International writing styles of music (and art)

I just came across the outdustry blog which covers the Chinese music industry. All well and good, I thought, and something of a pet interest for me so I’ll be adding this to my RSS reader.

In their archives there’s an interview (perhaps more of a conversation) from early 2008 between Ed Peto, a Western journalist living in China, and one of his editors, Lua Zhou, about a review he had been asked to write for InMusic about the Radiohead album ‘In Rainbows’. The piece goes into some detail about the differences between Chinese and Western music writing, and why, in this particular case, a Western writer was selected over locals. I found the parallels between music writing in China, as described here, and art writing in China, as I have experienced it, impossible to ignore.

The points raised in the piece reflect a very similar view to a certain level of art writing here in China. I’m really referring to the standard catalogue text, which seems to dwell almost exclusively on feelings aroused by a work of art, with a lack of what this article calls a “technical” approach. I guess you could call this a formalist approach, in art-speak, and one which is explicitly linked to a “Western” style of writing, distinguished by being “colder”. This is linked to the vagueness of genres here in China, which is said to be a product of the market’s immaturity:

There is no clear line between categories of music as the genres are not mature enough, it is not so clear what type of music you are playing so things are described in a more general way. Reviewers do lots of comparisons – Say compare this album to Kid A. I don’t think they can do as much technical analysis. Traditionally they don’t do this. They always start with a factual band introduction – which I normally cut – then go into the spiritual side, the meaning of the lyrics and how it makes you feel.

I’m kind of interested in this idea of “immaturity”. Why is this style of writing a display of immaturity? It’s not as if the way writing manifests itself in China (and Japan, according to the article) has not had a long history. It would be wrong to see this as a progression, a development, writing is essentially non-evolutionary and can pick and choose it’s styles and tropes as it pleases. Some styles may only be possible after a certain point, but this would represent a small-scale development not a grand scheme. It’s just as easy to forget history as it is to remember it, and “fitness for purpose” holds little meaning.

The style of music writing criticised in this piece and apparently common in China, is presumably there for a reason, as a result of pressures which have led to this being the accepted and appropriate way to express oneself at this point in time (hmm, is that evolution after all? But I think it could just as easily go in a completely different direction without any other reason than fashion, for instance). Now other styles are being seen as useful and appropriate in this context and the result is this editor’s need to call upon the Western journalist to fulfil this need.

I could jump to the trite conclusion that this is as a result of China’s opening up to Western influence, but we have also been given the example of Japan which has a much longer and more in depth relation with the West than China has at this point. Perhaps the respect for set forms of tradition is that much more in Japan, keeping this style alive, whereas China seems to thrive on absorbing any and all influences with an equanimity in the face of change.

So when the article says that China is “a real mash-up country”:

We just listen to different stuff. The record shops don’t tell us what is what, they just put all the records together and you take all different styles at the same time.

… I think this holds a clue to the Chinese way of managing the many influences that affect it, and the new-found need to incorporate a “Western” style of writing.

What I have tried to avoid in this post, is looking at the “Chinese” style and the “Western” style as in some way in conflict, or in a hierarchy, which is how they are being presented in the original article. I think judgements like this mask the constructive aspects of each side and are detrimental to an understanding of what they are doing.

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International writing styles of music (and art) by escdotdot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

2 thoughts on “International writing styles of music (and art)

  1. I disagree with the idea that there is a new-found need for a "Western" style of writing. The idea of "Western" style goes back to the republican era and Lu Xun, Chinese arts writers also like to employ it, and sometimes they intentionally disregard it, opting for the lyrical praise that we know so well. The reasons for the use or non-use of a Western style are many, pride of culture, seeking international credibility, deng deng. Although I can't say for sure in the case of this music review, is it possible that the Western journalist was favored because the artist was from the same cultural background?

  2. Good points, Lee. My phrase "new-found" was misleading, I meant it to apply just to this example rather than make a broader statement. I really don't have enough knowledge of the historical background, so I think I am too swift to criticise based on a very limited set of sources.