The Melting Point: Two European Composers in America

The Melting Point: Two European Composers in America

The Melting Point?

Brian Ferneyhough and Esa-Pekka Salonen are reshaping American music, but neither is sure he’s an American composer.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

There is grumbling in the classical music community of the United States when prestigious and influential American classical music posts go to someone who is foreign born. The prejudice, of course, dates back to a time when conductors on almost every podium across the country were imported from Europe and demanded allegiance to an almost exclusively European repertoire. Similarly, any American classical musician, including composers, seeking pedigree went to Europe to study, or, as the next best thing, sought out an émigré European master to study with here.

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To some extent the grumbling is justified. Frequently, the elevation of a European-born maestro to the helm of a major orchestra can have a stifling effect on the advance of home-grown music, which is why the recent naming of American-born and American music advocating Marin Alsop as the next music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been greeted with such joy by fans of contemporary American orchestral music. Many remember its advocacy when the ensemble was led by American-born David Zinman, as well as its virtual disappearance under his successor Yuri Temirkanov. It was hardly shocking that Pierre Boulez, when asked to name the ten most important musical compositions of the 20th century, did not name a single work by an American-born composer. He has repeatedly dismissed Charles Ives and other native mavericks as dilettantes. Yet Boulez has held some of the most prestigious and influential posts in this country: music director of the New York Philharmonic, the first composer chair at Carnegie Hall, principal guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony. What does it mean to the indigenous culture when someone from outside of it is elevated to a position of leadership within it, yet seems to regard it with disdain?

Similarly, there have been numerous examples of people in teaching posts at major American universities and conservatories throughout America’s history who have staked out a “European is Best” position. Imparting such a view to students has stifled more home grown forms dating back to the ascendancy of the 19th century Boston school of composers who attempted to recreate the Vienna Woods in the Adirondacks.

Ironically, so the legend goes, it was actually a European-born composer, Antonin Dvorak, who helped American composers find their true voice. And, as American culture is a by-product of a cross-cultural melting pot, who is to say what is or isn’t American anyway? In fact, once foreign-born maestros and academics have accepted their American gigs and have moved here, haven’t they become Americans?

Brian Ferneyhough, arguably the most influential composition teacher in the United States today, serves as the William H. Bonsall Professor in Music at Stanford University after having taught at the University of Chicago and for over a decade at the University of California at San Diego. A British-born and trained composer who has been called the father of “new complexity,” Ferneyhough maintains the stance of an outsider to American culture both in his own music and in his worldview. Yet, he admits a preference for the American university system over the European model.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is widely regarded as a beacon of hope for the future of American orchestras. While this Finnish-born and trained composer/conductor is one of America’s strongest advocates for homegrown repertoire ranging from Ives to Adams and Stucky to works he is now creating here himself, he openly admits that when he first arrived here his agenda was much more Eurocentric. Though he still maintains an undeniably Finnish identity—it’s the language of his dreams—Salonen credits California with opening him to a much wider range of possibilities.

In NewMusicBox, we’ve always been committed to the broadest possible definition of an American composer: any composer born here, whether working at home or abroad, as well as any composer who moves to this country and continues to compose. Sometimes this broad definition sparks debate. Though created for an American audience and clearly related to other contemporaneous American works, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is still difficult for some people to accept as “American music.” Ditto for Paul Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d and Darius Milhaud’s Sacred Service. Charles Wuorinen once said that the two greatest American composers were Stravinsky and Schoenberg, both naturalized American citizens.

In the case of Ferneyhough and Salonen, both of whom still do not identify themselves first and foremost as Americans and both of whom still spend considerable time outside the United States, a definitive determination of national identity gets muddled even further. This is healthy. At a time when resurgent nationalism and xenophobia defines our political landscape all over the world, it is vital to assert how interconnected we all are, and we are richer culturally for the contributions of Ferneyhough, Salonen, and many others, to the American musical landscape.