Discourse Block Omega

Reflections on Postorientalist Music 


Postorientalism Research Group

May 2023

Introducing the concept of “paradigm” in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argues that for a given paradigm to emerge as a result of a scientific revolution some conditions must be met. The emergence of new problems and lack of sufficient and agreeable solutions within the old paradigm prepares the ground for the rise of anomalies. Thus, if a given or new paradigm attracts scientists and philosophers from the other paradigms and is “sufficiently open-ended” to leave the emerging problems for the “redefined group of practitioners to resolve” (۱۹۶۲, p. 10), a paradigm shift may be in order.

     Accordingly, to make a clear distinction among scientific, philosophical, or artistic theories, approaches, and conditions, a good number of scholars and theoreticians address their paradigmatic differences. Hence, I, in this brief note, attempt to develop a paradigmatic understanding of what the Iranian composer Ehsan Saboohi calls “postorientalist music”—exploring it from ontological, epistemological, and axiological perspectives. I develop my discussions in light of Ehsan Saboohi’s meta-temporal and meta-spatial letters to Edward Said, his recent postorientalist compositions, and the artist’s statement. Needless to say, I only intend to present my reflections in this short essay in the hope that it will be read in dialogue with other discourses on postorientalist music. 

     Before all else, one must acknowledge Hamid Dabashi who introduced the term in his book Post-orientalism: Knowledge and Power in a Time of Terror first published in 2009 by Transactions and later in 2017 by Routledge. Although there might be similarities in content between Dabashi’s postorientalism as a broad notion and Saboohi’s realization of it as a condition in the context of the arts (particularly music), their approaches are, by nature, different. 

     First and foremost, one needs to study the function and meaning of the prefix “post-” in the term “postorientalism.” In doing so, a number questions come to mind: Does the prefix “post-” denote “the end of”? Does it mean “after”? Does it convey a transcendental sense as in “beyond” or does it have multiple meanings? According to Dabashi, the prefix “post-” denotes the “the end of” orientalism and colonialism. Adopting a teleological view, Dabashi follows Walter Benjamin to criticize any mode of historicization arguing that thinking in the new condition temporally  terminates the previous condition. He uses the term “messianic cession” (p. xii) to label this terminating or departing function. On the contrary, for Saboohi the prefix “post-” does not designate “after” or “end of”; rather, it represents a sense of “becoming” denoting multiple meanings and functions that relate to the transcendental sense of being emancipated from all other conditions. In this sense, postorientalism is a transcendental condition that is both historically-driven and future-oriented. For the postorientalist artist, thus, the present moments passing do not belong to a precise coordinate representing transference from one point to another; on the contrary, time creates a space for action within a paradigm of perseverance and resistance. In this sense, any transformation is shaped by and shapes resistance in the process of “becoming(s)”  toward the transcendental state of releasement. Saboohi also uses a curious term in his letters to Said, that is “brain death”. Cautiously speaking, if poiesis (i.e., creation, formation, bringing forth) is taking place outside the realm of (post)orientalism, change begins from within the state of creation and moves forward; otherwise, in any other context, poiesis depends on passing the current state of being that marks the end of being and the beginning of becoming.

     The subtle distinction between Dabashi’s and Saboohi’s postorientalism(s) can be further clarified when one perceives the priority “agency” and “social action” receive in each of the discourses. In his book, Dabashi focuses considerable attention on agency of the individual and particularly the “intellectual in exile”, discussing that  “a mode and manner” of “moral and historical agency” would help individuals develop “discursive articulations” of “revolutionary activism” (p. 187), prioritizing individual discourses and agencies. Dabashi also believes that the “crisis of the subject” has been resolved and has achieved balance against the crisis of the dominant ideology. It appears that for him, the construction of social activism is very much reliant on the individual’s political agency.  Saboohi, on the other hand, does not restrict postorientalism to individual agency or social and political activism, but prioritizes “social action” in light of the idea of “art as action” in the process of resistance toward “releasement”. For him the artistic agency of the individual shapes and is shaped by social action. 

     At first glance, a basic similarity between the two discourses seems to reside in the idea of the subject’s resolution of crisis being geared to “creativity”. Referring to the cinema of Iran, Cuba, and Palestine, Dabashi contends that a significant “mode and manner” to solve the crisis of the subject is “creativity”. However, he separates artistic agency from political agency and activism (see the introduction and chapter 4 of his book), and suggests that an alternative method for solving the crisis of the subject is through revolutionary praxis, border-crossing, and political agency (p. 193). According to Saboohi, however, political action is not the alternative or supplementary method, and cannot be essentially separated from the creative and artistic affair. Within this discursive understanding, art and politics are interwoven. He sets forth the “politic-aesthetic” dimension of an event to address the political nature of postorientalist art. In this view, the political aspects of aesthetics cannot be separated from the aesthetic aspects of politics. It is thus clear that within this superficial similarity lies a deep difference. 

     Another prerequisite to this discussion is a very brief account of Edward Said’s “orientalism”. As the foundation of postcolonialism, orientalism is a paradigm shift (Burney, 2012). Orientalism, Burney argues, challenges and criticizes the “Western representation” and “social construction” of the East (i.e., the Orient). Adopting a critical approach, orientalism attempts to make transparent the opaque aspects as well as hidden agenda of power, knowledge, culture, hegemony, and imperialism, which in Said’s terms have shaped the “colonial discourse” and represented the East as the “other” through the binary of the Occident and the Orient (ditto). To Said, this hegemonic system led to scientific, economic, political, social, military, cultural, and cognitive manipulation of the East through using various instruments such as media, arts, and literature. Said extensively explored orientalism within a historical perspective. To him, Western authors, ethnographers, orientalists, and travelers “orientalised” the East through reconstructing a Western representation of its identity, voice, and culture (see Culture and Imperialism for more on Said’s thoughts on literature and arts in relation to imperialism).  From an ontological perspective, the postcolonialist discourse does not repudiate the existence of the other in its understanding of being and reality (Tembo & Gerber, 2019). It doesn’t seem, however, that this approach would adopt an essentialist perspective by nature, leaving it with multiple realties to cope with (ditto). Epistemologically, postcolonial theories accentuate the non-binary, social construction of knowledge which stems from epistemic and cognitive interaction among individuals and identities within a broad intercultural context. In this realm, it is no more the Western knowing subject who constructs and represents knowledge about an Eastern object. The postcolonial orientalist epistemology interconnects knowledge and emancipatory action, giving voice to the marginalized groups and ethnic minorities through drawing upon critical theory and political activism. Postcolonial identities and diasporic conditions are intermingled. From an axiological standpoint, these identities bring with them multiple values reconsidering and putting away ethical norms determined or appreciated by the Western society. As for the aesthetics of orientalism, a good number of papers and books addressed the issue and it is beyond the scope of the present brief essay. For example, Roger Benjamin has explored the aesthetics of orientalism through the lens of visual exotism and its origins in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco in the works of French artists influenced by orientalist inspirations. For criticisms leveled at orientalism see the writings of James Clifford, Aijaz Ahmad, and Homi Bhabha. 

     Let us now explore postorientalism considering its paradigmatic underpinnings from ontological, epistemological, and axiological perspectives. Ontologically, the nature of being in postorientalist art is radically different from a positivistic realization of and a critical realist appreciation of single reality. It does not confine itself to the hermeneutic understanding of multiple realities; it does not reject it, either. Within a postorientalist understanding, pluralist representations of reality emerge as a result of social, cultural, and political action and interaction. The ontology of postorientalist music is perceived through realizing the sonic phenomenon within a chain of acoustic-visual events with multiple identities in the process of becoming. Moving beyond the traditional time-space relationship, the musical event creates possible and probable acoustic realities that stem from a quality of sameness with the action taken by the artist(s) and continues to live within the realm of “politics-aesthetics”. The realities emerge from states of “resistance” as well as “waiting” on the side of the artists and the audiences in their struggle against the hegemonic forces, toward probable truths, a state of emancipation which can be referred to as “releasement”. Saboohi’s understanding of freedom of this ilk is somewhat similar to the Heideggerian sense in which the term “releasement” is used. For instance, in his preludes, Saboohi, on the one hand, uses microtonal intervals to create a profound, heritage-driven, historicized transition from Bach’s equal temperament farther back to untempered music, and, at the same time, uses sound chains to unchain and emancipate the musical event from the traditional forms and append it to the open, flexible, and unending sound blocks, moving beyond generic possibilities in contemporary music. In postorientalist ontology, if fugitive realities get entrapped by hegemonic discourse practices, they will face “erosion” moving faster toward entropy; proceeding in the opposite direction, however, realities, experienced by the artist and the audience in the process of emancipatory poiesis of the artistic event, through “resistance” and “waiting”, will move toward the transcendental condition of  “releasement”. To Saboohi, resistance must unite with waiting from within to generate external forces to lead to emancipation. Such emancipatory poiesis co-constructed by the composer and the audience can be experienced when one encounters Saboohi’s composition Postorientalism No. 0: Sound Block 5. This artistic event rebukes and belittles the instrumental functions of language and music, particularly when they are used to exercise power and maintain hegemony. This is a feature of Abbas Kiarostami’s (the late Iranian director) modest and honest films that reproach and depreciate commercial movies and big productions in the mainstream cinema, the ones that serve the interest of the authorities. Words fail to explain the artist’s and audience’s seclusive and solitary experience of “becoming” when they get engaged in such artistic events. This may be related to the state of Samishii which Saboohi regards as an aspect of releasement and the point of departure for postorientalist art. 

     To understand the epistemological basis of postorientalism, one needs to explore the nature of knowledge and the relationship between the knower/the subject and the known/the object in this condition; thus, the nature of knowledge constructed by the artist, the event, and the audience needs to be explored. Postorientalist knowledge is by no means objective in the positivistic sense or even purely subjective in the hermeneutic sense. With respect to the social construction of the artistic event, it appears that postorientalist knowledge is more of an intersubjective nature, with a particular emphasis on its critical dimension. In this condition, artistic knowledge is constructed through the organic and synergistic integration of the artist, the event, and the audience. It is not of course restricted to knowledge construction by the Eastern artist and audience as opposed to those in the West. The Eastern subject, the non-European/non-American subject, or even the voiceless Western subject marginalized by the hegemonic construction of knowledge and discourse shaped by the West, or even by hegemonic structures in the East, develops and constructs shared socio-cultural knowledge in the process of creating emancipatory art that is legitimized by its very “politic-aesthetic” dimension. In an ongoing and catenulate (i.e., chainlike) cycle, the process engages more and more agentive subjects to reach social catharsis or perform social action. The chain of events and acts form a kind of socio-cultural cognition or action that represents resistance against any centralized, hegemonic source of power. In analyzing postorientalist epistemology, the role of the “release-seeking” audience is of great significance. In one of his meta-temporal letters to Said, Saboohi introduces this earnest audience as the main identifying feature of postorientalist art. In Saboohi’s viewpoint, postorientalist events are brought to existence and identified by the release-seeking or the released audience. He states: “the truth in postorientalism emerges from the unfolding of the strength of the ‘released’ audience within a politic-aesthetic paradigm.” In his view, the liberated audience is an element of the audio-visual block that unveils an aspect of the prismatic identity of the event, thus manifesting its pluralistic, multifaceted existence from non-being and nullity. 

     Furthermore, Saboohi, in his letters to Said, even criticizes the institutionalized or invisible power structures (like the hegemony of the Iranian traditional music) in the East. Epistemology of postorientalism is actually in consonance with the determination of the high-minded man (the artist or the audience) and their cognitive and affective capacity in their quest for self-emancipation, joining other sound blocks and, at the same time, being immersed in the state of Samishii. Consequently, in a postoriental condition, classical composers no more call the pop musicians as “the other”. Western composers do not label the microtonal chains of music from the East as the music of “the other” or the music of the exotic places. Transition from common hegemonic practices and normalized music to acoustic and sonic events with fluid identities (outside of such hegemonic contexts as colleges, conservatories, institutes, reliable sources and textbooks, famous publishers, trending music, charismatic figures, etc.) to the emancipatory condition of postorientalism creates authentic and intersubjective musical knowledge and cognition—i.e., a kind of cognition that is enriched by musical or visual micronarratives through floating untempered intervals, identity-rich sounds, reconstructed or transfigured effects emerging from exploration of the real, leading to a musical cognition that is pure, authentic, and emancipatory. Moving beyond one’s self, experiencing Samishii, and at the same time communicating with other artists and the audience is key to the creation of an artistic event that is authentic, redemptive, and release-seeking. To my understanding, Saboohi resorts to the transcendental concept of “releasement” hoping that the society will be able to rely on the power of the arts to bring about social change, avoiding violent activism (e.g., militant art—see Martin Lang’s PhD dissertation), moving toward the ultimate transcendental “happening of love”, and by extension, experiencing cultural change both from within and from without. 

     As regards axiology of postorientalism, Saboohi defines its ultimate value as “resistance” toward “releasement”. Postorientalism frees ethical values from any linguistic, ideological, and cultural prejudices. As I understand it, the true postorientalist value in the process of creating a work of art is basically interconnected with the releasement of the subject as the major outcome of “resistance toward releasement”. Artistic events develop their identities from narratives in contexts and, reciprocally, shape the plural identities of the narratives and contexts. The cooccurrence of such multiple identities and narratives paves the way toward emancipatory discourses. Such discourses do not tend to use standardized or normalized language to define values; and the values cannot be classified within a universal and coherent system. In such a setting, the cooccurrence, adjacency, or synthesis of the pluralistic sonic/acoustic or visual identities of folk music, microtonal intervals, noise, etc. will create the fluid, dramatic basis for an artistic event. One may ask: is it not the same as the so-called postmodern “pastiche” or “collage”? This is not the case, I suppose. In postorientalism, although intertextuality is not totally disproved if in the service of the act of resistance, the artistic event in its essence does not favor borrowing as a value. Borrowing from the previous works of art (like Ives’ patchworks or quotations in the works of Berio, Martino, Zimmerman, Nono, and Schnittke or even quotations in the works of earlier composers such as Bach, Mozart, Berlioz, and List) cannot create added value in postorientalist music. Indeed, postmodern art and, particularly, music adopt an eclectic, pluralist approach, are polystylist, do not value binary oppositions such as tonal vs. post-tonal, past vs. present, use quotations and collages as techniques, etc. But using collage, in this tradition, aims at putting components together to create a polystyle work of art or referring to the previous tonal patterns reconstructing them using a new language (for more examples, we can refer to the works of Rochberg, Corigliano, Penderecky). Similar approaches can be also traced in neo-romanticist music; a simpler and purer way of using neo-tonal structures can be found in the works of Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, and John Adams (see Roig-Francoli, 2007).  

     But postoriental art moves beyond all these sorts of techniques. In postorientalism, any intertextual (re)construction happens in line with reinforcing sound blocks and chains, aiming at perseverance and resistance. Intertextuality in this condition is not restricted to parody, pastiche, collage, and quotation; rather, it comes to life from within the blocks and genres. What Saboohi refers to as “sound chains and altered blocks through use of acoustic and electro-acoustic composition”  is different from the postmodern collage in some respects. First, the compositional essence of the chains is based on multiple acoustic identities reinforcing the very nature of each block. Second, the poiesis of such chain has political value; that is to say, it is not the result of mere arrangement, patchwork, and quoting variations (which can take on hegemonic functions). It actually goes farther and enters the realm of art as emancipatory action. An intertextual instance within a postorientalist composition discovers the internal elements of resistance and action, thus, creating a force that catapults the audience to another world. The force of such an event comes from within, is internal, but can be multiplied and reinforced externally in its chain relation to other blocks. That is how it is different from using collage as a technique.  Creating genre chains within and across the sound blocks is a different strategy. If postmodern music crosses genre borders (see Hutcheon, 2002), postorientalist music rediscovers genre potentials and finds their organic interconnectedness within sound blocks. In this way, discovering sound chains leads to the emergence of sustained and ongoing events. A relevant example is Saboohi’s first Politics-Aesthetics album, track 17. In this composition, a traditional lullaby unfolds in a political context and acquires a “politic-aesthetic” value. Form and content are developed in the context of an interdiscursive dialogue between the deeply-rooted emotional essence of the lullaby and the politic-aesthetic action taken by the composer in creating the event. Similar examples can also be found in different cultures (see Rollins, 2008). 

    Obvious as it may seem, never does postorientalism restrict the artist as it does not want to get entrapped by a grand narrative or a hegemonic discourse.  Any art work or event (even the ones traditionally classified into known genres according to stylistic principles), if prepared to take on the cultural and political qualities and functions of a postorientalist event with the capacity to reveal a certain degree of relatedness to the block chains, can reposition itself and become a postorientalist event. Therefore, postorientalist axiology is not a closed system with axiomatic principles. Values, in the postorientalist condition, emerge out of resistance and perseverance and develop from the subject’s creative and cultural agency as well as intersubjective social action in a process of moving toward releasement. For instance, take into account the works of Käthe Kollwitz which, according to the visual arts literature, are known to be characteristically expressionist. Now rereading and revisiting Kollwitz’s works in light of her political discourse and agentive identity, we may interpret some of her works within a postorientalist paradigm: “It is my duty to voice sufferings of men, the never-ending sufferings heaped mountain-high”, says Kollwitz. The visual art expert Luise Mahler states that “Käthe Kollwitz established herself in an art world dominated by men by developing an aesthetic vision centered on women and the working class” (https://www.moma.org/artists/3201). Integrating techniques in drawing, graphic design, and lithography, Kollwitz created moving images of the sufferings of the victims of war and social injustice. So it would be relevant to reinterpret her emancipatory works in the paradigm of postorientalism; it may be even possible to reposition such works in the postorientalist condition; as if such artistic events, along with the ones with similar function across the block chains, have gone into orbit to wait for and be catapulted toward the transcendental state of releasement. This is the every postorientalist intertextuality (or we may better call it interdiscursivity) that is quite different from its postmodern counterpart.

     Perhaps the most illustrative exemplar of a postorientalist event is street art representing resistance in Palestine. Such street murals activate visual narratives as performative events against the hegemonic oppressive forces. Discursive and semiotic performativity of such events is so strong and persuasive that creates a major challenge for the oppressive forces. To create the mural, the liberated artist puts herself or himself in the midst of a life-threatening crisis, placing her or his life in grave danger to give life to an emancipatory artistic event. The mural, as a performative, critical, robust, and release-seeking event, can be situated within, join, or even create  a visual block ready to welcome the release-seeking audience. In this conjoining process, when the audiences unite with the event and of course with each other, social and cultural forces form and, as Saboohi asserts, “come one after another”. In this field, Saboohi argues, the audience engages in an “active” and “determining contribution” to the poiesis of “art as releasement” in the process of “resistance”; in such a way that the postorientalist artist becomes the initiator of the movement. Saboohi believes that oppressing such a movement by the hegemonic forces results in “cultural metastasis” and consequently leads to a self-terminating result. This halt does not necessarily designate the end of the event, as the earnest and honest forces seeking releasement resume action to release the “emancipatory movement” from the “frozen state”.  In the encounter with the artistic event, the release-seeking audience explores and judges the “politic-aesthetic” quality and identity of the event. The audience rejects a work of art that does not reveal such a quality. For example, let’s consider a Palestinian audience’s reaction to Banksy’s mural on the “segregation wall”: “We don’t want [the wall] to be beautiful. We hate this wall, go home!” (Parry, 2011). The Palestinian audience, however, appreciates the cartoon character created by Naji al-Ali, forming solemn rereadings of resistance based on this simple character. 

     As an important component of postorientalist axiology, its aesthetics needs to be further explored. It is indeed a difficult task to study the aesthetics of postorientalist art because the ontological and epistemological aspects of it are still fuzzy; and there is a limited number of works associated with this condition. What follow are but my personal reflections on the aesthetic dimension of postorientalist art. 

     Most of the conceptualizations of aesthetics from its etymological meaning (i.e., studying pleasure in the process perception), to its early definition by Buamgarten (i.e., pleasure driven from the synthesis of forms on the basis of logic and wisdom), to the philosophical treatment of the term by Kant (who considered the human being’s relation to things from cognitive, ethical, and aesthetic perspectives), to Hegel’s revisiting of aesthetics in the context of the arts can receive critical and emancipatory interpretations. All that mentioned, I suppose an appropriate point of departure for addressing aesthetics in postorientalism can be Karatani’s contribution who criticized the construction of oriental aesthetics by the Western thought and philosophy. Karatani argues that what is reflected in the works and writings of Western art critics, ethnographers, and orientalists as the aesthetic affair in a phenomenon from the East, outside the context of the text or book has a more destructive function than a constructive one. Namely, the Western audience that appreciates the beauty in an Eastern phenomenon, would degrade such a quality when it is decontextualized and represented as an element of life and culture of the other who lives in an exotic under-developed region. In this sense, according to Karatani, respect for the beauty in the culture of the other is not equivalent to respect for the other. 

     For a more in-depth understanding of aesthetics in postorientalism it would be helpful to refer to Zangwill (2005). In his view, the difference between the aesthetic pleasure with other types of pleasure resides in the fact the former has an aesthetic content, while the latter lacks such a content. In this vein, one can ask: What is the content or function of postorientalist aesthetics? To address the question, let us first consider Rancière’s analysis of the revolutionary potential of aesthetics and the role of critical arts in revolutionary praxis, as well as the aesthetic experience in the contemporary context as a process of constructing life and culture rather than merely creating a piece of art. In this sense, postorientalist aesthetics would be amalgamated with the political affair. Beauty in postorientalist art represents aspects of life and culture that seek emancipation from hegemonic discourse and power. Hence, aesthetics of the postorientalist event has a political-aesthetic content; this content, which springs from the artist’s sufferings and function as a driving force for moving toward the state of releasement in the poiesis of the art event, shapes or generates form. The aesthetic experience, which is self-sufficient and self-sustained, is communicated to the audience. On such an account, the postorientalist aesthetic experience goes “meta”; it takes the experiencers beyond the perception of pleasure per se, repositions them in the socio-cognitive and socio-affective domains of shared empathy, and helps them move passionately, delightfully, and decidedly in the direction of social resistance and releasement. Even if individual resistances are not convergent, their acoustic or visual representations create contradictive metacognitive effects between content and form in the musical/visual event that guides one to use the form and content to know the form and/or to use the content and form to learn about the content. I’d rather use the term “counterpoint” here in its metaphorical sense to refer to the idea of “resistance vs. resistance”, “resistance for resistance”, and “resistance within” resistance as a main strategy for the integration of form and content to compose, create, or represent the artistic event. The interactions, or sometimes, confrontations are the form-generating and meaning-making tools in postorientalist art. In this realm, the artistic event is by no means separate from the various aspects of lived experience of the subject who has passed crisis; and, thus, each phenomenon, condition, state, or organic content in the environment plays a form-generating, aesthetic role.

     For instance, consider the aesthetic content stemming from the formal functions of performance in fencing and calligraphy in Japanese or Chinese cultures. Su Shi (Dongpo Jushi), Chinese calligrapher and poet, explores congruence, harmony, and synthesis of the brush strokes and sword slashes and argues that the synergistic interaction among them creates a transcendental state of “virtuosity” that Barnhart (2016, p. 235) beautifully describes: “One senses in his work exuberant pride in the freedom that comes only after absolute mastery of all convention, releasing the brush into a realm of sheer joyful creation.” A contemporary example can be found in Reza Abedini’s designs. Interaction and intra-action of form and content as well as integration of calligraphy and typography with the traditional elements of culture in Abedini’s works, and his return to the human element in the post-digital era, represent idiosyncratic and interdiscursive cultural-aesthetic features for the audience to experience through the encounter with the works. 

      From another standpoint, one can explore the aesthetics of postorientalist music by revisiting key terms such as form, content, and harmony. Over the past centuries, the aesthetic pleasure gained by listening to music has been, in great part, due to and intertwined with the sound-induced qualities of tension and release. In classical music, for instance, the aesthetic experience was congruent with the sense of release solving tensions by reaching consonance in the paradigm of functional harmony. Developing more innovative tension-release relations resorting to chords inducing high degrees of tension and gradually using chromatic chords in postclassical music would give the new generation of audiences a more novel auditory experience. However, as the border between tension and release became fuzzy or even invisible (as musicians broke away from the principles of functional harmony), the audience was about to experience aesthetic shocks when encountering modern music. Such aesthetic qualities create paradoxes within the composition. The paradoxical qualities residing in the work of music can be interpreted in light of Deleuze’s concept of “internal difference” which is defined in non-relative, non-identity texture of the composition (Nesbitt, 2004). According to Nesbitt, the Deleuzian  “internal difference” was quite apparent in Wagner’s use of the Tristan chord in an atmosphere related to functional harmony. In this context, the Tristan chord emerges as a self-contained independent event that creates an “internal difference” (or a radical paradox) within the texture of functional harmony; as in functional harmony each chord is only defined with respect to its relation to the tonic and does not have an independent function. With the emergence of Debussy’s reconstruction of modal harmony and Wagner’s Tristan chord, together with contributions from similar composers, the system of functional harmony became shaky and faint until Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic paradigm took over, leading to a state of emancipation at the time. Such an emancipation was of course by nature musical and internal, resulting from Schoenberg’s radical contribution and other composer’s personal experimentations (composers like Berg, Webern, Xenakis, and Stockhausen) and their resistance against the predetermined musical forms and fixed harmonic principles. The resistance was in essence linked to composers individual attempts and led to the creation of very personal works of music that could not go beyond the individual musical agency of the composer, let alone be translated to social action. We shouldn’t of course forget Boulez and his highly structuralist approach to dealing with sound blocks in process where series construct forms. Be that as it may, the dialectical aspects of resistance that challenged the interally-driven characteristics of both tonal and atonal paradigms and conceptualized music as action (probably following Austin’s and Searle’s speech act theory) was set forth by John Cage. This is like a transition from Deleuze’s internal difference to Adorno’s dialectic aesthetics. Not only did Cage’s emancipatory contribution go beyond and reject the idea of tension and release, it also at some points belittled and reproached the acoustic quality or sound-ness of music as in his 4:33, leading to an alternative dialectic discourse in the realm of music. 

     In his essay “The Dialectic Composer”, ۱۹۳۴, later published in a volume containing his selected essays in 2002, Adorno praises Schoenberg for the elaborate use of material and form, solving the problem of “strictness” and “freedom”, not sacrificing the material for the sake of form and harmony; rather using this contradiction as a production force. Dialectic subjectivity, to Adorno, “vacillates between form and expression” until they reach a state of equilibrium (ditto, p. 205). In this philosophical analysis, Adorno points to the contradiction between the subject (i.e., the compositional intention) and the object (i.e., the compositional material) which stems from the internal power of the composer and what he has in front of him. Adorno asserts that for Schoenberg these two are not two separate modes but generate one another. Aesthetic perception here is geared to an understanding the affordances of the dodecaphonic music, breaking away from normalized harmonic-melodic patterns. This contribution in music is a revolutionary act whose appreciation requires deep and flexible cognitive, emotional, and experiential capacities. 

     Reinterpreting Adorno’s dialectic approach can help one develop a deeper understanding of the aesthetics of postorientalism. In postoriental music, the Eastern or non-Western composer has probably passed the crisis of the subject and developed her or his identity. The postorientalist composer does not restrict herself or himself to a fixed paradigm. The binary contradiction between the subject and the object does not matter to the postorientalist composer as it was resolved for Schoenberg. However, the postorientalist composer knows that even if there is an object, it is not restricted to form and material. The composer lives a worldly life, conjoins his agency to social action, and resorts to all the affordances within his or her cognitive, somatic, and emotional domains to represent the artistic event that may be inspired by the circumstances of her or his lived experience. In their encounter with the artistic event, the audience, too, explores their subjectivity and identity, develops an intersubjective relationship with the other, perceives the shared goals, and engages in an acoustic-cultural act of accompanying the artistic event to get immersed in resistance and struggle against the hegemonic force. Thus an individual will, or if possible, and a social movement shapes toward releasement. Here we see the intersection of politics and aesthetics. The aesthetic pleasure in such an event has a political-aesthetic content. Such a content is not shaped on the basis of a predetermined form. This politic-aesthetic content can generate form on its own. The postorientalist aesthetics has to go beyond a purely content-oriented or purely form-based aesthetic experience and pleasure. This can be a point of departure for postorientalist art. The aesthetic experience of postorientalism must surpass the pleasure one experiences in works of great contemporary composers such as Kaija Saariaho, Thomas Adez, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, … . Even hybrid composition that is open to integrating Western, non-Western, and pop music would not have a postorientalist essence by nature, although postorientalism respects hybrid composers like David Lang, Michael Daugherty, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon.  To experience the beautiful affair in postorientalist art, one needs to experience and reflect upon Ehsan Saboohi’s recent compositions. Saboohi invites us to join him and welcome visual and sound artists whose works, in one way or another, bear a resemblance to artistic events in the postorientalist condition: Reza Abedini, Galo Durán, Niloufar Gheysari, Simon Goldring, Lindsey Harald-Wong, Kweku Okokroko, Afarin Sajedi, Daniel Jan Samborska, Hamidreza Sheikhmorteza, and I. H. Wakabayashi. 


* The present brief essay represents my reflections on postorientalist music to be read and interpreted in dialogue with other discourses about it; thus I call it a discourse. By analogy with Saboohi’s “sound blocks”, I used the term discourse block in the title to elucidate its connection with other discourse blocks, the previously developed ones (e.g., Saboohi’s writings and music) and the ones emerging in the future, hoping that block chains of discourses on postorientalist music will emerege. I label this block Omega as it symbolizes resistance in physics. Furthermore, although it’s the last letter in the Greek alphabet denoting the end of or limit of something, its abjad equivalent is 10 which is similar to the abjad numeral corresponding with the second Persian numeral “۲” and also the second letter of the Persian alphabet /be/ all represented by number 10 in the abjad system  (this interpretation helps reorient the end toward a beginning in a discursive sense in the context of postorientalism), illustrating that this discourse block is not the first or the last but is among the intermediary, interdiscursive events exploring postorientalist music.

Discourse Block Omega

Reflections on Postorientalist Music 


Postorientalism Research Group

May 2023

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