Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Gershwin and Color: How Blue is the Rhapsody?

By Olivia Mattis

This Essay first appeared on the OUPBlog on September 28 2015.

Everyone knows George Gershwin as a composer, songwriter, pianist and icon of American music. But few know of his connections to the world of paintings and fine art. As a practicing artist himself, Gershwin produced over 100 paintings, drawings, and photographs, most famously including his portrait of Arnold Schoenberg. “He was in love with color and his palette in paint closely resembled the color of his music. Juxtaposition of greens, blues, sanguines, chromes, and grays, fascinated him,” recalled Merle Armitage. “Of course I can paint!” Gershwin was said to have told his girlfriend Rosamond Walling, an aspiring landscape painter. “If you have talent you can do anything. I have a lot of talent,” he added.

Aside from creating art, Gershwin was also one of the foremost collectors of modern art in his day, assembling a collection comprised of about 150 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and decorative objects. With help and advice from his cousin, a painter named Henry Botkin, Gershwin spent about $50,000 acquiring masterpieces. He looked for luminosity in the canvasses he acquired. “It seems to throw out its own light. I am crazy about it,” he exclaimed of Utrillo’s painting, The Suburbs.
Picasso’s The Absinthe Drinker of 1901 was the crown jewel of his collection. This work, from Picasso’s so-called “blue” period, depicts a sorrowful drinker in the nightlife of Montmartre, all dressed in red and nursing a drink of brilliant green.

At Gershwin’s request, Botkin acquired for him Mark Chagall’s painting, The Rabbi, now in the collection of The Jewish Museum. This is the work that Gershwin saw in front of him every day when he went to sit down at the piano. Gershwin studied this painting closely, and used it as a model for his own work. His portrait of his grandfather was an updated version: the American Jew, dressed sharply in a morning coat, with his beard neatly trimmed, his hat and eyes upturned, ready for what the future may bring. Behind him is the new shtetl, the Lower East Side. And Gershwin’s own pose, in his self-portrait photograph with Irving Berlin, is very clearly modeled on Chagall’s rabbi.

George Gershwin, probably a self-portrait taken with timer. Image courtesy of the author.
George Gershwin, probably a self-portrait taken with timer. Image courtesy of the author.

Portrait of Dr. Devaraigne was one of several Modigliani paintings that he owned, and it was his favorite. Gershwin used Modigliani’s hallmark, the two-toned gray and orangey-red background, as the background to his own self-portrait.

Linie-Fleck (Line Spot) from Wassily Kandinsky’s late period, now at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, caused a sensation when Gershwin’s collection was exhibited at the Arts Club of Chicago in 1933. It was described by the art critic at the Chicago Tribune as “decidedly in the manner of the American Indian.” A critic at the Chicago Herald Examiner described it as “brown triangles on a yellow background with dots and dashes and whatnot.” This painting was one of at least three abstract works in Gershwin’s collection. Gershwin’s statement that “music is design; melody is line; harmony is color” is very close to language used in Kandinsky’s synaesthetic treatise Point and Line to Plane.

One could dismiss Gershwin’s hobbies as simply part of his attempt to be highbrow, or as Leonard Bernstein put it, “to cross the tracks,” but I think there’s more to it than that. These works and the others in Gershwin’s collection, such as Max Weber’s Invocation (1919), Charles Filiger’s Portrait of Gauguin, and Thomas Hart Benton’s Burlesque were not trophies to the composer, or mere symbols of his financial success. On the contrary, they were deeply meaningful objects to him. Edward G. Robinson described a visit to an art exhibition with George Gershwin: “We would stand quietly enough before the paintings we were watching, but inwardly…we felt we were fellow travelers into the very life of the picture, and partners in the inspiration of the artist who painted it.”

Left: Amedeo Modigliani: Doctor Devaraigne, oil on canvas, 1917. Private Collection, image in the Public Domain. Right: George Gershwin: Self-Portrait. Library of Congress, Special collections of the Music Division
Left: Amedeo Modigliani: Doctor Devaraigne, oil on canvas, 1917. Private Collection, image in the Public Domain. Right: George Gershwin: Self-Portrait. Library of Congress, Special Collections of the Music Division.

Armitage recalled watching Gershwin looking intently at a watercolor by Paul Klee. “After studying a Klee watercolor with a magnifying glass,” Armitage recalled, “[Gershwin] stopped abruptly and exclaimed that his music would not stand up under that kind of scrutiny.” Henry Botkin described Gershwin’s voracious appetite for art: “We would go into some gallery—and I’m not speaking of a little gallery but a big one. Do you think he was satisfied in seeing the show that hung on the walls? No! When he went through there they had to open the whole place and pull everything out. He just couldn’t wait. He wanted more, and more, and more.”

But what about color in Gershwin’s music? Painting and music “spring from the same elements,” he told a friend, “one emerging as sight, the other as sound.” In speaking of jazz, Gershwin said, “At first it was mere discord for the sake of discord, a simple reveling in animal vigor. But slowly the meaning of that discord, its color, its power in the depiction of the American sentiment, has been brought to life.” In light of such powerful statements, I would like to propose that we consider giving a synaesthetic reading to Gershwin’s only work with an explicit color reference, Rhapsody in Blue (1924). Can we take at face value Gershwin’s description of the work as “a kaleidoscope of America” composed in a blaze of synaesthetic creativity, combining sound and sight? “It was on the train with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty-bang that is so often so stimulating to a composer…. And there I suddenly heard—and even saw…— the complete construction of the rhapsody from beginning to end…. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America.” Perhaps we can try to see the “musical kaleidoscope” in action in this work, whose climax, a moment of pure noise, might be understood as representing a flash of blinding light.

Image Credit: “Birthday party honoring Maurice Ravel in New York City, March 8, 1928. From left: Oskar Fried; Éva Gauthier; Ravel at piano; Manoah Leide-Tedesco; and George Gershwin” by Wide World Photos. Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons

Dr. Olivia Mattis is a contributor to Oxford Art Online and Oxford Music Online, with articles including Music and Art and The New York School. She is co-editor of Rival Sisters: Art and Music at the Birth of Modernism (Ashgate, 2014) and co-author of Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900 (Thames & Hudson, 2005). She curated the nationally touring exhibition Gershwin to Gillespie: Portraits in American Music, as well as single-venue shows The Composer’s Eye and Pops to Lady Day: Portraits in Jazz. Her dream is to curate an exhibition of art works made by, and owned by, George Gershwin.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Music for Flag Lowering Ceremonies

By Drew Massey

It seems that power struggles these days are frequently mediated by the language of sport. Obama chose not to “spike the football” following Abbottabad; the Gregory Brothers, while better known for “songifying” politics, recently wrote an insightful critique of the choice to hold presidential debates in sporting arenas. I have been thinking about the use of music at flag lowering ceremonies for the last several weeks, and was surprised to find this common thread of sport-as-political-lingua-franca cropping up at certain sonic moments, as well.

I was surprised mainly because there is nothing sporty about the daily ritual of flag lowering at American military bases. A bugle plays retreat, which signals the end of duty and is immediately followed by To The Color, which functions symbolically in place of the National Anthem when no band is available. (Here is an example of the ceremony from 2007, at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea). With music, the flag, and the behavior of all soldiers and civilians in the area prescribed, the tenor of these short solemn ceremonies is thick with symbolism, even by the standards of pageantry and ritual that are such a part of military life. But what happens when similar ceremonies are imbued with a spontaneous meaning, through sound, by a gathered crowd?

Perhaps the most recognized flag lowering ceremony of 2015 was an altogether different tableau, that of the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol building on 10 July 2015 in the aftermath of the murder of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on 17 June 2015. The flag itself was moved to the South Carolina Relic Room and Military Museum. A fact that seems to have been glossed in the heat of the moment was that the 2015 event was the second flag lowering ceremony in South Carolina in the last fifteen years: on 1 July 2000 a confederate flag that had flown over the dome of the capitol since 1962 was brought down while another was raised in the lawn of the Capitol building.

Over the past year finding ways to reduce violence against African Americans and improve race relations have surged as concerns in the national political conversation. Hence the musical details of how these ceremonies unfolded may seem like trifling academic concern, of minor interest but largely irrelevant to the larger societal moment. I would argue (as other musicologists have argued at much greater length, in different circumstances) that focusing on these apparently fleeting moments offers an occasion to contemplate the mental models that give rise to them.

A lengthy film of the 2000 ceremony begins by counting some 20,000 people in attendance, with a sizeable police presence to keep the crowd under control (with mixed results – SWAT teams were eventually called to the scene). At 4:00, the color guard (in civil war garb), plays a drum cadence as formal ceremony ends. “Dixie” can be heard in a disjointed rendition, more bellowed than sung. As the film unfolds, though, the sound world becomes dominated by those protesting the ongoing presence of the confederate flag at the capitol, who create a wall of chillingly shrill sound through the use of whistles while holding yellow signs with SHAME printed across them.

Al Jazeera has what is probably the best (by which I mean most commentary free) footage from the 2015 ceremony. Here the crowd is estimated at 7,000, apparently unified in support for the removal of the flag. The ceremony is strikingly silent at first. At 1:00 there is a brief burst of chanting “USA,” and at 1:48 the crowds erupts in to a spontaneous version of Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Good Bye, the 1970s hit by Steam.

What all three of the flag lowering ceremonies we are considering here – a typical one at an Army base, the one from 2000, and the one from 2015 – have in common is that they each use a collection of highly legible sonic signifiers. A bugle, a cannon, “Dixie,” “USA”, Whistles, “Na Na Hey Hey,” and the drum cadences are all instantly recognizable. And while some of these signifiers can float freely – chanting “USA” can be put to almost any use, at least in demonstrations on American soil – most of these sounds cluster around a set of meanings.

What is most striking to me are the whistles and the use of “Na Na Hey Hey.” Pea whistles were originally designed for use by police but now are used just about anywhere a loud noise is needed cheaply, reliably, and effectively. Which in practice means they are a rather striking sonic marker of violation – of a law, of one’s personal safety, or of a rule in a sporting event. The jarring sound of so many whistles being blown at once during the 2000 protest left little doubt about the whistles’ intended meaning or constellation of meanings.

Yet consider the spontaneous rendition of “Na Na Hey Hey.” This song has virtually faded from the public sphere except for sporting events, where it is frequently trotted out to taunt a losing team (or burned out pitcher) off the field. Despite its decidedly non-athletic origins, it was named the number 12 stadium anthem of all time by Complex magazine. When the whistles from 2000 are heard in this light, it is hard not to hear a sound world in which the world of sport informs the tactics of political action: the whistles are blown by metaphorical referees, calling to level the playing field across racial lines in South Carolina, and by extension, the country. And as for “Na Na Hey Hey’s” appearance in 2015, it is hard to account for its emergence without reference to professional athletics. Even if the singing was begun by a single observer with no real plan, its ratification as a fitting song by the crowd as they join in points to a shared structure of feeling that relies on the rituals of sport as the metaphorical font for interpreting a political sea change.

Any number of conclusions could be drawn if we were to consider these moments at greater length than is practical in a blog post, or even ask how music is used more generally in the renewed movement to address race relations in contemporary America. But even these two examples are a good reminder that music seldom maps directly into political sentiment. Rather, it is mediated through any number of intervening conceptual worlds – professional athletics being just one such example – as part of the process of cultural formation.

Drew Massey is an editor at Musicology Now. His research interests include British and American Music since 1900, and he is currently a partner at Schubertiade Music & Arts.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Of Sound Minds and Tuning Forks: Charcot’s Acoustic Experiments at the Salpêtrière

Plate 20, Iconographie photographique 
de la Salpêtrière vol. 3    
by Carmel Raz

One intriguing image stands out among the many unusual photographs in Désiré-Magloire Bourneville and Paul Régnard’s Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière (1876-80). A woman sits next to an immense tuning fork, her neatly coiffed head tilted to one side and an expression of deep concentration on her face. The sheer size of the fork is astonishing, as is the claim that the image depicts “catalepsy provoked by the sound of a tuning fork.” I interpret this image as a literal snapshot of the idea that specific kinds of sound had privileged access to the nerves, a motif that haunts the long nineteenth century and continues to resonate into the present day.

This photograph is one of a number of cases documenting Jean-Martin Charcot’s experiments with acoustic stimuli on asylum patients at the Salpêtrière. Charcot (1825-1893) is generally regarded as the founder of modern neurology. He was the first physician to describe multiple scleroses and to outline its stages of progression, and made significant advances in understanding the psychopathology of epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and Lou Gehrig’s disease. Charcot held the first chair in nervous diseases at the Salpêtrière, and his students, a veritable who’s who list of pioneering neurologists, included Sigmund Freud, Giles de la Tourette, and Joseph Babinski.  

André Brouillet, “A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière (1887). Joseph Babinski supports a fainting Blanche Wittman (one of Charcot’s most famous hysterics); Charcot stands to her left. De la Tourette is seated up front in the apron, next to him in the cap is Romain Vigoreux, head researcher of medical electricity. A full list of the physicians depicted in the audience can be found here.
As part of his neurological research, Charcot experimented with patients that he classified as “major hysterics:” a subset of exceptionally sensitive psyches among his patients whose minds and bodies were particularly susceptible to suggestion, or grand hypnotisme. (Ordinary patients, as well as the general public, were less suggestible, and could only undergo petit hypnotisme). Responsiveness to hypnosis was thus reconfigured as a symptom of hysteria. These demonstrations were often conducted in front of medical audiences, as can be seen in Brouillet’s painting. Charcot provides the following account of tuning fork trials:
The patients, Gl— and B—, are seated over the sounding box of a strong tuning fork, made of bell metal, vibrating sixty-four times in a second. It is set in vibration by means of a wooden rod with which the branches are violently separated, or a bow is drawn across its open extremity. After a few moments the patients become cataleptic, the eyes remain open, they appear absorbed, are no longer conscious of what passes around them, and their limbs preserve the different attitudes which have been given them. If the vibrations of the tuning fork are abruptly arrested, the laryngeal sound is heard immediately, the limbs fall into a state of resolution and the patients at once become lethargic.
Left: Plate 21. The cataleptic patient lapses into lethargy after the vibration of the fork has been dampened. Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière vol. 3

Right: Patient hypnotized by the sound of a tuning fork. Karoly Laufenauer, Eloadasok az idege let vilagabo 1 (Lectures in the World of Nerve-Life 1) Budapest: Kiralyi Magyar Terme szettudomanyi Tarsulat, 1899.

Charcot’s invocation of catalepsy is distinct from modern-day applications of the term. According to The Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine (1833), catalepsy was “characterized by the sudden suspension of consciousness and of voluntary motion, the muscles continuing steadily in that state of contraction in which they happened to be at the instant of the attack—and yet readily admitting of, and retaining any other position of the body and limbs, however inconvenient, in which they may be placed at the will of the bye-standers.” Cataleptic fits could arise from a disease of the mind or body, or be provoked by hypnosis. Indeed, the distinction was of little importance, as in all cases the condition was assumed to have physiological correlates.

Left: Plate 33. Tongue contraction in a hysteric patient (awake). Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière vol. 2 

Right: Plate 34. Tongue contraction in a hysteric patient (awake) caused by an auricular reflex. 
Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière vol. 2

Catalepsy could be treated by various means, including music. In earlier research, I focused on a number of accounts of early nineteenth-century cataleptics cured by the sounds of the harmonium, a new instrument invented in 1809 whose ethereal sounds were held to have privileged access to the nervous system. This was already a variation on a familiar trope, in that half a century earlier the German physician Franz Mesmer had used the celestial tones of the glass armonica to allegedly amplify the influence of an invisible magnetic fluid on his patient’s nerves.

Left: Illustration of magnetization (1794) 

Right: Frontispiece of Charles Lafontaine’s L’art de magnétiser ou le magnétisme animal (1847), showing a mesmerizer inducing catalepsy in a patient 

Charcot’s acoustic experiments on his hysterical patients appear to represent a further iteration of the trope of nervous sounds, now projected onto the tuning fork, a musical instrument with eminent scientific associations. Invented in the eighteenth century by the English trumpet player John Shore, tuning forks were later coopted by acousticians and physiologists to investigate speech, sound, and timing. Moreover, they were (and continue to be) part and parcel of a neurologist’s toolkit. The Weber tuning fork test, invented by Eduard Schmalz in 1845, and the Rinne tuning fork test, invented by Heinrich Adolf Rinne a decade later, employed tuning forks to examine whether hearing loss was conductive, neurological, or hysterical. These exams, conducted by placing a ringing fork on the patient’s skull and upper jaw, respectively, were part of the standard neurological battery at the Salpêtrière.
Rinne test and Weber test. Image from http://www.clinicaljunior.com/enttuningforktests.html    
Charcot’s interest in tuning forks had an additional dimension: the fact that the instruments provided powerful, long-lasting vibrations. Having noticed that some of his patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease appeared to obtain temporary relief from their symptoms following a bumpy train ride, he developed a vibrating chair to simulate these effects. As reported in Nature (1892), “To a healthy person the experience is execrable…not so the patient, however; he enjoys the shaking, and after a quarter of an hour of it, is another man.” Working with Charcot, de la Tourette adapted this principle in designing a vibrating helmet to treat neuralgia. The device with which we opened this blogpost, comprising a giant tuning fork set upon a resonating bench, was designed by Charcot’s colleague Romain Vigoreaux in order to treat hysterics as well as patients with locomotor ataxia.
Charcot’s vibrating chair. Image from Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpêtrière, Vol. 5, 270b.

In attempting to induce and control catalepsy by means of sonorous vibration, Charcot and his colleagues were applying the latest scientific technologies to ideas taken from hypnotism, mesmerism, and mysticism, domains that had not yet been irrevocably severed from medical practice. The tuning fork thus became closely linked to ideas about vibration and hysteria. For example, in Zur Psychopathologie des Alltagslebens (1901) Charcot’s student Sigmund Freud analyzed his own mistaken substitution of a tuning fork for a reflex hammer upon visiting a patient— a case of what we would today term a Freudian slip. Relating this event to an earlier wrong diagnosis, Freud interprets the episode as his subconscious warning him to “be careful not to diagnose again a case of hysteria where there is an incurable disease.”

The idea that vibrations afford privileged access to the nerves predates Charcot, going back at least to Enlightenment thinkers such as Isaac Newton (1642-1727), David Hartley (1705-1757), and Charles Bonnet (1720-1793). However, it continues to exert power in our present day, both in alternative medicine (c.f. the contemporary practice of using tuning forks for healing purposes), as well in mainstream medical treatments.

Selection of Books on Tuning Fork Therapies    

For example, a twenty-first-century variant on Charcot’s procedure of treating Parkinson’s disease with vibrations can be found in the technique of deep brain stimulation, in which a surgically implanted electrode transmits electric vibrations directly into the patient’s basal ganglia. The exact mechanism by which this procedure relieves a patient’s symptoms is not entirely understood, but it relies upon the same insight expressed in Charcot’s acoustical experiments with the tuning fork: the idea that vibrations cause material changes within the brain.

The images from the Iconographie photographique may jar our modern sensibilities. Yet they show how conceptions of the neurophysiological impact of certain timbres might have influenced the soundscape of Charcot’s clinical demonstrations at the Salpêtrière and the diagnosis of hysteria more broadly. They also remind us that the modern-day employment of music, resonance, and vibration in contemporary neuroscience, neurology, and alternative medicine constitutes part of a long and continuous tradition of using sound to affect changes in the mind and body.

Carmel Raz is a Fellow at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University.  She is working on a monograph on music and neural science in the long nineteenth century.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Exotic Reflections

by Ralph Locke

I have long been intrigued by the problem of how music relates to what is widely called “the exotic.” By “the exotic” I mean the various qualities that people in a given locale associate with some faraway place and the people who live there.

Until very recently, the discussion of how the exotic manifests itself in musical works (e.g., operas and symphonic poems) has often been hasty and mired in unspoken assumptions. There has been even less attention to how the exotic shows up in cultural products that—though we may not immediately think of them when we hear the phrase “musical works”—do make substantial use of music. In the latter category I might mention the French popular song “Petite Tonkinoise” (famous from recordings and at least one video by Josephine Baker); Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazer, whose title character is a vicious prince from Morocco (Henry Purcell provided incidental music for a 1695 revival); and the prize-winning Hollywood film The Good Earth, whose film score (composed by Herbert Stothart and Edward Ward) is dramatically effective but—to my ear, at least—relies on a very limited set of pseudo-Chinese musical features, including some taken directly from Puccini’s opera Turandot.


Throughout much of the twentieth century, the topic of exoticism was largely ignored in serious writings on music. There was, for example, no entry on it (nor on a related concept: Orientalism) in any music encyclopedia until the short ones that I wrote for the 1981 New Grove.  The lack of discussion no doubt derived in part from longstanding habits of music critics, musicologists, and music theorists. We have tended to take non-programmatic instrumental music as the norm—as the basis upon which we construct our analytical approaches and aesthetic values. In most instrumental works, the relationship between the notes (pitches, rhythms, etc.) and broad and important concepts—such as gender, nation, and, yes, the exotic—is inherently harder to define than in works in which musical elements are combined with non-musical elements such as a descriptive title (in, say, a symphonic poem) or sung words, visual images, plot, and gesture (as in an opera).

I have now completed and published—six years apart—what is, in effect, a big book in two volumes, each of which bears its own title. Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections deals mostly with works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (plus a few from the eighteenth); it was released by Cambridge University Press in 2009 (paperback, 2011). Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart is—as its title suggests—a prequel to the 2009 book. It looks at instances of exotic portrayal in a variety of genres from the years 1500-1800; Cambridge released the prequel in June 2015, both as a hardback and as an e-book.

Taken together, the two books set out some principles for grappling with the complex question of how attitudes toward foreign Others—and also toward ethnic, religious, or “racial” Others—are conveyed in musical works (and, as I said, in compound cultural products—films, modern-dance compositions, etc.—that are not, strictly speaking, “musical works”). The instances that are studied range from Baroque-era court ballets (such as a sumptuous one performed at the French royal court, in 1617, about the fabled Syrian sorceress Armide) to solo keyboard pieces (such as “Pagodes,” from Debussy’s Estampes) and popular songs (such as “Under the Bamboo Tree,” by Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, and Vincent Scotto’s aforementioned “Petite Tonkinoise”).

The two books give frequent attention to the varied world of the musical stage. Between them, they re-examine a number of standard-repertory operas—e.g., Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (which re-enacts Western stereotypes about Turkish harems) and Verdi’s Il trovatore (with its vivid portrayal of the vengeful “Gypsy” Azucena)—as well as operas that are performed less often, such as Rameau’s Les Indes galantes (which concludes with an evocation of life among North American “savages”).  The 2009 book also focuses on some major Broadway musicals, such as Desert Song, The King and I, and West Side Story. (Puerto Rican immigrants in 1950s New York City were widely seen by somewhat longer-established residents, including the show’s Jets, as colorful but also threatening.)

How exactly has Western culture portrayed these various cultural Others . . . and why did (and does) it do so? The remainder of the present post briefly summarizes some answers that the two books offer to that big double question.

* * *

Many musical works (and other cultural products using music, such as films) attempt to represent or evoke a place, people, or culture that was understood by the composer—as well as by the original audience—as being somehow exotic. Some exotic-invoking works are for instruments alone and identify the intended portrayal by verbal markers. For example, various passages in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade for orchestra make concrete reference—as we are informed by the titles of the four movements and by the composer’s memoirs—to images from the Thousand and One Nights (e.g., mvt.4: Festival at Baghdad; The Sea; The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze [Statue of a] Horseman—the shipwreck scene refers to a famous episode in The Third Dervish’s Tale).

Other works (such as the aforementioned operas by Mozart, et al.) create portrayals much more concretely and continuously, by allying themselves with sung words; visual images; dramatic characters; dance and gesture; and a wide range of literary traditions, archetypes, and cultural/ethnic/gender stereotypes. Also, at times, such works have recourse to one or another musical style that carried specific ethnic or exotic associations for listeners. Within the Western classical tradition, perhaps the best-known musical marker of an exotic land is the alla turca or “Janissary” style, familiar today from Mozart’s Rondo “alla turca,” the last movement of his Sonata in A, K. 331.

The creators of the exotic works discussed in my two books often give the impression that they have directly encountered a very different part of the world and are now conveying their impressions of it to us. (By “creators” I mean the composers and also their collaborators: notably librettists but also stage designers, performers, and so on.) But they tend to fall into three relatively distinct categories, as regards the culture they are evoking:

  1. A privileged few creators (composers, et al.) of exotic works visited the foreign land in question, or encountered its culture in some other way. Saint-Saëns spent numerous long winter vacations in Egypt and Algeria, and transcribed music that he heard there and wrote about it. (In fact, he was in Algiers, on one of those vacations, when he died.) Debussy attended performances by a Javanese gamelan at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair.
  2. More typical are creators who are influenced, to a greater or lesser degree, by descriptions—accurate or not—that they have read concerning the place or people in question, such as in travel accounts and history books; and/or by representational details that they have encountered in previous exotic works of music, literature, or art. A transcribed Chinese tune, after having been included in several seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books (including the famous music dictionary by philosopher and amateur composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau), was treated imaginatively by Carl Maria von Weber in his incidental music for Schiller’s 1809 adaptation of Gozzi’s play Turandot. A century later, Paul Hindemith made the same tune the basis of the second movement—entitled Scherzo (Turandot)—of his widely performed Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.
  3. Finally, there are those creators—perhaps the largest group—who do no research at all but recirculate stereotypical musical traits long associated—rightly or wrongly—with the foreign region (or else invent style traits meant to sound intriguingly odd to their intended audience). Many composers who used the alla turca style, for example, may never have heard a Janissary band, much less visited the Middle East or done any extensive reading about the region. Certain Renaissance- and Baroque-era dances likewise evoke a distant land through stylistic features associated with the land or people in question. The moresca, notably, was often performed by dancers with darkened skin and wearing bells around their legs, in apparent imitation of darkish-skinned North Africans (“Moors”).
Many of the exotic-evoking pieces that resulted—regardless of which of the three above-mentioned categories their composer fits into—display certain traits that may seem a little surprising or counter-intuitive. First, an exotic work often conveyed (at the time) obsessions, yearnings, and fears that were prevalent within the home culture at the time, but made these feelings more acceptable (amusing, etc.) by clothing them in an outer semblance of Otherness. Richard Rodgers—a composer of the third type in the list above—made the conscious decision not to listen to any music from Thailand before beginning to compose The King and I. 

Instead, he preferred (as he stated in a short essay at the time) to marshal various stylistic devices that he knew would evoke—however inaccurately—a generalized “Asian” sound for his listeners yet not prove an aural puzzlement. As a result, The King and I evokes for many listeners a much wider range of cultural meanings than merely the surface-level one of Britain vs. Thailand. In the famous number “Shall We Dance?” the King of Siam does the polka with his children’s British-born tutor Anna Leonowens. Eventually, he lets go of one of her hands so he can move his hand to her waist (and pointedly mentions that he is doing so). The effect, at least when the show was new (1951), was to challenge longstanding American prejudices about—and, in many states, equally longstanding legal restrictions on—what was often termed “miscegenation” (i.e., interracial sexual relations and marriage).


Second, a work can express exoticizing attitudes without making the slightest gesture toward “sounding foreign.” This is utterly normal in many operas and musicals, and in much film music. The non-musical elements in an opera (for example) tell us where the plot is taking place, what ethnic group the characters represent, and how these characters—understood as more or less “typical” of their group—behave and react. All of this then gets reinforced by music in a wide variety of ways. One of the most frequent ways is for the composer to tap music’s well-developed ability to create mood and to characterize. Thus, in the moment at which Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, makes her initial entrance, climbing up the hill with the female chorus of friends and cousins, the music makes no effort at sounding Japanese. Instead, Puccini seizes the occasion to create an aural effect of exquisite, feather-light loveliness, to captivate the American officer Pinkerton and, at the same time, the opera-house audience.

Baroque operas on exotic subjects operate almost entirely in this manner: that is, they do not try to “sound foreign.” In Handel’s Giulio Cesare, the nasty Egyptian ruler Tolomeo (Ptolemy, brother of the famous Cleopatra) is characterized as preening and vicious. This is indicated by his actions: for example, he has the Roman general Pompey’s head cut off in a misguided attempt at forming an alliance with Julius Caesar, then accosts Pompey’s widow Cornelia and locks her up in his harem. But the message is also powerfully reinforced by Handel’s music, such as Tolomeo’s hyperventilating aria “L’empio, sleale, indegno,” in which this willful, self-absorbed character describes Caesar with disparaging adjectives more appropriate to himself (“the worthless one . . . I shall trample upon his haughty head”). Handel, to make the Egyptian leader’s threats even more unseemly, repeatedly uses what I hear as a laughing figure: two notes sung quickly in succession on the same pitch and vowel (without consonants), thus sounding very much like “ha-ha.” All of this contrasts with the relative self-control manifested, in this opera, by Julius Caesar and, in other operas of the period, by Alexander the Great and other Western monarchs and military leaders.

Indeed, two of the instances I’ve presented earlier in this essay work very much in this manner, namely without any use of sonic clues pointing to the exotic land in question. The music of “Petite Tonkinoise” is a dance-hall polka, not an imitation of pentatonic Vietnamese traditional music. As for “Shall We Dance?”, the music is, well, yes, another polka because that’s the kind of Western dance that Anna is teaching the king how to do. The show’s exoticist attitudes are vividly expressed in other ways: through the king’s initially halting attempts, the mistakes in his sung English, and—after he and Anna have finished the dance—his shift toward making what seems momentarily like a sexual threat against her.

Third and finally, a multi-sensory work such as an opera can use all the basic devices of Western musical art to hold our attention, thus permitting us to enjoy—and perhaps be unconsciously influenced by—the images of Otherness on display. Vocal coloratura (well performed, of course), shimmering orchestration, fascinating harmonies, catchy melodies, impressive motivic development, imaginative formal design—all of these and more can contribute to the evocation of Otherness. In fact, such devices may work on the listener all the more powerfully because they do not in themselves signal ethnic (etc.) “difference.” This third point is perhaps the most counter-intuitive of all the underlying ideas in my two books. I don’t ask anybody to take it on faith but rather to read one or another of my longer work-discussions: for example, about “The Incas of Peru” (the first entrée in Rameau’s Les Indes galantes), whose music contains little or nothing that sounds non-European yet (or thereby) helps us swallow the rather stereotyped images of “pagan”; or Purcell’s aforementioned incidental score to Abdelazer, which entertained the theatergoers before the curtain rose and thereby (I argue) softened them up to accept the garish excesses of the play’s central character (a Muslim tyrant—invented by the playwright—whose name nowadays might be transliterated as Abd el-Azhar); or the “Card Aria” in Bizet’s Carmen, which avoids any features normally associated with Spain or its “Gypsies” yet—in a good performance—cajoles us into accepting the libretto’s portrayal of the title character as both an ethnic outsider to the opera’s “Us” and a superstitious believer in the power of fate.

* * *

In short, the creators of exotic works often reflect attitudes of their own day about what a distant and different region and its people were often imagined as being (on the basis of necessarily incomplete and highly selective information, misinformation, fears, unspoken desires...). With nothing before them but blank sheets of paper (or, today, a blank computer screen), these creators construct aural (or aural-plus-visual, etc.) images that—by turns—tantalize or startle, hint at menace or overflow with delight. These creators transfer those mental images—their own reflections on the exotic (which, as I said, may also resonate with issues Here at Home)—to the blank page so that others can perform them for the rest of us to experience.

I hope that readers will hop aboard one or another of my books—dipping into a chapter or more—in order to explore these works and to reflect further upon the often substantial impact that exoticizing attitudes have made upon Western culture.



I. A first-rate guide to writings about music and the exotic....
II. Some additional writings on general issues or specific repertoires:
  • Bellman, Jonathan. The style hongrois in the Music of Western Europe. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.
  • __________. “Musical Voyages and Their Baggage: Orientalism in Music and Critical Musicology.” Musical Quarterly 94 (2011): 417-38.
  • Bellman, Jonathan, ed. The Exotic in Western Music. Boston: Northeastern University Press (now University Press of New England), 1998. Includes important chapters by Mary Hunter, Richard Taruskin, the late Gunther Schuller, and others.
  • Bloechl, Olivia A. Native American Song at the Frontiers of Early Modern Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. “Early Modern” in the title refers primarily to the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries.
  • Buch, David J. Representations of Jews in the Musical Theater of the Habsburg Empire (1788-1807). Jerusalem: Jewish Music Research Centre, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012.
  • Cooke, Mervyn. Britten and the Far East: Asian Influences in the Music of Benjamin Britten. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2001.
  • Everett, Yayoi Uno, and Frederick Lau, eds. Locating East Asia in Western Art Music. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2004. 
  • Harris, Ellen T. “With Eyes on the East and Ears in the West: Handel’s Orientalist Operas.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36 (2006): 419-43.
  • Head, Matthew. “Haydn’s Exoticisms: ‘Difference’ and the Enlightenment.” In Caryl Clark, ed., Cambridge Companion to Haydn, 77-92. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Locke, Ralph P. “Doing the Impossible: On the Musically Exotic.” Journal of Musicological Research 27 (2008): 334-58.
  • __________. “On Exoticism, Western Art Music, and the Words We Use.” Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 69 (2012), no. 4: 318-28. 
  • Parakilas, James. “The Soldier and the Exotic: Operatic Variations on a Theme of Racial Encounter.” Opera Quarterly 10 (1994), no. 2: 33-56 and no. 3: 43-69.
  • Pisani, Michael V. Imagining Native America in Music. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Sheppard, W. Anthony. “Exoticism.” In Helen Greenwald, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Opera, 795-816. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Taylor, Timothy D. Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. See also review by John Morgan O’Connell, Twentieth-Century Music 4 (2007): 261-65.
  • Ward, Adrienne. Pagodas in Play: China on the Eighteenth-Century Italian Opera Stage. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2010.
Ralph Locke is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester.