Published in The Musical Quarterly, April 1971.
Though many threads lead from the music and musical theory of the ancient high cultures of Asia to the music of the West, they are not visible to the Western musician unless he is a scholar trained in this particular aspect of musicology. …Suffice it to say that during the last few centuries, in fact, until the decline of Romanticism, Asian music played an insignificant role in the musical world of the West, providing at best decorative features in the days of Turkish marches and Scheherazade. But as we approach the last quarter of our century, more and more on-going events and new perspectives on things past point to the thesis that Asian music has now re-emerged as an influence of growing significance on the development of Western music. The turning point took place almost a century ago. At the moment when Debussy became disillusioned with Wagner and was drawn toward symbolism and impressionism, his exposure to an Indonesian gamelan at the 1889 International Exhibition in Paris was catalytic in evolving his new concepts, Debussy’s awareness of the values in Asian music was phenomenal, particularly in view of the fact that Asian instruments were still being caricatured as “instruments of torture.”
A gamelan composition is based on the principle that a nuclear theme is to be played simultaneously with several layers of elaboration on the theme in different registers and at different paces. Instruments with characteristic timbres are assigned to specific registers for particular types of elaboration. Similarly, the sonority that is largely the admixture of a melodic, rhythmic, registral and timbral variants of a single linear movement is a prominent characteristic of the Debussian orchestra.
The gamelan principle is not unique to Southeast Asia; for instance, the Korean Hyang ak (court music for an orchestra consisting of winds, strings, and percussion) employs a similar principle of simultaneous elaboration. Another common characteristic of Asian music is the subtle use of percussion that has no precise pitch. And Debussy was perhaps also the first Western composer to recognize the lyrical qualities and possibilities of the percussion instruments.
Two other composers of this generation who were also attracted to Eastern philosophy and theosophy were the Englishmen Gustave Holst and Cyril Scott. However, despite their interest in Asian scalar material, harmony, and rhythm, the Eastern influence in their music produced no more than a superficial exoticism.
Two major composers who began their career at the turn of the century had no contacts with Eastern music and were at first primarily known for their assimilation of folk and “exotic” elements: Stravinsky and Bartók.