Back to Nature: Tracing the History of an American Classical Tradition

Back to Nature: Tracing the History of an American Classical Tradition

A significant number of the seminal American composers have staked their artistic claims on some constructed paradigm of “naturalness”: Cage’s randomness, Oliveros’s breathing, Reich’s natural processes, Partch’s natural scale, Branca’s rock vernacular stripped down to its basic strum. Most natural of all: banging on the piano keyboard, so beloved of Ives, Cowell, Varèse, Young, Garland.

Written By

Kyle Gann

As prolegomena to answering this question, let’s turn to a telling sequence of events in mid-20th-century music that went unacknowledged until the last few years.

In 1917-1919, while studying with musicologist-composer Charles Seeger, the impressively precocious Henry Cowell wrote a book later published in 1930 under the title New Musical Resources. Cowell’s premise was that the methods previously applied to pitch, melody, and counterpoint could also be applied to rhythm and harmony. His material starting point was the harmonic series.

John Cage studied with Henry Cowell in the 1930s. His subsequent articles reveal many debts to Cowell’s book.

In 1952, Cage made his first trip to Darmstadt with the pianist David Tudor. The pair had an enormous and controversial impact on the group of composers there who had grouped around the young mavericks of serialism, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.

In 1955, Stockhausen wrote a groundbreaking (or so it was considered at the time) and influential article, “How Time Passes…” for the prestigious German periodical Die Reihe. In it, he outlines global procedures for applying to tempo and rhythm the types of structure that had previously been applied only to pitch.

In 1963, Boulez followed with his own book Penser la Musique Aujourd’hui, a systematic rethinking of the premises of music including new ways to structure rhythm, tempo, and harmony.

For much of the last 40 years, Stockhausen’s and Boulez’s treatises have been better known and more widely discussed than Cowell’s book, which has been out of print for most of its existence (from 1935 to 1969, and from the mid-1970s to 1996). The resemblances of Stockhausen’s and Boulez’s layout of ideas to Cowell’s, however, are strikingly coincidental to anyone willing to look at them.

Perhaps Stockhausen and Boulez, working out parameters for a new conceptualization of music, simply stumbled across the same lines of thought Cowell had earlier. But in issue V of Die Reihe in 1959, Darmstadt composer Mauricio Kagel – one of the more open-minded members of the Boulez-Stockhausen circle – highly praised New Musical Resources, calling it “still relevant forty years after it was written,” and alleging that “even today, Cowell’s reasoning can be reconciled with the newest problems of serial music.” He further promised a full review of the book in an upcoming Die Reihe article. That article never appeared.

Stockhausen was editor of Die Reihe. Is it possible, as British musicologist David Nicholls has eloquently suggested,that he didn’t want readers to learn that some of his most central ideas had been anticipated by, perhaps even stolen from, an American predecessor? We are further left with the conundrum that Americans influenced by what was going on in Darmstadt in the ’50s and ’60s, such as Elliott Carter, were actually receiving a reflected influence of ideas that had come from Americans, Cowell and Cage. Aside from Kagel, not a single European of the period hinted at a debt to Cowell, nor even gave him credit for anticipating many of serialism’s reconfigurations of musical structure.

Could anything speak more eloquently of the unfair handicaps the American tradition has struggled under than that, once it scored its first big impact on the development of European music, that impact was fed back to us as the latest thing from Europe?

From Back to Nature: Tracing the History of an American Classical Tradition
By Kyle Gann
© 2002 NewMusicBox