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

To suggest that Henry Cowell had an impact, however indirect, on late-20th-century European music, is still not to prove that there is a specifically American tradition. To do that, we need to trace the relationship of New Musical Resources to composers back home.

In 1927, Cowell received from a friend a copy of Charles Ives‘s Concord Sonata, and realized that Ives had anticipated, by several years, the tone clusters and rhythmic complexities Cowell had outlined in his book. Though Cowell had earlier based his reputation on his invention of tone clusters, he graciously ceded precedence to Ives ever afterward.

The composer who most applied the lessons of New Musical Resources was Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997), who (following Cowell’s offhand suggestion) bought a player piano to make possible the rhythmic complexities Cowell had only dreamed of. The effects Nancarrow pioneered – different tempos at once, gradual acceleration, phase-shifting of different phrase-lengths and ostinatos – were all forecast in Cowell’s book. To the end of his life, diagrams taken from New Musical Resourceshung on the walls of Nancarrow’s Mexico City studio.

Harry Partch (1902-1974) read Cowell as well, but determined to go further than Cowell in accurately working with intervals smaller than European music had allowed. Seeing Cowell’s ideas through to their logical ends required him to invent a 43-pitch-to-the-octave scale and build special instruments to play it.

The rhythmic structures that John Cage developed in the 1940s were at least partly inspired by Cowell’s arithmetical divisions of rhythmic form.

From the composers already mentioned, one could easily trace a family tree to every American composer of the “eccentric” or “experimental” persuasion. La Monte Young (b. 1935) was vastly impressed by Cage at Darmstadt; without Cage’s silent piece 4’33” as an example, it is difficult to imagine Young coming up with his seminal work Composition #7 1960 (the pitches B and F# “to be held for a long time”). Pauline Oliveros‘s accordion meditation and group improvisations replace the silence of 4’33” with the human breath as a rhythmic archetype. The text-operas of Robert Ashley use an open rhythmic structure reminiscent of Cage’s rhythmic forms in Sonatas and Interludes and other works of the 1940s.

The more audience-friendly forms of minimalism associated with Reich and Glass have not been much associated with the Cowell school of experimentalism, but in fact, Reich’s tape loop phasing in Come Out fits hand-in-glove with Cowell’s use of rhythmic loops. The free rhythms of Morton Feldman (1926-1987) owe a debt to Cage, and he saw himself as belonging to an American “amateur” tradition along with Ives and Cowell. “An amateur,” Feldman wrote, “is someone who doesn’t force his ideas down your throat.”

In the late 1970s Rhys Chatham (b. 1953) and Glenn Branca (b. 1949) began using the materials of rock to write massive works for multiple electric guitars; Chatham had been Young’s piano tuner, Branca calls himself a minimalist to this day, and both went heavily into experiments with alternate tunings
. John Luther Adams (b. 1953) was excited in college by New Musical Resources; to this day his major works such as Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing are marked by Cowellian cross-rhythms. Mikel Rouse (b. 1957) studied Schillinger technique, also an interest of Cowell’s with many overlaps, and uses in his operas (Failing Kansas, Dennis Cleveland) the kinds of large-scale cross-rhythms Cowell suggested. My own rhythmic language is heavily indebted to Cowell and Nancarrow, my microtonal pitch language to Partch and his protege Ben Johnston.

The pedigree could be continued indefinitely: James Tenney, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, Janice Giteck, William Duckworth, David Rosenboom, and Richard Teitelbaum among the older generation, Michael Gordon, Eve Beglarian, David First, Lois V Vierk, Peter Garland, Larry Polansky, Bernadette Speach, Henry Gwiazda, Nic Collins, Joshua Fried, Ron Kuivila, and Jerome Kitzke in the younger. When interviewed, all of these people trace their musical lineage back through a line that includes at least some of the following names: Ives, Cage, Feldman, Nancarrow, Partch, Varèse, Young, Oliveros. That these composers perceive themselves as part of a tradition cannot be doubted. Nor can it be denied, except for two reasons: 1. ignorance, and 2. a desire to keep this tradition hidden from public view.

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