Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Dwellers of the Western World

For all the years I was in a wind band, we never once played a march by John Philip Sousa. As far as I can tell, the reason why we this never happened was that in high school, his music was too hard, and in the University, it was too low brow.

It's really strange when you think about it, because the bands themselves pretty much owe their popular existence to Sousa...it would be like orchestras never playing Beethoven! Or movie theatres never screening Chaplin. Or televisions never showing Milton Berle, all the time.

However, one thing I can say is that I'm not sure that even if we had performed Sousa, we could have ever performed the suite from which the title of this post is derived, mainly because the piece is, um, racist.

In three movements, Red Man, White Man, and, yes, Black Man, the work explores the musical characteristics of the various races, or, more appropriately, one of the genders of the various races, or, uh, one of the genders of one of the various colours of North American peopl...yeah.

It's kind of a minefield, isn't it? He does this kind of flutey thing in the Red Man, and a cakewalk for the Black Man, and it's pretty easy to go, yeah, back in the day, this kind of music, as cultural shorthand, probably worked. As it still does, despite the fact that the "popularity" of something like the cakewalk meant "popularity in the white community", something that rather pervades to this day. (Rap, anyone?)

Which is exactly the problem with Dwellers of the Western World. The music paints in broad strokes, but I wonder, when white people listen to the White Man, do they sit there and go, yup, that chorale in the middle of the movement, that's my music, this music characterizes us.

I suspect not, and yet I suspect the outer movements would have the opposite effect, because they are there precisely to characterize.

My evidence? How about the fact that the Red Man and Black Man movements are less than half the size of White Man? And that neither movement is as musically sophisticated as the middle movement?

Let's say he'd called the work the On America Suite, and he'd named the first movement On the Plains, the Second In the Bandshell, and the Third On the Dance Floor, things might have been more ambiguous. Which is just the way we like things now, isn't it? Ambiguous enough that people might think you're doing something inappropriate, but you're really not, or vice versa?

So it's not much of a stretch to see the Dwellers of the Western World as a fairly concise overview of race perceptions and relations in America at the turn of the Century. That Sousa, ever the populist, is well known for playing straight down the middle when it came to his crowd, makes this supposition that much more plausible.

That these works were intended as entertainment brings home this point - in explicitly expressing these racial cultural stereotypes to his audience, Sousa is also reinforcing them.

But it's a nice piece - so what can one do with it? I don't know if explaining any of this in the program notes does the trick, because the music itself is coded along racial lines...or maybe I'm just too senstitive about all this stuff. Yes, maybe I just need to be less sensitive...

Beyond that, any thoughts?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Many are not aware that Sousa wrote this work specifically for his 1910-1911 World Tour; thus, he brought these unrepresentative representations to a much wider—and credulous—audience, giving Europeans and others an erroneous impression of the music that actually could be heard here.

The first movement certainly is nothing like real Native American music, but is much like the sort of thing we always hear in old Western movies that was influenced by the American Indianist movement and the Wa-Wan Press. In this case, part of the problem is the major-minor tonalities used by composers such as Sousa, which are a development of European culture and are not indigenous to the American continent.

The second movement displays snippets of musical styles that were rather typical of “white” music of that time, and thus is a fairly accurate depiction.

The third movement contains elements related to the ragtime of the period; but even African-American composers of ragtime, like Scott Joplin and James Scott, were influenced by European ideas and forms.

I’ve seen a concert program containing this work that included a lengthy explanation / apology that the audience would have read before the music was performed, which likely would have promoted a pre-conceived mindset. Perhaps the music should be heard without the movement titles being divulged beforehand. For example, a teacher might play a recording, just saying it’s a concert work by Sousa, or, at most, giving the work’s title. After listening, the students could discuss their observations about what they heard. Then they could be told the movement titles, and be encouraged to further discussion.

However we may call this type of music racist by today’s standard, in the 19th century it may have been considered nationalist. The nationalist fervor inspired many composers, like Liszt and Brahms, to write music using, or based on, what they thought were indigenous folk melodies. [In his Hungarian Rhapsodies, Liszt thought his themes were based on Hungarian folk tunes, but they were of Gypsy origin. Bartok was one of the first to use authentic Hungarian tunes in his compositions.]