Chopsticks At Dawn: orientalism in Western music
13:30 Tuesday 8th June 2010
BBC Radio 4
Presented by Anna Chen
Written by Anna Chen with Dr Jonathan Walker
Produced by Chris Eldon-Lee and Culture Wise
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"The cuddly face of dehumanisation. A bit like golliwogs."
I always wondered how it was that those cartoon strains of cod Chinese music used to have me running for cover when I was growing up. Siouxsie And The Banshees' Hong Kong Garden, David Bowie's China Girl, Carl Douglas's Kung Fu Fighting, they're only a few examples of the sort of orientalism in music that was the bane of my young life. Who needed crude verbal epithets when a few bars of plonkery could do the job?
I asked my friend Dr Jonathan Walker, a musicologist and damned fine pianist, how certain configurations of a few notes could be so potent in their effect. What he told me led to a fascinating journey through the development of a musical trope that was loaded with meaning, much of it not very positive.
From its basic building blocks of pentatonics (the black notes) and parallel fourths all the way to Debussy and Ketelby, Jonathan reveals how, had Western music begun to represent other cultures at an earlier stage in history when Chinoiserie was greatly admired, we might have ended up with a musical equivalent of the willow pattern crockery, or the Brighton Pavilion. As it is, it coincided with the Opium Wars and Yellow Peril fever, so the results were hardly complimentary.
You can see how this all pulls together in the arena of propaganda in the opening title sequence of the movie Inn Of The Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman as missionary Gladys Aylward, and Curt Jurgens as the Chinese General (!). Made in 1958 during the Cold War, various motifs in Malcolm Arnold's score merge with the visuals to create a subtext, climaxing in the dramatic appearance of the film's title in vivid scarlet text reminiscent of American takeaway menus, and accompanied by billowing clouds of steam that could be opium smoke or dragon's breath. Listen out for the "cruelty" chords as associated with ancient Rome and the mysterious Orient. It's brilliant and quite funny.
I was joined by academics Derek Scott of Leeds and Rachel Harris of SOAS who help to find out exactly what was going on with the representation of Asian Pacific people — and Chinese in particular — in the culture. Chi2 funsters Liz and Sarah Liew add their childhood reactions to the mix. And musicians Ben Chan (Big Yellow Band) and Jane Ng, who wrote Pagoda Of Dreams, show us how they merge East and West in their compositions.
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(Pic of Anna at BBC page by Sukey Parnell)
Pick Of The Day: RadioTimes, Observer, Sunday Telegraph, Time Out, Mail On Sunday. Also daily choice in the Times, Telegraph and Independent, Tuesday 8th.
Anna Chen reflects, through gritted teeth, on representations of Chinese music, the ingy pingy clichés as used by everyone from George Formby to David Bowie, demeaning a culture which, in other fields, we respect. This isn’t a dreary sermon, though. It’s a lively, rueful journey through aural conditioning. Why do some sounds suggest the Orient to us? She listens to Ravel and has the pentatonic scale (as played on a piano’s black keys) explained to her as a short cut to something that to Westerners signals “east”. But there’s more to it than that.
Recording with bronchitis
Item at Socialist Unity