Strangers in Strange Lands

Frank J. Oteri, Editor and Publisher
Photo by United States Federal Government

O.K. True confession time. I was born in Miami, but I’ve spent almost my whole life in New York City and have therefore always thought of myself as a “native” New Yorker. As a newborn in Florida for only a couple of weeks before being whisked away to the North, it was too short a time for me to establish any kind of a Floridian identity. When I spent the better part of two elementary school years there a decade later, I never felt at home and was constantly ostracized by my classmates as “that New York kid.” Which makes me wonder: How long do you need to be in a place in order for that place to mold who you are? And how lasting are the imprints of the places that mold you?

I found it fascinating and somewhat surprising that Belgian-based composer Fred Rzewski still identifies himself as an American even though at this point he has spent more than half of his life in Europe. And I was even more surprised to learn that Rzewski, whom I’ve always perceived of as an avatar of counterculture, claimed that the first and foremost expression of any composer, himself included, is the aspiration of the national culture into which he or she was born.

At the American Music Center, we have historically always taken the broadest possible view of what it means to be an American composer, and have included among our ranks not only composers born and working in the United States, but also composers born abroad who live and create music here as well as composers who were born here who now live elsewhere. So, in the very first year of NewMusicBox, we devoted an entire issue to immigrant composers in America and how their voices have been core to our own national musical identity from the very beginning. But, as we began to explore the reverse phenomenon and examine the trajectories of composers born in the United States who have made their home somewhere else, we find the story is even more complex.

In his HyperHistory of expatriate American composers, Guy Livingston, an American pianist based in Paris, argues that the travel bug has been a defining trait of our composers and has been integral to shaping not only our own culture but also how we perceive our culture in relation to the cultures of the rest of the world.

In our previous issue of NewMusicBox, the point was repeatedly made that immigrant composers working in the United States had somehow “become” American by working here. Such has been the case for generations of composers dating back to Anthony Philip Heinrich in the mid-19th century, composers like Edgard Varèse, Kurt Weill, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky in the middle of the last century, and on to composers ranging from Tania León and Tan Dun these days, all of whom are key threads in the quilt that is American music. But, if that is true, do Americans living and creating abroad take on the national identities of their new homelands? And if they do, how does that account for Rzewski still identifying himself as an American?

That question somehow seems more difficult to answer with any kind of glib generalization. This ambivalence to divided cultural identity is reflected in the experiences of Charlemagne Palestine, Arnold Dreyblatt, Nancy Van de Vate, James Dashow, and Peter Garland, all of whom live abroad, as well as Steve Lacy and John McGuire, who lived abroad for many years but recently returned home to America.

Since “being an American” is not about ethnic origins but is rather about concepts—democracy, enterprise, manifest destiny—it is perhaps easier to “become” an American than it is to “become” French or to “become” Cambodian. Whereas other lands have always been about assimilation, the United States, despite the constant urges from commercial culture surrounding us and tempting us to conform, has established its identity as the result of its heterogeny.

Or maybe it’s even deeper than that…Maybe, it’s because most composers to some extent are strangers in strange lands, working in isolation, never quite connected to the cultural mainstream. And American composers, whose traditions by and large have been a constant struggle to fight against the traditions of previous generations and to constantly rebuild, often in the face of little to no outside recognition from so-called mainstream “culture,” are even further estranged in the strange land never quite grokking (to continue the Heinlein reference) the mainstream so as not be absorbed by it. Coming from our already disconnected environment into cultures where homogeneity and centuries-old traditions are the rule would seem to make expatriate American composers the most disconnected of all composers.

I think this all raises more questions than answers, which is one thing we always try to do with NewMusicBox. But one thing is certain, I know I’ll be feeling homesick for Manhattan when I visit friends and relatives in Florida for the holidays this year!