Classical: Multicultural pick-and-mix

Bayan Northcott previews the rewards and controversies of a month of world music in London and Glasgow
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The Independent Culture
Tomorrow on the South Bank, the London Philharmonic under Kent Nagano, with sundry Asian and African performers and "guest groups from the culturally diverse communities in Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham", will be blithely stepping into an ideological minefield.

Billed as "Roots: Classic Fusions", the event is one of a series with the intention of bringing together "music from the European classical tradition and the "traditional music" of other societies. The theme for 1999 celebrates the power of ritual in music across time and cultures." Accordingly, the day's culminating concert will intersperse performances of Copland's Appalachian Spring, Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame and The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky with pipings of a Turkish nay flautist, songs and drumming from the African rainforest, and so on.

No doubt the programme is intended to throw up plausible parallels and analogies - between the Turkish flute solos and the plainchant that would originally have interspersed the sections of Machaut's Messe, for instance, or between Stravinsky's "Primitive" rhythms and Picasso's concurrent interest in African art. But it could also risk censure, either as an arbitrary offering to the Gods of political correctness, or as a symptom of Western cultural imperialism. Doubtless the same issues will turn up in Sunday's Radio 3 Settling the Score at 5.45pm, entitled Music and the Marvellous, investigating "The influence of non-Western sounds and structures on 20th-century art music - gamelan, gagaku, Thai music, ragas, African rhythms, polyphonies and folk music."

Not that European classical tradition, let alone Western sounds and structures, have ever quite comprised the impermeable culture that tends to be assumed by proponents of World Music or whatever. After all, much of the continent has been a melting-pot for millennia. The Church split early on between Eastern and Western branches with their divergent musical traditions. The Moorish occupation of Spain bequeathed the lute to the Renaissance, just as the ejection of the Turks from the Balkans left the 18th century its increasing percussion department. And whatever may be justly held against the imperialistic expansiveness of the 19th century, it brought a genuine curiosity about other cultures and the first stirrings of a systematic ethno-musicology. French composers in particular, from Berlioz and Saint-Saens to Debussy and Ravel, took to working into their pieces sounds of Arabic street music picked up on holidays in Algiers, or gamelan textures from visiting ensembles at international exhibitions - even if such "Orientalist" tastes have more recently been criticised in certain ideological quarters as "neo-colonial".

What, then, are we to think at the end of another century during which the entire recoverable pasts and presents of the many musics of the world seem to have been mapped out and are now available to the ear at the flick of a switch? In some ways we better understand the parallels between cultures - how, for instance, Europe, India, China, Japan and the East Indies have all evolved their folk music, popular vernaculars and classical high cultures. Some musicologists have even attempted to show that a "deep structure" of musical formation and cognition underlies all the world's cultures and that the musicality of Man is ultimately indivisible.

Others have argued that music is culture-specific, and that each of the world's great traditions exhibits features unique to itself; that there is really nothing else quite like the dynamic thought of a Western symphony, or the decorative richness of a consummate Indian raga, or the integral relationship of sound, time and gesture in the Japanese Noh theatre, or the complex layering and gearing of tempi in Balinese gamelan music. From this point of view, we can never wholly understand musical cultures into which we have not been born and bred. Hence pressures towards various forms of pick-and-mix multi-cultural collage - running strongly at present, both for socio-political and global-consumerist reasons - should be resisted in the interests of musical ecology.

Caught between these extremes, every 20th-century Western composer seeking to supplement the heritage with elements of other cultures has had to work out an individual accommodation. Messiaen's solution, for instance, was simply to treat his Hindu rhythms as objets sonores in the same manner as the plainchant, exotic modes and birdsong transcriptions he arranged in his grand theological sound-friezes. By contrast, Elliott Carter - whose student experience included notating the playing of Arab musicians in Tunis for the scholar Baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger - has taken from non- Western music only such structural devices as could be extracted without cultural damage. The perpetually self-generating melodic line of his Penthode (1985), for instance, was suggested by hearing a performance of north Indian Dhrupad music by the Dagar Brothers, but the music at no point sounds Oriental.

Doubtless these and other positions will again be under scrutiny when Glasgow will mount, and Radio 3 will relay, a whole week of concerts tracking the response of 20th-century Western composers to non-Western sources, including a visit from the Kronos Quartet, a performance of A Night at the Chinese Opera by Judith Weir and, not least, a substantial suite from that locus classicus of the multi-cultural debate, Britten's ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. Britten's acquaintance with Balinese gamelan music dated back to 1940, when he was introduced to it by the composer-ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee, and by 1945 he was interested enough to introduce a covert gamelan texture into the "Sunday Morning" interlude of Peter Grimes.

So when Covent Garden commissioned a fairy-tale ballet a decade later, he decided to use gamelan sounds for the magic music - and visited Bali in 1956 for a fortnight of listening, notating and recording. This contact only enhanced his respect for the culture: "The music is fantastically rich - melodically, rhythmically, texturally - such orchestration!!! above all formally," he wrote to Imogen Holst. "At last I'm beginning to catch on to the technique, but it's about as complicated as Schoenberg." The Act II gamelan sequence he ultimately derived from his trip and some additional recordings, though scored entirely for Western instruments, has been praised for its faithfulness to the sounds of his sources.

Not that this prevented the world music critic of the BBC's Music Magazine from dismissing the score as "colonial". Evidently, he was unaware of the half of it. One of Britten's most striking passages was derived from a recording made in London by a visiting Balinese ensemble in 1952. Thanks to discoveries by the late David Munrow and Dr Donald Mitchell, it has since emerged that the salient track of the recording was in fact inspired by Britten's own music. The manager of the Balinese visit, wishing the players to devise an opening number that would bridge the gap for Western listeners, had played them a recording of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra - and this was the players' response. Yet Britten himself seems to have been unaware at the time of the recording's provenance; nor would he easily have guessed, since, to Western ears at least, the track sounds as Balinese as the rest. The question that arises from this curious skein of coincidence is irresistible: just who was colonising whom?

`Roots: Classic Fusions', tomorrow, 1.30pm, Royal Festival Hall, London (box office 0171-960 4242). `Beyond Our Shores', 23 Feb-3 Mar, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow (box office 0141-287 5511) and on Radio 3