When I received the letter from the American Music Center inviting me to participate in this discussion, two things immediately occurred to me:
1) The criteria for such decisions as to who should and who should not be included in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians will inevitably involve some form of quantification: i.e., how many recordings, how many publications, how many performances this composer has received.
2) The item concerning whether or not American composers are adequately represented in the Grove Dictionary inevitably raises several questions, one of which was dealt with in this publication recently: What is an American composer? Must one be born in the United States? Where does that leave not only the obvious examples such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Korngold, Bloch, etc., all of whom became American citizens, but also such composers as Lukas Foss, born in Berlin but everywhere regarded as an American, or Claudio Spies, born in Chile but indisputably an American composer? Must the venue for one’s current compositional activity be in the United States, and therefore must Americans who choose to live elsewhere, as was the case with more than one of the composers quoted in the previous issue of this publication, be excluded from classification as American composers? And what does “adequately represented” mean? Does it imply some sort of quota system—some specific number of composers included for every 100,000 in terms of population for each country, for example? Imagine the consternation in such a case if the next compositional “heavyweight” were to come from Monaco or Liechtenstein!
This second question brings to my mind a remark of Virgil Thomson quoted in Joan Peyser‘s book on George Gershwin: “It is very easy to write American music. All you have to be is American, and then write any kind of music you wish.” Now, I suspect that Mr. Thomson and I would have disagreed on practically everything else—but despite Ms. Peyser’s arguments to the contrary (she quotes Thomson’s remark in order to refute it), this one point is, I think, a valid one.
In my opinion, we (and not only those of us in the U.S., but in the rest of the world as well) waste entirely too much time worrying about whether or not our music reflects the country of its origin. That it will to a certain extent do so is I believe inevitable. But we need only look around us and see the unfortunate (and “unfortunate” is a euphemism) effects of nationalism in the political arena, not only in other countries but also—and particularly at this time—in our own. Furthermore, in my opinion, most composers’ attempts to write music that is self-consciously “American” seem all too often to produce music that is almost embarrassing in its naïveté.
But our Americanism also manifests itself in music in other much more troubling ways. We in the United States have become accustomed to “life in the fast lane.” We get our food in plastic or Styrofoam containers, zap it quickly in the microwave oven, and (sometimes) put it on the table or (usually) eat it in the car with plastic utensils. Unfortunately, we seem to write music this way as well. All too many of the most “successful” of current American composers are producing a musical analog to prepackaged fast food. The music is presented in neat little packages requiring very little rehearsal time and effort on the part of the performer(s) and requiring even less effort (or no effort at all) on the part of the listener—musical “TV dinners,” with all of the lack of subtlety and genuineness that this description implies. At the same time, music that challenges the performer and the listener is often ignored because neither wishes to invest the effort needed to come to grips with it. Consequently, composing such Styrofoam music seems to be the way these days to win prizes and get commissions.
The situation is only made worse by the seeming inability of Americans to do anything without first having read a book telling them how to deal with it. I think that it’s appalling to go into a bookstore in the United States and find shelf after shelf in section after section filled with so-called “self-help” books. And this goes for music, too. Rather than investigate the music for themselves, many if not most members of the concert-going public seem to require someone else in a position of “authority” to tell them what music by what composers they should and should not like. In the case of a serious composer who happens still to be breathing and who therefore has not been beatified and canonized by the musicological establishment, it’s always safer for the music critic to make patronizing critical comments about h/is/er music than about that of Beethoven.
You’re probably asking right about now, “What on earth does this have to do with the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians?” The relationship of what I have just said to the question of American representation in the Grove Dictionary has to do with both of the points I mentioned earlier. Let’s take the first one first, namely the problem of quantification. It is of course very easy to set up criteria based upon the number of prizes, the number of commissions, the number of recordings, the number of publications, and the number of prestigious performances that a composer has received. But what about this business of quantification? Where does that leave American composers with small catalogs of works, such as, for example, Carl Ruggles or Edgard Varèse? And in reference to my second point, one might ask, for that matter, “Was Varèse an American composer?” The fact that he came to the United States in 1915 and lived here for fifty years suggests to me that he probably was—indeed that it is nothing short of ridiculous to say otherwise—but a criterion that would require a composer to be a native American (not in the ethnic sense but rather dealing simply with one’s place of birth) would exclude him. And both Varèse’s list of works and that of Ruggles are relatively small; indeed, Ruggles’ catalog contains fewer than ten completed compositions to show for the ninety-five years of his life.
Herein lies the problem. In the absence of quantification as a valid criterion for inclusion in a reference work such as the Grove Dictionary, then what do we have to fall back on? With trembling voice, might I suggest “quality?” But alas, this doesn’t solve the problem either, but instead just makes it worse—for the old saying by that prolific author and composer Anonymous that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” is surely true in this case.
So in answer to the questions posed in this issue, all I can offer is the suggestion that if more American composers were more concerned with the quality of the music they were writing and less concerned with the number of award notifications hanging on their walls, maybe the problem of adequate representation of Americans in Grove‘s and similar works would take care of itself.
But I wouldn’t bet on it!