Different Worlds

Different Worlds

Meet Dan Visconti

Ed. Note: Composer Dan Visconti will be in residence at Berlin’s Hans Arnold Center as recipient of the American Academy in Berlin Prize for the 2008-09 season. Similar to the Rome prize, the residence includes meals and a stipend, but this is the first year that a composer has been invited to the Berlin Academy for the entire academic year. Visconti’s compositions have been performed by the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, the Minnesota Orchestra, the American Composers Orchestra, and the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, and he has received awards from ASCAP, BMI, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Society of Composers, as well as the Bearns Prize from Columbia University. An archive of Visconti’s online journal of his experience working with Kronos is hosted on the website of Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts. He has graciously offered to keep a journal for NewMusicBox of his activities in Berlin.—FJO

I knew I couldn’t possibly be in the States when I opened up the Berlin Phil’s subscription guide for the first time—and without having to read much of it, either. As I flipped through the rather hefty volume, it dawned on me that what I had initially taken for the entire season’s listings was actually just the orchestra’s listings for September. And this from a city that sustains no less than seven major orchestras and three opera houses!

Now, with a few months at the Academy under my belt, I’m thoroughly enjoying music of all kinds at venues large and small. In the meantime I’ve also settled into a more or less steady work routine during the day, with the Academy’s typically comprehensive dinners providing the opportunity for relaxation and socializing in the evening.

At one of these dinners, I had the good fortune of being seated next to a very accomplished German composer, and the conversation turned to a recent performance of the Berg violin concerto. My colleague confessed to me that he had never been able to enjoy the work, making sure to add that he found the work “lazy in its references to the past.” When pressed he clarified that the piece “lacked a strong theoretical consistency.”

Perhaps more than any other incident so far, this exchange really hit home how strong some of the fundamental differences between American and European composers remain today. To begin with, I found it interesting that my colleague’s reaction to the Berg concerto was so conditional—he didn’t like it, but he came equipped with a handy explanation that made it completely clear what he did endorse: “strong theoretical consistency”. My likes and dislikes are usually much more visceral, and very rarely expressed against some kind of abstract yardstick—whatever I think of the Berg concerto, I would be reluctant to attribute its effect on something as specific as theoretical consistency; instead I would probably cite many features of the composition which interact to create the ultimate impression, theory having an important (if perhaps indirect) effect on these features.

Of course this is the typical “American perspective”, I am told, from that wishy-washy world where everyone sits around smoking hash and letting waves of sentimental pabulum fill their uncritical ears. Of course it’s no use that this version of America simply doesn’t exist and never has. And as a successful composer with an international reputation, my distinguished dinner-guest couldn’t possibly believe that there was one “American perspective,” much less a perspective that includes, say, Reich, Lanksy, and Crumb but willfully ignores American composers writing in the past and today who work a more complex idiom.

Still, there may some truth to these caricatures—of the American composer as kind of a tree-hugging uber-Ives with a live-and-let-live attitude, and of the European who views musical composition as an obstacle on the way to doing more theory. But to what extent?

I’d love to hear everyone else’s take: Do American and European composers really inhabit such different worlds?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

6 thoughts on “Different Worlds

  1. Kyle Gann

    That “theoretical consistency” rationale sounds very German, and I’ve heard similar comments from other German composers. I can’t imagine a British, Dutch, Italian, or Serbian composer saying anything like it.

  2. colin holter

    I can’t imagine a British, Dutch, Italian, or Serbian composer saying anything like it.

    But I know several American composers who would.

  3. danvisconti

    Thanks for your posts, Kyle and Colin. I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment from reading your respective writings, and so I find it really cool to see a conversation growing only hours after this first post. Not to start out on an “aw shucks” note and all, but after living abroad for the first time (maybe you too, Colin?) I only have more appreciation for these forums that keep us interconnected despite our physical distance apart.

    Kyle, your comment about this distinctly German (as opposed to pan-European) point of view certainly rings true to my ears. And Colin’s comment aimed at the myth of some kind of American fluffocratic hegemony makes me wonder whether it’s fair to say that Americans might themselves occasionally fall into the trap of viewing the broad spectrum of Europe exclusively via, say, Germany and France. Another issue seems to be the fact that viewing composers through a very nationalist lens (as my dinner companion certainly did) is probably not always the most useful or relevant way of thinking about trends and techniques that have in our day without a doubt gone global.

    Last night I heard a nice concert of Carter’s music and I lost count of the number of times I heard words like “thorny”, “complex”, “complicated”, and “angular” used to describe his music, and nowhere words like flowing, yearning, tender–although those are most certainly just as valid.

    It made me think about Carter’s vast musical universe, populated with diverse languages and at times a visionary sense of exploration, and just how completely American it really is. It’s almost like this past election’s whole “the REAL America” song and dance is not far from many people’s thinking about American music, either. It’s Carter’s America too, I would argue.

  4. ottodafaye

    “Do American and European composers really inhabit such different worlds?”

    I wouldn’t think so, given that – from what I can tell – the most successful American composers have had, and continue to have, most of their success in Europe.

  5. jhelliott

    While visceral reaction for me is the true barometer, I also want to understand the cause. So I might ponder a reaction until I understand the “non-gut,” intellectual rationale (presuming there is one). I don’t see this inclination as particularly American or European but rather a reflection of personality and training. I always want my students to try and figure out “why” they have a negative reaction…sometimes I learn more from the pieces I dislike.


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