Do you still identify yourself as an American composer? John McGuire



In fall of 1965, during my second year in graduate school at UC Berkeley, I applied for and was awarded an Alfred E. Hertz Traveling Scholarship to go to Germany.

Why did I want to go to there? Since getting interested in new music as an undergraduate I had repeatedly encountered the music and writings of composers who had lectured and taught at the legendary International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt. I felt a strong need to go and see for myself.

Once in Darmstadt I soon noticed that I had entered a musical world very different from the one I’d just left. Until then, most of the new music I had heard had been on records. Exceptions had been the Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles, where I had often attended performances by excellent musicians who were working for next to nothing, and occasional concerts of new works in the bay area, given mostly by idealistic student volunteers. What struck me first was the number of professional musicians making a living playing new music.

The lectures, given by Kagel, Ligeti, and Stockhausen, treated subjects that were of immediate interest to me. Kagel talked about new musical theater, Ligeti about his approach to Webern, and Stockhausen presented his ideas about the synthesis of electronic, vocal and instrumental music. To encounter this material first-hand was very exciting; until then I had only read about some of it in journals.

Before the courses started I had asked the man in charge of the Institute for New Music in Darmstadt, Wilhelm Schl¸ter, about studying composition in Germany. He generously researched the topic and informed me that Penderecki would be Guest Professor of Composition at the Folkwangschule in Essen for the next two years.

Having been very interested in the music of Penderecki while in graduate school (this interest was strictly extracurricular), I was enthusiastic. When I visited the school in September 1966 the arrangement was made for me to have two private lessons a week with Penderecki; these were to include composition, instrumentation, and counterpoint. Since I felt that the training I’d received in college and university in the states was inadequate, I soon found myself working 16-hour days.

For the summer of 1967 I had the good luck to be accepted into Stockhausen’s master class (“composition studio”) in Darmstadt. The project Stockhausen had planned for his course, called Ensemble, was a four-hour long interactive event to which each of 12 students was to contribute one layer. The institute hired musicians and equipment. Stockhausen had already worked out a number of notational strategies to deal with the many problems that came up during the development of the project. In retrospect it seems that it was far ahead of its time; it’s conceptual boldness left a lasting impression.

In 1970 I moved to Cologne, where I spent years assimilating these experiences and many others. Occasionally I was commissioned by the Department of New Music (Department of New Music?!) at the West German Radio in Cologne. In particular, the three projects that I realized in the Studio for Electronic Music at the radio were, musically, the happiest times of my life.

Did I identify myself as an American composer? The question never really concerned me. I’ve always believed Virgil Thomson‘s dictum that the best way to be an American composer is to be an American citizen and then to write whatever you want. From those who told me that my music “sounds American” (and there were quite a few) I was never able to get any clear answer as to why. Certainly I would be unable to answer this myself.

In 1979 I married the American soprano Beth Griffith. She had moved to Cologne a few years previously to make recordings at the radio. We have two children. In 1997 we decided to return to the United States. We missed our language. We wanted our children to get to know the families and the country in which we grew up and to attend American schools.

Since returning to the States I have done some teaching as an adjunct professor of composition at Columbia University. While I have been enormously impressed with the talent and commitment of students I’ve met there, I often wonder about their futures: after they’ve graduated, what is “out there” for them to do, i.e. commissions, performances? It looks very, very difficult, at least from a European(ized) point of view. What most of them will do, I suppose, is go right back into another university because with far too few exceptions that’s about all there is for them to do.

My wife has frequently returned to Germany for engagements—which in all cases have included travel expenses and performance fees—singing new music. There have been no comparable opportunities in the U.S.A. This is not due to lack of effort but simply to the lack of provisions for performing the music of our time in our country.

In any case, we’re glad to be back, and we’re staying. We harbor the fantasy that maybe, eventually, we can make some difference, though neither of us knows what that might be.