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

What can we call the tradition? Lately it has most often been called the American experimental tradition, though many composers object to the word “experimental.” In New York City and other urban centers it is called “Downtown” music, as opposed to “Uptown” music, which is Europe-centered: an accident of Manhattan geography and performance-space politics. I myself prefer to call it simply the American classical tradition – as opposed to the European classical tradition, Indian classical, Japanese classical, or any other.

Lately, due to the visibility of Michael Tilson Thomas‘s “American Mavericks” festival in San Francisco, it has become common to speak of artists in this tradition as the “maverick” composers. According to my Merriam-Webster dictionary, a maverick is “1. an unbranded range animal,” and, “2. an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party.” Unless there’s something about this “unbranded range animal” idea that’s escaped me, the idea is apparently that each of these composers is out there on his or her own, lonely by choice, independent, making up their own rules as they go along, presumably wearing faded jeans and smoking Philip Morris cigarettes as they compose.

But actually, as we’ve seen, the “experimental” American composer is typically a rather social animal, going to concerts, working with other musicians and composers, reading books by Cowell and Partch and Cage, working further out along lines laid down by previous composers. The American classical scene isn’t made up of loners at all, but is really a close-knit society and continuous tradition. But it is a marginalized tradition, and the “maverick” advocates, unwilling or unable to alter the fact of marginalization, attempt to turn it from a negative into a positive by finding a macho, popularly attractive image explaining away the marginalization as something these composers actively pursue. Having one’s marginalization viewed positively is OK, I guess, but personally I’d rather not be marginalized at all.

The problem is that when a major American new-music event happens, such as John Cage’s death or the American Mavericks festival, then some critic like Ed Rothstein or Richard Taruskin, writing an obituary or review, suddenly looks at these American composers and accuses them of fraud: Why, they’re not mavericks at all, they’re influenced by lots of people and ideas, they all support each other. And the critics are right – except that those composers never claimed to be lonely individualists. For a composer who wants his or her work played and supported, having an attractively macho spin put on one’s marginalization does not ease the pain and inconvenience of marginalization, and even creates further perception problems. As mavericks, each of these composers becomes easy to set aside as peculiar. It is as members of a tradition that they become too important to ignore.

Why is it important to perceive a tradition at all? To protect each of the composers involved from being seen as technically deficient against the background of a normative European tradition. The American classical tradition makes its own demands, against which recent European composers themselves seem deficient in originality, clarity, and authenticity. It is unfair to criticize a man who’s made a delicious omelette for having failed to
make a cherry pie instead, and it is necessary to understand the tradition to know what American composers are trying to do and when they’ve succeeded.

What demands does American classical music make?

Originality, individuality, and authenticity above all. Rhythmic sophistication, too, usually; ever since Cowell and Cage, large-scale structure has tended to rely on rhythm, rather than on harmony as in European music. Text is rarely sung in the conventional European manner, but is instead spoken, sublimated into electronics, intoned in rhythm, crooned in a lighter folk song style. The tradition is nearly always marked by an eclectic approach to different cultures and a willingness to import devices from Indian music (Young, Glass, Terry Riley), Javanese (Giteck, Lou Harrison), African (Reich, Rouse), Japanese (Vierk), American Indian (Garland, Kitzke), jazz, and – yes, even European music.

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