The Role of Number One July 23, 1979

The role of the United States as ‘Number One’ has dwindled rapidly. In 1976 our gross national product, per capita, was only fifth in the world, preceded by three small oil countries and Sweden. The value of the dollar has declined dramatically, every year Japan and West Germany take over a larger percentage of technological businesses, and our share of the world’s exports has dropped from 22 per cent in 1948 to about 13 per cent in 1976, and probably less today. Middle Eastern interests own vast properties in the United States, and it has been announced that a West German bank is purchasing the World Trade Center. Our rate of inflation, our average life spans, and our infant mortality rate all score a little worse in comparison with the other countries of the world as time goes on.

Our problems are not, as Newsweek suggested in its cover story a few weeks ago, simply a matter of a few little problems that can be easily remedied by directing more money into research, reducing government restrictions, and changing a few policies in Washington. It is an inevitable trend. For almost a hundred years colonial powers have been losing control of the world, and the developing countries have been gaining more control. The class structure of the nations in the world has been evening out. Loss of economic and political control in Cuba, the Arab States, and Southeast Asia are only some of the more obvious examples. Eventually we must lose almost all of our colonial interests, just as the Dutch, the French, and the British have. Things are changing.

Political and economic control have always gone hand in hand with cultural control. Louis XIV could control the art and music of France because he controlled the politics and economics of France. The Moors could bring guitars to Spain because they brought armies to Spain. Latin became the lingua franca of Europe because Rome controlled Europe. Catholicism became the religion of South America because Spain controlled South America. Generally the cultural domination need not be enforced or legislated. It happens quite naturally—once it is established who the role model is.

Symphony orchestras and neckties became standard around the world because European and American interests controlled the world. Jazz and rock records and Coca-Cola were purchased around the world because American cars and American guns were purchased around the world.

But they don’t buy many American cars and guns in Libya anymore, and they don’t buy many American records either, and they don’t have many symphony orchestras either, and they don’t speak much English either.

And that’s fine with me, because I’m tired of American symphony orchestras, and I’m tired of being ‘Number One,’ and I’m tired of going around pretending that I’m superior to everybody else, and I’m really interested to know what kind of music the Libyans will make left to their own devices, and I don’t mind sacrificing our balance of payments a little bit to pay a Libyan group to come over here and give some concerts, and I figure my life will be a whole lot richer on the day I can say to myself: ‘Hey, I’m not just an American anymore. I’m not just ‘Number One.’ I’m part of the planet Earth. I’m ‘Number Everything.’’ Things are changing.

When we first began to be interested in the cultures of the rest of the world, it was little more than curiosity: ‘Very clever these Chinese. Of course, they never progressed beyond the simple five-note scale, but I like some of these melodies. Properly orchestrated, they might sound rather charming. And wouldn’t one of those African masks look nice on the mantle? They’re so exotic. And cheap too. The natives work for only pennies a day, you know.’ Later a few, mostly anthropologists and artists, began to dig deeper. How do other cultures live? How do they think and see and hear? Henry Cowell begins teaching the first course in ethnomusicology in America, and he approaches it not with mere curiosity, but with genuine respect. John Cage begins studying with Daito Suzuki, not with mere curiosity, but with genuine respect. Lou Harrison collects and learns to play Chinese musical instruments, not with mere curiosity, but with genuine respect. Meanwhile, most composers were concerned with what they call the ‘international style.’ But it is hard for me to come across that term without recalling one memorable night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, when, during an intermission symposium at one of the Meet the Moderns concerts, Lukas Foss asked Yuji Takahashi what he thought about this ‘international style.’ Takahashi paused for a long time, and then he leaned into the microphone and said ‘Yes—there is an international style—and it is European.’ Yuji Takahashi turned 40 last September. It is his generation, my generation, our generation, that needs to figure all of this out. We have a lot of questions to answer. For example, isn’t it possible that the true avant-garde music center in New York at the moment is not the Kitchen but the Alternative Center for International Arts, that little place on East 4th Street where they present Japanese classical music, Indian folk singing, African epic singing, mbira music, khamancheh music, hayagum music, and William Hellermann all in one season? Isn’t it just possible that the Kitchen syndrome represents the last of the ethnocentric movements in new music and that the Alternative Center represents the beginning of an international movement in music? Isn’t it possible that the Kitchen is only looking 10 years ahead while the Alternative Center is looking 50 years ahead? Isn’t it possible that the most important music of the 21st century will be coming from Nigeria and Hong Kong and Bolivia rather than Europe and the United States? Isn’t it possible that one day the Muzak in our elevators will be arranged for ouds or koras or santurs? And most important, most important of all, isn’t it crucial for artists to begin thinking about forms of music that will communicate to more than one ethnic group?

I love Steve Reich’s ‘Drumming.’ In fact, I love it so much that, if I was asked to choose one piece, above all the others, which could be presented as a genuine masterpiece of the SoHo avant-garde, I would choose ‘Drumming.’ To hear all four movements of that work, performed live, is to hear a flawless work of great joy, and intricacy, and subtlety, and clarity. And since the percussionists Steve Reich employs are among the finest in the Western world, the piece trips along with a kind of immaculate precision that would be hard to match.

But my enjoyment of the music is always mixed with a taste of guilt. You probably already know that, prior to embarking on ‘Drumming,’ Steve Reich had spent some months studying in Ghana. And you probably know that most of the rhythms in ‘Drumming’ came out of what he learned there. But you probably don’t know that his teacher was a man named Gideon, and you probably don’t know that Gideon also received his rewards for the work that had been done. While Steve Reich and Musicians were touring Europe, becoming famous, and solidifying their Deutsche Grammophon contract, Gideon was offered a chance to leave his post with the Ghana drummers and dancers and was given a position as artist-in-residence—at the State University of New York in Brockport. That’s spelled B-R-O-C-K-P-O-R-T and it’s somewhere in the vicinity of Rochester.

Can we blame Steve Reich for wanting to learn what he wants to learn, and wanting to launch a career the way all Americans are taught to launch careers? Of course not. Can we blame Gideon for just doing the Ghana thing, the way all Ghanaians are taught, instead of figuring out a way to translate it all to European instruments and sell it to the white man? Of course not. Can we blame the particular individuals involved in a thousand similar cases? Of course not. That’s just the way the world works. So far. But that will be changing too.

And that’s fine with me, because I’m tired of American cars and American guns and American soft drinks and American popular music, and I’m tired of the international style which is European, and I’m tired of being ‘Number One,’ and I’m tired of going around pretending that I’m superior to everybody else, and I’m tired of exploiting the rest of the world, and I’m looking forward to the day when we’ll be ‘Number 10’—or ‘Number 15.’ Of course we won’t be able to go around the world telling everybody else what to think and what to buy and what kind of music to listen to anymore. And we won’t be able to afford to waste oil anymore. But I think we’ll still have plenty to eat. And I suspect our perspective will get a little clearer too, and I’m looking forward to it. Because I figure our lives will be a whole lot richer on the day when we begin saying to ourselves, ‘Hey, we’re part of the planet Earth. We’re ‘Number Everything.’’ Things will be different.


The rhetorical tone of this article is due to the fact that it was originally presented as a speech, in connection with a panel discussion on ‘The Relationship Between New Music and Third World Music’ which took place on June 14 as part of that first New Music America festival. This was the end of something for me, and it marks a six-month gap in the present anthology. I continued the column throughout this year, but wrote little on minimal music. The reports on Meredith Monk, Maryanne Amacher, Pauline Oliveros, and Frederic Rzewski were all short and without enthusiasm. Instead, I focused even more on ethnic music, wrote twice on pop groups, reviewed some recordings, wrote about modern dance accompanists, and made some trivial aesthetic observations, none of which seems at all interesting ten years later. From this whole period the only article that we wanted to include in the anthology is the following one which fits Glenn Branca into the picture. Partly I think I was just tired, and partly I think I had the feeling after the New Music America festival that the music I had been writing about was pretty well established and didn’t need me anymore, now that it was receiving coverage in the general press. Also, I was extremely occupied with my own music, as the fall of 1979 marked my own first trip to Europe, a tour in which I presented 10 different concerts, most often playing my ‘Nine Bells,’ which was new at the time.

In any case, with this article of July 1979, the ’70s were already really over for me and my journalism, and we considered just ending the anthology here. But by January of 1980, I had found a new energy, writing articles about some important figures, whom I had neglected before, and making other observations that somehow seem to be part of this book, even though the point of view is much more international.