Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Beyond Exoticism

In Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World, Timothy Taylor looks at the production and consumption of exoticism in music, with particular regard to a western conception of the “Other”, a new sense of difference brought about by the ‘discovery’ of the New World. Drawing on a variety of sources, the author examines distinctive manifestations of exoticism both diachronically and synchronically, providing historical depth and cultural specificity in his discussion of otherness and selfhood in Europe and America. Accordingly, he has divided the publication into two parts – colonialism and globalization – which mirror two distinctive expressions of exoticism that appear on two sides of the Atlantic. While he attempts to understand the historical processes that underscore exoticism, he in fact demonstrates the iterative character of otherness, that is, the re-inscription of an established notion of difference at different moments and in different places. Illustrating his thesis with a number of carefully chosen case studies, he adds considerably to the extensive literature on exoticism in musicology by analyzing critically the economic circumstances and the social contexts where difference is produced and consumed, music providing an ideal locus for interrogating the multiple attributes of exoticism in the past and in the present.

After examining the emergence of exoticism in Europe and showing the ways in which colonialism and imperialism shaped different representations of otherness in western music, Taylor argues that the rise of tonality in the western musical world created a sonic hierarchy, where musical cultures that have different concepts of tonality, if tonality even exists, were deemed as inferior. He uses opera as a vehicle to demonstrate how otherness became visual and sonic public displays in Western Europe, showing the ways in which Europeans understood the colonial project. Taylor then goes on to discuss how imperialism contributed to the rise of the commodification of exoticism, where everything exotic (mostly music and artifacts from colonized areas, southeast and east Asia, and the Middle East, especially Turkey) was luxurious and non-western musical sounds were appropriated.

In Part 2, Taylor explores the continuation of exoticism in America. Following a theoretical introduction concerning the character of globalization, Taylor considers the role of music and consumption. In particular he argues that the ideology of multiculturalism is linked to the economics of multinationalism where business corporations invoke musical pluralism to expand market share. Probably some of most relevant sections for this class are in the latter half of the book, where Taylor explores the use of world music in television advertisements. Detailing the musical characteristics of a generic sound aesthetic, he proposes that the distinction between self and other is now eroded, for audiences are easily able to experience difference without risk. He correlates this development with the rapid circulation of information where musical luxury is viewed as economic necessity, world music now being a symbol of prestige in a cosmopolitan age. I thought this area could use some expansion, especially with his background in music and technology. I was really hoping for more of an analysis of how digital music technology has changed the industry.

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