History and The Power of Place

Well, I had one more back-to-school-centric post ready to go, but Dan beat me to it, so I am pocketing mine for a later date! As an alternative, here is a little addendum to last week’s Barcelona post…

Something I was very aware of during my time in Barcelona was, not surprisingly, history. Buildings constructed in the 17th century are not considered very old at all. Roaming the streets of the Barí Gotíc where Picasso walked, visiting the town in which Joan Miró grew up and seeing the influence for his painting in the landscape at every turn, or sitting in a concert hall that Frederic Mompou frequented made me feel a part of something much larger than my own little present moment. I think that physical surroundings can play a huge role in one’s work; it can create the sense that what you are doing somehow fits into an historical timeline, even if you can’t quite see exactly how yet. It provides grounding, or a sense of belonging within the grand scheme of things.

I don’t as often perceive this historical thread within my everyday life in the U.S., and indeed never gave it much thought until being smacked hard with reverse culture shock upon returning to the states. Obviously a huge part of it is that American history is so very young, and the history of American contemporary music is even younger. There is also so much emphasis on building the new—which I am generally all for—and in constantly looking forward. Top that off with what Molly calls “Google Brain” and the need to be constantly plugged-in to Right This Minute, and it becomes difficult to get a handle on how being connected translates into feeling connected to a longer timeline.

Lower East Side Cafe
Di Robertis Pasticceria

History is, of course, with us here in the U.S. too, although sometimes one has to dig a little deeper to find it. One of the places I strongly feel the flow of time is The MacDowell Colony. It’s pretty much unavoidable when you know that Aaron Copland, Irving Fine, and Willa Cather all spent time in your studio! A couple of weeks ago we “Boxers” conducted an interview (top secret, sssshhhhh!) at a café on the Lower East Side, and the familiar vibe was there too—since it was built in 1941, this pastry shop has been a place where artists of all types have come to relax, chat, write, and think in peace. The original tiles are still on the floor and the walls, and the beautiful tin ceiling is intact and well cared for. Interestingly, it is not a popular tourist destination—it has not been “written up” much, and I don’t think there was anyone under the age of 50 there during our stay. It is a nice, quiet place to go have coffee and write, and the pastries look amazing.

What about making music that fits into history? Perhaps composers who write politically based music have a leg up on the situation, in that they are automatically inserting their work into an historical framework by referencing a specific event or person, and the teachers we have studied with begin to pave the road—should we choose to take it—of our musical thinking and our musical choices. But what about composers writing abstract music, or building new instruments real or virtual, and/or writing for unusual/unique combinations of instruments?

Do you feel that your work contributes to and/or fits into music history? If so, in what way? If not, why not? And well, does it even matter?

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