When music is brought out of its original environment, almost anything can happen. The slightest change in context could elicit fascination, horror, enjoyment, confusion, or controversy. Recontextualizing music always poses a risk, for it is almost impossible to tell whether the result will be a success or a failure. Yet, as a general rule, musical recontextualization is most successful when the music itself is left unaltered and unadulterated. If the components of a piece are sacrificed for any reason, it will ultimately be detrimental to the aesthetic value of the music. By examining Ravi Shankar’s West Meets East, Brooklyn Rider’s Brooklesca, and the heavy metal sub-culture of the Muslim world, we will find that musical recontextualization is most successful when the content of the music is left alone.
Musical recontextualization is the process of performing, introducing, or listening to music in a foreign environment or situation, thereby changing its context. For example, the incorporation of a Chinese zither into a symphony orchestra is as much an example of recontextualization as a string quartet performing in a rural town in Northern Ghana. The possible reasons for musical recontextualization are limitless – some might be motivated by sheer artistic curiosity, while others might be motivated by a deep-seated yearning for political freedom. In all cases, however, musical recontextualization seems to be primarily exploitative rather than liberating; people usually change the context of music for their own purposes, not for the sake of the music itself.
In a collection of songs called West Meets East (1967), Ravi Shankar collaborated with Yehudi Menuhin to produce a completely new sound: sitar, tabla, and violin. In this case, the violin, a Western instrument, was inserted into a Hindustani classical context. This artistic recontextualization attempted to transform the style of a traditional Indian ensemble to include a classical violin. In order for this to occur successfully, Menuhin astutely realized that he could not simply mimic the sound of a sitar with his violin, for this would be a shallow, insignificant, and ineffective way to recontextualize his instrument. Instead, recontextualization had to be achieved through flexibility without sacrifice. Menuhin manages to achieve a cohesive tone with the sitar without sacrificing the distinctly Western sound of the classical violin. But despite Menuhin’s success, the most that the two musicians are ever able to accomplish is simple “call and response”; Menuhin plays a vaguely Indian-sounding riff, and Shankar copies it (or vice versa). One particular piece, Swara Kakali, relies almost exclusively on call and response throughout its entirety. Unfortunately, mimicry does not always make for good fusion. Successful fusion is the result of different styles that coexist with as few sacrifices as possible. A traditional Indian piece is built upon the variations of a basic melody, which is played in the beginning. However, a simple call and response technique makes this piece boring, repetitive, and distinctly non-Indian. In this particular case, successful recontextualization is dependent on successful cross-cultural fusion. Since Menuhin and Shankar sacrificed the virtues of Indian music in the pursuit of fusion, West Meets East fails to successfully recontextualize the violin.
To the contrary, Brooklyn Rider’s Brooklesca, written by second violinist Colin Jacobsen, successfully recontextualizes gypsy (Romani) themes, Spanish flamenco motifs, and “hillbilly” fiddle, to be performed by a classical string quartet. The piece transforms these completely disparate styles through geographic, social, and artistic recontextualization. Gypsy music comes from Romania and Hungary, flamenco music comes from Spanish Andalusia, and the “old-time” fiddle comes from Southwestern American folk music; yet Brooklyn Rider unites them all in the borough of Brooklyn, New York, the city for which the group is named. Brooklyn’s extreme diversity allows the quartet to geographically recontextualize their music. Mirroring the diversity of the city’s people, the group prides itself in its ability to recontextualize diverse musical themes. Therefore, their recontextualizations are shaped by social forces as well geographic forces, since Brooklyn’s very society is reflected in the group’s music. Brooklesca successfully achieves artistic recontextualization in the exact way that West Meets East fails to do so: it incorporates gypsy, Spanish, and hillbilly styles without sacrificing their individual components. This is facilitated by the fact that all three styles are usually performed with string instruments. In the piece, Jacobsen manages to show that the three styles actually aren’t that different from each other under the right circumstances – this is the very meaning of flexibility. The piece maintains a driving rhythm through the heavy pizzicato in the bass line, and incorporates lighthearted glissandos that are quite typical of Romani, flamenco, and hillbilly music. Ultimately, the entire piece comes together as a heart-pounding masterpiece, uniting all three styles with energy and spirit. Even though the piece surely represented the society and culture(s) of Brooklyn, the recontextualization was, once again, exploitative rather than liberating. Jacobsen used the three different styles in order to suit the vivacious tone of the piece, not to prove the universality of the styles themselves.
As previously mentioned, musical recontextualization is most successful when the music itself remains as unchanged as possible. For this reason, the Muslim heavy metal rock movement is one of the most successful examples of recontextualization in the history of music. In Morocco, Pakistan, and Egypt, hundreds of thousands of young Muslims are “headbanging” along with the songs of Cannibal Corpse, Led Zeppelin, Megadeth, and Metallica. Even though it began in the United States in the early 1970s, heavy metal has found a new context in the Muslim Middle East. This social and geographic recontextualization has drastically shaped the function and meaning of the music. Men and women gather and listen to the intense songs as a form of sociopolitical protest against their tyrannical governments and oppressive societies. Reda Zine, one of the founders of the Moroccan heavy metal movement, explains: “We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal.” Not only is the music a form of protest, but also a form of catharsis, a way to contextualize their lives with non-government sanctioned music. The music reflects the strife that Muslims feel from daily war, violence, poverty, misogyny, and starvation, providing an artistic release and a means of rebellion. This subculture is thriving every day, which holds true to the primary claim of this essay: when the music itself is left in its most original state, recontextualization is highly facilitated. For instance, Muslim headbangers do not listen to songs in Arabic, but in English. In this way, the musical integrity of the genre remains uncompromised.
If done correctly, musical recontextualization has the power to transform the style, function, and meaning of a piece through social, political, geographic, economic, and artistic forces. By scrutinizing the respective successes and failures of West Meets East, Brooklesca, and the Islamic heavy metal movement, it is apparent that the key to effective recontextualization is flexibility without sacrifice. Menuhin and Shankar sacrificed the structure and tone of their music in an attempt to allow for smoother fusion between their two foreign instruments. In comparison, the Muslim heavy metal movement recontextualizes pure, original Black Sabbath and Grateful Dead songs. Thus, failure and success are in direct relation to the extent in which the musical styles were altered in order to befit the context. Ultimately, the context should only be changed if the content is left alone. The purest music is the best music.Tags: album, baroque, best classical music, brooklyn rider, cd, classical, classical music, classical music cds, classical music composer, classical music Mozart, classical music online, classical piano music, composers, concert, General, instrument, met opera, metropolitan opera, music, musical recontextualization, opera, opera house, opera singers, piano, recontextualization, reviews, west meets east, World Music