Is There Really No Place Like Home?: American Composers Abroad

Is There Really No Place Like Home?: American Composers Abroad

Guy Livingston

Writing from Paris, in the beginning of the new millennium, the city of light seems pretty tame compared to its awesome role a century ago. From about 1880 until World War II, Paris was the rarely-contested center for new and avant-garde music, painting, and writing. This cultural hub attracted vast numbers of foreigners, most particularly Americans. The story of Americans abroad in the 20th century is thus primarily one of Paris, but also one of London, Morocco, Rome, and more recently Amsterdam and Berlin.

What is it that has so strongly attracted Americans to Europe? What was so intriguing about European culture (particularly in the 1920s) that made Americans eager to pack their bags and rush to board the next ocean liner? Was it the food, the music, the poetry, the modernism, or the tradition?

America invented her politics and economy first, and culture much, much later. ‘American’ music existed before 1910, but those who performed it (except for religious music) were minstrels, bandleaders, folk musicians, and other performers relegated to the fringes of society. ‘Cultured’ music in America was defined solely by its relevance and closeness to European models. Pre-1900, the European education was the only choice for any serious composer, and the grand tour of Europe the only possibility of developing a refined musical background for American romantics Gottschalk, MacDowell and their fellow artists.

At the turn of the century, the situation began to change. However obscurely, composers like Ives were defining a homegrown American music, and patrons and critics were beginning to encourage a search for idioms separate from the European tradition. Ives, Cowell, Ruggles, and a few others developed ruggedly individualistic Yankee styles without leaving home, but they were too far outside the system to get significant attention. Meanwhile, more mainstream American composers were coming back from studies in Paris and Rome, full of fresh ideas for an “American Music.”

In the late 1920s, George Antheil, Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland returned from Europe with a splash, writing new and vivid music. Ragtime, early jazz, and African-American musicians were becoming popular in Europe and were being recognized for their artistry on both sides of the Atlantic. Crossover Broadway/classical artists like Gershwin began to mix jazz and European music. And by the ’30s and ’40s, mainstream U.S. composers were producing 100% ‘American Music’ for newly receptive symphonic audiences. No longer was the European model necessary to America: the U.S. had gained musical independence.

Not that composers stopped going to Europe. On the contrary: after World War II, the reasons to go abroad had changed, but the pull was still strong. In the ’50s there was the new attraction of Darmstadt, and in the ’80s the glistening underground IRCAM electronic music center. Here, composers could devote themselves entirely to new electronic and serialist idioms, without fear of a hostile or uninformed public (or sometimes without fear of any public at all).

The US-Vietnam war caused many Americans to seek anonymity or peace abroad. But it also made them extremely unpopular throughout Europe. In Rome, recounts composer Richard Trythall, the war and the changing economy “sent a lot of composers back to the States or elsewhere in Europe.” After IRCAM and Darmstadt became institutionalized and gained a reputation for bureaucratic academicism (which didn’t take long), the Dutch improvisation and new music scene exploded in the late ’80s, attracting composers from South America, Scandinavia, and the States. By the ’90s, established Dutch iconoclasts like Louis Andriessen and younger experimentalists like Richard Barrett and Ann Laberge, themselves foreigners, had turned Amsterdam into a major new music center.

Most recently, the burgeoning rave and techno scenes in London and Berlin are having a major international impact. For many young American composers and DJs, West Berlin, with its wealthy and hip audience, is now the place to be, while East Berlin still offers cheap food and accommodations. London balances a familiar language with sky-high rents and explosive growth.

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