Category: Articles

What do you expect to hear when someone says “American music?” Chen Yi, Composer

Chen Yi
Photo by Jim Hair

Since music is a universal language, music composition reflects the precipitation of a composer’s cultural and psychological construct, I think that all musical works composed in the States AND influenced by American culture are considered American music. The modern society, especially the American society, is like a great network of complex latitudes and attitudes, everything exists in equal rights under different cultures (both historical and contemporary), environments and conditions. They keep changing at every moment and interact with the others, so that each experience that we composers come across can become the source and exciting medium of our creation. That’s why I don’t have a fixed scope, a frame of styles to expect to hear when someone says “American music”. I am very open to it. I always have to do some study on the music itself, and some research on the creative background(s) of the composition before I label it.

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.

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.

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.

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

Greg SandowGreg Sandow
“Was it an outdoor experience? I’m not sure, and who cares?…”
Michael TorkeMichael 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 NonkenMarilyn Nonken
“…the sight of Brant –headgear, jumpsuit, etc.– will always stick with me: Ives meets Evel Knievel.”
Joseph DaltonJoseph 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.