It Ain’t Where You’re From, It’s Where You’ve Been

It Ain’t Where You’re From, It’s Where You’ve Been

Today, however, it seems we are all chameleons. Certainly many of the early-career composers I heard last month during the Pharos International Contemporary Music Festival, a generation that has grown up under globalization, with the internet at its fingertips, might be described in this way. Identity, origin, and authenticity have taken on whole new twists in just ten years or so.

Written By

Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Three composers, all in their twenties, are each presenting a work for piano trio. All three were born in the same small country but, crucially, all were educated abroad. One piece is neo-classically graceful and precisely conceived. The next deploys noise, dynamic extremes, and extended playing techniques to push the limits of formal and sonic coherence, and to stretch (sometimes exceed) the possibilities of the three instruments. The last is a contrast again. We’re back to conventional pitches, rhythms, and tone production, but now the music is repetitive and machine-like. The trio sounds more homogenous than before, but now it is less like an ensemble and more like a gang. It steadfastly resists sonic assimilation into the world around it.

These pieces were presented as part of a composer workshop conducted last month during the Pharos International Contemporary Music Festival (PICMF), held in Nicosia, Cyprus. The three composers were Artemis Aifotiti (born 1986), Andreas Tsiartis (born 1986), and Andys Skordis (born 1982); they had studied in Great Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, respectively. (The performers were Antoine Maisonhaute, violin, Jean-Paul Dessy, cello, and André Ristic, piano, from Belgium’s Musiques Nouvelles ensemble.) The qualities of their three compositions, almost stereotypically taggable to their countries of education, inevitably raised the old question of national identity, but now enriched by the context of post-national globalization.

In Cyprus this looks like a particularly complex matter. As a Brit, you can’t help noticing the small legacies from eight decades of colonial rule. The road signs and traffic lights, for example—incongruous in the Mediterranean sun, they are identical in design with those found in rainy London.

More seriously, Cyprus’s identity has been a matter of violent contestation for centuries (the British were forced out in 1960) and, since the Turkish invasion of the north in 1974, a cause for national division and UN military oversight. During the festival, it was impossible not to be reminded of Cyprus’s troubled recent history. The Shoe Factory, a converted industrial space that’s now a concert hall-cum-luxury residence, was the venue for nearly all the festival events. It sits just yards away from the UN-policed buffer zone. When you walk there for that evening’s concert, you pass a military sentry point that guards the no-man’s-land of ruined buildings that divide Nicosia. Arrive at the right time and you’ll hear the call to prayer ringing out from an unseen mosque on the other side of the barrier.

Pianist André Ristic (left) and the Greek composer Panayotis Kokoras, inside the Shoe Factory.

I was invited to Cyprus last month by the Pharos Arts Foundation, organizers of the PICMF. The festival is an annual week-long event (this was its third edition). In contrast to the typical European festivals, this was small and chamber-sized, with just one concert per day and never more than five players on stage at once. Yet it still found room for 17 world premieres, two educational events, and a focus on the American composer Joshua Fineberg.

During my week in Nicosia I had many conversations about Cypriot culture. In one, I learned that until very recently (border restrictions between the two halves of Cyprus were only loosened in 2008) it was impossible for Cypriot writers from the north and south of the country to meet on the island. In order to do so they had to arrange conferences and literary festivals on the European mainland. In music, anyone showing talent is immediately ushered abroad, there being limited infrastructure and few opportunities for performance or development at home. Conflict, colonialism, and occupation may have made national identity a pressing question in Cyprus for decades, but the cultural core usually enlisted to such arguments is dispersed overseas.

Probably Cyprus’s most internationally famous composer is Yannis Kyriakides. He is a source of pride within the Cypriot new music community—people are keen to remind you that his commission for last year’s PICMF, Paramyth, just won the Dutch Toonzetters Prize. But Kyriakides emigrated to the UK with his family when he was just five, and he has spent most of his education and career in England and the Netherlands.

Clearly Cyprus holds some claim on its artistic diaspora, and my sense while I was there was that events like the PICMF are in part aimed at recapturing some of that dispersed cultural capital. (Recently, too, some of the writers of the diaspora, whose grandparents first left the island, have begun to come home.) But the question of national/international influences was not confined to the Cypriot composers. The festival had an impressively international outlook—those 17 world premieres were written by composers from 11 different countries, almost none of them from the usual Western European suspects. This provided a rare opportunity to sample contemporary composition beyond the well-trodden paths. Many of the other new pieces in the festival—indeed many of the best of them—were hard to place in relation either to national stereotypes or to a globalized modern/postmodern hegemony. Indeed, a composer’s biography—their places of education and travel—seemed more important than their country of birth. Or: it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’ve been.

The no-man’s-land of ruined buildings that divide Nicosia.

Two compositions that particularly struck me were Tazul Tajuddin’s Sebuah Pantun IV and Daryl Jamieson’s Snow Meditation. Tajuddin (born 1969) is a Malaysian composer who has studied in the US, Europe, and the UK (where he earned his PhD). His piano trio Sebuah Pantun IV is (as the title suggests) strongly influenced by traditional Malay music, and this is clearly audible in some of its formal devices and its occasional gamelan-like sonorities. But that surface is supported by Western values: the trio is well balanced, the style is highly polished, the grammar modern. Tajuddin’s skill, and the hallmark of his compositional voice, is in keeping that push and pull in equilibrium.

Jamieson (born 1980) is a Canadian composer. He too has studied in the UK, but also in Japan, where he has lived since 2006. Like Tajuddin’s, his piece, Snow Meditation, performed a delicate trick in alluding to a particular style without quite sounding like it. According to its program note, Snow Meditation was composed in a single evening a few days after the devastating earthquake of May 2011. The composer and his partner had left Tokyo for Kyoto for a few days to assess the situation. Here they visited the Daitokuji temple complex and, as they sat in one of the temple courtyards, they watched sun and snow fall on the garden. Despite all these Japanese allusions, I heard the swell and sweep of 19th-century Romaticism, but in a way that wasn’t kitsch, nostalgic, or even ironic. This was a short piece, but a remarkable one.


Joshua Fineberg

But the most interesting story of stylistic relocation came from an American, Joshua Fineberg. The festival’s featured composer, he gave a lecture on his music, chaired the workshop described above, and had two pieces performed—Veils for piano and Shards for flute, clarinet, and cello. Now professor of composition at Boston University, he is one of a handful of American spectralist composers (two others would be Edmund Campion and the Canadian-born François Rose), and he was closely involved with its development in the 1990s.

As a composition undergraduate at Peabody Conservatory in the late 1980s, Fineberg got off to a promising start. He won some important prizes, and his future looked set for a steady career. But in truth he was becoming disillusioned with the music he was writing and the career paths that were open to him. He had become aware of the dichotomy that is often reported within American contemporary music, at least among the sort that still preferred concert halls to the clubs of downtown New York. Either you wrote according to the values ascribed to a certain European elite and got yourself a university job writing music few people would ever hear, or you wrote music that was supposedly more “authentic” but in fact was narrowly populist, written for an audience rather than artistic ambition. This was not only a choice about how to make a living as a composer, but of what kind of music you should write to support that career. The two seemed inseparable.

However, Fineberg’s analysis, even as an undergraduate, was different. He began to discover the scores of Ligeti and Xenakis in Peabody’s library. At the time even this music was presented to him according to the foreign-elitist/authentic-populist dichotomy, as a strange variant of post-war serialism. But Fineberg saw in them something else: an approach to composing with sound that seemed to allow both intellectual rigor and acoustic interest. It was permission to think outside the dichotomy. Still unsure of what this compositional territory looked like, he began to sketch pieces that explored this newly discovered possibility, music that borrowed from the forms and patterns of the harmonic series.

At this time he won a grant to study at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France. Here he met Tristan Murail who, with Gérard Grisey, had pioneered and developed the French spectral school of composition in the 1970s. Fineberg’s longstanding friendship with Murail (to describe their relationship as that of a teacher and his pupil doesn’t do justice to its depth) began when he showed the French composer some of his recent work. It was immediately clear that Fineberg was asking the same questions as Grisey and Murail had done twenty years before. More remarkably, he had independently arrived at very similar compositional solutions, the central proposition of spectralism being the use of sound as the principle compositional material.

Fineberg left Fontainbleau and moved to Paris to study with Murail. He backed a future in France, and he went in big. He stubbornly asked Murail to give him lessons only in French, although he didn’t yet speak a word of the language. Even when he encountered English-speaking tourists on the Métro he would feign ignorance of his native language. Within six months he was fluent. He came back briefly to the US to finish his Peabody degree, but was soon back in Paris. In 1991 he participated in the first full-year course in composition at IRCAM, the only American in his class. Later, he signed to the French publishers Max Eschig and Gérard Billaudot; still later he became the only American to have a CD on sale at the Pompidou Centre, just across Place Igor Stravinsky from IRCAM. For several years he forged a life as a freelance composer in Paris, leaving ASCAP and joining its French equivalent, SACEM. Murail used to tease him: “Most Americans in Paris look as though they come from America. You’re the only American here who looks as though he comes from Paris.”

In addition to composing, Fineberg worked as a researcher in computer-assisted composition and musical psycho-acoustics. As such, he contributed greatly to spectralism’s technical edifice. With Murail he helped code IRCAM’s PatchWork software, as well as its grander successor, OpenMusic.

He returned to the US in 1997, piggybacking with Murail, who had accepted a post at Columbia University. He has remained ever since. I had assumed, since so much of his cultural make-up had taken place in France, that his musical journey would have had very little to do with being American. But when I ask, he has an interesting answer. As he sees it, the fact of being American assists the more or less arbitrary inheritance of an external culture. The absence of an old culture at home makes you more chameleon-like abroad.


Today, however, it seems we are all chameleons. Certainly many of the early-career composers I heard in Cyprus, a generation that has grown up under globalization, with the internet at its fingertips, might be described in this way. Identity, origin, and authenticity have taken on whole new twists in just ten years or so.

The other American composer featured at the festival was one of these. Chris Trapani’s music and biography is also difficult to categorize according to the usual critical boxes. He was born in New Orleans in 1980, studied in Paris and Istanbul, and lives in New York.

His contribution to PICMF was a piano trio, Passing Through, Staying Put. One of the best new pieces of the festival, it spoke in a voice that was distinctive and strongly characterized, but yet seemed indebted to nothing; genuinely original. When I ask him later about the combined influences of home and travel, he agrees that they are crucial to his work. Not so much for the musical passport stamps you can collect along the way, but for the different psychological states they unlock. “I feel the pull in both directions, and really believe more and more these days that the only places that really interest me—to live, to explore—are either the farthest reaches of where I’ve traveled to (in my case, the Near East/Balkans, with Istanbul as a hub), or the point of origin: New Orleans. It’s a choice between outward and inward visions of travel.” Location as relative, then, rather than particular.

In practical terms, this means that influences are absorbed from many sites—the microtones and ornaments of Ottoman music from Istanbul, spectral harmonies and lush orchestrations from Paris, and consonant vertical harmony and cyclical forms from early encounters with jazz in New Orleans. The intelligence of Trapani’s music, and of the best composers I heard in Cyprus, is that such influences aren’t just regurgitated, like so many tourist tales. They genuinely flow in, like tributaries into a river, mixing indistinguishably but transforming as they go. The music Fineberg has written since his time in France, such as Veils (2001) or the concerto for six percussionists Speaking in Tongues (2010), contains few of the spectralist trademarks (those lush, transforming timbres and shiny, resonating harmonies). But it still carries their shadow. And part of it is only understandable within that context.

Trapani is currently working on a project involving texts by the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy. He emails me one poem he is particularly drawn to, “The City.”

You said: “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will turn up, a better one than this. […]”

You will not find other places, you will not find other seas.
The city will follow you. All roads you walk
will be these roads. And you will age in these same neighborhoods.

In it, Trapani finds a perfect expression of the dual nature of identity, the combination of new experiences and the origins from which you cannot escape. And that may be true for him as it was for Cavafy. (It seems to be true for Steve Reich, too, who in this, his 75th birthday week, told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, “New York City is inside of me whether I like it or not, and no matter where I am.”) But I would venture to say, and my experiences at the Pharos International Contemporary Music Festival suggest, that the contemporary picture has become even more complicated than that.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes on contemporary music for the Guardian, INTO, Tempo, and his blog, The Rambler.