Category: Analysis

The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie: How Immigration and Emigration have Shaped American Music


Sid Whelan
Photo by MJ Sharpe

What is American music? If, in answering that question, we start by discussing roots music (in my opinion a more appropriate term in the context of American culture than “folk” or ‘traditional”) such as bluegrass, country, gospel, blues, zydeco and rockabilly, and then move on to pop and popular art music forms from hip-hop to jazz, from rock to R&B, from bubblegum to Broadway, the answer is not too controversial. The foreign elements of those styles and genres, and the ways in which those elements changed and became American, are well-documented and not overly disputed.

However, when we come to foreign musical forms played more or less intact in immigrant communities, such as klezmer in Crown Heights and Skokie, polka in Bethlehem and San Antonio, son Cubano in Miami and Cleveland, or bachata and merengue in Washington Heights and Adams Morgan, or when we speak of American composers consciously studying and emulating the concert music of Europe — like Copland studying in Paris with Boulanger — or European composers settling in the United States and reshaping American aesthetics — like Max Steiner or Schoenberg (both in Los Angeles!) — then the answer to “what is American music?” becomes far more difficult to suss.

The melting pot metaphor, which most American children are given in grammar school to help us understand the cultural impact of five centuries of continuous, pluralistic, multi-national immigration into North America, is very useful when seeking to understand just what American music is. But as all good cooks know, the issue of when a particular ingredient is added to the pot makes all the difference in the world, for garlic stewed two hours is a very different experience from garlic sauteed for two minutes. In musical terms, for instance, Jerry Garcia’s California/Mexican heritage is inaudible in the Grateful Dead’s music though that heritage is clearly visible in the band’s name and iconography. Contrast that with Latin musicians whose heritage is far more immediate, from Tania León, Robert X. Rodriguez, and Miguel del Aguila to Arturo Sandoval, Flaco Jimenez and Carlos Santana, or the recent American successes of Chinese composers like Tan Dun and Chen Yi, and you’ll understand exactly what I’m getting at.

Beyond the issue of when ingredients were added to the pot, it is crucial to acknowledge the central flaw in the melting pot analogy: food ingredients are inanimate and lack free will, obviously unlike the people who form America’s cultural gumbo. Since free will is central to being American, or even being a foreigner in America, this omission is crucial. What happens when an ingredient, in the form of a community or an individual musician, resists melting, or assimilating? What happens when a composer favors the influence of her heritage over the influence of her contemporary surroundings? When does an immigrant composer become an American composer — the minute he pens his first note on this soil, or is it a gradual process which comes to fruition much later on? What are the differences between composers who resist the impact of American culture and those who embrace and work with it? What happens when African musicians settle in America and perform mostly for audiences comprised largely of people from other ethnic groups? What happens when a composer like Dvorak or Esa-Pekka Salonen comes from abroad to listen, learn, perform and compose here only to go home again? What happens when an American composer, who lives a completely American lifestyle, reaches back many generations and single-mindedly pursues the musical legacy of his long dead ancestors — a legacy which was not handed down but has to be retraced, researched and re-created? What happens when an American composer emigrates and works in a country and culture which does not believe in assimilation? (Almost no Old World societies accept it.)

American musical history is a story of immigrants bringing their sounds and staying here to interact with musicians of other cultural backgrounds. It is a story of assimilated American natives who, in search of some cultural specificity in the general maze of American culture, pursued the musical legacy of their long-dead forbears. It is a story of journeymen and women who worked here, had an impact on us and were impacted upon by us, but then left.

 

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Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms: Can American Music Be Found at American Music Festivals?



Mic Holwin
photo by Lost In Brooklyn Studio

Music festivals in America take on added pleasure in the summer, when a concertgoer can claim a spot on the lawn surrounding a stage, spread out a quilt handed down from an aunt in Pennsylvania, uncork a bottle of California Zinfandel, slice some Vermont Cheddar and Wisconsin Blue, lay back and listen to the sounds of…long-dead European composers.

Something doesn’t fit in this American portrait. Since this country has more festivals than you can shake a baton at, it would follow that American music would be on them, right up there with the Mozart, Beethoven and Dvorák. But what is the reality? Can American contemporary music — or any contemporary music for that matter-be found at American music festivals?

Surprisingly, yes. But you have to look.

The treatment of American and contemporary music at festivals is as diverse as the wide range of topography in America where that quilt might be spread — at the edge of a maple and beech forest in the Berkshires (Tanglewood), beneath the soaring majesty of the Rocky Mountains (Aspen, Grand Teton), or on the dry grass of a high desert chapparal (Ojai). Some festivals are dedicated to it (Bang On A Can). Some allot a portion of time from the festival — a week or a few concerts-to it (Bowdoin, Lincoln Center Festival). Some program contemporary composers right along with the Shostakovich and Bach (Spoleto, Santa Fe). Some wedge it in more surreptitiously (Chamber Music Northwest, Ravinia). And some try to ignore it completely (Interlochen, Newport). A sampling of American summer festivals from the east coast to the west yields a variety of approaches.

Festivals that program contemporary American music fall into two camps: those that carve out a “contemporary” week or so, thereby creating a mini-festival within the festival to attract contemporary music afficionados (and in effect post warning signs to those wearing “If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it” T-shirts) and those that sprinkle in new American and international music amongst the more traditional European works, treating a Danielpour string quartet no differently than a Mendelssohn piano trio.

Some of these festivals have already taken place for this summer; some are happening right now. So if you haven’t already visited one of them, what are you doing sitting in front of a computer terminal reading this?

The Festivals:

  1. Aspen Music Festival
  2. Bowdoin Summer Music Festival
  3. Chamber Music Northwest
  4. Grand Teton Music Festival
  5. Interlochen Arts Festival
  6. Lincoln Center Festival
  7. Newport Music Festival
  8. https://newmusicusa.org/nmbx/looking-for-red-white-and-blue-between-bach-beethoven-and-brahms-can-american-music-be-found-at-american-music-festivals/9/” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>Ojai Music Festival
  9. Ravinia Festival
  10. Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
  11. Spoleto Festival USA
  12. Tanglewood

Off the Record! A Hyper-History of American Independent New Music Record Labels



Steve Smith
photo by Andrew Kochera

New music has always had a tough time finding a home to call its own. Faced with a lack of performances by mainstream classical performing groups, as we learned here last month, many composers and other devotees of the avant-garde took it upon themselves to found their own ensembles to promulgate their own music and that of their peers.

Small wonder, then, that the same should hold true in the world of new music on records. Faced with balancing the budgets in an ever more demanding marketplace, major labels have historically stayed far away from the new, instead offering up recording after recording of the tried and true warhorses that have been presented since the dawn of the recording industry. As in the example of the live performance arena, where the most popular and least challenging music is programmed to keep the subscribers placated and happy, the recording industry has frequently chosen the path of least resistance, recording popular classics that moved records off shelves in stores and into homes.

It’s a flawed model, to be sure, and in recent years the classical recording industry has felt an upheaval as the tried and true has begun to fail. Suddenly one more recording of The Four Seasons or the Beethoven Fifth Symphony is not moving the numbers of units demanded by the corporate owners of the major labels. Small wonder that the classical recording industry is in a crisis of sorts. And, from time to time, new music is briefly seen as a possible alternative at the majors. A label such as Catalyst or Point Music will spin off from a major such as RCA or Philips, enjoy a brief period of vogue, and then fade away into insignificance or even obsolescence, when new music, despite a few flash-in-the-pan success stories (such as Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 on Nonesuch), is revealed not to be the key to garnering a larger market share for classical music.

It’s a hard, unpleasant and unpopular pill to swallow: new music generally does not sell in major label figures, and it is the rare major label (Columbia Masterworks under Goddard Lieberson, Nonesuch under Teresa Stearne) that is actually prepared to deal with avant-garde music in a knowledgeable and thoughtful manner. But it would seem to be a matter of simple logic… it always takes time for a vanguard artform to earn the appreciation of a larger audience. The dilemma in which new music finds itself, then, is how to viably record contemporary works for posterity and for the small but enthusiastic audience that exists here and now.

Enter the indies. With lower overhead and not beholden to unsympathetic corporate owners, the independent record label is the natural home for new music. What’s more, virtually every independant label in the business of recording contemporary music has come into the business for one reason only: the founder or founders of the label sincerely appreciate and love new music, and want to play a role in its promotion and ultimately its success.

That said, although there are perhaps notable commonalities, no two labels share exactly the same story. Many of them are founded by composers and performers themselves, including Bridge, Capstone, Avant and Tzadik, innova, North/South and even the venerable CRI. Others, like Lovely Music and Monroe Street, were formed by people who are very closely connected to a whole group of experimental composers and performers. In a few cases, such as that of O.O. Discs, the products of the label are seen not merely as adjuncts to live performances but as new artforms in and of themselves. Some labels, such as New Albion, Mode and Organ of Corti, were founded by new music enthusiasts previously not directly involved in the recording industry. In the case of New World Records, what started out as an overly enthusiastic one-time series of 100 albums turned into an ongoing enterprise now in its third decade. Some labels, on the other hand, like Einstein, Pogus and Starkland, release so few recordings that their very existence runs counter to the machinations of the record business. Still others, such as Albany Records, Newport and Koch International Classics, include new music as just one facet among its many activities.

But ultimately, what unites all of the labels profiled in this issue of NewMusicBox, as well as the countless others not included here for reasons of space and time, is that for every one of them, the presentation of new music on record is a labor of love that more than repays the difficulties and hardships entailed in doing so.

Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles



Ken Smith
photo by Melissa Richard

For a composer, the urge to assume creative control in your own musical matters is as American as…well, Aaron Copland. But whether your frame of reference is literally the Copland-Sessions Concerts of Contemporary Music, a four-season project from 1929-1932 where American composers first took charge of bringing their music to the public, or the broader history of that tradition stretching back to Bach and Beethoven, the very breadth of composer-led or -affiliated ensembles is American to the core.

Since colleges and conservatories are the easiest places for composers and performers to interact, it’s no surprise that ensembles that met there (like Musicians Accord, eighth blackbird and the California EAR Unit) often continue the association after graduation. The members of other more experimentally-oriented groups, like Essential Music, Newband, or the American Festival of Microtonal Music, have found each other far from the halls of academe.

Once embarking on this mission, ensembles have a choice in what they perform. They can largely support a certain compositional school (The Group for Contemporary Music) or geographic location (Chicago Composers Consortium, Dinosaur Annex), or even a specific composer (Fred Ho’s Afro-Asian Music Ensemble), while other groups purposely break such categories (North/South Consonance and Composers Concordance). Some groups that originally formed around a single composer (like the Paul Dresher Ensemble) are now actively commissioning a variety of composers.

While the instrumentational resources of many of these groups is frequently what determines the kinds of pieces composers can write for them, some groups have been formed specifically to suit the whims of the composers (Music for Homemade Instruments, Bang On A Can All-Stars) But there are still composers who have found such standard ensembles like the string quartet to be their perfect medium for self-expression although their own conception of the genre has made them form their own groups (Soldier String Quartet, Turtle Island String Quartet).

The sound of much American concert music is largely shaped by the fact that composers are writing for specific ensembles. It is certainly easier for a composer to get a work performed by a small ensemble of his or her own creation than by an orchestra where the odds are generally stacked against both living composers and Americans. In fact, the American Composers Orchestra was created to try to remedy this and show that you can still have enormous musical diversity even if you focus exclusively on 20th century American music.

There is always the danger of being pigeon-holed in a new music ghetto. Groups like Sequitur and the Common Sense Composers Collective add to their own tradition trappings and inspirations from theater and dance. The Da Capo Chamber Players used to perform new works more than once in an evening to give audiences a greater familiarity with the music. They now frequently combine new pieces with works from the standard repertoire on their programs.

Usually, at some point, even the newest music falls comfortably on the continuum, as conductors such as Parnassus‘s Anthony Korf and Present Music‘s Kevin Stalheim have found. Music never exists in a vacuum, and at some point, even our most radical views and expressions of the present come to terms with the past. After all, what Copland began is now 70 years old.

The Ensembles