Can Digitized Circulation Preserve Traditions?

Hafez notes that even though technology would allow media to flow across national borders, it still tends to flow within cultural groups. Since music is statistically the thing that crosses cultural borders most frequently, I am going to write about an internationally known percussion player. Are cultural arts becoming appropriated into cheap, assembly-line, plasticized forms (McDonaldization), or is there a way that they can take a new form but retain the original poetic value in new media?

Biography: Li Biao is a talented percussionist who, similar to the narratives of other talented icons of Chinese art and literature, such as Li Bai and Lao Tse, was a child prodigy who began to play around the age of 5-7 or so. He went on to learn in China’s national conservatory and study in a conservatory in Munich.

His work involves a lot of  fusion between the rich musical traditions and structures of Western Symphonies and qualities of ancient Chinese performing arts—I would describe percussion in Chinese performing arts as a highly flexible emotive marker. (and by the way, that was a very difficult representative video to narrow down! Here is a playlist though!)

The Lord of the Rings soundtrack composed by Howard Shore incorporated a lot of Celtic folk music, and a few elements of rhythm found in Japanese music (from 1:27:19 (amazing dramatic values thanks to the complex rhythm, even if it must represent the theme of a ‘bad guy’) to 1:28:10 in this, for example). This concert shows Li Biao performing a dramatic segment in a large orchestra, in a piece that sounds sort of like Lord of the Rings and Mission Impossible. He is the performer in red. The dancers on screen are traditional performing artists of different kinds.

Yet even in this project that highlights culture and makes it both globalized and unique, I would say McLuhan’s saying still applies strongly–the medium is still the message. How?

Several aspects of the original thing have become abbreviated or shifted. For Chinese percussion, viewers would loose one of the original hallmarks of Chinese percussion–its pairing with active performance art. In the concert above they preserve this by using the screen, and in movie soundtracks we have action pairing, with the movie images. But since Li Biao’s work is recorded now, it is likely that people will download it and listen to it while doing other activities, thanks to our music playing devices and our pirating skills. Live music, once seen in nearly every park where senior citizens would gather, is already becoming as elite as Broadway did when radio put traveling vaudeville minstrels out of business.

I think that there is an effect of homogenization, and a presence of the global village here: Most ‘Asian’ music for example  is currently represented by the most well-known Asian countries—South Korea, Japan, China, and India. (and things like K-pop tend to be more of a Korean spin on a Western medium than a native Korean art) The lesser-known, local variations may even get supplanted by the more widely distributed kind. For instance, Indian music is widely distributed and available because of Bollywood, but Pakistani music and artists remain virtually unknown outside of Pakistan (Surely there is no ‘Pollywood’ to compete?). Mongolian Opera, though similar to Chinese and Japanese opera, may remain largely unknown because the mechanisms of distribution are less accessible there. In the end our participation in whatever sector of digital pop culture, is still participation in digital pop culture.