A Strong Sense of Place

There is only one sense in which I consider my music to have a political agenda, and that is in advocating for a greater range of regional identity, beyond the broad strokes of national borders. In the United States, there is a pervasive drive towards entering one of the stylistic camps that thrive in the cultural capitals. Similarly in Europe there is «top-down» pressure to normalize to one of several regional schools: Darmstadt grit, the Paris Conservatory sheen, British/Dutch minimalism, and so forth.

In American art and literature, there seems to be a degree of recognition for noncentralized trends

In American art and literature, there seems to be a degree of recognition for noncentralized trends; Southern writers in particular are always said to have «a strong sense of place,» as Walker Percy always described it. But aside from a few radically disparate voices who unjustifiably get corralled together as «West Coast Experimentalists,» most American composers seem to end up in the Northeast, learning an amalgamated style and losing their accents in the process. Listening to their music, who could ever deduce that Nancarrow was from Arkansas, that Babbitt had been raised in Mississippi?

I was always shocked that the New York Philharmonic, commissioning a piece to commemorate the September 11 attacks, chose John Adams, one of the few composers synonymous with another major city. Was there no one in New York up to the task? On the other hand, you clearly don’t have to be up to your neck in water to have something to write about Hurricane Katrina. It’s a delicate line, but I believe that revaluing regional traditions – recognizing again that there are a wealth of perspectives and experiences within our own borders – can only enrich the new music landscape, and more importantly, might even be the key to recapturing some kind of immediate and gut-level connection with listeners.

At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, I thrive on reaching out past the confines of my own heritage and exploring far-flung cultural traditions. Alcohol and Algebra invokes both local and exotic traditions, as a sort of survey of the history of the guitar, the fretted ud that spread through Andalucia to Europe and the New World. One can hear the dreamy slides of the Mississippi Delta, as well as the portamento oud improvisations of Munir Bashir. Later, in more lively and rhythmic passages, one can discern the geometrical interplay of Alhambra tiles, along with intrusions of flamenco gestures and fingerpicking.