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June 22, 2005

West Meets East

Dear Doug,

I've been here in Asia since last Sunday evening. The 16-hour flight from New York to Hong Kong is a hazard to one's health, for the most part, but what awaits on the other side is just fabulous. I was most impressed, on my arrival, by the huge raindrops and the explosive lightning and thunder. Their sounds resonate deep in my bones. They also reminded me of the short stories of Somerset Maugham which vividly kindled my teenage imagination of the tremendous rainfalls in this part of the world.

Last night was our first recital on the tour, in Macau--a short 55-minute ride away from Hong Kong by jet boat. Tonight, we play again, in Hong Kong, which, although geographically close to Macau is in fact quite different. The air - and as a result, the atmosphere-at-large - feels distinct in each place. This, coupled with an interview question I encountered, "How do you feel about bringing Western music back with you to Asia?" started me thinking about the East/West topic.

Doug, you spent some time teaching in China. What are your thoughts?

East meets West or, as is the case here in Asia, West meets East, is a fascinating study of cultural evolution. In particular with music and music students, the question also encompasses that of natural versus nurtured musicality. Sometimes I also think that it's not so simple to categorize the two (meaning East and West) with such clarity within a culture. Perhaps, at least in my own experience, rather than East meets West or West meets East, it is more a question of East converges with West.

However, in Hong Kong and Macau, some of the distinctiveness of East and West is still apparent. At least on the surface, the British influences are clear in Hong Kong, and the Portuguese in Macau. For example, street signs and public announcements (like "Ladies and Gentlemen, please remember to turn off your mobile phones"), appear in English and Chinese in Hong Kong and in Portuguese, Chinese, and English in Macau. I would say that the existence of the West is seemingly much more seamless in Japan, which is where I grew up.

To be reminded that Japan was completely closed (at least officially) to the West and its influences for over 250 years until 1854, and at what lightning speed some elements of the Western culture have become part of Japanese society is absolutely breathtaking. More to the point, in my case, I grew up thinking (and feeling) that music was Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, even Stravinsky, Bartok, and Prokofiev. There was classical music, which was “music,” and then everything else bulked together in one. All other genres of music were exotic and mysterious including jazz and Traditional Japanese music. For me, a Schubert lieder was much more "normal" and "understandable" than the infamous Japanese song "Sakura, Sakura."

So, in this sense, I do not feel at all that I'm bringing "back" a piece of Western culture to Asia. I am simply playing the type of music, which was always a part of my life.

Some might say but that I grew up in the West. Of course. I did. The West which was in Osaka, Japan.

Did you know that music became a part of mandatory education in Japan in 1872? And that this education was heavily invested in Western music? Music class is still given to all elementary school children in Japan although the number of hours per week is decreasing. I was pleased to learn that Hong Kong’s educational system also requires the inclusion of music education in the schools. To know that the existence of music, both Eastern and Western, is being encouraged by the authorities is, to say the least, more than motivating for me.

Another interesting point is that Japan is still one of the busiest markets for classical music despite the fact that both Hong Kong and Macau must have had a longer and more consistent Western influence over the years. In Hong Kong and Macau, the "popularity" and "availability" of classical music is not as apparent.

I shall continue with more of my thoughts in the next coming days. Is culture inherent?


Posted by at June 22, 2005 3:13 AM


It has always been interesting to me that western music has been so dominant for serious study in Asia while the rest of the world seemed to be fascinated with the music and sounds of Asia.
Certainly the "ethnomusicology" or "World Music" trend was focused on the fact that "Westerners" were too isolated from the majority of music making in the world. Yet, in those countries (from whom we were supposedly isolated), musicians were focusing on Western Art music.
I know there are many social, cultural, and perhaps, musical reasons for this. But it always seemed to be a case of "the grass being greener on the other side of the" world.

Posted by: Rob Cutietta at June 22, 2005 4:22 PM

Dear Midori:

Concerning SAKURA, SAKURA, Puccini used it in his opera MADAMA BUTTERFLY.

With regard to traditional classical Japanese music, if I may email you directly about it, please let me know.

Thank you.

Posted by: nabu at June 23, 2005 3:20 PM