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

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


Dutch culture has been influenced by America since the ’50s, just as American music was influenced by France and Germany in end of the 19th century. Specifically, Zappa, Cage, Antheil, Ives, Thelonious Monk, and Cecil Taylor have had a major impact on Dutch jazz and contemporary music. Consequently, the current scene in Holland is one that is welcoming to American artists and musicians, particularly within improvisatory and experimental music idioms. Unlike the French, whose command of English often seems an hommage to Inspector Clouseau, the Dutch all speak fluent English, and many Americans find the transition to Holland relatively seamless. Plus the easygoing Dutch lifestyle also resembles that of Seattle or Vancouver (though without the good weather).

Although the level of musicianship in the conservatories varies chaotically, the high quality of professional performances in Amsterdam and Rotterdam is impressive. The Dutch excel in complicated percussion and wind techniques: it’s no accident that the famous ensembles of Volharding and Hoketus contained no string players (actually, there was one double bass in Volharding). This suits the hard-edged Dutch esthetic and the grittiness of life in the low countries.

American interpreter and improviser Frances-Marie Uitti, whose visceral and sexy brand of cello playing won the respect of Scelsi and dozens of other modernists, has lived in Rome and is now resident of an apartment in the heart of Amsterdam. In addition to her famous two-bow technique, she is also a virtuoso improviser.

Violinist James Fulkerson is director of the Netherlands-based Barton Workshop and creates music in the tradition of Cage and Feldman, both as a performer and as a composer.

Flutist Ann Laberge is an American composer/improviser/performer who has permanently settled in Amsterdam. Laberge teaches and performs extensively across Europe and is famous for her unusual experiments with the instrument.

Derek Bermel, like many Americans in the ’90s, came to Holland to study with the magnetically down-to-earth Louis Andriessen and to enjoy the relaxed Dutch lifestyle. Quirky venues like the IJsbreker (a turn-of-the-century café), the former Unie (a Mondrian-style design), or the Paradiso (an old church-turned nightclub) make Holland an energetic place to make new music. Bermel’s internationally entertaining group Tonk, which mixes Dutch and U.S. performances, exemplifies some of the new generation’s irreverent and poly-stylistic attitude. Bermel, who has also traveled and studied in Ghana, Rome and Paris, now lives in New York.

Ketty Nez went to Amsterdam in 1996 to study with Louis Andriessen and also to explore the new music scene in Europe. He explains, “Having had a taste of it from a brief visit to Darmstadt and festivals in Denmark and Italy in 1994, I was really enjoying my time there: one of constant discovery. So I stayed on another year, then took the unique opportunity to attend IRCAM’s composer’s course in Paris. Though the two cities are close by, I found a surprising contrast, in terms of culture, kind music I was writing, personal lifestyle, and new-music milieu.

“Andriessen was a particular inspiration, of course, as part of the uniquely Dutch mixture of various ethno, jazz, other popular music styles with mainstream art music; I was also inspired by what I heard coming from Scandinavia through friends in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Latvia (and also linked with the Finnish presence at IRCAM, of course, through Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg, as well as some younger Finns there, for example Juha Koskinen).

“One can’t experience other cultures in a rapidly shrinking globe by armchair speculation—or browsing Web sites—rather, I think it necessary to do a sort of anthropological field work: to go out and submerge oneself (occasionally uncomfortably) in the confounding complexities of other world views and modus operandi. From my own experience I have to recommend Amsterdam, of course, as the current hotspot in Europe for American composers! Coming back to the States is a brief culture shock, rather entertaining if sometimes unpredictable each time it happens.”

Flutist Ned McGowan has been performing and studying microtones and non-western techniques for seven years in Amsterdam. Currently he is directing the Huygens Fokker Foundation for Microtonality as well as taking a course in Contemporary Music through Non-western Techniques taught by Rafael Reina at the Sweelinck Conservatory. McGowan plays flute, improvises, composes, and organizes concerts in Amsterdam.

Says Ned, “As a white male in America, and particularly in this time of ‘multicultural awareness,’ I always had this feeling of being ‘white bread’ —no character, no people, and no heritage to belong to. It was nice to come here and be a minority as a foreigner. The struggle to learn the language and customs and try to belong was difficult but very fresh. It’s kind of hard now to say how my lifestyle is different at this point. At the beginning, for the first few years, it’s all comparisons between the two countries. After a while, though, you stop saying one is better or worse: wherever you are, you just mold right into the way people there live.”

Composer Vanessa Lann discusses her route to Holland, where she has lived for the last decade: “While at Harvard in the ’80s, I always felt that there was a lot more to the influences on composers than the traditions of harmony, instrumentation, and structure that are passed down from teacher to student, etc. I really wanted to physically go to the place where so much had happened and where so much was happening at the moment. I picked Holland after having met a Dutch composer at Tanglewood who said that you could hear a bit of everything in Holland and that the climate for new music was excellent.

“I had worked at a radio station while at Harvard, and there was a recording in the files that was part of a series called 400 years of Dutch Music. It had on it Six Turkish Folk Poems by Theo Loevendie. That was when I knew I wanted to study with this man! It was a fantastic piece.

“Who knows if I’ll stay indefinitely? It is great to live in a place where new music is so well respected, and where performers and composers work together and share ideas on such a regular basis. And the division between styles is not a problem; all types of backgrounds can come together and take a little bit here, a little bit there, from each other. Holland has always been a healthy environment to work in. The Dutch are very interested in other cultures; after all, it was always a nation of trade. They are interested in the backgrounds of foreign composers living in the Netherlands, sometimes overwhelmingly so. While they never forget that you do come from a different place, they allow you to become a part of Dutch musical life.”

David Dramm studied composition with Robert Erickson at UCSD, and later at Yale with Louis Andriessen and Earle Brown. In Holland, the Volkskrant newspaper depicted his music as “ground-breaking terrain between Charles Ives, Jimi Hendrix and Lou Reed.” A long-time resident in Amsterdam, Dramm describes Holland’s benefits: “It’s living in Europe without that ‘history in a heavy cream sauce‘ aftertaste. I’m able to make a living writing music. I can pick my projects. I’m a twelve-minute bike ride from anywhere in Amsterdam. When I completely forget how to speak and write the English language, I’ll probably move back. Say, thirty years.

“When I moved to Amsterdam, there were two other American composers here. Now, there’s no keeping count. Actually, they’re coming from all directions which makes it quite a vibey little scene. And it’s interesting how people broaden their range; hardcore score composers wind up turning into laptop improv freaks one or two nights a week. They jam with Czech punk guitarists, German analog synth players, and God knows who else. Then they go back to writing notes the next morning and they’ve changed a bit. There’s a certain freedom of movement here. My favorite example was an orchestra player who quit his job to become a successful avant-garde theater director.

“Musically speaking, Amsterdam is New York; Rotterdam is Chicago. One thing that’s really strange is how many out-of-the-way places you can play here. I’m touring a ballet at the moment with seven musicians. In a country that makes Rhode Island look big, we play 16 different cities.”


For the Parisians, Brussels is merely a suburb; for the Dutch, a convenient weekend getaway; for the European Union, a bureaucratic tangle. But Belgium has its own underground musical identity and particularly these days its own dance identity, with a vivid and hard-edged contemporary choreography scene. Many American and French dancers are permanently settling in Brussels and Liege, which may encourage more composers to live there as well.

Frederic Rzewski was born in 1938 in Massachusetts to Polish parents. He studied at Harvard and Princeton, then won a Fulbright (1960) to Italy, and subsequently a Ford Foundation Grant in 1963 for studies in West Berlin. He was an artist in residence there and also in Köln. Rzewski went back to Rome from 1966 to 1971, then moved to New York. While in Rome, he co-founded Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV), a seminal avant-garde improvisational, electronics, and multimedia ensemble. His major works from that period include Work Songs (1967-69) and Spacecraft (1968). One of his most important early works is Coming Together, composed to texts by an Attica Prison inmate. Since 1977, Rzewski has been Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique in Liege, Belgium. He has written much theatrical music, but unlike George Antheil, has written no film music and has never lived in California (keep reading!).

Interviewed by telephone for this article, Rzewski immediately dismisses questions about national politics and being an expatriate as irrelevant. Would his music have been different if he had stayed in the States? “Absolutely not.” Was his political stance a reason to leave the States? “No.” And what about the impact of the different cities he’s lived in? “Irrelevant.”

“After I got to Italy I met my wife there. We would have lived anywhere, the city didn’t matter: There were similar groups to MEV everywhere, for example the Scratch Orchestra [in London], or Kwax, led by Petr Kotik in Prague. We were mainly Americans, although people floated in and out. Of course we had no official funding. We were entirely independent from the Italian government. At the point that work dried up in the late ’60s, I took my family back to the States. Later, I got a job in Liege, when things in the States became tough. That’s it.

“Sometimes I play in the Flemish part of Belgium, [there are] hardly any concerts on the French side. The French offer the usual sort of classic events, the predictable French classical and ‘contemporary’ programming. The French have a stand-offish attitude to the rest of the world. I’m frequently referred to as an American ‘jazzman.’ And you won’t believe this, but at the Metz Festival, in ’94 or ’95, I think it was, a reviewer called me a Californian and said that I should ‘stick to writing movie music’!”

As for the advantages of Europe, “There are certain differences. For things like new music, I think it’s possible that there are by and large more outlets than there are in the US. For one thing there are many countries. It’s possible to shop around, the scene is not black and white.”

Charles Martin was born in 1947 in New York and later changed his name to Charlemagne Palestine. Of Russian-Jewish descent, he is fascinated by drones, maybe inspired by the synagogue choirs of his youth or by the tubular bells and gongs he discovered in adolescence. (Listen to his 72-minute pipe organ drone CD entitled Schlingen-Blängen.) Tom Johnson said Palestine’s music “is similar to Op Art in that it deals with perception, often creating illusions of motion, even when no motion is actually taking place.”

Palestine cites the non-western instrumental sounds of Folkways Records as an early source of inspiration. Like many composers of his generation; and like many of the minimalists, Palestine traveled to the far east in the 1970s, going to Indonesia with Ingram Marshall. An almost cultish or ritual aspect has surrounded his performances, proposing to elevate music to a higher plane. Pain and violence also figure in the mix, with some of his works (“Ascending/Descending”) nearly destroying a Bösendorfer Piano. The aggression in his performances—more common in heavy metal than in contemporary music—contrasts oddly with his fetish for stuffed animals. Palestine temporarily quit music for the more concrete results of sculpture, feeling that the minimalist movement was turning into a lowest-common-denominator, “cutesy”, new age domain, and thus was not the place for him. But recently his musical career has been thriving, with performances in Europe and the commission for a complex work for the Kronos Quartet. A new album is being released this month on Young God Records.

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

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