Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Another St. Patrick's day has past, which in the US has become a curious spectacle of elective affinity for an imagined identity.  Bars and parades are full of one-day-a-year patriots drinking green beer, singing A Nation Once Again, without ever wondering if the supposed nation was ever there in the first place, let ago ready for reappearance. And don't get me started on corned beef and cabbage... 

I'm as much of a mutt as most Americans, with some fractional advantage to those ancestors whose last European home was in Ireland (with the rest from Holland or Britain),  We've kept in touch with relations on that island and my mother even has an Irish passport, but identifying myself as Irish-American seems odd.  In fact, the whole business of program note biographies and encyclopedia entries which inevitably begin with some national identity (American composer Philo T. Boxtop... ) seems even more odd.   How obligatory or meaningful is such an identification? Does a composer identify musically with a nation state?  With a piece of real estate?  With a language or the traditional customs of some tribe or folk?  

(For the record, my earliest haplogroup (M168) hasn't made me any more attached to the Rift Valley, although I am certainly fond of Doro Wat and Injera).

My personal attachment to the mountains, desert and coast of California is real, but it seems presumptive to claim that they are embedded in my music.  On the other hand, my few years on the East Coast were mostly unhappy and more foreign, in their way, then time spent in places where I had to get my passport stamped.  (A few weeks in the Deep South of the US were certainly the most exotic experience of my life.)  So identification as an American composer seems rather coarse to me, no matter how honored I'd be to share the designation with Ives, Cowell, or Cage.  

On the other hand, though I've been in Europe for a long enough time, coming here was unplanned and unexpected, personal rather than professional, and staying here is as much due to relatively good schools and health care for the family as any geographical or cultural attachments, of which I have few and increasingly fewer.  That said, whenever a work of mine is played here, the advertisement is inevitably of a work by an American composer, which I can sometimes get the organizer to temper to Californian, but when a piece is programmed in the States, I just as inevitably get the qualifier "Frankfurt-based." (Does that mean I'm following in the steps of Telemann, Humperdinck and Hindemith, or that I ought to be expert in the writings of Goethe or Adorno?  Or maybe I should have a special relationship to Rindswurst or Grie Soß?)

This lack of attachment comes with advantages and disadvantages.  Musically, especially for work with experimental ambitious, this detachment can lead to a useful distance from habit or tradition.  But there are real practical disadvantages in not being a fully enfranchised member of the local polity:  my status is perpetually that of a tolerated guest (and during the Bush wars, even this was not always clear) and I can't vote here, but must pay the same taxes as those who can.  At the level of the nation-state, this pains little, but I do like to participate in local affairs. More critical, however, is that I often fall between the cracks for music presenters and musical funding sources.  Not being German, my work can't be supported by a number of sources and not being resident in the US, a number of sources there are — whether by rule or by practice — cut off from me.  But most critically, the attachment of one label, whether American or experimental or minimal or serial or complex or neo-/archao-/post-/prae-/ad hoc-whatever, can lead to the uniform identification of all of ones work with that label.  If your particular label does not fit the fads and fancies of the current programming season, tough luck.  (And if you hairstyle doesn't fit, even worse luck...)

Years ago, in grad school, I noticed that most of the composers in New York, the most saturated marketplace for composition in the US, tended to discipline themselves so that their work was ever-more focused on a particular specialization.  This is probably an inevitable behavior in such a market, and to its credit, New York manages to support competing streams of music-making to some degree or another, but it also leads to precisely the labelling described above.  I'm less interested in catalogues of composers than in individual works of composers, and sometimes only even in moments, marvelous moments, in those individual works, so this labelling is essentially a filtering device for programmers and marketers and a distraction, away from the music, for me.  Moreover, the capacity for talented composers, and American composers perhaps particularly so, to, chameleon-like, elect one identity or another, just like American politicians all becoming Irish for one day in 365,  is something that surely should raise suspicion. 

You would think that, with all of the ease of communication and travel, such labels should be increasingly discounted.  (Not disregarded, just discounted).   I suppose, however, that an economically marginal activity like new music is going to hang onto these for sometime longer in that the filtering, segregating, and isolating effects still have an economic function, a crude but practical filter on a supply of music far in excess of demans.  Restraint of trade, one might say.  But if we practice a bit more suspicion of the labels, perhaps we can restore some more valid utility to them.  There are, indeed, qualities that are inescapably French to the music of Berlioz, Debussy or Boulez or American about the music of Ives or Piston or Harold Budd, and it can be useful to talk about these qualities, if the talk is more than an arbitrary, casual and prejudiced application of labels, but rather as nothing more than an opening to a discussion of real differences in music.   

No comments: