American composers have to be very careful about using influences from other cultures.
I can’t speak for composers from other countries, but it sure seems like American composers are very susceptible to outside influence. That’s not a good thing or a bad thing, just an opportunity and a responsibility.
Writing music that is influenced by third-world cultures is particularly tricky. If it’s not done with great artistry, intelligence and sensitivity, it can result in the worst kind of colonial appropriation.
Music that is steeped in European influence, as my string quartets are, runs the risk of seeming both superficial and arrogant. Superficial when it dons respectable clothing to cover a lack of depth, arrogant when it presumes to improve on the work of established masters.
And American composers tend to have an inferiority complex when it comes to European culture. We expect Europeans to look down on us. To an extent, they do. But because of our political and economic position, they also see us as blindly powerful in ways they can easily come to resent. When we barge into world affairs with the attitude that we can do things better, we provoke an understandable protectionism in our hosts.
These thoughts and others had me prepared for a chilly reception to the premiere of my fifth quartet at the Kölner Philharmonie. Add to that the fact that the Cologne audience is more sophisticated and forward-looking than many of its neighbors when it comes to new music, Cologne having been stomping grounds for Stockhausen, Zimmermann, Kagel et al.
Imagine my surprise when, following the double bar, the audience demanded five curtain calls – they kept clapping and cheering until I came onstage for a solo bow. Just goes to show you can’t assume anything about an audience.
If you want to hear my fifth quartet, you have three options next month:
April 10 – Winston-Salem NC
April 14 – Seattle WA
April 25 – Washington DC
There will be a few more performances TBA next fall.