I would like to congratulate the "Foundation for the Advancement of Western Classical Performing Arts" in Cambodia (F.W.C.P.A. - n.g.o.) on the very laudable initiative to organize the First International Music Festival Phnom Penh.May this music festival contribute to make European Classical Music better known to the Khmer public and promote international dialogue and understanding.
Enjoy the concerts!
on Western art music in a rising third-world country may invite some comment.
Is there really a need for such an activity, recalling that after the
incredible genocide of the Pol Pot regime, Cambodia was verging on the
rim of non-existence. As a matter of fact, the question seems to be two-fold,
as one may even ask whether, during times of social reconciliation and
efforts to establish a basic and stable economic system, the arts are
an important issue at all.
for the Advancement
Western Art Music in Cambodia?
A festival on Western art music in a rising third-world country may invite some comment. Is there really a need for such an activity, recalling that after the incredible genocide of the Pol Pot regime, Cambodia was verging on the rim of non-existence. As a matter of fact, the question seems to be two-fold, as one may even ask whether, during times of social reconciliation and efforts to establish a basic and stable economic system, the arts are an important issue at all. The second question may well be refined to: why support Western art forms and not indigenous ones, remembering that Cambodia has a lot of old and highly developed musical traditions. Let us put these questions into a more overall context.
In connection with
recent discussions on globalism and the so-called North-South problem, I believe
that the basis in this case is a fundamental misunderstanding about what culture
- and the arts as a part of it - mean. Therefore, I would like to speak first
about art and culture.
Although this is a global and common but extremely superficial opinion, there is in fact no Western culture as a whole, as seen from the arts themselves. We might even ask first whether there is a concept of cultural identity in Europe at all. If Western Europe is considered to consist of different cultures in accordance with respective nations, one must say: this might be true concerning some tendencies in social behavior and geographical aspects (one should not forget that even music is influenced by geographical aspects). But this is a secondary element in the arts. Before explaining this statement, there is need to point out first that I make an important differentiation in the understanding of what is meant by "the arts". I do not mean,
a) the vernacular
tradition of former and still evident folk music which has, for example, almost
vanished in Germany.
b) the popular music tradition as a new form of commercially orientated "folk-music", but which has an opposite impact as compared to the vernacular tradition because of its lack of socializing evidence which is replaced by superficial idolization.
In this short essay I am primarily speaking about the phenomena of "art music" and all its scientific impact within the western tradition itself. In fact, I strongly disagree with the dominating importance of that "elite-like" understanding, but one has to start with an almost global conventional consideration of what is regarded as - say "Western or European art music"!
art music has quite relevant political-religious roots. Important changes are
basically signified by philosophical changes during the Renaissance (15/16th
century) and the enlightenment period (18th century), the two main turning points
in Middle European mentality. As a matter of fact, even if that music is seen
as representative for Europe, no one is able to connect those art works with
a nationalistic aspect, which means: there is no German art music, there is
no French art music, and so on. Politically music history in Germany, for example,
does not start in 1871 when the modern German nation was founded. Or does anyone
like to deny that Mozart and Haydn are not part of the cultural heritage of
German culture today or even of French or Italian culture as well, just to name
a few countries?
If we further go back in history, these facts are far more evident: the main composers of the Renaissance (15th and 16th century) came from the kingdom of Burgundy which at that time included northern France, Belgium and parts of The Netherlands, while the era of Renaissance culture as a whole is mainly associated with changes that happened in northern and middle Italy.
The most important thing is probably the fact that the European art traditions are based on individualism. The artist is looked upon as a self-conscious person, not responsible to a nation but to himself and to the society as his/her particular environment, whatever that may be. Therefore - seen from a certain point of view - art in the true sense of the word cannot be used for political reasons in Western culture because an art work reflects an individual effort of transformation. It is obvious that I do not consider the products demanded by the fascist government of Germany during the nineteen-thirties and -forties as products of art!
I would like to go so far as to state that especially the arts can suggest a possibility of acceptance and balancing of ethnic differences, seen from an individual point of view. Europe itself is facing this problem clearly at this very moment in two ways:
1) the old Western Europe is currently trying to "unify" itself in connection with the European Common Market, which means mainly an economic unification and a somewhat political one as well. I need not mention the dichotomy between symbolic willingness and basic ethnic and economic animosities which make these unification plans a mere fairytale. On the other hand, the art world in particular could demonstrate that it was always based on pluralism of individualities. Unfortunately, the role of arts and art education is not yet considered to be as important as economy and technology.
2) But there was also the old eastern Europe with all its recent ethnic turmoil as a result of political suppression which lasted for generations, reducing the arts to an almost primitive functional tool for nationalism and political ideology during the communist systems. Non-pluralistic functional art education in these countries never gave the arts a real chance. Only during the last years (after the Balkan war) did these countries start to open themselves and old traditions in folk- and art music start to be revived again.
The next step will
probably be the reconsideration of individual pluralism without ethnic limitations,
in order to enhance the exchange in arts as a basis for mutual acceptance, both
on an individual as well as an ethnic level and beyond political boundaries.
This could be a first main statement: a valuable and open-minded art life and art education are conducive to an ethnic openness and exchange, without losing one's own identity.
Seen from this point of view, the arts, both local-traditional as well as western classical, may play an important role in the development of the new Cambodia. While a focus on the own traditional art forms (including their contemporary developments) strengthens and revitalizes the identity within the own Cambodian culture, a festival presentation of Western classical music may even support such developments.
It is important in this connection that the presentation of a foreign vital music culture, the Western classical one, is not offered in a pejorative way. One has to impede the possible notion of western classical music as the conditio sine qua non of cultural development.
In contrast, presenting
Western music in the sense of a historical development should support the notion
that such a development is always only possible in the respective culture itself.
In other words, the experience of Western classical music as a historical process
may help to revitalize the same consciousness in the Cambodian people concerning
their own classical music traditions.
On the other hand, at least to know each other culture better, it is always helpful that some Cambodian specialists start to study Western (European) classical music and for them, the collaboration with european professionals may add significantly to their personal approach. It is strongly hoped that this also happens the other way around, and that in Europe or America centres for Cambodian music will develop as it has already happened with for example the Indonesian gamelan, Indian, Chinese and also Japanese musical traditions. Only through mutual learning and understanding may we contribute to a better and peaceful world. Let the instruments speak rather than the the weapons.
Hopefully Cambodia does not make the same mistake that Indonesia did for a long time during its reconciliation process. I like to quote a famous Indonesian composer, Dr. Rahayu Supanggah who once wrote in 1993:
"(...) ironically, in Indonesia the traditional arts seem to be forgotten and will almost vanish. TV, radio, the mass media, at art forums, the traditional arts play only a minor role. They get almost no attention and place. Furthermore, traditional arts are presented with poor and inappropriate facilities, and an unorganized guidance, characterized by a lack of knowledge about the real needs. Every organization like, for example, the main culture department, the information department, the tourist department, post and telecommunication, the department of the interior, and some other people, they all feel themselves important, they all pretend to know, and they all pretend to be able to organize the life of the arts. And in the schools traditional arts have been changed to so-called "Western" art. The children are more used to pianica, guitar, recorder, diatonic scale and Western notation. Is it possible that we make the same mistake as the Japanese did? Do we really want to pay a high price in future when we probably start trying to find again our own identity? But it is also possible that we do not need our own identity." (TEMPO newspaper , 9.1.1993; translation by the author).
This is not a statement against Western classical art forms but a statement against its misuse and simplification, because of superficial political and even commercial reasons (pop music). Fortunately voices like that of Mr. Supanggah and others have been heard during the last years and one may see some positive signs on the cultural horizon.
Cambodia may perhaps learn from those mistakes and find its own path in cultural development. This festival may be a fine contribution to it.
Prof. Dieter Mack
University of Music, Lübeck