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Issues | Multicultural Manners

The Language of Music

June 14, 1997|NORINE DRESSER | Folklorist Norine Dresser is the author of "Multicultural Manners" (Wiley, 1996). Send her your comments c/o Voices or by e-mail: norined@earthlink.net

Stanley, an American musician, organizes a concert combining classical royal court musicians from Laos and Cambodia with American avant-garde jazz musicians. He assumes that in spite of language differences, the men will be able to communicate musically. But cultural differences cause confusion.

What went wrong?

The Americans asked the Cambodians and Laotians to see their music, so they could learn their scores, but the Asian musicians had learned their music in the aural tradition. Conversely, the Asian musicians didn't borrow the American scores because they were unfamiliar with Western music notation.

So each group recorded and exchanged audio cassettes. The Southeast Asian musicians learned by listening, the Americans by transcribing. Other differences occurred. Stanley wanted to start practicing as soon as they assembled, but the Cambodians and Laotians had to first light incense and petition the spirits of the instruments to bless the music session.

Also, rather than a short, efficient rehearsal, the Southeast Asians expected to remain afterward to eat and talk. Subsequently, all the musicians stayed after rehearsals, sitting on the floor and eating "Asian style." In spite of three different languages and cultures, by the time of the performance, the men had become friends, and the sold-out concert was a success.

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