Nancarrow, American

We’re having a pretty tedious reversion war over at Wikipedia vis-a-vis the Nancarrow article. I refer to Nancarrow as an American composer who moved to Mexico. I would be happy to call him an “American-born and -trained composer who took Mexican citizenship.” But a couple of guys, including Conlon’s late-life assistant Carlos Sandoval, insist that he must be referred to as a “Mexican composer.” I find this misleading, cognitively dissonant. Nancarrow did take Mexican citizenship in 1955, but he had few friends among Mexican composers, who were more oriented toward European than American music. I once asked him if his music had been in any way influenced by Mexican music or culture, and his characteristically laconic response was a flat “no.” Conlon spent his life working out ideas he had found in Cowell’s New Musical Resources, and he was championed and lionized by American composers (Carter, Cage, Garland, Amirkhanian, Reynolds, Mumma) long before the Europeans discovered him; his tiny influence on Mexican music has been mostly posthumous (one might cite the Microritmia duo).

This is a trivial fight, surely. But can you feel comfortable talking about “Alfred Hitchcock, American film director”? “Isang Yun, German composer”? “T.S. Eliot, British poet”? “Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, American composers”? Is an artist’s country of upbringing and training, the crucible in which his artistic vision was formed, to be so lightly cast aside because, for whatever political or personal reasons, he later in life had to live somewhere else?


  1. says

    I’m with you on this one. I’d also add to your arguments that he apparently consulted with lawyers in 1981 about the possibility of returning to the States but refused to compromise his political beliefs to do so, which says to me that he considered himself an “American” living in political exile. The nature of “living in exile” is that you are, by definition, most strongly affiliated with the country from which you are exiled — otherwise you’re an immigrant. The appropriate assignment of national affiliation for full-fledged immigrants is trickier, although I think generally speaking the country of origin is the correct assignment. Technical matters of citizenship, which would have been largely a matter of convenience, aren’t particularly relevant. Politics aren’t particularly relevant either–a nation’s political system has always been considered separate from its status as a community.
    Ultimately, these issues are both relatively trivial, as you say, and fundamentally Vague. For instance — suppose a composer is born in country A and immigrates to country B at the age of 1. I suspect in most cases he or she would be considered a “country-A-born country B composer”
    even if the composer claimed to be a country A composer. On the other hand, if a composer is born in country a and immigrates to country B at the age of 99 and dies in country B the following year, he or she would be considered a “country A composer” even if he or she claimed to be a “country B composer.” There’s no bright line separating the two. That said, I think the default assumption in cases where assigning an affiliation is desirable should be the country of origin with exceptions made when appropriate for people who immigrate as children.
    But I don’t blame Sandoval for wanting to claim him for Mexico.

  2. says

    Galen, I’m with you 100%. I think a lot of it has to do with the composer’s perceptions as well. While I can’t speak for her, of course, I believe that Maria de Alvear considers herself to be a German composer although she also acknowledges her Spanish background. Varese is an interesting case, in that he was kinda American, but I don’t think he’d have minded if someone considered him French. Stravinsky remained a very Russian composer, even though in so many ways he emulated the French, and of course lived in the US later on. As did Schoenberg, as Kyle mentions, whom no one ever would consider an American composer.
    Delius was always a British composer, but had a lot of disdain for many composers from the UK and resided in France for a good portion of his life. Even so, Delius would never consider himself a French composer, but rather an English one.
    In terms of Nancarrow, he was as American as Ives and Copland. His music could only have been written by an American, and I have yet to hear anything in his music that is even remotely Mexican in nature.

  3. says

    He would still be an “American” composer even if he was Mexican, using the correct definition of “American”, which would include both North and South.
    But I agree, it is a silly argument. Was Gertrude Stein a French writer?

  4. says

    I think what is posted on Wikepedia now, “an Mexican composer born in the United States,” is a pretty good compromise. You have the word “an,” which agrees with “American,” but then comes the unexpected word “Mexican,” so everyone is happy.

  5. Keith Kothman says

    I created a Wikipedia account for the express purpose of joining in, but Sandome seems pretty insistent. I wasn’t sure I had the desire for combat.
    I never have encountered any writings, presentations, or teachings about Nancarrow that present him as anything other than an American composer. The Wikipedia entry seems to be the personal preference of one man, and lacks objectivity.
    That said, composers who reside outside the country of their birth have become more difficult to categorize simply. In Contemporary Composers, Brian Ferneyhough is listed as British. Certainly he was born and grew up there, but listening to him talk you get the strong impression that he is closely associated with Germany, literally from working there, and aesthetically from his association with the Frankfurt School and the particularly German philosophical discourses on Modernity. Yet he is the editor of Contemporary Composers, so one has to think he approved of the entry.
    On the other hand, in the same book, Chinary Ung is categorized as an American composer, born in Cambodia. This seems harder to reconcile. He’s made his career in America, but he was trained in classical Cambodian music, and this has greatly influenced what he writes.
    Still, with so much ambiguity floating around, I have no doubt about Nancarrow being American. (?Why?)

  6. Paul H. Muller says

    Don’t forget Joseph Conrad, English writer.
    To broach a delicate off-topic, is the Nancarrow case an example of a sort of reverse cultural piracy? Seems composers are sometimes accused of mining the folk tradition of other cultures. Are there sensible limits to be observed in such cases? Or is such criticism just a case of runaway political correctness?
    Bach reworked the folk music of the German Reformation in his cantatas. Did he exploit his own culture? What about Jazz, a music that could only exist as a combination of African and European music? Where does cross-pollination end and “exploitation” begin?
    Or is music simply universal?

  7. Peter says

    Surely, Delius was an American composer!! He spent a summer in his late teens working on a relative’s orange grove in Florida, and it while there that he is supposed to have decided to become a composer! You can hear the scent of citrus throughout his mature work . . .

  8. says

    Would “American-Mexican” be such a stretch? Griffiths (in his good old Encyclopedia) gives “American-Mexican”, just as he gives “French-American” for Varese and “Greek-French” for Xenakis. (However, Russian for Stravinsky, who I tend to think of as mostly French in culture though of course Russian in reference)

  9. HLG says

    David Toub wrote:
    “I have yet to hear anything in his music that is even remotely Mexican in nature.”
    What does this mean — in order to be “Mexican” it has to sound like Mariachi or Indio music? US-American music is music made by US-Americans, regardless of the stylistic content, and we should certainly recognize the right of Mexican composers to compose music that falls outside of a narrow stylistic range. There are plenty of Mexican composers who do not write with Folkloristic elements, and they are no less Mexican or less important as Mexican composers for that.
    Nancarrow chose to become a Mexican, wrote most of his mature music in Mexico, and was part of the greater Mexican Intellectual-Cultural scene, with friendships ranging from established Artists, like O’Gorman to other US exiles, like the journalist May Brooks.

  10. says

    It should be like the Olympics, with each player deciding which possible country he or she wants to play for. But it’s harder when somebody has died. I sure hear Nancarrow as being on my team, and I like your formulation, Kyle, but he did become a Mexican citizen, so the Wikipedia version seems fair too. Moral: nationality is of secondary importance to the ears.

  11. Wayne Reimer says

    The obvious and simple and right thing to do is just to leave off any adjective identifying a nationality. Give the place of birth, place of death, and mention significant moves and travels in the body of the article. That really should be the correct thing to do for everyone written up in Wikipedia (considering the boundary shifts and country name changes involved for many people, it would be the most practical, too). There’s something distastefully chauvinistic about imposing a national identity on people, unless they insist on it themselves. Even when they do insist, it might be best to simply put that in the body of the article, e.g., “so-and-so always considered theirself to be blah-blahian”.

  12. Rodney Lister says

    Stravinsky is a special case, I think. The composer of Agon and Movements and the Orchestra Variations is not Russian or French–he’s American. And it seems to me that the composer of Persephone and Apollo and the Serenade en La is French. There’s something in one of the Stravinky-Craft books, attributed to Vera, that says that Stravinsky drank when he composed, but different things in different places: white wine when he lived in Switzerland, red wine in France, and either scotch or beer in the United States.
    Also T. S. Eliot IS an English poet, just one born in St. Louis.

  13. mclaren says

    If you think the wikipedia article on Nancarrow is problematic, take a look at the wikipedia article on music theory. Essentially every statement made in that one is provably false.
    The most sensible thing to do in these kinds of revert wars is to present both viewpoints and then present facts and logic to back ’em both up. I.e., “Some historians contend Nancarrow was an American composer, while others judge him a Mexican composer. Evidence presented in support of the former viewpoint adduces Nancarrow’s early characteristically American blues-influenced musical style, his few friends among the community of Mexican composers, his lack of interest in the prevailing currents of Mexican musical nationalism during that era, and Nancarrow’s relative lack of interest in modernising indigenous Mexican musical forms or creating historically depictive tone-poems unique to Mexicano culture as Revueltas et al. did in Sensemaya etc. Evidence in favor of the view that Nancarrow should be considered a Mexican composer is the fact that he became a Mexican citizen late in life.”
    Sensible people will realize the logical conclusion toward which preponderance of the evidence leads.
    Conlon would doubtless find it endlessly amusing that while he was largely ignored during his lifetime, fights have now broken out after his death by two different countries trying to claim him as “their” composer. Of course, this is typical. As I’ve always said, “There are no great American composers in the 20th century — only great decomposers. They only love ya when you croak.”

  14. says

    i totally agree, his influences were definitely american and his music sure sounds pretty american, too. but what about someone who’s music is american but are not american themselves such as just about any non-american jazz musician? oscar peterson for example. or rock musician? it might be hard to tell what country they’re from just from listening to them. what if nancarrow HAD been mexican and still written the music he did? pretty much impossible, yes, and these are just “what if’s” anyway. in the end, though, what’s in a border? nationalism and such tends to make me sick to my stomach. but maybe that’s just because i’m canadian.