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What Is a Maverick?
Charles Ives as a young man, 1889
Charles Ives as a young man, 1889

When Charles Ives was a boy in the 1870s in Danbury, Connecticut, he would listen to his father's brass band marching in a parade or at a social occasion, and then come home and try to imitate what he heard on the family's old rectangular piano. One of the most exciting sounds, the bass drum, seemed impossible to capture on the piano - until young Charlie had the idea of hitting several keys at once in the bass register with his fist. Charles Ives grew up to become America's first great composer, and he used that effect in his music his entire life, an effect that came to be called a tone cluster.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the continent, in San Francisco, another young man was making similar experiments. In 1912, a 15-year-old Henry Cowell wrote a piano piece called The Tides of Manaunaun in which he pressed down a couple dozen piano keys with his entire forearm, listening to the chaos of swirling overtones that resulted. Cowell thought he had invented the tone cluster, and advertised himself to that effect until he encountered Charles Ives's music in the 1920s. Afterward he always ceded Ives's precedence.

But only a few years after Cowell's first experiment, another fiery young pianist named Leo Ornstein made a name for himself as an enfant terrible, playing wild pieces filled with tone clusters and dissonances with titles like Suicide in an Airplane. Incidentally, Ornstein also holds the distinction of being perhaps history's most long-lived composer. He gave his first concerts in 1915. He died in 2002 at the age of 108.

How do we explain this amazing coincidence: that America's first three composers to make a name for originality did so by pounding their fists and forearms on the piano keyboard? Why does the tone cluster seem the original symbol of America's musical independence?

One thing the coincidence makes clear is that, for composers, America represented what it did for so many European and Asian immigrants - freedom. In the case of Charles Ives and Henry Cowell and Leo Ornstein, it was a freedom from European classical music and all the rules taught in music schools: the rule against parallel fifths, the rule against unresolved dissonances, the rule against using noise. Charles Ives knew the rules. He went to Yale in the 1890s and studied with a distinguished composer named Horatio Parker, who himself had studied in Germany. He tried to write nice French and German songs as Parker taught him, and sometimes succeeded. But more often Ives rebelled at every step against Parker's hidebound German limitations, and indulged in such musical jokes as a piece depicting - literally, on the page - a Yale-Princeton football game. After graduation, aware that his musical ideas were too startlingly unconventional for polite musical society, Ives took a step no European composer would have considered: he entered the insurance business, eventually becoming a wealthy executive. On weekends he created an Ivesian musical universe through one of the most original bodies of music anyone has ever produced.

From the very beginning, America has produced a different kind of composer. After all, the Italians had their opera, their mellifluous language, and memorably lyrical vocal lines. The Germans had broad, impressive symphonies of great rhythmic force and compelling logic. The French had impressionism, soft timbres, bittersweet ambiguous harmonies, and the saxophone. Czech composers had exotic scales and folk songs to quote. It made sense, in the context of 19th-century nationalism, that the United States would evolve its own distinct musical style.

Leo Ornstein
Leo Ornstein

But while there was much discussion by music critics about what would constitute an American musical style, the composers who discovered it didn't do so self-consciously. After all, Ives was only six when he started pounding his fist on the piano, and Cowell was only 15. They weren't trying to create a national style: they were just trying to capture the sounds around them, in the same way that American painters like Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington created a new style of landscape painting by looking at the American wilderness. Being American, Ives and Cowell weren't surrounded by a pervasive European musical culture that guided their every move. Being Americans, they weren't overly impressed by the authority of tradition. And when they went to music school and the textbooks said they couldn't use tone clusters and noises and complex rhythms, well - they decided that the textbooks must be wrong.

These composers became part of a tradition - ironically a tradition of anti-traditionalism, a tradition of not giving a hoot about tradition. For other composers followed who similarly made up their own rules as they went along: Edgar Varèse, Harry Partch, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Feldman, Meredith Monk. Just like jazz, this music was founded upon the principal of freedom. One of the most important figures in the musicology of American music, H. Wiley Hitchcock, has divided our music into two broad areas, the cultivated music of the concert halls, and the vernacular music of the streets and entertainment houses. If jazz is the vernacular voice of freedom, Ives and Cowell started a new American voice of freedom within the world of cultivated music.

As strong as this anti-traditional tradition has been, we've never come up with an agreed name for it. Some, particularly musicologist and composer Peter Garland, who ran the important journal Soundings, have called these composers "experimental," and referred to them as the "American Experimental Tradition." The classical music establishment, European to its core, has always had trouble accepting these experimental composers, and sometimes refers to them negatively. In a festival devoted to American experimentalists in 1994 by the New York Philharmonic, they were called the "American Eccentrics." That's better than "amateurs" or "kooks," which is what they've been called by some more conservative composers. And lately, thanks to a yearly festival given by the San Francisco Symphony, it's been common to refer to them as "the American Mavericks."

The word maverick comes from Samuel Augustus Maverick, who lived from 1803 to 1870; a New Englander who resettled near San Antonio in what is now Maverick County, to become a cattle rancher. After winning a herd of cattle in a poke game, he decided not to brand them as the custom was, but to let them loose and free on the range. Soon any free and unbranded, unfenced-in steer was called a maverick, and the word eventually came to mean loner, dissenter, nonconformist, independent. Dissenters, these composers are; some, like Partch, were wholly self-taught, others, like Steve Reich, attended Juilliard Music School, but all rebelled against a European musical training, and none of them write symphonies or string quartets in a European style. Nonconformists, they certainly are, as nearly all great artists have been.

They are loners, though - not necessarily. The mavericks learned from each other, gravitated toward each other, and formed their own dissenting, independently American tradition. It all started with Henry Cowell. Between the ages of 20 and 22, he wrote a book called New Musical Resources. The book outlined a new theory of musical materials, calling for rhythms more complex than any European had ever used; microtones, intervals smaller than the adjacent steps on the piano; and new harmonies, including tone clusters played on the keyboard with fists and forearms. Cowell was also, at the time, writing music played on the inside of the piano.

In 1939, the composer Conlon Nancarrow read Cowell's book and afterward spent his entire life working out the rhythmic theories in it on a strange choice of instrument: the player piano. Harry Partch read Cowell's book, and ultimately responded with his own book on his new system of tuning, Genesis of a Music. John Cage read Cowell's book and took it with him to Europe, spreading its influence on composers overseas, and afterwards wrote his own book, called Silence. La Monte Young and Morton Feldman, in turn, were exhilarated by the philosophies Cage expressed in Silence, particularly his appreciation of sound for its own sake. Ben Johnston read Genesis of a Music and developed his own tuning systems from the work of Harry Partch. Terry Riley developed the idea of repetitive music from Cage's philosophy and Young's steady drones. Meredith Monk developed a unique vocal style from the idea of repetition that Riley had pioneered. Much younger composers like John Luther Adams and Larry Polansky drew their work from combinations of Cowell's rhythmic ideas, Partch's tuning systems, and Feldman's quiet textures.

On and on the ideas flowed outward from the young Henry Cowell's book, like ripples from a stone thrown in a pond, only growing into larger and larger waves as they gained energy from each new creative idea. Each new figure was unique; each one invented a new sound world. But they were all joined by their defiance, their feeling that there was more music in heaven and earth than had been dreamed of in Europe, their conviction that there must be something more interesting to do in music than write symphonies and string quartets in European styles, or make commercial pop music. Although utterly individual, they gradually became aware that in their intransigence and originality they formed a tradition: the American experimental tradition - the maverick tradition.

So who are the maverick composers?

Carl Ruggles was one of the mavericks. Born two years later than Ives, in 1876, he developed a style of relentlessly dissonant counterpoint in which no pitch was repeated until eight or nine other ones had been heard. Ruggles was another pounder of pianos. Henry Cowell tells a story about Ruggles that gives some insight into his raucous and rugged personality:

"One morning when I arrived at the abandoned schoolhouse in Arlington
where he [Ruggles] now lives, he was sitting at the old piano, singing a
single tone at the top of his raucous composer's voice, and banging a
single chord at intervals over and over. He refused to be interrupted in
this pursuit, and after an hour or so, I insisted on knowing what the
idea was. "I'm trying over this damned chord," said he, "to see whether
it still sounds superb after so many hearings." "Oh," I said tritely, "time
will surely tell whether the chord has lasting value." "The hell with
time!" Carl replied. "I'll give this chord the test of time right now. If I
find I still like it after trying it over several thousand times, it'll stand
the test of time, all right!"

Harry Partch was one of the mavericks. In 1930 at the age of 29 he burned everything he had written to that point, including an unfinished piano concerto, a string quartet, and a symphonic poem, in a pot-bellied iron stove in New Orleans - because he had had a vivid dream telling him "how hideously unsuited [the music he had been making] was to his needs." Partch had decided from his studies in acoustics that the 12-pitch scale of European music was an acoustic lie. Starting in that year, he invented his own scale of 43 tones to the octave and invented some two-dozen instruments to play it on. "I wasn't going to be straitjacketed by anyone," he would growl years later. "I was going to be completely free!" Ignoring the categories of European music, he made up his own ritualistic brand of music drama from his readings in ancient Greek music, his exposure to Yaqui Indian dances, his understanding of Japanese Noh plays, and his own irascible dramatic sense. More than perhaps anyone else who ever lived, he made up his own music from scratch, with such force of will that his ensemble still exists and the instruments are still played.

DocumentHarry Partch's world by Preston Wright

George Antheil was one of the mavericks. His piano recitals in the 1920s were full of such dissonant, shocking, ultramodern music that they sometimes sparked riots - a problem he dealt with by carrying a revolver in his coat and sometimes placing it on the piano as a warning while he performed. In 1923-25 he composed and premiered his most famous work, his Ballet Mecanique, which expressed, he said, the "anti-expressive, anti-romantic, coldly mechanistic aesthetic of the early twenties." A hymn to the machine, the work was scored for two pianos, player piano, three xylophones, drums, wood and steel airplane propellers, electric bells, siren, and other percussion. (He had originally wanted sixteen player pianos, but found that they could not be accurately synchronized. More recent performances of the work have succeeded in synchronizing the player pianos, using digital technology.) "The Ballet Mecanique," Antheil wrote, "is the first piece in the world to be conceived in one piece without interruption, like a solid shaft of steel."

Interactive Reconstructing Ballet Mécanique

Conlon Nancarrow was one of the mavericks. After fighting the fascists in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, he faced eventual harassment by the U.S. government for having been a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. So in 1940 he lit out for Mexico and took an apartment overlooking the Zocalo in Mexico City, taking with him Henry Cowell's book New Musical Resources. Nancarrow was interested in rhythmic complexity, and was having trouble getting performers to play his intricate rhythms. Cowell had suggested in his book that complex rhythms might be punched on player piano rolls, which, he said, "would give a real reason for writing music especially for player piano, such as music written for it at present does not seem to have."

Inspired by this suggestion, Nancarrow made a trip to New York in 1947 to buy a player piano, visit a player-piano roll factory, and find a machinist who could duplicate a player-piano-roll punching machine to his specifications. He returned to Mexico City with the player piano and roll punching machine, and, for the next 50 years, sat in his studio punching out the fastest and most rhythmically complex body of music the world has ever known.

DocumentOtherworldly Compositions for Player Piano: The Works of Conlon Nancarrow by Alan Baker

John Cage was perhaps the lead maverick of them all. He used turntables as a performance medium decades before DJ-ing became an art form. He formed a percussion orchestra when no one had ever heard of such a thing before. He amplified his throat and drank orange juice. He performed on an amplified cactus by plucking the needles. He set up light sensors so that the movements of dancers would trigger sounds. He wrote music of quiet, unchanging melody decades before the idea would return in minimalism, new age, and ambient music. In 1940, he was asked to write a score for a dance in a hall not large enough for his percussion orchestra. So he began putting screws, bolts, erasers, and weather stripping between the piano strings, creating, in effect, a miniature percussion orchestra known as the prepared piano. His most notorious gesture, though, was a 1952 composition called 4'33". For four and a half minutes, the performer sits quietly and makes no intentional sounds, as the audience listens to the sounds of the environment.

video 4'33 | audio Margaret Leng Tan talks about John Cage and 4'33
Margaret Leng Tan performs John Cage's classic piece 4'33 on her toy piano.
video DSL/Cable modem video 56k modem (12:37s) Margaret Leng Tan prepares the piano John Cage Style

Henry Brant is one of the mavericks. From the beginning he had a more sensitive ear for timbre than perhaps any other American composer, and he relished unusual instruments. His Music for a Five and Dime from 1932 is scored for clarinet, piano, and kitchen hardware. He began writing pieces for ten flutes or ten violins, and eventually began spatially separating the performers onstage so the different melodies could be heard independently. Moving on this way, he wrote Orbits for soprano, organ, and 80 trombones, and eventually began combining totally different types of ensembles in one piece. His Meteor Farm of 1982 is scored for orchestra, jazz band, Indonesian gamelan ensemble, African drummers, and Indian soloists.

Document An interview with Henry Brant by Alan Baker

Lou Harrison was one of the mavericks. Starting out as a composer of dissonant, modernist music, he became fascinated by musics of Asia, especially the Indonesia gamelan, or percussion orchestra. Learning the different tuning systems necessary, he became the first Western composer to write pieces for Javanese gamelan, particularly combining it with European instruments.

Document An interview with Lou Harrison by Alan Baker

Morton Feldman was one of the mavericks. In the 1950s, he would work in his father's clothing factory in the morning, compose in the afternoon, and hang out at night in the Cedar Bar in New York with John Cage and the abstract expressionist painters like Willem DeKooning, Philip Guston, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock. At a time when most music was bombastic and addicted to variety, Feldman wrote slow, monochromatic works marked "as soft as possible." In the 1970s his works began growing in length, to one hour, 100 minutes, four hours, and even - in the case of his Second String Quartet - six hours. Six hours of quiet, no less. No one would have predicted, in the 1970s, that by century's end this composer of uniformly quiet music would become the world's most influential and widely imitated composer.

Pauline Oliveros is one of the mavericks. She started out writing conventional music in European styles, but quickly veered into unusual territory, partly due to the fact that her primary instrument was the accordion. In 1957, along with Terry Riley and Loren Rush, Oliveros became one of the first composers to experiment with free improvisation. In 1961 she abandoned conventional notation for good in a choral work called Sound Patterns, in which the singers cluck their tongues, hiss white noise, and smack their lips in rhythm. She even wrote a piece for two accordions and mynah bird. Her most famous achievement, though, is that by singing in long, slow breaths with her lovely accordion playing, she invented the genre known as "meditation music."

Pauline Oliveros: Audio "2003 Interview" (60:15s) | Audio "1979 Interview" (41:49s)

La Monte Young is one of the mavericks. He started out in college, at Berkeley, writing 12-tone music in the approved academic style. Inspired by the ideas of John Cage, however, he became more interested in exploring sound for its own sake. To do this, he wrote a String Trio and simply slowed it down, so that its first chord lasted some four and a half minutes. He and his Berkeley comrade Terry Riley would give concerts in which they would do such things as drag an amplified gong down the street. One of Young's most famous early works, Composition 1960 #7, was simply the notes B and F-sharp with the direction, "To be held for a long time." This interest in slowed-down time eventually culminated in a six-hour piano work called The Well-Tuned Piano, a sprawling piano improvisation in a strange and totally unique tuning, with a Wagnerian wealth of themes and harmonic areas.

Document An interview with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela by Gabrielle Zuckerman

Meredith Monk is one of the mavericks. Starting out as a dancer, filmmaker, and composer, she has frequently so combined all those art forms that critics never know how to classify her. In one of her very first works, Juice of 1969, she broke down the barriers of performance attendance by spreading the work over three nights in different locations in Manhattan. The first night took place at the Guggenheim Museum, where she had 85 performers playing Jew's harps, threading up the Guggenheim's spiral staircase and surrounding the space. Monk has since formed his own voice and movement ensemble, who make operas and theater pieces using techniques of Balkan singing, Tibetan chanting, warbley American-Indian-style vibrato, nasal singing, nonsense syllables, and many of the strange voice tones children use in games.

Meredith Monk: Audio "Interview" (30:43s) | Audio "1997 Composers Voice" (29:00s)

Steve Reich is one of the mavericks. He studied with Luciano Berio at Juilliard, and although he was writing atonal music like everyone else at the time, he kept repeating the same pitches over and over. Finally, Berio said to him, "Steve, if you want to write tonal music, why don't you just write tonal music?" Reich did. He became interested in the patterns made by two identical tape loops going at slightly different speeds. When he applied the idea to standard instruments, in works like Piano Phase and Drumming, he invented a music that started a revolution, and a movement called "minimalism."

Document An interview with Steve Reich by Alan Baker

Frank Zappa was certainly a maverick. Fascinated by the music of Edgar Varèse when he was young, he nevertheless saw no place he could occupy in the stuffy world of classical music, and instead formed a rock band, The Mothers of Invention, who brought tremendous rhythmic and harmonic sophistication to rock music disguised as outrageous satire. Later in life, Zappa indeed wrote wildly programmatic pieces for orchestra, with titles like Mo and Herb's Vacation, The Girl in the Magnesium Dress, and Dupree's Paradise.

Diamanda Galás is a maverick. Trained as a classical pianist and singer, with an operatic voice of several octaves, she donned dark makeup and began using her voice for dark, expressionistic pieces for voice and electronics with titles like Wild Women with Steak Knives. When the AIDS epidemic first raged, however, she turned more directly political, and created a three-hour epic called The Masque of the Red Death as a massive protest. In it she protested the treatment of gays with lyrics like:

In Kentucky Harry buys a round of beer
To celebrate the death of Billy Smith, the queer,
Whose mother still must hide her face in fear.
Let's not chat about despair.

Mikel Rouse is a maverick. Coming from rural Missouri, he moved to New York, studied African rhythms and the mathematical composing techniques of Joseph Schillinger, and formed a rock group called Tirez Tirez. Eventually, though he turned toward opera. Taping and studying hundreds of hours of television talk shows, he wrote an opera in the form of a talk show, called Dennis Cleveland. The singers are disguised as guests in the audience, who rise and sing as Rouse comes up to each one with a microphone.

Mikel Rouse: Audio "Interview" (43:59s)

Independent, dissenters, nonconformists. A few, like Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow, have made music in almost total isolation; some, like Harry Partch and Steve Reich, have formed their own ensembles to play their unconventional music; many, like Meredith Monk and Carl Stone, have developed the ability to make their music all by themselves if necessary. And all of them have found the world of European concert music too narrow and full of rules and conventional expectations.

These composers do not fit neatly into American culture. They didn't intend to. They are not pop musicians. They are not classical musicians. They invent their own genres of music, their own methods of performance, sometimes even their own instruments. They bang on pianos, they retune their strings, they mix electric guitars with string quartets and jazz bands with Javanese gamelans, they sing nonsense syllables and howl like banshees, and they make music in several tempos at once. To the more sedate musicians of the European tradition, they sometimes seem crazy. But they are genuine artists, reacting to what they find and hear around them in this great melting pot of America, and using it to make art. They are serious about what they are doing, but they have fun doing it. They want to wake people up and teach them to appreciate the world around them. And they're not going to let anyone else tell them how to do it.

They are the mavericks.

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