American Music in the New World Order


Frank J. Oteri, Editor and Publisher
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

Living in an ethnically diverse environment, I continue to be utterly bewildered by the notion that the culture of the United States should be considered part of Western civilization. Such a notion, aside from being limited and completely biased against America’s very sizable population of people from non-European backgrounds, is patently untrue. The strength of America’s culture is that it is an amalgam of European, African, Asian, Latin American, Pacific and pre-Columbian native-American cultures (did I miss anybody?). American culture’s resultant diversity and its ongoing openness to outside influences is a source of inspiration to the rest of the world.

The reality of this position is often hard to perceive within the “classical music community,” which continues to marginalize the work of American composers and all but ignore the fact that there are other classical music traditions in the world besides the one that evolved in Europe over the past 800 years; in fact, several of these traditions are even older. The classical music world finds it perfectly natural that string quartet players raised in Ohio play programs of nothing but music by Beethoven and Mozart (both Austrian composers from long before anyone now living was alive), whereas an Ann Arbor-born player of the North Indian sarangi playing evening ragas or a Bostonian playing traditional repertoire on the Zimbabwean mbira dza vadzimu might be considered somewhat suspect if not inauthentic.

A decade ago, the father of the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue spoke frequently about the emergence of a “new world order” to replace the stalemate of opposing superpowers. Around the same time, from my vantage point both as a listener and a composer, a “new world order” in music seemed to be emerging as well. The orthodoxies of the similarly stalemated uptown and downtown compositional superpowers (within the context of a larger classical music community that had marginalized both of them) seemed to have played itself out, and a younger generation of composers, performers and listeners had emerged for whom stylistic boundaries and cultural hegemony no longer seemed relevant. To their credit, downtown experimentalists, from Cowell and Cage on through the minimalists, had embraced many forms of non-western music as an influence, but for most it was still just an influence rather than a direct lineage, that lineage being only inheritable from a European music tradition which had ironically rejected its rebellious offspring.

Among the first generation of minimalist pioneers, however, Terry Riley stands out for going even further than most of his colleagues in embracing non-western music on equal terms with western classical music, jazz, and just about any other kind of music you can think of. I spent a week with him in Houston where one night he sang traditional Indian ragas accompanied by a group of his students, another night he improvised at the piano in a realm that was equal parts jazz and French impressionism, a third night he performed his landmark In C with the Bang On A Can All-Stars, themselves a cross between a downtown new music ensemble and an alt-rock band. Inspired by my talk with Terry Riley, I asked Iris Brooks to delve into a HyperHistory of Americans who perform a variety of Asian-derived musical traditions ranging from the purely traditional to unusual new hybrids, the creation of which is only possible in a multicultural environment such as ours.

Traditional musics from around the world thrive in the United States because many leading practitioners have emigrated here. To give some perspective on the phenomenon of Americans exploring the music of other cultures, we asked Ghanaian-born master drummer and composer Obo Addy, Korean-born komongo virtuoso and composer Jin Hi Kim, Cuban-born latin-jazz saxophonist and composer Paquito D’Rivera, and North Indian sarod legend Ali Akbar Khan, who runs the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael CA, to comment on whether American-born musicians could ever hope to play the traditional music they were each born into. We’d like to know if you think there’s a difference between Americans playing European repertoire and Americans playing Asian, African, Pacific or Latin American Music.

At the dawn of the 21st century, we have the music of all times and places at our disposal. We witness the evidence of this each month in the concerts and recordings that are shared with us. It informs the news items we cover and shapes our views of what new music is, whether we are exploring recent trends among Bay Area improvisers or trying to figure out a way to make opera a viable contemporary American genre.

There is much to learn from all of the world’s musical traditions. But the most important lesson we can learn is how to appreciate our own musical traditions on equal terms with music from the rest of the rest of the world.