Musical Composition in the Context of Globalization: New Perspectives on Music History of the 20th and 21st Century, by Christian Utz, Translated by Laurence Sinclair Willis. Bielefeld, Transcript Verlag, 2021, 527 pages

  • Robert Hasegawa

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Cover of L’orgue à bouche entre Extrême-Orient et Occident : l’invention d’un répertoire contemporain, Volume 32, Number 1, 2022, pp. 5-119, Circuit

The increasingly global character of contemporary composition is impossible to deny. For many young composers, travel and study abroad is a central part of their musical education, and the covid-19 crisis of the past two years has added new levels of interconnectedness through the availability of Zoom lectures and live-streamed concerts from around the globe. Christian Utz’s Musical Composition in the Context of Globalization: New Perspectives on Music History of the 20th and 21st Century, newly available in an excellent open-access English translation by Laurence Sinclair Willis, takes on the task of putting the current practice of contemporary art music into a truly global context. The book focuses particularly on interactions between East Asia and Europe—one of Utz’s main areas of specialization, though he is also active in analytical studies of contemporary music and as a composer of works for mixed ensembles including East Asian and European instruments. While Utz warns that these “perspectives” are “selected, disparate snapshots of the tightly interwoven music histories of the West and East Asia” (p. 10), they nonetheless offer a prismatic and suggestive range of viewpoints and methods for addressing the complexity of contemporary intercultural exchanges. The focus of the book is the concept of “a global art music,” admitting an intentional distancing from popular music while acknowledging that this may represent a “(too) strong tendency to exclusion” (p. 28). “Music as an art form,” in Utz’s formulation, need not be limited to Western concepts of the artwork or any culturally specific kind of score notation or presentation venue. Centres of new music such as the Darmstadt Summer Course have become increasingly international—Utz cites an increase in the percentage of non-German participants from 4.3 percent in 1948 to 70.4 percent in 1961 (p. 65)—and more recent darmstadt programs reflect a conscious effort toward extending participation and representation beyond Europe. While this increasing diversity is something to be celebrated, it should be observed that in many respects contemporary music still lags behind in terms of equity. A study by Ashley Fure and Georgina Born notes that out of 4,750 pieces programmed between 1946 and 2014 at Darmstadt, only 334, or 7%, were composed by women. George Lewis observes further that “of those same 4,750 compositions, just two works by a non-white Afrodiasporic composer were performed at Darmstadt,” a vanishingly small percentage of 0.04%. Given that the globalization of new music is undeniable, we might well ask how relationships between Europe and the rest of the world play out in the musical sphere. Utz notes that “there are unmistakably clear tendencies toward a worldwide standardization of compositional practice according to Western criteria, seemingly continuing the effects of colonial power structures to the present day” (p. 10). Non-Western composers who seek to avoid the dynamics of colonialization often find themselves trapped in a “insider/outsider dichotomy” (p. 12, quoting ethnomusicologist Hilary Finchum-Sung), with aspects of their identities essentialized and reduced to an exoticized otherness. Utz approvingly cites musicologist Yang Chien-Chang, who argues for an avoidance of this “East-West binary opposition, so that a more entangled web of the history can be revealed” (p. 12). The drive to reframe the naïve East-West binary is central to Utz’s argument for an approach which is intercultural as opposed to multicultural. An intercultural approach is based not on dialogue or mere coexistence of distinct entities, but rather addresses the active and ongoing interaction between cultures (conceived as hybrid and permeable) in such a way that their boundaries are blurred. In a globalized context, Utz notes, we are all engaged with “multiple attachments and identities.” His essential mode of intercultural discourse …