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More on the Icicle 7th

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Chinese 7thOr at least, on the name that chord has gone by hitherto. My previous blog post on this got quite a bit of discussion going amongst barbershop arrangers. Not over the new name – most people were as happy to recognise Karri’s suggestion as very fit for purpose as I was – but about the necessity to replace the old one.

There were two types of responses overall. There were the ‘thank goodness, this has been bugging me too,’ type – which I’m not going to dwell on except to acknowledge their existence, as I’ve already written quite a lot to meet those needs. And there were the, ‘this has never struck me as racist so I don’t see the need to change’ ones. These ones need a more detailed response.

First off: note, this reaction is not a general rejection of the need to update our cultural norms in the direction of inclusiveness. Those who voiced it have good track records of being pro-actively pro-equality. They too would have given Type 1 responses had the term twanged their radars in the least.

I’m going to quote Alexander at some length because he articulated so elegantly the need to make the case explicitly to those in the second camp.

I agree that cultural sensitivity is important, but I also think that if you're aiming for widespread use of "Icicle 7th" (which I think is a cool name), it also seems important to explain why "Chinese 7th" is culturally problematic to people who don't already find it obvious. This seems important to me not just to make this specific initiative effective, but also because there is a political cost each time we call out a racist stereotype, in that it invites less culturally sensitive people to discredit the whole movement as snowflakey. Thus, I think we need to invest care into the way that we present each new insensitivity.

So, everyone seems to agree that the term Chinese 7th derived from the sonority of the major 2nd that is both characteristic of the barbershop usage and of the opening of tune ‘Chopsticks’. What is at issue is whether or not this connection relies on reductive stereotypes.

The case against points out that the original title of ‘Chopsticks’ was ‘The Celebrated Chop Waltz’, derived from the performance instruction of how it was to be played – i.e. that the composer’s intention had nothing to do with Chinese stereotypes.

(A second case makes a parallel with other chords that use nationality-based names to identify them. This one is in my view spurious as the German/French/Italian etc 6ths are named for actual national usages. Nobody has yet contended that this particular voicing is particularly popular in actual Chinese music.)

It’s pleasing to think that Euphemia Allan wasn’t using her composition to caricature East Asian people,* but that doesn’t mean that the tune hasn’t accreted troubling connotations since. The very fact that the name it is popularly known as has drifted from her original to something that has typically been used as a metonmymic reference to race is a case in point.

The tune is rarely, indeed, presented with its original title, but because of its capacity to be played without needing to actually learn the piano, enjoys a performance tradition promulgated by children under its assumed name. Interestingly, I have discovered during this debate that the tune I learned as ‘Chopsticks’ in childhood was likewise originally called something else (Der Flohwalzer – the Flea Waltz) but in its circulation amongst my peers was clearly understood as a cartoon of Chinese music.

Because it’s not just in the naming that music signifies, there are musical elements that participate in the circulation of stereotypes, and both of these little pieces have elements that make them susceptible to being associated with such stereotypes. The ‘Chop Waltz’ obviously has the phnert that gave the Chinese 7th its name, whilst the ‘Flea Waltz’ uses the pentatonic scale. Both, in their bashy childhood performance traditions, evoke the clangy, plinky-plonky sound world often used to evoke East Asian stereotypes.

Of course, these musical elements don’t evoke these connotations on their own – after all, the major 2nd in an Icicle 7th almost never references Chinese stereotypes when it’s used in the context of the barbershop chord vocabulary. (Almost never = I can’t think of any examples but am not omniscient.) But they accrue meanings in dialogue with other cultural products that use them. As a child I understood ‘Chopsticks’ in the context of Widow Twanky, the Ying Tong Song, and the jokes made in the playground about how the Chinese people who ran the local chippy spoke.

A couple of what Philip Tagg would call inter-objective comparisons are useful counterpoints to that set of intersubjective associations. The theme tune for Hong Kong Fooey gives us that bright, clangy sound world and ching-chong nonsense lyrics that depict East Asian music and language as brash, simplistic and inherently laughable.

‘Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes’ from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite is typically performed with rather more beauty of pianistic tone, but takes the phnert and the pentatonic scale as its primary thematic features for its musical characterisation.

In both these cases, the musical materials appear in direct contact with stereotypes to which they refer. In the first case, we get the double face of Henry the mild-mannered janitor as Model Minority (though not, to be fair, conspicuously ‘foreign’ until he takes up his super-hero guise) and the Kung Fu practitioner. In the second, we learn that the Empress of the Pagodas is by definition ugly.

It is in this wider circulation of imagery that the tunes of childhood pick up their new names and cartoonish meanings. Looked at in isolation, there’s hardly anything there, and the case for consideraing the derivation of ‘Chinese 7th’ from ‘Chopsticks’ looks frailer the harder you stare at it. But stand back to look at the bigger picture and you find connotations that you really don’t want to reinforce.

And without those connotations, the name ‘Chinese 7th’ doesn’t mean anything. It needs the connection to ‘Chopsticks’ to make sense, and once you’ve got that link made, you are already connected to the wider associative web that caricatured the Oriental Other as a means to reassure Westerners about their cultural superiority.

And, you know, it may not bother you. If your lived experience hasn’t connected those elements up, and you hear ‘Chopsticks’ as merely a signifier of poor piano playing with an inexplicable name, then it makes sense that the term ‘Chinese 7th’ won’t make you feel uncomfortable.

But it does make other people uncomfortable – that’s where this whole discussion started - and so our choice is whether to ignore that or do something about it. They’ll probably not make a big song and dance about it – as several people pointed out, it’s not the most egregious bit of racism we’ve ever come across, and most people understand that the term was likely coined more through some combination of innocence and ignorance than malice. But still, to continue to use it when we know it bothers some people would make me feel complicit; we didn’t choose the term, but we can choose whether to use it. So I’ll be happier in my musicking with Karri’s new term.

And this whole topic reminds me to recommend you take a look at Derek Scott's excellent article on orientalism in music.


*Having said that, I was discussing this with a friend after I’d written this, who said that the term‘chop’, especially in the context of the ‘chopping’ style of performance instruction screamed out reductive East Asian stereotypes to him, with connotations of both martial arts and cooking implements.
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