Between musical cultures
I am returning from a three week break from my work on the Mwandishi book, during which I celebrated a big number wedding anniversary by traveling abroad. The primary work that I am returning to now is editing; moving what is a solid draft of the book into something closer to its final shape.
While traveling, I picked up a copy of Herbie Hancock’s latest recording, “The Imagine Project” at an airport kiosk. I had heard some of the music performed lived twice during the past six months, but the drive home from the airport offered my first opportunity to hear the studio recording. As I do not consider myself a music critic – but rather a musician who composes and performs and also writes about music – I am not going to offer a review of the CD (which I really enjoyed). A few blog entries back, I did offer some reflections about the show at Tanglewood, in the Western Massachusetts, largely in response to a slew of negative reviews that appeared in publications within a two-hour radius of the concert venue. Here, I’d like to explore one important aspect of the recording, the issue of joining musical cultures.
Since the focus of this blog is primarily my book about the Mwandishi band, what interests me now is what Herbie’s ongoing work has to teach me about that early 1970s work. In fact, every time I hear something new that he’s done, it does in fact help inform how I hear his earlier music. The reason is that Herbie Hancock is a highly eclectic, ever evolving musician, and it was in the Mwandishi band that many of the core pieces of his musical complexion simultaneously came into play. In my book, I trace what those elements were (in particular, his rhythmic sensibilities, his lyricism, and his use of abstraction), how they developed in his previous work, and then how they come together in the Mwandishi period. Looking through this lens, it is rare for me to hear anything that Herbie has done since that doesn’t integrate these elements, albeit maybe using different recipes and to different degrees. This is no less true of the Imagine Project. As is often, the lines blur between his soloing and accompanying; some of Hancock’s best playing is subtle and not out front. At times, what stands out are the grooves, the lyrical melodies, and then his signature use of harmonic abstraction suddenly manifests, adding depth and color. But the key Mwandishi-theme of this recording is its integration of many diverse elements and the lack of boundaries between genre and aesthetic, yet melding into a personal statement.
The diversity, or rather, the integration of diverse voices into a unified work, is in fact the main theme of The Imagine Project. In his liner notes, Herbie describes the overarching idea: “This album was recorded in various countries throughout the world, in multiple languages, and with various international artists in an effort to show the power and beauty of global collaboration as a golden path to peace.” The theme of all global collaboration and peace making has long been important to Hancock, as a Buddhist and as a human being. And indeed, several of the tracks include performers from a range of cultures, sometimes bringing musical cultures (such as the combination of the backing of singers Pink and Seal with Malian singer Oumou Sangare and the vocal group Konono No 1 from The Democratic Republic of the Congo, on John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’). At other times, Hancock concentrates on one culturally specific musical form. An unusual example is an Irish-influenced setting of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times, They Are A’Changin’’, which includes members of the Chieftains and is sung in English and Gaelic.
The most striking example of cross-cultural fertilization is the closing track, ‘The Song Goes On,’ which joins a group of Indian musicians (including vocalist K.S. Chithra and sitarist Anoushka Shankar) with long-time Hancock associate saxophonist Wayne Shorter and singer Chaka Kahn. Whenever I see a cross-cultural blend coming my way, I tend to approach with caution. After several years of thinking about the issue, I published an article in 2008 that looked in detail at the borrowing and blending of culturally specific musical forms and materials. It was titled “Between, Within and Across Cultures,” and published in the journal Organized Sound (13.2). What was on my mind was some of my own recent work as a composer/performer, which I was beginning to reconsider with some skepticism.
I began by stating the obvious [these quotations leave out the scholarly references included in the original; also, since OS is published in the UK spelling follows British conventions]:
“A global perspective in which national boundaries become less important can potentially expand the pool of resources available to spark the musical imagination. Such a perspective is prefigured in the work of early Modern European composers. For some, new ideas, aesthetics, forms and materials from the East helped provide new strategies to organise and structure musical materials, as tonality became exhausted in the late nineteenth century. Claude Debussy drew upon ideas from Japan and Javanese gamelan in search of new conceptions of time, space, timbre, directionality or its lack, gestural shape and pitch organisation. Debussy discovered in the woodcuts of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) a sensibility that influenced his use of sounds to convey sense impressions and symbols, analogies to reflections of light and shading, and shifting patterns … [A few decades later, Henry] Cowell studied the music of several Asian cultures as he developed his highly personal approach, one that collapsed national and stylistic boundaries, declaring: ‘I want to live in the whole world of music!’”
In the article, I then looked critically at a range of electroacoustic music, including my own in this vein, noting: “Although many composers have been influenced by or borrowed from other cultures, cultural artefacts do not exist in a vacuum and art forms are not separable from the wholeness of a group’s culture. The expressive arts are a core means by which members of a society articulate their sense of self, their history, struggles and strivings. Artistic traditions develop within contexts that are weighted with rich webs of historical and political meanings. Drawing upon other traditions raises issues about freedom of expression, cultural boundaries, ownership and understanding, ethics and propriety, and cultural, ethnic and national identity. What a composer may view as a natural aspect of the creative process may be interpreted, by others, as an act of cultural appropriation.” Appropriation has been a hot button issue within academia in recent decades, as scholars and political activists have questioned the free use by Westerner artists and musicians of materials that originate in formerly colonized cultures. The issue in part is the asymmetry of power relations between the composer and the cultural source.
I next referred back to what I had written more positively in a previous article, remembering that: “art making has always relied on borrowing and crosscultural exchange, from folk traditions to Bach’s reuse of his (and others’) own work, to Ives’ use of American hymns and patriotic tunes to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European use of Turkish melodies, to the evolution of the banjo, none of which prevented the original authors from representing their own culture.” Continuing in the 2008 article, “I concluded that borrowing is unavoidable and that crosscultural borrowing can be respectful and legitimate, if not invaluable. I noted, however, that three elements must be present to achieve respectful adaptation: an appreciation of the contents and value of the other culture on its own terms; a desire to speak from one’s own personal artistic voice without mimicking the other culture, and an awareness that can be articulated to an audience of the fine line between creative borrowing and disrespectful appropriation.” This isn’t as easy as it may sound: “because we all tend to see the world through our own lens, experience and values. Those in the West have been raised in societies that share the assumption that western culture reflects universal human norms.”
What I suggested is that artists and composers engage in a self-reflective process compositional process about their work, “carefully considering motivations, context and implications of compositional decisions, complementary to considerations of formal and aesthetic artistic criteria.”
Which brings me back to ‘The Song Goes On’, a collaboration between Western and Indian musicians. The composition opens with a flurry of notes by Wayne Shorter and then a lyrical section on sitar played by Anoushka Shankar’s, with Hancock subtly comping on piano. It is like an alap, the opening section of classical Indian music, where the modal/melodic materials are explored out of time. Next, a combination of Indiantabla and Western traps establish a groove that is at once neither Indian nor Western, but somehow both. Tony William’s steady state, dynamic-yet-static drumming on Miles Davis’ ‘It’s About That Time’ from ‘In a Silent Way’ came to mind. Shaka Kahn and K.S. Chitra sing the melody, alternating phrases, each in their native language. Shankar embellishes and responds by interspersing brief gestures. Chitra vocally improvises within her own Indian tradition, and then she and Shankar trade phrases.
The big surprise comes when Hancock and then Shorter add their own responses, each distinctly within their distinctive musical languages. The place of the piano is quite striking. I listened bearing in mind Ornette Coleman’s strategy of rarely including piano because of its tendency to introduce vertical harmony. Hancock’s playing is most often horizontal – melodic phrases – and thus avoids harmonic implications. When he hints at verticality, he plays the kinds of chordal fragments that date back to the abstractions of Miles’ Quintet, beginning in 1965. These were and remain harmonically ambiguous and existing somewhere in between clusters and chords, never allowing for a single fixed analysis. Hancock’s phrases are sometimes imitative of Shorter and at other times imitative of Shankar. They simultaneously engage in dialog and provide filigree.
Somehow everything fits together on this piece. A generous amount of space is left for each player’s phrases to breath. Everyone is listening closely. Nobody is giving up her or his distinct identity, and the music exists as an amalgam simultaneously within and between cultures. There is really no borrowing going on, but simply listening and responding, acknowledging commonalities and differences. I have listened to this five of six times now and keep discovering previously unheard, interesting moments.
The Mwandishi band was not substantially about cross-cultural meeting. However, it privileged improvisations that required flexible and close listening. It also drew upon a multiplicity of influences, integrating them all into a single fabric, rendering the distinctions invisible. It is this same integrative impulse that manifests in The Imagine Project. But here, since the differences involve cultural sensibilities that have been historically contested, the integration is not one in which everything becomes part of an undifferentiated whole in which differences are ignored. Rather, and particularly on ‘The Song Goes On’, we find a celebration of difference and shared humanity. Everyone speaks their own language, but does so together, finding what poet Adrienne Rich once referred to as “The Dream of a Common Language.”