Category: Articles

What do you expect to hear when someone says “American music?” Judith Lang Zaimont, Composer

Judith Lang Zaimont
Photo courtesy Judith Lang Zaimont

What is ‘American music’?

  1. It reflects the vital, energized, young and action-oriented nation we are.
    In general it’s color-sensitive, edgy and, more often than not, pulsed — wickedly pulsed. It likes to take chances, and, as befits our polyglot national character, sometimes incorporates a staggering variety of modes of expression.
  2. In a very real sense, it is the lifeblood of our country expressed in sound.
  3. Any/all music written or improvised by Americans.

What do you expect to hear when someone says “American music?” Howard Mandel, President of the Jazz Journalists Association

Howard Mandel
Photo courtesy Howard Mandel

America’s music is wide and wild, fed by hundreds of old and new musical strains. It starts with Native American chants, flutes, rhythms, North American colonies of the Spanish and French and Germans as well as the Pilgrims, in the community functions, dilletante artistry and diverse forms of entertainment, becomes a free-flowing “folk” music and simultaneously a “commercial” music around the Civil War — when black and white gospel, blues, ballad and later instrumental (“jazz”) impulses mix with immigrant Hispanic, Irish, Jewish, Asian and European traditional and art musics in the city and marketplace. Dissemination of American music through American technology has led to the powerful, polyglot pop and art musics America exports today. American music celebrates the individual — the composer, the visionary, the improvising artist, the “star”: so American music sounds like a multitude.

Memorable outdoor premieres you’ve heard and/or your most unusual exposure to a new piece of music

Greg Sandow Greg Sandow
“Was it an outdoor experience? I’m not sure, and who cares?…”
Michael Torke Michael Torke
“I remember a concert at the Tanglewood Music Center that had both David Del Tredici’s “Happy Voices” (from Child Alice) and John Adams’s Harmonielehre on the same program!”
Marilyn Nonken Marilyn Nonken
“…the sight of Brant –headgear, jumpsuit, etc.– will always stick with me: Ives meets Evel Knievel.”
Joseph Dalton Joseph Dalton
“Ironically, as I attend more and more concerts, year after year, the memorable ones are fewer and rarer…”

How Festivals can Attract New Audiences to American Music

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

Five years ago some friends of mine drove me down to a bluegrass festival in Stumptown, West Virginia — a more than 10 hour journey from New York City which was more time than I’ve ever spent in a car in my whole life being the die-hard urbanite!


At the Festival there were people camped out all weekend to hear such great American musicians as Jimmy Martin, Charley Waller and Larry Sparks. In fact, I was able to greet Jimmy Martin personally after his set. Upon telling him I came from New York, he greeted me saying “Suuuun, welcome to the YOO-nited States!” But later I was able to play some fiddle with him at an impromptu jam session he led from the back of his gig van. There are many people with similar reminiscences about Leonard Bernstein from his many years at Tanglewood.

Music festivals offer a unique experience for listeners to discover music informally and as a result are in a unique position to attract new audiences to unfamiliar music. Yet so many established music festivals in America resist taking the lead in reshaping American musical thought. Despite the absence of a comprehensive American new music assault this summer, there are still many laudable efforts outdoors nationwide which are the focus of the third NewMusicBox.

I visited Chicago for a talk with Zarin Mehta, Executive Director of the venerable Ravinia Festival, who described the limits along with the new potentials for festival programming. And while his musical passions are not exactly entrenched in the music of the here and now, we found a common ground. Mic Holwin scoured the nation in search of American repertoire in a hyper-history of summer music festivals. (To be consistent with our first two issues, she wondered if she would need to change her surname to Smith. We let her keep her name and the hyper-history remains every bit as thorough. In fact, this time we even have a picture on every page!)

We asked Michael Torke, Greg Sandow, Marilyn Nonken and Joseph Dalton to describe a memorable outdoor premiere they’ve heard and to describe their most unusual exposure to a new piece of music. We’d like to know your experiences as well and ask you to offer your opinion about the feasibility of an all-American new music festival as the perfect opportunity for new audiences to discover some of this great music. To help you discover new music, we’ve added RealAudio samples to all 22 recordings featured in this month’s SoundTracks.

Beyond the world of festivals, American music is the top story at the American Symphony Orchestra League who has made a firm commitment to promoting new American music both in presentations and concerts at ITS annual Conference as well as in a new Web site. ASCAP HAS honored orchestras and choruses devoted to presenting new American repertoire and BMI has held its annual awards for young composers. As usual, NewMusicBox features over 200 listings of American music performances during the next two months so even if you don’t have a chance to visit one of the Festivals there may still be an opportunity to discover a new work.

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.” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>Ojai Music Festival
  9. Ravinia Festival
  10. Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
  11. Spoleto Festival USA
  12. Tanglewood

Memorable outdoor premieres you’ve heard and/or your most unusual exposure to a new piece of music Greg Sandow, Composer & Music Journalist

Greg Sandow
Photo courtesy Greg Sandow

Was it an outdoor experience? I’m not sure, and who cares? But when I was new music critic for the Village Voice in the ’80s, I remember being invited to a private event, somebody playing his sax in an abandoned building in the East Village. This was magical, the site, the debris, the resonance of the sound, the surprise, the claiming of temporary echoing territory.

My most memorable outdoor musical experience, though — not a premiere, but I’m not keeping score — was at the Amnesty International tour in ’88 or ’89, when it came to the Los Angeles Coliseum. One of the singers was Tracy Chapman, whose first album was just out, and a huge hit. When she — alone on stage with just her guitar, in front of 90,000 people — started “Talking ‘Bout A Revolution” (do I remember the title right?), voices throughout the huge space started singing along softly, in the twilight. Simply magical.

Second to that would surely be the summer in the ’60s when the Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll” was the No. 1 pop hit. I remember being at the beach, and hearing people on all sides of me turn their radios up when that song came on. We in classical music sometimes forget the power of community, the way it underlines the meaning and value of music. On the beach (near Boston; can’t remember exactly which beach) that summer day, the community — temporary and limited as it might have been — was so tangible you could taste it.

Another memorable experience with some new music — Elvis Costello at the L.A. office of Warner Bros. records, singing songs from his album “Spike” with just his own acoustic guitar. This album is complex and heavily produced, more so than anything he’d previously done. I remember doubting that the songs were really good; too fancy, too much trickery, I thought. And then I heard Costello singing them with the utmost simplicity, with just his guitar. Suddenly it was clear what strong songs they are — and also what a genius (can’t use any other word) he himself is. His own power as a performer was naked, nothing supporting it, no studio help, no band, no backup singers, just himself and his guitar, making sense of material that I’d wrongly thought needed heavy production to make it work.

Most classical premieres, indoors or out, leave me cold. I don’t think classical composition is one of the stronger strands of art in the late 20th century, or at least not the kind of composition we hear in the concert hall. There’s a dryness to the whole affair, a sense of obligation. What’s missing is joy (though I do find that at a lot of Bang on a Can performances, and at anything Meredith Monk does).

The strongest reaction I ever had to music new to me came at a Diamanda Galas performance at the Kitchen early in the ’80s. I’d heard her sing something with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, but that was somebody else’s work. The performance I’m talking about was her NY debut as a solo performer doing her own stuff. To say she floored me would be an understatement. I remember writing a review that, to say the least, was powerfully favorable. My editor at the Voice, Bob Christgau, read the first paragraph, and asked me where Diamanda lived. “San Diego,” I said. So Bob called over to the photo editor: “Fred, send someone to San Diego right now! We need a picture of this woman.”

That, after reading a single paragraph. I don’t remember what Diamanda was performing then. Probably “Wild Women with Steak Knives,” and another of her early pieces. At intermission, Bernard Holland, then a junior critic for the Times, turned from the row in front of me with a huge grin on his face. “I LIKE her!” he said. I remember being almost frightened at one point, when Diamanda alternated her voice with periods of silence – and turned out the lights during the silences. I wouldn’t have been surprised, I wrote, to find her literally eating one of her enemies when the lights came back on. And I meant it. She was powerful, carnal, rooted — and real.

Memorable outdoor premieres you’ve heard and/or your most unusual exposure to a new piece of music Michael Torke, Composer

Michael Torke
Photo by Vivianne Purdom, courtesy Decca

I remember a concert at the Tanglewood Music Center that had both David Del Tredici’s “Happy Voices” (from Child Alice) and John Adams’s Harmonielehre on the same program! This was the summer of 1984, fresh after Paul Fromm made public his criticisms of the ’70s kind of thorny programming and caused swift changes in the directorship of the festival. The aggressive tonality of both these composers impressed me- a new decade was upon us, and the American professional composer was emerging as a powerful cultural force, like it used to be in the ’30s and ’40s.

Memorable outdoor premieres you’ve heard and/or your most unusual exposure to a new piece of music Marilyn Nonken, Pianist

Marilyn Nonken
by Sara Press

A few years ago, I stumbled into a Henry Brant premiere taking place outdoors at Lincoln Center: a work written to commemorate Columbus’s discovery of America. Various ensembles were playing around the plaza: jazz band, orchestra, maybe a sax quartet or mariachi ensemble. Honestly, no matter where I went, I couldn’t hear anything. However, the sight of Brant –headgear, jumpsuit, etc.– will always stick with me: Ives meets Evel Knievel.

Unusual, indecent exposure! I had the wild experience of first hearing Berio’s VISAGE (featuring a fully-extended Cathy Berberian) with a total stranger, of the opposite sex–both, with headsets, sharing a single Y-jack.

Memorable outdoor premieres you’ve heard and/or your most unusual exposure to a new piece of music Joseph Dalton, Executive Director, Composers Recordings Inc. (CRI)

Joseph Dalton
Photo by Dorothy Alexander

Collecting composers’ autographs used to be a hobby of mine. In my youth it was an early indicator of my future profession. It also got me to attend (and sometimes to endure) all manner of musical happenings, and allowed me to meet some wonderful figures, some of whom are now gone. Ironically, as I attend more and more concerts, year after year, the memorable ones are fewer and rarer. There are more great performances and more great pieces, but fewer unusual occasions.

This fascination with composers began during my high school years. I was active in Catholic church music and when attending conferences on “pastoral music” I’d always ask the composers to autograph the photo-copied song sheets. That was in Texas in the 1970s. During the early 1980s, I attended college in Washington, DC (Catholic University of America) where I began my avid following of contemporary music. While this interest made me an oddity at the Music School, the Capital offered a rather active new music scene to explore. I remember meeting and getting autographs from numerous composers at the Kennedy Center’s American Composers Series, which was held in its intimate Terrace Theatre. There I heard Feldman’s For John Cage (at the time a real test of patience and fortitude) and I hummed along in participatory pieces by Pauline Oliveros. I also met John Cage and seemed to catch his fancy at a 70th birthday concert in his honor held in the great hall of the historic Pension Building. I went behind the band shell on the Capital Lawn to meet Morton Gould who had just conducted the National Symphony. At all of these occasions, the composers happily autographed my concert programs, though Morton Gould made do with the lid from a box of Wheat Thins. The most memorable and stirring concert experience of my life was at the dawn of my life in music — just days before I began classes as a freshman music major. It was in September 1981 and the Kennedy Center was opening a tenth-anniversary production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (which was the Center’s opening piece ten-years prior).

I received a call in my dorm room from my one relative in Washington, Hope Ridings Miller, who was a distant and much older cousin and who once edited the society page of the Washington Post and was part of the capital’s social scene since the days of Roosevelt. She told me that she had two tickets to the opening night performance of Bernstein’s Mass and that she had seen it the first time and once was enough! “How would you and a friend like to go see the show and meet Leonard Bernstein afterward?” Needless to say, that was an opportunity not to be missed.

To this eighteen year old who was about to begin music school the following week, Mass was a revelation. In less than two-hours it gave me my first exposure to a world of new styles and techniques including serialism, spatial music, electronics, simultaneity, and collage, all in addition to the beautiful soaring melodies and driving dance rhythms of Bernstein at his best. I didn’t know the names for all those things I was hearing and I also didn’t know that composers weren’t supposed to mix and match them all in once piece. Such a wonderful stew of sounds! Likewise the staging was an introduction to non-linear theatre and modern dance. From the marching band that processed down the aisles in the Kyrie to when the cast goes mad in the cathartic and climactic Agnus Dei, practically every barrier of musical and theatrical propriety was broken down. And to hear that it was controversial and made some people angry made me love it all the more! There was also an element of glamour with all the black-tie and evening gowns and the piece’s association with the Kennedys.

That night I brought along my roommate, Joe Walsh, who was a piano-performance major. (I was a music ed major and my instrument was voice.) Though the evening required black-tie, we’d not yet purchased concert wear and so we had to wear dark suits. When we arrived at theTerrace for the reception, not only were we improperly dressed but our names were not on the guest list. Joe was ready to leave but I was not to be denied. I was already getting familiar with Washington-ways having spent the prior semester as a Congressional Page on Capital Hill. Among the many things I learned from 5 months in the halls of Congress was how to slip through door ways and into the rooms of power. After finally being allowed into the reception, much to my roommates astonishment, we found some dreary old people and unappealing food tables. Where was Bernstein?

My image of Lenny was of a dashing figure with a mop of dark hair. Joe rolled his eyes (as he often did that year at my many musical naiveté’s) and said that Bernstein had aged since those days. We did get a look at him as he took a bow from the stage, but when he finally entered the party space, it was his aura, more than his looks, that made it clear he was the celebrity of the evening.

Before describing my actual meeting with Bernstein, I have to digress again into my musical education. At that time, I was already studying voice with one of the University’s professors, Mildred Allen, and I had a lesson on the morning of the big opening night. I arrived at her studio already full of excitement about the upcoming evening. “And we might get to meet Bernstein!” I exclaimed. “Isn’t that nice,” she replied. “Now sing a chest Ahh.” A few exercises later, Mrs. Allen added: “If you do meet Bernstein, be sure to tell him hello.” I gulped and nodded. (It was only some years later that I learned more fully of Mrs. Allen’s career. She had sung at the Met and worked with a few composers over the years including singing on the legendary Columbia recording of Stravinsky’s Les Noces.)

That night on the Kennedy Center Terrace, I stepped up to Bernstein boldly, my roommate sheepishly following behind. I introduced us as freshman music majors and Lenny acknowledged us with a glance and scribbled his autograph on our librettos. I raised my voice to add: “And I’m a student of Mildred Allen and she said to tell you hello.” Boom. I had his attention! He looked me in the eyes and asked my name which I gladly repeated. He then pinched my cheek with a hand that seemed to encompass half my face. Whatever may have been on Lenny’s mind at that moment, I considered it a benediction from the high priest of American music and I’ve carried the flame ever since!

I met Bernstein a few more times during my early years in New York, thanks to opportunities provided by my employment (from 1987 to 1989) at CBS Masterworks. To my great pride, the first time album credit I ever received was on a Bernstein release, The Bernstein Songbook, which I helped to program and which was CBS’s best selling Bernstein title during his 70th birthday year (1988). A framed and autographed copy of the LP jacket now proudly hangs in my office at CRI. Almost everything about Lenny remains special to me, but his Mass still makes me think of that night when my innocence, musical and otherwise, allowed me to experience him and his music with a rare sense of joy and wonder.

What recordings do you buy and why? What recordings have you listened to recently? Aaron Jay Kernis, Composer, New Music Advisor, Minnesota Orchestra

Aaron Jay Kernis
Photo by Daniel Vogel, courtesy G. Schirmer, Inc.

Between visiting Tower, Music Boulevard on the Web and BMG Music Service (this is not paid advertising) I’ve recently seen about 6 recordings pass into my consciousness, but only briefly so far , since as I’m busily composing at the moment and can’t listen to anything right now, these will have to wait for my summer listening. So I can’t tell you anything about them yet, but here they are:

J.S. Bach: Cantatas Vol. 7 dir. by Ton Koopman
Pierre Boulez: Repons etc.
Arvo Pärt: Kanon Pokajanen
Michael Gordon: Weather
Ernst Krenek: Symphony # 2
Stephen Hartke: Orchestral Works

I’m very curious about what my colleagues and older composers have written and are putting on disc, jointly out of my own desire to know and my mandate as new music advisor at the Minnesota Orchestra. I’ve always felt it important to hear as much new music in concert and have it at home for future reference.