The Paradox of Internationalism

by Barry Drogin

Back to guide - Next item in guide - Back to index - Next item in index

(The following is in response to a brief exchange with Frank Oteri, Editor of New Music Box, in a Forum on the subject of Music and Politics. There are passing references to ideas developed more fully in "The Death of Western Art" and "American Canvas". My previous postings were as follows:

Readers may start to confuse the "transformation of society" with "redistribution of wealth," which is typically what composers and performers seek from government for themselves. When we vote as musicians, we vote for a specific monetary goal; when we vote as human beings, our politics may differ.

"Classical Music" has become like a beautiful public park, whose civilizing influence is felt by all who visit, poor and rich alike. You do not disturb the peace in a public park, and our concert halls, opera houses and ballet stages, funded by local and state governments and local corporations, have managed to purge anything remotely relevant to ideas, social commentary or protest from what they present (except, perhaps, in some large urban areas where knee-jerk reaction and talk with no action is fashionable).

In America, "the arts" have now officially been reduced to "the culture", so that preservation of folk arts, pieces with affinities to civic virtues, and technology projects will be the only things funded. Your typical string quartet just don't fit these priorities. And achieving your personal vision of what you want to hear is irrelevant if not undemocratic.

It is this new stress on folk forms, indigenous art, and treating pop art as needing preservation by the NEA to the exclusion of Western classical art forms and "traditions" that the NEA is self-defining as a new direction immune from Republican protests. It is the NEA which is basically embracing mass and popular culture to the (effective) exclusion of the modern arts, by taking a shrinking pie and distributing more broadly. They're even using "regional" grants to keep avant gardists in San Francisco and New York from getting more than a fraction of the pie, which violates the traditional artistic incubator role of large cities.

Politics does not always follow logic. If the purpose of funding is to promote and support excellence, raise the level of performance to a higher level, nourish innovation and bring pride to the nation, then the best thing a government can do is
1. Encourage collaboration between Americans and artists BEYOND America's borders. This typically has to be done as a specific initiative, or else funding bodies assume that all collaborators must be American.
2. Pay for artists visiting from OTHER countries. Again, without a specific program to encourage this, funding bodies will usually not allow it.
3. Use merit, not location, as the sole criteria for awarding funding. This is the general catch-all category for funding of all activities, INCLUDING American-only collaborations, concerts, tours, commissions, etc., but not "evenly distributed" so as to hurt hotbeds of activity like NYC and San Francisco.

If the purpose of funding is to provide a welfare program for American artists, then do what countries in Europe do - support only Americans, only American music, have no programs to fund international collaboration, and make sure every region in the country receives equal funding.

Except sometimes for touring, European countries typically DO NOT fund international collaborations, visits, etc., but rely on the visiting country to pay for such things. This notion is starting to change, as artists start to recognize the value of free interaction with other countries.

Ironically, by "opening the door" to international activities, a country benefits its artists by increased exposure of their own artists to the international community - meaning both their artists seeing other work and other artists seeing theirs (with subsequent touring opportunities).

The NewOp meetings which I attend have been facing this international need for a decade now - but the United States has isolated itself up to now from this international activity (Canada, on the other hand, has been quite active, and funds international collaborations, too, to its benefit). An institution like La Mama, ETC is struggling. Across the street, New York Theatre Workshop has been bringing in productions from the Netherlands and Canada. And the New York Fringe Festival is getting more international each year. These efforts (certainly not exclusive venues for non-American work) should be emphasized.

Democracy says all artists are created equal - which is why I think programs like the ASCAP awards, where popular artists fund artists performing in "non-ASCAP licensed venues", is more valuable (and has been to me) than government or corporate funding, for which too many strings are attached.

My response follows:)

Dear Frank

I am a afraid that I cannot respond to your recent postings briefly, and so have moved my comments off of the Forum and onto a space where I can have more latitude.

There are several issues vieing for attention here, and each deserves a response. In some cases, we have veered from a discussion of the purpose of government to the purpose of nationalism. There is also the assumption of the availability of government funding, an assumption that no longer holds in the current political environment, as I have already noted. So, by definition, this debate takes place in a fantasy world - I point out that a meritocracy that is not rigid in enforcing nationalistic borders will serve whatever is left of the “art,” fully aware that such a system is unlikely to exist. You address a market imbalance, somewhat oblivious to the fact that United States government support of contemporary European-derived art forms (such as contemporary classical music) will not only never match, proportionally, European self-funding of same, but is headed in the negative direction, as the backlash against identity politics, shock art and urbanism continues.

I admit that it is paradoxical that being international in scope can serve nationalistic goals. This is because I believe strongly in the notion of ferment, or churn, in the history of art. It is why I have damaged so severely my other career, the one that pays the rent, to live in New York City, where rents are higher and opportunities in my other field are fewer. It is also why I have devoted so much of my vacation time, including honeymoons, to travelling internationally to other urban centers where the art forms I am interested in are available and flourishing. It is also why I have rejected so completely the academic life, where composers can be isolated in a small college away from any ferment, iconoclastically working on their own pieces while missing exposure and education in the work of their contemporaries.

It is quite unusual that you make the arguments relative to your experiences in the 70’s. When Ives was still composing, the pro-European anti-American snobbery you describe was very real. But by mid-century, this presumption had been faced head-on, so that by late century, America so dominated creativity and originality in the arts that European anti-American backlash could be attributed to jealousy, not snobbery. Minimalism, for example, was invented by Americans, and evolved into East Coast/West Coast versions.

In the 70’s, Ives was not being performed because of academic snobbery, not pro-European snobbery. A collusion of factors served to limit academic support of Ives performances - it’s very popularity and accessibility to audiences; accusations that Ives had modified his work after the fact to show innovation; suspicion that a self-published, crudely-opinionated (and homophobic) insurance salesman couldn’t be a serious composer (kind of like claiming that Shakespeare’s works must have been penned by a nobleman); a certain compositional sloppiness and preference for short forms like songs; and the self-modifying super-romantic nature of the work itself. Similarly, the rise of Minimalism was seen as an anti-academic movement, not an anti-European movement. Academics tried to paint it as a “new romanticism” movement, and promoted the works of Adams as opposed to Reich and especially Glass.

Moving back to ferment, consider the glories of Paris in the early century, with ex-patriate Americans like Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland (hm, all homosexual) interacting with Picasso, a Spaniard, and studying with Nadia Boulanger, a Frenchwoman. Was France fiercely nationalistic in those days? If it had been, those glory days may have never existed - or may have existed elsewhere.

This moves us back to a discussion of when nationalism is appropriate, and when not. The American Music Center is a library and information source, not a producing organization, and is useful in preserving and promoting the work of American artists, both nationally and internationally. Composers used to completely dominate and control the AMC.

Performers, on the other hand, used to be neatly split between contemporary and non-contemporary repertoire (with some of the less successful contemporary repertoire performers doing some non-contemporary fare to pay the rent, and some of the non-contemporary repertoire performers reaching a stage in their careers where they could indulge in contemporary tokenism - these are gross generalizations, of course). In the 70’s, the opportunities for contemporary composers outside of academia or calligraphy to support themselves were so rare, that Reich and Glass devised a unique strategy - never publish, and only let your works be performed by your own ensemble. This, of course, goes beyond nationalism to individualism.

In the 80’s, the American Composers Orchestra was formed not so much because American orchestras were only playing European repertoire, but because they were only playing non-contemporary repertoire. It is true that the ACO usually included one non-contemporary American piece along with the contemporary fare, but this was a form of tokenism similar to the slender contemporary offerings of other orchestras of the time. Copland, and some Bernstein, had already become quite entrenched into the “standard” repertoire. Symphony audiences hated all modern repertoire, and could care less whether it was American or European.

By the 90’s, the ACO’s strategy had started to deteriorate artistically, in my opinion. I was an early subscriber and supporter of the ACO, but after a decade, a feeling of repetition crept in. The American repertoire requirement was an artistic straight-jacket. The ACO tried to get more diverse, performing a piece by Laurie Anderson (but orchestrated by someone else). It finally hit on the strategy of redefining “American” to mean the Americas, and this has expanded their horizons enormously. Personally, by this time I had bored of symphonic repertoire, turning completely to a cappella vocal music, so I never returned as a subscriber.

An alternative strategy was that taken by David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon with the Bang on a Can Festival. These three composers found a common ground in the music of the Dutch composer Louis Andreissen, and made no secret of it. When composers not interested in that style protested, they suggested that they form their own festivals devoted to the music they liked. Suffice it to say, this strong artistic vision, which recognizes no national borders, has been quite successful.

You blur the argument by citing Beethoven and Mozart. As far as I know, Mozart is not applying for a Meet the Composer grant. I suspect that you are actually a lot more aware and admiring of contemporary European composers and performing ensembles than that emotional outburst shows.

Your statement about the Met is also odd. The only operas performed at the Met and the New York City Opera that were written in the last fifty years have all been by Americans (Britten and Tippett are borderline - perhaps you can name an exception, but I can name many more that fit). At City Opera this is a yearly occurrence, at the Met maybe twice a decade. What has been the typical New Yorker’s exposure to Berio, Messaien, Stockhausen and other non-American “opera” composers?

It is important to address collaboration, which I speak of from a music-theatre bias. A composer, sitting alone writing notes on a page, and then running around marketing the completed piece to potential performing ensembles, is fundamentally different from the music-theatre composer, collaborating with a librettist, director, set designers and performers to create a performance. My ballet, “Butterfly Dream,” was written for an Argentinian choreographer. My dance-theatre piece, “Typhoid Mary,” used a European set and costume designer (and had a voice singing in German). A music-theatre piece is not easily transferred from one performing group to another after the fact, so collaborations must be joint from the beginning or exchanges arranged. Because of the NewOp meetings, Eric Salzman was recently commissioned by Chants Libres in Canada to collaborate with a Parisian on “Abel Gance in New York,” which will be in French. Similarly, because of NewOp, my work is much more known and performed outside of America than within.

Outside of the music-theatre context, this is a question of commissioning and of performing organizations. Can an American contemporary music performer get a grant from the US government to commission a piece from a non-American? How about a Meet the Composer grant? Can the Kronos Quartet get funding to exchange repertoire with a similar ensemble in Europe? Do you think it is inappropriate for Continuum to play the music of Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, and be invited to Azerbaijan to perform it?

I find it amazing that, given the state of international travel and communications, contemporary musicians in America are MORE ignorant of non-American contemporary musicians than they were fifty years ago, when pro-American contemporary music jingoism was all the rage. This is pointed up by the fact that Eric Salzman and I are the only Americans to regularly attend NewOp meetings, and to know the work of some amazing companies like Tapestry and Chants Libres in Canada, Chamber Made Opera in Australia, and more companies than I can name in France, England, Italy, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc. The “modern” work of Americans Michael John LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel, Polly Pen and Stephen Sondheim is a joke by comparison. I had to leave America to first hear the work of Americans Pamela Z, Rinde Eckert, David Rodwin and Erling Wold (and catch an excerpt from Mikel Rouse’s “Dennis Cleveland,” which I inadvertently missed in New York). It wouldn’t surprise you to know that the entire membership of OPERA America and the National Opera Association is ignorant of their work, as well as the work of New Yorkers such as Eric Salzman, Michael Sahl and myself.

America’s language bias is profound. My works in Hebrew are dismissed out of hand, and I’m thinking twice about writing a planned piece in Yiddish. American jazz artists find that they must tour or relocate to Europe, where their work is more appreciated. The ancient traditions of Italy, Austria, France and England have practically squashed a market for contemporary work, so that Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia are flourishing in their absence. An isolationist America, ignorant or suspicious of outside accomplishments, will see its art whither and die. You point to past accomplishments, but I fear for the future.

Back to guide - Next item in guide - Back to index - Next item in index

A Musical Contrarian © 2000-2007

Last Updated: August 4, 2007