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Coming to America —As a Composer

The Land of Dreams?

Profile: Fellowship Composer Jin Hi Kim


Immigration and the American Compositional Dream
Through the Lens of History

by Carol J. Oja

Immigration has been as enriching and divisive within the American musical experience as in the culture at large. Most residents of the United States claim a hyphenated identity, whether African-American, Irish-American, Jewish-American, Chinese-American, or any of the endless spectrum of combinations. All this intermingling has produced entirely new genres of music, from jazz to Asian hip-hop.

In the concert world, the consequences have been profound, shifting with the ethnicity of newly arriving immigrants. While the break with their homelands may be definitive in a geographic sense, newcomers usually retain a cultural tie to their roots, which can deepen as the years pass. "I have maintained an independent stand in the way I have syncretized my sounds," muses the Cuban-American Tania León. "I have a blend that I feel very comfortable with and this is very hard to explain to anyone. The sounds emerge from me just the way that my pronunciation of English always has a touch of an accent." The story of the music that came out of these many "blends" is fascinating and has yet to be recounted from the perspective of immigration history.

From the beginning of the American republic, recent arrivals set a pattern: to appear with a tradition from abroad, promulgate it in America, react to surrounding impulses, and often end up with a new, hybrid product. The Pilgrims brought with their tradition of unaccompanied psalmody and produced the Bay Psalm Book, printed in Massachusetts in 1640. By the late eighteenth century, British immigrants such as Alexander Reinagle, Rayner Taylor, and Benjamin Carr played prominent roles in shaping a vibrant concert life in burgeoning East Coast cities, and in the nineteenth century, the arrival of German musicians such as the Damrosch family helped spur the growth of a national network of symphony orchestras.

In the composition of concert music, though, it was in the twentieth century when succeeding waves of immigrants fused with a growing native-born pool of composers to turn the United States into a prominent musical force. The history of the rise of American modernism centers on the productive interactions and competitive tensions between these two groups.

In looking back to the earliest years of the twentieth century, Americans now take special pride in the music of Charles Ives, with its gloriously idiosyncratic experimentations. In many ways, Ives has come to represent the juncture of two treasured American myths: those of the independent inventor, eccentrically but brilliantly forging new paths and the historical superhero-a Daniel Boone or Abraham Lincoln, etched with coonskin cap and log cabin in a gauzy daguerreotype of cultural memory.

Less romanticized yet equally as important to the advent of modernism in the United States was the work of European musicians who arrived early in the century. First came Leo Ornstein, a Ukrainian Jew who reached America in 1907 and began introducing the American public to musical modernism by the mid 1910s. A virtuoso pianist, he burst upon the scene as a latter-day Liszt, wowing audiences with his keyboard prowess while shocking them with his cluster-filled compositions. Soon after arrived Edgard Varèse, another missionary for modernism. Varèse's goals were to bring the newest European compositions to New York and to generate an audience for his own compositions. Over the course of the 1920s, his International Composers' Guild presented New Yorkers with major new works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Milhaud, Honegger, Casella, and a host of Europeans, turning the city into an international crossroads for the newest musical developments.

This early generation of twentieth-century immigrants was soon eclipsed by the arrival during the 1930s of a string of major players from Europe who were escaping fascist regimes. Arnold Schoenberg (in 1933), Ernst Toch (1934), Kurt Weill (1935), Ernst Krenek (1938), Igor Stravinsky (1939), Paul Hindemith (1940). It was an imposing line-up, and it precipitated a series of major changes in American musical culture. On the one hand, these figures held unassailable authority as paragons of European modernism. Many of them moved quickly into positions at American universities, where they had a profound impact on several generations of American composers. Their presence was intertwined with the ascendancy of serialism in America after the war-an issue that continues to generate contentious debate. On the other hand, though, these composers at times fell prey to intense nationalism. Roger Sessions, an articulate spokesperson for an international perspective among composers complained in 1948 that the "aggressive self-assertion" of Americans had "at least for a time poisoned the musical atmosphere and made it one of musical exclusiveness." In other words, the championing of national identity among the Copland-Schuman generations could conflict with accommodating the newest European arrivals.

By the 1960s, a new wave of immigration was underway, made up predominantly of Asians, Latin Americans, and West Indians, and with it, the transplantation of European modernism to America was replaced with a growing focus on world music traditions. This has signaled one of the most profound changes in the history of American music. In New York City, the percentage of immigrants in the overall population remained fairly constant over the course of the century: 37 percent in both 1900 and 1999. Yet the countries of origin for those immigrants changed dramatically, from a preponderance of largely eastern European Jews and southern Italians early in the century to the Asians and Latin Americans that continue to arrive in droves.

True to the historical pattern, American composition continues to reverberate from these newcomers. As in the past, most of these composers have either fled repressive political regimes or debilitating economic conditions-or both. Fueled by post-war American affluence and the anti-communist passion of the Cold War, institutional support also increased dramatically. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations contributed generously to promoting non-Western composers in the U.S. and encouraging cultural exchanges with so-called Third World countries, and countries of the former Soviet bloc. A prime example of this has been the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange, based at Columbia University and led by composer Chou Wen-chung, which has assisted a major influx of Chinese composers to America, affecting the careers of such composers as Bright Sheng, Zhou Long, Tan Dun, and Chen Yi.

These days, there's a booming audience for cross-cultural musics, and it shows up across genres. In the concert world, the Kronos Quartet has issued CDs such as "Pieces of Africa" and "Kronos Caravan" that feature composers from outside of the West. The ACO has fostered these same goals, whether through commissions to composers such as Ge Gan-ru and Bun-ching Lam or through its Sonidos de las Américas, which focuses on composers of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. The Sonidos celebration in 1999 brought more than fifty Cuban artists to New York. There, not only were cultural intersections encouraged but lines between musical genres were blurred. The festival included concert composers, yes, but also folk and jazz musicians, aiming for a boundary-free celebration of a vibrant musical tradition.

Yet the celebration of cultural difference remains a volatile political issue in America. These new showcases for diversity provide immigrant composers with a kind of visibility and ethnic validation that often eluded their predecessors at the same time as the overall national climate about immigration remains politically charged. We've moved from the assimilating forces of the "melting pot," as the early twentieth-century immigrant scene was dubbed, to recognition of ethnic identity, at the same time, as we have no clear national consensus about issues such as educating Hispanic students in Spanish.

In other words, the process of adjusting to a new culture remains agitating. "I am in constant transit!" exclaims Tania Léon, articulating a sensation felt acutely by all those who have stepped onto the roller coaster of geographic displacement. There's no question, though, that American music continues to benefit from the ride.

-Carol J. Oja is author of Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s (Oxford University Press)

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