Listen Globally, Make Music Locally

As a Baby Boomer, I was part of the first generation to grow up with the whole world of music. By the time I was eighteen, I was familiar with the sounds of Indian ragas, West African drumming, Indonesian gamelan, European classical music, Japanese court and theater music, Tibetan chant, and the classical and traditional folk music of China. Through recordings, I also discovered Mexican marimba music, Bolivian pipes and drums, Mississippi Delta blues, Sacred Harp singing, Northern Plains chant and other indigenous American musics.

At Cal Arts, along with my studies in counterpoint, orchestration, electronic music, and the works of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, I played in a Javanese gamelan and studied the music of Ghana and northern India with masters of those traditions. Through the music and teaching of Lou Harrison, I came to understand how profoundly the American tradition of Henry Cowell, Harry Partch and John Cage was shaped by what Lou calls “the whole, wide, wonderful world of music.”

After leaving school, I headed for Alaska, where I’ve lived and worked for the past twenty-five years. By now, the drumming, chanting and dancing of the Yup’ik, Iñupiat, Athabascan and Tlingit peoples have become integral elements in the soundscape of my life and work. In some ways I feel closer to these traditions than to those of Western Europe. It’s my hope that these elements inform my music in a way that respects their origins and has led me to a new sound that’s an authentic part of this place.

As Cowell taught us, all music is ethnic music. European music of the 18th and 19th centuries is simply another form of local music, no more and no less significant than any other music. American music is something else.

Music in the United States today is as distinct from European traditions as we are from the Pilgrims. One of the defining qualities of American music is its diversity. Ours is probably most variegated musical culture the world has ever known. American music embraces traditions from all over the world.

At the same time, we’ve given the world musical commercialism the likes of which it’s never known. The same recording industry that brought the musical traditions of the whole world into our living rooms now threatens to overwhelm authentic local voices in the melting pot of global commerce.

Throughout history, all cultures have borrowed from other cultures. But the extent and pace of this in the U.S. today is unprecedented. In this environment, how do we distinguish between appropriate acculturation and casual appropriation?

Human cultures are like ecosystems. To sustain themselves, they need a balance of diversity and integrity. In a world of mass marketing and global commerce, how do we promote diversity and sustain the integrity of ancient musical traditions? How do we encourage the creation of genuine new musical voices that integrate different traditions?

We rarely think twice about an American string quartet playing European music, or an American composer writing a symphony. Is it any less valid for an American musician to play the koto, or for an American composer to write for gamelan?

How have the musical traditions of the world shaped the music you perform, compose and listen to?

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