More Orientalism, Please
June 30, 2011, 05:26 PM
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Ever since Edward Said`s 1978 book Orientalism, nice Westerners aren`t supposed to incorporate Middle Eastern motifs in their artworks, because that`s racist. Or Orientalist, it`s all about the same thing in the post-modern academic killjoy mind. Here, for example, is Rick Ayers, brother of Bill Ayers and recipient of a million clams from the Gates Foundation, denouncing Rodgers & Hammerstein`s South Pacific for Orientalism. (The Anglican Said had a different definition of Orient in mind, but no mind.)

In 18th Century Europe, however, Turkish Janissary military band music was wildly popular. Haydn`s paternal grandparents were among the few survivors when their town was pillaged by the Turk in the 17th Century, but after the Turkish defeat in 1683 outside of Vienna and the peace treaty of 1699 removed the Turkish threat, a fad grew up for Turkish military music. Most of the percussion instruments in the symphony orchestra came from the Turkish music craze of the 18th Century — e.g., in Haydn`s 100th or Military Symphony, there`s the hilarious intrusion of percussion instruments about 1:30 seconds into this video of the second movement, and from 4:40 onward in the rollicking finale. My favorite recent work of musical Orientalism is Led Zeppelin`s 1975 song Kashmir, especially the 1994 live recording by Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, a Western orchestra and an Egyptian ensemble. This 9 minute video begins after the "I am a traveler through both time and space" opening verse, which is good because the instrumentalists are in better form than Plant`s vocal cords. The Egyptian combo builds tremendous tension toward end, which Plant and Page resolve startlingly and satisfyingly.

Erick Davis wrote:

As a self-conscious era of 19th Century Romanticism, Page especially recognized that Orientalism is composed of Western desire as much as Eastern truths, and rather fantastic desire at that. That`s why the mystic epic they wrote about a slog through a parched desert [they got the idea for the song in Morocco] is named after a lush valley near the Himalaya ... Plant and Page are clever gents; they could find Kashmir on a map. Such a "mistake" tells us that their core myth is not the wisdom of the East, but the heretical imagination of the West, an imagination that finds itself in transport.
Kashmir was a rarity for Led Zeppelin. Most of their myth-making energies were turned West, however: Tolkien and other English folksiness, Vikings, Delta blues, San Francisco hippiedom, and Sunset Blvd. hedonism.