top of page

Jonathan Bellman, editor. The Exotic in Western Music. Northeastern University Press, 1998.

Gunther Schuller – Jazz and Musical Exoticism

Schuller argues that, although they may not have used the word “exotic” per se, Americans and Europeans alike very much viewed jazz and ragtime the same way they viewed Turkish or Indian music.

He credits Charles Ives, who had never been in sympathy with the efforts of his teachers at Yale to keep ‘serious’ music and more popular music segregated, with infusing symphonic and chamber music with black musical elements (perhaps after Dvorak in 1892). And Debussy likewise, in 1907, 1909, and 1910 began to incorporate Ragtime into his compositions “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” “Le petit nègre,” and “Minstrels”

Schuller argues that what fascinated such composers was ragtime’s different kind of syncopation than the one composers had previously used. Ragtime incorporated a regular underlying rhythm with a contrasting irregular, oxymoronic rhythm. But perhaps more differently, its syncopation was defined on a smaller level (eighth and sixteenth notes) – not spread out over a number of beats. Also, there was a different type of rhythmic emphasis in Ragtime. Classical music tended to stress its syncopation as short-long (short beat 1, long beat 2). Jazz and Ragtime reversed this approach (long beat 1, short beat 2).

Most European composers, however, had a one dimensional understanding of jazz. As Schuller notes, Maurice Ravel stated repeatedly that Jazz would prove to be the foundation of a national music of the United States, and he proclaimed it an influence on several of his works. But like Adorno, the Jazz he knew was the polite, non improvised jazz of the French and English dance bands (Like Billy Arnold’s) and he later became more negative about it.

Darius Milhaud, however, was the one composer who recognized jazz’s intrinsic improvisatory elements. Thanks to a trip to Harlem, he was the only European composer at the time who actually heard black jazz and brought back a small stack of records with him to France. One of the recordings must have been Livery Stable Blues by the ODJB, because Schuller shows how his Création du Monde incorporates many of the stylistic similarities (like trombone smears) from their 1917 recording. Likewise, in his fourth movement, allows the clarinet and alto saxophone to play “solo breaks,” a relatively new style in early 1920s (when ensemble playeing was still in vogue).

But in the 1930s, the interest in jazz on part of classical composers came to an abrupt halt. But in any case, Schuller views this halt as inconsequential, because the jazz they did incorporate previously was conceived in very narrow terms, and thanks to classical performance practices, was never fully realized in performance and came off as stuff and awkward.

Cool paper idea: Performance analysis of La Creation du Monde

Mervyn Cooke – The East in the West: Evocations of the Gamelan in Western Music

Cooke provocatively argues that “the most important observation that can be made about the impact of the gamely on Debussy’s style is that the experience intensified techniques that were already latent in his music and that stood well apart from the conventional and soon-to-be-outmoded procedures that had dominated Central Europe tonal music for the previous two hundred years”

He shows that how Debussy’s cultivation of nonfunctional harmony and adoption of octatonic and lydian-dominant. He intervenes in the scholars who have likened these scales, as well as whole tone and pentatonic scales, to the slendro tuning system of the Javanese ensembles he heard at the 1889 Exposition, but Cooke argues that the minor pentatonic scale was, however, familiar to Debussy via Borodin, Musorgsky, and Liszt. The only possible work of Debussy’s that incorporates gamelan features would be “Pagodes” (1903, of which none exist in Indonesia) because of how Cooke sees Debussy merging his pentatonicism with a stratified contrapuntal texture built up from superimposed ostinati.

However, Cooke acknowledges that Debussy’s ideas of resonance, and particularly in his piano writing, echoes Gamelan thought. His piano writing where the texture involves bass notes prolonged by the sustaining pedal for considerable periods of time beneath more active figurations was motivated by the resonance of gamelan orchestras, as E. Robert Schmitz proposes. Ravel incorporated this idea in “Laidernotte, Impératrice des Pagodes” from Ma Mere l’Oye (1908-1910) and together, Ravel and Debussy’s interested in piano resonance ultimately influenced Messiaen’s Preludes (1929) and as Mawer would argue, Jolivet.

After Debussy, Cooke argues that Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos (1932) is an example of the most explicit borrowing from gamelan music in France. Composed in the wake of the Exposition Coloniale in Paris in 1931, Cooke shows how Poulenc’s contribution to the field of cross-cultural borrowing is also significant in constituting the first use by a Western composer of the other principal pentatonic scales to which gamelans are tuned. Most notable examples occur at the end of Movement 1.

But ultimately, summarizing Neil Sorrell, Cooke concludes that "The key word is influence, with its suggestion of bringing about a change of course. With Debussy, a much more fruitful word would be confirmation."

James Parakilas – How Spain Got A Soul

Parakilas argues that Spain was exoticized, mostly by France beginning in the 19th century, to turn the rest of the continent into an exotic cultural margin. At the same time, Russian musicians turned to Spain in order to find a mirror of their own cultural situation in the corner of Europe most distant from themselves. At the same time, Spain engaged in an auto-exoticism, whereby Spanish musicians and composers, such as Manuel de Falla, actively worked to create the “exotic soul of Spain.”

Beginning in the 1810s, the French no longer championed the Spanish aristocracy and conquistador, but instead began to see Spain as a country of the humble and exotic person. The guitar, for instance, which was long associated with the Spanish aristocrat continued to represent the aristocracy, but also became associated with Andalusian Gypsies. At the same time, thanks to the works of Etienne Mehul in Les deus aveugles de Tolède (1806), a bolero rhythm became a rhythmic trope, whose rhythmically differentiated baseline differed from every other Western popular dance. The last image of Spain in the early 19th century rested on Granada, the last vestige of Moorish expansion. Luigi Cherubini’s Les abencérages (1831) does not contain any musically Moorish evocations, but rather the setting of Alhambra introduces a new vision of “Moorish Spain” to Western composers.

In the 1830s and 1840s the bolero was solidified in Chopin’s piano works (1833). But Parakilas also sees Chopin taking advantages of the coincidences in rhythm and character between a Spanish bolero and Polish polonaise to express, like Mikhail Glink ultimately will, the sympathy of one marginalized European for another.

When Glinka visited Spain in 1845 he was interested in not exoticizing Spanish music and felt “at home” by studying the language and learning to play Spanish songs. Likewise, Liszt as a Hungarian, was also interested in the music of “marginal” European peoples. Together, they constituted the “Russian” method of celebrating the validity of the Spanish in music in contrast to the “French” method of celebrating it as fantasy.

In the 1870s, Edouard Lalo merged the rhapsodic violin style of Hungarian Gypsy fiddlers with the stylistic traits of Spanish dance and vocal music (1874). Written for the virtuosic Pablo de Saraste, this period and work set the tone for another phase in Spain’s history when Spanish musicians and composers felt a double bind: of wanting to be able to show their competency for what it’s worth without needing to invoke Spanish exoticism to convey their talent.

At the same time, Andalusian cities began to establish cafés cantantes where flamenco performers developed a way of making a living performing for tourists. They developed, in other words, self-consciousness about exoticizing themselves and their art. Emmanuel Chabrier’s Espana (1883) was filled with tunes, rhythms, and ideas that the composer transcribed while during his time in Spain and in Spanish cafés.

At the turn of the century, Debussy and Ravel created a musical Spain unprecedented in the layers of memories it brought together. For instance, Ravel did this particularly by taking the stock elements of the Habenera (1898) and inverting them in order to liberate their function. He turns the stock triplet-duplet eighth rhythm of habanera melodies into a bass rhythm and the bass rhythm into a melodic rhythm. Then he switches back and forth between the two treatments, making each rhythm and independent element, not tied to any one function either conventionally or unconventionally. Likewise, Debussy, in Ibéria, takes fragments of habanera rhythms and places them in hundreds of guises. Four measures of a dotted rhythm from the tambourine here, a melody with the habanera triplet from the French horn there. And by the time of the First World War, and a general interest in Gregorian simplicity, Ravel began to incorporate chant like melodic lines of the Catholic Church in his Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1933).

bottom of page