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Book Review Musical Exoticism – Images and Reflections


Book Review

Musical Exoticism – Images and Reflections

by Ralph P. Locke

Price: $99.00 ISBN: 978-0-521-87793-0 Cloth

Cambridge University Press, 421 pages with 31 b&w illustrations, index

This thorough discussion of musical color and affect commonly referred to as representing “exoticism” is exhaustively researched and analyzed in this new volume by Musicology Professor Ralph P. Locke of the Eastman School of Music.  Its scholarly perspective and construct will appeal most directly to serious students of music, though there is much here that will engage any curious music lover.

Professor Locke has taken on an enormous task – that of explicating and illustrating how Western composers and jazz performers have employed certain techniques to add a sense of perfume, tang, and aural otherworldliness to their music that sets it apart from the familiar and comfortable. The how and why of this makes for an engaging read, aided by well-chosen illustrations and musical examples.

I confess that I hadn’t really thought too deeply about musical exoticism in the past, though I certainly thought “I knew it when I heard it.” After spending only a few minutes perusing this book before reading it closely, I was astonished with how deep and wide a subject this is. As a means of intriguing further interest in Professor Locke’s research, I’ll briefly cite several composers and a few of their obviously “exotic” works he examines:

• Baroque operas of Monteverdi, Rameau, Lully, and Handel

• Mozart – Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Rondo alla Turca, Violin Concerto in A, K. 291 “Turkish,” Die Zauberflöte

• Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade, Symphony No. 2, “Antar,” Capriccio Espagnol, Sadko

• Stravinsky – Petrushka, L’Oiseau de Feu, Le Sacre du Printemps

• Debussy – La Cathédral Engloutie, Ibéria, Pagodes, Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune,

• Brahms – Hungarian Dances

• Delibes – Lakmé, La Source

• Meyerebeer – L’Africaine

• Bartok: The Miraculolus Mandarin

• Britten – Curlew River, Death in Venice

• Verdi – Aida, Nabucco, several others

• Puccini – Turandot, Madama Butterfly

And then there are performers of “popular” and jazz music such as Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Desi Arnaz, Marlene Dietrich, Barbra Streisand, and many others… well, one can readily see how fertile the ground is for Professor Locke’s explorations.

In a note on the book’s jacket, Hugh MacDonald – also a musicologist and annotator of substantial reputation – calls attention to this breadth of repertoire, and of other issues raised of equal importance:

“…Locke is the first critic to confront this enormous repertoire as a

major phenomenon in Western music…and the ethical and political

issues are more relevant today than ever.”

Indeed, it is the ethical, moral, and political issues called to mind by some of the more “ethnic” performers and performances that Professor Locke cites that lead one to contemplate as never before how pervasive musical exoticism has become throughout the music of the Western world.

A minor cavil: this weighty subject is given such a thorough examination that it becomes a bit cumbersome at times to plow through. Several short readings will result in a more balanced meal than a long and uninterrupted session, which, for this reader, resulted in something of a surfeit. It is certainly more a reference work than a quick study. But this should be no deterrent to a serious and intellectually curious music aficionado.

This is an engrossing, intriguing, and fascinating book. Professor Locke offers us a rich feast, one which whets our appetite for more information and urges us on to further explorations of our own.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

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