This week the American Academy informed me I had three requests for interviews—one to air on NPR and the other two for some local publications that were kind enough to speak with me in English. As you might infer, I don’t get requests like this terribly frequently, and it was more than a little bewildering to take in at once. Still I wasn’t entirely dreading it; after all, there are only so many avenues available to us composers to communicate our experiences and intentions to the public. At some point, you have to be willing to sit in the hot seat and not swear for forty minutes.
The German interviewers really threw me off guard with a question that I’d never heard before: “How is your Italian heritage reflected in your work?”
I was surprised to encounter some version of this question in each interview, and it momentarily derailed the conversation every time. How is my Italian heritage reflected in my work? Not at all, frankly—I was born in the U.S. of two American parents, and to the degree that my music makes a nod toward any national heritage, that heritage is thoroughly American. (What could I tell them? That I was a hapless cowboy wrongly accused of stealing marinara sauce? The fix is IN!)
At a time when obsession over national style in music has largely been dwarfed by other stylistic distinctions, it seemed like a pretty strange question to be asked. But at the same time I doubt there was any kind of serious assumption behind it; more likely, the interviewers were just grabbing at anything that might provoke conversation.
A writer friend of mine whose childhood was divided between the D.D.R., the U.S., and Mexico recently introduced me to the helpful German word Heimat, meaning the place in which we feel at home. For him, his Heimat was the act of writing itself—not any particular location, or even a particular creed or -ism to identify with. I like Heimat because it throws everything wide open, without the limiting nature of words like “homeland.”
I don’t think my own Heimat would be composing, not by a long shot—it’s still the most difficult thing that I do, and never something that’s really provided the element of comfort that seems to be implied in the term. Still, the underlying assumption that it is our own choices that define “home” and not arbitrary factors of geography and heredity is something I can get behind. It’s significantly less pernicious than the assumption that someone would harbor a greater-than-average affection for bel canto singing just because of a surname.