ON CROSSROADS (27 MARCH 2019)
Delivered at the 10th Manila Composers Lab on 27 March 2019 at the University of the Philipines, Quezon City, Manila
"Standing at the crossroads" means standing at a place where you make an important decision. In American legend it is the place a musician sells his soul to the devil. So, it's a place where important decisions are made. As composers, we know about this. Each note is a decision - they are of varying importance - and that decision can lead your music in a certain direction.
Crossroads are also a place of exchange. Crossroads assume that you are going somewhere, you're on a journey. And one path can lead you to a place you've not been - and maybe never wanted to go - or to a place familiar. It is a place to ask yourself who you are and what do you want to become.
When I first moved to Singapore in 2005, I was asked to give a 20-minute presentation like this one on the topic of National Identity and Composition. How was being an American an influence on my music? I thought this was a weird question. I pointed out that being an American means holding a passport that says United States of America across the front. It is a massive and diverse country. There are dozens of languages spoken in the States, multiple religions practiced. Some people who look like me might try to tell you differently. They will say things like America was always a Christian country. It was founded by people of European descent. But the truth is more complicated. Slaves, for instance, were sometimes Muslims but were not allowed to practice Islam. (It is only in recent scholarship that this is being exposed.) The wealth of America was built on free labor carried out by people who were not of European descent. The great, uniquely American musical tradition of the Blues and Jazz is not an invention of European descendants. I pointed out that you really need to ask me how being a white, Christian, male who grew up in NY and descends from British, but nonetheless poor "Hills people" blood influences my music. But ironically such people are not defined by these things in America. That is, there is nothing that I do as a composer that is, for me, connected to my whiteness, maleness, or heterosexuality. These things, instead, are the norm from which all others get defined and are permitted to define themselves. We speak of women composers, gay composers, and Black composers. I imagine it is frustrating for those composers to not just be called composers. Yet, maybe asking them the question of what does it mean to be an American composer would get more of a response than it does from me.
I think of James Baldwin the great 20th century American author who was both Black and gay. He asked, how am I supposed to write when I have had my entire heritage removed from me? Yes, I know that I am of African descent, but I don't know who these ancestors are. My native language is English, but it is a foreign language. He asked, who is the Shakespeare of my people? (Ironically, James Baldwin proved to be the Shakespeare of his people.) Had you asked him what it meant to be an American as an author, he would have had a lot to say on the subject, unlike myself.
Anyway, my answer on the topic of national identity and composition didn't make any sense to my hosts. I failed in providing the correct answers. You see, some Singaporean composers at that time were saying, "we don't know what Singaporean music is but we will make it and it will be a uniquely Singaporean music." I was basically saying that that smells fishy, that it's not possible. This is particularly the case in Singapore, a country with 35% foreigners living in it, and the other 65% are citizens of 3 distinct ethnic and religious backgrounds. (By the way, I discovered only later that there is a uniquely Singaporean music called xinyao, but that's pop music so I guess it doesn't count.)
Why do I talk about this at length? Because we are all a little like America and Singapore. Even if we come from very ethnically unified places - which are very rare these days, you can look at Korea as an example - we all have the internet. We are all netizens. We can learn pretty much whatever we want. Every Google search is a crossroads.
And what we know is intimately related to who we are, that is, what we identify with. Much of our identity is given to us through our families and governments, schools, etc. But some of it we get to choose. So, you're fascinated by Sudanese music, go and learn it, make it part of your music, if you'd like, in whatever way will work for you. Take from it what interests you and leave what isn't relevant for your work. Well, that is my opinion, which others will disagree with. Some will insist that it is disrespectful of a culture to take a bit of it and leave the rest. There are good examples of how this borrowing can be problematic. The theft of Black music in America by white entrepreneurs is a very good example. It wasn't only immoral; the musical result was awful. But there is respectful borrowing, born of admiration and fascination, and there is thoughtless borrowing, because it sounds cool and you want a "Japanese-y" feel to the music, and there is theft. I'm advocating the first of these. And it is the same advice I give about Western composers, and it was the advice given to me by my teachers. Take from Stockhausen what you feel you need, leave the rest to him. In this way, perhaps I could be considered a destroyer of traditions or even a co-opter of other cultures. I think of it as being interested in the resonance of diverse ideas. I like both new things and old things (traditions), but I can't make old things. So, I don't try. I leave preservation to others.
Well, that's all nice, you go on the internet, become fascinated by something, bring it into your music, and "find your true self". That's also fishy, so let me get my head out of the clouds for a moment because, in truth, while there is this place where you can find everything virtually, we can't always find these things in reality. So, be fascinated by Sudanese music, but don't write for Gamelan Degung if you don't have the instruments.
You see, the thing I didn't get into during my Singapore presentation I was telling you about is this idea of the "aesthetic apparatus", that is, the collection of resources you have to make music. It includes performers, instruments, government arts organizations, educational institutions, venues, etc. These aesthetic apparatuses are unique in every country. If, for example, my colleagues want uniquely Singaporean music, then they should look long and hard at their aesthetic apparatus in Singapore and make use of it - not simply accepting its boundaries but knowing where they are so they know what to push against and expand. Most of us, however, just long for our country to be Germany with its long traditions and generous arts funding. Don't do that. It's self-defeating. Go and find other people who are as passionate about making your kind of music as you are. It may mean that you aren't writing for European classical instruments or for big orchestras. It may mean you are writing a lot for electronics and distributing on the internet rather than giving concerts. You may not be making much money from your compositions, getting big commissions, etc. You will likely not be famous. But you will be making and sharing the music you want to bring into the world. This is noble work. Please join the real nobility.
Finally, a last bit of advice: you are many things, but you can't be all of them in your music, so you must choose. You see, once when I was in Germany, someone I had just met found out that I was from America and asked, "So, what kind of music do you write? Minimalism or Experimental?", as though these are the two options for a composer from the US. A Chinese American friend of mine was asked after a premiere in Berlin, "where are the Chinese elements in your music?" His greatest musical influences are Stockhausen and Lachenmann. My friend chose to not have Chinese traditional music as part of his work even though he learned the guqin when he was young. I choose to not include pop, rock, and jazz elements in my music even though that's the music I loved when I was a kid. And it's not so much choosing to exclude them as being okay with not including them. In your music, you aren't who you were, but who you've decided to be.
But this brings us back to James Baldwin. For most of you, your models are written in foreign tongues. This is also the case for me, by the way. Europe and America both have lots of white people, but they are very culturally different. From Bach to Xenakis, the music that we largely study is disconnected from our culture either by time or physical distance. Here 20th century American music could offer useful models in composers like Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and John Cage. Additionally, Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus, and John Coltrane offer other models based on other reasons. All of these composers faced the reality of the aesthetic apparatus as it applied to them and made the most of it. And while Baldwin eloquently pointed out that his people were denied a cultural history, that he didn't know who the Shakespeare of his people was, he did this nonetheless in English, the mother tongue he was given. He neither pandered for profit nor stayed silent in protest. He faced reality and changed it for the better.
In your music you have no obligation to your government, your teachers, or your history. You have an obligation to yourself - not out of selfishness but instead, you have an obligation to yourself because if you tell us about that in your music, if you create a musical world from your ideas and influences, you give us one more example of the endless creative potential of our species. That's inspiring. I truly believe that making art is as basic to humans as making honey is to bees. We cannot stop ourselves from creating, sometimes out of practical need but other times just out of plain, useless curiosity. It feeds us. Our artworks tell stories - stories we all love to hear - of who we are, where we are, how we live, and how we think. Our musical worlds are forged from our experiences and our experiences are uniquely our own. They are born from our own time, our own place, our own reality, a set of crossroads where we choose our next path to follow.