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

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


On vacation from Paris, Ned Rorem spent lots of time in Marrakech, composing and hanging out with Paul Bowles. In his Diaries, he gives a terrific painting of the exoticism of Morocco: “What’s weird is to be at home here late at night and all alone, submerged in work of this time, and then to go into the lanes of Marrakech and find a life of two thousand years ago. To walk alone among the coppersmiths and veiled women selling bread, the pimps and water merchants and cobra-charmers, and the men who sell perfume and trained pigeons and drums and flutes all under the shaking night light of tapers burning and the odor of sweet potatoes.” Astonishingly, he managed to find time to compose despite this heady atmosphere.

Paul Bowles, in Paris in the ’20s, New York in the ’30s, settled in Morocco in the ’40s. Virgil Thomson, always the portrait artist, wrote of his early work: “His music…Ravel-like piano improvisations, charmed us all as it had already charmed Copland. And Copland had tried in New York teaching him harmony but had found him a stubborn pupil…Beyond a few meetings with Vittorio Rieti, he actually never succeeded in following any musical instruction…he did become a self-taught composer, later in New York….writing incidental music for plays, which he did with imagination.” After working with such notables as Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles (then involved in the WPA theaters in New York), Bowles left for Tangier in the ’40s. This marked the end, more or less, of his career as a composer, and the beginnings of his notoriety as an author and bon vivant.


Steve Reich, after studies at Mills College with Milhaud and Berio, left in 1970 for the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana. Reich studied drumming for 5 weeks in Accra in 1970, which became a primary influence for his masterpiece Drumming (1970-71). More recently, Amy Rubin and Derek Bermel have also been inspired by West-African rhythms and music.


After a successful decade writing music criticism in New York and with her new American citizenship, inveterate traveler Peggy Glanville Hicks emigrated to the Mediterranean, launched on a research trip by a Rockefeller research grant in 1961. She had already been working in Athens since 1959, and was studying ancient and folk musics. Increasingly interested in Greek traditions, she became a recognized expert in the field. She settled in Greece, and her opera Nausicaa was given its first premiere in 1961 at the Athens Festival. In 1975 she moved back to her native Australia.


Paul Schoenfield went to Israel from Minnesota. He now lives on a kibbutz, and writes frenzied, breakneck contemporary music freely inspired by Jewish, and specifically, Klezmer music.

South of the Border

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was associated with and adopted by so many different countries during his lifetime that it would be difficult to place his nationality. Born in New Orleans in 1829 of German/French Haitian parents, he moved to Paris in 1842 at the age of 13. The director of the piano department at the Conservatoire, a certain Zimmerman refused to audition the prodigy due to the fact that he was American (150 years later, this still happens.) But his first major recital, in 1845 at the Salle Pleyel, was a stunning success, and France took him on as one of its own. Not to be outdone, Switzerland also swooned over his romantic compositions, and a tour of Spain was so successful that he stayed there for an entire year. He was adored by the public, favored by Isabella II, and wrote endless sappy tone-paintings full of local color (New Orleans-style, though with Spanish titles), including the “Louisiana Trilogy,” a work so popular as to make him virtually the André Rieu of his day.

Returning briefly to the States, he then disappeared for five undocumented years in Cuba and South America. Penniless after this mysterious trip, Gottschalk began an exhausting but once again sold-out 3-year U.S. tour. This ended abruptly in 1865 when he compromised a young student at the Oakland Female Seminary. He fled to South America in the face of the scandal and never returned to the States, dying four years later in Rio de Janeiro.

In entirely another vein, composer Conlon Nancarrow, a committed Communist, volunteered for the Lincoln Brigade and fought in the Spanish Civil War. After briefly returning to the States, he moved to Mexico City in 1940. He was influenced by the rhythms of Rite of Spring, by pianists Art Tatum and Earl Hines, by Cowell‘s book New Musical Resources, and perhaps by engineering studies at Vanderbilt University. In 1947 he took a trip north to buy a player piano in New York and had a roll-punching machine built for it, launching his astonishing series of player piano studies. This extraordinary music is highly canonic, juxtaposing independence and interdependence in ways that would not be possible for mere human performers. In his Study Number 40, the parts evolve in a ratio of e against : not your average hemiola! Recognition came awfully late with a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1983—he was already seventy-one years old.


The reasons for going East have never been the same as for going to Europe—it was not a question of returning to classical roots, nor seeking the avant-garde, but rather one of finding inspiration from non-western traditions and mysticism and from non-notated musics, instruments, and cultures that predate those of Europe by centuries or millennia.

Earlier composers were equally entranced by the diversity of Asian techniques and the adventures of traveling in the Far East.

Writing of Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson reported: “…an Asian attraction has balanced the gravitational pull of Europe to keep [him] solidly anchored over America, though with no limiting local loyalties of the usual kinds.” And Harrison, who traveled in Asia under a Rockefeller grant, “returned to California, from which retreat he sends out compositions or sallies forth to Rome, to Tokyo (where his Esperanto opened doors), and to Korea (where he studied classical Chinese Composition).”

Henry Cowell, also via a Rockefeller Foundation grant, spent time with his wife Sydney Robertson Cowell in Iran consulting for the U.S. State Department and working on programming for the Iranian Radio. Afterwards, they continued on to Pakistan and India, where they were entranced by the traditional music festival in Madras. The Madras Symphony is one of the extraordinary works involving non-western instrumentation that came out of this period.

Born in the Bronx in 1933, fluxus representative Philip Corner makes homage to Erik Satie on his Fluxus CD (Wergo), with just two chords. His music is free-spirited, improvisatory, and relies heavily on the performer energy. Stationed in Korea in the late 50s, he became inspired by calligraphy, and began using brushstrokes in his scores to suggest modulations of intonation and timbre. Other works require the performer to cut up a score with scissors, throwing the resulting signs, icons, swirls, etc, onto score paper and then interpret them. As with much of Cage‘s music, it only works if the interpreter proceeds with the proper dedication and spirit, since few traditional constraints are imposed by Corner’s highly creative graphic or gestural scores. Musically he has experimented with metal pipes and plates. Since 1992, Corner has lived in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Before moving there he taught at Rutgers and the New School for Social Research. Known as teacher, poet, and composer. Corner also writes erotica: both poetry and fiction. In an interview with Linda Montana he commented, “Not only is writing about sex and music, art; but sex itself, making love is itself an art, a corporeal music.”

More recently (and in wild contrast), John Zorn has worked with punk noise bands at the most extreme edges of Japanese culture.

Cellist and composer Hugh Livingston (brother of the author), has had intense experiences living and working in Asia. Livingston first went to Japan, and then to China, in search of material for interpretation of contemporary cello literature. “It was initially the scores of Toshiro Mayuzumi and Chinary Ung that got me engaged in finding the expressive potential of this music beneath the surface notation. Of particular interest was of course the incredible range of possibility for the string instrument in Asian traditions, particularly represented by the plucked zither of China, the gu qin. There are ancient catalogues that categorize three to four hundred different techniques for plucking the string.”

What were some of these techniques? “Study of Mazuzumi’s Bunraku had led me to grow my fingernails to different lengths so that I could make emphatic pizzicato strokes reminiscent of the large plectrum used in Japan, and from this I was launched into a perpetual source for diversification of expressive sound using just the fingers, the nails, the flesh, the bone.”

“Of course the essence of the Chinese cultural variety is not that there are three hundred sounds, but that the Chinese have catalogued the three hundred sounds.”

In a more relaxed vein, Tokyo-based jazz pianist and composer Jon Katz is putting the finishing touches on a new CD. Reflecting on a decade of living in Tokyo as an American composer and performer, he says, “I will never integrate. I’m accepted to a certain extent and excluded to a certain extent. But here I can live comfortably and pretty much do the kinds of music I enjoy and also get paid for it, which is why I’ve stayed. I like the place, the people. Most of all the sense of order, believe it or not.”

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

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