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Composition and Influence

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Composition and Influence

The discussion about the Canadian Indigenous Advisory Council that we are having in the comments section to the Friday Miscellanea raises all sorts of interesting questions and issues. It got me thinking about my own musical identity. By the way, if you follow the link that Ethan provided:

I don't think it will make you any more comfortable with the work of the council:
“The history of Canadian classical composition is a colonial history. Since Confederation, composers have resourced the songs, stories, and cultural wealth of Indigenous Peoples as part of an expansive nationalist impulse to define an authentic Canadian music” (from the background section o the IAC Terms of Reference). From 1885-1950, the Potlach Ban made it illegal for Indigenous communities to perform songs and hold ceremony. Shortly after this, composers were encouraged to look for a “so called authentic Canadian sound”. Fostered by the government, people were pushed to do assimilation and theft of the material. There was misappropriation, but there was also annihilation of language and culture.

The Canadian Music Centre was founded in 1959. It was established in the context of violent state policies targeting Indigenous communities including the Potlatch ban, the 60s scoop, and residential schools. These policies were not part of some dark chapter that has ended and is in the past, as injustice and violence against Indigenous people are ongoing: missing and murdered Indigenous women, the (disproportionate) incarceration of Indigenous people, the defunding of Indigenous-led education curriculum, and many more well documented forms of systemic violence.

The CMC is committed to equity, diversity, inclusion and decolonization in its governing structure and activities. The Accountability for Change Council was established in 2020 to support these goals. For more information about the CMC’s work for change, please visit Accountability for Change.

This seems to me to signal a political struggle between the First Nations and the Government of Canada with the government trying to provide symbolic relief of indigenous concerns without actually decolonizing Canada. What would that actually involve? Given that the history of French and British colonization of the Canadian part of North America is not actually going to be undone in any real way, the only thing left is symbolic gestures, of which the Indigenous Advisory Council project is one.

But back to my musical identity. I am descended, not from "settlers" exactly, but from lower-class English people forcibly deported to Canada in the mid-18th century for poaching. Yes, not all the criminals went to Australia. My family were poor prairie farmers and slowly moved westward until my branch ended up on Vancouver Island, as far west as you can go. I was the first member of my family to attend university. There I encountered the full force of the history of Western civilization in terms of art, music, philosophy and literature. In addition to my courses in music history and theory I also took German, linguistics and English. But I read extensively as well: Dante, The Divine Comedy and Copleston, History of Philosophy were high points. I also listened to a prodigious amount of music as for the first time I had access to a real listening library. I may have listened to some indigenous music, but it was drowned in a sea of music from Western Europe going back a thousand years as well as music from Japan, Indonesia, India, Africa and other places.

Looking back, the music of my actual ancestors, the jigs and reels that my mother played on the fiddle, were among the least influential on my musical development. My musical identity was constructed out of things that influenced me, music that I liked, in other words. Ravi Shankar and Javanese gamelan music were at least if not more important than English music. This process has continued throughout my life. Discovering the music of Stravinsky and Steve Reich were big milestones as well. Every musician in a sense, chooses their ancestors and influences. If you fall in love with the music of an obscure Saxon organist (Bach) there is not much you can do about it. Similarly, if I had fallen in love with the music of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, there would not be much I could do about that either and its influence would inevitably appear in my compositions.

This is why this whole project, and especially the underlying assumptions, just seems completely wrong-headed to me. It is a kind of symbolic genuflection and hence fake.

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