The Downside of Expatriation

NOTE: This entry has been extensively apologized for and updated.

I’ve always thought I should have moved to Europe decades ago, and never more than in the last five years. But a composer friend who lived in Europe for many years told me this week why he moved back to the U.S. It seems that when he applied for grants there, to foundations which preserved the anonymity of their applicants [emphasis added later], his music was regularly rejected with the comment: “too American-sounding.”

UPDATE: I have to apologize for so badly misstating this slender anecdote that no one has yet gotten the point of it. The point is not that Europeans don’t like American music. In my experience, American music, especially the experimental variety, is far better appreciated in Europe than it is here – that’s the upside of expatriation, which I erroneously assumed everyone would understand. The point is that, if you’re living outside your own country, and you submit work anonymously, no one can tell you’re an expatriate, and there is a danger that your music will be judged in ignorance of its true context. That’s all. This composer’s music was rejected not because it sounded American, but because it was assumed he was a Dutch composer imitating the Americans. Had they known he was an actual American, they would likely have thought it was just fine and natural that his music sounded American. He had, in fact, been invited to live in Holland because the Dutch liked his music. The irony is that he was famous enough to get a job in Europe, but got discriminated against when they didn’t know he was American. The still-possibly-unfortunate prejudice to which the item alludes is not a prejudice against American music, but against European nationals so impressed with America that they imitate its music, and for whom an actual anonymous American might be mistaken. My apologies to the continent of Europe, and all others closely devoted to Europe, for any misunderstanding. The point of the anecdote, if it still has one, would have remained unchanged if Antarctica had been named instead of Europe.

It’s exactly analogous to the comment that Laurie Anderson once overheard. As she was walking through Manhattan one day, someone looked at her and said, “Great, another Laurie Anderson clone.”


  1. wulfson says

    this is tantalizingly vague. without revelaing your friend’s identity, can we at least know which style is considered “american sounding” over there? is it american experimental music (like christian wolff or alvin lucier), or american orchestral music (like john harbison, or corigliano), or rock inspired music (like michael gordon)? dying to know…

  2. says

    There’s still not one Europe. Even here in The Netherlands, under the superficial total presence of Louis Andriessen and his school of compositional thought, you can find many very different ideas of what music is and should be – also, of what American music is – also, of whether that’s a good thing or not. Rotational grant committee systems make the whole process not entirely predictable. Of course, there will be some sense of prejudices coming out of the system – that’s perhaps what we call a culture. I can’t say exactly how the Dutch system with the cultures that comes from that compares to the ones in France or Germany or the UK or Italy or Slovenia or etc, but I *do* get a sense that each of these countries features a very different range of possibilities for composers. French music life is nothing like Dutch music life as far as I can tell – or as one could tell by the composers emerging from it.

  3. says

    You know how it goes. If it has any kind of regular beat or makes even a passing reference to tonality, it is “too commercial” or “fascistic” or both.