The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie: How Immigration and Emigration have Shaped American Music

The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie: How Immigration and Emigration have Shaped American Music

There are foreign composers and musicians whose stay in America has been transitory, but who have made an impact that cannot be ignored. They’re somewhere between touring musicians and immigrants, so I’ve chosen to call them Journeymen (and women).

Antonín Dvorák is undoubtedly the American classical music world’s favorite journeyman — a level of attachment that was recently reflected in a passionate battle over his former home in New York City between preservationists and developers. (The preservationists lost; all that’s left is a plaque.) He directed the National Conservatory in New York from 1892 to ’95 and composed four well-received works here, including the New World Symphony, which is still in constant U.S. radio and concert rotation. Ellingtonian researchers have pointed that one of the Duke’s teachers studied with Dvorák, and recent academics have made it plain the extent to which Dvorák was smitten with Black and American Indian music.

From 1940 to 1953, Paul Hindemith lived in America and taught at Yale where he exerted a great deal of influence on American musical life. It’s fair to say that, like most journeymen, he had a bigger impact on us than we did on him. Although few of his German works from either before or after his exile offer the emotional rewards of his thoroughly American Requiem for Those We Love, a setting of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” written in memory of Frankin Delano Roosevelt and the war dead.

Although Darius Milhaud fled to America after the fall of France in 1940 and taught at California’s Mills College until 1971 where his students included Steve Reich, he never ceased thinking of himself as a French composer maintaining dual residencies after the end of World War II and ultimately returning to Europe for good in his final years. This is ironic considering the impact of American jazz on his own compositions upon his first exposure to it in the 1920s.

Pierre Boulez, who served as chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1971 to 1978, and is now composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall, has made a name for himself in the U.S. However his prestige is possibly more attributable to the facts that his first decade of composing in Europe was highly successful and that IRCAM’s joyful noise is clearly audible on this side of the Atlantic. It’s doubtful that American culture has greatly influenced Boulez’s musical values, but American composers, performers, and music critics have certainly felt his influence.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, who flew into L.A. to become Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic exactly one century after Dvorák took over the conservatory in New York, seems best poised to take over Dvorák’s mantle as the most-appreciated European journeyman in America. This may be due to the fact that his composing, though significant and well received, is only one part of his successful and productive career here. How long will he stay and how much more will he achieve? He has renewed his contract with the L.A. Phil through 2001 and his Sony Classical contract appears healthy. And though public performances of his own works have not been too numerous, one can hope that more will occur during the coming years. In any event he has made the music of other contemporary composers a heavy part of L.A.’s music life in a marked and happy contrast to the L.A. scene of the ’30’s,’40’s and ’50’s.

Coming from another world entirely, Indian progressive percussionist Trilok Gurtu has made an impact working with the likes of the late Don Cherry, Oregon, Zakir Hussein, and others. He resides only occasionally in the U.S., but with his culturally-mixed, footless drum and percussion kit, he has made a tremendous impact on every drummer and percussionist who has come in contact with him — in the way that Airto Moreira, Mino Cinelu, and Glen Velez did in previous decades. Like Gurtu, master musicians form all over the globe are spending more and more time in the U.S. changing the way we think about instruments, composition, songwriting and performance.

The last 20 years have seen a boom in real-world ethnomusicology (as opposed to old-school ethno, which had pretensions of anthropology and tried to ignore aesthetics and artistry completely). This has occurred no doubt because a new generation of professors, researchers, and students has been emotionally sparked by the greatness of the music they’ve heard. They have crossed the line and have become players and students of the instruments and styles they’re studying (as opposed to impartial observer/note takers) and have become friends, colleagues, business partners, concert promoters, managers, agents, and recording industry professionals. As a result, university ethnomusicology departments have shifted from viewing Third World musicians as primitives who create music by intuition to honoring them as masters who must be brought in for seminars and residencies. Thus, journeymen have arrived from Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria, Gambia, and Zimbabwe, from India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, from Japan, China, and Vietnam. Wesleyan University, Cal Arts, and the University of Washington have been at the forefront of this effort, though many other institutions have participated as well.

Dumisani Maraire came from Zimbabwe several years ago to teach at the University of Washington. His presence there sparked his recording Chaminuka on the US-based Music of the World label in addition to his inclusion on the Kronos Quartet’s Pieces of Africa CD, one of which was even commissioned through a grant from Meet The Composer. His impact can also be felt in the creation of two Pacific Northwest marimba ensembles, the Dandemutande Web site for Zimbabwean music, and the Zimbabwean Music Festival in Port Townsend.

Likewise, Ghanaian Abraham Adzenyah‘s presence at Wesleyan has helped spark the existence of at least one world beat group in Connecticut. Other journeymen to teach at the above-mentioned Universities include: Japanese koto virtuoso Michiyo Yagi (who also recorded with John Zorn and Jamshied Sharifi in New York); Swapan Choudhuri, a North Indian tabla master who teaches at both the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael and CalArts-Valencia; the late Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; Sylvestre Randafison of Madagascar; Chinese erhu player Chi Li and Su Zheng; Afghani musician Mohammed Omar; Nigerian drummer Adebisi Adeleke; South Indians Ramnad Raghavan and T. Viswanathan; and Javanese gamelan specialists Sumarsam and I. Harjito, among others. Among contemporary concert hall composers, the presence of British composer Brian Ferneyhough at UCSD and French composer Tristan Murail at Columbia University, to name just two, has attracted an international body of composition students, some of whom may stay here and other who will undoubtedly return home.

There is no doubt that many of these journeymen will make as much of a lasting impact on America’s musical life as many of recent immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the world. The students and colleagues they’ve influenced are spreading out into the music world as performers, composers, educators and music business professionals. They will certainly continue to chip away at the ever-diminishing hold that Western art music has on the fine art world, inadvertently contributing to the ‘cultural values’ conflict that has been unpleasantly brewing over the last fifteen years between those who hold Western culture superior and those who don’t.

From The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie
by Sid Whelan
© 1999 NewMusicBox

Paul Hindemith’s setting of Walt Whitman reveals a rare confidence and fluency in American English.
Sound sample – PAUL HINDEMITH: from “A Requiem for Those We Love” sung by Louise Parker – contralto, New York Philharmonic conducted by Hindemith
(Columbia Odyssey Y33821/MS 6573)
RealPlayer  [30 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
[Note: This recording is currently unavailable, a good substitute is a 1987 Telarc recording by Robert Shaw, the conductor who originally commissioned the work. Order from]

While in America, Dumisane Maraire recorded a song whose lyrics translate into English as “I Want My Child to Grow Up to Play Mbira.”
Sound sample – MARAIRE: from “Mwanangu Kura Uridze Mbira”
(from the album Chaminuka, Music of the World C-208)

Order from

RealPlayer  [60 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip

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.