The discussion begun last week by my recap of the 2007 Midwest Composers Symposium touched briefly on the issue of regionalism, a matter that I think merits deeper investigation. Let’s talk about two distinct faces of regionalism in composition: Regionalism as a set of “received” aesthetic criteria, and regionalism as a leaching (obvious or subtle) of geographic and anthropological characteristics into the conceptual substance of one’s music.
The famous “Midwestern orchestra sound” is a good example of the former. More than one observer has noticed that a great deal of large-ensemble music from the Great Plains states is, to quote Galen Brown, “really well orchestrated,” “quasi-tonal,” and “as big and loud as possible.” It would not be unreasonable to attribute this stylistic preponderance to lineages of conservative professors at places like the University of Michigan (Bassett, Bolcom, now Daugherty, et. al.). But now that the Information Age is in full swing and there’s no excuse not to know as much music as possible, there’s no particular reason to constrain one’s output to bombastic orchestra music, even if you study at Michigan.
Now let’s turn to the latter aspect of regionalism: Is there anything about the Midwest qua a region of the United States that makes people write music this way? Does it have to do with the mythology of the frontier—could we instead call this style “Conestoga wagon tonality?” The connection between this musical tendency and broader demographic tendencies in the Rust Belt, perhaps including economic depression and population hemorrhage, seems tenuous. Does it have to do with the self-effacing, neighborly quality that’s supposed to be part of the Midwestern character? Does it have to do with the flatness of the terrain, the straightness of roads? Does it have to do with playing an increasingly crucial role in electoral politics despite the aforementioned white flight to the Sun Belt? Does it have to do with the distance from cultural centers like New York and L.A.? In short, what real Midwestern trait (besides a paucity of memorable topographical features) is manifest in this music?
We can play this game of ethnographic speculation with any part of the country, maybe even the world. The bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, is this: If we thought more about addressing the artistic problems suggested to us by concrete social or geographic features of our area code and less about the music of our teachers (both those composers with whom we study and those who are, themselves, the subject of our studies), we might end up writing more interesting music—not to mention music that carries greater relevance to those with whom we’d like to share it.