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Ralph P. Locke. Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections.
24 Nov 2009

Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections

Ralph Locke’s recent book on Musical Exoticism is both an historical survey of aspects of the exotic in Western musical culture and a discussion of paradigms of the exotic and their relevance for musicological understanding.

Ralph P. Locke. Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections.

Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xviii + 421 pp.

ISBN-13: 9780521349550

$39.60  Click to buy

Locke divides his investigation into two major parts, which may be characterized as 1) methodological, and 2) illustrative, the latter furnishing numerous examples starting with Händel and Rameau and extending through to current compositions including cinematic music.

In the first part Locke is careful to differentiate his position on exoticism and related terms vis-à-vis others who have approached this topic in the past. Locke’s introductory remarks, in which he elaborates on the meaning of “exotic” especially as used for Western music, set forth terms that he will use extensively in subsequent chapters. He broaches, for instance, an analytical paradigm which he terms “Exotic Style Only,” modifying this with his own “All the Music in Full Context Paradigm.” To be sure, both models receive full expression, with appropriate examples, in the following chapters. Yet the reader is here prepared for a critical discussion that will demonstrate Locke’s point 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.” [4] Based on this assumption Locke seeks to broaden his readers’ understanding of the exotic in music while claiming that “musical exoticism is not “contained in” specific devices. Rather it arises through an interaction between a work, in all [author’s emphasis] its aspects, and the listener.” [3] Before closing his introductory remarks Locke reinforces such distinctions by reminding his audience of exotic environments or individual characters, often portrayed in opera, which are rendered by traditional, “non-exotic musical means.” [10] Examples of this tendency for Locke include Handel’s Tamerlano and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, both illustrating a culture or milieu in some way foreign to the potential audience. Neither work is composed entirely, or even consistently, of elements that would be identified as distinctly part of an exotic medium. The synchronization of the listener’s expectations with the composer’s means and intentions will then yield an exoticism that is, ultimately, a type of “reception.” [12]

In these issues marking his approach to the exotic in music Locke is able to draw on theoretical grounding in the work of fellow musicologists, e.g. Rose Rosengard Subotnik and Richard Taruskin. Here Locke is especially interested in approaches that are based not only on “musical analysis” alone but also those which consider societal components as well as extra-musical associations. This balance can prove to be difficult to maintain, even among those scholars who are suggested as leading proponents. As an example, the passage cited here from Subotnik’s work on Deconstructive Variations relies on the harmonic analysis of a Chopin score, reflecting a more text-based and traditional approach; only at the conclusion of the relevant chapter does the commentary move toward questions of music in society. Locke admits to the difficulty of submitting much of what he terms “Western art music,” e.g. sonatas, symphonies, quartets, to an overriding social analysis. It is surely then a logical first step in the revisionist approach to musical exoticism here taken that a number of Locke’s examples show a clear association with some “other” place and people. [20-21] This enables the author to establish categories of analysis for his “Full-Context” Paradigm, which may subsequently be applied to other musical examples or forms. Finally Locke considers the approaches taken in recent investigations with a specific focus on his chosen topic. Hence Jonathan Bellman’s and Timothy D. Taylor’s books are examined for their usefulness in the portrayal of musical exoticism, yet both are understood by Locke as functioning within the framework of an “Exotic Style Only” Paradigm, as found in the present study. Locke sets for himself the task of using the foundation already set by these previous scholars and of expanding the possible associations of exoticism with further “crucial and neglected issues.” [24]

In his proposed new definition of exoticism Locke relies on concepts such as “Here and There” and “home country or culture.” [47] Especially significant in the author’s new definition is a differentiation between the perceptions of listeners reacting during the composer’s day and those hearing a piece still performed many years later. As put succinctly by Locke, these latter “listeners may now be living in new and different cultural situations and may thus bring different values and expectations to the work.” [47] As an enhancement of suggestions first put forth by Dahlhaus, Locke assembles a “relatively comprehensive typology” [50] of stylistic features which have been typical in Western music perceived as exotic during the past few centuries. Here he considers not only matters of pitch and harmony or dissonance but also modal features and repeated patterns of rhythm or melody often derived from dance. Locke refers to variations on a number of these stylistic features in subsequent chapters when analyzing specific works and questioning how these might be perceived by a given listener in a given age as exotic.

In the second major division of his book Locke presents a disciplined survey of various musical forms from the beginning of the eighteenth century until the present day in order to arrive at a trajectory of the exotic in music. The section entitled “Handel’s Eastern Dramas” is intended by Locke to examine and compare the portrayal of various historical figures in the operas and oratorios with a relevant geographical anchor. Hence typical despots from the East, characters in Tamerlano and Belshazzar, are discussed from the viewpoint of ideological gesture, political message, and musical style. This depiction is then contrasted with a contemporary display of even greater geographical variety in Rameau’s Les Indes galantes. By using similar methods for analyzing musical-dramatic works from the same period Locke is able to develop, in gradually evolving chronological segments, an aesthetic of the exotic. This range of aesthetic and social concerns is then treated from Mozart’s Turkish style to the gypsy image in Carmen, emerging ultimately into twentieth-century works, a period starting with the exotic in Madama Butterfly. The reader and listener are then left — appropriately — with questions concerning additional works by those very contemporaries discussed, e.g. Gretry and Massenet, and how such pieces might be fit into the model as it further evolves. The extensive bibliography will serve, when combined with Locke’s suggestions for methodology, as a means to explore the topic of exoticism on many other musical avenues.

Salvatore Calomino

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