Category: Articles

The Orchestra in Contemporary American Musical Life

Frank J. Oteri, Editor and Publisher
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

Is the orchestra a viable contemporary American institution? That’s a question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds both within and outside the orchestral music community as well as within the new music community which all too frequently has been treated like an opposition political party.

There are two schools of thought about the function that the orchestra should serve in a community. One camp contends that the orchestra is a sonic museum that preserves the timeless classics of our musical heritage, presenting them again and again in a live setting so new audiences can discover them and that audiences already familiar with them can gain new insights with each rehearing. The other camp contends that the orchestra must take a pro-active role in our society, performing and commissioning new works, doing extensive community outreach and being at the cutting edge of new technologies. Opponents of the museum approach say the orchestra is outmoded and irrelevant to contemporary society, a throwback to the old boy system, a torchbearer of “Dead White European Male” culture to the exclusion of the achievements of all other people. Opponents of the pro-active model contend that orchestras should do what they do best, which is to play great music, and might rightly point to such horrific models as the expunging of “degenerate art” in Nazi regime’s rewriting of the canon or the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China as proof that dictating artistic choices based on so-called “politically correct” grounds yields a tepidly satisfying aesthetic experience at best.

Much can be gained by looking at both sides of this argument and seeing how to preserve the great legacy of orchestral music of the past while at the same time building a new and vibrant orchestral experience which may indeed be tomorrow’s great legacy. We invited you to take a stand in this great debate in our interactive forum

This month, we have chosen to enter the NewMusicBoxing ring with four members of the staff of the Philadelphia Orchestra: artistic administrator Simon Woods, president Joseph H. Kluger, marketing director Ed Cambron and assistant communications director Brian Atwood. The Philadelphia Orchestra, considered by most music aficionados to be one of our greatest orchestras but rarely perceived of as a maverick in the orchestral music community, has taken an unusual step for their 1999-2000 season. Every work played in a subscription concert this season was composed in the 20th century. And while contemporary music fans may balk at a “20th century” season filled with Ravel and Rachmaninoff but missing Carter and Messiaen, it’s a more-than-welcome change of pace from the bottomless sea of Basically Beethoven, Totally Tchaikovsky or Masochistically Mozart. Andrew Druckenbrod’s hyper-history surveys the commissioning and premiering legacies of 18 additional American orchestras in an attempt to determine how American and contemporary contemporary American orchestras actually are. We have supplemented both the Philadelphia Orchestra interview and the orchestral hyper-history with a variety of documents ranging from press releases to lists of commissions and premieres spanning the entire century to try to paint as complete a picture as we possibly can. In fact, we have also supplemented our leading news story this month — an announcement of two premieres by the New York Philharmonic financed by the Walt Disney Company — with the complete transcript of the press conference led by Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

We decided to contrast this serious probing by having a little fun with people’s memories of premieres. We’ve asked composers John Corigliano and David Del Tredici, flutist Laurel Ann Maurer, and former music critic Tim Page to tell us their best and worst memories of premieres from the varying viewpoints of composer, performer and audience member. Unfortunately, orchestral music was not the focus of a large percent of either our listings of concerts featuring American repertoire or our online exploration center for new recordings of American music. But there are many fascinating items to be found there nonetheless.

We hope that through presenting all this material we can inspire further dialog and help energize the playing field of American orchestras, a community which, in size and geographic distribution, is on par with America’s other great team sports and which, if the conditions are right, can create an evening as memorable as a shut-out game in a World Series!

How American Are American Orchestras?

Andrew J. Druckenbrod
photo by Allison Schlesinger

The twentieth century will be viewed as a time in which composers expanded the range and possibilities of musical language and sound. But also as a period that saw a rift develop between new and old music, especially in the U.S. Here, orchestras delved into the pantheon of dead composers to satisfy their audiences’ affinity for past music. All during a time when more U.S. composers than ever before make at least a partial living from writing music.

So as we head out of this wild ride of a century, it’s as good a time as ever to take a closer look at to what level orchestras are supporting new, especially American music. Specifically gauging how many works they commission, since the ultimate support for a composer is money in the pocket to allow for the space and means to write.

We scanned 20 orchestras to check out their record for commissioning works over the last 30 years. The sampling isn’t scientific, but it is diverse. The so called “big five” are all here, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony. As are several other large-budget organizations from around the country: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

We also included four smaller-budget orchestras who have a special commitment to new music — the Women’s Philharmonic, the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the Louisville Orchestra, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic — as well as two smaller-sized groups: the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Cleveland Chamber Symphony. Finally, there’s an examination of two youth/student organizations, the Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra and the Etowah Youth Orchestra. The American Composers Orchestra, the only American orchestra whose mandate is exclusively the performance of music by American composers, has already been profiled in the first issue of NewMusicBox as the ultimate composer-led new music ensemble. Some of the orchestras were chosen for their exemplary record in supporting new music, while others were chosen for their general status in the musical community or their geographical location.

One observation from the survey is that bigger is not always better. That is, the bigger budgets of some orchestras do not guarantee a better track record for supporting new music. Ensembles such as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony rival the New York Philharmonic and its $35 million annual budget in commissioning and both outpace the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Louisville Orchestra has a commissioning record that doubles or triples that of orchestras with double and triple its annual operating expenses. And the Cleveland Chamber Symphony runs circles around that other ensemble by the lake, the Cleveland Orchestra.

Partly because of artistic and cultural inertia and partly because the larger orchestras spend money to secure costly guest performers and conductors and build facilities (such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new ECHO public music learning center), they tend to program a bit more conservatively. The smaller-budgeted ensembles often have the opportunity to experiment more, and several do. Commissioning fees are high, but they are high to all orchestras. Some just make it more of a priority.

The survey ultimately indicated, however, that commissioning has been on the upswing in the last three decades. Most of the orchestras examined have a higher percentage of commissions since 1970 than before (many a substantial increase). Also, over 80 percent of these new commissions have been for U.S. composers, a healthy mark by any standard. It would appear, then, that the ship is pointed in the right direction as we move into the next century. A balance is beginning to form between the present and programming, between living composers and living audiences.

The Orchestras:

  1. Albany Symphony Orchestra
  2. American Composers Orchestra
  3. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
  4. Boston Symphony Orchestra
  5. Brooklyn Philharmonic
  6. Chicago Symphony
  7. Cleveland Chamber Symphony
  8. Cleveland Orchestra
  9. Dallas Symphony
  10. Etowah Youth Orchestra
  11. Los Angeles Philharmonic
  12. Louisville Orchestra
  13. Minnesota Orchestra
  14. Manhattan School Of Music Symphony Orchestra
  15. New York Philharmonic
  16. Philadelphia Orchestra
  17. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
  18. San Francisco Symphony
  19. St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
  20. Women’s Philharmonic

Describe your best and worst memories of premiere performances John Corigliano, Composer

John Corigliano
Photo by Julian Kreeger courtesy G. Schirmer

The best premiere I can remember is that of my CLARINET CONCERTO with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic and Stanley Drucker as the soloist. My father, who died in 1975 — two years before the premiere — was the concertmaster of the Philharmonic, and they had never played a piece of mine, so the concert had a very special meaning to me. It was a blazing performance — one a composer usually only dreams about.

My worst premiere was in the 1960’s when a mezzo-soprano, who had won the prestigious JOY OF SINGING award, gave the first performance of THE CLOISTERS, a cycle of four songs with text by William M. Hoffman.

The problem was that the singer didn’t want to use the music (which was admirable), but also didn’t know the songs (which wasn’t). The result was a Gertrude Stein text set to a John Cage score. The New York Times loved it. I’ve always wondered what they would have thought of the piece we actually wrote.”

Describe your best and worst memories of premiere performances Tim Page, Former Classical Music Critic of the Washington Post

Tim Page
Photo courtesy St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

I’ll have to choose the world premiere of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians — April 3, 1976 at Town Hall in New York — as the most influential concert I ever attended. It opened new sonic worlds to me and literally pushed me into criticism: I HAD to react to this music somehow and I wrote about it all night, never expecting anything would be published. And I’d choose the first performance of the orchestral version of Reich’s Tehillim in 1981 as the “worst” premiere. The score was terrific — I already knew it in the original chamber version — but Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic were not at all used to this sort of music and everything fell apart. (P.S. It was much better the second night.)

Describe your best and worst memories of premiere performances Laurel Ann Maurer, Flutist

Laurel Ann Maurer
Photo courtesy Laurel Ann Maurer

I have to admit that the quality of “open-mindedness” that I believe that I possess serves me well in terms of finding the value in a new piece, but does not serve me as well when thinking of a least favorite experience. I truly work to find the message in each piece. If I believe it is not there, is weak or I am not suited to play it-then I don’t play it. Hence, I have really been fortunate in that each premiere has been special in it’s own right. There are, however, a couple that stand out as exceptional. Two were major works by composer Meyer Kupferman. I have worked with him on many of his works. I commissioned him in 1993 to compose a Sonata for flute and piano. I premiered this work “Chaconne Sonata” in April 1994 at Weill Recital Hall and we received rave reviews. That was a successful premiere because I have a rapor with Kupferman’s style and he coached us extensively. The other was the premiere of his “Concerto Brevis” for flute and orchestra, premiered at the National Flute Convention in 1998. Part of the joy of the premiere (at least for me) is the entire creative process. The “hands on” work with the composer is exciting and meaningful for a successful outcome.

Describe your best and worst memories of premiere performances David Del Tredici, Composer

David Del Tredici
Photo by Robin Holland courtesy Boosey & Hawkes

1976 premiere of FINAL ALICE in Chicago with Solti conducting and Barbara Hendricks, soprano soloist. Because the piece was so tonal — long stretches in the purest D Major — I was terrified the piece would be ridiculed by the public, press and players. As well, the performance apparatus was huge and unorthodox: winds/brass in 4, a siren, a theremin, complex soprano amplification, orchestral players asked to whisper.

What happened? The audience cheered and stood up, the reviews were ecstatic. I was on my way.

Premiere of POP-POURRI for soprano solo, rock group, chorus and orchestra at La Jolla, California in 1968. This was the first piece I’d written with orchestra. The orchestration was a mess and the small orchestra unequal to the task. The conservative audience hearing electric guitars and saxes in a concert hall at this time (1968) were horrified. I felt as though I had just farted in church and then had to bow in recognition.

What do you expect to hear when someone says “American music?” David Nicholls, Professor of Music and Research Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Keele University, Staffordshire U.K.

David Nicholls
Photo courtesy David Nicholls

“Defining American Music”

What do we mean by “American music?” From a millennial perspective, the answer is apparently simple: as America’s Music, the Cambridge History of American Music, and The New Grove Dictionary of American Music make manifestly clear, it is synonymous with inclusivity. From Barber to barbershop, Cage to Cajun, and Ruggles to ragtime, it’s all there, reinforcing the contemporary view of American culture as pluralistic and multifaceted. Implicit in this definition, though, is the acknowledgment that “American music” cannot be quantified either stylistically or otherwise; rather than defining some aurally-perceivable nationalistic trait, the term actually identifies “music created by Americans, usually in America.” A century ago, the situation was rather different: there was no clear idea of what “American music” could or should be, let alone what it supposedly was. Indeed, it was only really during the 1930s that this identity crisis began to resolve itself, paradoxically at a time when stereotypical images of “American music” were at their most potent, both in America and elsewhere.

As is well-known, in 1893 Antonín Dvorák opined in the New York Herald that “the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies . . . These are the folk songs of America, and your composers must turn to them …” i Dvorák subsequently modified his view, suggesting that Native American melodies were also worthy of consideration; and in 1895, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, he finally conceded that “the germs for the best in music lie hidden among all the races that are commingled in this great country.” In retrospect, Dvorák’s remarks are noteworthy on three counts: for their ignorance of both earlier and contemporaneous attempts at creating an “American music”; for their failure to understand the profound demographic and socio-cultural differences which existed between America and Europe; and for the fact that they were taken so seriously by so many people. ii

At the end of the nineteenth century, it was perfectly possible for European composers like Dvorák, Grieg, or Tchaikovsky to write genuinely nationalistic music, by integrating into the existing European musical lingua franca the folk music of their compatriots: they spoke a common musical tongue, but with characteristic and identifiable ethnic or regional accents. But in polyglot America no such musico-linguistic purity was possible, except in the most particular circumstances, such as the African American-derived pieces of William Grant Still, or the regionally based compositions of Charles Ives. Any other use of “folk songs” strikes me as disingenuous and appropriative — and I include here not just the obvious Aunt Sallys, such as MacDowell’s Indian Suite or the Alaskan Inuit melodies of Beach’s late String Quartet, but also Still’s Danzas de Panama and Ives’s setting of the spiritual “In the Mornin’.”

Somewhat ironically, just when Dvorák was encouraging American art music composers to borrow freely from African American sources, several interrelated popular music genres (all of which were to some extent intrinsically linked with African American culture) were about to enter the mainstream of American — and subsequently Western — cultural life. The meteoric rise between 1895 and 1925 of ragtime and blues (with their love-child jazz), together with musical theatre and Tin Pan Alley songs, could not have been predicted by Dvorák or anyone else; nor could the extent to which they would be perceived in the public imagination as the only authentic examples of American culture. The degree of their ubiquity by the mid-1920s is easily demonstrated: think of the “Golliwog’s Cake-walk,” La Création du Monde, L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Die Dreigroschenoper or Shostakovich’s “Taiti Trot,” an arrangement of “Tea for Two.” (Incidentally, anyone doubting the threat that ragtime and jazz apparently posed to the European cultural establishment at this time is directed to the outrageously racist remarks contained in part three of Constant Lambert’s Music Ho!. iii)

By the 1930s, a veritable smorgasbord of apparently incompatible musics sought approbation as the authentic voice of America. Apart from the popular music genres mentioned above, there was an assortment of art music contenders. The Second New England School and its descendants had created a substantial body of Eurocentric but often appealing music. Farwell and the other Indianists had taken Dvorák at his word in exploring the rich traditions of Native American music; a smaller number of composers had similarly approached the African American heritage. Copland, like Gershwin, had initially been drawn to a synthesis of jazz and art music, but by 1930 he had moved toward a hard-edged version of the neoclassical internationalism also espoused by a legion of Nadia Boulanger’s other American students. And then there were the self-styled ultra-modernists, with Henry Cowell as high priest, Varèse, Ruggles and Crawford among the communicants, and Ives as recalcitrant patron saint.

Perhaps the greatest myth of American music is the idea that a particular musical sound can somehow encapsulate the aspirations and fundamental character of the nation. Given the bewildering profusion of possibilities, the reality is rather of the pointlessness of attempting to justify a preeminent position for any single composer or genre. Yet for two authors writing in the early 1930s, it was this very multiplicity which was the key issue. Unlike Dvorák and his countless successors, who — in attempting to define American music — sought to privilege one genre, approach, or ethnic music above the others, John Tasker Howard and Henry Cowell adopted the all-embracing, anti-canonical, egalitarian approach customary today. As Cowell noted in the introduction to his 1933 American Composers on American Music, the bibliography of American music was, at the time, scant. Thus both his volume, and Howard’s 1931 Our American Music (which Cowell praised) set an important precedent. iv From them, one can trace a direct line of descent through Gilbert Chase’s 1955 America’s Music, to the more recent histories by Wilfrid Mellers, H. Wiley Hitchcock, Daniel Kingman, Charles Hamm and others.

Our American Music has been criticized for being “too genteel and ‘respectable,'” an “unmethodical, browsing chronicle,” compiled by someone who “fit Sonneck’s description of an American who wrote ‘as a European.'” v Yet for almost a quarter-century, Howard’s book was the only generally available account of American music. Crucially (and very unusually at this period), alongside its predictable chapters on art music stand substantial discussions of “other” American musics — folk, Native American, African American, popular song, and jazz — which occupy approximately a quarter of its pages. Howard’s tone may occasionally be pejorative, particularly in relation to Native Americans, but this was the unfortunate norm of the time and Howard was by no means the only culprit. The important point — one which would not have been lost on the very many readers of its first three editions — is that, in general, Our American Music examines all of its subjects with an admirable degree of dispassionate and scholarly interest.

That is not a comment one could honestly make regarding Cowell’s American Composers on American Music. Designated as a symposium, its tone is inevitably subjective rather then objective, and its overt aim is the promotion of ultra-modern art music. But the book is remarkable for two reasons: first, it includes not only a series of chapters in which composers as different as Howard Hanson and Ruth Crawford are considered by their peers, but also a second group in which general tendencies are examined. Among these we find sensitive and at times provocative statements concerning Latin American musics (Chávez and Caturla), African American composers (Still), oriental influence (Rudhyar), and jazz (Gershwin). Like Howard, Cowell took an unusually ecumenical view of American music.

American Composers on American Music is also remarkable for Cowell’s opinion, fundamentally different from Dvorák’s, that while “Nationalism in music has no purpose as an aim in itself . . . Independence . . . is stronger than imitation . . . [Thus] more national consciousness is a present necessity for American composers . . . When this has been accomplished, self-conscious nationalism will no longer be necessary.” vi Here as elsewhere, Cowell was the first to take his own advice, though one wonders whether he entirely foresaw the result of doing so. Later in 1933, in Modern Music, he argued that composers should “draw on those materials common to the music of all the peoples of the world, to build a new music particularly related to our own century.” vii For the remaining thirty years of his life, Cowell did just that, albeit inconsistently; the most immediate results can be found in a group of 1930s works which are so radical as to appear almost reactionary. “Ostinato Pianissimo,” the “United Quartet,” “Pulse,” and “Return” make extensive use of ostinato patterns; the apparent simplicity of their rhythmic material conceals a surprising degree of sophistication, not least in the relation between surface detail and overall structure. Three of the four pieces are written for percussion and utilize a plethora of unusual instruments, both invented and imported. Pitched material, where it occurs, tends to be consonant but nondiatonic, and includes artificial modes constructed along Asian and African lines. Drone accompaniments are the norm. Cowell’s remarks concerning the “United Quartet” apply to all four pieces: “[their] simplicity is drawn from the whole world, instead of from the European tradition or any other single tradition.” viii

Cowell was not the only American composer of the 1930s to adopt such a stance. Indeed, Harry Partch had, by this time, “tentatively rejected both the intonational system of modern Europe and its concert system.” ix Partch’s major creative accomplishments of the decade — including the Seventeen Lyrics by Li Po and the journal Bitter Music — exemplify his radicalism. Subsequently, he devised a new and comprehensive intonational system, built a unique ensemble of instruments capable of performing in that system, and created an all-embracing aesthetic for his work: corporeality. His frame of cultural reference ranged from hitchhiker inscriptions to Greek tragedy. More recent figures to follow in similar footsteps include Lou Harrison, Peter Garland, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and — arguably — John Cage.

That Partch, Cowell, and the others just named are American composers is unquestionable; but is their music American? Certainly none of them achieves “Americanness” through the superficial use of “American” ethnic material, by conforming to American generic stereotypes, or through association — retrospective or otherwise — with American subject matter. To my mind, though, their music — and that of many other so-called American experimentalists — is profoundly American, for it possesses at a compositional and aesthetic level the same qualities that were identified earlier in connection with the books by Cowell and Howard: those of inclusivity, open-mindedness, egalitarianism, and (in more technical terms) the hybridic synthesis of disparate elements into a cohesive and coherent whole. Given America’s official motto – “e pluribus unum” — the nation should be deeply proud of this music — but it isn’t. On the contrary, America has often shunned Cowell, Partch, and the other experimentalists I would identify as its most American composers. For while Harris, Sessions and Schuman saw the majority of their symphonies premiered by America’s foremost orchestras and conductors, only a fraction of Cowell’s twenty symphonies were afforded such treatment. Partch received little institutional support, and even in 1966, at the height of his artistic accomplishments, could complain with justifiable bitterness that “I went to the social security offices yesterday, and learned that the $538.20 check from the U.S. Treasurer is valid. It is my reward for having endured this society for 65 years.” x In 1997, Peter Garland moved into self-imposed exile in Mexico, as a result of “the effects of two decades of conservatism [that] have left people like me marginalized, probably permanently.” xi

The problem, I believe, has to do with the continuing dominance of American music and its institutions by outdated Eurocentric attitudes and values, which still equate nationalism with folk music of one sort or another. (And let’s remember that it was Gershwin, on page 187 of American Composers on American Music, who wrote that “Jazz I regard as an American folk-music; not the only one, but a very powerful one.”) These radical composers have failed — literally and metaphorically — to wave the American folk music flag, either at home, or on territory appropriated from others. As a consequence, and like some weird cult, their profound Americanism has moved them beyond nationalism into conflict with the nation.

While the term “American music” — not least as it came to be understood in the 1930s — is of necessity synonymous with inclusivity and plurality, this need not limit its manifestations to an infinite variety of self-contained musics, whose only common point is their creation by Americans, usually in America. For as the work of Cowell, Partch, and their successors demonstrates, it can also define a music so rooted in inclusivity and plurality that it becomes universal rather than national, a music that — as Cowell suggested — is “particularly related to our own century.” That the greatest musical legacy of the most self-consciously nationalistic country in the world should be a music unacceptable to its own musical establishment, is supremely (and tragically) ironic.

[David Nicholls’ essay originally appeared in the Spring 1999 Newsletter of the Institute for Studies in American Music at the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music ( and is reprinted here with his kind permission and the kind permission of ISAM co-editor Ray Allen.]

  1. The sources of this and the following quotations are reproduced in John C. Tibbetts, ed., Dvorák in America, 1892-1895 (Portland, OR; Amadeus Press, 1993): 355-84.
  2. See Arthur Farwell, “Pioneering for American Music,” Modern Music, 12 (1934): 116-22; Adrienne Fried Block, “Boston Talks Back to Dvorák,” I.S.A.M. Newsletter, 18/2 (May 1989): 10-11, 15; Block, “Dvorák’s Long American Reach,” in Dvorák in America: 157-181.
  3. Constant Lambert, Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline (London: Faber, 1934).
  4. Henry Cowell, ed., American Composers on American Music: A Symposium (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1933; reprint New York: Frederick Ungar, 1962); John Tasker Howard, Our American Music: Three Hundred Years of It (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1931).
  5. Richard Crawford (quoting Gilbert Chase), “Foreword,” America’s Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present, rev. 3d ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987): xv.
  6. Henry Cowell, “Trends in American Music,” American Composers on American Music: 13.
  7. Henry Cowell, “Towards Neo-Primitivism,” Modern Music, 10/3 (1933): 149-53.
  8. Henry Cowell, [introductory remarks], United Quartet [String Quartet No. 4] (San Francisco: New Music Edition, 1937): [1].
  9. Harry Partch, Genesis of a Music, 2d ed. enlarged (New York: Da Capo Press, 1979): vi-vii.
  10. Letter from Harry Partch to Lou Harrison, 23 August 1966, A Lou Harrison Reader, ed. Peter Garland (Santa Fe: Soundings Press, 1987): 60.
  11. Letter from Peter Garland to David Nicholls, 9 June 1998.

What do you expect to hear when someone says “American music?”

Chen Yi Chen Yi
“I think that all musical works composed in the States AND influenced by American culture are considered American music.”
Judith Lang Zaimont Judith Lang Zaimont
“In a very real sense, it is the lifeblood of our country expressed in sound.”
Howard Mandel Howard Mandel
“America’s music is wide and wild, fed by hundreds of old and new musical strains.”
David Nicholls David Nicholls
“From Barber to barbershop, Cage to Cajun, and Ruggles to ragtime, it’s all there, reinforcing the contemporary view of American culture as pluralistic and multifaceted.”

What is American Music?

Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

America is a land of immigrants and the culture of America has been formed and reshaped time and time again by the immigrants whose traditions get introduced here and then morphed into something completely new. When we speak of an “American tradition,” it is almost an oxymoron because it is our tradition to be always changing and always growing.

This month, we asked Tania León to serve as the Guest Editor of NewMusicBox. Together we chose the topics for our interactive forums: In The Second Person and Hymn and Fuguing Tune, and together worked out whom we should pose questions to. It all began with our lengthy conversation revolving around what it means to be an American composer. We both found it ironic that composers as diverse as Copland, Villa-Lobos, Tchaikovsky, Takemitsu and William Grant Still get lumped together as “nationalistic” or “ethnic” when at the same time Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, all of whom were highly influenced by German and Austrian folk songs, do not. What do you think? We decided to ask Chen Yi, Judith Lang Zaimont and Howard Mandel what the term “American music” meant to them. A week after our initial meeting at the American Music Center, Tania got all excited about an essay she had just read by British musicologist David Nicholls in the newsletter for the Institute of American Music at the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music. From the other side of the Atlantic, he was touching on the same issues we were here in New York City. Thanks to Professors Nichols and Ray Allen at Brooklyn College, we are able to share this fascinating essay with readers of NewMusicBox.

To put our whole discussion in context, Sid Whelan has contributed a hyper-history exploring the impact of immigration and emigration on American music. Unlike our previous hyper-histories on composer-led new music ensembles, independent record labels, and the performance of American repertoire at U.S. summer music festivals, this project was much more conceptual. Unlike ensembles, record labels or festivals, which each form stories in and of themselves, each story here is a complex web of inter-relations. As a result, the various pieces of the puzzle form a variety of labyrinthine paths any of which you can choose to follow in order to get the whole story. As an added feature to NewMusicBox, each piece of the puzzle contains two RealAudio sound samples of musical excerpts. These excerpts only begin to scratch the surface of the rich musical tapestry that has resulted from composers coming into and going out of the United States.

We’ve also embedded RealAudio samples on every page of my discussion with Tania allowing you to get a flavor of ten of her compositions plus a few extras. Once again, SoundTracks features RealAudio samples of all 22 CDs featured in addition to complete tracking information and direct click-throughs for purchase on Amazon. Another 100 concert listings of American repertoire have been added to our Hear&Now calendar providing two months of information about events throughout the United States and abroad. Lastly, we’ve assembled a variety of news items of interest to the American new music community. Among them is news that a deal has been struck between ASCAP and meaning an even greater proliferation of American music, in all its wonderful varieties, across the World Wide Web.

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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