The influence of the Orient on the later vocal works of Charles T. Griffes: "Five Poems of Ancient China and Japan" and "Three Javanese Songs"

Iwao Asakura

Abstract

The "exotic" East was not only the West's target for political and commercial domination but also has been the source of new ideas for many disciplines, including music. An American composer with an eclectic style, Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) vigorously incorporated Oriental ideas into his compositions: Five Poems of Ancient China and Japan (1916-1917) and Three Javanese Songs (1919). Since Griffes never traveled to Asian countries nor studied the music extensively, his Oriental sound is based largely on his perception of it through literature and art. In New York City, Griffes met many people who influenced and supported his new compositional direction using Orientalism, including Adolph Bolm, Michio Ito, Ferruccio Busoni, and Eva Gauthier. Griffes perceived the chief qualities of Oriental music to be simplicity and ambiguity. The simplicity is created through pentatonic harmony, sparse texture, and folk-like melodic lines, whereas ambiguity was produced by repetitive rhythmic patterns with frequent subtle changes, producing a mesmerizing effect. Non-goal-oriented formal structures also enhance the non-Western musical atmosphere. In Three Javanese Songs Griffes also adds an improvisational sounding trait, along with Asian gong-like sounds in the piano to simulate Javanese gamelan music. Five Poems of Ancient China and Japan and Three Javanese Songs are Griffes's most Oriental vocal works, significant for how the composer successfully incorporated his perceived Oriental sound to his Western-style compositions.