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December 29, 2003


At the 19th Conference and Festival of the Asian Composers League held in Taipei in 1998, José Maceda and Chou Wen Chun, two of Asia’s leading figures in music composition and philosophical discourse, discussed their views on Asian music. They focused on Asian music “renaissance,” and made references to the artistic life of 15th and 16th century Europe, a period characterized by the revival of a Greek classical heritage after the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

Citing the dynamic confluence of ideas that evolved through a sense of freedom as well as the exposure of artists and scholars to cultures outside their small territorial enclaves, Chou took a more guarded position in submitting to a parallel observation on post-colonial Asia. His reservation lies mainly in the fact that Asian musicians still adhere to European paradigms in music theory and practice, blurring the link between modern Asian sensitivity and pre-colonial Asian aesthetics. In an earlier publication, Chou had emphasized that “Asia-Pacific societies must stop thinking colonially of catching up with the West [and must instead] discern how they can contribute culturally to a new world order.” (Chou 1994)

Maceda, on the other hand, took a more pragmatic view by interpreting the current artistic and musical dynamism as inspired by a renewed awareness for the great achievements of Asian peoples and civilizations. He pointed out that a search for continuity through the rediscovery of distinctions and kinship in Asian philosophy and aesthetics indicates a revitalization of Asian culture and the arts in contemporary times. He particularly cited the development of intellectualism among Asian music artists and scholars and a renewal of rational inquiry into a vast plethora of musical literature of complex, irrational taxonomy (see Maceda 1995). Maceda further implied that the confluence of ideas and attitudes and a cross-cultural fertilization that occurred in the European Renaissance between Europe and West Asia may be perceived in the same light as the encounter of two hemispheres in Asian societies today that brought dramatic changes in the expressive life of Asians, or to a lesser degree, the artistic interaction in East Asia during the T’ang dynasty.

Such confluence was also articulated by Chou in earlier dialogues as a kind of a “prerequisite” towards a New Era of Asia-Pacific music, in the context of a modern musical expression whose aesthetic framework and language result from an inevitable crystallization of “mutual or reciprocal actions and influences.” According to Chou, the possibility of such crystallization is illustrated by the development of a Chinese music through a process of interactions which have gradually transformed the aesthetics of Chinese music: the gradual…southward movement of the Han-Chinese from the North China Plain to beyond the Yangtze Valley; the westward expansions of the Han and T’ang dynasty; the development of trade routes to the west that brought the influence of Central Asian cultures east to China proper; and above all the confrontation and interpenetration between the music of Chinese tradition in southern China and the foreign music of Central Asian origin in northern China, ruled by Turkic and Tungusik invaders—a historic struggle that led to the new Chinese music of the T’ang” (Chou 1991).

The Taipei dialogue raised serious questions about the present state and probable future of Asian music, and its historical and geographic significance. This paper intends to give a perspective of significant events in Asian music for the past 150 years, and assess their importance relative to the hypothetical and theoretical assumption of an “Age of Rebirth and Renewal” in the music of Asia. Basically, it shall attempt to answer the question whether we are indeed experiencing the underpinnings of a new era or simply living through another historical phase in Asian musical life.

To limit the sphere of discourse and field of inquiry, this paper shall deal with musical productions with reference to a modern repertoire, and documented initiatives by individual artists, scholars, institutions, inter-cultural associations and regional alliances. Contextually, the above data shall be discussed in reference to the political, economic and social conditions from the point of view of history and geographic space. In this regard, the term “modern musical repertoire” shall be viewed in the wider historical framework of “modernity” and “modernism.” “Modernity” shall mean the unequivocal assimilation of Western music theory and practice—from the classical to the popular—as symbolic of “newness” and social progress, and the “modernization” of the musical language of both traditional and borrowed provenance. “Modernism,” on the other hand, shall refer to the changes in the musical thinking and re-valuation of existing musical parameters by both society and individual or institutional practitioners, and the revival of ethnic sensibilities in contemporary artistic expression as a “new” or innovative ideological concept.

This paper will focus on the musical developments in the last 150 years on account of two major historical phenomena: the widespread Westernization and the gradual decline of colonialism in Asia’s musical cultures. However, the discussion shall be contextualized under an even more extended diachronic spectrum of events. The paper will trace musical development through pre-colonial times, the ensuing European conquest, and the founding of imperialist regimes, to the rise of nation states, the appropriation and revitalization of the cultural symbols of ethnic communities and nations, their accompanying “ideologies of nationalism” (see Smith 1999), as well as the collective sharing of such ideologies through the formation of institutional and political alliances (see Soja 1993).

Finally, the main body of the paper shall attempt to explore the intellectual, creative and socio-political initiatives, achievements, and perspectives of Asians in the last 150 years to determine their over-all significance to contemporary musical life in Asia.

Historical Antecedents

The last 150 years may be viewed as the start of a transition period from Asia’s colonial age. It was a period that saw the Western world desperately attempt to cling to its colonial domination of the East. The West’s plunder of Asia’s natural resources, exploitation of its labor, and appropriation of its raw materials to service Western industrial enterprises, not to mention the West’s domination and “puppetriation” of local aristocracies and ruling bourgeoisie to ensure its continued access to the internal political affairs of emerging nation states had left Asia’s social and economic life in disarray (see Worsley 1999). The 20th century has witnessed an Asia divided by political ideologies, economic strength, religious persuasions, and different social and cultural directions. It is a world of difference from the prosperity and relatively peaceful co-existence that flourished in pre-colonial Asia.

The autonomy of small territorial dominions and a few empires in pre-colonial Asia had been greatly undermined by centuries of Western colonial incursions. The homogeneity of European cultural ethos founded on Greco-Roman thought and on Christian morality and religious doctrine (backed by its aggressive assumption of superiority over other beliefs), was transplanted into the fertile field of the Asian cultural landscape in the form of cultural hegemony.

Political and economic domination was reinforced by the dissemination of values and institutions designed to promote the acceptance of the colonized of their place in the colonial order. To the European colonizers, the superiority of their culture was a “total” superiority, not just one of technology and productive systems, but also of ideas and values. If material pre-eminence was based on modern science, the spiritual superiority of European culture over all forms of indigenous culture, including even the religions of Asia, was equally unquestioned (Worsley 1999).

The first territories that received the initial impact of Western cultural influence were those reached by the expeditions from Spain and Portugal in accordance with a Papal edict that divided the New World between the two Iberian sovereignties. Their “discovered” destinations included islands in what is now the Philippine archipelago, parts of India, Ceylon, Malacca, and the Moluccas (Parto 1995). Upon the establishment of colonial structures, European music and theater were initially introduced as tools for religious conversion and to accompany or enhance military and state ceremonies, and later to provide the expatriate communities (both foreign- and local-born) familiar cultural entertainment.1

The decline of Spain and Portugal as world powers opened the colonial world to England, France and the Netherlands (Worsley, 1999). The Dutch colonized Indonesia as early as the 17th century, while India and the modern states of Malaysia, Burma (now Myanmar) and Singapore fell into the hands of the British in the 19th century. While these colonies were contained more for their economic resources, Western cultural influence nevertheless found its place in the social environment, either as symbols of social power or as points of religious and/or political accommodation.

In most countries and territories that assimilated Western culture, music was generally disseminated in both Christian religious institutions and public schools instituted by European, and later North American, missionaries and educators in the 19th and 20th centuries. One reason for the rapid spread of Western musical knowledge is that its principal purveyors—religious missionaries, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries—sometimes enjoyed extensive influence in the affairs of governance.2

Colonization of Asian Musical Cultures as Modernity

The Westernization of Asian cultures, whether it materialized in the context of colonization by, or accommodation of, Western powers, brought about a variety of significant changes in the musical traditions of the region. Besides its symbolic function as an artistic commodity of a technologically superior, cultivated, and modern lifestyle, Western music was adopted as a global culture medium that facilitated interaction between the West and the individual Asian states. It contributed to a hegemonic view of an ideal culture worthy of emulation and a goal aspired for by “less civilized” societies. The concept of the universality of music created greater class distinction and social tension in the colonized societies (Adorno 2000). It is perhaps in the ideation of its superiority that Western music provided the emerging Asian bourgeoisie the motivation to flock to such countries as Spain, Austria, Germany, France, the United States, and Russia to study and train in the “modern” art form. Locally, conservatories and music schools patterned after those of Europe and North America, were established in major urban centers.3

The theory and practice of Western music, with its strong orientation on structure and technique (see Chou 1995), created a hegemonic view of all sonic/time related expressions as “music.” Thus, anything that did not fit its theoretical rubrics were deemed of inferior value, e.g. music that lacked harmony or counterpoint, music that had no tempered tuning, music of unknown modalities, unhemitonic music, etc. The lure of Western music included Western society’s high regard for music as an art form, as well as the social pre-eminence accorded to its musicians, composers and performers alike. In Asian societies, musicians either belonged to the lowest social rank or were subordinate functionaries in courts and temples, and their musical preoccupation was shrouded with anonymity. In village traditions, on the other hand, musical practices were related to folklore, pagan worship, superstitious beliefs, and primitive rituals (Hsu 1999). While Asian musical practices conveyed a sense of servitude and primal antiquity, Western music provided creative freedom, modernity and power.

Asian Bourgeoisie and the Composer Class

The emergence and rise of the composer class in the Asian bourgeois society is one of the more significant results of the Westernization of Asian musical life. More than the assumption of the novel idea that music composition is a separate function of music production, the creation of the Asian composer provided new social status to musicians performing otherwise servile social or religious functions. The individual value and prestige of the Western composer as a creative artist was easily absorbed by Asia’s modern intellectual circles as a departure from the anonymity that surrounded artists’ past contributions to the cultural enrichment of Asian societies. Thus, their newfound status brought with it all the social attributes and privileges enjoyed by other disciplines, and warranted music’s place in the curricula of public schools and institutions of higher learning.

Nevertheless, all forms of institutionalization and valuation of music, musician, or composer, were exclusively attached to the Western music medium. All other temporal forms of native expression were either looked down upon or set aside as unrefined and unworthy of social and intellectual esteem, or fossilized objects of an unwanted past. Moreover, iconic paradigms for musical excellence were drawn solely from the historical gallery of European composers from the Middle Ages to the present, inspiring Asians to recreate their own versions of Josquin, Palestrina, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart or Tchaikovsky.

A correlation between modern industrialization and western music may be seen in the significant proliferation of Western music symbols in Asian life.

[t]he materialist view often overlooks the fact that the material factors and economic activity are not solely oriented to providing subsistence but are often devoted to developing material emblems of prestige and power… Music becomes the dependent variable. (Kaemmer 1989)

Although the introduction and absorption of Western music in Japanese and Korean societies span just a little over 100 years, the two most industrialized countries in the region have produced thousands of Western music practitioners who easily adapted to the modernized style and techniques of musical composition, including the use of electronic and computer technology. In the last few decades, Japan has been competing with the West in the manufacture of Western instruments, and both countries have built some of the best concert halls and opera theaters in the world.4

More than the phenomenon of its material and physical presence in Asian social and intellectual life, Western music brought a notion of separation or differentiation5 as a distinct aesthetic expression, as well as a notion of class distinction represented by styles and repertoires (classical, popular, folk, indigenous) and their accompanying aesthetic, commercial, and cultural biases.

Intramusical tensions are the unconscious phenomena of social tensions. Ever since the Industrial Revolution all of music has been suffering from the unreconciled state of the universal and the particular, from the chasm between their traditional, encompassing forms and the specific musical occurrences of these forms (Adorno 2000).

According to a hierarchic order of prominence, classical Western art music was considered the highest form of expression and the universal medium of musical communication; popular music is of less intellectual provenance and of purely entertainment value; folk was inferior, localized and unsophisticated music; and indigenous was either primitively exotic or fossil specimens suitable for academic research, to be dissected in laboratories, and kept in archives and museums.

Secularization, Industrialization and Music as Commodity

A concept of differentiation of music is also related to a secularization of the musical act, a departure from its ritualistic and social functionality in Asian traditional life. Its purely sonic and structural dimension with an absolute theoretical framework built on melody, harmony, counterpoint, and linear formal schema, has been superimposed on the multi-dimensionality of Asian musical expression, and its framework of time, physical space, sonic space, the human body, mind and community, is synchronically operating in one integrated and symbiotic act. While the structural elements of Western music represent a philosophical temperament based on Greco-Roman logic and notion of causality (see Maceda 1980), Western music was embraced in Asian society as a symbol of cultural superiority and social and intellectual cultivation. No longer practiced as an end in itself, music as art has been absorbed as a “means of achieving larger social and economic ends” (Seeger and Valiant 1980) as well as a part of a highly material way of life, and an emblem of global participation.6

Industrialization in Asia gave rise to the creation of urban societies that in a way localized the global capitalist economy (McGuigan 1996). Urban culture in Asian societies have since flourished as part of the economic hegemony of the West, characterized by the industrialization of locally produced commodities, as well as the influx of goods from other cultures. These conditions necessitated constant adjustment and accommodation in socio-cultural behavior, taste and expression in order to cater to an international mode of social interaction and communication based on Western cultural and artistic mores.7

The introduction of mass media technology and mass culture distribution and consumption as a must in an urban landscape not only secularized the musical experience but also reified music as a market commodity. While the commercialization of music yielded and made available to the consuming public a great variety of musical commodities, the advertising and market strategies—classification, valuation, and distribution—were nevertheless controlled by and adhered to, Western standards and commercial predisposition. To quote Foucault on the subservience of taste and choice to market forces,

Many of the elements that are supposed to provide access to music actually impoverish our relationship with it. There is a quantitative mechanism here. A certain rarity of relation to music could preserve an ability to choose what one hears, and thus [one’s] flexibility in listening. But the more frequent this relation is (radio, records, cassettes), the more familiarities it creates; habits crystallize; the most frequent becomes the most acceptable, and soon the only thing perceivable. It produces a “tracing,” as the neurologists say… Clearly, the laws of the marketplace will readily apply to this simple mechanism. (Foucault and Boulez 2000)

Related to this phenomenon is a more deep-seated condition in which Asian musical products will, in theory, continue to lag behind in market value to those of the West for the very reason that for centuries, the West has invested in hegemonizing taste in its cultural colonies and setting standards for musical valuation and discernment based on, and in favor of, its own musical products: from the classical works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky, or Stockhausen to the music of Sinatra, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and other icons of the well-schematized popular music culture industry.

Decolonization of Asian Musical Cultures as Modernism

The decolonization of Asian musical cultures is very much related to the collapse of the distinctions, hierarchic structures, and valuations in musical thought. It also presents a concept of modernism, which refers not only to a departure from Western musical mores but also to a redefinition of a modernity in Western music that is premised on theoretical, structural and technological determinism, and a reexamination of the esthetic field in the pre-colonial musical practices of the East.

Historically, this process is still on going and in fact, perhaps only just past its formative and speculative stage. The disparity in the rate of awareness for, and the formulation of, the de-colonized consciousness is rather remarkable. In a forum of Asian contemporary music composers in 1975, a rather progressive discourse on new sources of musical thought in Southeast Asia for music composition (see Maceda 1975) was heard on the same occasion when the use of the 12-tone technique in a Japanese composition was extolled (see Irino 1975) and frustration was expressed by a Thai composer on the lack of a regular symphony orchestra in Thailand (see Sucharitkul 1975). Such aggregate perspectives on modernism in the music of Asia reflect different shades of consciousness —from a need to break away from a Western musical thinking, to a continuous pursuit of modernity based on Western music and a Westernized musical environment.

In spite of the differences in musical awareness and varying degrees of objectification in musical discourse among Asian artists and musicians, evidence exists that points to a developing consciousness for the need to emancipate from colonialism and its symbols of power. Such consciousness provides a framework for the reconstruction of the modern Asian nation emerging from common colonial experiences by separate ethnic communities or what Smith calls “pre-modern ethnie.” To most Asian nations, the colonial experience has fomented a sense of nationalism that is more of an “ideological doctrine” and “fund of sentiments” rather than a territorial domain that is “galvanized by capitalism and secular rationality” (see Smith 1999). Thus, a search for national symbols as a source of cultural emancipation have been accorded greater immediacy more than the actual search for a rational strategy to unbind the “nation” from the real sources of colonial enslavement. According to Smith,

[T]he whole gamut of symbols express the culture and evoke the salvation drama of the nation… In its arts and crafts, and its music and dance are distilled the pride and hope of a “community of history and destiny” which seeks to shape events and mould itself in the image of its ideals… (Smith 1999).

At the same time, the fervor of the modern nation-formation through the revival or reconstruction of its ethnic past and the formulation of a national heritage has sometimes resulted in an overzealous historization of ethnicity to the point of inventing national traditions (see McGuigan 1996).

The Role of the Asian Bourgeoisie in Decolonization

A culture of nationalism and national heritage in Asia has evolved through the colonial period primarily in the consciousness of the new intellectual class, the cultural bourgeoisie that emerged from the urbanized Asian society. Liberal education, acquired both locally and abroad, has developed an objective view of the modern Asian self as a decolonized yet civilized member of the global community. From the ranks of the Asian musical bourgeoisie arose a new multi-disciplinal group of artist-scholar-composers. This paper shall discuss in further detail the vital contribution of this literati group towards providing meaningful directions and effective instrumentalities in the cultural revivalism in Asian musical life.

Asian music in the last century encapsulates different manifestations of such cross-cultural accommodation. One dramatic change is in the transmission of Asian traditional music. For centuries prior to Westernization, Asian traditional music was taught by individual master teachers or learned in courts and temples. Today, modern public schools and institutions of higher learning have taken over these functions.8 Inspite of the continued presence and utilization of master teachers, the integration of music pedagogy into the educational mainstream has resulted in highly structured and formalized learning strategies. At the same time, the secularization of all kinds of musical activities resulted not only in a diminished role of religion in the music of Asia, but also in the denaturing of old musical practices. This is particularly evident in nation-states that have been formed and re-formed under exclusively socio-political ideologies.

The revitalization of tradition in modern institutional structures has also mitigated the marked cultural distinction between classical and cultivated musical systems, and folk and orally transmitted musical practices. While this may appear to reflect social and cultural egalitarianism, the mainstreaming process is still dominated by the power and privilege of the dominant ethnie as well as its own acculturated view of a modern nation-state. Moreover, the superimposition of the larger nationalist agenda over re-empowering ethnic identities has, in the process, blurred the distinctive aesthetic and moral values of each ethnic tradition, leading at best, to integrative accommodations and compromise inspired by a doctrine of unity and national policy.

The idea of fraternity and unity, if not cultural homogeneity, has been a guiding influence on all nationalists, even when they respected the traditions of different ethnie within the nations they were bent on constructing (Smith 1999).

The entire gamut of culture initiatives in musical production by the modern Asian artists for the purpose of breaking away from the yoke of colonialism constitutes “revivalism,” a historical movement that is characterized by a search for direct access to ethnic roots, no longer as mere symbols of national identity but effecting its operationalization in modern day esthetics and contemporary expression.

Aspects of Revivalism

In the revival of pre-colonial Asian music cultures, one very critical factor is to find or establish points of interconnection between traditional musical practices and contemporary expression. Such interconnection is premised on the interface of continuity and modernity, with the least traumatic damage on the object of revival. Modern institutional structures have contributed to this pursuit. In the last 50 years, the Western intellectual inquiry on the musical and social value of non-Western musical practices have gradually reified and “elevated” Asian music from its colonial image as purely archeological objects, to its present-day valuation as living human expressions with their own distinct aesthetic, theoretical, philosophical and cultural frameworks. Thus, the teaching and study of traditional music, both of classical and non-classical provenance, has been incorporated into existing music programs in Westernized educational and academic institutions, as well as formal and non-formal schools for the traditional performing arts.9

In the last 50 years, music composition in Asia has been evolving as an interesting arena of cross-cultural accommodations, searching for an ideal state of decolonization and multi-culturalism10 and developing a new musical expression based on various types of fusion.11 As a principal instrument of revivalism, the concept itself of music composition faces a dilemma, in that the creative and integrated process in traditional musical practices differ greatly from the formalistic and compartmentalized realization of Western music compositions. Where Asian traditional music is mostly realized with creative spontaneity by individuals or groups, Western composition goes through pre-determined authorship, writing, and performance. Thus, except for a few experiments on fusing processes of composing and performance, Asian musical production in the last 50 years has focused on the “Asianization” or localization of foreign musical structures and concepts, resulting in an interesting array of hybrid specimens of creative integration. To quote from a previous paper,

[M]any works appear as alienated versions or distant clones of what is truly Asian music…other works are perceived to be romanticizings of Asian music… some prevailing techniques include quotation and grafting of pre-existing materials, the adaptation of characteristics structures such as rhythms, intervals, scales, and the synthesis of sound objects made available by an almost inexhaustible repertory of instrumental and vocal timbres [and techniques]. The proverbial five-tone scale, the principle of melodic ornamentation and repetitive rhythmic formulas, are some of the more basic elements that have been integrated into formal and harmonic structures of Western art music (Santos 1991).

While the 1950s saw a great majority of Asian composers still struggling with 19th century chromatic harmonic language as applied to Asian pentatonic-based thematic materials, the concurrent unfolding of the European “avant-garde” (or New Music) idioms created a greater need to fast-track modern compositional learning among the new bourgeois composer class. From 1950s to 1970s, the desire to keep up with the latest trends in Western music resulted in the abandonment of serialism, Webernian pointillism, mass structuralism, sound synthesis, and the use of extended techniques on Asian musical instruments to symbolize modernity and the “internationalization” of Asian music. Moreover, the interface with leading Western contemporary composers and membership in the International Society for Contemporary Music, was sought in earnest to provide greater validity to the global status of Asian composers.12

The beneficial outcome of interactive links with Western contemporary composers and associations is by no means a one-way course. In the last century, Asia has provided a gallery of sonic and conceptual resources to modern Western music styles and idioms, from Debussy’s Impressionist literature and Messiaen’s religious and theoretical symbolism, to the outputs of the school of Indeterminate and Aleatoric music, and Minimalism (see Santos 1991). Some highly talented Asian composers, who have mastered modern Western techniques in writing tradition-based compositions, have also been regarded as special assets in the faculty of leading music schools and conservatories in Europe and North America.13

In the field of popular song and entertainment music, much of the musical and packaging formulae of North American popular music have been adapted by most Asian countries, localized through the use of vernacular languages. Various streams of rock, rap and new wave music have been incorporated in the mass media landscape and culture industries of Asian urban societies. In spite of the hundred-or-so-year history of Asian popular music, however, its consumer value has not gone beyond local markets and immigrant communities abroad, except for such hybrid forms as the kroncong, dangdut, luk thung, bangsawan, and a few others which have captured the interest of Western ethnomusicologists for their exotic, intellectual and symbolic value.

Revival of Asian Musical Thought in Modern Practice

A more deliberate and determinate revival of Asian ethnicities in modern musical practice may be felt to break away from the most fundamental ideology, concept and esthetics of Western musical thought. An inquiry into the “correctness” of Western music as a medium for expressing an Asian sensitivity, spirituality, and way of life, is partly an outcome of the canon of liberation in New Music, as well as the evolving intellectualism and individualism among the new Asian intelligentsia. In Manila in 1966, some of the world’s leading avant-garde composers, ethnomusicologists, and educators, both Asian and Western, gathered to exchange their individual views on music and modernism vis-à-vis the living musical traditions in Asia in a historic forum convened by José Maceda through the National Music Council and UNESCO. The symposium, appropriately entitled “The Musics of Asia,” featured scientific expositions on the structural, esthetic and cultural properties of the music of Ceylon, China, India, Japan, Java, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. This was counterbalanced by presentations on formalized music by Iannis Xenakis, music and mathematics, a concept of time, classifications of instruments, and temperament. Speculative discussions on East and West encounter and the future for Asian music likewise permeated the entire event (see Maceda 1966).14 The symposium also dramatized the global equality of musical cultures by featuring performances of traditional Philippine kulintang music together with Xenakis’ Achorripsis, Chou Wen Chung’s Cursive for Flute and Piano, and Maceda’s Agungan for five gong families in one concert.

In succeeding international fora initiated by Asian creative artists and scholars, Asian aesthetics was given greater attention and serious ideation vis-à-vis discussions on technique and musical synthesis. Two of the most influential composers from East Asia, Isang Yun from Korea and Chou Wen Chung, developed a concept of composition based on the “single tone” phenomenon in Asian classical court and temple music traditions. According to Yun,

[n]otes can be compared to brush strokes as opposed to pencil lines. From beginning to end, each note is consciously employed as a means of expression. A note’s changes in pitch are regarded less as intervals forming a melody than as an ornamental function and part of the range of expression of one and the same note (see Feliciano, 1983).

In his talks and writings, Chou has advocated the revival of the esthetic views of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, which according to him, are a “most fundamental force in shaping the course of East Asian music” (see Ryker, 1991) Part of these esthetic views is the triadic integration of language, tone and imagery or poetry, music, and painting, as well as the representation of the cosmos in the musical sphere:

In chin music, the sound of earth; ti sheng is represented by the open strings, while the sound of heaven tien sheng is represented by the harmonics, thus leaving the stopped notes to represent the sound of man, jen sheng (see Ryker, 1991).

Another highly influential figure in Asian modern music is Toru Takemitsu, whose works explore his inner self as Japanese rather than as a musician influenced by his environment. While Chou and Yun may have objectified Asian philosophical concepts by reviving their essence in their works, Takemitsu has created his music as a highly subjective and personalized expression of his musical growth and sensation, and in the process embodying the spirit of Zen Buddhism.15 Whatever deliberateness and consciousness are discernable in his works is a result of his desire to dramatize the difference in esthetic sensitivity between the western and Japanese musical expressions.

The revival of Asian esthetics through objective and subjective representation in their compositions is also shared by Filipino composer and scholar José Maceda only to the extent that their creative explorations have been inspired by a common vision to revivify Asian sensibilities in the context of a modern musical environment. While East Asian esthetic philosophies centered on individualism and subjective expression in classical traditions, Maceda exposed the hidden world of village cultures, where life is lived by shared labor, through a spiritual communion with nature, and according to the untempered logic of the human and metaphysical universe. His pioneering field studies in the oral traditions of the Philippines and Southeast Asia (see Maceda 1979) resulted in fresh theoretical and sociological interpretations of such musical phenomena as “drone and melody,” a concept of [non-linear] time, ritualism in music, the counts of four and the fifth interval, and a different classification of things.

Music may be viewed and classified according to an order of thought with its own system. For example, instruments may be distributed according to an opposition of masses and thinness of sound, as in 50 violins vs. one trombone, or that an imitation of “small specks viewed from afar” may be realized by dozens of violins, “pasturing” in different sections of a landscape (Maceda 1995).

Taking these theoretical constructs as possible sources of musical thought in composition (see Maceda 1976), Maceda launched a series of works that either presented dramatic and radical realizations of his ideas or de-constructions of the formalistic concepts of Western music.16 His Udlot-Udlot (1975), music that projected a concept of shared labor and community interaction, as well as a concept of temporal infinity in village life, was first performed by 800 high school students in a parking lot, while his highly controversial work Ugnayan (1974), originally entitled Atmospheres, intended to create a village sonic environment in an urban landscape by simultaneously broadcasting 20 layers of pre-taped sounds of native instruments by twenty radio stations all over Metro Manila.

The works and ideas of the four composers17 and their contemporaries have generated a new creative atmosphere not only in Asia but also in the Western contemporary music scene. From a larger viewpoint of modern composition, the esthetic discourse of Yun, Chou, Takemitsu and Maceda offered an alternative, if not a more insightful, field of exploration in the “Asianization” of contemporary music literature. One of its principal values lies in a reorientation of music composition in Asia from the technological and formalized processes and the globalized “avant-garde” styles of Europe and North America. Moreover, the structural properties of Asian traditional music were redefined not so much as a prescribed vocabulary in crafting a modern Asian music, but rather as encapsulations of a multi-dimensional semantic space that contain the expressive sensibilities of peoples and societies in pre-colonial Asia. Thus, the creative challenge of such cognition is to reinvent structural formulas that will be able to revive such traditional sensibilities in a non-traditional environment, without necessarily replicating an old Asian music or re-authenticating a modern Asian composition.

Maceda and some of his Western-trained followers,18 in the course of producing highly unconventional works, contributed to the collapse of boundaries that separate music expressing traditional cultures and music that represent a modern acculturated way of life. Other latter-day Asian composers have experimented on extending the traditional canons of Asian music-making in the spirit of modernism. In the last 20 years, new musical groups led by young dynamic individuals have emerged from a number of formal academies of Asian traditional arts. They are producing new music crafted according to centuries-old compositional processes, but using such innovative procedures as extended instrumental techniques or incorporating new sound sources derived from other Asian musical systems. Furthermore, the collaboration between Western-trained Asian composers and progressive young master artists coming from both classical and village traditions, has likewise given its own dimension to the establishment of a linear continuity between tradition and modernity.19

The various types and classifications of creative revivalism, from acculturated and accommodative fusions, to esthetically inspired creative expressions and semi-intuitive tradition-based innovations, are all expressive of a modernism that seeks to liberate the contemporary Asian musical artist from both his colonial ties to the West as well as from the social isolation and cultural alienation from his traditional past. The phenomenon is indicative of a search for an identity and an emblem of nationalism within and outside his globalized environment. From a wider perspective, modernism in Asian expressive cultures implies a freedom from the hegemonic influence of the West, which also resulted in the political, economic and cultural isolation and estrangement between Asian nation states. Thus, in most nation states with clearly defined ethnic traditions, identity is not confined to “ethnicism” or a movement intended to “restore and renew culture” (Smith 1999), but rather refers to a “geographic nationalism” that restores its national ethnicity to a larger geographic socio-cultural space that is Asia.

A theory of modernism in the context of geographic nationalisms

In emphasizing the role of space, the current developments in the collective cultural consciousness among the decolonizing Asian communities, could be interpreted as a macro-manifestation of Foucault’s idea of “heterotopia” (heterogenous spaces of sites and relations), a product of intentions and decisions (as opposed to a linear determinism) that is “fundamental in any form of communal life [and]… in any exercise of power” (Foucault 1993). The establishment of architectural environmental structures of space in Foucault’s discourse could be further compared to the geographic reorganization and restructuring of cultural spaces in which an Asian communal milieu emerges as a structure in the larger global environment. Soja speaks of the making of history with the social production of space, with the construction and configuration of human geographies. New possibilities are being generated from this creative commingling, possibilities for a simultaneous historical and geographic materialism; a triple dialectic of space, time and social being xxxx (Soja 1993).

A reinterpretation of the above concepts of geographic space and power relations can be conceptualized in relation to the revival of a common Asian identity through institutional and international alliances.

In the last 30 years, Asian consciousness for decolonization has found greater impetus in the formation of linkages in various aspects of culture, trade and politics. Alliances, associations, and engagements among musical artists have emerged either through their own initiatives or as adjunct to inter-government programs for strengthening regional political and economic potentialities.

The Asian Composers League (ACL) began with an “accidental” discovery by a handful of composers from Taiwan and the Philippines of how little they knew of each other’s works. As the eminent Chinese composer Hsu Tsang Houei wrote after a succeeding encounter with Japanese composers:

We shared the feeling that we had been focusing our attention on French composer Boulez, German composer Stockhausen, and American composer Cage to the point of neglecting what other Asian composers had been doing (Hsu 1995).

Formally founded in April 1973 in Hong Kong,20 ACL has two fundamental principles: (1) Traditional music of Asia is the wellspring of contemporary Asian music; and (2) ACL is the meeting place for all Asian composers to exchange ideas and present works” (Hsu 1995).

The initial draft of the statutes was formulated during its first General Assembly held in Manila in 1975, and revised three years later in Bangkok.21 Representatives from Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Thailand, as well as guests from Germany, Canada, Sweden, and the United States22 attended the Manila General Assembly. Today, the ACL has 12 institutional members,23 and has successfully organized some 19 major conferences and festivals,24 as well as several smaller festivals, inter-country symposia and concert series.

While the ACL was founded by individuals belonging to the “composer class of the Asian cultural bourgeoisie,”25 ACL’s major conferences and festivals have consistently featured Asian traditional music performances and highlighted new techniques on Asian instruments. Moreover, the ACL can perhaps take pride in being the foremost global forum in which musical ideologies and aesthetics between the two hemispheres have been openly debated upon from the creative, musicological and philosophical perspectives. Moreover, the ACL Conferences and Festivals have also addressed major contemporary musical issues as thematic foci of its assemblies.26

Under an unwritten doctrine of traditionalism, the ACL has also instituted its Members-of-Honor structure, an ancestral pantheon of both living and deceased individuals, to identify its icons and sustain the distinctive and pre-eminent existence of the organization. Names of pioneering founders of the ACL, as well as internationally renowned Asian composers, have been “beatified” to serve as the spiritual pillars of the organization.27 At the same time, the ACL has also emphasized the cultivation of future generations of sensitized Asian composers by establishing prizes for outstanding works, although some issues on stylistic criteria remain unresolved.

An offshoot of the alliance established among Asian composers is the foundation of the Asia-Pacific Society for Ethnomusicology (APSE) in 1994. The APSE was formed because, like the ACL, there was a perceived need for it (Hsu 1995). Unlike its counterparts in the West, APSE was founded not so much as a symbol of Asian intellectualism that encourages greater “participation in global matters of research,” but as a societal and regional necessity for “scholars in Asia to understand the music of Asia” (see Maceda 2000). Moreover, the conditions surrounding the establishment of APSE is quite distinct from the homogeneous academic and scientific exclusivity of ethnomusicological associations in the West. It is worthwhile to note that most of the principal founders28 and members of the society are not only scholars and thinkers but also outstanding composers and performing artists who come from the new multi-discipline bourgeoisie subclass earlier mentioned. Furthermore, the integrity of intent in the foundation of APSE shows a detachment from the trends of inquiry in the West, differentiated for its holism, depth and perspectival expanse in examining Asian music in culture and a culture of music in Asia. More specifically the wide range of topics in the last seven conferences29 cover a heterogenous field of discussion: structures, esthetics, theories, pedagogy, religion, songs and other expressive forms, musical practice, cooperation, metaphysics and abstract thought (Maceda 2000). Although hardly a decade old, APSE has already demonstrated its potential to contribute towards the actualization and embedment of revivalism in Asian musical life. Where discovery and knowledge are the ultimate goals of Western music scholarship, an intellectual and philosophical inquiry of Asians into Asian music is part of a process of integrating knowledge and being.

Another type of cultural interconnection that arose in the last 20 years is part of a sub-regional alliance of nation-states whose main goal is to promote political solidarity and communality in economic development. In its initial declaration of principles, the foreign ministers of the original five member-countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)30 underscored a view of an “increasingly interdependent world,” and therefore the need for regional understanding and cooperation especially among countries that are “already bound by ties of history and culture” (see Basic ASEAN Documents 1967). One of the six main thrusts laid down by its founding members is Culture and Information, intended to promote and solidify inter-cultural understanding through such strategies as the learning of ASEAN languages in school curricula, as well as the assistance and support to ASEAN scholars, writers, artists, and mass media practitioners to enable them to “foster a sense of regional identity and fellowship” (Basic ASEAN Documents 1967).

The ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information (COCI) was established in 197831 in order to initiate and oversee projects in Visual and Performing Arts, Literature and ASEAN Studies, Radio, Television, Film, Print and Interpersonal Media. Projects of the COCI on Culture and the Arts have been conceptualized in the context of ASEAN’s cultural and geographic space—an internal spatiality molded by links of ethnic roots, and its spatial relationship to an outside world. Recognizing ASEAN geographic space as “the crossroads” of important trade routes that connect to China, India, the Arab world, and the West, ASEAN consciousness has developed a sense of identity not only for its ethno-linguistic kinships but also for “the tremendous diversity of art forms and lifestyles” that have evolved through centuries of colonial and cross-cultural influences (ASEAN 1978).

In the field of the musical arts, most of the initial projects of the COCI centered on Western music and media, as a way of capitalizing on the homogeneous musical experiences of ASEAN artists during the colonial era, in order to foster political unity and fellowship among its members. These projects, which were sustained on rotational hostings for several years, consisted of the youth symphonic music workshop, the symphonic band workshop, the composers workshop on the writing for symphony orchestra and symphonic band music, and a song festival that highlighted ASEAN’s achievements in the popular music industry.32 In the last 15 years, however, projects related to musical revivalism were proposed and eventually implemented. One, the “ASEAN Composers Forum on Traditional Music,” is meant to engender a collective rediscovery and revival of musical roots through field research and composition for both Western-educated and traditionally trained creative artists. On the other hand, the project “Sonic Orders on Asean Traditional Music” is the packaging of recorded traditional music samples to provide educational materials for ASEAN schools.33

The recent phenomenon of cultural-political alliances in the Asian musical sphere is not necessarily indicative of intent to develop a regional music that counters the western cultural hegemonies based on a common musical language, secularism and commodification. Rather, they are premised on establishing a bond of communication towards the rediscovery, revival and renewal of common esthetic and spiritual resources in musical thought – the environment, traditional ways of life, religion, and mythology.

[T]he theory of communicative action is now, however, a theory of aesthetics…the logic of art is different from the logic of democratic politics since there is no need to terminate critical discussion of artistic culture with a rational agreement on the meaning and worth of any particular esthetic expression (McGuigan 1996).

The new cultural spaces created by the establishment of the various associations and alliances, while carrying their own disciplinal and political identities, offer points for dynamic intersections in that the societal milieus of these alliances overlap in terms of individual memberships, ideologies, and strategies. The emergence of the multi-discipline Asian musical bourgeoisie, while representing an ideological homogeneity, shows its tremendous potential for the deconstruction of the hegemonic structures of Western musical thought. At the same time, it is a force that can construct a new musical order based on a multiplicity of interrelated or differentiated musical languages, bound and sensitized by a spirit of revivalism, inter-cultural communication, and geographic nationalism. According to Subotnik (2000),

[t]he communication of ideas depends on concrete cultural knowledge, and on the power of signs to convey a richly concrete open-endedness of meaning through a variety of cultural relationships. Their work supports the thesis that style is not extrinsic to structure but rather defines the conditions for actual structural possibilities, and that structure is perceived as a function more than as a foundation of style.

In the light of the above discussion, the last 150 years marks a period of great ferment in the musical cultures of Asia. Although the entire colonial period of some four centuries may have superimposed a foreign musicultural ideology that transformed the thinking, taste, and social self-definition of Asian peoples, an underlying sensitivity and aesthetic valuation has remained alive not only in societies relatively unsullied by foreign influences, but even in modern Asian cultural environments in which Western music was assimilated under non-Western psychological and sociological framework and differentiated meaning.34 Thus, modernism in Asian music is not exclusively, if at all, a search for a new Asian musical style, but a re-sensitization to an old musicultural tradition, re-expressed in stylistic multiplicity under a common ideological and spatial ethos. In this regard, revivalism seeks to establish a linear continuity between tradition and an acculturated modern musical practice, as well as a collapsing of temporal space in esthetic re-sensuation of the contemporary Asian artist. According to Scott, Western modern music has failed as a “broad artistic movement in social terms” even in Western societies (Scott 2000). A modern Asian music on the other hand, is still in the process of crystallization—a process of rationalizing the historical, social, and aesthetic foundations of its desired identity, as well as formulating new musical syntaxes (outside Western causality and serial order), and experiential conditions.

Asia today has reached an age of post-colonial enlightenment on the importance and prominence of its own pre-colonial heritage for constructing a regional identity. Such enlightenment has been noted in the events of the last 150 years. The said period has witnessed the development of a rational objectification of the Asian cultural experience under the context of de-colonization and liberation from superimposed artistic ideologies as well as the revival and re-energizing of Asian aesthetic sensitivities through collective action, inter-cultural communication and restructuring of geographic spatial relationships.

The confluence, integration and cross-fertilization of cultural and artistic elements from two hemispheres have given rise to a movement of revivalism that hopefully will contribute towards the materialization of a “renaissance” in the music of Asia. While the foundations and conditions for such an ideation may have already been set, the future is not easy. The threat of a renewed hegemonic order with its reconfigured cultural and artistic symbols is very real under the prevailing conditions of economic and technological globalization. It will therefore depend on the collective will of Asian societies as well as affirmative actions such as the present conference, to pursue in earnest what has been auspiciously started—a continuous search for interconnections between modern rationality, sensitivity, and cultural ideologies, and pre-colonial antiquity. It is for this reason that the conference on a new theory of music in Asia has much to contribute in further solidifying the esthetic uniqueness and unparalleled distinction of Asian musical thought that will provide the foundations of a modern Asian expressive production.