When Intercultural Learning and Democracy Meet in Music: What Next?

Qinhan Chen  //  BRUSHSTROKES
University of Edinburgh

Qinhan Chen is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Edinburgh (UK). She is a member of the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD). She studied Intercultural Communication for masters’ degree at the University of Warwick, and her current research focuses on issues of communication, learning, and identity in musicians’ practice across intercultural and music domain. Beyond her research interests, she has been dedicated to coordinating music and intercultural events (e.g. Bilingual Ceilidh, Music Across Borders Project, etc.), facilitating local interactions between cultural communities in Scotland.


Classical music communities were shaken when news broke of the controversial leadership style of Daniel Barenboim, the renowned conductor and co-founder of West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO). With his international career and well-intentioned facilitation of intergroup understanding between Israeli and Palestinian people (Ramel et al. 2018), he is expected to possess and show empathy rather than callousness and even tyrant-like behaviour, as described in the latest reports (Marshall et al. 2019).

Many might be rethinking the role that international music initiatives play in an individual’s intercultural learning and democratic practice. I would like to touch upon this question, using contributions from intercultural and social learning theories. Focusing on communication and learning processes that involve another culture, it is essential to ask how musicians learn from an intercultural experience, and how the process of democratising the arts can be a part of it.

First, do musicians learn from intercultural experiences? Intercultural learning entails that operational, affective, and cognitive changes happen in sustained social interaction with people of another cultural group (Kim 2001). Numerous music collaborations have professionals of different cultures work together in one-off and long-term projects. However, these do not automatically result in such learning or in democratic development.

For instance, it has been observed that less communication and learning takes place if people of the same cultural group function as a buffer. Such a contrast is shown in a 1994 PBS documentary, Between Two Cultures: Japanese in America, which follows small groups of Japanese families who live in Georgetown, Kentucky and New York City, which has 56,000 Japanese residents. In international orchestras like WEDO, having co-nationals around can help musicians avoid most interactions with other members. However, provided there is sustained intercultural communication, even on a minimum level, they still learn (Kim 2001).

Democratic practice and understanding in this context can be associated with, but is not tantamount to, being open to individuals of different groups in practice and to their opinions in meaning negotiation (Wenger 1998). It can be illustrated by two interviews of Kourelou, a London-based Greek band. Elisavet Sotiriadou at fRoots Magazine described their performance: “no instrument stands above any other and no musician is more important than any other. Each of them brings in any influences, feeling and interpretation they have to the songs they play.” In another interview with Lida Aslanidou at New Diaspora, their violinist Nikos Kyrios stated:

I always wanted to bring the epirotic element to Kourelou – Epirus is the Greece I carry within me. I don’t want to insult the variety of Greek sounds, the traditional music from the islands, from Macedonia, from the Peloponnese, Crete or Pontus, but my priority was to add the epirotic element to Kourelou – Pavlos immediately embraced it!

Although Kourelou’s members are all from Greece, their backgrounds are more diverse than the single Greek category under which they are often sorted. From the same country or not, cultural boundaries are revealed to individuals whenever they experience discontinuity and unfamiliarity in interactions (Akkerman et al. 2011). It is the same for musicians whose parent(s) migrated to another country — they were raised and live between different cultures at home and outside (Georgoulas et al. 2017). Their practice may inform professionals in arts management, cultural and social policy, and international education, addressing integration challenges faced by many societies.

How do people learn from intercultural experience? In Communities of Practice theory, Wenger (1998) suggests that people participate and persist in a practice when they feel it is central to their self-efficacy and envisioned identity. In this case, it is to be a great musician/person. Social participation is essential to reaching those aims through learning and identity negotiation, through which one acquires competencies as to ways to interact, think, and feel like an insider (e.g., to become a traditional or jazz musician, or to be Chinese or Scottish). More importantly, such a social history of learning makes it a priceless resource for future identification and negotiation.

Similar to intercultural learning, functional fitness like acoustic adjustments (e.g., tuning and volume) makes learning requirements to be confronted and solved for musical collaborations explicit (Kim 2001). I do not intend to focus on musical techniques here, but instead on parallel communication and its learning mechanism. An operational sine qua non, going from language to improvisation skills may be an arduous learning task; nonetheless, it is easier to spot than nuanced understandings like implicit value systems (Shaules 2007).

As social interaction is a central aspect of learning, Wenger proposes three types of boundary encounters: one-on-one, immersion, and delegation. In one-on-one interactions like duo projects, learning happens on an individual level, similar to international couples in which one adapts slightly to the other. In an immersive boundary encounter, such as when musicians go abroad on their own or play as a guest in another ensemble, learning often falls on them. Bands can also exist in the form of a delegation, like how members of Ney Anban (Iran) and Assynt (Scotland) were brought together at Celtic Connections and collaborated. If musicians find their music compatible during encounters, a boundary practice like Afro Celt Sound System might be crystallised and maintained, and intercultural communication and learning take place.

Intercultural communication results in learning and adaptation over time, but not necessarily in democracy. This brings us to the second question: how can democratising the arts be a part of intercultural learning?

One particular individual or group often has more influence over an intergroup project. Having abundant international experience working with people from different cultural groups, Barenboim’s leadership style appears to be less than ideal, even though he endeavoured to achieve Israeli-Palestine reconciliation through WEDO. Cultural critics also note that despite Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon’s best intentions, hidden socioeconomic inequality hindered their international projects, with one side taking a central role and the other enjoying no say in decisions or acknowledgements (Frith 1996; Taylor 1997).

Democratic practice does not always encourage intercultural development either. When there is no spark (as there rarely is), communication and mutual learning are required in order for creative solutions to emerge. It is natural for individuals to cling to familiar relations, practices, perspectives, and opinions (Wenger 1998). From international festivals to orchestras, it is reasonable to observe “dialogue between diverse partners established only as far as necessary to maintain the flow of work” (Akkerman et al. 2011, 143). Dropping musicians into a new cultural group in collaboration or new environment on a trip can be stressful and cannot guarantee democracy. Their opinion may not immediately be taken into account by the hosts; however, collaboration effectively engages them in cultural learning.

On certain occasions, musicians seem to perceive democratic practice as essential for engagement. First, when musical communities negotiated democracy as professional behaviour in creating meaningful work, adapting to each other is deemed necessary for the music-making process. Becker (2000, 172) remarks, as a pianist and sociologist, how seemingly free-form jazz improvisation is an “aggressively egalitarian” value and practice. The same etiquette was present in collaboration between traditional ensembles and jazz bands (like Cairo Steps and Quadro Nuevo’s Flying Carpet concert). While it is observed that members might not share same understanding in improvisation (Wilson et al. 2012), this arrangement holds every musician accountable, keeps negotiations open, musically and interculturally. On other occasions individuals may value democracy in music because it has been developed as a meaningful engagement as personal identification. In a broadcast interview, Chung Yufeng (2018) mentions that although her pipa sounded too scratchy in a sample mixed by Indonesian sound engineers, she kept it that way as a way to respect their decision.

This shifts us from the operational aspect to understandings that motivate and possibly change with musicians’ boundary practices and learning. When advocating music’s significance, many may contend that music transcends cultural differences. Individuals recognise cultural differences and their significance, yet think there are some overriding rules. Bennett (1993) has summarised two kinds of reasoning for experiences of cultural similarities: physical universalism based on shared biology and transcendental universalism based on psychological or sociological imperatives.

Admittedly, music transcendental universalism cannot address every cultural conflict, but music provides a ubiquitous practice across cultural boundaries (Hallam et al. 2014). These enable individuals to enjoy their desired outcomes, bypassing language barriers in the short term; some even turn toward a lasting intercultural career. Scholars across disciplines have highlighted the ability to recognise cultural differences, to develop multiple perspectives and consistent self-identification out of incongruent expectations from communities in which individuals feel invested and to which they are held accountable (Berry 2005; Bhabha 2012; Hall 1989; Sparrow 2000; Ward et al. 2001).

In brief, intercultural and democratic understandings are developed in sustained practice wherever individuals find learning necessary and meaningful, experiencing different, yet valid and valuable cultural expectations. It can be seen in Barenboim’s talks regarding his concerns and reflections on intergroup conflicts, and in Chung’s retrospection on her choices of keeping Indonesian sound engineers’ work the way it is. Their developments happen not overnight, but slowly, day-to-day, over the decades.

Over time, shared practice constitutes a shared history irreplaceable for an imagination mechanism, as Anderson (2006) suggests, which binds a society together through members envisaging a shared past and future. Moving from individual to societal foci, intercultural incidents grow with the ethnic composition shift in many countries (van Oudenhoven et al. 2015). Such intercultural experiences in domestic societies are a key factor for learning (Harrison 2012). Consequent mutual accommodations have been observed in the pluralist societies that have a relatively high proportion of minority communities, despite their separate interests (Haugen et al. 2017). Similarly, a shared sense of history cultivated at WEDO – even if limited – lead its members to rent accommodations on the same street in Berlin despite their national conflicts (Riiser 2010).

Mass migrations over the decades have resulted in many musicians’ professional and personal learning being furthered by intercultural experience, despite feeling chasms between their musical and cultural belongings. Those conflicted feelings are expressed in published accounts by renowned Anoushka Shankar, Japanese American musician Kaoru Watanabe, who was born and raised in St. Louis, among others (Grillo 2016). The topic also attracted research interest by Greek Australian musician Calista, who was born to Greek parents and raised in Melbourne (Georgoulas et al. 2017), and Steve Kapur, the “Apache Indian” English-born Punjabi musician (Lipsitz 1994). One way people learnt to bring together various practices and identities is to allow all cultures and all people to contribute and be a part of a community, musically and culturally (Kim 2001).

From a social identity perspective, this music-cultural association is a reification resulting from constant social negotiations between what individuals and communities value: separate cultural identities, integrated group practice, individualised expressions, dialogues, and/or hybrid projects. There is not one, but plural answers: William James (1974) suggests that truth is subjective and a self-contained description of the world. In order to see to sustained democratic and intercultural rapport as one of the answers, sustainable practice and meaningful experience must be available, and must be related to the personhood pursued by individuals. Egalitarian music-making conventions are as crucial as identity aspirations that enable individuals to envision greater possibilities and meaning for musical and cultural boundary practices.

If nothing else, music collaboration across cultures provides a shared reality for people to develop an intercultural and democratic identity. It is shown in and negotiated through collaborative work like History 101 between the Native American group SongCatchers and African American musician Charles Neville (Taylor 1997), in Siwa between the Indonesian group SambaSunda and Han Taiwanese musician Chung Yufeng, and in groups like Salsa Celtica and Yo-Yo Ma’s initiative Silk Road Ensemble, among others. Wenger (1998) highlights the fact that learning cannot be designed but can be designed for; eventually, it is up to each individual and community to develop and negotiate mutual practice, understandings, and shared histories to which they hold dear.


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