The Kazakh musical instrument Dombra produces a serene and melodious sound with just two strings. Image: Yashkin Ilya

Edward Said’s Counterpoint and Colonial Echoes of Music


In her keynote address at the XXV International Society for Music Education World Conference in 2002, Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois, Liora Bresler, admonished1 music educators for standing out as “typically the least likely to participate in (cross-disciplinary) collaboration” comparing to professionals in other fields. Intrigued by the phenomenon of this perceived disciplinary isolation, Professor Bresler offered a compelling narrative in which such an engagement could have produced meaningful impacts. Although her story was woven from spatial and temporal peculiarities of her experience limited to the Western academic context, a growing ‘science friction’ with international (ethno)musicologists has already proven to validate, enrich, or expose various studies across different fields.

As such, music terminology, often complex but expressive and telling, has been appealing to the vocabulary of scientists for decades. One of the founders of post-colonial studies, Edward Said, for instance, nurtured a sophisticated method called contrapuntal reading2 for analyzing colonial texts. An academic and a musician, Said borrowed the concept from a musical theory, in which counterpoint is the connection between multiple melody lines in generating compositional unity.

Applied to colonial studies, contrapuntal reading was developed as an approach that “must take account of both processes – that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded”. In other words, a multitude of tones, points, perspectives, and experiences that are intertwined in their power struggles, confrontations, clashes, and coexistences need to be heard. Since then, contrapuntal reading has gained enthusiastic international reception occupying a proud place in publications, conferences, and artistic exhibitions, exposing the intermingling of both dominant and subjugated narratives.  

While being rather illustrative, the eloquent musical analogy becomes unsettling when situated in the (dominant) history of music. Modern imaginaries of performing or visual arts, similar to other spaces of knowledge production, are subjected to colonial contexts. Music departments specifically are often reluctant to address the epistemological changes of their own structures informed by “systemic racism3” as “academia itself (including ethnomusicology) remains a neocolonial enterprise”. Decolonial tunes are evidently still rather coy in the discipline.

As Luis Chávez and Russell P. Skelchy claim, “ethnomusicologists have whispered about decolonization since at least 2006,” while one could argue that murmuring about it at the beginning of the 21st century is unjustifiably discrete. Nevertheless, since the 2006 National Conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology centered around the theme of decolonization, scholarship has witnessed a geometric progression in the number of studies exploring myriads of issues in question. 

It was these works that exposed how “musical heterophony around the world was subsumed by the heteronomy of European colonial empires”. A historical context of the standards and norms established by a musicological community primarily rooted in Western traditions gave rise to the receipt or dismissal of musical styles and instruments. The development of the concept of Western harmony, for instance, is attributed initially to the northern tribes of Europe (some would claim its relationship to Christianity unfolded during the Renaissance period and has been dominating various musical eras since then.

Simultaneously, the maturity of counterpoint has taken place and is claimed to be standardized by late Renaissance composers Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 – Feb. 2, 1594) and Orlando di Lasso (c. 1530 – June 14, 1594). The story developed in a familiar manner of colonial domination: the epistemology of certain music was perpetuated as transcendent, elite, or simply ‘good’. From the Philippines to India, indigenous music and melodies were often neglected, submitted, or squeezed into Western forms, generating complex hybrids that in many places continue their puzzled existence today. 

Nevertheless, the counterpoint does not quite qualify to be a ‘milkshake duck’ – something attractive initially but turning into a disgrace when closely scrutinized. It sure proved its place as a convenient analogy to inspire postcolonial and decolonial research. It is a method that has been applicable and will continue to be useful. However, it is also not as meta: counterpoint goes beyond being a virtue, as it is also a very specific instrument that structures and validates certain theoretical and methodological lenses.

Contrapuntal reading tunes the beholder in a particular manner, encouraging a methodological reading with the tools coined in colonial musical workshops. This approach risks excluding (or not being applicable to) context comprehendible by the scope of harmonies. Despite their interconnection, the lines in the counterpoint are deemed independent; the hierarchy seems to be nonexistent; their interactions result in the desired unity; and the counterpoint itself rests on stability. The structure has a right to exist in certain places, but not everywhere. Often imposed through violence and both for epistemological and political motives, the uneasy interplay of structures, resources, and control, perpetuates rather heterogeneous master-subaltern frameworks of power and resilience.

An illustrative example can be brought from Central Asian states during the Soviet rule and the language policies the latter urged to implement. Despite the official discourse that praised the national identities of Soviet member republics, there was “asymmetrical bilingualism” in which knowing Russian was mandatory at the expense of local languages. Local languages were also Russified by replacing Arabic script with Cyrillic letters.

Resistance and efforts by local communities, activists, and linguists were often sporadic, resourceless, and suppressed. Using counterpoint as a method, its linearity, stability, and presumed unity, in this case, would not necessarily depict peculiarities of historical legacies, and even risks presenting with the loss of narratives of suffering. 

“Echoes of Time” by Kambar Kalendarov (Kyrgyzstan)

In this regard, some would despair why “a quintessentially European musical technique4” of counterpoint developed during colonial modernity was preferred to expose the postcolonial realities of today. Doubtfully, Edward Said was not aware of existing tensions or of his own musical preferences being a ‘classically’ trained musician. The inconsistency of his analogizing of the term and his concerns about picking it from the beginning can be further revealed in some of the novel archival research.

Wouter Capitain5 scrutinizes Said’s unpublished works, such as a series of four lectures at the University of Kent in 1985, and early drafts of Culture and Imperialism, and discovers the author’s disposition toward a different musical analogy –  heterophony. Heterophony – defined to include simultaneous performances of melodic variants of the same tune – is believed to be an essential characteristic of non-Western music such as in Persian, Japanese, Thai, or many other cultures.

Before drastically reviewing some of his fundamental works, Said eventually scratched off heterophony and went forth with counterpoint. This decision is puzzling, but one explanation can be that in the context of Western musical tradition, counterpoint was indeed sounding more universal. After all, “…Said associated both terms with twentieth-century composed music, such as from Messiaen and possibly Schoenberg, rather than with non-European musical traditions or Bach..” 

Musique soufie d’Iran

Everyone is a product of their time, and we are (hopefully) going to be scrutinized by future generations for the oxymorons in our decolonial approaches. Through his genius, Said intuitively leaned towards something that could adhere to the multitude of musical incarnations. Aharmonic (atonal), non-linear texture of heterophony, indeed, can inspire a more nuanced capture in reading colonial texts.

Although the analogy is similarly not perfect (which one is?), it can serve as another method or theory to explore the histories and experiences of the world. Let aside (or not) the important symbolism of its origins.    

Works cited:

  1. Bresler, L. (2002). Out of the Trenches: The Joys (and Risks) of Cross-Disciplinary Collaborations. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education152, 17–39. ↩︎
  2. Said, Edward W. (1994). Culture and imperialism. New York :Vintage Books, ↩︎
  3. Shzr Ee Tan (2021) Special issue: Decolonising music and music studies, Ethnomusicology Forum, 30:1, 4-8, DOI: 10.1080/17411912.2021.1938445 ↩︎
  4. Suna-Koro, K. (2017). In Counterpoint: Diaspora, Postcoloniality, and Sacramental Theology. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 139. ↩︎
  5. Capitain, Wouter. (2022). From Counterpoint to Heterophony and Back Again:
    Reading Edward Said’s Drafts for Culture and Imperialism, Journal of Musicological Research,
    41:1, 1-22, DOI: 10.1080/01411896.2020.1787793 ↩︎

Tasha Zakhar

Tasha Zakhar is a PhD candidate at Ruhr University Bochum, holding an LLM from Vrije University Amsterdam and an MA from the OSCE Academy Bishkek. Her interests revolve around international law, its politics, promises, and aesthetics. Her research frequently extends beyond geographical confines, yet it remains firmly rooted in her cherished homeland of Central Asia.

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