Yanks in the UK

Yanks in the UK

There is a small but revealing story that derives from the preparation of the first Grove Dictionary of American Music (1986). As usual with a Grove publication, the editor, H. Wiley Hitchcock, was a regular on the conference circuit, discussing the project with as many experts as possible so as to pre-empt any gaps or weaknesses. It was on such an occasion that the American composer Stephen Montague, who had been living in Poland and Great Britain since 1972, remarked that he and several other expat composers were not on Hitchcock’s proposed list. Although these composers were known in Great Britain and Europe, their transatlantic distance had put them beyond the radar of Hitchcock’s editorial advisors. In the end, Hitchcock asked Montague himself to write the missing entries (Keith Potter wrote on Montague himself).

So what does this little story have to say about distance and identity today? In what sense is an American composer still “American” when living overseas? That story dates from the mid-1980s and many things—not least communications technology and the cost of transatlantic travel—have transformed since then. Yet the experience that, in leaving the United States and coming to work or study as a composer in the United Kingdom, one has crossed a horizon is common enough among the American composers I have spoken with to suggest that there is something more permanent and primal separating the two countries’ music than the cost of a Virgin Atlantic airfare.

The perception of distance works in two directions: There is the distance of the overseas composer from his/her homeland, and there is the distance of that homeland from the overseas composer. Distance in one direction is rarely the same as distance in the other. The composer may feel closely connected with home, but that country may regard him/her as a remote émigré, and vice versa. The perception of distance from homeland to émigré is a function of reception; that from émigré to homeland one of poetics. Both stand in a proportional relationship to the construction and perception of identity.

In 1943 at a writers’ congress in California, Thomas Mann spoke of “The Exiled Writer’s Relation to his Homeland.” Mann, having decided not to return to Hitler’s Germany in 1933, was in self-imposed exile in the USA and became an American citizen in 1944. As he observed Nazism’s spiritual and cultural destruction of his country, Mann wrote movingly of the anguish of the writer, “the bearer of a spiritual tradition,” forced to live and work outside of his homeland and mother tongue. “Our books are outlawed, just as we ourselves are; they exist only in translation.”

Mann’s situation, although not uncommon for the time, was the product of extreme circumstances. Few contemporary writers, at least in the West, face his dilemmas. Yet do his acute observations have anything to say to today’s culture?

I sent emails to several American composers who are or have recently been living in the United Kingdom to ask them about their experiences and to put some flesh onto the vague abstraction formulated above. It is impossible, from such a brief survey, to make any sort of generalization about anything so portentous as “The Condition of The American Composer in Great Britain.” For a start, there aren’t many here (nearly all the senior professionals that I am aware of are mentioned in this article, as are many of the current or recent postgraduate students). In addition there is no discernible pattern, trend, or style under which to group those composers: Aaron Cassidy writes at the extreme boundary of the instrumental avant-garde, Bret Battey is an electroacoustic composer dealing in algorithmic and interactive music, and Arlene Sierra and David Bruce write in very different ways for traditional forces.

In fact it is Montague, the émigré of longest tenure, who bears the closest allegiances to an easily identifiable “American” tradition—that of Ives, Cowell, and Cage. Stopping over in the United Kingdom in 1974, after two years in Warsaw on a Fulbright Fellowship, Montague became involved with Dartington College and the Strider Dance Company. He soon discovered that it was far easier to make a living as a freelance composer in Great Britain than the United States, and so he made his home here. After 36 years as an expat, Montague considers that his music “is probably more ‘American’ (if there is such a thing) now, no doubt because I am living in a foreign culture and wish to retain my trans-Atlantic identity….I actually enjoy the fact that I don’t completely fit into British society. It gives me certain license to do what I wish.”

Searching for that slightly anarchic freedom marks a composer who sees himself in the American experimental lineage. But most of the American composers currently in the United Kingdom are a generation or two younger than Montague, and do not benefit from the glow of such a clearly defined heritage. More common today is the composer who sees new music internationally, but who attempts to reconcile this with his/her own, personally defined, cultural identity.

Arlene Sierra came to work in the UK as much by happy accident as design. Having studied in France and Germany she wanted to spend more time in Europe, but the occasion didn’t come until she met the British composer Kenneth Hesketh, who would become her husband, at Tanglewood. They soon moved to London and Sierra is now a senior lecturer in music at the University of Cardiff.

Although she has been the recipient of prestigious US commissions, including Game of Attrition for the New York Philharmonic, Sierra says that she found an openness in the UK music scene that allowed her work to receive a “transformative” welcome. This included fellowships at the Dartington and Britten-Pears Schools, as well as premieres with the London Sinfonietta and at the Aldeburgh and Huddersfield Festivals. “Once these things happened, my work slowly began to get more performances back home in the States as well.”

The experience didn’t only affect the performance opportunities for her work. Easy divisions such as “uptown” and “downtown,” and their insistence that the composer has to be one or the other, have always bothered her. Her own music is neither, but is its own combination of intellectual puzzles, non-tonal counterpoint, and influences from electronic music and dance. In the UK, she says, she found a more “blended, nuanced thinking [that was] open to both American and Continental influences. It was hugely influential to experience this,” she tells me, “right when I was making my first foray into professional composition.”

Other composers find themselves in the United Kingdom as career émigrés. Bret Battey, for example, is quite open about the fact that the opportunities for work in the United Kingdom in the early 2000s were simply better than in the United States. Aaron Cassidy came because of the chance to work at the University of Huddersfield, one of the country’s strongest departments for radical composition.

David Bruce, however, is basically culturally British: his parents are British, he has lived here since he was six weeks old, he was educated here and he cites Harrison Birtwistle and the ‘Faber’ group of composers (British names like Thomas Adès, George Benjamin and Oliver Knussen, all published by Faber and the core of an established brand of British new music) as important influences. He was born in the United States so holds full US citizenship, but returned there for the first time only in his mid-30s.

But that return was for a Carnegie Hall commission, and since then he has made the trip regularly, always feeling the bond to his birth-land “is growing stronger all the time.” As Bruce describes it, “doors seem to have opened much more quickly for me in the US than they ever did in the UK.” This may just be the fortuitousness of events, but it makes for an interesting contrast with the experience of several other composers, who found that opportunities in the United States only began to open up following the increase in profile that they were able to gain in the United Kingdom. One is tempted to make a connection between style and the acquiring of performance opportunities in and out of the United States—does the more approachable Bruce suffer in the United Kingdom and succeed in the United States as a result?—but that’s a hard conclusion to draw from such limited examples, and it is almost certainly too simplistic an assumption.

Friendships and collaborative partners in the US, bundled with his birth associations, give Bruce a strong personal connection to the country, but he has no plans to leave the UK. Nevertheless, something American attaches to his music despite his upbringing: people tell him that his music is very “American.”

What exactly that means, and in what it inheres, is the real question.

For Mann, the writer is crucially identified with their work and thus with the language in which they write. The writer is language: just as his books “exist only in translations,” so too Mann, outside Germany, is but a diminished simulacrum; his true self is lost, only the translation exists.

The overseas writer or artist thus faces a choice either to assert their home language or to leave it behind. Choosing one or the other is a statement of responsibility. It’s not that these questions exist only for overseas writers, but they are rendered more acute by the fact of being overseas and in a situation where one’s mother tongue can no longer be taken for granted and its continuing practical value must be assessed critically.

For the composer there is less of an unbreakable bond with language, or at least the sort of language that can be unequivocally tied to a place. Instead, the composer is in possession of a collection of stylistic allegiances and inheritances, an array of modules that can be selected, combined or ignored as desired. Cassidy, for example, has said that the hyper-complexity of his notation leads many to assume a European heritage in his music, when in fact he feels closer to the particular approach to material, form and perception that characterizes the American experimental tradition around Cage and Feldman. The work of the émigré composer is projected onto a background of such inheritances, which, no matter to what degree it is a factor in the compositional process, becomes a factor in the music’s reception.

It is interesting, therefore, to talk to postgraduate composers on such issues as identity formation or stylistic allegiances because they are, in a sense, experimental cultures in which such things are beginning to take shape. They are in the process of selecting and developing this background for themselves; indeed the process of study in part becomes one of increased awareness of this background. If there is an identity stem cell, it might be easier to locate here. The best student composers are well aware of these growing concerns, and take perceptively self-critical stances towards their work and its relationship to their environment, location, and training.

Those postgraduates I spoke to do, perhaps—and I say this extremely tentatively of composers who are so early in their careers—fall into more of a pattern than the senior composers who have made their homes in the United Kingdom. As a rule they explore more radical, modernistic, and experimental regions on the musical map. But to an extent this group is self-selecting: postgraduate composers who travel tend to do so to study with a particular teacher (and would you travel 4,000 miles to study with someone who wasn’t extraordinary in some way?).

Feelings of cultural displacement are common to many overseas American composers, a sense of being outside something that is personally important: in the responses I received, this is usually manifest in the frustrations of political disempowerment or a homesickness for the comforts of good Mexican food or grid-plan cities. But it was also apparent in feeling out of touch with the music scene “back home”. Ray Evanoff, a student of Cassidy’s, puts it thus: “I suppose I’ve missed a continued and regular interaction with American musicians who are at a comparable stage in their artistic and professional development…to a certain extent I feel like I’ll have to work to reinsert myself into the American musical ‘scene’ at some point, since a lot of my musical activities over the past two years have taken place in Europe.”

Having chosen this displacement at such a crucial stage in their education, those postgraduate composers I spoke to were alert to the possibility of integrating this into their work. Evanoff argues that “living over in the UK has really increased my awareness of my own cultural identity, and how it contributes to my artistic practice.” Colin Tucker, who has studied privately with Michael Finnissy and formally at Huddersfield, sums up the contradiction between feeling very ambivalent towards the country of George W. Bush and a deeply ingrained personal “American-ness”: “Much of my compositional work consciously relates to this contradiction, although paradoxically it has been through living abroad that I have gained a clearer perspective on my own culture and its relation to the rest of the world.”

When talking about this generation of composers, one should even be cautious about placing a national emphasis on the experimental tradition that I have mentioned several times. Joe Kudirka, who left Chicago in 2001 to study at Huddersfield, sees experimental music today as a small community that is scattered all over the world. The commonalities that he finds between people are musically rather than nationally defined: “I’ve found some of the best performers for my music in this country … If there really were a divide between ‘American-ness’ and ‘British-ness,’ I don’t think this would have been the case.”

The technology of the 21st century may have numbed the exoticism that comes with living overseas and rendered the sense of national rootedness more fragmentary and ephemeral. But the creation of identity—a trigonometry of closeness and distance, allegiance and rejection, composition and reception—remains an essential one for any artist.

The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana wrote on the “The Philosophy of Travel”: “the more arts and manners a good traveler has assimilated, the more depth and pleasantness he will see in the manners and arts of his own home.” It is not simply that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but that cultural displacement renders more precise those aspects of home that make it home. The best composers overseas will approach each new score with a sense of what they feel close and distant from, using that trigonometry to help find a place for themselves in the musical universe. Some come to the realisation that their cultural formation is substantially different from that of a European composer, no matter how much they might admire many of the latter. Returning home after a period overseas forces a reflection on the difference between received wisdom and actual experience and thus a greater understanding of a personal American-ness. As composer and NewMusicBox contributor Colin Holter puts it, “I have a much better conception now of what my job is as a composer in American society than I did before studying abroad.”

“Ulysses remembered Ithaca,” writes Santayana. “With a light heart and clear mind he would have admitted that Troy was unrivalled in grandeur, Phaecia in charm, and Calypso in enchantment; that could not make the sound of the waves breaking on his own shores less pleasant to his ears; it could only render more enlightened, more unhesitating, his choice of what was naturally his.”


Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes on contemporary music for the Guardian, INTO, Tempo, and his blog, The Rambler. He is currently preparing the 6th edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music.

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