Do you still identify yourself as an American composer? James Dashow

Photo by Roberto Doati

Well, I am an American, I am a composer, and I am living in Italy, but I am not sure whether I would want to re-arrange those characteristics into a single phrase. Living abroad changes perspectives on a lot of things, of course, but I never was comfortable with the idea of “American music” as opposed to…what?—”European music” or “Asian music”… maybe “non American music”… or “un-American music”? Globalization and cross-fertilization has been going on for centuries, the difference is that now they happen almost instantaneously and quite thoroughly. Composers born in Europe are exposed to all the trends in the U.S., just as composers born in the U.S. are aware of what European composers are doing; but what if those Europeans already have some Americanisms (whatever those are), and the Americans already have some Europeanisms (whatever they are)? We really don’t have anything specifically American or specifically European to point at. We do have creative people with distinct and complex personalities making their (often unique) music within what I might hazard to call the Western tradition; and we do have characteristic institutions that tend to support certain kinds of music (and that might determine if you get hired, get a performance, or win a commission), but I fail to hear the music itself as being nationalistic or regionalistic.

Oh, of course Neapolitan songs come from one place only as does the blues and certain kinds of drinking songs. But when composers get to work on serious artistic effort (most of us know what “serious” means even if we’re not supposed to use that word—to be clear, Il Barbiere, Cosi’ Fan Tutte, and Falstaff are serious artistic efforts, too) that involves discovering or molding or transforming musical materials into something unique that is more than another version (no matter how well done) of something that’s been around for awhile, then what matters is the composer’s constantly growing sensibilities, tastes, craftsmanship, ideals, and musical values. Those aren’t national characteristics, they are (highly personal) musical characteristics. The only country composers are citizens of is called Music.

From over here, the whole business of trying to compose “American” music (and to define it in terms of being “not European”) looks rather pathetic. But there are some equally pathetic organizations over here that promote “Italian”. I think a noteworthy difference is that the promotion here is for Italian composers, not for Italian music; it’s just a matter of trying to get Italian composers performed, and the nationalistic business is what the politicians need to justify sending those organizations a few euros now and then. When colleagues here talk about “American music” they generally mean the commercial pop slop that has invaded the planet and is now the standard entertainment and background for everything from elevators to pasta sauce advertising. Otherwise they will talk about specific composers, who happen to be from New York or San Francisco or wherever.

Some composers have one kind of aesthetic; some have another. And to my mind the best thing that can happen is that each composer discovers what expresses himself best, and then becomes as accomplished as possible in that “what”. Getting better and better at ones art inevitably brings out the uniqueness of the individual, which may be strong and influential on others, or may be subtle and delicate, to be appreciated but not necessarily followed or imitated. Music is a big country; it has room for all these folks.

When I hear American composers complaining about European this and that…hey, wait a minute, you sound just like my Italian colleagues complaining about not getting any performances in New York or London or Paris. It really hasn’t anything to do with the music being of one nationality or another, it does have a lot to do with those old tiresome problems of promotion, politics and luck. And regrettably it does have quite a bit to do also with the journalistic image of contemporary music which composers everywhere should know better than to believe. Journalists are adept at repeating banal slogans and reviving 100 year old issues, because they are fundamentally lazy, incompetent, and ignorant. And that too is a universal phenomenon. We got ‘em over here, too.

Living in Italy has certainly opened my eyes to the provincialism of U.S. attitudes toward a lot of things, especially political, but cultural as well. But all countries have that kind of provincialism at the “official” level (the promotion, the Hurray For Us type of thing). Individual composers shouldn’t. There’s already enough of that provincialism in other aspects of any country’s culture and especially in its politics that can turn deadly. I think composers, musicians of all kinds, can make a real contribution to the emerging global dimension of civilization by simply ignoring the old slogans, the old nationalistic distinctions, and maybe coming up with some new one-liners for the ignorant journalists.

Like most composers, I have my way of hearing and doing musical things that reflects a lot of listening and practical performing experiences; my hearing and doing will inevitably reflect everything else I do too, including reading and seeing paintings and sculpture and dance and enjoying fine cooking and so on. I’ve engaged in these activities not only on two different continents, but with the whole world for source material (well, as long as I can find it in translation, or the art show comes to a local museum, or the performing group is invited to a Festival nearby or has made a CD which I can find on the Web). I think there is such a thing as an American politics, or rather an American kind of democracy or an American kind of capitalism; and there is certainly an American (public) attitude toward art; I wouldn’t mind if American institutions, both public and private, were a little more European (ma non troppo!). But if there is going to be an American music, it will have to evolve spontaneously, not by forcing it and certainly not by arbitrarily deciding what is “European” in order to ignore anything composed over here. But will it really make any difference, this emergence of an “American” music? Isn’t that pretty much a matter of superficial journalistic categories? Doesn’t what really count is the making of challenging, well-crafted and expressive musical experiences, no matter where they come from? And some people will like it, and a lot of others won’t, on both continents, or rather, on all of them.

So finally, what I think, feel and believe I am is a composer of Western music; but there doesn’t seem to be a Western Music Center anywhere. Maybe we can just drop the old distinctions, already obsolete, or better, just plain irrelevant, and re-name all the national Music Centers so that they become Western Music Center, New York Branch, or Rome Branch or Madrid Branch.

And I like to think I am writing this note to the Music Center located in America, not the Center of American Music. Nowadays it’s only a question of where you put the adjectives.