Saturday, March 1, 2008
Recently I wrote a post in which I waxed rhapsodic about the harmonic minor scale. In it I mentioned performing in a dance piece choreographed to "The Feeling Begins," the evocative opening track of Peter Gabriel's score for The Last Temptation of Christ.
This was in college. I can still remember the opening sequence, during which a haunting wind instrument played a melody that seemed to breathe life into our first gestures as the lights revealed our presence on stage to the audience. When you dance to something over and over again, you get to know the music intimately, like a partner. You notice its nuances, get familiar with once-unexpected turns and shifts in the music, learn its moods and its hidden details, and can almost feel its beat replacing the pulse that sets your body's innermost rhythm.
Recently, too, I was entranced by a post on Eat, Sleep, Oboe, a blog by racheloboes, in which she discusses the duduk, an ancient Armenian double-reed instrument related to the oboe. As it turns out, this is the instrument with the prominent opening voice in "The Feeling Begins." After clicking on a couple of her links to the Armenian Sound Network to hear a couple of samples, I ordered a CD featuring master musician Jivan Gasparian (or Djivan Gasparyan). I wanted to learn something - expand my musical horizons.
A couple of days ago I was listening to the CD on my way to work and found Track 5 almost uncomfortably familiar. I knew this piece. Why did I know it? It was Armenian music. The only exposure I had ever had to Armenian music consisted of the ballets of Aram Katchaturian and the compositions of my daughter's piano teacher, an Armenian-American composer and musician. But almost from the first passage I could hum along to the music; I could have DANCED to it, in fact, if I hadn't been driving. And if I could have recalled all the choreography from years ago. I had danced this music a dozen times. It was literally INSIDE me, interlaced with some memory cells deep inside my brain. It was the melody from "The Feeling Begins" on which Peter Gabriel had hung the rest of his percussive rhythms and middle-eastern-sounding themes.
I'm not talking SIMILARITY here. The two did not simply resemble each other. It was the SAME SONG in both tracks. Arranged almost identically.
I felt bothered by this. It was like an itch I had to scratch but just couldn't reach. I had to find out what the song was. At a stop light I fumbled for the CD cover in the car. I looked at the track titles - but they were in Armenian! Dagnabbit! It couldn't be a CD label in Cyrillic or Greek or some other script I might actually have been able to decipher? And I had work to do! I wouldn't be able to learn more about this till later!
I finally had the chance later in the day to look up the track names in English on the Armenian Sound Network. Track 5 was entitled "Hovern Enkan," sometimes also rendered "Hovern Engan," and I learned this is an Armenian folk song whose title I've seen translated as A Cool Breeze is Blowing / Cool Wind Has Descended / Coolness Has Descended / Autumn is Here / The Weather is Getting Cold / The Wind Has Dropped.
Okay, folk song. So, traditional, probably quite old. I then went to my CD of Peter Gabriel's soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ, entitled Passion, to see how this piece was listed. "The Feeling Begins" is the opening piece, the music that sets the tone for the work as a whole. It's also the piece used for the movie's trailer. The back of the CD reads "PETER GABRIEL - PASSION: Music for The Last Temptation of Christ, a film by Martin Scorsese," then lists all the tracks in order. The enclosed CD booklet replicates this information on its opening page. Under the details for "The Feeling Begins," it lists the instruments used as well as the musicians playing those instruments. Beside a tiny asterisk beneath this list is the following explanation: "The Doudouk is playing an Armenian melody; 'The Wind Subsides.' (see note)"
I went to the "Note" on page eight, deep into the booklet, which stated, "All '*' denote selections from existing recordings of traditional music. Armenian Doudouks recorded for Ocora Records under the Direction of Robert Ataian." Then, beneath that, "Compositions by Peter Gabriel with the exception of ['Open' and 'Stigmata']." No mention of "The Feeling Begins" or another track, "Lazarus Raised," which incorporates a traditional melody from Kurdistan.
After reading these details, I wasn't any less bothered by this whole thing. Maybe it was because of an NPR piece I had heard just a day or two before I heard the duduk CD, on the subject of political speeches and giving proper credit to the right authors...if in fact the authorship was discernible. But something did not sit right with me with the way this soundtrack had been done. And I really, really LIKE Peter Gabriel's stuff. Especially this CD, which at the time of its release was considered such a landmark, potentially influential work.
Here, despite the asterisks and the notes, it seemed like he was taking credit for another culture's work and calling it his stuff. It wasn't that he failed to identify the music, musicians, instruments, or recordings. It was the way he presented his album. He was presenting it as a soundtrack he composed with allusions to or influences from other cultures. But in the very opening track we hear a gorgeous melody that's not his presented as if it is his. I felt duped because I am ignorant about Armenian music and I thought he had written the piece himself. Does adding drums and synthesizers and a few added passages make it his composition all of a sudden, when the underpinning of the whole piece is a separate work, well-known in its native culture, with its own history and merit? Can he claim it as his arrangement of "Hovern Engan," when clearly it's already been arranged in duduk player Vatche Hovsepian's rendering of it, and Gabriel simply manipulates it by superimposing his characteristic sounds over it and adding a few musical responses?
I recognize that whether you're re-creating a chef's recipe or alluding to lines penned or spoken by other authors, sometimes attributions can be tricky. But where do we draw the lines between references, borrowings, adaptations, repossessions, and frank theft? I know there are precedents for the appropriation of traditional/folk songs in "Western" music. Ralph Vaughan Williams may be best known for alluding to or re-working English folk songs and incorporating them into his compositions. Bizet's Arlesienne Suites contain passages from the traditional French carol "La Marche des Rois." And what a different work Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring would be without his arrangement of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts."
I can't articulate exactly why I feel the above examples are different, but I do. Perhaps it's because in these classical works the appropriated songs remain recognizable to listeners in the cultural contexts in which the works were composed. I have to assume "Hovern Engan" is not a household song in most households across the world, and thus not immediately recognizable to the worldwide audience listening to Peter Gabriel's soundtrack and reading the title of the piece, not as "Meditation on an Armenian Melody," but rather, "The Feeling Begins": a presentation that suggests a new work created by the composer for the film.
I'm not accusing Peter Gabriel, whose work I greatly admire, of intentionally lifting the work for his own purposes. I just don't think he attributed it adequately, and I have to wonder if he would have taken the same liberties with traditional music from, say, Scotland or France or Canada or England. I'm dissatisfied with the way the credit was given for "Hovern Engan," and the recording of it, and there's at least one other person in the world who's also troubled by it. A reviewer (haik28) of the soundtrack on Amazon.com, from Glendale, CA, writes, "As an Armenian, I feel terrible when a person like Peter Gabriel takes credit for taking Armenian folk pieces with the use of 'Duduk' and then is considered a genius...It is...intolerable and very humiliating..." In contrast, someone left a comment on the forums at petergabriel.com stating, "I always think [Peter Gabriel] is more influenced by the music around him and therefore steers clear of blatant plagiarism.” Another fan on Solsburyhill.org writes, "Evidently scarred by accusations of cultural imperialism on the fourth Peter Gabriel record, Peter took great pains to credit music to its origin and here the record sleeve notes that the doudouk's melody is that of a traditional Armenian melody titled 'The Wind Subsides.' "
I'd like to assume that Peter Gabriel cares deeply about music and its sources - as evidenced by his compilation of the soundtrack's companion CD, Passion - Sources - and approaches his own great talent with a sense of respect and responsibility for the creative process. But I still have that itch. Chalk it up to my personal preferences or sensibilities, or a nuance in my interpretation of allusion v. imitation v. appropriation in composition; but I want it to be more widely known that "The Feeling Begins" is hauntingly beautiful because its main melody is a product of Armenian composers and Armenian musicians, copyright or no copyright. Peter Gabriel takes the piece to wonderful places with his use of "Synthesizers, Shakers, Skins, and Surdu," but the core of the music belongs to Armenia - as should a greater portion of our appreciation.