Sunday, November 4, 2007

Multitudes contained

I'm a regular reader of The Guardian's music coverage, and although they've unfortunately drastically scaled back their online offerings of reviews and articles, it's still one of the best sources of information if you're interested in the British music scene. There's an article by composer Steven Stucky today on the dearth of American music heard in Britain. It's well worth a read, and sheds light on some possible stumbling blocks in the reception of American music that don't just apply to Britain. Speaking for myself, and in the broadest terms, the overt populism of a lot of American music is viewed with a certain amount of suspicion on this side of the Atlantic, and is often infuriatingly mistaken for naïvety by artists and critics alike. To that end, Stucky also takes a mild swipe at The Guardian's Andrew Clements, whose dislike of a large swath of American music is well documented, culminating in my mind in his nasty, vitriolic review of Christopher Theofanidis' Rainbow Body at the last – in every sense of the word, apparently – Masterprize competition a couple of years ago, which was, for better or worse, a populist endeavor meant to bring visibility to new music of broad appeal.

Stucky accurately points out that the music of the European composers he mentions, mostly Britons and Finns, are a regular feature of the American musical landscape, but that the reverse isn't true, with the exception of a few big names like Reich, Adams and Carter. And yet, one can't help but notice that the Americans he cites as being in want of greater exposure in Britain, as well as the Britons played Stateside, are all from a very narrow range of orchestra-circuit people like Christopher Rouse, Shulamit Ran, John Harbison, etc, etc. This is not to say that I have any particular problem with these people, and as was seen during the "essential minimalism recordings" fuss at the NY Times a while back, it's the easiest thing in the world to poke holes in a list like this.

But if we're talking about Americans who should be heard more abroad, shouldn't we cast a broader net? Where's Lee Hyla, who is to my mind one of the most original and tragically underappreciated American composers? His music is some of the most beautiful, well-constructed, surprising stuff around, and yet he gets little attention, perhaps due to his working largely with chamber and small orchestra groups. Where are the non-Adams postminimalists? For that matter, where's the other John Adams? Meredith Monk? The Bang on a Can composers? And while we're at it, why is there nobody on the list under the age of 50? The music of 30-something Brit Thomas Adès rates a mention, as does the deliriously beautiful output of Julian Anderson, but on the American side there are no younger counterparts. Judd Greenstein? Nico Muhly? Lisa Bielawa? Belinda Reynolds? Even if we stick to the orchestra circuit, there should be sufficient young names to offer up, like Theofanidis, Jennifer Higdon, Kevin Puts or Michael Hersch. My mentioning any of these names signifies neither approval nor opprobrium (okay, I obviously like Anderson a lot), but rather that they're significant names that are part of a much broader, more varied scene than the one Stucky puts forth. And that's just the living composers. When was the last time Morton Feldman's strange, genre-challenging orchestral works were programmed at the Proms? (According to this, Feldman's music of any kind has only ever been performed there once.)

I don't mean any of this as an implicit criticism of Stucky's view of American music. Everyone has their taste, and he works in a rather rarefied stratum of the business. But in presenting a cross-section of one's native musical culture in the mass media, which tends to have a simplistic, highly reductive, context-free editorial approach toward complex issues like art scenes, movements and ideas, I think it's important to include as much detail as possible within those constraints. Listing only the most visible, lauded names from a small subsection of a much larger, infinitely more complex landscape doesn't advocate for American music at its most diverse, at its most different from European music, which is, to me, the entire point. Because Stucky is dead on in his final statement about American composers, something that can't be repeated often enough:

They suggest, instead, a range of intellectual and artistic engagement as messy, as difficult to pigeon hole, as maddeningly impure and as wonderfully ambitious as American culture itself.

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