The Other Orchestra(s)

The Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra in San Francisco is one of several dozens of large ensembles formed in the US which don’t follow the European Orchestra model. There are over two dozen ensembles of traditional Chinese instruments in the Bay Area, ranging from grade school ensembles to semi-professional/community orchestras as well as traditional Chinese Music Education at various k-12 schools and colleges in the area.

It’s been some time since I’ve 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 economically healthy for, say, American society.  And if we truly believe we need more arts education in the US, then who exactly gets to decide what constitutes the arts?

Rather than saying much, I thought I’d just post some youtube videos of other large Art ensembles–i.e. Non-European Classical Orchestras–some of which the US already has in some numbers, though they may lack the cultural and economic funding infrastructure that the European Arts tend to be favored with here.  Some notes on US based ensembles will be included.

Indonesian Gamelan

There are a handful of these in the states.  Most associated with University programs which have large or important ethnomusicology departments.  Here (below) is a wonderful video which includes the vocal part of the tradition which doesn’t get emphasized nearly as much as the large percussion forces.  Also, an Indonesian rebab (upright bowed string instrument) is usually an integral part of the ensemble.  There are some nice clips of traditional dance which would often be a part of the performing traditions.  The communal nature of the music also offers a very different model for music education than what might normally be found in orthodox Western music education.

Traditional Chinese Orchestra

I’ve blogged a lot about the large number of traditional Chinese Orchestras found on the West Coast, but especially in the Bay Area.  These ensembles are a creation of revolutionary and post-revolutionary China.  Modeled after the Western Symphony Orchestra but filled with traditional Chinese Instruments, much of the repertoire includes full arrangements of older folk tunes (such as the popular Pipa tune, Ambush from Ten Sides in the video below) as well as contemporary tunes (I remember first seeing a video of Yo-Yo Ma playing a concerto for cello and traditional Chinese Orchestra by Bright Sheng on PBS many years ago).  The orchestra in the video is actually one of numerous youth orchestras found throughout Asia and is one of the many competitions they have in China.

Arabic Firqat
I absolutely love the video of Emad Ashour with the Cairo Opera Orchestra below.  I also wrote a post describing how western strings have been adopted by Arabic and Middle Eastern Art Orchestras.  Again, this is another ensemble that involved enlarging the traditional Arabic tahkt which would have usually included Oud, Nay (reed flute), rebab/violin/kemenche, and riq (middle eastern tambourine).  As you can see from the video, the string section is enlarged and the other instruments are often doubled which has changed the nature of the smaller tahkt ensemble which would have had the instrumentalists improvising and ornamenting the melodic lines–impossible to do with so many forces.

Turkish Mehter Bölüğü

The Fasil is the equivalent of the Arabic Firqat in Turkey, but there is also another large scale esnemble based on the old military bands which used to be comprised primarily of Janissaries (the elite troupes of the Ottoman Empire military).  These were actually the first types of Ottoman music ensembles that Europeans experienced due to the long interaction and conflict with the Ottoman Empire.  Indeed, why we have “Turkish Marches” (marcia alla turca)and other Turkish styled compositions by Mozart, Beethoven and other Western Classical composers was precisely because of the influence of the Janissary  Military Bands.  Here is a modern day example of the ensemble, amplified by Western instruments (some of which, ironically, were heavily influenced by the original instrumentation in the Turkish Mehter bands) playing with one of my all time favorite Clarinetists, Hüsnü Şenlendirici.  Yes, Hüsnü is playing a G-Clarinet which is all but unused in Europe but is still the instrument of Choice of Mediterranean ensembles–especially in Greece and Turkey.  The second example gives a much better idea of what the military band would have sounded like with the battery of drums, Zurna/Mizmar (the oboe like reed instruemnts) and brass (about 43 seconds into the video).

This barely scratches the surface of large scale art ensembles found throughout the world–and increasingly found in the US as ethnic populations grow in number and start to fund such orchestras.  Some of these ensembles have art music traditions that predate serious European Art concert music or rose contemporaneously with that tradition while exerting an influence on it.  With audience fragmentation, it shouldn’t be a surprise that, at least in the US, we’re finding more a more of these types of groups being formed.  It’s only a matter of time, perhaps, before such an ensemble becomes a full time/full season entity in the manner that some European styled Classical Orchestras are and only a matter of time before music education at the primary and secondary levels start to build infrastructures that will help such groups thrive.


  1. I have to ask a possibly ignorant question: ARE conglomerations of instruments like that third picture from the top “traditional,” or is it just an instance of China importing a Western object — the orchestra, complete with podium and guy in front in a black suit waving a stick — and just filling the seats with Chinese instruments?

    I know the gamelan is a traditional collection of instruments (that’s sort of what the word means, I think — a bunch of instruments that go together) that originated in musical theater, like the Western chamber orchestra. But I’m wondering just how traditional the Firebird Youth Orchestra is as an idea itself, or whether they have simply lifted a Western concept and replaced the violins with pipas, etc.


  2. AH! Just found your quote: ” … in the two examples I gave regarding Traditional Chinese Orchestras and Arab Orchestras–both emerged as a fusion of native traditional art forms with the large scale European Orchestra model that those cultures encountered through Westernization and Colonialism.” 🙂


    • Yeah, these fusions happen much more often than not–and almost invariably due to Western/European influence. Most large scale ensembles around the world never quite exceeded the size of, say, a Baroque Orchestra or early Classical sized orchestra that would have been used by Haydn or Mozart.

      I suspect that one of the limitations to size is the lack of a conductor tradition–orchestras any larger than the baroque or early classical almost invariably need a conductor. That and most of these traditions still involve improvisatory aspects which are difficult to do with larger sections of instruments.

      What I’ve also found fascinating is that most of the countries in the former eastern block and current Balkan/Eastern Europe region adapted their large scale art forms in a fusion manner that is very unlike how, say, the Soviets used Classical Music/Opera/Ballet. That we never learn about these in our musical training says something about the unquestioned acceptable we have canonical ensemble, instrumental, and stylistic types.

      Practically all these fusion types formed in the early to mid twentieth century.


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