In the late 19th century, every nation had a particular sonic imprint. French music sounded a certain way, German music sounded another way, and so on for Italian, Czech, and English music. American composers had to create a national music from scratch, and found that to do so they needed to free themselves from the strictures of European music taught in school.
Late 19th century American composers labored under three contradictory pressures:
This debilitating trio of pressures created the fault lines along which American music is still divided today, with each composer deciding which mandate to follow most closely. One can follow this apparently permanent divide from the academics versus the homegrown composers of the 19th century to the New Romanticists versus the art-rockers and post-minimalists of the 1980s.
Show #3: "Oh, To Be Popular!"
As the 1920s celebrated the birth of the machine age, American composers were surprised to find that Europe was looking to them as the key to the future of music. There was so much money floating around that commissions were numerous, and composers tried to outdo each other in modernist innovations. The age was summed up by George Antheil's "Ballet Mecanique," written "like a solid shaft of steel," with its worship of the machine and its decadent excess of airplane propellers and 16 player pianos.
In this heady milieu, composers were caught completely off guard by the Depression. A turn toward leftist politics began to demand simple music for the proletariat. The most public and successful turnaround came from Aaron Copland, who simplified his style away from dissonance and jazz rhythms toward quotation of folk song; "I wanted to see if I couldn't say what I had to say," he wrote later, "in the simplest possible terms." Quotation of folk songs became de rigueur in the 1930's, brought to a populist climax in Virgil Thomson's works such as "The River" and "The Plow that Broke the Plains."
Separate as their audiences may seem, jazz and classical musicians have always kept an ear on each other and learned from each other. Charles Ives worked ragtime into his piano music in the 1890's; Scott Joplin, the king of ragtime, wrote an opera in 1911; "Duke" Ellington learned from the orchestration of Debussy and Ravel.
In the 1920's, jazz seemed like the necessary pedigree composers needed to make their music seem authentically American, and it does seem at times that a jazz sense of rhythm is our primary national musical distinction.
Inspired by erstwhile jazz figures like Rosco Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams, the free improvisation of the 1980's was the most thoroughgoing of many attempts to fuse two musical streams. For most of that decade, jazz and avant-garde music were nearly indistinguishable.
Show #5: If You Build It, They Will Come
American composers have enjoyed using whatever materials they have at hand to make music, and America, as a highly industrial country, has plenty of trash to recycle into musical instruments.
Harry Partch led this movement as a pioneer of invention - he invented his own instruments, his own tuning, and his own kind of theater. Ben Johnston, working with Partch, invented his own notation. Cage invented the prepared piano.
The effect of these inventions is to render the composers self-sufficient and free from institutions, establishing the maverick image.
Show #6: West Meets East
Henry Cowell commented that, as a child growing up in San Francisco, he heard Chinese opera far more than he heard European classical music. Cowell was the first to insist that Asian and African music are every bit as much a part of the American heritage as European music.
Asian and African music offered many properties that threw the limitations of European music into sharp relief. African drumming revealed a wealth of rhythmic complexity that went far beyond simple meters based on 2, 3, 4, and 6. Indian music exposed composers like Lou Harrison and Ben Johnston to subtleties of tuning that Europe had avoided for centuries. For many, many composers from Colin McPhee on, Balinese and Javanese music opened up a world of nested melodic structures and new ways to compose music as highly detailed and yet static and unmoving, as opposed to the more linear and narrative forms of Europe.
For many American composers, the musics of Bali, Japan, China, and India came as revelations, helping them move away from European aesthetics. Slowly, this Asian influence crept through American music, discrediting European music's insistence on relentless forward motion, and establishing the idea that music could very profitably spin in one place, pointing the way toward minimalism.
Show #7: If Jackson Pollock Wrote Music
Contact with the abstract expressionist painters after World War II inspired many American composers to look for a new American language in chaos, complexity, and freedom.
For some composers, like the so-called "New York School" (Cage, Brown, Feldman, Wolff), and also for the burgeoning Free Jazz movement, the emphasis was on freedom, chance, improvisation. For others, the emphasis was on structure and scientific models. But both arrived at a chaotic musical energy that seemed to be the sonic analogue of a Jackson Pollock painting.
Show #8: To Repeat or Not to Repeat, That Is the Question
The tremendous influx of European refugee musicians during World War II gave American music an increasingly European cast. Once again, American composers had to break away, and to do so now required bold strokes.
Starting out from a 12-tone standpoint, La Monte Young (with Cage's influence) rediscovered sound simply by tremendously slowing down his music until it was nothing but drones. From this point, minimalism developed as an active bicoastal movement.
By the mid-1970s, the "Fabulous Four" of minimalism had established themselves: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass (John Adams, in his early work, would be the "Fifth Minimalist"). And for mainstream audiences, Reich and Glass would become the stars of late 20th century music.
Although partly inspired by "creative misreading" of Eastern philosophies, the resulting movement, Minimalism, was a uniquely American product, one that would become the most important musical movement of the late 20th century. In important ways it was a violent swing of the pendulum away from the preceding era. By the late 1950's, music had become so full of complexity and relentless diversity that simple repetition sounded like a breath of fresh air, and seemed like the only avenue that hadn't been explored.
Show #9:"The Do-It-Yourself Composer"
Ignored by the concert music establishment, many maverick composers have taken matters into their own hands, refusing to be dependent on institutions.
Inspired by composers like Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote all his music for player piano, and Partch, who built his own instruments and trained his own ensemble, a legion of self-sufficient composers arises in the 1960's, including singers like Meredith Monk who can perform her music solo; performers like Reich and Glass who form and maintain their own ensembles; and technicians like Mikel Rouse and Charles Amirkhanian who create their own music from electronic equipment they have at home.
As the success of this music spreads, many of these composers have now been asked to write for orchestras and other ensembles, but the ability to become self-sufficient helped their music survive in the lean years.
The orchestra is a European medium if there ever was one - European through and through, grown from the very social forms of European society.
Keeping the orchestra alive has always been a troublesome enterprise, and today, orchestras are folding every month. Many American composers have written for orchestra, but fewer and fewer these days, and in particular, those who consider themselves mavericks often avoid the genre altogether.
But still, the tonality which crept back into "new" music with minimalism has lead to a both a stylistic pluralism and a new romanticism, which fit the resources of the orchestra well.
Show #11: From Moog to Mark II to MIDI to Max
When commercial recording tape became available in 1947, America got in, for the first time, on the ground floor of a musical technology. Not in this field would American composers have to follow Europe - the two continents, plus Japan developed the technologies and the artistic responses to it in tandem.
Electronics were the perfect musical medium for the eccentric composer who wanted to hide away in his studio, freed from the necessity of ingratiating oneself with chamber music groups and orchestra conductors. And every new technology that came along - the splicing block, the tape loop, the oscillator, MIDI, the sampler, and ultimately the home computer - seemed to bring an entire new musical movement in its wake.
For decades, electronic music was associated with weird, spacey effects and inhuman sounds, but digital technology has completely changed the game.
Show #12: Is It Music If Nobody Hears It?
Every kind of music has its audience. So what happens when you create a new music - and there's no audience for it?
America's maverick composers have worked at creating a music that combines the well-thought-out structure of classical music with the physical and emotional energy of pop, but that avoids the sterile formalism of one and the commercial vapidity of the other. But once that music is made, how do you seduce audiences away from classical and pop music?
Accessibility was a 1980's buzzword, admired by marketers, abhorred by academicians, but really a deeply American concept, since we have uniquely had the task of building up a musical culture in a self-conscious age. But does music gain quality from striving for accessibility? Does it gain audience members?
Show #13: Between Rock and a Hard Place
Since Schubert and Beethoven quoted 18th century Austrian folk tunes, composers have always made their music at least partly from the vernacular music they hear around them. For the last few decades, the prevailing vernacular music in America has been rock, or pop, and it would be strange if composers in other genres hadn't begun using rock materials.
The prejudice against rock among composers began to fade in the late 1970's. In 1979, Rhys Chatham, music curator of New York's premiere avant-garde performance space, The Kitchen, set a precedent by booking experimental rock groups. Soon art rock groups started to be taken seriously as experimental music. Chatham himself began writing minimalist pieces for electric guitars. Glenn Branca wrote a series of symphonies scored for electric guitars with a drummer. And then, in 1981, an obscure performance artist named Laurie Anderson unexpectedly hit number two on the pop charts in Great Britain with "O Superman."
Today we have operas with backbeats, symphonies for electric guitars, and pop songs made with electronic sampling of "serious" music. You've got to give maverick composers credit for making music with devices that the mass of pop music fans will recognize. Are audiences ready for pop music that isn't just three-minutes long?
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