Tag: orientalism

Escaping the Mold of Oriental Fantasy

A round, stringed instrument


“How are you going to become a composer?” My uncle said angrily, “No Lebanese person has done it. Why you?”[1]

I was sitting in the baranda of my teta’s (grandmother’s) home in the Lebanese mountains. I finished my junior year of high school and made the unalterable decision to study composition in college. It was nighttime. The family gathered to chat while my teta cut peaches for us from Jido’s (grandfather’s) farm.

Being the first generation to study in the U.S. in my immediate family, I had the rare privilege of deciding what I wanted to study.

In our culture, I had the responsibility to craft a future where I can continue accumulating wealth (and therefore stability and opportunity) for future generations of my family. In that regard, pursuing the arts was akin to refusing this responsibility. This decision caused my uncle to become tense.

“Then I’ll be the first,” I responded.

My family and I didn’t know any composers of Lebanese or Druze descent. We were all in uncharted territory.

“Hrmph,” my uncle scoffed. He reclined into his seat with eyes that clearly said “you’re making a mistake.”

An aerial view of Lebanon (photo by Nebal Maysaud)

As an aspiring composer, I knew the risks of what I was getting into. I knew that there were thousands of people like me, and that my success as a composer is not guaranteed, no matter how good I was. But I also knew that I didn’t have a choice. I had a radical something that needed to be expressed, and music was the only way I could express it.

My parents got married in Lebanon in 1994 and moved to the U.S.A. in 1995 when my mom was pregnant with me. She was 19. My father would get up to work at 3:00 a.m., and wouldn’t come home until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. My mom spent equally long days between work and caring for three children.

My parents couldn’t afford to give me lessons, or take time off work to see me perform, and were skeptical, if not hostile, toward my decision to enter a field they knew nothing about. Other musicians my age had the resources and support they needed to succeed while I had to navigate my artistic passion alone. This discrepancy between myself and my journey, and other upper class composers only grew with age.

I also had very few friends in high school, and frankly a lot of it was a blur due to my PTSD. But I distinctly remember my music being there when I had no one to confide in. Music became my life, and I had no choice but to create.

If I fail, I will be used as an example of why no one else should attempt to become an artist.

Despite everything working against me, I decided that I must pursue music as a professional. And I hold that same spirit today. As the first one in my family to major in the arts, I have a lot of eyes on me. If I fail, I will be used as an example of why no one else should attempt to become an artist. But if I succeed, that success will provide hope and comfort to other aspiring artists in the family.

Despite all of these setbacks, I was (naively) comforted by the fact that there was a hole in the new music community. My experience as a queer Lebanese composer made me unique. I had the opportunity to authentically represent my culture through music.

As I grew older, I realized that the spots for Middle Eastern representation has been filled for a while. But not by the hundreds of Middle Eastern and North African composers and artists. Instead, our stories were being controlled, and even monopolized, by white composers.

How to Colonize a Culture

A culture can be defined through a people’s land, language, beliefs, food, or art. Colonization works by limiting access to these cultural markers while also rebranding them so that the colonizing force steals the culture of those they colonize and claims it as their own.

Colonization works by limiting access to cultural markers while also rebranding them.

In action, colonization works by invading or destroying land, criminalizing the native language, making it as difficult as possible to practice the colonized religion, and restricting access to ingredients needed for the colonized people to cook their own food while rebranding their recipes as the colonizers’ own.

But in this article, I want to focus on how white culture colonizes the Middle East through art, specifically music.

Composers Use Orientalism to Further Colonize Non-Western Cultures

Europe is not the only place with a classical music tradition. Every major culture in the world has a tradition of creating music that expresses the height of human achievement.

Every major culture in the world has a tradition of creating music that expresses the height of human achievement.

Yet much of the Western world pretends that they were the only ones to compose music beyond entertainment, and use other classical traditions not as a source of inspiration to grow together, but as a resource for stealing techniques and growing their own genre at the expense of other cultures.

An excerpt from Nebal Maysaud's composition A Psalm of David which references the style of Western appropriations of Middle Eastern music with the instruction "like an 18th century Viennese composer emulating a Janissary band he heard one time"

An excerpt from Nebal Maysaud’s composition A Psalm of David

Stealing Middle Eastern Stories

Abusers don’t have the right to tell the story of their victims. Even if it’s an attempt at reconciliation. Yet white composers have been writing about and critiquing stories from the Middle East for centuries.

Western composers always had a fascination with the exotic East. A place of magic and wonder, where strange people with strange customs create fascinating stories for audiences to gaze upon.

This narrative of an “other” whose purpose is to entertain the eyes of Westerners is very much in practice today. I see plenty of composers, some prominent, praised for writing music that references the Middle East.

And the music they compose makes no reference to Middle Eastern classical music. Because such a reference would concede that the Middle East has a classical tradition. Instead, they use a few cartoonish references to an exotic Arabian land of their own creation.

Abusers don’t have the right to tell the story of their victims. Even if it’s an attempt at reconciliation.

One example is the use of augmented seconds to represent the exotic. Or using the oboe to mimic a snake charmer or other Middle Eastern instruments. (What instruments they mimic, I don’t know. The oboe sounds nothing like any Middle Eastern or North African instrument that I know of.)

Or perhaps they compose a simple melody with an old style drum beat. Or try to mimic the Baladi by composing a flashy piece that has no substance or meaning, and is instead supposed to create the effect of an underdeveloped people dancing and performing a ritual.

Written down, these examples are obvious racist caricatures, but I still see them used today in pieces where composers are lauded for their activism.

And the stories they produced are not just exotic fun, but reinforce white supremacist beliefs about non-white people.

A meme which reads: "The audacity OF THE CAUCASITY"

Presenting the Middle East as “Barbaric”

White supremacists believe that the white race is the most advanced. Which means that non-white people are inherently less intelligent, less emotionally mature, and less civilized. In other words, white supremacists look at non-white people as a step in between them and barbarians.

In order for this ideology to stick, white supremacists need evidence. They don’t have truth, but they do have power, and they use their power to manipulate non-white cultures to make them appear as though they are more barbaric than white people.

The most common way to examine this phenomenon is to look at the Middle East’s track record with LGBT+ and women’s rights. After colonization, the Western powers supported conservative despots to increase instability in the region to prevent the area from becoming communist. The far right regimes they supported enacted some of the worst human rights abuses in the world.

I recognize that Middle Eastern politics is very complicated territory. And I can’t accurately state what happened in the Middle East within a paragraph. But the West’s attempt to impose itself on the region as an act of modern colonization is well documented and researched.

These human rights abuses are now used by the West as evidence of the Middle East’s backwards values. The West is more developed because women appear to have more freedom. By hiding the fact that these regimes were initially supported by the West, they create the unreal case that feminism is a Western value that the Middle East is too barbaric to enforce.

And composers love writing music “for” Middle Eastern women and minorities without their consent, and doing so by highlighting the abuse they receive and the toils of war. The trauma these regimes place on minorities is regularly displayed in a piece of music. The effect is something profound for white people, and triggering for minorities.

Never Ending War

The sound of war is a common theme for white composers to write about. But rarely is it handled with care and research. Rarely do these pieces consider the effects they have on the victims of war.

Rarely do pieces about war consider the effects they have on the victims of war.

I remember going to a concert with my mother, immediately feeling horrified when a piece about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon played and my mom was forced to hear the very same sounds of war she witnessed growing up. White people were amazed by the piece, while my mother and I were on the hinge of panic attacks due to this senseless trigger.

In all of these pieces, the message seems to be questioning why warring factions can’t get their acts together and stop fighting. They generally suggest that these victims need saving and it’s calling on their listeners (who are white since classical music audiences are almost always white) to act as white saviors and stop the violence through their charity. While coming from a meaningful place, this narrative saves no one and actually worsens the effects of white supremacy.

And these stories also act as barriers that keep Middle Eastern composers from telling our own stories. I am expected to continue praising white feminists for their work in writing about the trauma my people face, while stories by actual Middle Eastern women are largely ignored. Here we see Western classical music saving a space for Middle Eastern representation, but maintaining a white monopoly over its presentation.


These pieces may come from a desire to help, but they ultimately reinforce colonization. They reinforce the trope of the white savior. They spread harmful false messages about Middle Eastern values. They don’t reference Middle Eastern music or traditions, but instead incorporate cartoonish signifiers of racist caricatures. Ultimately, they are not Middle Eastern stories, just exotic displays masquerading as authentic work for the Middle East.

I spent my college years learning how to navigate this environment. In a desire to be authentic, I decided to expand my knowledge beyond the Western classical music world. I needed to explore the traditions of my own people’s music so that I can keep the Middle Eastern Classical tradition alive. As you will see in my next article, discovering one’s own culture can be extremely difficult in a colonized world.


1. I apologize for not making this point clear enough: When I was in high school, I didn’t know about the hundreds of Lebanese composers before (and after) me, nor did anyone else in my family. I was not trying to make a claim about being the only Lebanese composer. Instead I wanted to show how, even within our own communities, we can feel alone and isolated from our own traditions despite it being very much alive. As I grew older and started to discover more about my own tradition, I managed to find a thriving culture of Lebanese composers and musicians, but I had to look for them first.

Orientalism in American Classical Music

I’m rebellious, I’m hardworking, I’m obsessive, I’m competitive, I’m solitary, I’m sporty, I’m cerebral, and I’m passionate. These characteristics are the top reasons why I self-identify as a classical musician—these particular character traits make me highly compatible with the classical music profession. However, these adjectives aside, what I fail to mention is that I am visually perceived to be of East Asian descent. This descriptor, often conjured by others without a prompt of my own, resurfaces in association to my identity as a classical musician in the United States, over and over and over and over and over again. Being of East Asian descent bizarrely “explains” to people why I am a classical musician, usually at the expense of overlooking the personality traits that form my identity, and thus my profound compatibility with classical music. After 30 years of shrugging off this racialized identity, I feel it is finally time for me to address what I’ve grown accustomed to when making classical music while East Asian.

Being of East Asian descent bizarrely “explains” to people why I am a classical musician.

Simply put, my perceived Asianness is a reproduction of Orientalism. In this article, I will focus on three statements in particular that reproduce Orientalism upon my body, here in the West: 1) otherizing excellence (“The Chinese play with such discipline…it’s like a martial art to you.”), 2) obsessive focus on technical precision (“Oh my, you have great technique!”), and 3) marking otherness as a collaborative quality (“Our ensemble is not that white, because we have you.”).

In this article, I will be reading the three Orientalist statements specifically within U.S. classical music. This is not to say that comments like these do not occur in contexts outside of classical music—they indeed apply on a much larger scale. But since American classical music is where I have come to intimately know these types of comments, I will limit my focus to this scene.

Firstly, we must understand Orientalism as a historically racist, colonialist ideology; Orientalism as it manifests in 2017 is naive at best, racist and neo-colonial at worst. In the groundbreaking 1970 book Orientalism, Edward Said disarmingly defines “the Orient,” positioning it necessarily within a duality that ultimately has little to do with the Orient itself:

Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident.” Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on. […] The value, efficacy, strength, apparent veracity of a written statement about the Orient […] relies very little, and cannot instrumentally depend, on the Orient […] Thus all of Orientalism stands forth and away from the Orient: that Orientalism makes sense at all depends more on the West than on the Orient, and this sense is directly indebted to various Western techniques of representation that make the Orient visible, clear, ‘there’ in discourse about it. [emphasis mine]

With Orientalism defined, let’s now address each of the following statements individually and explain why they are harmful reproductions of Orientalism.

Statement #1: “The Chinese play with such discipline…it’s like a martial art to you.” When a person makes this statement, it is not intended to start a conversation about martial art. Martial art is an East Asian activity considered exotic in the West, and it is conjured precisely because it is exotically viewed. The exoticization of a commonplace human characteristic is an Orientalist notion, and like Orientalism, explains nothing about the exoticizable identity (Chinese people, martial artists) nor the exoticized element (discipline). Although discipline is indeed a desirable quality for a classical musician, this statement says nothing about discipline nor classical musicians. What it does manage to express, is two unrelated observations: 1) I notice that you are a classical musician, and 2) I notice that you are Chinese.

Statement #2: “Oh my, you have great technique!” (Great) technique is desired by all classical musicians. But, as Pablo Casals puts it, “the most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all.” When a person states that my technique is good, as the sole observation of my playing, it puts focus on the very thing that is only good if you do not have to focus on it. Although the racial element of this comment is often not explicit, it nevertheless conjures the stereotype of a submissive Asian classical music student, exhibiting technical excellence while differing to a Western master for interpretative guidance. The prototypical manifestation of this particular type of Orientalism is the documentary film From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China (1979). In the film, violinist Isaac Stern, director Murray Lerner, and executive producer Walter Scheuer portray the Chinese classical music students as diligent, hard working, but ultimately incapable of grasping the profound essence of classical music without brief, shallow contact with a Western master. Telling enough is the most upvoted user submission on the film’s IMDb page: “scgary66” remarks on the “lack of skill development among many of the young [Chinese] musicians and the emphasis on technical skill rather than artistic interpretation.” “Scgary66” in fact proves my point: sole focus on technique, even as a compliment, diminishes the achievements of artistic interpretation. It begs the question, is it the Chinese that are focusing on technique over interpretation, or Western people in their Orientalist views of the East?

Statement #3: “Our ensemble is not that white, because we have you.” While facing occasional discrimination from stereotyping within classical music, I also have been valued for being a classical musician “of color.” This is a unique form of Orientalism because it reflects an incentive for American classical music organizations to obtain monetary funding, as well as social capital, through “achieving” racial “diversity.” I find comments of this type linked directly to multiculturalism as a prevalent, unquestioned ideology within classical music.[1] As a BIPoC, I can by no means solely represent the multitude of black, brown, and indigenous peoples that comprise this mark of identity. However, when I am valued simply for being of color (“Our ensemble isn’t that white, because we have you”), most often acting as the only person of color, I am asked to play an impossible role. This is an oversimplification of identity, and oversimplification is a form of erasure.

More broadly, the biggest flaw of valuing my otherness, whether it is about my “discipline” or “technique” or apparent affinity for “kung fu,” is that it reasserts the flawed notion, in the first place, of my otherness. I was born and raised in the United States. I’ve never been to China and I don’t speak Chinese fluently. Given my background, you can imagine the confusion, annoyance, and anger when confronted with such racially motivated comments.

Recall the things that do define my identity in classical music: rebellious, hardworking, obsessive, competitive, solitary, sporty, cerebral, and passionate. What do these words have to do with race? Not much. Does this mean race has nothing to do with my identity in classical music? Not necessarily. Each racial minority, and each person within each minority, has to come to terms with that question individually.

rwy crosshatch

Acknowledging racism in the U.S. past and present, I often struggle to not let this weigh down on my soul. But part of staying mentally healthy as a person of color in a predominantly white profession is to avoid the denial of ugly truths. The perpetuation of Orientalism is alive and well in U.S. classical music circles—whether it is through an Orientalizing of musical talent, fixating on technique, or nuanced manifestations under multiculturalism—and it needs to stop. These modern iterations of Orientalism, though slight, enable fundamental, mainstream racist practices to continue within the American classical music scene, distracting from the profound emotional and spiritual potential of the art form.

I love classical music and I love being a classical musician. The notion of race does not enable this love (as the Asian stereotype suggests), it only distracts from it. The same way I pity the audience member who can’t see anything but my (Oriental) “technique,” my (Oriental) “discipline” or my (Oriental) “affinity for kung fu” after a 2.5 hour solo piano recital of Western classical music, or the chamber partner disillusioned by multiculturalism who values me for my vague otherness, I pity any American who can’t see past their own racism to truly appreciate music.

Amongst the brutality of racism in the United States, Orientalism in classical music is a relatively small bone to pick. Nonetheless, the subtleties of this unique form of racialization help us better understand the systemic tendencies that favor white people at the expense of those who are not white. This is not meant to create divisions between white and non-white classical musicians, or white and non-white people in general, but rather to acknowledge that Orientalism, and any other similar, xenophobic ideology, has already created these divisions.

The aim of this article was simply to educate, or to borrow Paulo Freire’s term conscientização, to raise consciousness. The more conscious we are of our words and actions, the more likely we are to replace them with more humanizing gestures, in hopes of a kinder, more tolerant world.

1. I define multiculturalism as a dominant ideology that enables contemporary manifestations of Orientalism. There is nothing inherently wrong with the celebration of multiple cultures, as a literal reading of the word suggests. However, multiculturalism as a dominant, largely unquestioned ideology is problematic. In other words, it is good to be multicultural, but problematic to support multiculturalism. Multiculturalism in arts organizations is a mechanism through which racism plays out in classical music. Competing for resources (funding, audiences), American arts organizations are keenly aware of the importance of exhibiting an affinity for diversity and inclusion as concepts. However, though well intentioned, the way in which these concepts are “achieved” is deeply flawed.

Shi An Costello

Shi An Costello

Shi An Costello (世安) is a classical pianist, composer, writer, actor, and activist. They regularly write and report for Family Court Nightmares and the media/communications team at Asian Americans for Advancing Justice-Chicago; they have contributed articles to FOCI Arts, chicshifter, Riksha, and Performance Response Journal on the topics of economy, fashion, and the intersections of race and gender. As a writer, Shi An is interested in articulating politics, activism, and law as performance. As a musician, Shi An is currently on the piano faculty of New Music School in Chicago. They regularly perform in both solo and chamber settings across North America. They hold a B.M. from Columbia College magna cum laude, and an M.Mus from Schulich School of Music at McGill University. Shi An served as a visiting artist in the composition department of Boston Conservatory from 2013-14 and has run the Morton Feldman Chamber Players since 2014. His solo debut CD will be released with Blue Griffin Records in the fall of 2017, featuring preludes and fugues of J.S. Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Sounds Heard: Narong Prangcharoen—Mantras

For centuries, Western classical music has incorporated elements from beyond its original geographical borders (think of the orientalism of Rameau or Mozart), but only more recently have people who have actually grown up in all corners of the world created music within a Western classical music framework which incorporates elements of their own indigenous musical traditions in a way that is authentic. The seemingly inexhaustible musical traditions of the vast continent of Asia have proven to be particularly effective fodder for new solo, chamber, and orchestral repertoire as composers from nations whose own music dates back millennia have forged an extremely effective synthesis from the syncretism of East and West.

Perhaps the greatest flowering of such music has occurred here in the United States where there has never been a dominant musical tradition; our traditionlessness has made this country the ideal environment for creators who shun all traditions as well as those who embrace various combinations of them. While there have been many composers who have explored combining Western musical forms and orchestrations with elements from the art music of China, Japan, Iran, India, and Indonesia, very few have attempted a similar rapprochement with the music of Thailand. Eua Sunthornsanan (1910-1981) started blending elements of classical music and jazz into Thai musical idioms in the 1930s. More recently, S. P. Somtow (b. 1952), who in additional to composing music also writes horror and science fiction novels, has composed operas in the Thai language based on Thai themes. But the music of a younger Thailand-born composer now based in Kansas City, Narong Prangcharoen (b. 1973), has perhaps been the most effective thus far in seamlessly weaving Thai and Western classical idioms. His 2009 debut album on Albany, Phenomenon, is an exciting collection of six works scored for solo piano, solo cello, orchestra, and symphonic winds. Albany’s just-released 2012 follow-up, Mantras offers another six works—one for solo viola, an additional band piece, and four chamber music compositions—revealing the depth and breadth of Prangcharoen’s unique sound world.

While the compositions featured on his earlier disc demonstrate how comfortable Prangcharoen is with the sweeping gestures of orchestral music and how the subtle application of extended techniques on various instruments can help to convey a world very different from that of the Western orchestra that is playing it, the more intimate medium of chamber music showcased on the new CD arguably serves Prangcharoen’s aesthetic gambits even more effectively. In Whispering (2010), a quartet scored for soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, piano, and percussion, the winds weave pentatonic figurations around clacks from the piano—played both normally and prepared—and a wide range of other percussion instruments, of both precise and indeterminate pitch. The work, presented here in a performance by the newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, is a deeply moving response to various natural disasters that have occurred in the last decade—Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the cyclone Nargis in Burma/Myanmar, and the earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province.

While Between Heaven and Earth (2009) is a duo for flute and piano (herein performed by Jonathan Borja and Christopher Janwong McKiggan), the music often feels like two completely independent yet co-existing solos, largely due to extensive passages in the first part of the composition during which only one instrument is playing at a time. One of the boundaries between Thai and Western traditions that seems insurmountable is tuning—Thai music is based on an equidistant seven-tone scale which shares no intervals in common with Western 12-tone equal temperament. Prangcharoen’s always practical orchestral music strictly adheres to 12tET; it probably would be nearly impossible to get it performed by most orchestras otherwise. But while the piano in Between Heaven and Earth remains standardly tuned, the flute’s intonation is frequently altered with various pitch bends to take it out of Western listeners’ comfort zones. When the two instruments finally come together toward the end, it makes for some visceral clashes. (Unfortunately, there are no program notes for Between Heaven and Earth in the CD’s booklet; it would have been interesting to learn more about the inspiration for this extremely effective piece.)

The brief Antahkarana (2010) also explores a wider pitch continuum than that of standard 12tET. The unfretted solo viola, technically capable of producing an infinite gradation of pitches, is the ideal vehicle for Prangcharoen’s explorations. The work also very effectively exploits harmonics, which are expertly rendered here by violist Michael Hall; such techniques inevitably conjure up the mysterious, the exotic, and the sublime. According to Prangcharoen’s program notes, Antahkarana is an ancient symbol used as a tool for healing and meditation.

The overall serenity of Antahkarana is shattered by the frenetic opening of Bencharong (2002), a trio for flute, cello, and piano in five short movements. But the seeming anxiety of the first movement doesn’t last very long (slightly over a minute). The other relatively short movements conjure other moods from stillness to rapture to calm to anticipation. Prangcharoen has written that the work is inspired by the traditional five-color porcelain that was made for the royal courts in Ayutthaya and Bangkok in the 18th and 19th centuries. (For the performance on the present disc, flutist Borja, who also performed Between Heaven and Earth is joined by cellist Ben Gitter and pianist Brendan Kinsella.)

The work that follows, Verdana (2011), is also a trio but is a single continuous movement. Scored for violin, French horn, and piano—a combination that has inspired a broad range of composers, including Johannes Brahms, Ethel Smyth, Lennox Berkeley, György Ligeti, and Yehudi Wyner—Prangcharoen’s contribution to the genre (here performed by the Third Angle New Music Ensemble) is as different from these works as they are from each other. Largely an exploration of sonority, the melody from which the piece’s pitches are derived does not appear in full until near the end.

The disc closes with Mantras (2009), which is a concert piece for solo soprano saxophone and symphonic winds. The grand gestures familiar to listeners who have heard Prangcharoen’s previous disc on Albany make a triumphant return in this virtuosic showcase performed here with élan by saxophonist John Sampen accompanied by the Bowling Green State University Wind Symphony conducted by Bruce Moss. Like many composers of our era, Prangcharoen proves that the wind band is as capable of nuance as a symphony orchestra; through his assured navigation of the combinatorial possibilities of this large ensemble which build to a tumultuous climax, Prangcharoen creates an exciting and very effective listening experience.