Derek Bermel, a terrific composer whom I like a lot, e-mailed a comment on my last book episode, which deserves to be shared. So, with his permission, here’s what he wrote:
Sometimes I wonder, in a country which is increasingly South American, Asian, and African, whether it is useful to dwell so strongly on the history of European performance/composition. Because by the time we’ve ‘figured it out’, the audience may have mutated so much as to render obsolete the arguments based on 18th and 19th century Europe. I know you – of all people – have thought about this, and that it is not in the purview of this analysis. Nonetheless, to quote Robert Plant, “it makes me wonder”.
I think this has to fall within my purview, though I haven’t stressed it very much. Ultimately, one of the things going on these days is the end of European culture as we’ve known it, and the rise of a new world culture.
Musically, this started happening early in the 20th century with the rise of jazz, which in some ways isn’t western music at all — jazz drumming evolved from African drumming (nothing even remotely like it can be found in the western classical tradition, except maybe in the middle ages). And the characteristic jazz rhythm, with the emphasis on the backbeat (or, to be more literal, on the offbeats of each bar, typically the second and fourth beats of a 4/4 measure) — that’s not western, either.
To put it more simply, the European tradition has you clapping on the downbeats; in African-evolved music, you clap on the offbeats. Gunther Schuller, in (I think) the first volume of his study of early jazz, intriguingly calls the result a polyrhythm, in which our western clapping is mixed with African-influenced clapping, one kind of emphasis for the strong beats, another for the offbeats.
And after World War II, rock & roll finished the job, infecting even casual western culture with a non-western beat, and ultimately developing its own kind of art music powered by that beat. It’s no coincidence, I think, that this happened exactly at the same time as the civil rights movement in America, and decolonization in Africa and elsewhere. The west was pulling back; the non-west was rising.
You can draw big implications from this, as Michael Ventura does very powerfully in his essay “Hear the Long Snake Moan,” published in his essay collection Shadow Dancing in the U.S.A. Ventura says that what gets challenged is nothing less than the western distinction between mind and body, with body taking a lower place (and even, in some ways of thinking about this, an inevitably sinful one). Other cultures don’t make the same distinction, and when we started dancing to rock & roll, we were on the road to not making it ourselves.
These are big questions. But they’re not off-topic here. They’re directly involved in the future of classical music. If classical music can’t adapt to the world of the future — probably the world we’re in right now — in which European culture is blending with cultures from elsewhere, it can’t possibly survive. Thanks, Derek, for reminding me.
(Derek is, for the next three years, composer in residence with the American Composers Orchestra. He’s in charge of their current concentration on composer-performers, which I’ve mentioned here before. Derek himself is a composer-performer; he’s a clarinettist, and also has a rock band. He’s one of many young composers whose music goes exactly to that mix of Europe and non-Europe that classical music has to embrace.)