Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections.Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections. By Ralph P. Locke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. [xviii, 421 p. ISBN 9780521877930. $99.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.
Up until the 1990s, studies of "exoticism" seemed like a fringe interest in a marginal aspect of nineteenth-century music. Then the effects of culture theory and postcolonial studies began to be felt in musicology and the whole field took a sharp critical turn. Ralph Locke was one of the first to apply postcolonial critique to opera studies in his groundbreaking "Constructing the Oriental 'Other': Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila," which explored cultural-political subtexts and strategies for creating audience identification, alienation and desire (Cambridge Opera Journal 3, no. 3 [November 1991]: 261-302). Since then he has continued to think about many more aspects of exoticism, some of which bear a surprising relationship with the postcolonial angle. His most recent articles have dealt with the complexity and breadth of this phenomenon, the multiple and sometimes conflicting readings it necessarily engenders, and the intellectual need to be freed of ideological and methodological constraints in exploring it, partly in response to the danger of criticism's morphing into political doctrine.
The long road traveled since the article on Samson et Dalila has resulted in the present monograph, which is a comprehensive survey of three centuries of exoticism framed by a highly flexible yet incisive theoretical approach. The historical narrative is in the second and longer part, and it ranges over many art and popular musical genres with special focus on stage works and opera in particular. Orientalism and depiction of Gypsies get much attention, partly because of Locke's specialty, but also, no doubt, because of the dominance of these types of exoticism in the nineteenth century. The main theoretical discussion is concentrated in the shorter first part of the book, and this allows Locke to refer back in his survey to theoretical matters without loss of narrative flow. The very readable text is clearly aimed at a diverse group of scholars, musicians, and concertgoers. Theoretical terms (both musical and cultural) are helpfully explained and even the most complicated ideas are communicated in clear and jargon-free language.
The book is best summarized by the big issues it raises. The first and most pervasive one is also the least controversial. Exoticism, according to Locke, is first of all a matter of aesthetics and perception. Imitation of non-Western musical cultures constitute only one exoticist strategy among several, and scholarship should therefore not depend exclusively on a "style-only" paradigm (Locke's term) for its critique of exoticism. Locke offers instead a "full-context" paradigm that includes any music which takes part in the communication of exoticism. In his very first music example, taken from Handel's Belshazzar (1745), Locke points to comical musical effects that do not evoke Middle Eastern music in any way, yet pointedly portray a stereotypically farcical "Eastern" despot (pp. 90-96). At the very least, then, a full-context paradigm allows more music to be interpreted as exoticism. But this, in turn, may also broaden our historical perspective, for, as the first two chapters of part 2 clearly demonstrate, the communication of ethnic stereotypes started well before the notion of coleur locale and the fashion for exotic styles (cf. chaps. 5 and 6).
Locke's second major proposition is that exoticism can be politically and psychologically elaborate, especially in thoughtful artworks, and therefore its discussion demands many perspectives and cannot be limited to negative stereotypes. Moreover, if exoticism is not all bad, then in the present intellectual climate some positive aspects need to be highlighted if not rehabilitated. A full-context paradigm should allow oppositions and contradictions to coexist, because they have done so historically. In his chronological survey Locke starts this potentially controversial rehabilitation with a widely-accepted fact: exotic works are often also endotic critiques. Thus, while the abovementioned Belshazzar oratorio read as subtly justifying imperialist expansion (it is about "liberating" the local populace from the yoke of irrational Eastern despotism), in its day it may well have been understood as a critique of the British government (pp. 90-97). Similarly the corrupt Incan priest Huscar, in Rameau's Les Indesgalantes (1735-36) is not simply a stereotypical savage, but may be understood as an example of the abuses of religious establishments even to this day. Although almost a pantomime villain, at one point he gains unexpected depth and audience sympathy when he excoriates the false religion and hypocritical greed of the conquering Spaniards ("[Gold] is the only God that these men who tyrannize us adore"), thereby also overturning the presumption of Western cultural and moral superiority (pp. 100-05).
The riskier part of Locke's rehabilitation involves recognizing and appreciating the aesthetic beauty and pleasure exotic works give. Chapter 2 therefore surveys the historical and current objections to the aesthetic of exoticism (both conservative and left-wing and both largely moralistic) and conversely argues for the importance of a rich aesthetic input in a cultural-political analysis and vice versa (see especially pp. 38-42). Locke's coup here is to reclaim Edward Said for the cause of rich aesthetic reading. Said, Locke maintains, never limited his critique to direct negative stereotypes, and differentiated between crude stereotypes in popular culture and the far more ambivalent use of stereotypes in complex works of art. Said also insisted on judging more "latent" forms of Orientalism (e.g., evocations of Orientalism without the use of direct Orienalist materials or imagery) in much the same way that Locke wishes to escape the limitations of the "style-only" paradigm. Finally, exoticism in complex works of art reveals much more meaningfully the human inconsistencies and ambivalence of ideologies in a way that gives us a better understanding, without our having to approve of them whatsoever. And then he goes even further. In chapter 8 he rehistoricizes the term "Orientalism" itself, in order to allow Said's critique to interact in free counterpoint with other views.
Thus liberated from doctrinal status, Said's writings nevertheless remain an important reference, not least in examination of gender. The "Gypsy" and "Oriental" male/female characters in chapters 7 and 8 make it evident that exoticism favors superficial boisterous male characters and more complex types of femmes fatales or fragiles (cf. "Gypsy" male/female characters in chap. 7), reflecting the Western male sexual attitudes of their time. But there are interesting exceptions like Nadir, the sensitive (read: effeminate) Oriental male in Bizet's Les pecheurs de perles. The stereotype is not necessarily only about the "feminized" orient, but also about the more positive stereotypes of Eastern learning and spirituality (p. 194). Following Locke's advice about keeping interpretative options open, I could not help thinking that this character is also a well-worn Western type of male sensibility from the Werther school of suffering.
The third major theme in this study, as I read it, is the importance of exploring the real/fictive duality of exoticism for both historical and aesthetic appreciation. This issue is touched upon at crucial points in the book, and despite the full-context paradigm, it focuses Locke's attention largely on style and compositional technique. In chapter 3 Locke reminds us that there is such a thing as a universal exotic style which does not depend on specific cultural borrowing, but (unlike Dahlhaus, who espoused a similar idea) Locke does not think this marginalizes culturally-specific styles in any way: his list of universal signifiers (pp. 51-54) can be read in juxtaposition to the "Turkish" and Hungarian-Gypsy styles explored in chapter 6 (one might even want to compare it specifically with the alla turca signifiers listed on pp. 118-21). What is interesting to note here is that as the imitation of non-Western music became more detailed and realistic during the long nineteenth century (cf. Mozart's and Liszt's works in chap. 6), the perception of a "universal exotic" also grew rather than receded; and yet, paradoxically, the trend towards greater realism also threatened and undermined exoticism towards the end of that century.
As Locke shows in chapter 9, under the pressure of modernism and proto-globalization ca. 1890-1960, the tension between realism and fiction broke up exoticism into three types. The "overt" type, which continued to deal with direct representations and stereotypes, survived in middle-brow concert music. Exoticism in modernist art music, however, became largely "submerged" (by disassociating exotic material from direct representation of non-Western culture) or "transcultural" (through deep merger with non-Western practices). Both of these latter types of modern exoticism are extensively explored in the music of Debussy, and Locke suggests that transculturation could be traced to earlier periods too (p. 233). Popular music, however, is discussed here only in the context of "overt exoticism" (p. 251ff), which may misrepresent or undervalue genres like Afro-Cuban music. Nevertheless, it is surely right to expose the coarsening of exotic representation in popular culture where it did occur, and to argue that this adversely affected the reception of far subtler forms of artistic exoticism (p. 263ff). As Locke persuasively demonstrates in chapter 10, crude types of exoticism continue to proliferate to this day (even when "submerged": see his discussion of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, pp. 302-04). Locke is therefore prepared to judge on its own merits any modern Western work that engages with the wider world thoughtfully, undeterred by scare categories such as "cultural tourism."
The epilogue (chap. 11) addresses production and reception of exotic stage works in light of the central issues raised in previous chapters. Locke warns against burying the exoticist aspect of historical works under maverick directorial conceptions or due to political correctness, as this often patronizes audiences and results in incoherent productions. He evidently believes in sophisticated modern audiences that can face the most disturbing and conflicting aspects of exoticism without retreating into uncritical escapism or moral disgust. Though perfectly consistent with Locke's other ideas, this one comes up against opera economics and culture politics, and may therefore be the hardest to sell. Still, should some directors read this seriously and ponder the creative possibilities, we may yet see intelligent, if risky, "exotically informed" productions.