Music without boundaries


Penelope Thwaites says that the sharing of musical ideas is not necessarily ‘appropriation’

SOMM Recordings are releasing a CD of my choral music entitled ‘From Five Continents’. The title reflects my experience of performing, writing and listening in over 30 countries around the world. You discover a worldwide brother- and sisterhood of musicians, and naturally, we learn as we listen.

With the physical and technological telescoping of distance, we have seen east-west cultural cross-fertilisation become the norm. But in Western university music studies in the ’60s it was still unusual – the term ‘ethnomusicology’ was new; a thesis on Indian music (which I undertook) still a novelty. Students from Asia had often visited our Melbourne home, and I had been entranced by a concert by the visiting sarod player, Ali Akbar Khan and his trio. Why not explore a non-Western music? Later, friendship with Indian dancers further inspired my own composition and travels in that extraordinary country provoked a re-appraisal of how, as a musician, I might proceed. Crossing cultural boundaries was always bound up with meeting and working with individuals.

The term ‘appropriation’ is used with force these days, as though another culture was automatically forbidden ground. Yes, specific wrongs of colonialism need to be recognised by those of us whose ancestors colonised, but crude disrespect and exploitation are only one side of the coin. Many of those ancestors loved, respected and were inspired by other cultures – for their own sake. And in truth, cultures down the centuries have always borrowed from each other. Alexander the Great went into northern India – did the ragas come from the Greek modes, or was it the other way around? Does it matter? I have experienced cultural imperialism, but much more, cultural appreciation, co-operation, fascination. And the approach depends entirely on human attitudes to other humans: respect with humility, or arrogance with assumptions of superiority. Working for some years as a musical director with an international cast was an education.

From Five Continents follows a lifetime’s trajectory. A Swedish poet friend of mine wrote some of the most sensitively evocative lyrics about Australia. They immediately suggested a tune. An Indian professor in Madras requested, from me, music for words he had written honouring a famous Tamil poet – so those studies of Indian music were utilised – and more to the point, the result approved by our host, Rajmohan Gandhi. On a concert tour in China, I played my arrangement of a popular Chinese song as an encore – and the effort was appreciated.

Unsurprisingly, much of the varied repertoire on the album is from the continent of Europe. Shakespeare settings where the magic of the words – pictures of his England – compelled a musical response. How exciting to have that privilege, interpreted by soloists who projected the words with such understanding, colour and variety.

But four Psalms – these again are a cultural mix of songs from what we Europeans call the Middle East – out of which our Judeo-Christian tradition has evolved. Greek and Latin in the Mass setting – a chance to relish the unique rhythms of the original languages – the power of their meanings.

And America? The Kingston Trio – popular folk-group from the ’60s onwards – a beguiling sound of guitars and close harmony prompted a carol. Phyllis McGinley, 20th century American poet, gives a whimsical sideways glance at Christmas, and that became a song. St Teresa of Avila, and St John Henry Newman make their appearance side by side. And a Scottish writer’s words evoking the Nigerian city of Kano – set, and just once performed, for the Emir – were offered in admiration and appreciation: a meeting of two cultures.

'Choral Music and Songs' is out on SOMM Recordings now. Buy from Amazon

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