Here's a description of the panel:
The Shrinking Atlantic?: Europe and America in Contemporary Percussive Art
This year’s Focus Day theme, addressing the European avant-garde, points toward some broad questions about European and American traditions. For several decades in the late twentieth century, “European” and “American” might have been terms that captured both geographical distance and important aesthetic differences between styles of composition, performance, and pedagogy, but in our current practice (and our increasingly connected world), has this dichotomy outlived its usefulness? Both terms are vulnerable to criticism as being too broad (both America and Europe being too large and diverse to fit under a single verbal umbrella), and too narrow (what about the rest of the world?). However, many people in the new music community feel that the terms encapsulate artistic postures and positions that are difficult to sum up in any other way. Is the American/European distinction still useful? Still relevant? Does a discussion of our art form’s future require a fundamental re-framing away from the American/European dichotomy? Or are there kernels of philosophical truth at the center of the American/European discussion that are worth holding on to? Our panelists will address these and other issues.
But I was very sick, definitely not capable of getting on a plane Wednesday afternoon, and for the first time, I think ever, I had to cancel and didn't attend. I wrote Bill Sallak an email and he was very supportive for which I am deeply appreciative, and I later sent him an angry replacement of the talk I had prepared, which I no longer felt represented my feelings about what it means to be an American in a time like what we are going through now. Bill decided not to read it during the panel, for which I'm grateful, but I've heard that during our annual PASIC scotch drinking night, a ritual I was also sad to miss, it was indeed read by Bill and followed by a toast. I have some very good friends in the percussion world and those gathered that night are among my closest and most treasured friends.
I include what I sent Bill below, but note that I no longer feel this way at all, in fact, if you're willing to read further, and I hope you will, instead I've come to feel exactly opposite of how I felt when I wrote the following:
I apologize that I can't be with you today. I had prepared a text comparing how European composers and their music are treated here with how American composers are treated in Europe. The inequality of that relationship is something I've deeply felt concerning myself and others, those of us still writing experimental music influenced by the American Experimental Tradition, which was the most important musical contribution on the American continent, including Canadian and Latin American composers not just those in the United States, of the last century.
But now America is a word I cannot use, American a name I will not claim. Geography and place are essential to the music I write but the place where I live has now become a danger to the world and its people, Indiana being one of its most fervent supporters, a danger to all of us who believe in the rights and freedoms of all people everywhere and not just white people living primarily in the so-called "heartland" of this nation. Make America great again really means make America white again. I vehemently reject that, have lost friends and family over it, and gladly so. I've been called "anti-American" many times by conservative family and so-called friends, but now that's exactly what I proclaim myself to be.
Bill Sallak asked if he can still read what I wrote, even though I personally cannot, and I will let him decide. I am physically sick as I write this and for me to speak of "America" at a time like this is simply impossible, but perhaps those looking at things more objectively than I can, will see differently.
Whether he does or does not read it, please know this. I no longer accept the label of being an "American composer" and I no longer write "American music." I stand in opposition to everything the United States has become socially and politically as a result of this racist demagogue being supported by a large swath of this country, racist just like him, not the majority (same as when the last dangerous US president was elected in 2000), but then the majority of this country, diverse like the world is diverse, cannot safely live in most parts of the United States any more. If you want to know why demographics and voter suppression really matter, as well as the gerrymandering of 2010, it is by forcing the diverse majority into urban centers, their only truly safe spaces, thus concentrating their votes into fewer and fewer districts, where their majority votes get marginalized as they did on Tuesday.
So I guess what I'm saying is that while the labels American and European, German or French, Korean or Japanese, pairing intentionally former enemies together, still exist and are real, I intend to defy such labeling, make the most radical music possible and stand with everyone and anywhere in solidarity toward a music of resistance, of fighting the power, of fighting against the evil of what this tragic election result means to this country and to the world. New Music, Neue Musik, whatever. I pledge to continue making new and radical music, in service of the now necessary revolution against right wing racist extremism wherever it exists in the world.
I shared this with only my closest friends and family but now I want to share it on this space with the following caveats:
1. I still agree with what I wrote in the first paragraph and at the end of this entry I will include what I originally wrote.
2. I do not agree with the first and last sentence of the second paragraph, nor with the second sentence of the fourth. I was angry, as are many other Americans in this country, about what happened. But that doesn't mean I'm anti-American, un-American, or no longer an American composer. The most anti-American act of my lifetime, perhaps in all of American history but certainly in recent history, was to vote for the most unqualified candidate to ever run for the presidency. A truly despicable human being. All who voted for him are truly un-American, and have committed the most unpatriotic of acts by putting their own self-interests and biases ahead of the necessity of having a capable leader in place to handle the many challenges facing our world today. I realize instead that the true patriots were the ones willing to compromise their beliefs, as I have been doing in every presidential election of my lifetime, by voting for the best possible choice given what has been offered. I'm a committed social democrat and the Democratic party is my compromise. I have no problem with legitimate Republican alternatives but what happened this time is that no one did the right thing and instead allowed a demagogue to take over their party and because of their cynical attempts to suppress the vote helped made it possible for a minority of voters to elect someone who has no business representing anyone, let alone president of the United States.
I agree with everything else I wrote.
On Saturday I was able to get on a plane and meet my wife Hee Sook Kim in Venice where she was an artist in residence and made a series of prints at Fallani Venezia. By that time I had decided to have Venice be the place where I would choose texts for the opera I'm writing for the Akros Percussion Collective, of which Bill Sallak is a member, an opera that uses texts written by Henry David Thoreau. This is a collaborative piece I'm creating with Hee Sook Kim who will be making video and handling all the visual elements.
The opera was originally titled "Henry in the Woods" and I taught a seminar on Emerson and Ives, Cage and Thoreau this past summer at the Universität Heidelberg with legendary Thoreau (and Emerson) scholar Prof. Dr. Dieter Schulz. This enabled me to revisit the writings of Thoreau and my goal was to choose texts prior to what I hoped would be a MacDowell residency which, because it is in New Hampshire, would be nearby Concord, Massachusetts where Thoreau lived and wrote. A perfect place, or so I thought, to complete my opera. Of course I didn't get the residency, guess that means I remain outside "the establishment" even after moving to Philadelphia, one of the most "established" locations in the eastern United States, and I guess I'm not altogether unhappy that my excellent proposal was rejected. I assume I will eventually have a MacDowell, most likely when I need it least.
And now the election had changed, or better yet, radicalized my opera. Thoreau was himself a radical, nothing like the establishment figure literature departments over time have tried to make him, and certainly only canonical if you allow him to retain his truly radical nature. What was originally to include nature-oriented texts from Thoreau's journal, read by the five percussionists of the Akros group, representing Thoreau, and a soprano singing unworded vocalise representing nature, had now become transformed. The soprano will now sing texts from Thoreau's most radical political writings and the percussionists will continue to read the nature texts but with a complete role reversal: the nature writings will be representative of nature, read by the all-male Akros ensemble, and the political writings will be sung by the soprano. Meaning that Thoreau the political being, the radical who wrote Civil Disobedience and in favor of the abolitionist John Brown, will be voiced by a woman. The soprano will be the "lead singer" of the band, as it were, singing Thoreau's most political words, Thoreau becoming, in effect, a woman. One woman voicing a radical politics, politics stereotypically and especially in our present environment a man's role, at least when it comes to presidential politics apparently, and five men taking on the voice of nature, stereotypically viewed as being a woman. And I chose those texts in the city of Venice which I read in some tourist book was typically thought of by artists "as a woman", whatever that could possibly mean. Role reversal everywhere in other words and an opera that now plays with such things.
One role reversal was that now I could write about Thoreau as what Emerson called him, "a true American," or as John Cage once wrote, "No greater American lived than Thoreau." And if Thoreau is an American then I am too. I used to also say I wasn't a Christian because of the abhorrent beliefs and behaviors of fundamentalists here and elsewhere but now that Christians unbelievably and overwhelming supported the most un-Christian presidential candidate in all of American history, I'm taking back that too. Those voters have no business calling themselves Christian if they could do that. So now I'm again calling myself a Christian, meaning someone who follows Christ rather than the social dictates of fundamentalist Christianity which undoubtably Jesus would have regarded in the same light as the Pharisees he blamed for allowing those merchant tables he upended in the Temple.
I'm going to disappear for several months of isolation as I finish composing the opera now tentatively titled "Lost in the Woods." Reminding me of the great and recently deceased Leon Russell's song of the same title, "Can't tell the bad from the good, I'm lost in the woods." I also plan to follow in the footsteps of another great composer who recently passed away, Pauline Oliveros, and do some very deep listening as I try to hear what needs to be heard and write that down. Hopefully I'll return like the last of the Ten Ox Herding Pictures of Zen Buddhism, an ever present influence on me those pictures: a fat man returning to the village and bearing gifts, minus the fat I hope. The other version of that tenth picture is the void, by the way, kind of how things feel right now. But I will try to follow in the footsteps of another composer I'm known to admire, John Cage, ever the optimist, so I'm holding on to the first picture rather than the second. And to hope as a daily practice rather than the despair I daily feel.
Meanwhile here's the text I prepared for PASIC, with thanks to Andy Bliss for the invitation and apologies to him, Bill Sallak and the rest of the panel for not being able to attend.
I want to lay out some particulars, historically, that may be useful. Particulars that I think carry some larger, more global perspectives. New Music, as the great American composer Henry Cowell envisioned it, was an inclusive word that included all music that was new. This meant that Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg both wrote new music, regardless of whether one said that in English as "New Music" or in German as "Neue Musik." This isn't true today. Neue Musik in German means something very specific to a German speaking person or to someone who participates in festivals located in German speaking places. I'm going to talk a bit about that in relation to Darmstadt, first because it pairs with the fine introduction to the Focus Day that Andy Bliss wrote for Percussive Notes, where he writes of his attending the summer music courses in 2014, and also because it is historically a location where the divide between New Music on this continent and Neue Musik on the European continent began. Let's go back to Andy's introduction first, because hopefully you've all read it, and if not it is easy to rectify that, and second because it mirrors my experience first attending a Darmstadt summer course, as a percussionist on a Lord Mayor of Darmstadt stipendium, in 1986. I too brought back lots of music by young composers from all over the world, heard music that I'd admired in recordings for years but had never heard live, and generally was in an environment where young people interested in experimental music congregated in large enough numbers that you wanted to stay there forever just so you could, as it were, "preach to the choir" everyday about what you love.
Anyway the point is, as a performer at the courses you are so busy playing music with other great young similarly minded players that you get the idea that somehow we're in this all together. On the other hand, participation as a composer is another matter altogether. And this dates back to early Darmstadt, 1958 to be exact, when John Cage attended the courses. On this continent it is still not well known how Cage and others were ostracized following that, most famously by Luigi Nono but also, and earlier, by Cage's one time friend Pierre Boulez and eventually Karlheinz Stockhausen chimed in too. For American composers, including I might add American serialists like Milton Babbitt and his followers, the divide has only been bridged if you do the one thing necessary: write like a European. Or to be more specific, because my experience outside of Germany has been much more open: write like a European celebrated at German Neue Musik festivals.
So, then let's get to where this has all been leading: I think it's great that European composers get played here at PASIC and I know Andy's right when he says PASICs don't feature enough and this year definitely gives us all a chance to hear more. But, back to a little history: Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez, Xenakis all had important residencies in the United States, important for them and for those here who got to study with them. But where is the equivalent reciprocity of composers from this continent who were invited back to Europe? With the exception of German radio stations in Frankfurt, Cologne, Munich and Bremen, that served as an alternative--at least for American experimental composers of a certain generation--to the festival scene, the answer is none. Zero. If you think there is no longer a sense of European superiority when it comes to such things, just spend some time with Helmut Lachenmann and ask him. I myself asked Michael Reudenbach, a great European composer of my generation, at Darmstadt in 2008, what American composers he knew and liked and he, not surprisingly, mentioned composers like Cage (dead), Feldman (dead) James Tenney (dead), not one living composer and certainly no composer of his own generation or younger. This is, in my opinion, a big problem because there are composers out there, I definitely know some, and it doesn't mean you have to accept the banality of the most successful composers on this continent. I think percussionists should be seeking out these composers too, those writing music equal to what can be heard in Europe but not known there, or here for that matter, and not just returning from Darmstadt like I did in 1986, sharing what I'd learned there as if I'd heard all there was to hear.
I think that the goal should be a return to Henry Cowell's idea of an inclusive New Music and not the historical and still current dogmatism of "Neue Musik. " As John Cage once wrote, following his own first appearance at Darmstadt, "it will be difficult for Europe to give up being Europe," to which I would add especially as it includes the whole world of music under the rubric of that exclusive club called "Neue Musik." But let's not forget how Cage continued that thought, "the world is one world now," with the necessary addition of the fact that we no longer live in the melting pot universalist world of Cage's generation but instead in the spectacularly diverse world of particulars that is the world of my generation and also yours. I encourage you to explore that world and share it with me.