OnCurating: “Who Owns Asian Culture? Not Me.”

ed. by Rob Young
February 5, 2020
Read the full January 2020 Issue of OnCurating

What are the roles of the curator in the music field, and how does the work materialize? What kind of practices are involved? Defragmentation – Curating Contemporary Music was a project that attempted to highlight some of the problems and urgent questions that we find in today’s contemporary music scene. Within the frame of ideas around gender, diversity, decolonization and technology, Defragmentation looked at – and tried to understand – structures in various institutions of contemporary music. The ambition was to investigate how the urgent sense of fragmentation and disconnection that exists in the public sphere at the moment is materialized in the musical field.

This edition of OnCurating extends the findings of the original Defragmentation to investigate the unique challenges and issues of curation in the contemporary music world, with essays and articles by Heloisa Amaral, Patrick Frank, Kenneth Goldsmith, George E. Lewis, Kamila Metwaly & Katja Heldt and Du Yun.

Who Owns Asian Culture? Not Me.

I don’t really know what Asian Culture is. Who owns Asian Culture? Who can be its Ambassador?

Culture is an ever-evolving state of mind. My name and my background don’t give me automatic claim to ownership or authority. As an artist and curator, I’m not interested in import or export, but instead want to encourage deep collaborations—cross-regional ones.

I’m also tired of the saying “East meets West”—I would have thought we have met enough times throughout history. When land has been lost and land has been gained, someone else’s land dissipates. Despite people migrating from their homes, people migrating between countries and nations, and people being born into refugee camps, our cultural memory is something that persistently thrives and is not easily erased.

Our collective future interests me. What you hear and see is exactly the heritage of a future. What we are making is a lineage for the present. And this present, however challenging in all its splendor and all its agony, is our honor for many generations to come.

Cultural Ownership
Our children—from New York City to Fergana Valley, from Shanghai to Waghan Valley, from Tibet to Hindu Valley to Berlin—all have equal claim to their curiosity to all things that have been created before their time. We cannot suppress their curiosity by ‘purifying’ our traditions. Curiosity, by nature, means learning something by touching and making errors. And, most importantly, by being allowed to touch and experiment with such errors. There is no such thing as ‘pure traditions.’ In the case of vast ancient Chinese operas, it has always been a by-product of cultural and linguistic clashes and assimilations. In the case of ragas, from their historical provenance in the Pre-Islamic period, and subsequent migration through space and time (Arabia, Persia, Central Asia, Indo-Pakistani desert and the global South Asian diaspora), its migration through genres, forms, and techniques, by both genders and in settings both devotional and secular, has always manifested itself.

It often alarms me that we pride ourselves in saying this is a multicultural encounter, branding such multicultural hybridity into one umbrella of ready-to-sell products put on stage to create a dialogue through the act of curation. And curating can be a dangerous thing. It’s as if one is to operate a water-gate that allows energy to pour down on an audience. Oh, yes – that word is ‘gatekeeper.”

But again, we have also the rigidity of cultural sovereignty. In fact, a too-thoughtful plan will only sanctify ideas bred in a region. That which allows us our defense can also cause our bruises. Culture has a tremendous inertia. In some communities and societies, culture endured because it worked for the community. Yet sometimes, the inertia of culture strangles innovation in the crib.

It’s often a conversation about how to build on mutual trust and respect: taking into account the fundamental (and often impossible) knowledge of traditions, while still allowing a certain freedom to incubate new ideas and spirits, while not afraid to make mistakes or encountering a backlash.

Curating is a place of ever-growing confluence, conflict, assimilation, clash, and cultivating a land of what Homi Bhabha called ‘Third Space’ in his book The Location of Culture, referring to the interstices between colliding cultures, a liminal space ‘which gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognizable, a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation.’[1] In this ‘in-between’ space, new cultural identities are formed and reborn. It is the gap, the transgression, the break, the lacuna, that act as a foil to the narrative implicit in time. Existing in this nexus of perpetual becoming, the thought process is never on one polarity or another.

Du Yun and Ali Sethi at the dress rehearsal of the world premiere Where We Lost Our Shadows, London Southbank Centre in January 2019
Du Yun and Ali Sethi at the dress rehearsal of the world premiere Where We Lost Our Shadows, London Southbank Centre in January 2019

Monopolistic Values
Aesthetics are as subjective as the notion of art itself. Aesthetics and their subsequent context go in and out of fashion in every decade. Some artists are interested in violating the preciousness of the folk tradition as an equivalent to what might be considered an anti-heroic gesture. At the same time, the meticulous care taken through process, labour, time, traditional skills, technical virtuosity and formalism are just as, if not more, vibrant than what might be called ‘experimental music’. Despite investment in understanding and studying the folk tradition, we should be equally irreverent, disrupting it in many unorthodox ways. If we were to equate ‘beauty’ with ‘authenticity’, a subversive attitude – one that is open to contamination – would most accurately define our relationship to it.

Conceptually, metaphorically, and in terms of process, the contradictory nature of tradition is as much about accumulation as removal. Layers are built and abraded; paths are preserved, their history etched in the work itself. As folk traditions become stale, the contemporary transitions to antiquity. And so, these definitions are significant. How one defines what is ‘folk music’, what is ‘contemporary music’, and what is ‘experimentation’, in turn defines the work that claims a relationship to it. Examination of the canon and the discourse is critical. New ways of resonance will emerge.

The Tyranny of Contemporary Music
As part of re-examining the canon, we should also understand music is not just about scales, timbres, harmonies and textures. Music has long been used as a spiritual guide, a beacon for human activities and connections. By reducing music to only these bare theoretical bones, I don’t see music any more; rather, just the fragments of a beautiful whole. What if we study how people who live in a particular locale practise these arts? Make music? And (bear with me) keep experimenting with such practices?

Experimentation is a necessary part of exploring the humanity of tradition. Maybe sometimes mistakes should be encouraged. Risks should definitely be embraced and celebrated – risks that also include economically miscalculated ones, including outreach to the audience. Yet, when you actually do reach out, especially as an organization which does not usually represent a certain group of people, you are selling the stories to a community who might only resonate with a fraction of their cultural memory, but not their current life status. Current lives are often messy and never as wonderfully packaged as they may seem. A didactic, abraded representation can only be insulting, if not laughable.

When we have understood the lineage of an artistic practice, a dialogue can begin. Examination of the canon and the discourse surrounding what constitutes that canon is important. For the spirit to grow, new ways of contextualizing become necessary, and we have to risk our sense of self in the process.

Just as the definition of the West should be shattered, the tyranny of defining ‘contemporary works’ should be rejected. The European tradition of composed music emphasizes notation; hence the composer assumes a significant role. The audience for this tradition of music creation almost functions as a score follower; here, notation drives the experience of audience and performers alike. In many types of music rooted in oral traditions, the person documenting the music is invited into the process, creating the music together with the master musicians in the same place. The audience then becomes an inseparable part of the experience. To open the knowledge base to all is to open a wild vulnerability. The more artists and musicians involved in creating, experimenting, and sharing knowledge, the more one can peer over the precipice of creation into a thinly, but brilliantly illuminated locus as we risk our sense of self together.

This is why betrayals of body and mind that threaten to erase our character and memory remain among our most awful tortures. The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life: to avoid becoming so diminished, or dissipated, or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were, or who you want to be. And cultural memory is included in the same thing. How we keep this integrity moving forward is vital to the human spirit.

Allowing for Experimentation
It is said that in China there are more than 300 regional opera styles. At the end of summer 2017, I brought a team with me to Xinchang, south of Zhejiang Province. Diaoqiang, one of the oldest Chinese opera styles dating back to the Ming Dynasty (around 1330 CE), originated there.
In summer 2019, I went to China’s Anhui province to visit the Huangmei Opera Troupe, and to interview the 92-year-old opera composer Shi Bailin, who invented the opera style particular to that region. The Huangmei style takes its name from the folk tunes of Huangmei County in Hubei Province. According to Shi, a Western orchestra was not available to him in 1950s Anhui. So he freely borrowed local folk tunes, pairing them with modern orchestration techniques that he learned on a two-year exchange programme at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, to be performed by orchestras comprised solely of Chinese instruments. The result was a spellbinding new opera style called Huangmei Opera that has been made into films. The Huangmei Opera has been massively popular in China because, though dialect-based, it is easy to understand in addition to satisfying traditional operatic form.

In travelling to places like Xinchang and the Anhui province in my home country, as well as Palestine, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and Cambodia, I have often found that most traditional folk artists are eager to introduce their traditions, to showcase the sophistication of each style that they have learned for their entire lives, and to show audiences the hidden, secret meanings of its provenance. But it often stops at that introduction. How do we craft new works that reflect today’s world using these traditions?

In today’s world, where our sexuality, the dynamics of our geo-political boundaries, and clashes between economic classes have been shifted, the mould of gender practices, storytelling in gender roles, and ‘who gets to practise what’ are still quite rigid in many regions of the world. The barrier between us and others must be shattered. At the same time, the barrier between us and ourselves should also be re-examined.

One method of shattering these barriers is to encourage artists who are not from a particular region to create new works using regional practices and knowledge. No one bats an eyelid when Chinese kids play the piano, or when Korean composers write symphonies. The question, however, seems to remain: how do we encourage more people out of a particular cultural heritage to not only adapt, but create, as if that language is one’s own language?

How do we negotiate between being averse to taking the time for a deep introduction to a cultural heritage, and the guilt of creating something without fully belonging? How do we communicate such a need to the artists within a community? The artists who might think ‘you don’t understand’ or ‘you don’t get that nuance and subtlety’? The first phase of creating a hybrid language involves confronting these questions. And to do so, we need to think beyond scale and modality.

I used to think the Chinese language was not best suited for rap – rap was too tonal. Then, in 2000, it took one young kid, Zhou Jielun (Jay Chou) from Taiwan to experiment with the tones of the Mandarin language. Since then, rapping has swept the whole nation. In 2017, national TV broadcast the live show The Rap of China. The overtly powerful popularity of rap has become deeply embedded into today’s young Chinese generation. One very exciting example for me is that we begin to see regional rap battles where dialects meet, and artists keep experimenting with these dialects by using traditional poetic terms to paint a contemporary life lived in China. The hybrid arts gain such an organic fluidity, so that people encounter it as if it has always been there, rather than a practice that has recently entered the mainstream. There is no ‘pure tradition’. Pure tradition often reflects how people experience life within their community. The youngest generation will always make adaptations to their lifestyle, and with equal claim to their world.

Curating is Not a Tour Guide
Unlike many traditional music styles, I have often felt our music-making has looked away from the spiritual quest. Its own spirit is no longer aligned with the region of the people, like an outdated ‘Lonely Planet’ guide where one cannot find the appropriate entry point to the stories told, even for the local young generation. To an extent, in today’s classical music world, folk traditions have become ‘lost in translation’. Because folk music doesn’t have a composer, it seems as if the material is ready-made. Yet it is not the case that folk practitioners ‘don’t write music’. These traditions come from generations of people who write and practise music day-in and day-out. Nothing is ready-made.

Deep collaboration is inviting people to let go of the insecurity of not knowing each other well enough. In my practice, it’s always about letting go of insecurity in a way that opens conversation and invites all parties into a dialogue. In my experience, sometimes it takes many years of effort to make one idea happen.

In an article for The New Yorker, South African scholar and librarian Peter Van der Merwe attempts to address why the popular music of the twentieth century sounds the way it does. He notes it was often Islamic song traditions that acted as the connecting tissue in the history of music.[2] Just as people migrate, storytelling narratives travel with the people who carry them. These narratives are never clean, and should never be understood as abbreviated talking points.

I have collaborated with Ali Sethi, a Pakistani singer based in Lahore, on multiple projects. Ali was taught by both Ustad Naseeruddin Saami and Farida Khanum, both revered singers in Indo-Pakistani classical music. In conversing with Ali, we exchanged the idea of the Islamic principle of one god, the idea that ‘one’ is actually not a limitation, that ‘one’ is actually an invitation to eternity. When you envision a ‘one’ that accommodates everyone and everything, then you can find multiple interpretations and multiple truths within that ‘one’. So actually when you split it up into, say, two, or three, or four, that is when you get into issues of finitude – finite duality, or contradiction, or conflict, or assimilation. That this is Indian, or this is Pakistani.

Future Tradition
In experimenting with folk traditions, what if we invited a manifestation of the ‘one’ into our creative practice? It allows us to really explore our subjectivity. No note is false to the interpretation. Everything has a root to grow. For instance, the taanbura is a corruption of the original word, which is tambura. It has the same root as ‘tambourine’, with its origins in a Turkic instrument made from a pumpkin. But one thing I found very interesting is that the sound of tamboura is essentially not one sound. Its sound has so many complexities and layers to what seems like a single sound, to where its entirety exists between the affirmative one-ness born to complexity.

We have analyzed the overtones, microtonal systems, and the cloud of the ‘sonority’ as a composing tool. Nowadays in contemporary classical music, we composers can use the cent to notate and dictate the microtonal pitches in precision. But we have failed to examine why that cloud of sonority was used in the first place. Historically, it functioned as a means to the divinity, to understand the universe, to find the precision within the elegance of an energy that is larger than ourselves. That everything is existing in between this. And in-between-ness existed in this vast universe. In such a world, spirituality for me is really about awareness, vigilance; transcending partisanship by constantly questioning one’s own assumptions. Redrawing another space of the individuating techniques of the personal-is-the-political; the world-in-the-home.

In talking with collaborators like Ali Sethi and people who work in humanitarian crisis relief, I have learned that there is a difference between the words Muhajireen and Musafereen, where Muhajireen is ‘refugees, migrants’, and Musafereen is ‘travellers’. Those two words exist in Urdu as well, in exactly the same way, and this duality is what translates to performance and crosses boundaries.

To Ali, dualities shed light on how, through the very act of travelling and migration, through refugees and migrants – his ancestors were refugees from the Mongol invasions 700 years ago – we still live with these stories. His ancestors came through Central Asia, through Persia, and into the subcontinent, and his family still keeps this history very much alive.

Music has made Ali especially sensitive to these linkages, to the point of insisting that such linkages are vital. He told me:

‘They’re not just abstract linkages. They allow us to emotionally connect, and to find those parts of ourselves, either through philosophies, or through the travelling of motifs and language, or though sounds, physical instruments like the tamboura. The fact that this is shared history enables linkages in our present and our future. It makes the possibility of conversation more creative, allows you to be more creative in how you think of yourself as part of a community in the world. So, that moment for me when I thought, There are these ragas which are right now which would be classified as “Indian Classical”. But there’s already a complication with that because I’m Pakistani. I don’t belong in India. I don’t get a visa to go to India. So what am I doing with these ragas in the first place?’

Out of the conventional, and into the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent. But then the moment you think of that, it’s like, what is Indo-Pakistan? It’s made up of thousands of years – It’s made up! It’s made up of thousands of years of conquest, of interaction between the Dutch, the French, the British, Arabs, Persians, Turks. It goes back to the earliest of civilizations, so one is simultaneously inhabiting all of these disparate selves and communities. For Ali, ‘That assumption certainly, in my experience, comes from different kinds of audiences sometimes, so that those who think that I should be representing them have a certain set of assumptions about what I should be representing, and those who think that I am “other” also have a set of assumptions about what I should be representing or doing. What I’m seeing myself creating in this story of travel, of exile, of displacement, of many kinds of movement, is exploring not only what those words mean, but also updating the musical language. So I’m updating my own classical, Indian, Eastern, Pakistani musical self, and saying that it’s more dynamic than I have been allowed to think. It’s not conceptual for me. My musical tradition apparently does not belong to me because I am not allowed to go to India. India won’t accept me.’

So how do we embrace artists who practise the cultural means who are not from the region? Curating is not an process of ‘mix-and-match’, of branding under a theme and glossed ‘Instagrammable’ filter. Defy a theme and defy the myth of a concept. Defy the myth of curators’ ownership over their broad curatorial statements and their featured artists they select. It has to come from understanding the absolute necessity, understanding why every moment, every element should come and how they converse with each other. It should not just subscribe to a mode du jour, or fit into one man-made category, because then it just leaves you feeling good while being a tourist in someone else’s lineage, history and agony. These borderlines –whether aesthetic, political, economic, or social – are all man-made with the intention of examining the layers of history embedded within a cultural zone.

Not an Ending
What matters to me more as a practising artist is to connect with communities and other artists. To be an artist is to share the divinity of what makes us human, and to curate is to invite more people into dialogue, allowing that incompleteness of understanding to happen. And I believe just to know that is allowed to happen is also a huge freedom, a sense of humility, and submission to each other’s divine spirit. We are not here to find a panacea to cure us all. This is not about coming together, but to provoke – and to provoke us back too. Curating in today’s world should not be a doctrinal megaphone for an aesthetic and a trend. I never thought it should present us to them, because once you position yourself that way, you become that paradigm. And to be alive is to be appreciating that state of in-between-ness at all times, of being more than an animal, or plant, or more advanced animal capable of reckoning, but always being less than perfect. And that incompleteness is where all beauty, morality, struggle, and knowledge lie: all the highlights of the human experience are born inside that incomplete-ness. In our musical concepts and our social dynamics, it is essential to have incompleteness – a treatment versus a cure.

Without the blank space, you will never get the full picture. Such blankness, silence in thinking, acknowledging its inherent chaos, is a nod to mortality. There is a Chinese saying that being a human, unlike the trees, you have to move so you will thrive and it will be easier to see the roots. Folk-tradition art, no matter what the provenance, may seem on the surface to have many rules and restrictions; these limitations are often added later.

To me, these liminal spaces where experimentation happens are the most purified divinity that the human species has been hungry for, no matter where you come from.

Who owns culture? Not you. Not me. It is here, an ever-evolving presence to be created and lived together.