“Eurocentrism? We Aren’t The World” by Jon Pareles

Can’t believe this was written over twenty years ago:


What does this have to do with music? Plenty. Music, popular and classical, is a potent cultural symbol, one that arouses visceral reactions as well as rational ones. It speaks to its listeners’ sense of place and history, and to deep-seated beliefs about the organization of communities and the perception of time. And many people like to think that the music they love is timeless, eternal, universally recognized as a pinnacle of human achievement – not a historically conditioned, minority preference in a big world.

Part of the Eurocentrism battle has to do with whether the gamelan should be discussed alongside the orchestra, the talking drum alongside the tympani (and, perhaps, the telephone). Opponents of such a broadened curriculum raise the specter of students learning about the sitar instead of the violin, which no one is actually proposing. Still, defenders of the Western classical tradition, already feeling beleaguered by changing public tastes, now face credentialed colleagues who can point out that notated concert music is a relatively recent, relatively local phenomenon compared to age-old oral (and often improvisational) traditions of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

For some people, Eurocentrism equals elitism, the determination to protect what’s best. In music, it’s not elitism – it’s just plain ignorance.

I thought the following was as woefully parochial as as the “standard, Eurocentric classical-music education” that the author bemoans as “woefully limited” because of its focus on “reading music rather than improvisation, re-creation rather than creation” and dependance “on the score rather than [the] ears“:

The Eurocentrists ask, Where are the masterpieces outside the Western European tradition? And where are the composers whose music has survived the centuries? Those are trick questions, based on assumptions that are themselves Eurocentric. The Western European tradition treats music as something that resides in a tangible (and salable) artifact like a score or recording. But in other places and times, sometimes including our own, music has been more properly considered as sounds in the air, made to be heard once by an immediate audience – which might even participate, or dance.

Thousands of scores from the Eastern Roman Empire and Ottoman Empire that are [now] easily accessible though you won’t find many of them listed in what is considered a broad representation of all the world’s composed music.

It’s the same error made by Charles Murray in his response to Eurocentrism regarding his inventories (esp. of music) he used in his book, “Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950” when he states “In music, the lack of a tradition of named composers in non-Western civilizations means that the Western total of 522 significant figures has no real competition at all.”

Even if Pareles’ list of composers influenced by non-European musics reads like a token list of Western-Classical-composers-who-incorporate-non-Western-musical-elements-in-their-Western-Classical-music-compositions rather than a list of composers in other art music traditions (Demetri Kantemir, Hampartsoum Limondjian, or Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande anyone?), I love his final statement:

As the world’s music becomes ever more accessible, it’s negligent to pretend it isn’t there. In fact, when survey after survey shows how few Americans even know where other countries are, music’s built-in sense of place could help students get an image of the world. At the same time, the myriad structures, timbres and strategies of music can illuminate a universe of possibilities – and humble even the most Eurocentric know-it-all.


  1. Wrote a “review” — I wouldn’t have if you hadn’t wanted one, truthfully, because it doesn’t convey the experience and likely won’t make sense to anyone not from a Buddhist background. But, it exists.

    Have you seen them perform?


  2. I have not seen them perform live, though I’ve seen some of the manymanymany members perform outside of the ensemble itself. They’ve never come within a 200 mile radius from my neck of the woods. I’ll go read your review in a sec! 😀


  3. […] talked about non-European Large Ensembles.  In my posts, Supporting whose arts anyway? and “Eurocentrism? We Aren’t The World by Jon Pareles,  I questioned the presupposition that any particular arts genre is culturally, psychologically or […]


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