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Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections

Ort: Cambridge
Jahr: 2009
Autor(en): Ralph P. Locke
Autor der Rezension:
ISBN: 9780521877930
Umfang / Preis: 440 Seiten / PND 55.00


‘Other’ vs. ‘Self’ is most probably one of the most prominent antagonisms in human life. It helps the individual to construct an identity and distinguish itself from other individuals or collectives. The ‘Other’ could be seen as either appealing or repulsive, as either trustworthy or dangerous. This also applies to the ‘Exotic’ in particular, which has positive as well as negative connotations, depending on the perspective.

In his study Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections, Ralph L. Locke analyses the repertoire of Western musical works that evoke exotic locales. The aim of his analysis is to establish some clear guidelines about what musical exoticism is or is not, how it functions from the composer’s, the performer’s and the listener’s point of view and what broader cultural work it carries out. The author tries to show the ways in which a musical piece may reflect and reinforce or challenge Eurocentric prejudices regarding distant and different people. For this purpose, he focuses on Western classical music but also considers popular song, the Broadway musical, film music and jazz.


The book consists of two parts: a more theoretical one (containing four chapters) which reflects various terms, concepts and themes relating to the problem of musical exoticism and a practical one (containing six chapters) which presents and discusses worked-out case studies. Locke finishes his analysis with an epilogue, in which the results of his analysis are summarized and proposals for further research projects are given.

In chapter 1, Locke places the manifestation ‘music’ into a broader context and explores its relationship to culture and history. He concludes with a brief glance at existing accounts of musical exoticism. Chapter 2 examines how exoticism has been regarded by prominent composers and critics, including Richard Wagner, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Heinrich Schenker, Steve Reich and Richard Taruskin. The author also considers applications of Edward Said’s much-debated term “Orientalism” to music and compares it with assumptions from other postcolonial theorists such as Homi K. Bhabha and James Clifford. The significant conclusion of this chapter contains some ethical questions about the condescending and sometimes defamatory ethno-cultural stereotypes upon which so many musical representations of the Other rely. The following chapter presents a new, broader way of studying and thinking about exotic works. Here, Locke introduces four different binarisms which to him seem fundamental when trying to analyse exoticism: the Self and the Other, nearness and distance, the real and the fictive, musical and extramusical signs. The last chapter in Part I explores the inherent overlaps and disparities between and among such categories as musical exoticism (including its Middle Eastern and other “Oriental” variants, musical nationalism (e.g. a Russian composer consciously trying, on a given occasion, to sound Russian) and various longstanding and arguably non-representational uses of national styles. Again, Locke focuses on stereotypes and their role within this phenomenon (by exploring more extensively the question of - often noxious - stereotypes). He demonstrates the way a stereotype functions by beginning with constructing a ‘we’ which is necessary for the construction of an ‘Other’. That ‘Other’ is seen as the opposite of what we are and has to be repeated over and over again so that it is able to strengthen within the collective memory.

… and analysis

Chapters 5 to 10 in Part II follow one main conviction at the basis, namely that exoticness often depends not just on the musical notes but also on their context as well as on other factors, such as the particulars of a given performance and the musical and cultural preparation of a given listener. For demonstrating this thesis, Locke surveys some major developments in musical exoticism in rough chronological order from 1700 to the present and discusses significant representative works.

Chapter 5 introduces the figure of the barbarous and cruel tyrant that has long been central to Western conceptions of non-Western regions by discussing two extended case studies (Georg Friedrich Handel’s Belshazzar and the portrayal of the Incan priest Huascar in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes galantes). Locke also links those works by briefer summaries of relevant trends in musico-exotic portrayal at the time. Chapter 6, 7 and 8 consider certain people that were conjured up with particular frequency by European culture during the long nineteenth century (1780-1915) such as the Roma of Hungary and Spain, the inhabitants of various regions regarded as Oriental, including ancient Egypt, the Arab world (as presented in One Thousand and One Nights), the Ottoman Empire, China, India and Japan. Chapter 6 focuses on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Rondo alla turca” and Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14. Chapter 7 and 8 analyse the “Spanish-Gypsy” characters in Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore and Georges Bizet’s Carmen respectively “the Orient” – in operatic work. In the second case, the author explores in varying degrees of detail operatic works set in by eight composers and focuses particularly on neglected or misunderstood aspects of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Chapter 9 and 10 discuss the exotic explorations and experiments of an even greater number of composers, but now dealing with the twentieth century. Now the problem of musical exoticism becomes more complex: the Western musical world’s interest in and contact with other cultures increased greatly, with the result that composers, to a far greater extent than before 1900, incorporated aspects from far-flung musical traditions. This often also happened in works which are not set out to portray or represent a distant people. In chapters 5 to10, Locke presents works in which exoticism was carried out through non-exotic means, but in chapters 9 and 10, we encounter something of the opposite: we now meet non-exotic pieces that use musical materials borrowed from distant countries or at least long linked with the exotic. This phenomenon seems to increase via the combination of the visual and the auditory, as happens in the musical and the movies, where exoticism now works on two different levels.

In these last two chapters, Locke pauses at times to consider in somewhat more detail a few works that prove to be particularly rich or complex, such as (in chapter 9) Claude Debussy’s Pagodes and Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and the famous chanson “Petite Tonkinoise” as sung by Josephine Baker. Chapter 10 examines two works by Tan Dun: Symphony 1997: Heaven, Earth, Mankind and Marco Polo and raises the question what exoticism means or can mean in a globalized and postmodern world. Following the author’s explanations, it seems almost ridiculous to still meet a phenomenon such as exoticism in a rapidly changing world where people and cultures are growing together, where the Other is seen as a fundamental part of the Self and where the consciousness for fragmented identities is growing. He also speaks about world music, i.e. some sort of hybrid music which combines elements from many different musical contexts to create a whole new sound universe. In the twentieth century, the boundary between what is considered as exotic and what is not, seems to be blurring increasingly as the variety of approaches to the problem of representing distant cultures (and/or of borrowing from them) is increasing. Locke also raises the question of who can count as a ‘Westerner’ nowadays as lots of composers or musicians that live in Western countries originally come from countries like Brazil, Iran, the Tatar Soviet Republic or Japan, just to mention a few he talks about.


Locke’s résumé focuses on the enriching and sometimes problematic place of exotic musical works – including many from decades or even centuries past – in today’s musical life. He discusses why and how works that are coloured to some degree by musical exoticism matter to musicians and audiences today and sometimes even trouble them. Exoticism has been a recurrent, defining force in the growth and elaboration of Western art music and its canon of performed works. Unfortunately, these images were transferred over generations without asking about their validity. Musical exoticism and stereotypes still work today because they have been repeated for years and years, for centuries and centuries, as Edward Said also stated in his assumptions about ‘Orientalism’: the stereotypes about the Other must be repeated over and over again so that they remain fresh in people’s minds. Among other things, Locke explores the ways in which certain operas have been reconfigured in different recent productions, and how they might profitably be reconfigured in the future, not just on stage but also in the mind of the thoughtful audience member.


The book is well-structured and gives good arguments. Although it is not too easily written at times, it generally remains understandable as Locke explains a lot and uses lots of examples to support his arguments. Some passages most probably can only be understood clearly and well when knowing the discussed musical pieces but overall, the author describes things very profoundly and in detail. Locke raises a lot of questions in the different chapters and highlights them by a different layout (by using bullet points for example) so that the concerning question can easily be found. After reading the chapter or a passage, one can go back and check whether the question can be answered now. This structures the bookand makes it easy to follow the author’s explanations and demonstrations. He also uses bullet points when presenting different theses and methods round a certain problem.

Locke’s analysis focuses on music but his theoretical considerations can be used in other disciplines as well, e.g. when he analyses the extramusical contexts and asks which ones are the most appropriate, productive and revealing. To support his readers’ reception, he uses lots of notes in which he explains his choice for certain terms or how he would define them (e.g. certain types of ethnic or national types like ‘Oriental’ operas or ‘Hungarian-Gypsy’) so that any negative connotation is avoided throughout the lecture. The many figures, pictures and musical examples (such as notes and texts) are welcome visual features.

Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections is a very pleasing analysis in the fields of musicology, dealing with a very fascinating and current topic. It most certainly can also be useful and interesting for other disciplines.

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Erstellt am: 08.12.2009