Asian influence in classical music

In the world of wind ensembles, there are certain names that are as familiar to the high school band nerd as the internationally renowned soloists. Beyond the household classics like Beethoven and Mozart, there are the likes of Sousa and Persichetti, known for more recent hallmarks of band literature. Delving just beyond the standards and into music less conventional for its era, you’ll hear the name Percy Grainger — or maybe Henry Cowell, composer of “Shoonthree,” a ballad from the Lawrence University Wind Ensemble’s repertoire this term. Grainger and his contemporaries were known for a simultaneous revival of folk tunes and push toward unconventional composition, and their work has come to be regarded as innovative, expanding the boundaries of modern musical literature. 

Henry Cowell is decidedly lesser known than Grainger, perhaps largely due to his identity as a gay man in the 30s, for which he served several years in prison. Regardless, his music is still a staple of 20th century American composition. Cowell’s innovation has been credited in terms of his use of atypical harmonization (basing chords on intervals of seconds instead of thirds), uncommon modalities and different overall structure from the rest of the Western canon. While these things were new and exciting (and sometimes hotly controversial, as all good things are) to listeners of European background, they are nothing but the basics of other musical systems.  

In Menlo Park, California, Cowell lived among immigrants. His own father was of Irish ancestry, while his mother was more regionally American. These roots are evident in his musical fingerprint, as he often incorporates folk tunes and Celtic themes. Outside his immediate household, though, Cowell was exposed to the music of non-Western immigrants — the opera in Chinatown, the nursery rhymes of the other children and music overflowing from neighboring streets. Despite never being formally trained in Western music or composition, Cowell was educated in the typical pan-Asian tradition through aural familiarity from a young age. As he grew into his musicianship, Cowell understood that music cannot be limited to the Western definitions of harmony and rhythm. He went on to study music of various global cultures, concluding that they all held their own valuable intricacies. 

Once he began to incorporate other systems of music into his own composition, though, it overshadowed his innocent appreciation of global music. Rather than a diverse home environment leading to a thoughtful approach to composing, it became incredibly easy for Cowell to fall into appropriation by simply lifting basic tenets of foreign music and publishing them under his own name, gaining a respect that America has never afforded to people of color. Cowell was a Western experimentalist — and Asians were his lab rats.  

Henry Cowell was certainly not the beginning or end of cultural appropriation and Orientalism in classical music. His contemporary and inspiration, the Australian Percy Grainger, collected recordings of Māori singers, but largely disparaged aspects of their music in personal documents, cherry-picking what he found useful for the benefit of his own composition. Word-of-mouth stories — the only kind many people of color can rely on — suggest that his recordings were not always with the musician’s consent or even knowledge. Unsurprisingly, Grainger was also known for being a racist and anti-Semite.  

Cowell, Grainger and the countless other white composers who appropriated non-Western music styles, while still maintaining that they were “primitive,” are long dead. We keep their misappropriations alive in our celebration of their music and protection of their justifications. We exoticize and fetishize non-Western music to keep it novel. When Cowell’s orchestration in “Shoonthree” is reminiscent of a chorus of shehnai (an Indian double reed) or hulusi (a free reed woodwind from China), we re-brand it as evoking the more palatable bagpipe. It’s a convenience that fits with Cowell’s Irish inspirations — foreign enough to be interesting, but not so Oriental as to sully Western repertoire.