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“Decolonising classical musics?”
Classical Music and Colonialism

“African art music describes a modernity that entails constant redefinition.” Kofi Agawu
“African art music describes a modernity that entails constant redefinition.” Kofi Agawu | Photo (detail): © Andrew Wilkinson

At the Goethe-Institut symposium “Decolonising Classical Musics?” participants discussed colonial aspects of classical music.

By Hannah Schmidt

Ludwig van Beethoven was fascinated by exoticism, cultures other than the familiar European ones and their representation in art. He was not alone with this in the classical music tradition. As part of The other Beethoven(s), the Goethe-Institut now focused on this genuinely European, often colonialist view of other cultures – specifically in the field of classical music – in a symposium entitled “Decolonising Classical Musics?” On Sunday, in Berlin’s radialsystem, musicians, composers and scholars discussed questions of trans-traditional music, postcolonial perspectives and contemporary composition.

The role of African art music in classical music

In his keynote talk, musicologist Kofi Agawu from the City University of New York (CUNY) spoke about African art music and its role in classical music. Using various works of African Pianism from the twentieth century as an example, Agawu demonstrated the influences of colonialism on the musical awareness of composers and clarified the specific peculiarities of the genre that are independent of this. “We always see critics who believe that African composers are reproducing European developments,” said Agawu. “But we have to stop believing that European history was linear. Some styles like minimalism or post-minimalism can hardly be called complex.”

In contrast, many works of African classical music could have arisen from the nascent avant-garde of the 1920s – but were composed decades earlier. Nevertheless, names of African composers such as Joshua Uzoigwe, Akin Euba, Ayo Bankole, Emmanuel Gyimah Labi and Olufęlá Şowándé are still not very well known, which, according to Agawu, has various reasons. He sees one of these reasons in white “scepticism about the capabilities of Black people and people of colour.” Yet, “Whiteness or being European are not self-efficacious categories when it comes to creativity. African art music describes a modernity that entails constant redefinition – it is dynamic.”

“Pure white supremacy”

Sandeep Bhagwati and Patrick Hahn dedicated their listening session to works such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Félicien David’s “Le desert” and the intercultural relations within music. Is Beethoven’s “Ruins of Athens” sheer oriental exoticism? Are Karlheinz Stockhausen’s intercultural references in his work “Mood” visionary – or disrespectful? “To turn ‘salaam alaikum’ into ‘salami’ is pure white supremacy,” said Patrick Hahn. Exoticisms like this, according to Bhagwati, are attempts “to discover a quality in non-western music that one believes one has lost in one’s life.”

Trans-traditional composition – what is that?

“Music”, said Philipp Rhensius at the beginning of the subsequent panel discussion, “contributed to the justification of systemic violence.” How trans-traditional composition can work today was discussed under this aspect by Cathy Milliken, Amen Feizabadi, Svetlana Spajic and Brigitta Muntendorf. “I don’t know what trans-traditional composition is supposed to be,” said Amen Feizabadi. “I am constantly moving in different cultural spaces and ask myself: where should the music transition to? To a space belonging to you, or to me, or to the dominant musical culture?” It’s not just about creating music together, responded Svetlana Spajic: “Different cultures give me new perspectives, a new language, new vocabulary. It’s fascinating how we can deal with the unexpected, how we solve the problems over and over again that make up our lives as people. Trans-traditional work is important for our development.”