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  • East Meets West in the Concert Hall:Asians and Classical Music in the Century of Imperialism, Post Colonialism, and Multiculturalism
  • Mina Yang (bio)

The classical music field is experiencing dramatic changes wrought by the social, political, and economic trends of the postmodern age. Even as critics in the West express doubt over the continuing vitality of classical music in the face of shrinking orchestra budgets, aging and dwindling audiences, and sinking record sales, Asians and Asian Americans have invaded the conservatory and the concert hall in numbers that are impossible to ignore.1 In September 2002, two Asians, 28-year-old Xia Zhang from Beijing and 31-year-old Bundit Ungrangsee from Bangkok, shared the honor of winning the top prize in the inaugural contest of the Maazel/Vilar Conductors' Competition. The young Chinese pianist Lang Lang is the latest of a string of Asian child prodigy sensations—following violinists Midori and Sarah Chang—to grace the classical music stage. A recent New York Times article about the Chinese bass Hao Jiang Tian, then playing Timur in Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera, noted: "Western classical music is conserved and revitalized by a new generation of Asian performers and composers" (Lipsyte and Morris 2002).

Yet even as the roster of prominent Asian musicians steadily grows, sociopolitical factors conspire to maintain "universalist," i.e., Europeanist, discourses of classical music, thus rendering Asian participation in this cultural practice unnatural or less than salutary. Writers on other creative endeavors have been examining analogous intersections of Eastern and Western power and culture for some time now. In such influential texts as Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said, making explicit the connections of Orientalist representations with imperialist desires and projections, laid out the foundations of postcolonial theory, which has proven to be instrumental in literary and art criticism over the last decades. Because of the abstract nature of musical language and the persistence of Romantic notions of music's autonomy and transcendence from everyday life, postcolonial theory only recently has begun to attract serious attention from music scholars (see Said 1978; 1993).2 However, [End Page 1] even with the notable increase in publications on music, race, and multiculturalism in recent years, the Asian classical musician has received little attention from scholars. Classical music, as arguably the most prestigious of European bourgeois arts, proves more resistant to sociopolitical analysis than popular music, and performers in the classical field are generally considered to play a secondary function to the composer as a reproducer of the authorial text rather than the originating producer.

Extending the work of postcolonial theorists and scholars working in new musicology and Asian American performance studies, this essay elaborates on the ways in which artistic, ethnic, national and postmodern identities exclude, overlap, and impinge on one another in the Western art musical tradition. It first traces the introduction and growth of classical music in Asia within the context of European imperialism, then follows the immigration of Asians to the United States and demonstrates how Asian Americans' abject position (building upon Karen Shimakawa's theory of "national abjection"), vis-à-vis mainstream American culture, is reiterated and reinforced in the classical music field (see Shimakawa 2002). Finally, the essay considers marketing strategies that tap into the current fashion for multiculturalism by promoting the racialized identities of classical musicians. Underlying the three sections is the tenacity with which racial constructs—fashioned and cemented during the expansion of European imperialism, replicated in U.S. immigration discourses, and exploited by today's multinational corporations—continue to structure our cultural life. Drawing on my own experiences as a conservatory-trained pianist and Asian American, ethnographic work conducted over the last few years, what Said calls the "contrapuntal interpretation" of films, recordings, and other discursive materials around classical music and Asia, this study constitutes the first, if not comprehensive, survey of classical music in Asia and Asian America. Rather than seeing the changes in the classical music field as symptoms of cultural decay as many experts claim, I interpret the current fluctuations of the concert tradition as symptomatic of a paradigm shift that at once debunks its claims to universality and problematizes a host of issues surrounding race and music...


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