds gave us the late romantic oriental (or if we ask Edward Said, orientalist) style of Saint-Saëns’ Fifth Piano Concerto or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. In this period we find the favored repertoire of postcolonial music scholars on which to unload their vitriol. Those academics are certainly correct to label much of this music inauthentic, since few European musicians in the 1800s had the resources to pack up, sail for Africa or the Arabian Peninsula, and stay awhile. Their “arabesque” stylings were therefore bound to be Western imaginings rather than real Arabian or Maghreb music learned through travel and listening. And there were even some works by major composers (like Saint Saëns’ Suite Algérienne) that had an overtly colonialist message, though not nearly as many as some activist scholars would have us believe.
These early efforts did, however, show a genuine desire within Western classical music to engage with the outside world. When steam shipping and train travel made that possible in the late 1800s and early 1900s, that promise was increasingly realized. And the composers who led this intercultural exchange played an outsized role both in setting the agenda for classical music in the twentieth century and in welcoming composers of non-Western and non-classical origin into the classical mainstream.
One early example was Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the New Orleans-born American composer who travelled throughout the Caribbean and American South in the mid-19th century, writing and performing enormously popular piano works based on the sounds he heard. Gottschalk’s compositions such as Bamboula and the Souvenir de Porto Rico helped pave the way for popular and folk song to intermingle with concert music in the Americas. It is hard to imagine how Scott Joplin and ragtime culture could have rampaged through American and world art music 50 years later without Gottschalk.
In the 1910s and 20s, French composer Darius Milhaud repeated much the same trick. Milhaud lived for several years in Brazil, immersing himself in the local music and culture. Not only did he feed some of these influences back into the European avant-garde, but he helped prepare the old world to appreciate native-born Brazilian classical composers like Heitor Villa-Lobos a couple decades later.
Back in America, there was Aaron Copland, who travelled to Mexico City in 1932 and incorporated the tunes and rhythms of local dance halls into his symphonic poem El Salón México. Copland’s Mexican host, Carlos Chávez, would play a Copland-like role in his own country, combining avant-garde, civic-minded, and historical Mexican music (both real and imagined) into his own style.
In Eastern Europe, there was Béla Bartók, who dragged his phonograph out into the villages of rural Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, and then even Turkey and Algeria. He came back with a trove of recorded and transcribed material, some of which he incorporated into his own concert compositions. In so doing, Bartok essentially invented the field of ethnomusicology, which would inspire others, such as Alan Lomax in the U.S., to do the same work in off-the-grid backcountries around the world.
And perhaps most centrally, there was the influence of Asia. During the impressionist period, Debussy and Ravel regularly adopted “chinoiserie” (often pentatonic and whole tone scales) in their music. Those sounds would become fixtures of 20th century musical modernism. Ernst Bloch integrated music he heard in the Chinese theaters of San Francisco into his compositions. In the 1950s, British opera king Benjamin Britten travelled to Bali, and came back infatuated with the complexity and beauty of Balinese gamelan music. In his 1957 ballet Prince of the Pagodas, he used novel combinations of gongs, cymbals, bells, and xylophones to evoke the sounds he had heard. In 1980, American minimalist composer Philip Glass premiered Satyagraha, an opera written to celebrate the nonviolent protest movement of Mahatma Gandhi. Satyagraha’s libretto was drawn from the holiest book in Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, and was performed entirely in Sanskrit.
The World Today, an Inhospitable Playpen for Western Music
Why do I present you with this laundry list of diversions into music history? Two reasons:
First, to demonstrate that cultural exchange (both from the outside looking in, and from the inside looking out) is a long, richly varied tradition in Western classical music.
And second, to show that the net effect of this tradition has been overwhelmingly positive—it has continuously revitalized the Western tradition, and incorporated an ever-wider world of musicians under the tent of concert music.
But today, by the evidence of the last 20 years, one half of that vibrant cultural exchange is essentially dead.
Try to think of instances since 2000 when either a composer in the traditional mainstream of Western classical music has taken a foreign music culture as inspiration for a composition, or when a composer with personal experience of one peripheral music culture has drawn inspiration from a different peripheral culture not their own. I would wager that you will think of very few.
One can never conclusively prove a negative, but many listeners will have noticed that culturally open-ended operas like Satyagraha and ballets like Prince of the Pagodas are not being composed anymore. Even operas that involve intercultural exchange have become rare since John Adams’ Nixon in China (1987).
This is not to say that no one today is writing music for Western classical ensembles that represents non-Western music cultures. On the contrary, there is more of it than ever before. But you will notice that music representing those cultures nowadays is only ever written by composers with personal claim (ethnic or, more problematically, racial) to those cultures. Terence Blanchard, a black man from Louisiana, writes operas engaging with the black experience in America (Fire Shut Up in My Bones). Mason Bates, a white man from Virginia, doesn’t. Gabriela Lena Frank writes music inspired by South American culture (e.g., Leyendas, an Andean Walkabout). Anna Clyne, a woman from England, doesn’t. Zhou Long, a Beijing-born composer, writes music incorporating Chinese sounds (e.g., The Rhyme of Taigu). Tyshawn Sorey, a black man from New Jersey, doesn’t. Mohammad Fairouz, an Arab-American composer, writes operas celebrating the life of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto (Bhutto). Gabriela Lena Frank doesn’t.
Even with travel easier and cheaper than ever, you will almost never hear today a Vietnamese-inspired piece of music written by a Mexican, or a Mexican-inspired piece of music written by a Vietnamese, or either written by a white American. Composers of minority backgrounds seem to have claim only to the musical or cultural capital of their own cultures, and composers of majority or Western backgrounds seem to have claim only to the mainstream.
What’s going on here? Have composers suddenly lost interest in cultures not ethnically their own? Unlikely. Instead, the evidence implies either that today’s composers do not consider writing music inspired by other cultures to be an option, or that they see it as too risky to attempt.
The siloing of classical music today has meant that the concert hall has become less a plaza of genuine cultural exchange than a World’s Fair, where a stream of diverse composers ascend the rostrum to talk about themselves. In the process, they are permitted to learn nothing from each other—or at least nothing that they will be allowed to adopt in their own composition. For to do so would be “cultural appropriation,” which is a sin worse than lack of curiosity.
And therein lies the reason why Western classical music has voluntarily surrendered one of its most powerful tools for self-advancement: Fear. Fear of the opprobrium we will receive by adopting the sounds of another culture without due respect (or deference), no matter one’s knowledge of that culture. Fear that history will remember us not as Bartók, but as Saint-Saëns—as a colonial apologist, as a racist, as a shallow-minded cultural appropriator.
This level of fear seems not to vary at all according to one’s depth of engagement with another culture. Artists across the spectrum of identities, experiences, and politics seem to be making the same cost-benefit analysis: that it’s better to be boring and not to be cancelled than to take a risk of career suicide to advance the art. If anything, the most “woke,” culturally sensitive composers seem to be the most fearful.
A Cautionary Tale: Roomful of Teeth
Recent experience shows that they’re not wrong to be afraid. That much was on display a few years ago in one of the rare cases in which a composer (both a composer and a performing ensemble, in this case) did decide to take such a risk.
Roomful of Teeth is a path-breaking small ensemble of contemporary vocalists, several of whom are also composers. The group made a name for itself in the early 2010s by commissioning composers both from inside and outside the group to expand the universe of classical singing by including vocal techniques from around the world in their works. Both the composers and singers would study those vocal techniques intensively with native practitioners, so that they could execute them comfortably and faithfully. Over the years, through extensive world travel, their oeuvre came to include works incorporating various forms of yodeling, throat singing, Korean bardic poetry recitation, and Indian classical singing, among many other traditions.
In other words, a musical project better-intentioned in its desire to learn from the cultures of the world could scarcely be imagined. One would think that if any cross-cultural musical experiment could withstand the censors of the 21st century, it would be this one. But it didn’t.
Perhaps the greatest success among Roomful of Teeth’s commissions was a piece by composer and group member Caroline Shaw called Partita for 8 Voices, released on Roomful of Teeth’s 2012 debut album. Shaw’s work was a tour de force of Roomful of Teeth techniques, combining many of those that they had learned. The album won a Grammy Award, and the piece made Shaw the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Partita was named the 20th best work of classical music written since 2000 by The Guardian.
The problem? The third movement of Shaw’s composition was based on katajjaq, a form of throat singing practiced by Inuit people in Canada. (Throat singing is a technique in which singers use vocal resonance to produce both a fundamental pitch and an overtone, effectively meaning that the singer is singing multiple pitches at once. Several cultures around the world have their own throat singing techniques, and Roomful of Teeth had specifically studied two of them: katajjaq and Tuvan throat singing, practiced in Mongolia.)
Douglas Murray has noted that intellectual drive-by shootings in academia sometimes take a while. Likewise in the arts, making it unsurprising that the scandal over Shaw’s Partita started in 2019, seven years after the album release. That year, an Inuit katajjaq singer named Tanya Tagaq tweeted that Shaw’s composition “is appropriation. The third movement . . . is entirely based on Inuit throat singing. Specifically the Love Song. No Inuit are named as composers, no Inuit hired. This won the @PulitzerPrizes @roomfulofteeth.” Tagaq crescendoed: “Taking from poor brown people and siphoning it into white throats and profiteering is wrong.”
Before evaluating Tagaq’s complaint, it bears mentioning that her claim that no Inuit were hired in the process of generating the piece was false. In 2010, Roomful of Teeth had invited two Inuit katajjaq singers to their summer residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams, Massachusetts, to teach them the art of katajjaq. Those singers were offered compensation, in addition to free travel and lodging.
The third movement Tagaq is referring to begins at 10:20 in the video linked above. Here is the traditional katajjaq Love Song that Tagaq mentions. Hearing both, the listener will clearly hear a connection (both in rhythm and vocal techniques) between the two compositions, but will also find that Shaw put the katajjaq techniques in a totally new context, overlaid with Western classical harmonies and expanded into a longer form. A hymn by George F. Root is brought in to the movement’s middle section. The katajjaq influences in the movement are present, but Shaw’s is very clearly a new piece. It is much newer—mind you—than many classical pieces in history that have borrowed liberally from their contemporaries or forebears. Since time immemorial, exchanging musical materials has been widely understood to be part of participating in the great conversation.
From the scandal that followed Tagaq’s complaint (which was liked 500 times), however, it appeared that there existed an Inuit exemption clause to that rule. Quickly, the scandal entered the new music mainstream, with composer Brent Michael Davids—himself of Stockbridge Munsee Indian descent, writing for New Music USA:
It does seem to my ears that some measure of cultural appropriation as likely as not occurred with respect to the Inuit culture. . . . Respectfully, considering [Roomful of Teeth’s] mission from an indigenous point of view, and acknowledging America’s long term genocidal undertaking against Native Americans, I wonder where cultural acknowledgment and respect—and collaborative equity—might fit into the [Roomful of Teeth] approach, given Tagaq’s objections. Growing a toolkit of vocal techniques gleaned from cultures around the world sounds a bit acultural to me. And combined with an effort to commission works by folks not from those cultures does sound a bit like cultural appropriation.
Davids’ response strongly implies two things: first, that “cultural appropriation,” as a term, doesn’t have a defined meaning. Rather, it is up to the aggrieved party to decide what constitutes appropriation and what doesn’t. (One corollary implication is that Davids, while not an Inuit himself but a fellow American Indian, has standing to comment on this issue, while non-American Indians don’t.) The second is that in Davids’ conception, Roomful of Teeth’s mission of expanding the tent of vocal music culture—no matter how sensitively undertaken—is off limits if it draws from certain protected musical traditions that have been sufficiently wronged by the West.
Roomful of Teeth had several options on how to respond to Tagaq and her boosters, and they chose the all-too-familiar one: an apology letter for the seven-year-old work and a promise to do better. In their joint letter, Roomful of Teeth founder Brad Wells and Shaw wrote:
Over the past two weeks we have received multiple messages from members of the Inuit community explaining that our singing in some passages comprises katajjaq and is, therefore, offensive. This was not our intent. In fact, we understood our music nested in these patterns to be sufficiently distinct from katajjaq to constitute something new. But thanks to the many voices we have heard in the past two weeks we understand that we cannot be the arbiters of that distinction. We have work to do.
The concessions Roomful of Teeth promised in the letter were to increase their crediting of indigenous experts, acknowledge the sources of vocal techniques before performances, and support indigenous musicians. Unsurprisingly, these promises failed to satisfy Tagaq, who demanded in further tweets that Roomful of Teeth name the singers they had studied with as “co-composers,” and pay them royalties.
In an interview with Boston’s WBUR Public Radio, Wells capitulated further. He claimed that Roomful of Teeth had learned from this experience that singing constituted a core part of cultural “identity” in some cultures, but was merely an artistic artifact in others. “Sometimes,” he said, “the scales might tip more toward one side, towards someone really saying ‘This is expressing me. Let me do this. Or let me do this at least until I tell you it’s ok, and I let you in, and you can share.’” Wells did not elaborate on how one would know whether a music culture was communicating that sharing was “ok” or not. There is, of course only one rule of thumb that we can logically draw from such a nebulous axiom: Assume that it’s not ok unless conclusively told otherwise (which is to say, never).
Over the three years since the scandal, Roomful of Teeth’s focus has veered away from world techniques and closer to the traditional vocal avant garde. It seems that the group, like our music culture as a whole, is taking a break from intercultural engagement.
I selected the Roomful of Teeth example not only because it demonstrates the rabid response one generates nowadays by stepping a toe over the “cultural appropriation” tripwire, but also because it demonstrates that even if a composer, artist, or ensemble takes the utmost care in how they adopt the sounds of other cultures—hiring expert teachers and compensating them for their work—it’s never enough. The only logical policy in dealing with the music of other cultures is to look, but don’t touch. And by the evidence of the music being composed today, that’s exactly what musicians are doing.
Why should we care? Well, for one thing, as we have already found, cultural siloing impedes progress. But there is another reason, too: the fact that a highly arbitrary standard is being applied here when it comes to who has a right to a given musical tradition and who doesn’t.
Gabriela Lena Frank is a Californian. She was born in Berkeley, and only one of her parents is Hispanic—her mother. Her father is Lithuanian-American. And yet, no one has questioned her right to explore Andean culture through music. But let’s suppose that Frank has a neighbor who also grew up in Berkeley and is also a composer. She is Japanese-American, not Hispanic, but takes a deep interest in Andean culture. She immerses herself in Andean music, travels to Peru to study it, and comes back determined to write a piano concerto incorporating those influences. Will any orchestra commission that concerto from her before they commission the same piece from Frank, even if the Japanese-American neighbor is a better composer or better positioned to write the piece (unlikely in this case, since Frank is an excellent composer, but let’s suppose)? Almost certainly not.
And so, the pool of composers deemed qualified to advance our art through cultural exchange gets smaller. If fewer composers feel allowed to write the Andean Symphony, what happens to the likelihood that we’re going to get a great one? It decreases, of course. Music history shows us clearly that the person most qualified to write an intercultural work is the best-schooled, most creative composer, not the one with the right birthplace or skin color. Chávez’s evocations of Mexico (while great) are no better than Copland’s.
It is through cultural exchange that we move forward. And that is why I unreservedly advocate that composers and artists enthusiastically follow the example of Roomful of Teeth (up until they issued their apology, that is). Listen, collaborate, and create first; ask questions later. And don’t apologize. Cultures that erect fences around ideas—that treat cultural artifacts hundreds of years old as personal property—are doomed to stand still.