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

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

After the Lost Generation

Paris as a city was sobered after W.W.II, becoming a conservative, less receptive environment, while New York became the world’s new cultural capital. Even so, composers from Rorem to Bolcom continued to be inspired by Paris’ philosophers and musicians. Then, in 1978, Pierre Boulez launched IRCAM, and a new generation of hyper-composers including Tod Machover haunted the submarine-like studios. Yet, only a decade later, the glamour of IRCAM faded, along with the lavish arts spending that characterized the previous French administration under Jack Lang, ex-minister of culture. At the moment, the world of modern music lies elsewhere, but will Paris re-invent herself again?

One of the few Americans living abroad in 1958, Ned Rorem was finishing up a pretty wild decade. After studying with Honegger and Boulanger on a Fulbright grant from 1951-1952, he stayed on, composing and partying among the rich and famous. Rorem kept an infamously indiscreet and self-centered diary, a trove of malicious anecdote and self-aggrandizement (but also a great source of anecdote!). Subsisting grandly on the remains of a Fulbright and the caviar and champagne of the St. Tropez set, Rorem lived out of a suitcase for years, during which he wrote some excellent music, particularly songs.

The Vicomtesse Marie Laure de Noailles, rich supporter and friend, was his patron and muse. Rorem was equally at ease with friends from Picasso to Poulenc, and his command of the language and the grace with which he moved among French artists and aristocracy virtually guaranteed him concerts across Europe and of course in Paris. Pierre Boulez, sinister in his own right, notoriously snubbed him: “Quel sinistre individu.”

Jacob Druckman, born in 1928, had a Fulbright in 1954 to study in Paris. He attended the …cole Normale and studied with Tony Aubin. In 1968, he was awarded a second Guggenheim to work at the Parisian electronic studios of the Office de Radio Diffusion-Television FranÁaise (also known as the ORTF).

William Bolcom studied with Milhaud at Mills College, then came to Paris to work with Milhaud and Messiaen in the late ’50s. “I adored Paris, though I didn’t want to be an expat”…. Eventually “I gritted my teeth, and moved back to New York.” Despite his short time in Paris, he speaks to this day impeccable French and comes back often to see the Milhaud family and eat at the Nouilleville restaurant, a highlight of Paris’ Chinatown.

Philip Glass studied at the University of Chicago and at Juilliard. He then came to Paris in 1966 to work with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar… certainly an odd combination. After France, he went back to New York to study with the tabla player Alla Rakha.

Tom Johnson, an avant-garde composer, is the author of the visual gag-book Imaginary Music, (gorgeous graphic puns and in-jokes for musicians). He’s lived in Paris since 1983, and also wrote the infamously minimalist Four-Note Opera (it really has only four notes!). His works are performed frequently in Paris and in Belgium, as well as in Holland.

World War II had marked the end of Paris’ hegemony in the contemporary arts. The European avant-garde had moved to Germany with a vengeance, and the action was in Darmstadt. French music was now the exclusive purvey of the modernists (Boulez, Messiaen); the conservatives (innumerable conservatory directors); and the Radio and GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales, exemplified by musique concrete pioneers Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer). These institutions offered little possibility for cultural exchange for the next three decades, and Americans would not be visible again until the 1980s.

IRCAM: Electronic Music in Paris

In 1978 Pierre Boulez, eager to re-institute Paris as new music’s capital city, came back to France (from New York, where he had been conducting a highly reluctant New York Philharmonic) and launched the multi-million franc IRCAM experiment. Paris as an international musical capitol was back.

During the ’80s this was the most exclusive address in the world for a composer of electronic music; the sounds emanating from the jealously guarded underground studios set the tone for an entire decade. From the very first, American technicians and composers dominated the setup, and English and French were about equally spoken on-stage and in the studios. As part of an uphill struggle to maintain IRCAM’s initial hegemony in contemporary music, lavish sums were spent on this ponderous institution.

Tod Machover was one of a huge number of foreign engineers and composers attracted by the IRCAM’s technological might and budget. Machover had been first cellist of the Canadian Opera Company and came to Paris in 1978. After being a guest composer at IRCAM, he was appointed Director of Musical Research from 1980-84. He subsequently went on to the MIT Media Lab, where he combined elitism and populism in novel ways. Works from the IRCAM period include: Soft Morning, City (1980), set to texts by James Joyce; Fusione Fugace (1982); and Spectres parisiens for flute, horn, 18 instruments, and electronics.

As IRCAM tries for a new life in the new century, a host of young American, British, and Dutch composers are coming to Paris for a year-long ‘cursus’ in electronic music. Recent Americans whose compositional insights have survived this rather grueling year include Ketty Nez, Butch Rovan, and Oliver Schneller.

German-American composer Oliver Schneller, says, “The much criticized notion of a standardized ‘IRCAM sound’ is largely a thing of the past. The variety of information environments, processing, or synthesis techniques that a composer can now freely choose from is so broad that an intelligent, original, and novel use of these techniques in a composition yields a successful piece.

“I suppose it is generally fair to say that there exists at the IRCAM, compared to the climate of the electronic music scene in the U.S., a certain skepticism—which is not the same as prejudice—vis-à-vis the referential use of elements from popular music. But even that is an overstatement when considering the work of Andrea Cera at IRCAM or the recent collaboration of IRCAM with the ISEA 2000 Symposium.”


In order to counteract the increasingly stultifying influence of IRCAM on Paris’ new music scene, the late Iannis Xenakis launched Les Ateliers UPIC, now known as CCMIX, as a sort of antidote. Directed by American Gérard Pape, the innovative CCMIX has a fraction of IRCAM’s budget, but not surprisingly, takes more, often fascinating, risks. Their concerts are intriguing, accessible to a larger public, and offer a great diversity of electronic and electro-acoustic styles. Pape, a co-founder of the Twice Festival of Contemporary Music in Michigan, moved to Paris in 1991. Mode Records has recently recorded several of his compositions.

Jazz Artists in Paris

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe to French contemporary music and with barely a single point in common, the jazz world in Paris was hopping with African-Americans after the war. Many discovered that they could enjoy a largely racism-free lifestyle in Europe, not to mention earning bigger fees and getting more musical respect.

Sidney Bechet was one of the most famous of these transplanted jazzers, and became a genuine expatriate. Born to a Creole family in New Orleans, he was a child prodigy and an incurable vagabond. Apparently he discovered the soprano sax in a music shop in Soho, London. From 1925-29, he lived in Europe. However, Bechet was involved in a fight, and after an exchange of gunfire, was jailed for a year in France. He was deported and ended up in Berlin, unable to leave until joining the Noble Sissle Orchestra in 1931, which gave him the opportunity to go home to the States. Back in Paris at a legendary jazz fest in 1949, he played with Charlie Parker. So successful was this concert that Bechet moved to France permanently. He died in 1959, famous and adored by the French.

Virtuoso jazz drummer Sunny Murray, who currently lives in Paris, is by contrast bitter about the current state of European music, at least as far as he is concerned. During his heyday he played with Dexter Gordon and Kenny Drew in Denmark; and in Paris with Michel Portal, François Tusques, and Ben Webster. But he feels that the French music scene has ruined him completely, and that the rest of Europe has forgotten him. He describes being threatened by record executives and excluded by major festivals, and he only stays on in Paris due to personal and family reasons. His experience is extreme and paranoid, though he’s not the only musician who has been overwhelmed by the European bureaucracy and the highly politicized system of government support.

European audiences from Scandinavia to Italy were wild about modern jazz and have remained committed to it as a serious art form for decades. The first night at the New Morning club in Paris is always a shock for American tourists: the French are absolutely quiet, falling into a reverent hush as soon as the musicians arrive on-stage… this kind of respect is a European standard.

Archie Shepp and Steve Lacy are two other important jazz musicians who have found in Paris and the European touring scene a very lucrative livelihood. Christopher Culpo, a young jazz pianist and composer who has been in Paris for a decade now and has worked with Lacy says, “Some of the reasons for staying abroad are always the same. The most important is the distance one has from the culture to which one has moved to, as well as the distance from the culture one has moved away from: it’s a double-cushion.”

Innumerable American jazz artists went on tour in northern Europe and Scandinavia, meeting and performing with local musicians. Unlike their classical counterparts, jazz musicians did not come to learn from Europe… Europe was now learning from them. To a certain extent, this situation is changing. In a recent interview with Mike Zwerin of the Herald Tribune, Joshua Redman describes touring in Europe: “I hear a lot of Americans complain that they can’t get enough work in Europe any more. I don’t think we as Americans have a right to complain. Jazz music has become an international phenomenon. There are a lot of good musicians in Europe now, and the public wants to support their own artists.”

From Is There Really No Place Like Home? A HyperHistory of American Composers Abroad
By Guy Livingston
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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