EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

Appropriation, Exchange, Understanding

Simon Emmerson

Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre
De Montfort University, Leicester UK


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The very term ‘intercultural’ is provisional but is the term found most often to describe (when applied to music) an interaction between usually long-standing traditions. By definition it suggests a ‘translation’, not just of language but of approaches to composition and performance, notation and aesthetics. These are most often described, discussed and information exchanged through language but do not necessarily benefit from this process! Language exchange is not experience exchange. Throughout the centuries musicians have exchanged through the act of performance itself (without language mediation). More recently this has been extended to exchange through listening to recordings. This is a distorted exchange, however: the recording engineer is not a passive observer yet may take the recording somewhere else for exploitation, and perhaps little is given in return (culturally).

All of these modes of exchange (linguistic or not) involve some kind of reduction - even impoverishment. Occasionally new ‘hybrids’ develop precisely through a misunderstanding (or at least a partial understanding) of ‘the other’ culture. We must start on the assumption that exchange will happen - misunderstandings may in the end be forgotten. But what if these misunderstandings lead to loss of some quality, more drastically the possibility of losing whole traditions, even cultures. (Simha Arom was faced with such dilemmas in the period he studies the music of the Central African Republic.) While some of these losses will be an inevitable result of global social change, the ethical question of knowledge and awareness cannot be avoided.

Both electroacoustic music and musicology (including ethnomusicology) are European inventions. At no time in the last two hundred years did we see Chinese, Indonesian or Indian musicians recording a Scottish bagpiper, a German symphony concert or an Italian opera. In the second half of the 20th century, much ‘intercultural’ new music was filtered through European-American structures of notation and performance practice. In addition collectors and ‘ethnomusicologists’ introduced recording into the discourse. This challenged the supremacy of notation as a means of recording. But it also opened up the possibility of the entire electroacoustic music tradition which challenged (western) notation as the sole origins of performance. It was thus born as a natural relative and ally of any ‘aural/oral’ tradition, as well as any tradition where notation operated in a fundamentally different way to the western.

The paper will address several specific questions that these ideas suggest:
What are the limitations of western notation with respect to non-western traditions of instrumental performance? How does the act of recording effect a tradition, in ‘fixing’ the time domain?
How do the venues and local social habits of listening effect the formation of musical style and genre (with special reference to electroacoustic music and other amplified musical genres)?
What aspects of electroacoustic music complement the qualities of aural/oral traditions and other non-western-notated traditions?
What aspects of electroacoustic music are sensitive to the qualities of such traditions and what aspects are not?

Footnote: the author worked with the Anglo-Indian ensemble Shiva Nova in 1989, composing the work Pathways (sitar, tablas, flute, cello, keyboard, electronics) for them; also with the Korean kayagum player, Inok Paek, for Points of Return (kayagum and live electronics, 1998). He recently supervised the PhD of Hiromi Ishii (2001-2006) on the relationship of electroacoustic and traditional Japanese music.


- Emmerson, Simon (1999a), ‘The Composition of Pathways’, Centre for Intercultural Music Arts, Second International Symposium and Festival: New Intercultural Music, City University, March-April 1992. Proceedings Intercultural Music Volume 2, Point Richmond (CA): MRI Press. Pp. 141-147.
- Emmerson, Simon (1999b), ‘Whose “music”?’, Centre for Intercultural Music Arts, Second International Symposium and Festival: New Intercultural Music, City University, March-April 1992. Proceedings Intercultural Music Volume 2, Point Richmond (CA): MRI Press. Pp. 151-159.
- Emmerson, Simon (2000), ‘Crossing cultural boundaries through technology?’ in Music, Electronic Media and Culture (ed. Simon Emmerson), Aldershot: Ashgate
- Ishii, Hiromi (2006), ‘Composing electroacoustic music relating to traditional Japanese music’, PhD (City University, London)