One of the difficulties about the discussion around cultural appropriation is simply figuring out what the word “culture” means and how to draw border lines around it. In a global community, for better or worse — and I personally think mostly worse — there isn’t much in the way of pristine cultures that are untouched in some way by the West. For that matter, there isn’t really any Occidental identity (at least intellectually speaking) without some sort of Oriental influence. (I’m guessing this is true at least from the 2nd century BCE and the Silk Road.) Even the basic story of Western music in the 20th century can’t be told that way. There is no Debussy apart from the gamelan and jazz influence. There is no Messiaen without the influence of Carnatic music. There is no Holst without the influence of Hindu thought. There is no John Cage without Zen Buddhism. Obviously, it’s not every composer, but there are some heavy hitters, and in order to tell the story of the West, you have to talk about the East which makes the whole division seem quite arbitrary.


Amy Lowell was profoundly changed by her exposure to Haiku. Her poetry changed after that encounter. One way of framing that is in terms of cultural appropriation. An American poet takes a Japanese form and uses it to her own ends. Indeed, that is the way some people have situated Caroline Shaw’s use of Innuit throat singing in the Partita, but I don’t think this is the only way to think about the problem. It is also possible to think about the problem in a broader sense by considering how we interact with others and how our personalities are shaped in that process.


In the most beautiful interactions with others, we are moving in freedom. We are making mistakes and asking for forgiveness when we mess up. The amazing thing is that interacting with someone over a long period — say a spouse over the course of thirty years — changes you. You are influenced by the other person, and you influence them. It’s not in a way where you are borrowing parts of their personality and incorporating them into your own. At least it doesn’t seem like that. It is a process where the other person is helping you grow more into your own self. And this has to be the story of how artists grow and develop.


Amy Lowell became more of her authentic self as a poet by being exposed to and using Haiku forms. Thomas Merton became more of the Catholic monk he was supposed to be after encountering D.T. Suzuki and Zen Buddhism, just like Cage became more the composer he was supposed to be after the same incorporation. Caroline Shaw used Intuit techniques because they expressed better what she was imagining than something else would have.


I would never suggest that there aren’t psychological pathologies where people come under the influence of strong personalities and begin imitating them in ways that are not healthy.  It is just that there are also mentors in our life that help us see places where we are pretending to be something we aren’t, and they point it out and remove the hindrance. Usually when that happens, we become more unique and wonderful than we were before. Right now, it seems like the first instinct is to assume every cultural interaction is the pathological kind and not the healthy kind. There are good historical reasons for that assumption, but it turns out that people continue to interact and share despite the historical contingencies.


I can’t wonder if it also points to a bad conception of the way artistic creativity happens. So much popular music is assembled by using bits and pieces of other music that it infects our thinking about how composers often work. We begin to believe that all music is just a collage of pitch and rhythm modules that come from some attributable source that gets reassembled in a new way by the composer, and late consumer capitalism tells us that the building blocks are all modules that are proprietary objects with a monetary value. But there are other ways to think about this.


At the crossroads of the emic/etic approaches in cultural anthropology is the idea that there is something objective and propositional to report back at the end of the process. Right now, in the music world, there is a big argument that says something like, “Once you’ve been emic enough, you can use cultural objects because, in a sense, you’ve made that culture your own culture.” If you’re too etic, it’s just tokenism and objectifying. While I’m sympathetic to parts of that argument, it doesn’t seem to me to be a good model for creative activity. When you are wrestling sounds together, objective and propositional language seems to fall apart. I mean this in the sense that I might be able to put a label on a chord, but the decision to use a sonority in a specific spot (at least when I write) is made on the basis of coherence to some ineffable idea. So, if someone asks, “Why did you put this chord here?” I can often only say, “I was searching for something with a certain degree of tension, and this sonority fit the requirement — how and why? I can’t give you a formal reason. It just felt correct for the job I was asking it to do.”


And, I think that’s the way it works. I think Haiku just felt right to Amy Lowell. I think Innuit throat singing just felt right for Caroline Shaw. So they had to do it because that’s what artists do. Just like when Mozart used Janissary band music for inspiration. Just like when those West Africans started incorporating Sufi music into their playing. Maybe most weirdly of all, just like when a Ugandan friend was staying with me recently. He had me play music from a hymnal that was developed in the bush in Uganda. The music was odd hymns that the Ugandans adapted from the music they learned from missionaries. They made it their own, so it’s very idiosyncratic. Then, my friend had me play one of the hymns as a jazz standard, and he sent it to the Ugandans back in the bush. They went crazy for it. To see an American in Kansas City playing their music in an American style delighted them, and I hope to have more interactions like that.


 In the meanwhile, there is a new restaurant that opened a few blocks from my house. It’s an Asian fusion that mixes Thai food with Kansas City BBQ, and I’m hoping to go eat some culture that is just as mixed up and delicious as the rest of us.