Once upon a time, it was de rigeur for a serious musician in America to go abroad to Europe to study with “the masters” and those who didn’t, from William Billings to Amy Beach to Charles Ives, were considered somewhat suspect. Even Aaron Copland, often identified as the most “American” of composers, went off to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger as did so many subsequent “quintessential American” composers from Roy Harris to Philip Glass. At the same time, the flipside of the coin, many African American jazz musicians from the 1920s through the 1960s ranging from Sidney Bechet and Dexter Gordon to Eric Dolphy and George Russell, fled to Europe to escape the double standards of segregation and racism, and to pursue more lucrative careers. Some American composers have shed their nationality altogether, but to varying degrees may or may not have shed their culture.
Paul Bowles moved to Tangier in the ’40’s as a refugee from American morality and Western society in general. Leaving America as a moderately-successful composer — he had written incidental music for plays by Orson Welles and Tennessee Williams and his double concerto was conducted by Bernstein — he turned to literature as his creative outlet instead. The three or four works he has created since being in Morocco do not show a tremendous interest in using the concepts and techniques of North African music in his work. Similarly, the late Conlon Nancarrow, who headed for Mexico as an exile from the American Red Scare, did not use Mexican music as a source of inspiration. There is something terrifyingly American about his efforts to write music too complicated for humans to perform and needing player pianos to perform it in their stead. However inventive and viscerally exciting his music may be, it is ironic that a man who fought Fascism in the Spanish Civil War would be the on the cutting edge of creating the type of music machine monster that has so damaged the tastes of music consumers and the lives of professional musicians throughout the world. (Though of course Nancarrow certainly can’t be blamed for the creation of computer sequencing, his output is a curious antecedent.)
On the other end of the spectrum, Paul Schoenfield, who relocated from Minnesota to a kibbutz in Israel creates concert music inspired by klezmer and other forms of Jewish music. However, his polyglot mix of styles, which incorporate everything from gospel and ragtime to verbatim quotes of passages by Bartók, is thoroughly American.
Californian John McGuire headed for Europe in ’67 to study with Penderecki and then with Stockhausen. In 1970, he settled in Cologne, and subsequently composed for European musicians, received European awards and recorded for European labels. Similarly, Arnold Dreyblatt, who was born in New York and studied with Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young, and Alvin Lucier, moved to Germany in 1984 and has become a successful figure in Central European new music. Stephen Montague, who has been based in London since 1974, has had a great deal of success in the British new music scene. All three compose music in a post-minimal style that basically has its origins in America. Although with the current popularity of post-minimalist composers all over Europe, from Graham Fitkin in England and Louis Andriessen in Holland to Erkki Sven-Tüür in Estonia, their stylistic inclinations no longer identify them as Americans. McGuire recently returned to the United States, but Dreyblatt and Montague probably never will.
Given how international the new music scene is in Europe, it’s possible that people over there will forget they’re American-born. Only time will tell.
Even more of a musical outsider than the others, Tom Johnson, composer of the legendary Four-Note Opera, will probably always be thought of as an American despite the fact that he has been based in Paris since 1983. However, thanks to European arts funding, performances of his music have been plentiful and he has flourished as a composer to a greater extent than he ever would have had he remained in the United States.
There are many composers living in Europe who maintain careers on both sides of the Atlantic, maintaining relationships with American musicians, record labels and funding institutions as well as with Europeans. Although based in Europe, Frederic Rzewski and Alvin Curran are both acknowledged father figures of the current downtown avant-garde. Similarly, James Dashow, who has lived in Rome for decades, is still respected here as a pioneer of electronic music and as a practitioner of academic serialism. James Fulkerson, who leads the Netherlands-based Barton Workshop, has gained attention on both sides of the Atlantic for his commitment to continuing the tradition of Cage and Feldman both as a performer and as a composer. Gloria Coates and Nancy Van de Vate both add what we might patriotically perceive as elements of American experimentalism — alternate tunings and non-western rhythmic structures — to the composition of traditional European forms such as the symphony, the string quartet and the sonata.
Despite the United States being a land of displaced people from all over the world and the open-ended opinions about what makes something “American”, Americans seem to preserve their identity abroad more than immigrants do here.
From The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie
by Sid Whelan
© 1999 NewMusicBox