Sunday, July 13, 2014

L-O-L-A Lola la-la-la-la Lola; or What is my culture?

I started writing this post at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut last month, where I was the very happy music composition director for the 2014 National Puppetry Conference, surrounded by dozens of deliciously creative and crafty people. For eight days, I found myself with more energy and confidence than I had felt in a very long time — a common effect of the O'Neill — although that boost might also have been left over from a sudden storm of inspiration and discovery I had a few days before I left Philly, after months of compositional drought.

Performing (on my new Luis & Clark viola) at the O'Neill showcase. Photo by Richard Termine.

Frustrated with Ayn that week, I decided I might as well set myself a short composition exercise to help open the sluices, the sort of thing I used to do back when I was in coursework. The task: to write a short and relatively easy work for SSAA chorus in response to a competition call from the Twin Cities Women's Choir. The deadline: three days. Step one: find a decent text.

A short note here: I despise the current state of copyright law, which effectively prohibits me from easily working with texts that were written in my lifetime, or my parents' lifetimes, or even my fucking grandparents' lifetimes. The struggle to find texts that are relevant but not restricted is unique to the 21st Century, and is the reason I often turn to public domain political transcripts, speeches, and documents in my work. Copyright law oversteps and tramples creativity. It is bullshit bloated to monstrosity by greedy estates and corporations, and it runs contrary to the development of art throughout the entirety of human history. But I digress.

Back to step one: I spent two indulgent days reading poetry and other possible sources of lyrics. I skimmed writings from vastly different traditions and voices, from early scientific works written by women in Europe to the speeches of 19th Century emancipation activists to poetry from China during the Boxer Rebellion. And I found myself staring down the barrel of a question that has been lurking over my shoulder for some time now.

What is my culture? What is my tradition?

Seriously, what the hell is it? As a composer, who am I? Who the hell do I think I am? When I read the words of poets, scientists, and writers from, say, Victorian England, is that my voice? Do I have a right to those words? Even putting aside the fact that theirs are the words of people who have been dead for decades, perhaps even as much as a century, do they have anything at all to do with who I am now?

What about Americans from the same period? I've lived in the United States for eleven years now. I have my citizenship, but I wasn't born here. There's much about America I still don't really understand. What's my connection to 100-year-old American history?

Given my extended expat status (and ever more increasingly mangled accent), do I even have the right to consider myself an Australian voice anymore? I asked myself, as I read through every Dorothea Mackellar poem published before 1923.

My parents were immigrants to Australia from Greece and China. My father left Greece during the post WWII exodus in the 1950s, while my mum fled from the horror of the Cultural Revolution in 1972. They tried to assimilate as best they could into white Anglo life in a frankly pretty racist country whose mainstream blatantly rejected multiculturalism until well into the 1980s, but they were (and continue to be) outsiders. My late stepdad was born in rural Queensland to Chinese parents; he had an authentic ocker accent broader than Steve Irwin's, but he also spoke Cantonese and had the sensibility of an Asian who never quite belonged (exacerbated by his epilepsy and various personality issues). I grew up speaking English because my parents wanted me to assimilate as much as possible, in the hope I would never face the difficulties and discrimination they had faced. I didn't find out I was half-Greek (half-wog) until I was eight, and I was told to keep quiet about it because it was a family scandal, so I always identified as Asian, even though I felt more at home in white Anglo culture. My exposure to Greek culture was limited to my father's machismo, a few weddings, and a disastrous family vacation to Greece, so no deep connection there.

Riding an ass in Greece with my father and my stepdad. We all went together. It was awkward,
even before the horrible car crash that fractured my mother's spine.

Like me, Australia struggles when it comes to finding its own voice and authentic artistic culture. Some artists in various disciplines have sought to distance themselves from the Western European/British tradition; how attached can we be to it when we live in such an alien landscape thousands of miles away? (And also, they sent us to die as pointless cannon fodder at Gallipoli, so fuck those guys, right?) It's become pretty usual for many (often white) Australian artists and musicians to borrow from Asian and Aboriginal aesthetics, though this has always bothered me as an appropriative and inauthentic act. Because here's the thing: even though I grew up in a Chinese household, complaining about the Peking opera blasting from my mother's crappy VHS every Saturday, even though I remember loudly insisting "尿尿" as a toddler when I needed to pee and demanding "牛奶" when I was thirsty, even though I have yellow skin and Asian cheekbones, I don't feel like I can borrow from Chinese culture in my work, because I don't really belong there. What right do I have to the rich and complicated millennia of Chinese culture, with my limited exposure and understanding of it?

Meanwhile, throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was deep into my real homeboys: dead white German dudes with names like Johann, Ludwig, Wolfgang, and Richard (ʁiçaʁt). What.

None of this ever bothered me as a kid, because I never thought about it, and I was told point-blank by my parents that to be successful, I was supposed to think of myself as one of the white kids.

Like my parents before me, in my early twenties, I pulled up stumps and moved to the other side of the world. I've noticed that America faces a few of the same struggles as Australia (and me) in finding its unique cultural voice. American culture is obviously descended from European traditions but also feels the need to differentiate itself by, for example, lionizing early white American icons such as the colonialists, or the pioneers in the West. It has also, of course, assimilated, or borrowed (or appropriated) the experiences of immigrants, slaves, and indigenous cultures, rebranding the diluted result as evidence of unique American culture.

So, again, as a product of mixed cultures from a mixed-up young country who moved to another mixed-up young country, what is my culture? If I don't have a strong connection to a tradition, is everything I do that borrows from any tradition inauthentic? When I look at my output as a composer so far, I see that there's a good dollop of the stereotypical immigrant tendency to become more authentic than the natural-born — more American than Americans, in my case. I keep writing about America, specifically. I write cantatas about American politicians, I write chamber works about American gun violence and American maritime history, I have set exclusively American poets, along with the American Oath of Allegiance, and American speeches about American issues.

Maybe I'm doing this as an extension of my parental mandate to assimilate, or maybe I'm doing it because this is what I am now, this is what I see every day when I look out the window. It's not like John Adams doesn't do the same thing. But his name is John Adams. His son is named Samuel Adams, fer chrissakes. AMERICA. My name is definitely not John Adams. My last name should be Shong or Yong or Kwok or Mahairas except that I appropriated my husband's Irish name. For me, there's something missing sometimes. And when I spent two days reading texts from all over the world, trying to find a connection, that void made itself very apparent.

And then — I spied a light in the confused murk.

I stumbled upon the poet Lola Ridge, specifically her collection Sun-up: And Other Poems:

I love these poems. I read them over and over, marveling that her words sound so fresh and raw and modern even though she was writing 94 years ago. I felt a kinship. And when I read her bio, I realized that we shared a journey, and maybe that's the reason for it. Born in 1873 in Ireland, she emigrated to New Zealand when she was 13 with her mother, and moved to Sydney as a young adult. Then, in her thirties, she immigrated to America and became a poet; the main thrust of her work is leftist and humanist, a reaction to her observations and experiences in America. I hear her finding her culture in her poems, just as I'm trying to find mine musically. I hear her yearning for the places she left behind, and celebrating her new country, just as I do. I hear her railing against injustice and trying to shine a light in the darkness and frustration. And of course, she has a woman's voice, a real and wonderful woman's voice that isn't ashamed of itself. I love her. New backburner project: a song cycle based on her poems.

But for the present: I had one day left to write a choral piece. So I set this excerpt from Sun-up:

It's strange about stars ...
You have to be still when they look at you.
They push your song inside of you with their song.
Their long silvery rays
sink into you and do not hurt.
It is good to feel them resting on you
like great white birds...
and their shining whiteness
doesn't burn like the sun —
it washes all over you
and makes you feel cleaner'n water.

Here's the sheet music. And here's an mp3 I recorded on my viola of all the parts (because MIDI still sucks):

I ... like it. You hear that, writer's block? You there, black dog? I actually like it. Something I wrote. I think it might actually be pretty good, maybe. It's been a long time since I've thought anything of the sort about anything.

I sent it off to Twin Cities, but if it doesn't win, I want other choirs to sing it. Take it. Give it to people. This is my culture. Three minutes of it, anyway.

[Update: The Lola Ridge Songs]

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