Stefan Hakenberg

Considering a Players' Cultural Background

presented October 2000 at the jointly held Second International Symposium on Cultural Comparison of East and West and the Fifth International Asian Music Conference organized by the Korean National Commission for UNESCO and the Asian Music Research Institute at Seoul National University


A few years ago in the United States I began writing pieces - like "Strands" or "Sir Donald" - for ensembles that included Asian instruments. Ever since then, in public discussions I have been faced with the question: “How can you write for instruments you don’t know?” implying of course both technical as well as cultural aspects of the instruments. In this paper I will describe how I technically approach writing for instruments with which I am not previously familiar. I will also answer the often implied question: “How can you write for these instruments which are part of a different culture than your own?” I will describe how I consider the cultural heritages of the players and how they find their ways into my music. Today composers like myself, Western in heritage and education, are facing the question of how to write for non-Western classical instruments more and more frequently because there are more opportunities to write for them than ever before. Musicians from all over the world, especially those trained in East Asian traditional music departments, are playing, and in some cases settling, in the West where some of them have by now founded their own schools teaching American and European students.

With the world becoming smaller and smaller, musicians of highest achievement are coming together more and more often in ways not seen or not possible before. Their cultural heritages are diverse, not anymore only in terms of social class as it has been between the so-called "high brow" and "low brow," but diverse in terms of national and/or ethnic heritage. Some of these musicians have grown exclusively out of one single clearly defined musical tradition. JI Aeri, the kayagum player who played the premiere performance of "Sir Donald" for instance studied with HWANG Byung-ki among other Korean traditional musicians, and regularly premieres and performs his compositions. Phoebe CARRAI on th other hand, the cellist for whom the cello part of "Sir Donald" was written orriginally, is a baroque cellist who studied and worked with Nikolaus HARNONCOURT and Reinhard GOEBEL, a member of whose "Musica Antiqua Köln" she was for over ten years. When she aggreed to play "Sir Donald" she had played contemporary music last when she was a student at Boston's New England Conservatory. (I am saying that to show the esthetic distance she had to bridge in order to play this piece.) Other musicians may have more composite heritages due to their exposure to more than one musical repertoire: KIM Woongsik for instance, the chang'gu player for the premiere of "Sir Donald" is trained in traditional Korean accompaniment for folk genres as well as court music, but is a member of the drumming ensemble "Puri" which presents its own unique blend of Korean Samulnori, African drumming, and elements of Western pop music.

Both types of musicians, those steeped in homogeneous cultural backgrounds as well as those actively crossing borders, of Western or of Eastern heritage, are today asking for new pieces. They may want to further the development of their instruments’ repertoires; or, if such repertoires do not yet, or only rudimentarily, exist, stimulate their creation. They may also find that new compositions -- in a way in which older pieces can not -- offer matching reflections of today's world and convincing expressions with which they can identify as interpreters in front of a contemporary audience which itself is more and more diverse in all different ways. For musicians immigrating into other countries, new pieces may be a resource for creating new musical identities which can express aspects of the change from one cultural environment into a new one.

Another reason to commission new pieces comes with the fact that when musicians come together they inevitably consider the possibility of playing as an ensemble. More and more often, however, one or more of the musicians may play instruments that are not part of the traditional ensembles of any culture. If a town’s judge, its school principal, its pharmacist, and its librarian get together to play music, they may not necessarily form a traditional Western string quartet as may well have been the case in the European bourgeois past. If in this day and age they are lucky enough to have enjoyed a musical education, they may rather find themselves with a violin, erhu, rebab, and perhaps a euphonium.

In Alaska, Jocelyn Clark and I had the opportunity to launch an organization addressing this circumstance. The name of the organization is “CrossSound” and its purpose is to commission new compositions for musicians from Southeast Alaskan communities and beyond. There, in small and remote communities we find musicians including players of Asian instruments thirsting to play together but without any repertoire. In Juneau, Alaska’s small capital, for instance, we have players of Western folk instruments such as the dulcimer and mandolin, next to a koto and a sitar player, next to players of traditional Western orchestra instruments. One of the last pieces we commissioned was for flute, French horn, koto, accordion, erhu, three violins (of very diverse technical achievement), viola, cello, and contrabass.

Not many composers have written for all of these instruments. The composer we found up for this particular challenge was Hiroko ITO. Up to that point she had not yet written for accordion or erhu so that she had to study the instruments before she could begin to work on her piece. That required collecting technical information such as ranges, registers, virtuosic possibilities, lengths of bows or breaths, possible dynamics, etc. The more interesting and inspiring part of approaching a new instrument, however, is to learn about its history and cultural heritage, and I personally prefer learning about it directly from the player for whom I am writing, if possible, because in the personal presentation of the player both my new piece and the tradition of the instrument will interact and become real. Player and instrument form a symbiotic relationship in which neither can be without the other. The player is a product of the tradition of his or her instrument through the music that is performed on it, and ultimately he or she perpetuates and rejuvenates the tradition through interpreting old and new pieces.

One of the ways in which I like to study a player’s cultural heritage is by asking him or her a lot of questions. I would start with questions like: "What is the most recently written piece you played in the last year or so?" JI Aeri may answer that she just premiered a new piece for kayagum and orchestra, whereas the most recently written piece Phoebe CARRAI may have performed would perhaps be a string quartet by Robert SCHUMANN. Asked what she would see as the core of the repertoire for her instrument JI Aeri may point to kayagûm sanjo and Phoebe CARRAI to the cello suites by Johann Sebastian BACH. Then I would ask: "What is the weirdest piece you ever played?" or: "Which piece moved you most?" and then: "What does your instrument stand for?", “What role does it play, or how is it used in combination with other instruments?” The question “What does your instrument express best?” would lead me to ask the player to demonstrate different musical expressions. I would ask to hear something sad and something happy, something festive and something sacred, something related to country life and something related to the urban beat, etc. The goal of all these questions is to gather a compendium of the player’s musical cosmos which will reverberate with the instrument’s traditions and repertoire while getting to know the player’s individual personality as well.

Another way to learn about a player and the music for his or her instrument is of course to listen to recordings and to study scores. Having an instrument at one's disposal and playing and experimenting with it of course also helps with a kinetic and corporeal understanding of the instrument and music. I like to try out the movements of the fingers and the arms and the whole body in order to get a sense for how it feels to play the instrument. Finally, it is helpful to try to improvise on the instrument, with whatever lack of skill.

After interviewing the player, studying recordings and scores, and experimenting with the instrument itself, one has a better sense for how it relates to different musical materials, gestures, and esthetics. For example: a diatonic scale as basic musical material has a very different sound on a kayagûm compared to a baroque cello. A baroque cellist is very much used to playing diatonic material. In fact all he or she ever gets to play is diatonic in nature, except for some of the very few new pieces that have been written for this instrument. The build and playing technique of the baroque cello allow an even access to all diatonic pitch classes. Even though there are differences in sound between the different positions and ranges, all stopped notes have a similar sound quality and cello students are trained to hit the "right" pitch and to hold it stable rather than to modify it as it is sounding. As a reference to the characteristic quality of the sound beyond the pitch, composers have always been aware that as a result of the richer resonances on the strings to which the cello is tuned, the diatonic pitch classes of pieces in G or D major sound more resonant than those of pieces in keys on the opposite side of the circle of fifths.

On the kayagûm with a traditional tuning (concert G-c-d-g-a-c’-d’-e’-g’-a’-c’’-d’’), diatonic material has at least two distinguishable sounds. The strings are tuned to a pentatonic scale which means that there are notes in the diatonic scale that need to be produced by pressing down the strings with the left hand. Pressing strings to modulate the pitch of the string is common practice in sanjo. The tuning of the strings for sanjo even takes the pressing into account by tuning each string to the pitch at the lower end of the width of the particular vibrato that is to be produced on that string. In contemporary pieces however, the strings are tuned to tempered pitches so that the playing of harmonic intervals becomes possible. The sound quality of the notes that are produced by pressing is different from that of the open strings because the pitch content of the pressed notes is more in motion while the open strings sound more static. For practical reasons, the difficulty to properly intonate pressed notes rules out a number of note progressions and chords. For instance, to play two pressed notes consecutively without an open string in between makes the intonation of these two notes adventurous. It is like playing a chord on a cello in which none of the notes can be played on an open string. Too many fingers have to find the right position for a proper intonation and there is no note that can serve as objective reference for the ear.

These technical aspects of producing the sounds of diatonic material on the kayagûm and on the cello are not just technical but relate to the esthetics of different musics and to the players and their ways of interpreting a piece of music. This is what people are really interested in when they ask how a composer can write for instruments of a different culture than his own. Esthetically, the particular pitch content of a sound has a different significance to a kayagûm player than to a baroque cellist. Very simplified, the space around a pitch is somewhat wider in a pentatonic setting, opening it up for more modulation through playing vibrato and portamenti. The same pitch on the cello sits in a tighter pocket and therefore gets modulated by a less wide vibrato in order not to loose it's pitch content. On the cello wider embellishments are played note by note as opposed to the kayagûm where the notes of embellishments and grace notes are often connected by glissandi. The particular relations of instruments to musical materials are direct results of the instruments' cultural heritages and thus compositing for instruments is interacting with their heritages. This is always the case, no matter if the cultural heritage of the player for whom I am writing is familiar or new to me.

This brings up the question of how important it is for a composer to be familiar with the musical traditions of an instrument for which she or he is writing. Understanding music relates to cultural heritage but do the cultural heritages of the player, the composer, and the listener need to be the same in oder to make the esthetic experiences stronger or more satisfying? Some people like music that stems from their own ethnic roots, and others prefer music from foreign shores. It is true that once you have heard Giovanni GABRIELI's antiphonal choir compositions performed in a Northern Italian cathedral you feel that you understand the pieces better. But does that take away from the effect the piece has if performed in an American high school auditorium where the audience may have a different set of musical experiences and cultural references with which it is receiving the music? Different does not mean more or less valuable. The important part is that the audience experiences music at all and that the engagement and convictions of the interpreters, the singers and the choir director in this case, is as important as the notated composition itself.

(1) "This piece indeed took me back to my childhood in Japan. I relived the night of the summer festival, the only time I was allowed to be out at night without an adult supervisor. My stroll in the dark street was a lonely, anxious, and scary, but exciting experience. The only clues to the location of the festival were the echoes of the taiko drum. We were all drawn to the magical magnetic field of the beat. I recognized a folk tune I sang as a child. The combination of the tune and the beat of the matsuri taiko in the piece produces a nostalgic feeling of excitement of and sorrow in me."

(2) "Listening to the piece, I was fascinated by the image of flowing water. Dark murmers sluggishly floating around stones, shrill hissing of eddies, fragments of melodies like small islands, in between. The torrent builds and then it releases all the different speeds of water."

Both texts describe the same piece, "Five Japanese Children Songs" for marimba solo by Keiko ABE. The first is by composer Hiroko ITO, the second by composer Volker BLUMENTHALER. Does it really matter that Hiroko ITO recognized a folk tune and Volker BLUMENTHALER did not?

In an sociological environment in which cultural heritages other than my own come together in the audience, it is hard for me to predict reactions and interpretations of my music. The cultural heritages of composers of any cultural background that nowadays study abroad, move abroad, and work abroad are so much more individual than they were only fifty years ago that their vocabularies have grown to be ever more personal than universal. More than ever before does it take time to familiarize oneself with the language of an individual composer while shared national or ethnic backgrounds become less and less guarantors for understanding an individual composer’s music. In the process of composing, rehearsing , and presenting, both players and composers gain new views of themselves through redefining their known musical behaviors. Listeners or players that are making sense of what they are hearing may turn up in the most surprising places. Moreover, a fascination with expressions in foreign languages that we can not understand immediately, but that speak directly to our senses, is mutually musical and applies to any music we have not heard yet, be it newly composed or simply foreign to us. Writing for musicians of different cultural heritage necessarily requires one to familiarize oneself with the players' musical expressions. On that foundation, one can create one’s own music even without fully understanding the meanings and references of the players' art within their own cultural environment. It is the composer’s task to include the new instrument conceptually in a meaningful musical way which grows naturally out of his or her own cultural tradition.

This tradition of course, just like that of the player, is in flux, and both are impacting each other mutually if not equally. Already the second time that a player and a composer work together, the traditions that they had in the beginning of their first collaboration are not the same, and the composer will need to reconsider the player’s cultural background, a part of which he or she has become by then.