The Composer and the Social Contract
I’m still adjusting to being back in New York City after spending the past 11 days in the United Kingdom—London, Bath, and Cardiff, Wales, for the 2008 Conference of the International Association of Music Information Centres. It’s not just jetlag, overall vegetable deprivation, and navigating through traffic involving cars whose drivers are on the opposite side of what I’d normally expect, but what seems to me to be a completely different worldview about what the purpose of culture (e.g. music, theatre, etc.) is in a society and how it relates to people’s lives.
I’m not about to engage in a polemic about how things over there are much better than they are here, because in the final analysis, I’m not sure they are. (But, bear in mind, I also have issues with the subjective evaluation a word like “better” implies.) However, it seems to me, admittedly as an outsider, that music and other cultural byproducts are much more closely related to a sense of nationalism overseas than they ever can be in a nation such as ours.
Equating culture with national pride makes the very notion of an avant-garde seem somewhat quaint, if not downright anti-social. It is difficult to assert national identity in creative work that endeavors to be iconoclastic. Of course, there is a grand tradition of British avant-garde music spanning folks like Cyril Scott and John Foulds in the early 20th century through to Cornelius Cardew and Derek Bailey in the recent past and many people today. But England has a long established canonic tradition of internationally-acknowledged great works (from Dunstable to Purcell to Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Benjamin Britten) which makes rebelling against it seem necessary in order to make work that isn’t merely a recasting of what has come before.
But Wales presents a somewhat different history. While there are Welsh composers who are extremely worthy of greater geographic recognition—Alun Hoddinott and William Mathias immediately spring to mind, and after learning more about their achievements last week I’d add Grace Williams and Mervyn Burtch to the pantheon as well—no Welsh composer is a worldwide household name. As a bonafide nation in virtually everything but sovereignty, Wales presents an interesting conundrum for the would-be experimental composer. When it’s so important to make a case for a national mainstream that is not as recognized as it should be elsewhere, what purpose would defying such a mainstream serve?
Indeed, a comment that emerged in conversations with the folks who work at the Welsh Music Information Centre seems particularly resonant: “There is a great difference between arts that spring from the community and arts that are imposed on the community.” In some ways, isn’t any work created by an individual following his or her own muse irregardless of larger societal concerns somehow an imposition on everyone else?
How does the work of an individual relate to a society such as ours? The United States often seems so disparate and un-unified, even moreso when returning to it after being away for a week and a half. At the final dinner of the conference, the birthday of one of the attendees was acknowledged and, as is always the case, the song “Happy Birthday” was sung. At that moment I couldn’t help but think that that ubiquitous song, composed in 1893 by Patty and Mildred J. Hill, might be the single most valuable contribution ever made to music by an American composer. That said, I’m still most excited about things that challenge accepted paradigms.