The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie: How Immigration and Emigration have Shaped American Music

“We came to eat the fruits of a rich country and become better people in a better, secure healthy atmosphere. But soon our dreams are shattered into pieces as reality hit hard, hit home. We were homeless in a land of big dreams. We were second, third, fourth degree citizens in the land of the free,” declares the title track of the CD An American Fantasy by Ahmed El-Motassem, an eclectic Egyptian-American musician whose collaborations with downtown New York improvisers mingle Arabic, Latin, Germanic cabaret and jazz. Clearly, being cooked in a massive melting pot doesn’t always feel good. Motassem’s critical perspective on nationalism is something shared by many immigrant musicians, a character trait not surprising in people who are willing to shed a nationality and adopt a new one at least once, sometimes twice.

Yet sometimes musicians try to keep their traditions intact despite the inevitable outside influences waiting in prey in a new land. So much of what we consider “world music” is actually the product of musicians working on American soil. Traditional Italian tarantelle, played by first and second generation immigrants such as the De Franco Family thrives in small pockets in New Jersey, as do Irish ceili bands in Cleveland and Scandinavian hardanger fiddling in Minnesota. Klezmer, originally the music of Central and Eastern European Jewish communities, flourished in American exile in the early 20th century. While two world wars virtually obliterated this tradition and almost all the recordings of it in Europe, the records of American immigrants such as Abe Schwartz and Naftule Brantwein are the source material for today’s klezmer revival. And now, klezmer’s most prominent practitioners, from Andy Statman and David Krakauer to the Klezmatics and African American clarinetist Don Byron, were born here. Similarly, salsa is primarily an American musical phenomenon.

Iran’s seemingly endless turmoils have resulted in a great many musicians relocating to the United States for several generations. And while some, like Reza Derakshani have attempted to preserve Persian traditional music, others like Dariush Dolat-Shahi have taken inspiration from America’s melting pot mentality and have combined traditional gushehs with electronics. Reza Vali, following the model of European composers such Bartók and Kodaly, combines Persian musical structures with European classicism.

Likewise, Indian music, both purely traditional and experimentally eclectic, thrives in the United States due to an extremely active immigrant musician community some of whom explore a variety of creative outlets. Sarodist Vasant Rai performs and records classical Indian ragas but he also collaborates with jazz musicians. Since coming to the United States in the 1970s, Zakir Hussain, son of Ravi Shankar’s famed tabla accompanist Alla Rakha, has performed with virtually every Indian classical soloist but has also worked with George Brooks, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Sanders, Billy Cobham, Tito Puente, and the New Orleans Symphony. In so doing, he has created new environments for traditional Indian percussion instruments and rhythms. His discography, mostly U.S.-generated, is massive. Labels such as Waterlily Acoustics have captured such unusual collaborations as V. M. Bhatt’s collaboration with avant-bluegrass banjo man Béla Fleck and Chinese erh-hu virtuosa Jie-Bing Chen. Only in America, right? But, at the same time, the Ali Akbar College of Music, which offers one of the most thorough training programs in pure Indian classical music, is in California.

Jamshied Sharifi is American, the son of a Middle Eastern man growing up in the great jazz city of Kansas City. He studied jazz and classical piano for many years, eventually studying at Berklee. There he spent time actively studying African, Asian and Middle Eastern music. Though he still plays the piano, his predominant musical voice is through breath and finger ribbon-controlled synthesis which enable him to blend better with the attacks, decays, timbres and microtones of the acoustic instruments found in the “world music” projects he’s involved in. He recently released his first CD, A Prayer for the Soul of Layla, on Alula Records. He also composes for popular Hollywood films and is a fixture on the New York fusion scene.

Teiji Ito, whose entire immediate family was involved in either music or dance, may have been the first adventurous Japanese composer to make a mark in the United States. The fact is he spent the vast majority of his life here, arriving at the age of six, but played Japanese and Korean percussion in live performance also at a very early age. Like Kenny Endo after him, Ito saw similarities between the passionate performance and rhythmic grooves of Japanese music and the similar approaches in African-American and African-Haitian musical styles. He soon became an avid student of both. He also saw similarities between Buddhism and both Voudoun and Native American Shamanism, which he also studied. He mostly spent his career composing music for dance, theatre, and cutting edge film including the pioneering documentaries of Maya Deren.

As an independent record label entrepreneur, Akira Satake is making an impact on the “World Music” scene in the U.S. with his company Alula Records. He learned to play the banjo while growing up in Osaka after his brother introduced him to the music of Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and other bluegrass favorites. He arrived in New York City in 1982 and began studying jazz and writing his own music. His current CD, Cooler Heads Prevail, features Johnny Cunningham, Glen Velez, Steve Gorn and Jerry O’Sullivan.

In contrast, to Teiji-san and Akira-san, who favor the “World Music” side of fine art music, recent Japanese immigrant Akemi Naito is a more conventional new music composer. She does work with Japanese concepts as sources of inspiration. (For instance she uses harmonics, breath sounds, “richly changing tones,” time, music-as-poetic-process, and such Zen-like ideas as “this composition is an intimate sketch of my spirit” and “I hoped to make the essence of my music surface spontaneously”). She seems to compose primarily for small forces of Western instruments, with occasional forays into electronics. She’s clearly after a deeply individual sound and identity, a trait that may ultimately prove the key to her becoming an American composer.

Bun-Ching Lam, originally from Macau, arrived in the U.S. in 1976 and began her composition studies at UCSD with Bernard Rands, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Erickson and Roger Reynolds. Not surprisingly, her works are characterized by the chromaticism typical of Western post war composers, though some Asian concepts of timbre and time do have a conceptual influence.

Korean Jin Hi Kim has a great deal in common with Endo, Satake and Ito. She combines traditional instruments from around the world, such as the Korean komungo zither and its relatives from the Japanese koto family, the Australian aboriginal digeridoo, the Senegalese djembe and dogo, and the Indian sitar, in addition to electronics and computers. Ms. Kim is an improviser who draws on the academic, court, and shamanistic peasant traditions in Korean music. The Korean approach to tone, timbre, pitch bending, and time brings a new influence to the shores of the U.S.A. and has influenced the people she’s worked with, who include Elliott Sharp, Henry Kaiser, Eugene Chadbourne, and James Newton.

The new European, Israeli, and Asian/Pacific Rim immigrant composers are a by and large a better-adjusted lot in America than the Europeans who came in the first half of the century. For one, they’re mostly here by choice and even those who’ve come as exiles can enjoy an environment far more supportive of new music than the earlier wave of immigrants encountered. Consider how frustrated new and contemporary music supporters are under the current status quo and imagine how Schoenberg and his colleagues must have felt. In addition, most relatively young immigrants who don’t come from the Communist bloc were besieged by American pop culture in their previous homes. Therefore, they’ve been at least somewhat prepared for the difficulty of making a living as a fine artist within the context of America’s primarily shallow, commercial, and lowbrow approach to musical entertainment.

Yugoslavian-emigré Milos Raickovich certainly appreciates American music, in particular the immediacy of minimalism, but it has no greater influence on him than Eastern European folk music, Pacific Rim cultures, and in particular the ideas of Messiaen, with whom he studied. Raickovich chose to take American citizenship in 1992, but one gets the sense that it was a practical decision which makes him an American composer by default, not by deliberate cultural assimilation in the manner of, say, Kurt Weill or Miklós Rózsa. Like Raickovich, fellow former Yugoslavians Dusan Bogdanovic and Victoria Jordanova are truly products of the international new music world, having worked and studied all over Europe and America. Bogdanovic weaves a solo guitar music spanning everything from Eastern European folk roots to African rhythm, jazz and Asian musical concepts. Yet the most poignant work by experimental composer Jordanova is Requiem for Bosnia, revealing that she has not forgotten her former homeland.

Another promising young Eastern European, Penka Kouneva, studied, and now teaches, at Duke University where she has created some standard works that are firmly products of the American post-war academic sound. She has recently found her own voice through combining the folk music of her Romanian homeland with the developmental techniques of Western art music and certain aspects of the rock music she grew up listening to. One of the more successful manifestations of this style is a string quartet commissioned and now frequently performed by the Lark Quartet. One hopes that she is able to maintain a close relationship with as many American ensembles as possible, for the challenge of creating audience-friendly music while maintaining her own integrity clearly inspires her best work.

Annea Lockwood is one of the few composers who directly attributes her decision to move here to the pull of the American new music world. Originally from New Zealand, she lived and worked in England from ’61 to ’73. Feeling a stronger kinship with American composers such as Earle Brown, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Pauline Oliveros, she moved here permanently. Her career remains international, but it seems fair to say that she has chosen to become a part of the American new music world in a manner as committed as that of Weill and the film composers before her.

Samuel Adler, Lukas Foss and Shulamit Ran share such classic American immigration stories that only a fanatical jingoist would argue that they’re not American composers. Adler, born in 1928, arrived in the U.S. at age 10 from Germany. While in the service, he founded and conducted the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra, and since 1966, he has taught generations of American composition students at the Eastman School of Music and at Juilliard. He has seen his works performed and recorded by a very long list of American orchestras, ensembles, and record labels, in addition to receiving a multitude of American awards and grants. Foss, a conductor, pianist, composer and educator, has been a fixture in every facet of American musical life. Born in Berlin six years before Adler and arriving in the U.S. at age 15, he was quick to assimilate and then help to shape the numerous trends in contemporary American concert music from neoclassicism and serialism to aleatoric music and improvisation. As Schoenberg’s successor at UCLA, he has also influenced generations fo American composers. Ran arrived from Tel Aviv at age 14 to study piano on scholarship and was soon embraced by Leonard Bernstein who conducted one of her works with the New York Philharmonic. Though maintaining an international career, her life is centered in Chicago. She has been composer-in-residence for both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Lyric Opera, as well as held the post of Professor of Composition at the University of Chicago, where she has taught since 1973.

Though the inherent internationalism, or perhaps non-nationalism, of the post-war music world does make it difficult to consider music in a national sense, it’s possible to “become American” both by deliberate acculturation (Adler, Foss, Lockwood, Ran) and by making the “foreign” sounds of their homelands viable here (Kouneva, Reza Vali, Zakir Hussain). This conflict and duality between the culture of the old home versus the culture of the new home, and how to balance or not balance the two, is one of the defining characteristics of Americanism.

From The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie
by Sid Whelan
© 1999 NewMusicBox



Although it was born in the Jewish ghettos of Central and Eastern Europe, klezmer music had its artistic peak among American immigrant communities in the 1910s and 1920s.
Sound sample – ELENKRIEG’S ORCHESTRA: Dem Rebens Nigh (1915)
(from the album Klezmer, Arhoolie Folklyric DISC 9034)

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Korean traditional music never sounded like this.
Sound sample – JIN HI KIM – komongo with EUGENE CHADBOURNE – banjo: from “Howdy Partner”
(from the CD: Jin Hi Kim: Komunguitar, What Next WN0012)

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