Decline of the west

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.)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    a friend mentioned to me once about reading an article that suggested that music which emphasizes the backbeat comes from cultures that have rebellion in their history. perhaps someone knows more about that?

    Countries like the U.S. or France? Or Germany? (The Nazis, and big uprisings in 1848 and 1919.) I haven’t heard of this theory, and on its face it seems a little unlikely. Not to reject the idea, of course, without knowing more about it.

  2. says

    This is a long winded response…

    Several things to add here. First of all, I recently had an experience which I’ve been retelling constantly ever since it happened. I play as part of a duo with a violinist. We mostly play “avant-garde” or “free improvisation” oriented music, but we also take great pride and pleasure in performing the occasional Bach 2 part invention (believe it or not, they sound great on violin and tuba and need very little editing). We perform irregularly at a local Ethiopian restaurant. The owners (natives of Ethiopia) love everything we do EXCEPT the Bach. It’s the only way to offend their musical taste, and in fact I wondered after it happened if it hadn’t offended something even deeper. Anyway, if nothing else, this certainly blows the universal language nonsense out of the water. But it proves that you have a point (of some sort) here about the effects of immigrants from “non-Western” cultures changing the complexion of ours.

    Having said this, I have to take issue with a number of other things. First off: “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.” Adapt is a conveniently vague term. Are you suggesting that we need more pieces for string quartet and gamelan, or concerti for sitar and orchestra? I recall a piece I heard recently played by the Minnesota Orchestra by a Puerto Rican composer of some renown. His bio was absolutely stacked with awards and other distinctions, but I was thoroughly disappointed by the piece, which I have subsequently referred to as “Mozart Goes Latin.” It was nothing more than classical era forms and gestures with claves in the percussion section and a few melodic minor scale passages. I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing; it was kind of like hearing a famous major key overture done in minor as a parody. Hopefully, you’re thinking along different lines. Could you elaborate? How must we “adapt”?

    Second, and most importantly, I’m genuinely disturbed by what you wrote about the evolution of jazz, which is not to say that you are the first person to approach it that way. Jazz evolved as a hybrid of African and European musics and anyone who would deny the presence of elements from BOTH cultural spheres is simply in denial. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that the harmonic structure of traditional jazz or bebop existed anywhere in the African cultures under discussion here (I have to admit ignorance to knowing exactly which ones they are, actually) before European contact occurred. Much as biracial children are considered “black” by our racist society even if they are genetically 3/4 or 7/8 white, many musicologist types among us seem to imply that ANY African musical influence on jazz makes it fundamentally different from classical music in some larger sense. I beg to differ. “Jazz is “in some ways not Western music at all”? That is exceptionally poorly worded. How about “Stefan Kac is in some ways not Jewish at all.”?! That completely misleads the reader or at least provides no useful insight into the situation; I am, in fact 1/4 Jewish (or as Adam Sandler would say, “not too shabby”). “Stefan Kac has Jewish, Irish, Scottish and German ancestors.” …”Jazz is a hybrid of African and European musics.” Now we are getting somewhere.

    If a unified world culture indeed becomes dominant, change will be inevitable because ensuing generations will not know any other way. To suggest that those of us alive today ought to abandon the music we love in order to “adapt” is, I think, not prudent.

    Long-winded? I’d rather say forceful and cogent. Thanks so much for raising all these very important points.

    How should we “adapt”? Well, certainly not (at least in my view) by creating uneasy hybrids. Or more like monsters, in which (in the style of bad horror movies) parts of several animals are sewn together. By which of course I mean several styles of music, or instruments used in those styles. I think we need music which is hybrid in its DNA, “classical” music (which to me would mean composed music) that draws on more traditions than just the European one. This isn’t a new or terribly radical idea. And it’s actually happening. Just last week I spent an afternoon with a very good composer who talks about writing a long piece that would combine a rapper with a solo orchestral instrument. This composer has hiphop (especially old school hiphop) in his blood, so if he wants to write that piece, he can, without doing violence to either side of the adaptation. There are thousands of other ways to go about this. Many of them have been happening for a generation. When composers have European and non-European styles of music in their blood, the hybrids emerge naturally. I guess Golijov is the most famous example these days. But we shouldn’t forget that Steve Reich and Philip Glass were both launched with the help of non-western inspiration.

    Jazz and rock as non-European music…I hope I didn’t give the impression that I don’t think of them as hybrids. That’s more or less exactly what I meant. When I said “in some ways not western at all” (or whatever my precise words were) I meant exactly that — in some ways not western. Seems to me that pretty clearly would mean that in other ways (harmony, obviously) jazz absolutely is western music. I don’t know if calling it a hybrid is any clearer or more definite than what I said. Yes, “hybrid” is a more concrete expression than “in some ways,” but its meaning in this case isn’t necessarily obvious. What’s particularly not expressed is the nature of the hybridization, which traits come from which side. So in that way, I can’t see how “hybrid’ is an improvement over “in some ways.”

    But maybe I’m missing something important. Though most of all I’m delighted to have someone read my writing as closely as Stefan does, and react with such trenchant precision. I can’t help learning something important, whether I end up agreeing with him or not.

    And finally — I can’t believe I said anything to suggest that people (like me) who love western classical music need to abandon it. The music and its traditions need to evolve, but that’s not the same thing as saying that anyone ought to abandon them.

  3. says

    no, I think more the idea that jazz, and gospel, blues/rock, etc., from Africa, emphasize the backbeat; as opposed to the downbeat of marches and waltzes from Europe.

    I’ll ask her and see if she can remember a reference for the article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>