14 February 2018

Nothing Ever Really Fuses


Wayne Kramer and I share two points of common interest.  Firstly, neither of us knows who each other is (I found his name on a blind internet search) and secondly, Kramer is on the internet as having said; “I hate that expression, 'fusion'. What it means to me is this movement where nothing ever really fused”.   And with that sentiment I wholeheartedly concur.

I suspect we are actually talking about different things when we decry “fusion” music, and if you really get down to it, all music is fusion.  A fusion of the old and the new, of different styles, of different identities, of different functions and of different cultures.  My dislike is of what you might call “manufactured fusion” – where you deliberately set out to take two very different things and force them to co-exist.  We find that in food; and while some fusion food is interesting, it is never quite as good as 100% of the one or 100% of the other.  I love Japanese food, I love Italian food, but when I had a Wasabi Pizza, I fervently disliked both; fusing the two diminished each of them equally.  So with music.

Working in south-east Asia one is constantly aware of the pressure to create a fusion music.  Those with a fundamental misunderstanding (or, more likely, no real knowledge at all) of the history of what we call “western music”, claim that it is an alien import and that we should exert our own cultural muscle and fuse the Western with the Asian.  Such people, blissfully unaware of the province of most musical instruments (very few of which can be said to have originated in “the west” – wherever that might be), and of the enormous influences on the works of the accepted European masters of music from “the east” (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and their admittedly ersatz “Turkish” music, Debussy, Ravel and Britten and their less ersatz Javanese, Messiaen and Harvey and their sincere Indian), go with the mindless flow of popular political correctness and say that for music to be representative of the region, it must have obvious Asian characteristics.  Picture postcard images rather than subliminal messages, if you like.

The problem is particularly acute in Singapore which has no indigenous culture and is made up of a mind-boggling array of cultures each with their own musical traditions, none of which is in any way Singaporean.  What links these various cultures present in Singapore society is the fact that they are not “western”.  During the SG50 – the year when Singapore celebrated 50 years of independence from Malaysia (no such big celebrations marked 2007, the 50th year of independence from Britain – which may or may not be a significant point to make) – calls for a “Singapore Sound” in music resonated loud and clamorous.  As reported in this blog, the ever-enterprising Adrian Chiang even created an orchestra and a concert specifically to fuse western and Asian musical elements.  Like so much fusion stuff, it was interesting but ultimately a failure – the experiment has not been repeated with such a high profile.

But that has not stopped people from calling for such Asianized Western music.  One amazingly gormless Singaporean pianist is on record as saying “I find it ironic that though we are born in this part of the world, we mostly play composers in the western tradition”.  The piano is one of those instruments unequivocally rooted in European soil and its repertory, inevitably, is skewed towards “the west”; if this pianist is so opposed to the “western tradition”, why on earth does he attempt to make a living out of playing the piano?

But such an attitude – and you hear it almost daily - is not hypocrisy, but simple ignorance.  A failure to recognise that all music we describe as “western” is in fact such a successful fusion of cultures that we no longer identify its constituent parts but regard it as a conglomerate whole.  Nevertheless, in a society where glib cliché is regarded as superior to deep understanding, calls to have a Singaporean identify in Western music continue to resound, and last Saturday I attended another concert put together by Chiang which took a rather more realistic approach to the issue of Asian/Western fusion than the SG50 debacle.  (I reviewed it for Straits Times, and my review can be read here -  http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/fusion-work-and-beautiful-sounds-let-down-by-technical-issues).

The idea of using just ethnic flutes against a Western orchestra was certainly based on sound common sense, but it failed in practice on three counts. 

Firstly, Asian flutes, with their difference in materials, psychology and playing styles will inevitably be overwhelmed by the western orchestral instruments.  We live in an age where amplification can help address such balances.  But once amplification is involved, the musicians lose control of the result and are totally dependent on the sound engineers.  On Saturday those sound engineers were dreadfully incompetent, and ruined the experience for both audience and performers.

Secondly, the idea of fusing ethnic flutes with a western orchestra was never practicable before the advent of effective amplification, so there simply is not the repertory to make up an entire concert.  As a result new works were brought in from composers who lacked experience and full understanding.  Sterling though their efforts were, musically the programme was very shallow indeed.  There were plenty of nice sounds, but nobody had worked to evolve something that went beyond nice sounds.

Thirdly, the beauty of Asian flutes lies in the subtlety of their sounds but, more especially, in the cultural traditions which lie behind the music they play.  Amplification can obscure subtlety, but fusing Asian with Western instruments utterly destroys any cultural tradition within the Asian flute.  At one point the players were reduced to appearing in national costume so that we could tell, visually, where they were from – the sound had lost its cultural, ethnic or even geographical identify.

Had Wayne Kramer been there, I am sure he, like me, would have found some of the sounds fascinating and recognised a potential for something worthwhile to evolve.  But I imagine he, like me, would ultimately have felt it had all been a pointless experience.  I came away with the strong feeling that nothing ever really fused.

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