A cloudy sky
Music and Place

Music and Place

I began drafting this as I flew in the air between Boston and Chicago.

What a nice thought that is.  This was written from neither here nor there.  The air between Place One and Place Two is the locality in itself.  To be in One, the Other, Both, Neither.  What a nice thought.

We tend to deal, especially in discourse, in duality.  But perhaps that’s not the way to go.

There is no “yin,” no “yang.”  Just a conglomerate “yyianngg.”  If black-and-white and white-and-black are fused, then what color are we left with? Gray?

Music and Place

Yin yang = yyianngg?

This gray area is the area I occupy, in the air between one home and another, one residence and another, one affiliation, one identity, one tax code, and another.  This is also the color and area I occupy as a discourse-eur in music.  Gray, gray, gray.  In the air and gray.

As the brilliant pianist Glenn Gould once said, “For every silver lining, there is a cloud.”  There’s nothing wrong with clouds—they’re really quite wonderful things.

So, as we speak, I’m watching the identity of a cloud lose its form, its very nature.  Even a cloud can grow further nebulous.  Even the obscure obscures further still.

Am I nebulous to you? Every sentence felt sunny and crisp to write.  So how is it I am not clear? Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says it well: “Le langage est source de malentendus.” (“Language is the source of misunderstanding.”)  Misunderstanding starts with language, and I’m afraid it has begun.

A cloudy sky

A cloudy sky in my hometown of Chicago, in the neighborhood where I grew up.

So, here I am, in the air, in the midst of an ever-more-obscure, wet, rainy cloud, writing to you about Music and Place.  What is the music in what I say?  I am a musician, and that is the music in what I say. I write to you as a musician, in a musical way, and so music, music, music, is in what I say.

This is about Music and Place as much as Gray is about Black and White.

My personal history tells me Place is disappearing.  I am half Irish and half Chinese.  I speak neither Chinese nor Gaelic, and I have never been to Ireland or China.  I must wonder: What makes me a part of a culture—the sound of my name, my lingual abilities, the shape of my eyes? All seem like convoluted tools of measurement.  Yet they are the tools we use at the borders of our countries.  They are the tools we use to grant or refuse residency or citizenship.

Same goes for our locally subsidized arts agencies.  Grant eligibility requirements trace along those same cultural borders.  For every gray cloud, there is a Black-and-White lining.

If I was offered Irish and Chinese citizenship today, I would not accept, not for personal reasons, but rather, out of disrespect for the nationalistic platform of the offer.  What right do I have to Chinese or Irish government funds?

I have a friend who learned to play certain tuplets in Holland, and so he counts them in Dutch.

I learned harmony from a Russian teacher with a textbook in Russian.

I matured as a musician in the anomalous, bilingual city of Montréal.

I have been deeply moved by musicians from all over the world.

Perhaps the Irish and Chinese ought to subsidize my endeavors.

It seems there are two ways to negotiate our complex, diverse, and global web of music-making: Either jockey the heck out of everything, as if it is all free gain, or retreat to the rooted, familial plane, and herd with your local community.

A long while back, I wrote a post on my blog entitled “Light enough to be swayed, deep enough to be rooted.” These words take new meaning here.  Locality, as a musician in the U.S., is exactly this.  Like a pianist playing counterpoint, the opposites must be balanced—a harmonious inner locality must find resolution in oneself.  I read once in a composer biography that one builds a home wherever one may happen to be, not in the place, but in the music itself.  (I can’t remember from which composer’s biography I read it—does its location really matter?); I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment.  I float around my own atmosphere—my home in music—neither here nor there, from neither here nor there, in a colorful, gray cloud that finds form, loses it, finds form, loses it…


Andy Costello

Andy Costello

Andy Costello is a concert pianist, composer, writer of words, and reciter of texts. He was a visiting artist with the Boston Conservatory for 2013-2014, and is the founding pianist and director of the newly formed Morton Feldman Chamber Players. Costello frequently performs in Montreal, Chicago, New York, and Boston. He currently lives in Chicago, working as a freelance accompanist and piano teacher.


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.

3 thoughts on “Music and Place

  1. william osborne

    Fine wines are sometimes described as having “terroir” – characteristics defined by the specific regions where they are grown. The idea might also be applied to local culture. We have a few cities with a highly local sense of terroir, like Santa Fe and New Orleans, but that is in part because they set themselves apart through being Spanish and French. Since you divide your time between Chicago and Boston, and don’t believe much in terroir, does it say something about those cities? They both claim local character, but is it perhaps mostly superficial? Is that what you mean by gray?

    Is the concept of terroir antithetic to the American economy which requires large, uniform mass markets? Does our highly corporatized economy suppress local culture with the uniformity of big box stores and pervasive franchise chains like McDonalds or Applebee’s?

    The economic uniformity imposed on America is ironic because we are not a terribly unified country. How is New Mexico, where 50% of the people speak Spanish to be compared to Vermont? How are Baptists in South Carolina to be compared to the libertarian gender culture of the SF Bay Area? Why are we forced into a kind of homogeneity through McDonalds, Lowes, and HBO. Heated discussions evolve around the latest episode of “Game of Thrones,” not the local theater’s latest production – in the off chance a local theater still exists.

    In this complex process, many artists lose their sense of locality and instead form professional communities unto themselves (like NMBx?). Their work increasingly refers to its own autonomous aesthetic ideals as formulated by a community of artists widely dispersed across a country and even internationally. This can contribute to a sense of separation and estrangement between artists their publics.

    One might think of this in terms of embodied art. In Europe, concepts of art are generally more communally embodied than in the States. Cities and regions often identify strongly with their cultural history and the living artists that represent its continuation. This is made obvious by cities like Paris, Rome, Prague, Florence, and Amsterdam, but even small cities like Sienna, Montepulciano, Freiburg, and Utrecht follow this same ideal.

    In America, art is generally more disembodied. Our communities do not have long cultural histories like Europe that might stand in defiance of corporate homogeneity. And our society is also far more mobile. We move around, while Europeans are much more likely to live their whole lives close to where they were born. Europeans extol history and preservation, while Americans see culture as something with a set life expectancy that will be discarded and replaced with something new and more relevant. It seems to be part of the ethos that capital must always expand.

    This also shapes our funding systems for the arts. It’s a lot easier to justify public funding for communally embodied art because it represents a community’s identity and speaks for it. This helps us understand why the NEA, in contrast to most public funding agencies in Europe, once funded individual artists across the country. Locality and community were thought to be irrelevant. This practice inevitably ended in disaster since the artistic perspectives of NEA experts sometimes clashed strongly with the communities that were hosting it. Think Maplethorpe & Co. The NEA’s new Place-Making program is an attempt to compensate for these errors, even if place-making practiced by a national agency is a self-contradictory futility.

    Would successful public funding in America need to be more local and lead to a more communally embodied art? Would this sense of locality help revive public interest in the arts? Or would this remove art from its highest aesthetic ideals and simply make it more parochial? How can we create strong local cultures in an economic system where large, homogenous mass markets are essential? What is the role of mass markets in creating communally disembodied culture?

    Anyway, gray is a very complex color and raises a lot of difficult questions, and not only for a Irish-Chinese guy with an Italian family name.

    1. william osborne

      One more question. Why has Europe, where local culture is stressed, developed a form of contemporary classical music that has very little local character and is almost entirely international in style? Is the slow death of classical music correlated to its loss of locality?

  2. Andy Costello

    Dear William,

    Thanks for the extensive comment. Those are all really valid questions. I have no ability to answer those questions myself, but I’m glad they’ve been posed nonetheless.



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