Music for the Planet Earth January 4, 1973

The other day someone asked me what I thought was the single most important influence on contemporary music. After mulling over a few possible answers for a moment, I found one which seemed broad enough to answer the question. I said I thought it was the infiltration of non-Western ideas. I suppose this is not the answer most people would have given, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that my on-the-spot answer was as good as any other.

Of course, a few exchanges of ideas across cultural boundaries are inevitable at any period. But Western music absorbed very few non-Western ideas during the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods. Then African musical ideas began to be absorbed in American popular music, leading to far-reaching consequences in all our music, even in symphonies, masses, and operas. Another exchange which may have been important was the visit which a Balinese gamelan orchestra paid to Paris around the end of the 19th century. We know that Debussy was quite entranced by this music. Some say he got the idea of the whole-tone scale from the Balinese. Some say he did not allow the gamelan music to affect his composing at all. My own opinion is that he already knew about the whole-tone scale, but that he learned a lot aesthetically from the Balinese. The music he wrote after that seems more relaxed than his earlier work. His later works drift more, are not so concerned with flashy effects, and tend to have less definite endings. It seems quite possible to me that much of the Impressionist aesthetic is an Asian import.

More recent borrowings are easier to document and many of them have had distinct and strong influence. Stockhausen, for example, was particularly impressed with his trip to Japan. I heard him speak quite enthusiastically about the dynamics of sumo wrestling and the tea ceremony. His ‘Telemusik’ collage is taken directly from recordings made in Japan, and some of his prose scores, which require an unusual degree of concentration from the performers, are clearly related to non-Western forms of meditation. Even ‘Stimmung’ strikes me as a kind of ritual which would never have occurred to him without some knowledge of non-Western practices.

Lou Harrison, to take another obvious example, has studied Chinese music extensively, and many of his own compositions reflect the Chinese rhythmic sense and sometimes even use Chinese instruments.

A new surge of African influence can be seen in many black groups. Often wearing dashikis, they tend to use more drums and fewer horns than they used to. It is now common, even for someone like Miles Davis, to do away with the traditional chorus structure and let things drift along by themselves, more as the Africans would. Steve Reich, a white composer, has been influenced by African music in another way. I suspect that almost all the rhythms in his ‘Drumming’ came as a result of studying drumming in Africa, and no doubt all his recent music reflects this influence to some degree.

The drastic stylistic change which Philip Glass made a few years ago came just after studying in India. Since he uses Western instruments and vocal styles, his current music does not sound much like classical Indian music. But if one listens for it, one can hear how Glass’s knowledge of ragas and talas affects his work. A number of other Western musicians have gone to study in India in recent years. Most of them have become absorbed in the challenge of trying to become good classical Indian musicians, and lack either the ability or the desire to integrate what they learn with their own tradition. But as they return to the West, this knowledge gradually spreads—with what consequences, no one can predict.

Other composers have gone in other directions. Charlie Morrow, for example, has taken on the formidable task of trying to translate some of the chanting styles and ritualistic practices of American Indians into terms which will make sense to English speaking audiences. Christopher Tree has formed a collection of flutes and percussion instruments from all over the world, attempting to draw their sounds together in meaningful ways.

But these are all cases of direct borrowing. When one considers indirect influences, the picture becomes much broader. The unique singing style which Meredith Monk has been developing is not, so far as I know, based consciously on any particular vocal tradition, but it is a sharp departure from all the styles of American and European singing that I am familiar with. The experience of listening to non-Western singing must be the inspiration for someone like her to begin to explore the possibilities of her voice.

In one way or another, all the current experimentation with static non-developmental forms must be influenced by non-Western cultures. In the West, repetition has only been tolerated in small doses. The principles of changing keys and varying themes are at the very roots of our background. The fact that so many composers now are interested in staying in the same key and not varying themes can only be explained in terms of the less dynamic modes of expression found in other parts of the world. The ‘climax’ has been one of our most fundamental assumptions ever since Aristotle. Only Asians, Africans, American Indians, and current Western composers have been satisfied with unclimatic music.

John Cage, who has probably been more influential than any living composer, has never actually used musical ideas derived from other cultures, but he has probably been as influenced by non-Western thought as any of the composers already mentioned. He studied Zen with Suzuki and, through this, came to appreciate the beauty which lies in everything. Much as the Zen master finds beauty in a flawed teacup and the haiku poet finds beauty in a blade of grass, Cage began to find beauty in thumping on a piano string or making an electronic squawk. The fact that Japanese musicians never saw it this way seems to me to be irrelevant. It is a Japanese aesthetic nonetheless, and without it, it seems doubtful that Cage would ever have found a justification for absorbing odd noises into his musical vocabulary.

Cage’s use of chance also derived from a non-Western source, in this case the Chinese yarrow sticks and the I Ching. Again, the fact that it had nothing to do with Chinese music does not negate the fact that it led Cage to a method of composing music, which upset our whole musical establishment and led to far reaching changes in our musical notation system and performance practices.

All artists are supposed to be concerned with making universal statements. But of course they never even succeed in making world-wide statements. About the best they can hope for is to communicate with the majority of people in one cultural milieu. During the past few years, Cage has grown particularly fond of quoting Buckminster Fuller, and many composers seem concerned with trying to see themselves in relation to other cultures as residents of the planet earth. They talk much less about American music than they did a generation ago, and have less respect for nationalistic attitudes. Of course, it is still inconceivable for anyone to write a piece of music which can be understood and appreciated fully on all parts of the planet. But perhaps, as the borrowing continues and the cross-cultural influences grow, we will gradually approach forms of music which, if not universal, will begin to be truly international. At least that strikes me as a pleasant thought for starting off the new year.