The Appropriation Problem

The Appropriation Problem


“In Love Like Music” by Kool_Skatkat on Flickr.

In my last two articles for NewMusicBox, I defended composers who interact with cultural streams outside the one we call “new music,” and explained why I think those interactions are good for the arts. But, as several commenters pointed out, not all borrowings are morally or politically equivalent. The big question that I haven’t addressed yet is, when does influence become exploitation?

I spent a while debating whether I should write about this topic. I know my perspective is limited: I’ve never had the experience of watching people from more privileged social groups appropriate an artistic tradition that played a central role in my life. That’s partially because I’m white, educated and American, which means I’m the more privileged one in a lot of situations. It’s also because I tend not to feel very connected to the minority cultures that I am a member of. I’m queer and trans, but I haven’t participated much in radical queer and trans counterculture. I’m Jewish, but I’ve never felt a strong connection to Jewish tradition. (I’ve also spent my life in liberal cities and college towns with big Jewish populations; what little anti-Semitism I’ve experienced has been in the form of personal insults, not systematic exclusion.) Most of the time, if you put me in a room with what’s supposed to be “my community,” I’m going to start wondering what I’m doing there.

At the same time, I don’t think it would be right for me to write a series of articles about interactions between musical traditions without talking about the ethical and political issues involved. And I have spent a lot of time thinking and talking about those issues, because most of my music explores the cultural meanings of sounds and styles, and I don’t want to do that in a way that’s exploitative or disrespectful. I’ve had some pretty heated conversations, and I’m sure I’ve made bad judgment calls—but I do think I’ve learned something over the years. So I’d like to offer some thoughts on the topic, with the understanding that this is all provisional, and that I welcome other perspectives in the comments.

* * *

I’d like to start with something I’ve noticed in discussions of cultural appropriation. They often frame the problem in one of two ways: in terms of cultural property or in terms of what composers are “allowed” to do. In my experience, both of these approaches tend to result in the conversation getting sidetracked. The former leads to increasingly abstract musings about what it really means for a group of people to own a musical style, usually while ignoring the power dynamics that make inter-cultural influence so fraught in the first place. The latter leads to impassioned defenses of composers’ freedom of expression, which—much like the arguments that pop up whenever a public figure is criticized for saying something prejudiced—typically ignore the point that just because you can do something, that doesn’t mean you should.

Another way of framing things, which I think might make for more productive conversations, would be to say: music is a kind of social interaction. It’s written by people, played by people, and heard by people. I know there are musicians who, wary of the vagueness and unpredictability of things like “meaning,” prefer to see music purely as a collection of structures with objective properties. But denying the social aspect of music-making doesn’t make it stop happening; it just means that when it does happen, you don’t see it.

Case in point: there are a lot of white composers who draw influence, inspiration or sonic materials from other musical worlds—gamelan music, for example, or hip-hop. I don’t think that’s exploitative or disrespectful in and of itself; to my mind, it really depends on how you do it. (More on that later.) But some of these composers seem to take for granted, without even realizing it, that everyone who hears their music is also going to be white and probably a fellow classical musician, too. It’s not that they’re malicious; it’s that they’re so caught up in their own perspective, and in the often alarmingly homogeneous new-music social scene, that it never occurs to them to think about how their interpretation of another culture’s musical ideas might be perceived by someone who is actually from that culture.

“But you can’t predict what meanings people will find in your work!” some will say. That’s true, if “predict” means “know for sure.” But you can certainly be aware of the meanings that people might find in your work. Human reactions to art aren’t totally arbitrary. Sure, they’re affected by a lot of idiosyncratic factors, such as personality, taste, and mood, but they’re also affected by more predictable ones—symbols, values and meanings that are held in common by many people. That’s why, for example, it shouldn’t have been hard for Katy Perry (or her agent or her label) to predict that a performance assembled entirely out of Orientalist stereotypes would not go over well. Those images have a long and well-documented history.

* * *

So let’s say you’re a composer, and you’ve come across something that strikes you in some way. Maybe there are sounds in it that spark your imagination. Maybe there’s a story that moves you. Maybe there are structural ideas that could get you out of a compositional bind. Maybe you want to illustrate a more abstract point about the nature of authorship or history or global politics. Maybe you just find it exciting and want to pay tribute to that excitement. And let’s say that this thing you’ve found comes from a tradition that’s pretty far removed from the new-music world that you work in. What do you do?

The two simplest answers are both problematic. “Everything is fair game, so do what you want” is easy, but it can lead to insulting people, taking credit for their work, or stepping on things that are profoundly important to them. “It’s not yours to use, so don’t even think about it” is straightforward, but it can lead to a kind of separatism that keeps contemporary classical music insular and disconnected from the rest of the cultural landscape. Trouble is, it’s a lot harder to follow advice like “remember that music is a social interaction,” or even “remember that real people from a variety of backgrounds might be listening.” So I’d like to talk about a few of the questions that I find helpful when I’m trying to figure out whether a piece of music is doing right by its influences.

1. What’s the power relationship between the composer and the source?

JacobTV has built a career out of music based on recorded speech. But he’s oddly indiscriminate about whose speech he chooses to sample — and there’s a big difference between The Body of Your Dreams, which uses clips from weight-loss infomercials, and Grab It!, which uses clips from interviews with black prisoners on death row. The former is about as safe an appropriation as I can think of: if there’s one group of people you can confidently say has never been oppressed, it’s advertisers. (It’s worth noting that in the visual-art world, where the word “appropriation” often has a more positive tone, it usually refers to taking elements from advertising or commercial pop culture.) Grab It!, on the other hand, takes the voices of people who are already disenfranchised, and effectively censors them by cutting them into such small fragments that it’s almost impossible to understand what they’re saying—other than the word “motherfucker.”

Sometimes, though, the power relationship isn’t so obvious. What about, for example, composers that use ideas from pop music? On the one hand, pop music has vastly more economic power, cultural presence, and media support than contemporary classical music does. On the other hand, classical music has historically enjoyed a kind of prestige that popular music didn’t have access to until pretty recently, and there are still people in the classical world who think that way—enough of them that even composers who use pop-cultural tropes out of genuine love and respect risk being misread as trying to “improve” or “upgrade” something they see as inferior.

The phrase “popular music” covers a lot of ground, too—especially if you’re using the very broad definition that classical musicians tend to. Taking ideas from Public Enemy has a different sociopolitical meaning than taking ideas from Radiohead. Although here too, the answers aren’t always obvious: Chuck D thought it was “great” when experimental sound-collagists Evolution Control Committee used his voice in a mashup without permission.

2. Is the composer reinforcing existing cultural hierarchies?

When I first discovered the polystylistic music of Alfred Schnittke, I heard it as a brash declaration that all musical styles are equally valid. I was disappointed to learn that he was actually a big believer in “high” and “low” art, to the point that he consistently described the popular and historical styles he quoted as “banal,” “vulgarly functional,” and “the lower layers of [my] musical world.” When I listen to a piece like the First Concerto Grosso now, the ironic quotation marks around the tango and late-Romantic violin solo seem obvious.

John Zorn, on the other hand, has angrily denounced the idea of stylistic hierarchies: “The idea of high art and low art … is a bunch of fucking bullshit!” He’s also spent as much time playing in bands as writing concert music. I have a hard time imagining anyone taking the trippy noir jazz in Spillane as an attempt to “upgrade” something by giving it “high-culture” status. Since I’ve read interviews with both composers, it’s hard to know for sure whether I’m reacting more to their music or their rhetoric, but I can say for sure that I find Zorn’s attitude much more progressive.

3. How well does the composer understand the source?

The usual argument is that if you’re going to take elements from another tradition, you should know it inside out. For example, I’ve seen relatively little criticism of Evan Ziporyn’s gamelan-influenced pieces, and that seems to be partially because he’s lived in Bali, collaborated with Balinese artists, and played traditional gamelan music for decades. He’s done his homework; you can’t accuse him of ignorantly and haphazardly grabbing elements of another culture without knowing anything about their real significance (as people have said about Katy Perry’s AMA performance).

But I wonder if there might also be value in totally misunderstanding something, so that what you create in response comes across as “inspired by,” rather than “borrowing from,” the source material. I’m thinking, for example, of Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto. It also includes passages influenced by gamelan music, but they’re so utterly Poulenc-ified that you might not even realize what inspired them if you didn’t already know. And yet power dynamics have a way of creeping back in. Poulenc first heard gamelan music at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition—an event explicitly designed to whitewash French imperialism. Once you know that, the piece takes on a darker tone.

* * *

All of these questions are riddled with complications. And there are plenty of other questions you could ask: What’s the original meaning of the material you’re drawing on? Is your work the result of a collaborative interaction, or of looking at another tradition from afar? Are you using your source material to portray people in a stereotyped way? Are you making money off it? Every one of those issues deserves further discussion, but this article is long already. So instead, let me ask you: What do you think? How do you distinguish beneficial cultural exchange from exploitative cultural appropriation? Leave a comment and let us know.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

15 thoughts on “The Appropriation Problem

  1. Joelle

    Thank you so much for writing this article! I literally quit graduate school in composition to pursue a career in music education last year largely because of these reasons. I think this is an excellent start on a very long conversation that needs to happen.

    For me the most important point you make is this one: “Is your work the result of a collaborative interaction, or of looking at another tradition from afar?”This kind of musical imperialism and musical colonialism is something I see a lot of composers doing. The I’m-going-to-learn-your-culture-and-bring-it-back-to-america-because-i-know-how-to-do-theory-and-you-don’t reasoning is pretty much the #1 attitude of composers abroad or composers looking to appropriate materials generally. There is almost no conversation about how we can give back, and make it an actual collaboration. Other than by maybe occasionally saying “let me record you!” or “let me bring your [non-western] instrument back to America!” I’d much rather hear a gamelan-inspired symphony written by an Indonesian person than some traveling white American composer. It’s not like Indonesian people can’t learn musical notation and only traveling-white-American-composers can. I think we should be doing a lot more introspection about who’s voices really need to be heard, and whether or not we are doing our best job at giving them opportunities to speak.

  2. Joe Phillips

    Alex, as someone from a background whose culture has historically often been simultaneously vilified as low, inferior culture while systematically “appropriated” and “elevated” by more “mainstream” popular forces, this is something that I’ve thought on deeply for a long time as well. There is much to unpack in your questions from the article: class, privilege, imperialism, race. It is difficult to capture the subtleties inherent in any discussion particularly in an online comment section but I’ll add some of my perspective/thoughts to the discussion.

    My Master’s thesis a few years ago was about what I call “mixed music” (basically a fusion of artistic and cultural influences into one musical statement/voice). In my research, I came across a number of articles and discussions about musical appropriation/borrowing/stealing and while they were background to my thesis (I could have done a another whole thesis on this particular topic), there were many different avenues that I found thought provoking and intriguing. One paragraph from my thesis gets at some of this:

    “By removing the vernacular source materials from its cultural and societal contexts, however, composers often practiced a modernist sensibility: objectifying low-art in order to aestheticize it into high-art. The ‘superior’ artistic values and prestige accorded classical music allowed some classical composers to feel a missionary-like calling to liberate and elevate the ‘inferior’ or idealized low-art raw materials (and the cultures from which they originated). While this, at its best, could produce interesting and quality work, it was never a true democratizing fusion of styles and genres.”

    In one of the articles from my research (“Music and the Global Order.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (2004) by Martin Stokes) it is pointed out that almost all culture is an amalgamation of various sources and that there really isn’t a “pure” music, one divorced from other sources; borrowing/learning from other systems is inherent in developing any art form and people, and often necessary to create something that is new and different (“Far from the centers of high culture, however, a more profound and integrated stylistic mixture was taking place. Two African-American musical forms, jazz and blues, emerged from a cauldron of disparate musical elements and cultures and both, through their own forms as well as their progeny, dominated much musical thought in the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries.”). Even from the appropriated’s perspective one person’s imperialism/stealing is another’s infusion of new thoughts and ideas. Another article I found interesting was “The Racial Politics of Hybridity and ‘Neo-Eclecticism’ in Contemporary Popular Music.” Popular Music 21, no. 2 (May 2002) by Jason Middleton and Roger Beebe (both articles are on Jstor, for those still in school).

    1. Alex Temple

      I’m curious about the fact that that excerpt from your thesis is written in the past tense. Are you talking about a particular period?

      My sense is that there’s been a big generational shift. I can think of a lot of composers born in the 70s and 80s who seem very at ease in both the pop/rock/etc world and the concert-music world, and whose imaginations float freely between them. (I’m thinking of Matt Marks, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Ben Hjertmann, and Tansy Davies — whose music reminds me of experimental bands that themselves are taking ideas from 20th-century classical music…) Attempts to integrate the two streams by composers a generation or two older often feel more strained to me — though there are definitely exceptions, usually by composers who were in a countercultural position within the new-music world, like Scott Johnson and Terry Riley.

      1. Joe Phillips

        Yes, in the thesis I was referencing some early to mid-20th century composers and later drawing a distinction and contrast between the “strained” miscegenation of some of their music (third stream, for one example) versus the more organic and natural assimilation found in a number of today’s (not-necessarily-only-the-younger) composers; agreed about those you mentioned–Sarah even said this in an interview, which illustrates the generational mentality shift you mentioned; “we grew up loving both classical music and rock. They’re naturally part of our DNA, they coexist. Composing for us is not crossing from one side to the other. It’s just the way we hear music and the way we want it to go.”

  3. Jon

    The thing I have trouble with regarding this topic is understanding what harm, specifically, is done when a style of music is “appropriated” — assuming of course that there hasn’t been actual intellectual property theft. If someone actually uses someone else’s intellectual property, by sampling a recording or wholesale copying a melody, then that person should be asked permission and compensated appropriately, whether they are a Western composer or a villager on a field recording. I don’t think there should be any ambiguity or question about that. To me, the Jacob TV example falls in this category. If he’s going to use recordings of actual people’s actual words, he should ask their permission (I’d make an exception here for public figures). But I think what people are usually talking about is more abstract stylistic appropriation. If we were talking about physical objects, like sculptures or paintings, and an artist was literally stealing an object and defacing it or removing it from its original context, I can see clearly why that would be a problem; you’re actually destroying or taking something that is then gone. But with musical appropriation, nothing happens to the original. That original folk song or recording or sensibility still exists, just as it always has. It’s purely addition, there’s no subtraction involved. So in that case, what actual harm is done? If the appropriation is done badly, it could be embarrassing for the composer or unpleasant for the audience, but how does it harm the culture it was borrowed from? To me, it seems to imply that the appropriated cultures are incredibly fragile if a tasteless borrowing or misunderstood appropriation can cause them so much damage. Isn’t it the ultimate Western arrogance to think that, simply by feebly attempting to borrow materials from another culture, we can cause it such damage? Is a lame Concerto for Gamelan by a Western composer really going to have any sort of negative impact on the incredibly rich, vibrant, and ancient Indonesian Gamelan tradition? Did Schnittke’s arrogant attitude about the value of the materials he appropriated actually negatively effect the culture those materials came from in any concrete way? Do you think a single pop musician actually cares what Schnittke or his fans think about their music? Aren’t we giving ourselves way too much credit?

    I should say, like Alex, that I am speaking from a position of privilege here (white, male, educated, American, etc.), and I fully acknowledge that I may just not get it. I am asking these questions genuinely, not snarkily. I can tell that some people get very upset about this, and I want to understand why, because right now I genuinely don’t.


  4. Nick Starr

    I’m fond of Steve Reich’s take on this question applied to his music:

    “The question then arises as to how, if at all, this knowledge of non-Western music influences a composer. The least interesting form of influence, to my mind, is that of imitating the sound of some non-Western music. This can be done by using non-Western instruments in one’s own music (sitars in the rock band) or in using one’s own instruments to sound like non-Western ones (singing “Indian style” melodies over electronic drones). This method is the simplest and most superficial way of dealing with non-Western music, since the general sound of these musics can be absorbed in a few minutes of listening without further study. Imitating the sound of non-Western music leads to “exotic music”—what used to be called “Chinoiserie.”

    Alternately, one can create a music with [one’s own] sound that is constructed in the light of one’s knowledge of non-Western structures. This is similar, in fact, to learning Western musical structures. The idea of canon or round, for instance, has influenced the composition of Renaissance motets, baroque fugues, and then, among others, the music of Anton Webern and my own phase pieces. The precise influence of this, or any other structural idea, is quite subtle, and acts in unforeseen ways. One can study the rhythmic structure of non-Western music and let that study lead one where it will, while continuing to use the instruments, scales, and any other sound one has grown up with. This brings about the interesting situation of the non-Western influence being there in the thinking, but not in the sound. This is a more genuine and interesting form of influence, because while listening one is not necessarily aware of some non-Western music being imitated. Instead of imitation, the influence of non-Western musical structures on the thinking of a Western composer is likely to produce something genuinely new.”

    1. Alex Temple

      I’ve heard this argument before, but I feel like it relies on some very specific ideas about music aesthetics that shouldn’t be taken for granted. In particular, it only makes sense if you accept that structure is more important, or more fundamental, or somehow more “real” than aspects of music that are more — well, I want to say “on the surface,” but even that phrase makes it sound like structure is the most important thing!

      Personally, I think the way that the “surface” characteristics of music (local harmony, small-scale rhythm, specific melodic intervals, and especially timbre) produce meaning is fascinating, and a lot more complex than Reich gives it credit for being. I once did some research into the reception history of the Poulenc Double Piano Concerto, and I discovered that for decades, it was dismissed as trivial, artificial, and dealing more with “style” than with “substance.” But then in the 1970s, critical commentary on it suddenly got a lot more positive — and I think that’s largely because more and more people started to see style as a kind of substance.

      It seems like a lot of composers talk about “form” and “structure” in an almost mystical way, and I’ve never really understood it. There are certainly pieces in which form carries profound meaning — the late Beethoven quartets come to mind — but surely it’s not the only aspect of music that can carry profound meaning. (I’m also not at all convinced that profound is always better than not-profound-but-incredibly-well-done, but that’s another story.)

      All of this is separate from ethical and political issues, of course…

  5. Phil Fried

    Ethelbert Nevin comes to mind rather than Ms. Perry. I suppose the question seems to be who is in control of whos cultures art? Improvization is way to interact with cultures without the baggage of composition’s notational control. As an improvisor who has worked with several different cultures I bring myself to the table as a partner. No more no less. I do not contol the dancer- Daina inspires me to song. Rosy Simas Dance


  6. Michael

    Its important to examine the actual meaning of the word “appropriation”, free from “layers of paint” applied through assumptions and common use: “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.”

    I would argue that outside issues of outright plagiarism, which might be settled in court (see George Harrison’s brilliant take on this subject below), the question becomes who owns music, and I believe that all music is ultimately a gift of nature, or god, or whatever you wish to call it. But it is definitely something larger than human beings, and for anyone to feel that they own a musical tradition, form, or any other terminology one wishes to use, they must be careful not to become miserly, and contrary to the original religious context of any culture. Of course, it’s imperative to preserve musical traditions, and masters of these traditions are free to choose whom they will, or will not teach (sometimes a blood relative is the only one who qualifies), and I believe everything must be done to insure the continued strength and vitality of these forms, but at the same time it is contrary to nature (god) to restrict the natural and unavoidable cross-pollinations that arise in a multitudinous world, as reflected in all the arts, including music.

    Inspiration and instinct (not to mention quality and taste) always trumps formula. One obvious example: The Beatles use of sitar for Norwegian Wood, and tamboura for Tomorrow Never Knows, possesses a rightness and power that remains unsurpassed in terms of blending diverse traditions, however naïve the origins of that use may or may not have been.

    Pandit Jasraj has stated that above all, god loves music, and if we are to give offerings to the mystery of existence with our best efforts, one key lies in multiplicity, and searching for new combinations that may even help inspire scientists, engineers, politicians, etc., to find solutions to our urgent challenges.


  7. Philipp Blume, y'all

    Another aspect that I’d like to see you tackle is the why of appropriation. It strikes me that one can appropriate in order to (1) pay tribute, (2) ride on the coattails of, and (3) use for structural reasons [- there are a few others too] and that all of these are in fact deeply problematic since even trying to distinguish between them for too long results in committing the ultimate authorial fallacy (i.e., thinking that what the composer intended is anything more than a tiny part of the picture). That, then, closes the circle: you don’t need to ‘tackle’ this aspect after all! Hmm.
    Still, let me get my point in: I think one of the least discussed motivations for taking an existing work or idea as a point of departure is to demonstrate one’s distance from it. I don’t mean emotional distance, but the literal removal in time and space from the model. I’d go so far as to say that if this unbridgeable distance is not somehow acknowledged in the work, it frequently rings hollow to me. So the question is: how can Joe Q Composer (unmistakably? Dream on!) take advantage of this influence in the way he wishes to while also drawing attention to the subjective gap that must exist between the work and the original, be it gamelan, weight-loss infomercials, Guillaume Dufay, or even JQC’s own 15-year-old self? It’s a question of compositional technique, I think.
    Your examples are great, by the way! Good job on all your work here so far.

  8. Christopher Owen

    I’d like to make a small correction: Jacob ter Veldhuis’ “Grab it!” uses clips from the TV series “Scared Straight”, in which many of the prisoners are white, and several have admitted to exaggerating their gruffness for the sake of good television. I’m not saying they aren’t oppressed at all, but I think this correction does affect the argument you were making with that paragraph.

  9. berengere bolle

    Interesting and thought-provoking article, but leads in directions that need exploring further. For instance, try applying the three questions to any classical composer’s use of folk music. It’s not just Schnittke, and not just inverted commas. What was Bizet doing using a Habanera? Or Gershwin using the black music of his time? Or Dvorak or Vaughan Williams using the folk music of their own countries, but not of their own class? Power relationship (racial, class or national), tick; reinforcing cultural hierarchies, tick; as for understanding the sources well, why does that matter? Appropriation is theft, and it’s not turned into something else by love or understanding of the thing stolen. At which point we often hear the argument “but every culture is at least partly a mongrel collection of borrowings and influences from others.” True, and most national borders and ethnic distributions in the world are the result of historical crimes and power-plays. But now we realise the wrongs, we strive not to repeat them. And now we understand that using someone else’s culture is appropriation, we should not do it any more. I’m afraid “it’s not yours to use, so don’t even think about it” is the only fully defensible position.

  10. H. Taves

    Every composition student should be introduced to the Doctrine of Discovery and be able to discuss how it informs world history and why and how we can remedy the genocides that resulted from that doctrine. This should be a prerequisite before studying other cultures, along with other actions to gain self-awareness of the historical and current power imbalances. In Canada for instance, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has concluded that there is an ongoing Indigenous cultural genocide. This is hardly a friendly context in which to build cultural exchange. The TRC has therefore made 94 Calls To Action, some of which apply to composers, which should be read and entered into in spirit not just in letter or in order to qualify for grants. I also think musicians should have a kind of Hippocratic oath to do no harm.

  11. H Taves

    I think the question of what harm it would do has to be asked of culture-carriers who are known and respected by their culture, and their answer believed and honoured even if it doesn’t make sense to the composer.

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