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Classical Notes

When is appropriation appropriate?

Posted at 1:09 PM on June 21, 2006 by Don Lee (38 Comments)

The other day I was arguing with my college-age daughter about "cultural misappropriation"--indiscriminate or exploitative adoption of elements of another culture's tradition. We disagreed about the best response to uninformed, but sincerely motivated curiosity, debating a question raised by an illustration in an essay she showed me: Is a Lebanese woman justified in feeling angry that an American buys a derbake (a Lebanese drum) only because he wants to take it home and tap on it a bit?

It's a complicated question. Much depends on the American's awareness (or lack thereof) that the derbake might be a potent cultural symbol. Knowing that, if he did, how should he behave?

I was reminded of the issue today when I came upon a comment by Daniel Barenboim, who has just conducted the Chicago Symphony for the last time as its music director:

In the hotel where I stay, they think that it is very culturally minded to play classical music in the elevator, or in the foyers of concert halls before the concert. And I have been on more than one occasion subjected to having to hear, because I cannot shut my ears, the Brahms violin concerto in the lift, having to conduct it in the evening. And I ask myself, why? This is not going to bring one more person into the concert hall. It is not only counter-productive, but I think--if we are allowed to speak of musical ethics--it is absolutely offensive.

Barenboim is alleging cultural misappropriation. I'm sure he's right that Brahms in the elevator won't send anyone to the concert hall…not directly anyway. But I wonder how his charge that the practice is "absolutely offensive" would fall on the ears of Daisuke Takeuchi. In a comment posted here one week ago, Mr. Takeuchi described himself as "a new fan" who, until recently, had "stayed away from classical music because I did not understand."


Comments (38)

I listened to all 5 of Barenboim's Reith lectures, thanks to you mentioning it here a while ago. After listening to them all, I am still not sure exactly what he wanted to say. I could not get his message such as music explains some of political situations and 9/11. But I kind of agree with his point of having been exposed to Muzak everywhere. Although I do not mind hearing classical music being played in an elevator or elsewhere.

I said I could not understand classical music to your post last week. I could not understand why Mozart piano concerto, for example, is supposed to be so great. Like looking at some paintings, I do not understand why certain painting is supposed to be a masterpiece because it does not touch me on a personal level. This was true with classical music. Another example is, I would have no idea that in Beethoven's famous 5th symphony, it is supposed to be a battle between C minor and C major and in the end C major triumphs due to my lack of music education. For a naive listener like me, it just sounded like an intense muic until I really took some time, reading about it, and with repeated active listening, I somehow come to appreciate and enjoy it.

I wrote that seeing Osmo Vanska conduct really turned me into a fan. To me just listening to CDs at home was not enough to really enjoy that particular music. Seeing and hearing it performed live by a fantastic orchestra led by a dynamic conductor is neccesarry for me to really enjoy that music more.

Posted by Daisuke Takeuchi | June 22, 2006 2:20 PM


I'd like to add one more thing. Suppose that Kabuki is the highest form of art, and since you are such an open minded guy, you decided one day to give it a shot to this thing called Kabuki although being an American you were not thrilled about music written by some dead Japanese men centuries ago, but bought a CD of the famous Kanjinchou. You were never brought up by a musical family nor had music education about Kabuki, but you loved Rock N' Roll. After all only elite class or people with music education could enjoy and understand a highly formalized art form like Kabuki.
So, you listen, and instead of being moved to tears, you fell asleep. Next day, you still try to listen, and you are left with questions, like why do they sing like that? why do they play the instrument like that? What's the reason for that extensive virtuosic performane? and why is this supposed to be a masterpiece?
I do not know if this is a good example, but this is how felt about classical music.

Posted by Daisuke Takeuchi | June 22, 2006 8:28 PM


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