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Asian Structures in Modern Composition: Music and Philosophy

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"Asian Structures in Modern Composition: Music and Philosophy"

From The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989
David W. Patterson
Published in 2009
11 pages

David W. Patterson's essay examines the influence of Asian practices and philosophies on American modern and contemporary musical compositions. Looking to musicians such as John Cage, John Coltrane, Henry Eichheim, and Steve Reich as examples, Patterson highlights the importance of traditional Asian instruments, cultures, and scores that have provided inspiration for music as we know it today.


The debt that twentieth-century American concert music owes to Asian cultures is a fundamental theme of its history, openly acknowledged by composers, documented by musicologists, and often — though not always — expressed overtly in the works themselves. Over the past century, East and South Asian musical forms, genres, rhythms, melodies, scales, instrumentations, timbres, and aesthetic principles have served many as essential models, in some cases transfiguring the very bedrock of their creative methods and even inspiring full-blown musical movements in the United States. In total, the actual applications of these borrowings have ranged from the nearly literal to the rhapsodic, the scholarly to the fanciful, the technical to the sentimental, and the incisive to the outright misinformed. In any case, though, the intent behind these appropriations has rarely been to transplant an authentic Asian music as a wholesale substitute in modern composition for Western style. Instead, such borrowings were sometimes useful as a means of reinvigoration, infusing selected Asian-derived elements into existing Occidental practices; in more extreme instances, they facilitated the avant-garde in its bold attempts to secede from longstanding concert music traditions altogether by providing an alternative set of musical and aesthetic constructs entirely independent from the European canon. Whatever the circumstance, though, the act of appropriation was invariably followed by that of transformation, thereby rendering issues of "authenticity" moot and stimulating instead discussions about the art of musical recontextualization.

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