Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Local and Universal

I believe that it's safe to say the reputation of J.S. Bach went into the celebratory year of 1985 as that of the universal genius and came out more that of a brilliant but very much local hero, parochial not universal.   A wider exposure to the complete catalog of Bach's work placed the canonical works of abstract and speculative brilliance in the unfamiliar perspective of being set alongside the huge quantitative bias in the BWV catalog towards functional liturgical works, almost all of them examples of extreme craftsmanship and taste, but all of them firmly anchored in a style and body of technique that was completely anchored in its particular time and place.   

Similarly, we have seen recent performance practice and scholarship — in particular, Taruskin's two volumes —  restore to Igor Stravinsky's reputation much of the Russian identity, or even, more particularly, a St. Peterburg identity, that had been very much displaced — by the composer himself, foremost, but by international critical and popular acclaim as well — by the image of Stravinsky as a central figure in an international modernism, for whom such local identification was a distraction, initially perhaps out of biographical necessity but ultimately from aesthetic choice.


In the 1950's , there was a moment in much of Western Europe, North American, and to some extent in Japan in which similar musical concerns, shared application of a body of techniques suggested, for many, the outlines of a common international style and — for some time well beyond this moment — these techniques and their associated stylistic turns, appeared to be more important than any local features.   There were, to be certain, many attractive qualities to this moment, among which was a literally Utopian sense that music could be successfully transplanted anywhere and address matters of universal relevance and importance.  This was often accompanied by an appeal to the border-free practices of mathematics or the natural sciences (or, failing that, at least, in the use of language suggesting the sciences)  in describing and endorsing new musical practices.  In Europe, in particular, the notion of a music unconstrained by traditional geographical-political borders shared the odd mixture of optimism and balancing of influences with which the new, post-World War II, cross-border political and economic institutions were formed.

Now, a half century later, it is always astonishing, when listening to the famous exemplars of this repertoire, how limited or even trivial the shared features appear to be when compared with the local and individual elements.  The nationalities of the composers of Il Canto Sospeso, Le marteau sans maître,  Kontra-Punkte, or Music of Changes do not survive "drop the needle" listening tests anymore as secrets.   And it is clear that the figure and music of John Cage, for example, was very much instrumentalized through its placement into foreign musical-political dialectics into which Cage himself did not choose to enter.  What is lost or gained by this change?

It is possible that these years were particularly naive.  Certainly, the styles which later achieved some international status — texturalism, minimal music,  spectralism, the new complexity — did so without much real confusion about their local origins.  Even when composers and musical styles were (or are) better received outside of their home ports, there is little doubt about these origins.  Although music is portable in ways that works of literature are not, we'd probably have to dig back to Lully to find a composer who has as successfully buried his or her tracks in the fashion of a Joseph Conrad or B. Traven and become productive in an adopted musical idiom.


Not being able to work as composer in the place I came from — due mostly to some biographical caprice, but also the practical problems of being an American composer — and respond more directly to a musical and wider community is an unhappy circumstance for me.   I have an ideal image of the good citizen-musician in my head, in dialogue with a community, but that's a role I cannot play here.  Instead, my work gets framed as something of a novelty act, the token Californian on a program here or the token ex-pat on a program there.  My failure, as a composer, to find a way to work productively from this displacement,  probably ought to be an even more pressing concern.  It would probably be easy enough to change my work, to either make a better Imitat of the local avant-garde style, so as to better integrate into the scene, or to try a more entertaining style, as the market for wandering Musikanten always has some room, so long as you cultivate that special sense of knowing when not to wear out your welcome.   

As a grad student, the great alternative to an academic career for an aspiring experimental composer was a move to New York, but I never had much affinity for the city, and it's a place with such a high density of composers relative to population and performance opportunities that, ultimately, most composers are forced into very narrow specialization in order to etch out a style — a trade mark, if you will — that can stand out from the crowd.  At that time I was neither ready nor interested in such a specialization, and I've probably still not gotten there.   Later, during a curious five years spent as a trailing spouse in Hungary, I had plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the local market conditions to buy myself any performance or recording of my own work I would have wanted, but, absent any honest connection to any possible audience for such commissions, it would have essentially been vanity publication, and vain as I am, I'm not quite ready for that.  (If you ARE into that, there's an entire industry based on hooking up soloists, conductors, and composers with middle and eastern European orchestras on a pay-for-play basis.)

To some extent, web-based communication has lessened these anxieties.  I'm more up to date about goings-on at home and, maybe, the folks back home are more aware of what I'm up to. Then there are the new networks of friends and colleagues that spring up, sometimes spontaneously and temporarily, sometimes cultivated over longer periods of time.  But this is still no substitute: it is a fundamentally different experience not to be composing with a 10,000 foot mountain in the background and the noise of an U-Bahn car makes an altogether different acoustical background than that of the San Bernadino Freeway.   Southern Californian English has a different tempo, rhythm and tune than Frankfurter German.   The desert air at sunrise demands a different music from that rising from the waters of the river Main.  This is the background against and with which I necessarily compose, even if it is now more memory than physical presence.   


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