சிந்துஜன் வரதராஜா (Sinthujan Varatharajah) is an independent researcher and essayist based in Berlin. The focus of their work is statelessness, mobility and geographies of power with a special focus on infrastructure, logistics and architecture. Their first book “an alle orte, die hinter uns liegen” (“to all the places we have left behind”) was published in September 2022 in Germany by Hanser Verlag.
When Lydia Tár was fired from her job as the first chief conductor of the Berlin Symphonic, her previous meteoric rise to musical stardom seemed to have come to a harsh end. Not only had Todd Field’s fictional protagonist – in his much-acclaimed 2022 psycho-drama Tàr –lost all her prestigious jobs, but also her face and personhood. The reputational damage the star conductor had suffered from haunted her across continents; that is from Europe all the way to Turtle Island. She had finally become unhirable in the world of so-called classical music.
Cornered by media and peers, Tár saw herself forced to return to her parental home in an unassuming working-class neighbourhood in Aquehonga Manacknon, better known by its European colonial name “Staten Island.” Geographically, socially, and economically far-off from so-called Manhattan and Potsdamer Platz, where Tár hadn’t just built herself a name but had previously also changed her birth name and biography (to obscure her untraditional working-class origin in this elitist cultural field), Tár tried to hide away in this small town in the settler-colony. She tried to effectively vanish from the public’s radar and the scrutiny her actions had faced. There, in this nameless and seemingly random settler-town, the conductor began to drift into a deep depression from which it seemed impossible to climb out again.
Or so we were made to believe. But the film didn’t end there. It continued with a time-lapse. Weeks or maybe months later—the exact timeline isn’t made clear to viewers of the film—Lydia Tár had changed locations. She was no longer caught in her claustrophobic childhood room, but was seen immersed in a vastly different environment: a brightly lit megapolis, foreign to Tár and most viewers of the film. Though this city remains abstracted by the director (similar as to Tàr’s hometown), visual cues, from urban fabric to cultural signifiers such as street signs, cars, building types, and (non-European) residents, render it vaguely identifiable as a megacity in so-called Southeast Asia. To the European-American director, it was apparently less important where exactly the film’s protagonist was, but rather where exactly she wasn’t.
The city Tár had now found herself in remained more or less a smokescreen. But not completely. The director employs tropes familiar to Western viewers, long established by the likes of films such as “Lost in Translation” and “Eat, Pray, Love.” These serve to inform Western viewers that this type of radical change in geography (in a European’s life) is to signify a break from something or someone, and to symbolise a profound cut in Tár’s personal and professional life, which had crumbled in front of our eyes. A new chapter had begun for her, far away from where scandals had deprived her of a professional future.
Unlike Charlotte, Bob, and Elizabeth, the fictional characters in Sofia Coppola and Ryan Murphy’s films, Tár didn’t arrive in this part of the world as an indulgent and self-involved tourist. She wasn’t on vacation. Quite the opposite: she had come there to take up a job offer. In this nameless non-European city, Tár took on the role of a substitute conductor for a local orchestra. As part of it, she was suddenly in charge of a group of young musicians, all non-Europeans, who piously sat in front of her, distinctly dressed in European clothing and clutching onto different European instruments. Though the foreign worker didn’t speak the local orchestra’s language(s), she was still considered eligible for the job. And that’s because she didn’t need to (and thus probably never intended to). Rendered void of specificities by the European-American director, the Southeast Asian orchestra was somehow still able to understand Tár’s language, mimics, and gestures - despite virtually being thousands of kilometres and cultures apart. They had been attuned to and in sync with what the tall, white, blonde woman brought and stood for. Almost as if they had been prepared for her arrival.
The film ends in a dramatic final scene in which Tár is seen on stage again. She conducts in front of a live audience, much younger in age and dressed distinctly different from the audience she had previously played in front of in Germany and Turtle Island respectively. Here, in this nameless city, the renowned European-American conductor entertains a group of cosplayers with theme songs from a famous Japanese video game series. Moments later, the film abruptly ends, and viewers are thrown back into their own reality.
In both films, Tár’s and Harris’ career moves are mainly explained through midlife crisis tropes of the rich and the white, rather than the historic infrastructures they reveal and respond to. But the location moves deployed here by white directors as plot material need to be seen for what they are: exploitations of spatial, material, and cultural relationships that remain in essence colonial.
No further explanation or context is provided. This caused online reviewers to describe the ending as possibly comedic. Some even considered the entire finale as a hallucinatory episode Tár is experiencing; an insight into her troubled psyche. This presumed tension, underlined by the spatial and cultural differences this nameless Southeast Asian city produced, caused a stir among cinemagoers. Many Western viewers struggled to comprehend the purpose and benefits of this specific-non-specific setting and ending for the narrative plot and protagonist’s character development. Had Tár fallen so deep that she had to be turned into a caricature in an obscured place? And though this transgression in place and career seemed for many out of place, it wasn’t as odd and unrealistic as it was made to be seen and critiqued for. When the director pushed Tár out of her own, and many of the viewers’, familiar geographies, he wasn’t being hypothetical or creative. He was instead referencing a very real, worldly, common, and popular cultural practice for a number Western celebrities.
Fading Western celebrities, who desperately seek a second life to their faltering careers in their homelands in faraway places (that remain economically and hard currency-relevant), where the facial value and reputation of European(-descent) celebrities holds strong and lives long (thanks to white supremacy), are commonplace. Bob Harris, the European-American fictional movie star played by Bill Murray in Sophia Coppola’s 2003 hit “Lost in Translation”, already showcased such a tactical career move from Turtle Island to Japan when his career in the settler-colony was falling apart. The main difference was that Coppola, unlike Field, didn’t obscure the place her main character sought shelter. She instead rendered Tokyo into a protagonist of its own. Field chose the opposite. In both films, Tár’s and Harris’ career moves are mainly explained through midlife crisis tropes of the rich and the white, rather than the historic infrastructures they reveal and respond to. But the location moves deployed here by white directors as plot material need to be seen for what they are: exploitations of spatial, material, and cultural relationships that remain in essence colonial.
The film’s presumably “strange” ending became a bit of a headache for the producers as well. So much that it even negatively influenced film ratings, most likely also lowered the overall box office, and maybe even impacted the film’s success at award shows. The question at the centre of the debate, why the European-American director chose to send Tár down this particular dramatic plot line, was however distracting from the more interesting and maybe peculiar question: why, even in fiction, Tár was able to relocate with so little effort to a place outside her cultural comfort zone to continue her very European career with relatively few translation labour. Why were Western viewers more confused about Tár continuing her career where and how she did, rather than why and how many non-Europeans, like the youths from the orchestra in this nameless city, had become so familiar with a culture that was in its origins, not theirs?
These institutions, built with the sweat and blood of enslaved First Nations, became some of the crime sites where natives were forced to formally abandon their own cultures, from faith, values, norms, behaviours, etiquettes, to dress codes, to become “civilised” colonised – a racist codeword used to describe the process of Europeanisation of non-Europeans.
Manila is a city of 15 million people and the capital city of the so-called Philippines. The archipelago state comprises more than 7100 islands, and its biggest megalopolis is located on its largest and most populous island, Luzon, at the northern tip of this vast island chain. Manila is where power resides and where people come to prosper and grow, but also to leave for better lives abroad. It is this Filipino city that became the nameless non-human actor in Todd Field’s film—the place he uses as the site for Tár’s career diversion and reinvention. But Manila remains largely obscured in the film, exchangeable and disposable at the same time, and only readable to those familiar with this region. The backdrop to Tár could be Manila, but it could also be any other city in the country, wider region, and continent for many outsider viewers. This form of spatial abstraction, omission, and distraction actively feeds off and reinforces colonial imagery and associations that connect the so-called past with the so-called present, rendering something distant, somewhat read- and placeable, but never specific enough for it to become really meaningful. Though Manila seemed, at first sight at least, like a random city for the director to send Tár to, on second sight, it turned out not to be all that random.
When, in 1521, European time, Spanish colonist Ferdinand Magellan invaded the archipelago and violently declared it part of the Spanish Empire, the colony was quickly renamed after their King Filip II, a name the country and its 114 million peoples still tragically carry. As part of this wave of colonial conquests and plunder, Manila, a several thousands of years-old port city, eventually also fell under Spanish control. This marked the beginning of a period of four-hundred-twenty-five years of violent European colonisation. It was to irrevocably change the archipelago’s lands-, water, and skyscapes. Europeans’ terror soon impacted the lives of all of the territories’ many inhabitants, humans and non-humans alike, and each of their diverse cultures. It threw them far outside their known orders, rhythms, and times into diktats and boundaries, legal, cultural, and material, imposed and maintained by Europe. It hijacked the now colonised, without a necessary change in location for them. Spanish conquest also led to an influx of foreigners. Thousands of Spanish soldiers, traders, and settlers came to solidify Spanish rule, who were accompanied by countless colonial missionaries. They were to reinforce their racial and cultural supremacy by establishing churches, convents, and schools across the islands. These institutions, built with the sweat and blood of enslaved First Nations, became some of the crime sites where natives were forced to formally abandon their own cultures, from faith, values, norms, behaviours, etiquettes, to dress codes, to become “civilised” colonised – a racist codeword used to describe the process of Europeanisation of non-Europeans. This process of cultural engineering, a violent intervention into the lives and futures of inhabitants, entailed, amongst others, the teaching of the Latin alphabet, mass baptism to Catholicism as well as the instruction of Western liturgical music. The latter was taught to the colonised by Spanish music teachers who had arrived alongside other colonists on board Spanish ships. Part of their massive cargo trail to the colonies also included something that’s often overlooked: European instruments. These were shipped together with their players into the distance with the idea to expand Europeans’ limited and reactionary concepts of culture far beyond European shores and human bodies.
Colonial cultural imports from Europe, such as musical traditions and instruments must similarly be understood within this violent relationship of coloniser and colonised. They weren’t just fulfilling Europeans’ cultural needs, but were also critically used as weapons and tools for colonial propaganda that reinforced and helped stabilise a system of colonisation. They helped displace colonised subjects further into what is known as colonial modernity: the time and material cultures of Europe.
Upon arrival in the colony, Spanish musicians, many of them church musicians, began to teach locals to sing Catholic chants in European languages and play European instruments. This influence commenced the growing imprint European music traditions and instruments were to have in this region, including also on First Nations’ own music traditions. European dominance only intensified over the decades to come, particularly during the 19th-century, European time, when more secular European music traditions started to make inroads into the archipelago through visiting European musicians, singers, and opera companies. Their arrival was the result of improvements made in transport and logistical technologies. Thousands of kilometres away from Madrid they were to play in theatres and concert halls cropping up across different cities under Spanish colonial administration. Much of the territory’s cultural architecture was commissioned by colonists and built by colonised subjects in accordance with European styles and demands. They produced versions of European material culture in the colonies that were meticulously managed and gatekept. In 1890, for instance, the National Theatre, later known as the Manila Grand Opera House, was built in the heart of this sprawling city, occupying a central spot on the map. And increasingly also in the cultural imagination of many colonised, particularly their urban elites. The locations of many of these buildings were of course not arbitrary. They followed racist urban planning practices that centred, privileged and segregated Europeans and their needs and desires over those of colonised subjects. Colonial cultural imports from Europe, such as musical traditions and instruments must similarly be understood within this violent relationship of coloniser and colonised. They weren’t just fulfilling Europeans’ cultural needs, but were also critically used as weapons and tools for colonial propaganda that reinforced and helped stabilise a system of colonisation. They helped displace colonised subjects further into what is known as colonial modernity: the time and material cultures of Europe.
Eight years after the construction of the said theatre, the archipelago was handed over from Spanish colonial rule to that of a new European Empire: the European settler-colony known here as the so-called “United States”. While the new European colonists were eager to develop (read: to exploit) their newest territorial acquisition, Western musical influence saw in parallel a massive increase across the archipelago. Part of this “development” effort entailed the extension of the now Manila Grand Opera House and the construction of several new colonial buildings. This was driven by the new colonial government’s order to establish public schools across the islands to further their impact far beyond the islands’ cities, towards the many rural areas that had remained relatively isolated from European influence under the Spanish. The new US colonial curriculum continued the Spanish tradition of teaching colonised European music traditions in the so-called Philippines. For generations to come, local pupils fell victim to these teachings from elementary school onwards all the way till adulthood. When in 1916, European time, the University of the Philippines Conservatory of Music was finally completed in Manila, it became the epicentre of European classical music formation in the colony. It began to draw in local and foreign European music enthusiasts, showcasing the devastating impact centuries of cultural violence had had on this colony. It had been successfully dancing in line with Europe, at least at its centre.
Over the decades, the imprint of 400 years of violent foreign rule and cultural manipulations grew. The colony saw new cultures emerge that blended different local cultures of the more than 100 different ethnolinguistic human groups with colonial ones. This process, often referred to as creolisation, a term that stems from the colonial experiences of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the so-called Caribbean, describes cultures that are the result of violent colonial encounters. This process, however, was not the outcome of passive blendings, but the results of cultural engineering practices and policies aggressively enforced by different colonial governments. They involved the imposition of European cultures and etiquettes through colonial educational institutions. The flip side of this cultural management policy was the active isolation, segregation and destruction of indigenous cultures by colonial administrators; cultures that were deemed as “inferior”, “uncivilised”, and “heretical”; cultures that were considered to stand in the way of Europe’s vision for a so-called modern world.
Europeans systematically shoved non-European human cultures, including musical cultures, into physical and rhetorical museums, locking them up in a so-called dark past dismissively labelled with terms such as “traditional” and “folk”. In other words, standing in the way of European ideas of progress.
Creolised cultures were an unwanted byproduct of the encounter of colonised people with foreign colonisers. They were a fine illustration of the difficulty of fully replacing one culture with another and successfully erasing one culture and overwriting it with another. They showcased that Europeans’ attempts to create entirely new kinds of humans, be they colonised subjects or colonial settlers, were merely myths. Traces of preceding histories would somehow always remain. Though creolised cultures, including creolised forms of music, quickly became part of the vernacular of colonial masses, blending local with foreign and translating cultures rather than erasing them, they were widely disregarded by Europeans. Unlike European music, they were not considered part of the so-called” high cultures”, or “culture” to begin with. This status of “high culture” was in many colonies monopolised by Western cultural productions, including Western so-called classical music. The latter was actively used to perform and stage European claims to racial and, thus cultural supremacy, justified by assumptions that this European art form exemplified scientific depth and complexity. Similar to “culture”, “science” too was used by Europeans to justify their own destructive attitudes and actions towards others they deemed inferior. Indigenous music traditions were likewise considered less valuable, refined, and complex, thus less worthy of continuance and survival. In many colonies of different European empires they were entirely prohibited, and practitioners were sanctioned with harsh punishments, pushing them towards extinction. Europeans systematically shoved non-European human cultures, including musical cultures, into physical and rhetorical museums, locking them up in a so-called dark past dismissively labelled with terms such as “traditional” and “folk”. In other words, standing in the way of European ideas of progress. They were considered by Europeans as backwards and inwards-facing, incompatible with colonial modernity, and thus worthy of destruction. In sharp contrast, Europe’s cultures were deemed “timeless”, and “classical,” and yet, despite their claimed age, or rather because of it, also future-oriented. They didn’t stand in the way of time, but led the way towards modernity and walked, maybe even dictating the rhythm of time.
With time and violence, European music had successfully been rendered into a global symbol, system and indicator of mobility, progress and civilisation. The art now lay in mastering European instruments and songs. But it wasn’t limited to that. Being able to passively decipher, understand and appreciate European music increasingly became an indicator of class origin and cultural capital for the colonised. Many non-Europeans tried to emancipate themselves from European ideas around “racial inferiority”, began viewing these cultural idioms as tools to claim and defend their own “humanity” and “civilisation”. They used European cultural literacy to fend off further European encroachments on them. By adapting and incorporating European cultures, from music to alphabet to dress codes, into their own, different non-Europeans adjusted, embraced, but really resigned to this violent order created by Europeans that had by then successfully been imposed through genocidal violence on almost every corner and living being of this world. The realisation that, in order to survive this merciless violence, one had to become like Europeans forced the very few remaining non-European monarchies that had so far managed to fend off formal European colonisation into a process of Europeanisation. These violent processes, today innocently described as periods of “modernisation”, profoundly impacted and changed Japan during the Meiji Period, the Kingdom of Siam under King Rama IV, or the Kingdom of Ethiopia under Haile Selassi. One of the consequences of this cynical turn of event was that it didn’t require Europeans anymore to carry European ideals and cultural markers to the colonised. As in the case of Colonial Korea, it wasn’t Europeans but Japanese colonists who introduced Koreans to Europe’s cultures; who carried European instruments to their new colonial subjects.
Following the Second Imperial War, Europeans ceded control over many, but certainly not all of their colonies. Many have simply changed names, declared artificial independence days, appointed new governments, and hoisted new flags. But their colonial status quo largely remains. While Europe claims to have overcome its colonial past, the violence of their wordmaking projects remains. And it continues. Indeed, colonial modernity has, over the centuries, successfully become the global status quo, so much so that it has sleekly disguised itself, ridding itself of the “colonial” in its name and repackaging itself as “progressive”. It remains even today, in the European year of 2023, globally aspirational.
Though Europe has, at least on paper, shrunk in size again, conservatories teaching European music didn’t retreat from their employers and beneficiaries. They can still be found today in all corners of this planet, not just in Manila. Be it in Nairobi, Kabul, or Seoul, conservatories continue to be housed in buildings that resemble in design and materials those of Europeans. There, tens of thousands of non-European students continue to be trained every year in sounds, rhythms and movements that remain, despite their consequential historical familiarity, inherently foreign. While old conservatories remain highly popular in former colonies, their success inspires new conservatories to be built across the world, like the National Music Conservatory in Amman (1985) or the National Higher Conservatory of Music and Choreography in Rabat (2022). Conservatories have become important status symbols for governments and municipalities to proliferate their national and city image within this new world order. Ironically, Europe’s formal shrinking had only led to its cultural imprint on the world growing. And this continues, despite the proclamation of the postcolony. The toll this development has taken on local cultural productions similarly continues. For European cultures to expand and grow in size and body, for them to become global, others were forced to decline and disappear, to be devalued and criminalised, to eventually become local, provincial, and individual, until they became no more than fading memories.
Thanks to colonialism, it wasn’t just European settlers who were globalised—who we find in places where they have no reason to be—but also European instruments and music. Over the generations, they were successfully integrated into non-European ears, hearts, and homes, so much so that what used to be foreign upon its arrival had turned familiar and local.
While many indigenous music traditions were irrevocably destroyed over the centuries, many surviving ones continue to face extinction. European so-called classical music followed a strikingly different trajectory. It remains a popular music genre in many parts of the world, far beyond the shorelines of Europe. Today, it even continues to grow in popularity, specifically in so-called Eastern Asia. Likeso, there are today more Chinese students studying the piano in China than there are European-Americans in the European settler-colony of Turtle Island itself. It is indeed no more Europeans who are ensuring the longevity of their traditional cultures.
Thanks to colonialism, it wasn’t just European settlers who were globalised—who we find in places where they have no reason to be—but also European instruments and music. Over the generations, they were successfully integrated into non-European ears, hearts, and homes, so much so that what used to be foreign upon its arrival had turned familiar and local. Benefiting from enduring imperial cultural production and consumption habits, European instruments continue to be at an advantage over locally-produced and used instruments, which became considered by many old-fashioned with time. Classified in a derogatory manner as “traditional”, a word that shifts them from the present into the past and is reserved for the cultures of the so-called pre-civilised, they became obscured in their own habitats. The fine boundary line that separates “traditional” from “classical” remains of civilisational significance. It continues to be guarded carefully. In this process of violently establishing colonial modernity, indigenous instruments fell in many places back in time and became associated with old and vanishing cultures, signifiers of dying generations, and idioms. Even or maybe because of the absence of direct European reign, local youths had become, at this point in history, more culturally-oriented towards European cultural productions, consequently often less interested in maintaining cultures that became even locally seen as quaint, niche, and, if anything, only of value when employed to lure and entertain foreign tourists and foreign currencies.
While European instruments were used in many colonies in their original way to realise European music, other musicians adapted European instruments, or rather, extended their usage. In so-called South India, the European violin has become integral over time to some local music cultures. Brahmanical Carnatic music, an art form considered “classical” amongst the state’s elites, is for example, difficult to imagine today without the European violin. The instrument had successfully shifted place, creolising its presence there. It didn’t necessarily displace native instruments, but shared space with them. A more modern example is that of how European instruments have come to be used to realise Japanese video games or anime music. This genre of music has, over the last decades, become widely popular among millions of fans across the world, selling out some of the biggest philharmonics in the world. To the surprise of many European critics, even in the colonial metropolis itself. This development mirrored the wide success Japanese imperial companies experienced following the aforementioned process of Europeanisation. In many cases it allowed them to overtake leading European imperial companies in their own fields of expertise, establishing a dynamic society that continues to be known for adapting something entirely foreign and improving it to the extent that it even outshadows the original product and producers themselves. Likewise, the reach of Japanese OST music is, on average, far more diverse and complex in terms of race, gender, class, and age than that of so-called European classical music. Its popularity has in fact helped familiarise these European instruments and prestige cultural buildings with audiences who usually have no relation to so-called “high culture”. This particular transformation of European musical traditions makes a cameo at the very end of Todd Fields’ film Tár. Here, it is demonstrated as something entirely bewildering.
European modes of living have become global and naturalised, so much so that critical conversations around European traditions today focus on questions of racial diversity in orchestras, ensembles, and European music and dance schools. The question became why non-Europeans remain relatively excluded from European cultural productions rather than why and how European cultural productions have become such a global commodity and signifier for class and “civilisational” ascend.
Colonial modernity helped render so-called European classical music formation a common middle-class aspiration. Today, it is a status symbol that families like to partake in and flaunt with. It co-exists with other colonial symbols of social, economic, and cultural progress, from European fashion to European car ownership. European classical music has become part and parcel of an aspirational ideal. To own a piano is to own wealth, class, and taste. It is considered a licence to a better, brighter, more prosperous, and sophisticated life and future, one that sets the mobile classes apart from the working classes, whose cultures are, if they aren’t appropriated, continued to be looked down upon even by local elites. Families across the Non-Europe, particularly in parts of so-called Asia, continue to go the extra mile to afford European instruments and music education for their children. This often helps them access better schools and compete within a global economy where European cultural productions such as ballet, music, and sports such as tennis, polo, golf, and cricket are considered potential entry tickets to the top tier of the social ladder. European modes of living have become global and naturalised, so much so that critical conversations around European traditions today focus on questions of racial diversity in orchestras, ensembles, and European music and dance schools. The question became why non-Europeans remain relatively excluded from European cultural productions rather than why and how European cultural productions have become such a global commodity and signifier for class and “civilisational” ascend.
Tár’s escape to Manila didn’t seem to make sense to many Western viewers. Yet her path was paved centuries before her own arrival, even long before Cate Blanchett or anyone from the European-American film production company was even born. The choice of Manila as Tár’s strategic exit wasn’t as arbitrary as it was made to be seen. What presents itself as an obscure choice and path by the director, and questioned in its narrative value by many viewers is an indicator of a very long, familiar, and intimate relationship between European settlers and a people who, despite claims to independence, continue to be called and self-referenced by the name of a European king.
The fact that the Manila orchestra Tár conducted was relatively young compared to that at the Berlin Philharmonic probably comes as no surprise in a country shaped by historic underdevelopment and notorious poverty, where the median age is today 25.7 years; a country whose economic survival depends on remittance money sent home by its several million people’s strong exploited indentured workforce. Maybe these young Filipino musicians too, rendered void of context in the European-American production, had hoped that playing these valued instruments would raise their chances of exiting this very place that deserves no name in the film. Maybe they too had hoped that to master these instruments was to succeed in a world that had violently taught them their own place by swallowing and disappearing their own instruments. While watching the tall, white, and blonde conductor dictate their moves, maybe they too were imagining the faraway metropolises she has left behind, only to return and abandon them in the nightmare that is colonial modernity once the dust has settled for her here. But not for them there, where they remain.