Vincent, one of this blog’s most loyal and frequent followers, comments that “For many parents in Asia, learning an instrument without aiming for a grade or competition is pointless”. That is typical of the good sense and realism Vincent brings to every comment he makes in this forum; and it depresses me deeply.
When I first settled in south east Asia some 30 years ago, that was very much the prevalent attitude. Music was seen as a competitive sport on a par with badminton, soccer or running, and the pleasure that Asian children derived from it was similar; the joy of winning, the joy of showing one could do better than one’s peers and, most of all, the joy of being the source of parental pride. I quickly accepted that many Asians enjoyed music, but in a very different way from those in the West who regard it as a means of enriching the intellectual and emotional aspects of daily life. Music’s function in Asian society seemed to be merely as another vehicle through which the joy of competition and public success could experienced.My belief was that, after a while, those in Asia who saw music only as a channel through which to improve their standing in society, would eventually come to appreciate its deeper and more fulfilling elements. When Victor Hugo suggested that “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”, he was telling us that music was a means of expressing our most deepest and profound thoughts, and thoughts which went beyond the confines of language. To a certain extent, this quote led to the cliché about Music being an International Language.
Vaughan Williams, in his wonderful essay National Music, put the lie to that by pointing out that while English and French “have 24 of the 26 letters of the alphabet in common”, their languages are mutually incomprehensible. So it is, he argued, with music, where notation may be pretty standard (although ask any German to play the note B on a keyboard and you will hear a very different note from what the English play) but the use it’s put to differs so much as to make it often quite incomprehensible to those from another culture.It has long worried me that people describe music as being “Western” not least because most of the instruments in our orchestras originated in Asia, notably the Arab lands and China, and even my own instrument, the organ, was not only of Arabian origin, but long after the foundation of Islam, was regarded as primarily an Islamic device. A report on the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, screened on the BBC today, interviewed an Iraqi girl playing what the reporter described as a “western musical instrument” – the cello – and while in that particular case the reporter was technically correct, the implication was that the entire orchestra was attempting to adopt an alien culture. One of the recurring comments made about the growing disintegration of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra has been the perceived folly of “imposing an alien culture” on Malaysians.
Vincent’s comment stresses that cultural divide. Asian parents, as he puts it, do not accept the cultural dimension of music, only the physical one. I would not be so distressed by his comment were it not for the fact that this was exactly the comment made to me 30 years ago. At that time, I hoped that with the growing interest in music in the region – after all I was one of those who believed that we were on the brink of an Asian revolution, when the next generation of great musicians and composers would come from Asia – it was only a matter of time before its essential qualities became apparent and then uppermost in Asian musician’s minds. That the old attitude still prevails with the children and grand-children of those parents who I encountered in the 1980s makes me realise that Asian attitudes to music have not changed one iota.True, there are some wonderful Asian musicians as well as Asians who do derive full emotional and intellectual joy from music, but they are a tiny minority of those who indulge in the physical activity of music, and their ranks show no sign of increasing. Who would have thought, for example, that 15 years on, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra has not yet been able to find a Malaysian with an ounce of musical knowledge to head up its organisation? When it started the CEO needed the support of a professional musical management team from Europe. That team has long since gone and now the organisation is teetering on the brink because there is nobody in command who knows anything of the business they are purportedly running. Who would have thought, again, that the kind of catastrophically low marks handed out to examination candidates in south east Asia are still being handed out today? When I gave 17% to a Malaysian grade 8 candidate in 1985 I assumed that, as musical life improved and understanding of musical skills developed in the country, so standards of teaching would also rise. I hear from colleagues that marks of 15-20% are still given. True, Asian students have always included a few of such phenomenal skill that they earn higher marks than anyone else – a colleague recently handed out 100% to a Chinese diploma candidate, a mark I would have thought just about inconceivable in Europe – but their numbers do not seem to be increasing.
In short, my belief that Asia was on the brink of becoming the hub of great musical activity, has been proven wrong. I see no evidence at all that Asia is going to supplant (if that’s the right word) the West in musical prowess any time soon. The attitudes Vincent highlights condemn it to its role as competitive sport for decades ahead.This, though, doesn’t stop westerners churning out the tired platitudes about Asia being the future of music. Reviewing a recent disc of Lutosławski (a brilliant performance of the Piano Concerto, by the way, on Chandos CHSA5098) by pianist Louis Lortie, who many will remember well for his phenomenal Beethoven performances with the MPO – one of the great achievements of that orchestra’s life – I noted in his biography that one of its highlights was “an historic tour” of the “People’s Republic of China”. No mention of Malaysia. Now forgive me if I’m wrong, but has any orchestra in China half the quality of the MPO in its heyday? Has any concert hall in China half the acoustic and environmental sympathy of Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS, in Kuala Lumpur? Does any concert audience in China possess half the etiquette and understanding of the Malaysian audience? For as long as western artists believe that the worst of Asian orchestras, concert halls and audiences represents the great future of music, then the elevation of the bad and the mediocre to world-beating status seems inevitable. In the light of that, who can blame Asian parents for seeing the function of music merely as one where you can earn grades and win competitions.