IN NEW SNOW:
POSTMODERNISM OR CULTURAL APPROPRIATION?
Lecture delivered on July 14, 1998 at the Sound Symposium, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.
Revised and extended: January 1999. Posted on the www: November 1999.
in New Snow, a CBC radio program about the Inuit and their katajjaq
(vocal games) created by me and produced by Keith Horner in 1996, was the first
project which made me aware of the questions arising from the use of aboriginal
sonic material in contemporary composition and, by extension, of the practice of
cultural borrowing in general. This paper discusses some of the moral, aesthetic
and practical considerations associated with this use, and chronicles my own
approach and methodology, both musical and interpersonal, to the material and to
the native people of Arctic Canada.
Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory, inaugurated in 1999, comprises the northeastern part of the Canadian arctic. Its capital, Iqaluit—former Frobisher Bay—is a small town on Baffin Island, which is located at the northeastern corner of Nunavut, just north of the Hudson strait and west of Greenland. The majority of the residents of Nunavut are Inuit. They are better known as Eskimo, which is how the Dene Indians used to call them and it means "those who eat raw meat." The Inuit have a peculiar tradition of vocal games called katajjaq, which is shared in different variations by the arctic natives of most circumpolar countries. I was first exposed to katajjaq during the spring of 1992, while working on my first radio documentary composition called The Idea of Canada, a commission by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Laurence Stevenson, a radio engineer involved in that project, introduced me to an archival CD of katajjaq, as possible source material for our project.
The basic form of katajjaq performed by two singers—usually female—involves two sounds in rapid sequence, one produced by inhaling, the other by exhaling, usually a low growling throat-like sound followed by a higher more focused sound, sometimes clearly pitched, but not always so. The second throat singer performs the same pattern as the first, but with a time delay of one ictus. This results in a hocket-like exchange of the rhythmic pattern between the two singers, one exhaling while the other is inhaling, and vice versa. This two-beat pattern is often extended into a more complex pattern of articulations which involves the interpolation of nonsense syllables, sounds imitating the animals of the arctic, or sometimes entire melodies borrowed from southern cultures ‘digitally’ interpolated into the simple rhythmic patterns of the katajjaq, one note at a time. Each throat game has traditionally one or more such patterns available for the throat singers (players) to use. Since this is a competitive game, the initiator of the pattern switches into a new pattern rather unpredictably, in an effort to ‘throw off’ the partner, who in turn has to stay on track and imitate perfectly the changes of these patterns. The person who is either thrown off or simply runs out of breath acknowledges defeat by laughing. The sound they produce is unlike anything I had heard before: ‘games’ as they may be to them, katajjaq is a haunting listening experience. It is full of the spirit of pre-Christian animism, which was all but eradicated by the early missionaries to the arctic. There is something primal about this practice which has an immediate visceral impact on listeners and, as a composer interested in establishing visceral connections with the listeners of my own music, I found katajjaq utterly fascinating.
Upon hearing that compact disc, I resolved to travel to the north and get a first hand experience of the Inuit and their culture. The opportunity came a few years later when CBC producer Keith Horner and I realized that we had a common interest in northern culture and in creating a new radio documentary composition about it. It took considerable planning and our travel itinerary was initially quite ambitious. The limitations of our funding situation, however, allowed us to visit only Iqaluit and Cape Dorset on Baffin Island, record a total of eight throat singers—seven women and one man—and conduct a number of interviews with key individuals in the development of contemporary Inuit culture. In addition, we recorded any sounds particular to the north that caught our attention: wind, melting ice, howling huskies, birds, sounds of aircrafts and landcrafts, etc., which were later incorporated into the fabric of the radiophonic work, along with existing arctic sounds drawn from the CBC archives. While on the airplane on our way to Baffin Island, I picked up that day’s issue of the Nunatsiaq News, Nunavut’s official newspaper. It included the first policy paper of the Nunavut Implementation Commission, a group of individuals appointed by the Federal government and the native communities of the north to create a blueprint for the new territory of Nunavut and implement the transition to the new territorial and primarily native self-government. This policy paper described the commission’s vision of how this new territory would be as a political, social and cultural entity. It was titled "Footprints in New Snow." I could think of no better title for our project. This ‘borrowing’ turned out to be more significant than I had anticipated at the time. "Footprints in New Snow", the policy paper, has since become a document of historical importance for northern affairs. In the ensuing years many of the people who helped disseminate Footprints in New Snow, the radio documentary, to the geographically disparate but electronically connected communities of the Canadian arctic came across it by accident. They were using the search engines of the Internet to locate the policy paper by the same title and stumbled upon my composition instead. Inquiries about the work followed and communications channels were opened with northern communities, where none existed before.
Even though there was no specific plan of action with regard to the shape and content of the documentary itself, some general ideas of what it should be like were beginning to crystallize in my mind before our trip. I was aware that, in spite of my intense interest in Inuit culture, I was racially an ‘outsider’ and therefore all the criticisms about cultural appropriation—very much ‘in the air’ at that time—could very easily be targeted at our venture. The problem was compounded by the fact that, while everyone, ourselves included, was against cultural appropriation, no one at the time knew exactly where to draw the line between it and a genuinely creative enterprise. To the best of our knowledge, no one had ever tried something like what we were about to do. Several recordings of throat singers and a relatively large number of documentaries and writings about the Inuit and their culture already existed, but incorporating cultural aspects of the north into a work which was partly a documentary and partly a creative artistic statement, was a novel concept and a potentially controversial one.
CBC Radio had recorded throat singers in concert settings like the Festival of the Sound at Parry Sound, Ontario and on other occasions or in studio, but these broadcasts did not solicit the response from radio audiences the CBC producers had hoped for. The broadcasts had failed to provide a proper context for a visceral connection between the northern performers and the southern listeners. CBC’s interest in my involvement was that of a cultural translator; I was expected to present Inuit throat singing in a way that radio listeners could relate to. My role of course was not just to present, but also to interpret and comment upon. Furthermore, I was to do all that as a composer, not only as a radio documentary maker.
Invariably, composers bring something of themselves into the examination of any subject, unlike documentary producers who try to keep their own biases out of their work and observe the subject of their inquiry as objectively as possible...from the outside, as it were. A musical composition which is not engaged with its subject matter, will not engage the listener. Composers invest emotion into their work, whereas documentary producers import emotion from the source by selecting emotionally charged moments from an interview, or incorporating into their piece sound fragments which will solicit an emotional response from the listeners. In both cases, the producers do not bring their own emotions into their project; the project is not about them. The producers’ feelings towards the characters and events in their documentaries can at times be inferred by the choice of material and its presentation, but the strongest documentaries are the ones in which the producers do not speak in the first person, but let their documentary subjects do the speaking.
In contrast, composers express their own feelings through their music. Listeners often interpret the presence or absence of ‘feeling’ in a musical work as a quasi-political statement. ‘Cerebral’ compositions which carefully avoid emotional entanglements of any kind are perceived by most listeners as negative statements made by the composer about the role of emotion in one’s understanding and appreciation of music. It is not uncommon for listeners to dismiss certain works of contemporary music solely on the grounds that they lack emotional content. There is something about music that is inextricably bound to affective response and appreciation. No matter how hard they may try, composers cannot maintain an objective distance from their subject matter, except perhaps in matters of structure and overall architecture. To most listeners, structure and architecture alone are not raison d’être for musical composition.
Whereas documentary producers are de facto protected against accusations of cultural appropriation by the very nature of what they do, composers are not; in fact it is composers and songwriters who are the usual targets of such accusations in the media in recent years. As already stated, the producers’ language is distinct from the language of their documentary subjects and no one may mistake one for the other: the commenting and the quoted statements are always clearly delineated as such. When a composer quotes, however, there is no universal agreement among musicians and the audience at large as to what constitutes quotation marks in music. Herein lies the difficulty in distinguishing between quotation and appropriation, or between stylistic reference and plagiarism. In prose the distinction is obvious: I either put the borrowed material in quotation marks, in which case I am judged as an author on the basis of my content outside the quotation marks, or else someone recognizes the borrowed material, which I claim to be my own, and this constitutes plagiarism, or appropriation. In music, there is no such clear-cut distinction and therein lies the danger of crossing the thin line between creating and exploiting.
In our own project, and in view of potential criticism, there were two issues to consider: the first was a legal issue, a question of copyright, and the second, and infinitely more complicated, was an ethical one. The legal issue was easily dealt with. We made certain in our negotiations with the throat singers that it was clear to them what we intended to do with the recordings, and had standard CBC contracts signed by all parties involved to that effect. The parameters of the ethical issue, on the other hand, which will become the main focus of this paper, were not as clear at the beginning. We were told by Marvin Green, a Toronto architect, civil planner, musician and activist who had worked with the Inuit years ago and had created a clearing house for dealing with copyright issues in Inuit music, that the concept of individual copyright was foreign to many native Canadian communities. There were very few songs or melodies which were ‘owned’ by individuals. The majority of the songs belonged instead to a community, and could only be sung by that specific community or clan—much like our own national or school anthems—giving that community its distinctive voice. We were warned that to take these songs from them was to steal a people’s voice; it was not something to be taken lightly. Marvin had lived and worked in the arctic about twenty years before we visited it. It turned out a great deal had changed in the meanwhile and it was up to us to determine how these changes affected the project we were about to undertake.
Footprints in New Snow was the third work in a series of compositions of mine inspired by Inuit culture, all of which were created between 1994 and 1997. The first was Nunavut (1994) for string quartet and tape, based on recordings of katajjaq made by Keith Horner at the Festival of the Sound a few years earlier. Hunter’s Dream (1995) was an one-minute miniature made with similarly obtained recordings which were already contracted by CBC for multi-use purposes. The quoted segments of katajjaq in the earlier works were few and of short duration, and were programmed into—and played from—a digital sampler. The katajjaq were then combined with other synthesized and/or environmental sounds evocative of Canada’s arctic north, and, in the case of Nunavut, with the sound of locomotive engines and trains which, of course, have nothing to do with the arctic north. The incorporation of these sounds into my compositions served a dual function. The first, and most obvious, was to evoke the actual source of the sounds. The second, which is more important compositionally, has to do with how listeners perceive music at a visceral level. The quoted sounds act as metaphors for something subtler, which lies beyond direct geographical/chronological associations. For example, the use of the sound of locomotive trains in Nunavut is a personal reference to my own childhood—my father was a railway engineer and, as a child, I traveled with him aboard steam engines—but, this particular association would be completely lost to the listeners who do not have similar childhood experiences. What may not be lost to listeners, however, is the larger metaphor about trains in this work. Nunavut (‘our land’ or ‘homeland’ in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit ) is to me an appellation for the whole of Canada, not just the newly founded territory of Nunavut. Canada was a vast land, which became a country with the advent of the railway, but forces aboard the railway, which turned Canada into a country, nearly decimated native culture. This imagery of Inuit throat singers exorcising the spirit of trains from a great distance is the ‘spiritual locomotive’ which propels Nunavut, the composition, forward. I have been surprised by the number of listeners who consciously made this connection completely unprompted. There is an even larger number of listeners, however, who have made this connection viscerally, even though they were not be able to verbally articulate it.
Nunavut was inspired by the disturbing news of an alarming increase in the suicide rate among Inuit youth, and by my own sense of bleakness about life in the arctic circle, amplified to no small degree by the news I read in the papers or heard on the radio at that time. I realized, after having completed Nunavut, that my entire sense of the Inuit and their culture was a series of news clippings synthesized into a reality, which existed only in my mind. I really had no idea how the Inuit lived, how they ‘felt’ or perceived the world around them. Was the hostile arctic environment, which had taken its toll on arctic explorers, whalers and fortune seekers equally hostile to them, or was it a land resonating with the innermost sense of belonging of the Inuit psyche? This kind of questions cannot be answered by simply reading or listening to the news. It was my desire to answer these questions for myself, which took me to the arctic in 1995 and set the stage for Footprints in New Snow.
There was no doubt in my mind that, under the best of circumstances, the end result of this project would be a personal statement, a southern Canadian’s view of the north and its culture. This view would be expressed both musically and literally. The challenge of creating a composition, which was structurally coherent according to musical and documentary criteria, had been already taken on by Glenn Gould, the great Canadian pianist, in his groundbreaking trilogy of radio documentaries called The Idea of North, which he produced for CBC Radio. I, too, had experimented with this amphibian art form in The Idea of Canada in 1992, also for CBC Radio.
A great deal of my music until 1994 or so was quite eclectic and rich in referential (documentary) content. It adhered to a ‘global’, postmodern aesthetic, whereby material originally possessing specific geographic and chronological coordinates was transplanted, reconfigured and reinterpreted within the context of a new language with a considerably wider grammar and syntax. With the exception of The Idea of Canada, this ‘documentary’ material was very rarely recognizable as such immediately. It mostly consisted of allusions to other cultures, events, and ways of thinking about music, but was devoid of verbal commentary, which is the lingua franca of radio documentary. Nonetheless, the documentary thinking—resolving the tension created by dissonance into a viscerally perceived statement, not just a musical cadence—was already evident in my ‘pre-documentary’ compositions.
This tendency of mine to regard existing and easily recognizable sounds and musics as cultural reference points which formed semantic cornerstones in my work necessitated the development of an ethical defense of this activity, particularly in view of the fact that this practice may collide at times with generally held values, such as the concept of intellectual property. The question "what constitutes intellectual property" in a legal, but also ethical sense, is central to the artistic practice of documentary composition and to postmodern thought in general. Since intellectual property is information, not commodity, the question boils down to "who owns information?" Is it individual information providers, or communities of information providers, such as tribes, cities, nations, etc.? Once these questions have been dealt with, then one needs to examine the similarities and differences between ownership of commodities and ownership of information. If ownership of information is similar to ownership of commodities, why does it expire fifty to seventy five years after the owner’s death and it is not inherited as tangible commodities are? Obviously many of these questions are of legal nature, and, as such, I am not qualified to answer them. However, before any principle assumes legal status, it must assume—it always has—an ethical one. In contrast to legal issues, the discussion of ethics in relation to artistic practices is very much an artist’s prerogative and responsibility.
Within the emerging noosphere,1 the global stratum of interwoven intellectual and cultural activity, and its rapidly expanding nervous system, the electronic communications networks, information and its ownership becomes increasingly elusive. The concept of ownership is traditionally attached to tangible objects, not abstractions like information quanta. In postmodern societies originality has more to do with innovation in the modes of combining and presenting information, and less with the internal content of the information itself. Postmodern art is an original way of treating unoriginal (borrowed) materials; it is valued for its ability to shed new light into these materials—from the outside, as it were—and invest onto them a new meaning, which could not possibly arise from the materials themselves. In this sense postmodernity brings into art and music some of the attributes of documentary making which I described above. It treats materials from a critical, historical or ‘current affairs’ perspective.
One could argue that the evolutionary line of the use of secondary sources in composition leads to a kind of ‘scholarship through sound’ in postmodernity. In the same way that scholarship explains or re-examines known facts from a new (unknown) perspective, postmodern composition re-examines known musical experiences drawn from a wide geographical and chronological knowledge base. This knowledge base is now readily available to everyone, thanks to the information technologies we all interface with daily. In this daily barrage of information, ‘new’ and ‘original’ increasingly describe the manner in which known chunks of information are put together and presented to us. The more we become aware of this fact, the more we shift our attention away from the (known) material toward the (unknown) structure. The exhaustive—and, by now, exhausted—search for new musical materials during the early and middle part of the twentieth century has been now supplanted by the desire to organize creatively, re-examine and cross-reference the plethora of materials produced during several millennia of musical presence on this planet. By this, I do not mean the theoretical or musicological process to the same end which has been going on for a while, but the compositional process which makes possible the re-examination of musical meaning in this peculiar ‘here’ and ‘now’ of ours which includes all the ‘heres’ and ‘nows’ of our previous historical experience. In this new era of organization or creative taxonomy of cultural contents and experiences, the practice of musical borrowing comes necessarily to the forefront of compositional activity. In turn, the practice of borrowing forces the previously private and insular activity of composition from its relative seclusion into the continuing—and occasionally lively—public debate about intellectual ownership and fair use. There is an increasing number of writers, artists and thinkers who believe in the right to uncensored use of publicly available information for the purpose of combining this information into new and unique cultural statements. John Oswald’s concept of ‘shareright’2, the concept of collage as a legitimate art form or the ‘fair use’ exceptions to copyright law are all manifestations of this trend.
The difference between (genuine) postmodern practice and cultural appropriation, or even plagiarism, is that the latter parasitically feed on the meaning and significance of the borrowed material; in fact they have no meaning and significance of their own apart from the borrowing. Conversely, the former re-contextualizes the borrowed material in ways in which it reveals a startlingly new meaning and significance in its re-articulated state. Cultural appropriation and plagiarism are morally questionable on the grounds that they pretend to make a statement and furthermore claim authorship for the said statement, while in fact the entire statement can easily exist within quotation marks. In theory at least, postmodern art is making an original statement.3 This statement is not dependent on the borrowed material. It uses this material to create a situation whereby the viewer or the listener can follow the new artistic statement and compare it with—or juxtapose it against—the original meaning of the borrowed material in a multithreaded, non-linear manner hitherto unknown and/or impossible.4
Having said all that, there was a fundamental question still left unanswered in my mind with regard to Footprints in New Snow. As with international free trade, postmodernity legitimizes the use of the above methods of cultural borrowing only in cultures which are willing players and contributors to this new, borderless global identity. In cultural contexts where protectionism is regarded as preferable to a system of free and uninhibited cultural flow and exchange, the moral question that still remains is whether this type of borrowing is justifiable or defensible. If you enter into an insular culture which has its own codes of behavior, you have to act and behave according to these codes the same way you do when you travel to a foreign country and thereby agree to abide by its laws. Conversely, if such an insular culture begins to ‘open up’ and make concrete efforts to join the international cultural community, in other words if it begins to engage in a process of mutual exchange and borrowing, one can argue that its previously carefully protected culture willingly becomes the spiritual property of the larger community of human beings. From that point on, it can no longer be racially or ethnically restricted in its use, larger meaning and significance.
I believe Inuit culture now belongs to this category of contributing world cultures. By opening up to the south and its systems of electronic proliferation, the Inuit have come to terms with some of the concepts which are meant to protect individual creations and creators, such as the concept of copyright, while allowing for the larger free flow of cultural products and ideas. A great deal of newly composed Inuit music, usually pop or country settings of Inuktitut texts, is protected under individual copyrights like any other music composed by any other composer in the world. Throat singing on the other hand, an ancient oral tradition, is not protected under copyright, but this is equally true of similar musical products from other cultures or individual creations whose author has been dead for more than fifty years to seventy years, depending on particular national laws.
While one may view the very concept of copyright and all the stuff it does not cover in its provisions as a purely western invention imposed upon unwilling native cultures, the counter-argument is that it is a concept arrived at through international consensus. Without it, ownership of intellectual creation would have been impossible: creators of music, literature or any other kind of intellectual activity would not be able to protect the fruits of their labor as creators of tangible commodities can. Whatever else may be said against it, copyright sets the creator of intellectual commodities on a par with the creator of material ones. As an artist who makes his living from his art, it would seem apparent where I stand on such a dispute. I am aware, however, that the very notion of copyright may be a Eurocentric view of culture—a fairly recent one, for that matter, and, even then, selectively applied—and that many civilized societies have survived for a long time without similar restrictions. It may very well be that postmodernity which is largely based on rapid developments in information technologies may go a long way in weakening the concept and enforcement of copyright, at the same time the special status of the author and the ‘original’ work of art withdraws in today’s wired societies. Additionally, as a creative individual, I am increasingly conscious of the cross-referencing character of contemporary artistic activity and its need to fuse into new entities existing and clearly recognizable cultural icons, drawn from across the geographical and chronological continuum. In the field of creativity, such activity often collides head-on with the fences of copyright, and treading copyright’s narrow and barely navigable legal paths feels more often than not like a balancing act. This is the kind of ambivalence in which many postmodern artists find themselves daily, in the pursuit of their craft. An increasing amount of contemporary artistic activity is conducted within the legally gray area of the copyright law. It is partly due to tolerance, inertia, inability or unwillingness to rigorously enforce the letter of the law that some of most interesting recent artistic creations can be viewed or heard in public.
Cultural borrowing—legal and illegal, ethical and unethical—is a fact of life in today’s culture. A television jingle may have been created, copyrighted and patented by someone, but when it repeatedly invades your own personal space—your home, or your mind—it inadvertedly becomes part of your own environment. The sum total of these sound and image bytes that form the information spider’s web within which you are caught daily become the elements by which you define your sensory environment. These elements are mostly aspects of material, not structure. The Microsoft sound logo when you turn on your computer, the thirty second theme music of most radio and television shows, the trumpet-like calls played by the organ in base ball games, the refrains from the hottest Top-40 tunes played over and over on commercial radio stations, the jingles which will bypass your sensory filters no matter how many television and radio sets you turn off to avoid them, these are things which stay with you long after you have disengaged from their source. (To mention nothing of the stimuli you welcome consciously, such as favourite songs, childhood stories, familiar images.) Inasmuch as you own your own personal environment, and inasmuch as these are the symbols which define your environment every time you are trying to express it, you morally own these symbols; for better or worse, they have become the material of your very own structure. Microsoft may own its Windows ™ sound logo and no other competitor may use it as their trade mark, but, with several million computers turning on and off every day, this logo is artistically speaking a cultural icon: one may not be able to musically define our culture without resource to it or similar sound references. Beethoven’s Des Adieu piano sonata begins with a similar cultural icon: it is the sound of two travel coach horns played backwards and in the minor mode to signify departure as opposed to arrival. It is ludicrous to even imagine that Beethoven might have required permission from the manufacturers of coach horns to make a reference to this sound byte in his music. The Microsoft sound logo is the travel coach horns of the 1990’s.
There is an additional reason for my skepticism about the existing definition of musical copyright. In music, intellectual ownership is usually very narrowly and superficially defined. Intellectual theft can be identified and prosecuted only if the actual ‘wording’ between the original and the stolen material is more or less identical, or demonstrably similar, and beyond accidental coincidence. One can make legal claims against stolen melodies, perhaps recognizable (‘catchy’) timbres and rhythmic patterns, but less so against stolen harmonic progressions, and hardly ever against stolen compositional ideas. Whereas ownership in scholarship and research is defined in terms of the larger, fundamental ideas and/or inventions, legally demonstrable ownership of music is usually limited to simple strings of ‘words’. Most of the famous copyright cases brought to the courts of justice are about stolen melodies, or, at any rate, aspects of foreground vocabulary rather than serious compositional thinking. Furthermore, most of these contested melodies—like the theme from the soundtrack of the film "Chariots of Fire", for example—are of such banality, that they hardly constitute copyright violation in any but a legal sense. They lack originality and, as a result, any moral claims to ownership. Can you imagine an author taking another author to court because the latter stole a sentence out of the former author’s book? Authorship has more to do with the larger structures (plots) than strings of words in the foreground level. If one kept the plot of an existing novel and rewrote the text, one would still be liable for copyright infringement. If one kept the background structure of a musical composition and changed the melodies, harmonies and rhythms (i.e. the names and attributes of the characters in the musical plot), the original author of the work would have an impossible time in court trying to convince a judge or a jury that the derived work is based on his/her original compositional idea, no matter how many expert witnesses were brought to the stand. Musical copyright, as presently defined, is in the songwriter’s, or the tunesmith’s, but not in the composer’s best interest, for it inhibits serious contemporary composition more than it protects it.
Not every detractor of the concept of copyright does so in the name of uninhibited creativity. In many cases opposition to copyright is simply the result of greed, with no aesthetic or philosophical mandate attached. In an ongoing copyright related dispute in Canada, the two opposing sides are societies representing artists against broadcasting and entertainment industry interests, who lobby against mandatory payment of royalties and/or other tariffs for use of copyrighted material. This dispute is only concerned with legal definitions and loopholes in the copyright law; it does not deal with the artistic or the ethical questions arising from the concept of ownership of intellectual products and the ramifications of this concept for musical creativity. It is motivated by monetary concerns—there is a lot of money at stake for both parties—and most of the arguments advanced from both sides sidestep the artistic issues involved, such as the question of how one can or may define originality in this age of mechanical reproduction. Originality is a key criterion for ownership of information, granted that ownership of information is possible in today’s wired societies and/or desirable.
The copyright debate, although relevant to our topic, is only secondarily so. I believe that the ethical questions raised by the practice of cultural borrowing are closely linked to the question of intent. Determining intent and the ultimate beneficiary of the creative use of borrowed material is central to postmodern composition and to postmodernity in general. Within the complex and pervasive web of causes and effects that we interface with daily in our effort to communicate with one another, intent is even more evasive than the visible/audible results of our creative actions. While the law deals with one’s actions only (very rarely does intent enter into the discussion of adhering to or breaking the law), it is one’s intention which morally legitimizes or decries cultural borrowing. Of course intent alone is not enough: an artist may "mean well" in such an undertaking, but the artistc results may end up doing disservice to his/her cause, in spite of intention. This notwithstanding, the examination of "why?" in any artistic undertaking may shed a great deal of light on the undertaking itself and, by extension, on the larger question of cultural borrowing.
Why does one borrow someone else’s culture? Is it personal identity reasons which compel individuals to identify with cultural practices and ideas which are historically, geographically and/or genetically not their own? Many purists and traditionalists might answer in the affirmative. They would be likely to view trans-cultural conversion or eclecticism in general as suspect. This ‘pure breed’ approach to composition, which has been prevalent in western classical music tradition since the very beginning, sees material as inseparable from form. While it allows for occasional ‘exotic’ borrowings—real or imagined—within a composition, this approach can ascribe meaning to this extraneous material only in relation to the composition’s own internal logic. It does not acknowledge the possibility of independent logic, which may be indigenous to the borrowed material. It also fails to acknowledge the borrowed material’s ability to lead a meaningful independent existence outside the imposed framework of western compositional thinking, or its ability to influence this framework in a meaningful way beyond surface ‘exoticism’. The traditional inability of our western European musical culture to open up to the rest of the world in any substantial manner other than occasional and cautious curiosity, has caused it to stagnate and collapse internally into a state of maximal entropy which we generally identify with 1950’s aleatory, serialism, and/or other forms of essentially musical and spiritual denial and decline. The fact that many cultural conservatives would still prefer this entropical state to the possibility of allowing the rest of the world into our definition of culture, says more about western European purism than about eclecticism as a meaningful cultural alternative.
This form of stagnant conservatism masquerading as purism is not particular to western music alone. Many other time-honored classical traditions from other parts of the world have similar attitudes towards exoticism. The qualifying difference between these classical traditions and the western one, however, is that to most of them conservatism and cultural stasis is a desired and representative quality. Their tradition is passed from one generation to the next relatively unchanged and each new generation of practitioners is instructed to uphold the tradition and guard it against any form of change. In such traditions, originality and (technical) progress are not viewed as virtues. In western music and thought, however, where the concepts of originality and progress are regarded as supreme values, the insular attitude of purism is essentially at odds with the forces which have set western music into motion in the first place. In reaction to this musical and spiritual denial, a significant number of listeners have abandoned western musical values all together and have rediscovered the music of other cultures with the enthusiasm of a neophyte.
Besides the alleged ‘failure’ of western classical music, there are other psychological and sociological explanations for this phenomenon, such as the widespread and deep-seated need for myth among urban dwellers to the over-consumption of culture, whereby every available cultural resource is potentially consumable, and therefore exploitable. If this resource also happens to be virgin, this brings added value and makes it more attractive to the promoters and the consumers. The recent and rather sudden fascination with world music is as much the result of cultural over-consumption as of an idea whose time has finally come. The interesting—and telling—thing about the massive defection of audiences from western music is that the trend and the underlying need were first detected by the commercial music industry which immediately sought to capitalize on them. The world of ‘serious’ music remained by and large impervious to these sweeping changes, engaging instead in its own internal aesthetic debates and nearly missing out completely on the opportunity to play a significant role in the rapid globalization of culture. It dismissed the commercial industry’s attention to world music as just another commercial fad, one, furthermore, which was mired by controversy and accusations of appropriation and exploitation of native cultures. It was not until the market forces of the classical music world (the major record labels and publishers and the large artist management firms) made the switch away from westernocentric cultural values that the writing on the wall became visible for the classical music world. Arrangements of African music for string quartet and of Astor Piazzola’s music for all thinkable (and some unthinkable) instrumental combination suddenly became the order of the day.
However shortsighted or self interested the reasons for trans-cultural consumption may appear on the surface, it can be argued that sometimes the end result may be of more benefit to the givers than to the takers, or at least more so than one might imagine it to be the case at first. The character of information society is fundamentally different than that of the industrial or colonial societies before it. Exploitation of African music by the western commercial music industry in the early 1980s paradoxically led to increased awareness of Africa and its social, political and economic problems, and this in turn caused a sentimental heat wave amplified by the media and the entertainment industry. Eventually, there was a shift in public opinion among developed nations in favor of economic help for the Dark Continent. Now, this is by no means either a moral justification for cultural appropriation or an encouragement for it. At the individual level, appropriation is morally condemnable, and of little or no artistic value, as I have already pointed out earlier. I am using this example simply to indicate that there may be multiple causalities in operation with all things in this world. This is a quasi-Hegelian belief that history, like a Shenkerian analysis of a common practice piece of music, may in fact unfold in multiple layers, each with its own separate causality and purpose, all the way from the mundane to the profound. At the mundane (foreground) level, such activity may be motivated by self-interest, greed or personal insufficiency. At the background level, however, this same activity may herald a fundamental revolution in values, a new, more profound, and initially unsuspected way of looking at ourselves. Such a belief may open a window for abuse and also for the justification of such abuse, as it has already done for so many perversions of the Hegelian view of history, not least of which was the Nazi defense of their atrocities along similar lines of argument. I believe, however, that, in the present ongoing process of integrating and polymerizing the noosphere, a multiple layer approach to causality and historical purpose may still be of use, not only abuse.
Noosphere may owe its wonderful existence to a multitude of causes, not all of them noble. The fact that we are at the doorsteps of a global culture today, which itself indicates a passage through a major threshold in the evolution of our species, may be attributed to the aspirations, selfless dedication and self sacrifice of countless artistic, cultural, spiritual and social visionaries across the millennia. But it can be equally attributed to even more numerous fortune seekers, exploiters, conquerors, pleasure hunters and slave traders, who for reasons of greed and personal gain have moved people, objects, natural resources and culture from one human habitat to geographically distant ones. Our present day global cultural integration owes as much to the latter as to the former. While the latter may individually or collectively be brought to justice, or relegated to the black pages of history, the long term effect of their actions may have been—and continue to be—radically different, sometimes opposite, from what they intended or might have expected. The bees may consume the resources of a meadow in springtime for their own self-interested reasons, but they end up unwittingly pollinating the meadow in the process.
The study of macro-historical causes and effects and the dynamics of the ‘larger picture’ alone, are not an entirely satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon of cultural borrowing. Whatever the personal reasons for one’s cultural conversion, or cross-cultural consumption, and whatever the larger historical purpose for them may be, the moral justification for the use of someone else’s culture in the eyes of that someone else must clearly lie beyond the needs of the converted. To put it in another way, the proposition that Inuit culture provides spiritual nourishment for me as a creative individual is not likely to be considered a compelling argument by the Inuit whose culture I am using for this nourishment. What they might find more persuasive is how my borrowing is going to make a difference to their community and/or their culture, in other words, what are the checks and balances of this cultural trade which makes it equitable for both trading parties. I have already hinted at the answer to this in my example about Africa. But this may not be a good enough answer for the Inuit, inasmuch as it is a western appraisal of the situation, and not a native viewpoint. Morally speaking, my earlier point about the Microsoft sound logo could hardly apply to Inuit katajjaq. The Inuit have not invaded, nor have they attempted to invade my own cultural space. Their music could not be considered indispensable in my attempts to define this space, for at this point katajjaq is not a pervasive cultural icon.5 Therefore, even after all the legal issues are resolved for the creative use of katajjaq, the ethical ones remain.
It was clear to me even before I went to Baffin Island that Footprints in New Snow had to be a work which (1) made sense to me as a creative individual, (2) made sense to the wide radio audience for which it was commissioned and (3) made sense to the native community, whose culture I was exposing through this work. Those three considerations are not necessarily compatible. I was comfortable with the first two through my previous work for radio, but number three was a new frontier for me. I realized soon after I arrived in Iqaluit that northern ears and eyes have been constantly bombarded by southern popular culture through AM radio and satellite television, but are hardly aware of the classical arts, much less contemporary ones. Even if they were aware of classical and contemporary music, these genres would have had no penetrating effect on their culture, whereas popular southern culture has made significant inroads, particularly on younger generations of Inuit. I was presented with a dilemma: Was it appropriate for me to use a musical language which incorporated the katajjaq, but was otherwise incomprehensible to the very people who provided me with their songs? In my previous musical borrowings this question had never entered my mind, not least because those borrowings were from sources that had become seasoned contributors to world culture and the ever-expanding neuronet of global cultural associations.
The Inuit on the other hand were still ambivalent about their own cultural role within the grand scheme of things. Native cultures can be just as adverse to exoticism as western European high culture has been for centuries. The instinct to protect culture from dangerous outside influences has been a recognizable human character trait since the beginning of time. Yet, the ability to assimilate, not reject, outside influence is a criterion of growth for cultures as well as individuals. For the Inuit, this ability has been of crucial importance, because for centuries their physical survival has depended on their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. In the harshness of arctic life, there is very little use for conservatism, ideological intransigence, or in fact for anything that does not have demonstrably practical value. Due to the adverse circumstances for survival in the inhospitable arctic climate, the Inuit have developed over the centuries a natural pendant for innovation and experimentation, an openness to anything new which can prove useful to them.
The majority of the throat singers we recorded at Baffin Island exemplified these character traits. The four elders we recorded at Cape Dorset—Eligah Maggitak, Napachie Pootoogook, Timagiak Petautassie and Haunak Mikigak—were willing to experiment with anything we requested, even things which were not indigenous to their region, like throat singing with multiple pairs of singers, and they had quite an irreverent time doing it. Angela Atagootak and Pauline Kyak, two young throat singers of high-school age in Iqaluit were just as eager to try new things. By contrast, Elisha Kilabuk and Koomoo Noveyak, the two middle aged throat singers we also recorded in Iqaluit were very adamant about maintaining the integrity of their recordings. They were professional performers of katajjaq who were already making the rounds of North America and Europe. They learned their craft at a time when the art form became almost extinct (we were told at some point that the number of active throat singers had been reduced to two dozen or so throughout the entire Canadian arctic.) They were conscious of the fact that the katajjaq formed an important aspect of Inuit heritage and took it upon themselves to preserve it and protect it from ‘exotic’ influences and intrusions. The older throat singers whom I mentioned earlier, were less protective in this regard. The elders embodied throat singing; to them katajjaq was a way of life, not just heritage and certainly not an art form, and for this reason they were far less adverse to any kind of experimentation with the genre. Katajjaq were games to them, so they played with katajjaq and were quite baffled by the fact that two khablounas (white people) like Keith and me wanted to watch them play. Finally Angela and Pauline, the young throat singers, were already full-fledged members of the new Inuit society, a society trying to define its place in the wold. They were thoroughly exposed to southern popular music, in fact they spent most of their time between recording sessions listening to American pop music on their portable Walkman. At the end of our first recording session in Iqaluit, and as we were getting ready to leave for Cape Dorset, Keith and I decided to commission the two of them to create a new throat song based on their own urban experiences (the four-wheelers, skidoos and television, instead of animal sounds and the hunt.) Upon our return to Iqaluit a few days later, they announced to us in total frustration that they could not create anything new in that tradition, even though they had tried very hard, ("we can’t make new sounds, we can only learn the sounds that our elders taught us") but they were interested in hearing how I would manipulate their recordings to come up with something intrinsically different and contemporary. Even though our experiment had not produced any tangible results, it confirmed to me that these younger throat singers, like young people everywhere, were already citizens of the world.
Elisha Kilabuk and Koomoo Noveyak’s stance in relation to their recordings was still an open question which merited serious consideration. At the time we found their request not to tamper with their recordings impractical—after all, we were not there to do a radio program of throat songs, but to respond creatively to this genre—and convinced them, upon payment of an additional fee, to agree to extended use of their material. In retrospect I felt morally obligated to honor their request and use their katajjaq intact in the piece with no manipulation whatsoever. They are the two singers performing the Welcoming Song, the first section of Footprints in New Snow; they are not heard anywhere else in the piece, although they gave us some wonderful recordings on tape and we had already cleared the legal rights for unrestricted use of these recordings. So, my first answer to the ethical question of borrowing was to use the throat singers in ways that they would have liked to hear themselves in the final product, even though at the end of our negotiations they had agreed—some of them reluctantly—to be used as we saw fit.
My second ethical stance in Footprints has to do with musical language. At the sound level the piece always maintains a degree of familiarity for the Inuit listener. I am not talking about the indigenous sounds, like the throat songs, the voices of the interview subjects or the sounds of the arctic environment, but the sounds and technologies which the Inuit have borrowed from the south and have over the years adopted as their own. The opening of the Welcoming Song sounds like it is coming out of an old gramophone record. It is in fact the same digital recording sounding in full bandwidth a few seconds later, but compressed, converted to mono and overlaid with a sound effects track of scratchy vinyl. The juxtaposition of the two versions of the same recording creates the sense of ‘then’ and ‘now’, a metaphor for a dynamically evolving musical culture which is in the process of redefining itself by using the very tools which in the past have challenged its survival. This sonic metaphor is as discernible to most Inuit as to any southerner listener. In the second section, Winds of Change, there is a collage of throat songs turning into echoes of country-western music carried away by the wind. In every section of the work, the predominant musical styles are country, rock, new age, etc., i.e. popular idioms, which the Inuit, particularly the younger generation, have been familiar with for a number of years.
It was at the structural level and in the selective use of the material where I asserted my own creative individuality and critical faculty. Katajjaq is instantly recognizable as material, not structure. Each katajjaq pattern is at the most a few seconds long. The stringing of several patterns together in performance is part of a game strategy, more or less improvised and with the intention of ‘throwing off’ the opponent, not an attempt to create a long term structure. If I were, therefore, to create a harmonic co-existence between the throat singers as performers and myself as composer, my own compositional activity would have to recede to the background, and focus on structure. As a result of this decision, the foreground level of the composition consists almost entirely of borrowed material, that is material which the Inuit can instantly identify with, such as the genres I described in the previous paragraph.
The macrostructure of the work is documentary-like. Footprints in New Snow is divided into six self-contained sections, each focusing on a different theme and titled accordingly. The sections are: (1) Welcoming Song, (2) Winds of Change, (3) Voices of the Land, (4) Katajjaq, (5) In the Name of God and (6) Footprints in New Snow. The verbal material has been kept to a minimum, so that the accompanying music does not feel like a ‘soundtrack’ but remains always at center stage. For each theme, an appropriate musical genre or a combination of genres is used to amplify the theme further and invest it with visceral meaning. Within each section, the structure is musically conceived. There are multiple, simultaneous developments of material just like in musical composition, in addition to the linear, documentary-like development of the verbal content. The creative and technical challenge for the composer in such a work is to constantly keep in mind that the work itself has an amphibian existence and it has to exist naturally and meaningfully in both of its habitats: the realm of musical composition and that of radio documentary.
Most of the discussion about ethics in relation to Footprints in New Snow until now had to do with the work as a musical composition. The approach to the same work from the perspective of radio documentary carries with it a different set of ethical considerations. The documentary maker’s primary allegiance is to the truth of the story, and only secondarily to the interview subjects or the sources of documentary information and material. It is not necessary that there should be a contradiction between these two allegiances, but it is possible and it happens often. As I already indicated, I felt that a composition about the Inuit should somehow meet with their approval, or at least their understanding of what it was that I was doing. A radio documentary about the Inuit, on the other hand, is not the same thing as a promotional item on the Inuit and their culture, and should not be conditional upon prior approval from the subjects of the documentary. There may be findings in the documentary research which may prove unpleasant to the subjects of the documentary, but are nonetheless—to the best of the documentary maker’s discerning ability— the truth.
In the documentary—not the compositional—sense, I was prepared to deviate from accepted norms and sensibilities if and when our need for accurate representation of the situation contradicted them. One example of such an instance merits particular mention. The majority of present day Inuit are devout Christians, mostly Anglicans and Catholics. Throat singing was associated with shamanistic rituals by the early Christian missionaries and discouraged to the point where it almost became extinct. Several of our interviewees alluded to this fact. Most of them were embarrassed to talk about the pre-Christian character of this practice because they found it incompatible with their present-day belief system. Keith and I probed our interviewees to expound on this character in spite of their reluctance, and finally one of them, Jonah Kelly, an elder from Iqaluit, confirmed what ethnomusicologists have suspected for sometime, that the katajjaq were originally a fertility ritual, "a mating call type of music", performed by the women to bring back the men from the hunt. We asked Rev. Robert Williams, the Anglican Bishop of the Northwest Territories, who happened to be in Iqaluit at that time, to discuss the attitudes of the early Christian missionaries towards pagan practices like the katajjaq. What we anticipated to be a contentious interview, turned out to be a volunteered admission of guilt. Although the church is now engaged in large-scale projects across the Canadian arctic dedicated to preserving Inuit art and storytelling, the sound component of the actual worship is still British Anglican hymns performed by choirs, guitars and electronic keyboards to Inuktitut texts. In In the Name of God, the fifth section of Footprints in New Snow, I have combined a recording of a Sunday mass in Inuktitut with segments from the interview with Rev. Robert Williams and some katajjaq. By use of collage techniques, the Anglican mass itself was turned into a shamanistic ritual, not unlike the rituals which the missionaries discouraged during the early days of arctic Christianity.
These examples illustrate my use of documentary statement in a composition, where all the foreground materials are ‘found objects’, that is objects not originally created by me. As I already pointed out, this collection of found objects included a great deal of my own music, which consists of genre borrowings, instead of actual quotations. The musical choices in the third section (Voices of the Land) and the sixth and last section (Footprints in New Snow) are informed by my desire to depict the vastness of the arctic north and the sense of suspended time one experiences there, particularly during the time of the midnight sun in late June, and also to complement the spoken words—more like spontaneous poetry—of two of our interviewees, Winston White and Jonah Kelly. Kelly’s description of the north eventually breaks down to single words in Inuktitut and English. They are the names of the animals and other important aspects of arctic life. Like Adam in the primordial Garden of Eden, Kelly brings his inanimate and living world into cognition by naming each and every aspect of it. All these signature sounds, the animals, the dog sleighs, the snow, the footprints, are eventually swept by the relentless wind in its constant confrontation with the vast expanse of rock and ice. In the end, as in any informal performance of katajjaq, the throat singers have the last laugh. Since the beginning of time they have stood defiant and indomitable against the elements and the physical and cultural invasions of the khablounas, the white people, singing their haunting songs, to the specific meaning and significance of which only they hold the key, while the larger meaning and significance is now the property of all humankind.
I would like to thank Dr. Andreas Andreopoulos, Jennifer Waring and Prof. Gustav Ciamaga for their valuable comments and suggestions.
The opposite would certainly be true. A great deal of southern popular music is invading the arctic north and, in the process, becomes a cultural icon for the younger Inuit. Individually and collectively, as this music becomes part of their personal space, it is beginning to be ‘owned’ by them in the manner which I explained earlier.
Return to Writings
If you have not already visited Christos Hatzis' Home Page click here: