Sunday, November 22, 2009

What is American Music?

As an American who has studied music and already came into this program with a lot of knowledge of American music, I'm still not sure if there is an “American style” of music. It is not like England, where I do hear often, in the music of composers such as Britten, Vaughan Williams, Finzi, etc., a common English sound (although I'm still not sure how to describe it or what exactly it is). America is unique in the fact that it is a relatively young nation and that the indigenous peoples now do not have a very large effect on the current culture that has developed. America emerged out of Europe and owes very much to this tradition. But the uniqueness in America as a nation (and I believe this is something that we have largely lost sight of) is that when we were being governed unfairly and unjustly, we took action to make change. The Declaration of Independence states "That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government...But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.” This nation was grounded on the principle that we must stand up for what we believe in or die trying. We are unique because we started a revolution and it was actually successful. However, this revolution was not a revolution on the part of the indigenous peoples, but by colonists who did not like the way the British government was treating them. America since this time has been almost entirely made up of immigrants, and hence the music has been incredibly diverse.

I believe the easiest way to identify American music would be to say that any music created in America by people living in America constitutes American music. Because there are so many different types and styles of music being created in America, should we limit American music to musical styles that were born in the country, such as jazz, Native American musics, negro spirituals, etc.? Does the vast influence from other cultures leave no hope of establishing an “American” nationalistic style or sound? Do we even need a distinctly unique national style of music?

I'd argue that our lack of a single musical identity is not necessary, nor is it advantageous. It is fine for a culture to want to preserve its customs and practices, but too often the differences between cultures become so pronounced that they become excuses for injustice and war. This is the exact opposite of what I believe music, and all art, should strive for. It should not be used to rally and inspire our troops, leading them into battle to destroy the enemy who believes in the “wrong” ways of living. Music is such a powerful unifying force across cultures, as each one of the participants here have experienced in the past six weeks in this program. In the NU-FAX program, music has allowed all of us to bridge the cultural gaps between each other, communicate and relate to each other on a more intimate and intense level, and enjoy and respect each other as representatives of their culture and as individuals. In other words, music has been a vehicle of peace, understanding, and growth.

I propose that music should be used as such a unifying force, and this is also what American music can be said to achieve if it has something in common more than just having been created in the USA. America since its beginnings has been this “melting pot” of different peoples and cultures and now, more than ever, technology has allowed us all to have access to so much more media and information. The internet now allows us to learn so much about different cultures, share different music, etc., that cultures and their musical styles are blending more and more. We are becoming more and more cosmopolitan and I do not believe that it is a bad thing for our music to do the same. Cultural traditions and customs may be, and should be, preserved to an extent, but in order to really grow and communicate we must learn from each others cultures and blend to realize our common humanity. Only when we do this can hope to help achieve world peace and begin to permanently solve the injustice and the crises of the world. American music helps to do this by being unafraid of whatever it is. American music stands up and pronounces what it believes in, no matter what style, influences, or what others will do to it. It is created out of a full expression of freedom to expose and stand by your own values. Its “style” is bearing any style yet having a depth and personal conviction of meaning and cosmopolitanism.
Keane Southard
August 10, 2009

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