Sound Commitments: Avant-Garde Music and the Sixties

By Robert Adlington | Go to book overview

11
American Cultural
Diplomacy and
the Mediation of
Avant-garde Music

Danielle Fosler-Lussier

During the cold war, many musicians from the United States traveled to distant places under the sponsorship of the U.S. government. They were sent to enhance the reputation of American culture; to compete with Soviet and Chinese performers; to forge personal connections with citizens of other lands; and to create a positive impression of the United States and its foreign policy.1 The most vigorous government effort to sponsor musicians’ tours was the State Department’s Cultural Presentations program, which subsidized tours to politically important regions where commercial tours would be financially infeasible.2 Conductors, composers, and lecturers on music also traveled under the American Specialists program, and some American embassies and diplomatic posts sponsored their own concerts. These efforts, combined with privately funded tours, amounted to a substantial and lasting effort to expose people all over the world to American culture.

As a wealthy nation with a short history, the United States was reputed to favor industry over art: in the words of Congressman Frank Thompson, Jr., the young superpower needed to prove “that we are by no means a Nation of mere ‘cultural barbarians.’”3 From its inception in 1954, therefore, the Cultural Presentations program promoted art music in the classical tradition: several symphony orchestra tours received particular attention and acclaim. Despite the focus on high culture, avant-garde music was absent at the outset, in part due to congressional opposition. (One official noted that “the American Congress hates to think that we are sending Cubist art to the Hottentots.”4)

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