Category: In Print

Process Porn: Seeking the Thing Behind the Thing

Daniel Felsenfeld
Daniel Felsenfeld
  • READ an excerpt from David Cope’s Computer Models of Musical Creativity
    Time was, complexity was complicated. To state the historical case in a glib and tragically oversimplified fashion, after Wagner it seemed there was no way for music to go other than in the direction of high science—after all, since language was doing it (Wittgenstein), and art was doing it (Mondrian, among others), then certainly music should do it, too. From that point on, the image of the composer—especially in the Castalia1 of the academy’s cynosure—was not that of the Byronic hero waifishly using his art to keep the forces of his stormy emotional torrents at bay but rather that of the intellectual elite, the scientist in the lab pulling wings off butterflies and writing down columns of figures. Some post-Schoenbergian serialists even went so far as to believe that attending a concert ought to be strictly an in-crowd activity, with an over-prepared audience more redolent of a physics lecture or quantum mechanics seminar. To enjoy the concert, you had to have done your homework.

    Two clear memories of my own along these lines come to mind. The first occurred when I was an undergraduate, making my way through the mandatory course on Medieval music. The instructor (the brilliant Alejandro Planchart), in full declamatory mode, told us that we were not real musicians unless we read astrophysics textbooks in our spare time. The second, more salient, was when, some years later, I had the good fortune to study with the late Arthur Berger as a first-year graduate student. I availed myself of this chance to delve into the music of his friend Stravinsky, to write a slew of pieces utilizing the octatonic scale—after all, he was the one who invented that term. Not exclusive to his coining of one of the most important pieces of standard-issue nomenclature, Berger was one of the great explainers of the Russian master’s work, and this was a composer dear to my heart. For weeks I pored over my teacher’s watershed article in Perspectives of New Music, “Some Problems of Pitch Organization in the Music of Stravinsky.” It was tough going but I managed, only tripped up on one particular clause about octave division. When at one of our weekly lessons I asked him to explain the elusive concept to me, he could not. He simply did not understand what he had written, and explained that, in those days, when one was writing for the esteemed Perspectives one had to write incomprehensibly, as it was the order of the day. Clarity of presentation smacked of puerile simplicity. This stuff not only had to be smart, it had to seem smart.2

    One locus point of this musico-philosophical prose density—aside from the circle of heavyweights that formed around Pierre Boulez, whose morass of an article about The Rite of Spring has sent a shiver down many a student’s spine, mine included3—is and was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which lay a few miles from Berger’s dusty Cambridge home. The site of more than a few important advancements in the sciences, their musical offerings, mostly centered around electronic or spectral music (with little or no place afforded to neo-classicism, -romanticism, or minimalism), were always aimed at the smart set, and consequently their press published some truly harrowing—though important—texts. Books written for scholars by scholars, books that probably go largely unread, no matter how impressive or groundbreaking.

    Times change. In recent months, three books have rolled off this same press that take a friendlier tact: Computer Models of Musical Creativity by David Cope; Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation by David Huron; and Gareth Loy’s Musimathics: The Mathematical Foundations of Music, Volume One. These are, true to M.I.T. form, not for the less-than-hearty musical expeditionary, but what they do have in common is that they are similarly pitched not to the highest (to gather dust), not to the lowest (as any sort of introduction for the uninitiated layman), but to an honest place in the middle. In other words, the concepts are difficult and require wrestling, but the prose does not.

    Like any worthwhile analytical text, all three begin at the same point: a desire to explain music and all its attendant mysteries—why it works, why we love it, what makes it beautiful—using a specific route of intellectual understanding. But unlike many texts that aim to such heights, an immense foreknowledge of the topic is not presumed. If you are the sort of person inclined to explore music at a level where a heady theoretical text is something you might need, want, or enjoy, than these books pull few punches by way of sophistication, and are, in a moment of credible marketability, also user friendly. Not that any of them are easy beach reads, but, unlike many an academic tract, they are all intended to be read and understood.

    Most immediate and comprehensive is Huron’s book, which aims (quite elegantly) to reason out the whole notion of musical surprise. If the simplest definition of music—again, an oversimplification, so please hold your ire—is that it is a set of expectations which is either fulfilled or frustrated, Sweet Anticipation goes atavistic, seeking a deep understanding of the many complex ways these expectations come about. How does one set up possibilities on a human level? Partly by understanding what makes that human organism react—like trying to reason out why we cry, feel ecstasy, fall in love, and grieve. When, for example, he explains “surprise,” he veers from an anecdote about a sixth grade surprise party (he scared his teacher half to death, tremendously appealing) to an explanation of that phenomenon (two brain processes involving the thalamus, the amygdale, and the midbrain periaqueductal gray). He charts melody according to the statistical properties of its arch; explains how our brain’s imperfections actually help to create expectations and their subsequent resolutions (called heuristic listening, which is what happens when our brain fills in the likely next pitch, gesture, or contour, however inaccurately); and even goes into detail about how context—as in what people are wearing or where they are standing when the music is absorbed (a schema)—is everything. His aim is to get inside the perceptive process from multiple angles, and this he does with clarity, grace, and even humor, but he is ultimately humble before his topic, ever the philosopher before the tomb of mysteries. “My theory,” he writes, “does assume that music often evokes pleasure in listeners. But there is no requirement whatsoever that artists create works of art that evoke pleasure. Art has no predefined function, which means that it can be harnessed to serve any number of purposes—including no purpose at all. Sometimes art is successful because it educates us, inspires us, challenges us, disturbs us, or even insults us. But if art never offered any element of pleasure, it would cease to play much role in human affairs.” Nothing gnomic here, however; this is pure neuroscience and psychology, laid out in a way non-experts could understand.

    David Cope is a composer, and you can tell this from his book, Computer Models of Musical Creativity—and not just because it is riddled with examples from his own music. The process he wishes to explore and exploit is the creative process, and he does so by attacking it from the vantage point of one specific, vaguely sci-fi question: can a computer be programmed to create brilliant music, as good as that of any genius? It is a question that would not be out of place in the novels of Philip K. Dick or Richard Powers—the old seven-hundred-monkeys-typing-for-seven-hundred-years theory. Cope’s text is rife with examples of pieces “composed” by his computer program (given the cute and cuddly name Experiments in Musical Intelligence—oh for the days of Hal, one letter off from IBM), which he believes can not only be taught to compose music, but to compose music of genius. By trying to ferret out the ghost in the machine, however, his book has the opposite effect of making the ghost seem all the more ineffable because it cannot be quantified so easily—or, more to the point, that the very pursuit of quantification belies its capacity to be quantified. This is only my own opinion; you’d have to get this from between the lines, for Mr. Cope buys his argument completely. He is convinced that computers, if programmed by a great composer, can themselves be great composers, and has music, chess games, and charts to prove it. “Certainly music,” he writes, “is not ‘merely a puzzle or parlor game’ nor ‘complex ratiocinations’ good music. That does not mean, however, that great music cannot be created by computer programs. Interestingly, to say that humans cannot program computers to do what they themselves can do does not indicate that humans are superior, but rather that they are inferior—not competent enough to understand and replicate their own creative processes.”

    Whether this is creepy, progressive, or just plain pointless is entirely up to you, but you do not have to know how to teach Experiments in Musical Intelligence to come up with a convincing Stravinsky ballet score to follow Cope’s point, to read and understand (and possibly take umbrage with) his book.4 For better or for worse, his point is easily found in this clear, concise text. Like Huron’s work, the concepts are challenging, the explication crystalline and frill-free.

    Like Ferdinand Saussure’s epoch-making Course in General Lignuistics (the godfather of all semiotics texts), Gareth Loy’s Musimathics builds brilliantly from small, knowable nuggets and expands them into complicated arrays of thought and understanding. He states his raison d’etre straight out: “Mathematics can be as effortless as humming a tune, if you know the tune. But our culture does not prepare us for appreciation of mathematics as it does for appreciation of music. Though we start hearing music very early in life, the same cannot be said of mathematics, even though the two subjects are twins. This is a shame; to know music without knowing mathematics is like hearing a melody without its accompaniment.” Pure and simple, agree or no, this is take-no-prisoners thinking and solvent presentation. With a basic knowledge of music, a high-school level of mathematical competency, and a willingness to sweat over some difficult concepts, this book cleanly lays out how a musico-mathematician might come to understand the parallel disciplines in a concise and unfettered way. Plenty of texts exist about the relationship between the two subjects, but few make it so easy and compelling. In line with the first two books discussed, what is daunting is the understanding—the reading is pure and simple.

    All three of these books seek to exploit a particular sort of process in a provocative way—process porn. And all three of these books, agree with them or no—and I am totally with two out of three, but cannot go in for a computer being able to master the spark of creation—aim to explain how music works from a specific point of view. They take the processes of building, creativity, or perception—all things that lay behind the closed doors or drawn shades of the imagination, the subconscious, the turning of the earth—and show them naked and under hot lights, shining through in all their specificity. For those who aim to understand, books like these are a gift, helping us (without the usual linguistic hassle) to crack these sprawling concepts. After all, these ideas are hard enough, so why obfuscate them? It means a great deal to all of us that books like these (and that M.I.T. of all places is publishing them) aimed obviously at those in the know (or who want to be) don’t feel the need to muck around with an incomprehensible high-modernist presentation. So go and read without intimidation, as that is exactly what all three of these authors are hoping you will do.

    * * *

    1. If you don’t know the novel by Hesse called Madgister Ludi or The Glass Bead Game, to which I refer, run don’t walk to your local bookshop.

    2. Incidentally, as I was leaving that Friday night for an evening out with friends, my phone rang and it was Arthur. He’d figured it out after days of worry. He reminded me that, being one of the founding editors of the journal, he supposed he would have been entitled to write any way he liked. So why didn’t he, he asked?

    3. Though honestly, once you can actually figure out the measure numbers he is discussing (sometimes he speaks of a passage, other times of a whole section, and this is never clear) the article is a beautiful gift to anyone wishing to understand.

    4. He makes his case early on by citing commerce. Paintings generated by a fractal-based computer were, he says, selling at high rates, ergo the validity of same as art. Strong words from an algorithmic composer who makes, one hazards a guess, not much on his royalties.

How To Cook an Albatross

First published in Arts in Society, 7 (1970), pp. 34-38, reprinted in Source, 6 (1970), pp. 63-65. Reprinted from “Maximum Clarity” and Other Writings on Music by Ben Johnston, pp. 126-133. Copyright © by University of Illinois Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

  • READ an interview with author Ben Johnston.


    The world of “serious music” stubbornly bases itself on a sterile presumption. Since the “standard repertory,” in no matter what areas of performance, is historical, it creates a museum situation. While there is nothing wrong with having museums, we should not take their contents to be the principal means to satisfy contemporary needs. Perennially we make just this error.

    The proportion of music of our own times now in the repertory of most concert artists and ensembles is smaller today than at any other period in the history of concert giving. When most performing artists, warned that they are not bringing about a repertory for the future, set about to find new works, they seek imitations of the old works, which they believe they “understand.” In fact, most of them do not understand the art of the past at all. They do not make the effort to imagine what it was in its own time, taking it instead in the context of today. The role they find repertory music playing in today’s society they impose unthinkingly on today’s music. Looking back for all “greatness” has become so reflex an action that it is presumed normal. In fact, it is not normal at all: it is an historical anomaly. As Gilbert Chase writes:

    In the eighteenth century it was an asset rather than a liability for a composer to be alive. Not only his music but also his living presence were solicited as a privilege for the public . . . The eighteenth century might indulge in idolatry . . . but it was the distinction of the nineteenth century to develop the cult of musical necrolatry . . . The “Great Repertoire” cannot change, because it involves too many vested interests. Far from being an incentive to the American composer, it is a permanent barrier.1

    In the United States today a “serious composer” is called “young” up to the age of fifty if he has not been accepted into the musical establishment by then. The composers’ wing of the establishment is a bureaucracy, comprising the few who, after waiting out a protracted “youth,” finally have a moment’s recognition. This privilege they defend for as long as they can, knowing its radical impermanence. Innovators are recognized by the establishment, if at all, only in old age, since independent thinkers are the toughest competition of all.

    Most performers and conductors advise composers (if they want performances) to write music (if they must write at all) which does not deviate much from the standard repertory. But a docile composer who wants only to write conventional music for standardized solo, chamber, and orchestra concerts has to struggle for all of his career for more than a few scattered first performances. His work (it is pointed out) is poor competition for the “masterworks.” The following arrogant quotation was recently widely reprinted in the press and popular magazines: “I occasionally play works by contemporary composers, and for two reasons. First, to discourage the composer from writing any more. And second, to remind myself how much I appreciate Beethoven” (violinist Jascha Heifetz). To cite Gilbert Chase again:

    The difficulty was that by the end of the nineteenth century admission to the Standard Repertory (the effective vehicle of the Great Tradition) has become increasingly difficult for new composers . . . Not only was the competition keener, but the club was getting crowded. It was approaching the saturation point. Guest memberships were available, but permanent admission was virtually impossible, save for a very select few. To make a place for himself a newcomer had to oust an old member. The Europeans had all the advantages; not only were most of them dead, but those who were living had an inside track on the Great Tradition. No wonder that no American composer has ever really made it.2

    Conventional concert and opera audiences, led by performers and by writers about music, usually gravitate toward comfortable, familiar music, even at the cost of boredom. They seem to know little about pertinence. The idea that a piece of music could be apt (or inept) at a given time and place for reasons more important than its vogue seems never to have occurred to most concertgoers. A concert may be pleasant, diverting, and “uplifting,” but the listening experience it provides rarely has any urgency or potency. At the worst it can even induce sleep by its failure to keep attention.

    The public performance of repertory music has become a variety of genteel entertainment. To fulfill this role it confines itself to readily intelligible schemes of order, to familiar and accepted emotional associations, and to conventional musical sounds. For the kind of people who want confirmation that the status quo will not be threatened by changes, such entertainment is a symbol—not to say a ritual—of social and ideological stability. When (and if) most performers and conductors seek new works, their criteria are above all those of the “Great Tradition,” which they claim the public demands.

    Such demand as there is comes from a small, elite, and largely wealthy public, conditioned to want this traditional music by social custom, by musical education, and by promotional propaganda (which encompasses the vast bulk of music criticism). This conditioning is, moreover, class oriented.

    Now that more than a wealthy minority of society faces a leisure problem, we find “the amusements” rushing in to fill the vacuum created by alleviating the hard, competitive struggle for existence. There is widespread alarm among many thinking people at the harm done by a manipulative, irresponsible amusement industry.

    Properly understood, art would be a far healthier activity with which to fill leisure time, because it is educational in the classic sense: it can train one’s abilities, which can then be applied as one sees fit. Art is our sharpest tool for training sensitivity and responsiveness in action with others, along with keen sensory observation and alert muscular coordination in the performance of precise actions, and with intelligent grasp of the many kinds of order and disorder in phenomena and in behavior. The problems of what to do about leisure time and of what to do about our culture’s abysmal failure to educate feeling and sensitivity in people can become one problem. Until and unless “serious” composers and performers serve such a real need as this, and not simply a status-seeking and status-serving one, they will deserve exactly what they are getting: a social function as dubious luxury items.

    It is dishonest and self-deceiving to claim that by maintaining the supremacy of the standard repertory we are enabling the public to benefit from the continuance of a precious artistic heritage from the past. It is not true that the public understands Beethoven more easily than Webern, Webern more easily than Cage. The overfamiliar is what people usually understand least. Even the irritation of an audience jolted into listening with unjaded ears shows a much greater degree of understanding than their conditioned response to the classics.

    Just as commercial exploiters of popular taste usually claim to be supplying a demand, when in fact they are actively engaged in creating one, so leaders of community musical culture make the same false claim. Actually, little long-range effect upon concert series’ policies of program selection results if a majority of their audiences express like or dislike of a particular work, composer, or musical style. If the moneyed few who donate funds to support the concert series disagree, they decide otherwise.

    When Eleazar de Carvalho resigned as conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1967, he stated that this was because the Symphony Board demanded to make up the program content for each season. The board’s strongest objection was to de Carvalho’s utilization of the available rehearsal time in favor of new works. This had resulted in some rough performances of standard works.

    Former critic Peter Yates attended one of these premieres and afterward was quoted to this effect by a St. Louis newspaper. Yates later expressed alarm and resentment at this quote for being taken out of context. A letter he wrote to Barney Childs about the new (American) work on this same concert suggests the proper context of his remark: “The audience divided between applause and booing . . . The enthusiasts kept the applause going until the booers quit. Occasions like this make possible the existence of a native music.”

    Yet ignoring completely the audience’s manifest insistence upon accepting the new work, the press implied repeatedly that this and other new works of the 1965–66 season in St. Louis had received negative reactions from the audience. Ostensibly on this basis the board cracked down. They claimed that attendance at concerts had dropped off, due to de Carvalho’s musical policy.3

    An argument is often advanced to the effect that new works have (in Europe) perennially received hostile treatment at first, and yet have gone on to become repertory. So runs the argument, what are American composers griping about?

    Quite simply, they are griping about being forced to choose either to be treated as poor relations of Europeans or to become dropouts. Almost without exception, up to the present generation, to be a dropout from the musical establishment required accepting “amateur” status, either supported by an independent income, like Charles Ives, or not supported except part-time now and then, like Harry Partch.

    But today it is possible to drop out and still remain an effective member of the profession. Independent composers and performers more and more often organize festivals, concert series, even permanent performing groups. These increasingly tend to concentrate on works which are new in more than a chronological sense, and to negate explicitly or by implication the very occasions, attitudes, and behavior patterns which society has established for concerts.

    That is why the establishment, which aims to continue conventional traditions and customs of concert presentation indefinitely into the future, feels the tenor of many young musicians’ activities to be not merely nonconformist, but actively revolutionary. Such musicians are seeking and finding a new audience, new kinds of social occasions for listening to music, new ways of presenting sound experiences to people. They work with performers so closely that the boundaries between composer, performer, electronic technician, and theatrical director are often all but obliterated.

    The kind of composer of whom I speak is not at all content with an audience of specialists whose expertise approximates his own. He cares if you listen, but he is not about to say what he thinks you wanted to hear.4 For his purpose, the kind of performer who will give to a composer’s work the same respect and meticulous care he regularly gives to Bach is simply not good enough at all. A new challenge has been offered the performer: to participate as actively as the composer in the creation of music, not merely to interpret it, certainly not merely to realize it. There are many young performers who meet this challenge with enthusiasm, relieved finally to drop the role of museum curator for that of fellow artist.

    William Blake observed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “One law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression.” He might have added that one music for all people is a bore. Popular music has won its revolution. The monopoly of musical trivia for so long forced on everyone by means of commercial promotion has given way. Tin Pan Alley’s song lyrics get stiff competition now from real poetry. Today’s rock music is a far better equivalent to the folk music of rural cultures than were any intervening varieties of urban popular music. For “serious music” to win an analogous revolution would really give grounds for optimism, because that would indicate that intellectuals were giving up class values in art for more durable values.

    I do not know a better formulation of the “rock” point view than Burt Korall’s:

    Today, however, the voices of dissent are louder, for cause; we cannot wait any longer for the rapport to develop whereby we can live with one another. It is either pass down an inheritance of absurd reality or change direction . . . it becomes clear that it is no longer possible to separate music and life as it really is. Politics, sexuality, racial pride, deep and true feelings have entered popular music to stay. Our youth is central to this metamorphosis . . . Confusion reigns. Truth and honesty are at a premium. A valid way of life is sought. To this end, the young explorer rolls across a wide spectrum of subject matter and musical means and mannerisms. He experiments with ideology and sounds, often shaping answers in the process. But they are always open to change; flexibility is part of the concept . . . Hope is implicit in the negation of past and present mistakes—the hope for an apocalypse which will make the blind see, the intractable feel, the world’s fearful face change.5

    A radical left position outside the context of pop culture has found incisive expression by John Cage: “Twentieth Century arts opened our eyes. Now music’s opened our ears. Theatre? Just notice what’s around . . . the last thing I’d do would be to tell you how to use your aesthetic faculties . . .”6 And, even more searchingly, Cage writes:

    How does Music stand with respect to its instruments, . . . pitches, . . . rhythms, . . . degrees of amplitude . . . ? Though the majority go each day to the schools where these matters are taught, they read when time permits of Cape Canaveral, Ghana and Seoul. And they’ve heard tell of the music synthesizer and magnetic tape. They take for granted the dials on radios and television sets. A tardy art, the art of Music. And why so slow? . . . in our laziness, when we changed over to the twelve-tone system, we just took the pitches of the previous music as though we were moving into a furnished apartment and had no time to even take the pictures off the walls. What excuse?7

    The first of these two views (the rock musician’s) is moral, prescriptive, critical, involved. The second (Cage’s) is detached, liberating, critical, involved.

    In both cases abstract matters of perennial concern in the tradition of Western music (such as order, structure, form, proportion) either are banished or are assigned subordinate, almost nonessential roles. In both a vital new alternative to the establishment is sought—earnestly, uncompromisingly. In both cases the aim is freedom, artistic and social. The rock movement, however, is a group phenomenon, while Cage very much affirms the primacy of the individual.

    If the values and perceptions of our heritage from European art are to be kept alive, they must be discovered afresh by us against a background of vital contemporary art. It is above all the traditions of making art which must be preserved, not intact, but seminal, ready to take root in no matter how different a culture. The art treasures themselves, including musical ones, are a matter for museums. It is only common sense not to throw out our European artistic inheritance, but the way we are maintaining it invites radical opposition. The dominance of an imported art culture has always tended to arrest the development of indigenous art. Compare the effect of the art of ancient Greece upon that of Rome, or the effect of the art of nineteenth-century western Europe upon that of contemporary Russia. The existence of a free avant-garde in the United States makes possible an escape from such cultural smothering. An imported tradition can be domesticated for local use. It can even serve as a staple of cultural diet, but not if it is treated as a sacred cow.

    We are now in the midst of learning the hard lesson that glamorous, neoaristocratic temples of art like Lincoln Center in New York, or the community arts centers in Atlanta and Los Angeles, or the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana are alarmingly apt to tend in our culture to officialize the art of the past (as in the USSR) or else to deteriorate into centers for commercial mass entertainment. This results from the most direct of causes: aristocratic art on a big scale is expensive. Someone must pay. If the very wealthy or the government are to pay, the official solution is the only likely one. If the general public is to pay, then exploitation of the public by commercial interests with ready capital is depressingly probable.

    In either case, today’s vital art (whether mass-directed or aristocratic in its appeal) is concerned with the realities of life in the second half of the twentieth century. It naturally shuns such anachronistic environments, which suggest to audiences that they have entered an island, sheltered from the surrounding world: a safe, comfortable seclusion that is the death of art.

    In contrast to this, the last few years have seen increasing support of new centers of contemporary music by foundations, universities, and even in some cases state and national subsidy. A ferment of new activity has grown up wherever such support has been extended to active groups of performers and composers, freeing them from dependence upon the competitive commercial music world for their livelihood. Creative musical activity in the United States is decentralizing steadily, despite the concentration of musical activity and related business and publicity in major metropolitan centers.

    This can happen today because the present phase of the communications revolution means that a young musician in almost any country of the world where political power does not suppress exchange of information can be informed accurately and extensively about what his peers are doing the world over. With a little effort he can get tape recordings, articles, programs, not to speak of personal news and gossip. He participates in an artistic community which is by no means provincial.

    There are increasing numbers of young musicians who don’t want acceptance into the establishment, nor do they especially want to do battle with it. Its values—musical and cultural—bore them, except when they arouse anger, and not because these young people are without culture and intelligence. On the contrary, they find conventional and official culture smug and unaware of its own irrelevance in the face of the manifest realities of life here and today.

    In less than a generation, the age group of which I speak will outnumber considerably its seniors. Perhaps it will generate its own “establishment,” but that will be of a very different kind from the one that now dominates what is called our “national musical life.” The number of musicians in the United States who don’t think “business as usual” can apply to the arts is already larger than ever before.


    1.Gilbert Chase, “The Great Tradition,” unpublished lecture.

    2.Chase, “The Great Tradition.”

    3.A news story by Robert K. Sanford that appeared in the St. Louis Dispatch, Sunday, May 7, 1967, bore the following headline: “De Carvalho Tells Why He Chose to Leave: Asserts Management Ordered ‘Workhorse’ Compositions.” I quote from the body of this story:

    De Carvalho, who has been conductor and music director of the orchestra since 1963, has presented a number of contemporary musical works in his programs. Eleven compositions were presented here as first performances, nine as first performances in the United States.

    But during discussions about programs for the next season he was told that the contemporary works should he avoided, that they were bad business, the conductor said. In recalling a conversation with three persons described as “very high in management,” De Carvalho said the restrictions went beyond contemporary works. He said he understood that in selecting a Beethoven symphony, for instance, he should not choose Beethoven’s Second, or Fourth, but should choose the Fifth or the Ninth, compositions with which people are familiar.

    4.The allusion is to an article by Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares If You Listen?”

    5.Burt Korall, “The Music of Protest,” Saturday Review of Literature, November 16, 1968.

    6.John Cage, “Diary: Audience 1966,” in A Year from Monday, 50ff.

    7.John Cage, “Rhythm, etc.,” in A Year from Monday, 122.

A Conversation with Ben Johnston

Ben Johnston, near his home in North Carolina
  • READ an excerpt from “Maximum Clarity” and Other Writings on Music by Ben Johnston.
    FRANK J. OTERI: Maximum Clarity contains an extremely wide range of materials spanning the last half century: in-depth theoretical exegeses, program notes, plus critical essays about other composers and the music scene overall. Many of these seem extremely prophetic. The book covers so much ground, but it still left me wondering if there was anything you have written that did not get in to the book and what the criteria were for what was ultimately included in it.

    BEN JOHNSTON: There are a few but nothing that has that much interest I think. Bob Gilmore and I were at considerable pains to eliminate everything that would be in any way pure repetition or simply conventional stuff that people in universities all write at one time or another. Both things are in the extra writings, but I don’t think there’s a whole lot there that would be interesting. However, if anybody is curious, it is probably in the Northwestern Library. There’s a collection there of my stuff.

    FJO: I was thrilled to see that the book even included a letter to the editor that you wrote to Perspectives in New Music in response to a negative article they had published about the music of John Cage.

    BJ: I was kind of angry about that. I didn’t like what they were saying.

    FJO: The most revolutionary writings in the book are your explications of extended just intonation which you have explored more than most composers thus far. I was particularly struck by your postulating possible meanings for various types of intervals: the 3rd overtone ratios of perfect fifths and fourths representing stability and strength; the 5th overtone radios of major and minor thirds representing emotions; 7ths representing sexuality; 11ths ambiguity; and 13ths death.

    BJ: Those are subjective, of course. They have to be. But one aspect of Indian music that I have always admired is the fact that they do have some concept of the meaning of each raga that they use in both traditional North Indian and South Indian music. It is entirely different in Western music, but I was trying to see if I could figure out in what way we could make use of that aspect of Indian music which I greatly admired when I discovered it.

    FJO: Well, your comments about 7ths was particularly provocative. Pure 7ths were the intervals that were kept out of Renaissance polyphony and it’s an interval that never made it into Western music until the blues came along. Do you think the sexual innuendo you suggest for these intervals might be what kept these intervals banished from music for so long?

    BJ: That’s a possibility. But much more likely is difference you get when you introduce it between the two 7ths that we do have in Western music, the 9/5 or the 16/9—those are both common in Western music. (16/9 is the product of two fourths piled on top of each other and the other one is the one that you get by tuning thirds.) If you compare either of those to the natural 7th, you get a very tiny interval and I think that that very tiny interval bothered people the same way the comma of Didymus bothered them.

    FJO: That said, the natural 7th is everywhere. You hear it in when horn players accidently lip it in symphony orchestras all the time. It’s almost unavoidable.

    BJ: Exactly. It’s naturally there; you have to get rid of it. Not only that aspect of it, but the other aspect is in jazz, it’s being used constantly as an expressive device. And I think that’s where I got the idea that it’s sexual, because they certainly do use it that way. It’s a blues interval.

    FJO: When I read that, a thousand years of musical history suddenly made sense to me.

    BJ: I had to make them make sense to me; that’s why I turned out that way. I felt it was very important to be in context, and the context ought to be larger than fads. Neoclassicism or serial music, and all that sort of thing, those are fads. As little as we want to compare them to fads in popular music, there’s a certain thing in common there. It’s a trait of audiences more than anybody else, but even critics.

    FJO: We’ve talked about Indian music and Western classical music as well as jazz here, and what you’re claiming about these intervals almost implies that there’s a universal way that they could be perceived. Is that a fair claim?

    BJ: I think in a way that it is. But not if you go on to the higher intervals like the 11th and even the 13th, and smaller ones like that, unless you go as far as the 17th. And the reason I say that is because the 17th very closely resembles the tempered half-step and so you could say there’s an equivalent that we’re using for that one. But just back down a little way to the 13th and we have no equivalent whatsoever. So we have no basis of what the interval either means or how to use it, and no music in which it was being used. I think that’s why Harry Partch didn’t add it in; I’m not sure because he never actually said that to me. But my inference was that he avoided it because it didn’t have any meaning for him and the other ones did. That’s where I got the idea that they ought to have meaning, directly from Harry Partch. It’s not that I hadn’t encountered that idea before; I encountered it, as I said, in Indian music. I didn’t know a great deal about Indian music, but enough to whet my appetite.

    FJO: Another idea that you tossed off in just one sentence in one of the essays in the book, which also seemed to clarify all of music history, is describing vibrato as a masker for bad intonation.

    BJ: Well, I got that from an article written by Claudio Monteverdi.

    FJO: Ironically, some people today continue to sing Monteverdi’s music with vibrato.

    BJ: He was very clear about that: you don’t use it unless you want to use it as an expressive device. Fine, but it is that and you should use it with that it mind.

    FJO: The whole issue of masking bad intonation gets us into the question of what’s feasible on the part of performers and what is perceivable by the audiences who are hearing that performance. I’m reminded of James Tenney’s notion of interval tolerance: an interval within a certain range is going to be perceived by most people as a certain interval whether it’s precisely that interval or not. Is there a threshold beyond which any distinctions are incomprehensible and is that threshold a wall beyond which composers should not pass?

    BJ: Probably so. The reason I put it in terms of probability is I don’t want to be dogmatic about it. I could be wrong, and La Monte Young thinks I am. He wants to open the entire range, as high as you could possibly go, and I don’t think there’s much point in doing that because we don’t have a clear sense of what the emotional meaning of those intervals is. So why use them? His point is that it needs time. You need to have very slow development. Therefore he has these pieces that last more than 24 hours. You can sit through them or not, as you wish, but to fall back on John Cage: John said that he found that to be an arrogant way to make music, and I think it is. You say in effect that here it is and if you aren’t there, you’re going to miss it. That’s the very extreme opposite of Cage who says it ought to be that anything, absolutely anything, perceived is music. I can certainly see Cage’s point of view there but I can’t go that far. I decided that I wanted to preserve a lot of the things in traditional European music that Cage didn’t care about and would just as soon get rid of.

    FJO: But some of your work in extended just intonation includes intervals that most people have never encountered before, and they’re going by very quickly. So what do you think the threshold is for most listeners hearing your music?

    BJ: I don’t know and that has worried me. As a self-criticism, I’ve been wondering if what I’m doing is a sensible thing to be doing. And I can’t answer that; I guess time will tell whether it works for an audience bigger than the specialists. I just plain don’t know.

    FJO: In one of your essays written more than 30 years ago, you seem to be advocating for standard repertoire to be retuned into extended just intonation.

    BJ: Bob Gilmore frankly called that revisionism, not meaning it as a criticism, either. The whole point I was making, he said, is that Western music had taken a wrong turn or two, and if we correct those wrong turns, what might history have been instead? That is a provocative way of describing what I was into. I didn’t think of it as revisionism. I didn’t have any ism in mind. I was just doing what seemed to me lacking in Western music. If I could fix it so that it wasn’t lacking any longer, that was how I looked at it.

    FJO: Have you tried experiments retuning Debussy or Schubert’s piano music?

    BJ: Yes I have. But I must say now that it shouldn’t be done. That wasn’t what Debussy had in mind, and if you try to treat Debussy that way, it won’t work. On the other hand, I think this kind of thinking does cast a light on what it was that fascinated Debussy about these chords. However, if you try to change those chords and make them into just intonation chords, as if that was Debussy’s real intention, and if you tune it, it ought to work. No, it won’t work.

    FJO: Of course, we do the opposite every time we retune Handel, Telemann, and hosts of other composers, every time we play their music in equal temperament; that’s not how they conceived their music.

    BJ: Well, that’s quite true. But that’s a distortion we’ve placed on that. What it would be in the other case is a distortion placed on top of what is already distorted. One distortion doesn’t correct another, except by accident.

    FJO: In another one of these essays you talked about how audiences understand the standard repertoire even less than the new music they claim not to like. They think they’re appreciating Beethoven, but they’re actually not.

    BJ: Well, I think that is true. Beethoven’s music meant something very startling for the time. Beethoven was a democrat, so to speak. When he wrote the Eroica Symphony, he was praising Napoleon, because Beethoven felt that Napoleon was a spreader of democracy, which he wanted in place of the aristocracy he didn’t like. But Napoleon turned out to be just another person who was trying to enlarge his scope of influence and in the process had become an evil influence. So then Beethoven no longer wanted any part of it and expunged the dedication. But people don’t look at Beethoven that way; Beethoven just makes them comfortable. Well, that’s not what he was up to, not at all. So it’s certainly wrong the way audiences perceive it. But what could we do to change that?

    I’m not saying to tune it in just would do that, but in the case of some of the late Beethoven works that are so hard to understand, it might help to clarify them, to understand that at least, in the same way that Debussy was, he was thinking toward that kind of organization. But he didn’t reach it, because in order to reach it, you have to be quite thorough. Which is what I’m trying to be. But Beethoven wasn’t trying to do that. Had he decided that he did want to do that, it probably would have been in those later works. What he was trying was as radical as possible, but what was possible at that time, given the way things were going, was not at all what is now or what it was during the 20th century.

    FJO: In a way, Beethoven was as radical in his time as John Cage was.

    BJ: Absolutely. Maybe even more so because the society was so closed, closed in the sense of stratified. There were the people who hired these creative musicians, those musicians, and then the rest of the musicians that they were using. So there’d come to be things like the difference between Mozart and Salieri which was been made so much of. Why was Mozart a better composer than Salieri? That’s a very interesting question and not at all easy to answer. And the movie doesn’t do it, but at least they raise the question.

    FJO: This reminds me of your comments about the relationship of art to entertainment and your suspicion of entertainment as a means of creating art. At one point, you spoke of art as a means to explicate complexity.

    BJ: Now that I’m older and have not been composing for a while, I’ve begun to change my mind about that. I’m not so highfalutin, to use a common term. I feel now that popular music has as much to offer people, but it also has its limitations. You have to be very careful about what they are. If you look at rock musicians, let’s say, there’s a lot of difference between the average rock musician and someone like Sting. I just picked that because I think a lot of his musical content. I think he has really got something to say, and he says it well given the way that he’s doing it. He’s not the only one; he’s just one that I got interested in largely because of his texts as much as anything else. But then again, what is he trying to say with those words and how does the music relate to that? I would say very successfully. Now, if you look at the average rock band, that’s not true. And it’s not true because they’re not trying to make that much of it.

    FJO: But the same is probably also true of many composers of chamber and orchestral music throughout history.

    BJ: That’s right. I think what it comes down to is really good people who are very talented and working with other people who are talented, as you had in the case of the Beatles. It’s not so much the Beatles themselves as individual performers but them along with the technicians who put their stuff together.

    FJO: I was struck by your writing that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band was more meaningful to most people than a fugue could ever be.

    BJ: Absolutely so, because they’re speaking a language that can be understood contemporarily. Now whether a fugue could ever be understood to that degree, certainly it could be far better at a time when counterpoint was everybody’s focus.

    FJO: Certainly Sgt. Pepper’s contains a lot of complex techniques: there’s backward sound and all kinds of things we typically associate with more “sophisticated” music.

    BJ: A lot of that is the engineer, and you have to allow that one of the real creative people in such a group is the engineer because that’s where it all gets put together. And it’s either put together in an extremely clever and meaningful way, or it’s just routine.

    FJO: There are two things in your writings from nearly 40 years ago that strike me as prophecies. The first is the idea that the mainstream is eroding in your essay, “On Context” from 1968. In an age of 500-channel cable TV, internet surfing, and niche marketing which all target very small, unrelated areas of interest, we really seem to have lost a mainstream.

    BJ: It’s like having too much to eat. No wonder obesity is a problem. You’ve got the equivalent everywhere because there is simply too much of everything. I don’t say we get rid of it; you can’t do it that way. But we have to learn how to live with it in such a way that we use it and are not used by it. Right now most people are used by it, and that is what obesity amounts to. Or any of the other diseases—partly psychological—that people get: bulimia, for example.

    FJO: It’s not even so much about too many choices anymore. People are so focused on the choice that they made that they don’t explore choices beyond them.

    BJ: The other thing is the business of synthetic this and synthetic that. I think that’s a little like what the Germans did to music when they were the big supporters of various kinds of temperament. I say the Germans, because German music was so very good during the period of the classical composers so that’s where the focus was more than in Italy or any other place.

    FJO: In the ’60s, you talked about a generation that did not want to be part of the establishment and you wondered if they would create their own establishment. Clearly now nearly 40 years later, a lot of time has gone by, people who were young then are much older. So has there been a fundamental change in the musical establishment?

    BJ: Oh yeah. No question about it. There’s a whole book of writings by Kyle Gann that deals with that. If you just look at New York City as an emblem of what’s going on—it’s not by any means to say that nothing happens except in New York City—he’s not saying that and I’m not either, but he’s using it as a paradigm. You can use it as a measurement almost for what’s going on everywhere. And what do we have there. We have Uptown, which is like Columbia and the other universities, that whole academic attitude of scholarship. Then you have Midtown, which is typified by Juilliard and its influence. (I’m talking about educational institutions because that’s where I come from, so to speak.) Then you have Downtown. You don’t have any school there unless you take the New School, possibly, as a school. But Downtown isn’t focused around a school. What you’ve got there was started by Yoko Ono before she met John Lennon. And it’s pretty fascinating to see what you’ve got there. You’ve got a whole bunch of musics that are totally and deliberately undisciplined.

    FJO: But you’re talking about something that was the case 40 years ago.

    BJ: Yes, that’s right.

    FJO: And the young people who were resisting the establishment…

    BJ: …are no longer young.

    FJO: And a lot of them are probably members of the establishment.

    BJ: Well, some of them, as you tend to do when you get older, have tended to take what they were doing and turn that into kind of a new establishment. I think that’s more typical. You have to recognize when that happens. It’s like a novelist whose early works are fascinating, and then you get to the later ones and wonder, “Is this the same person?” Because some kind of a change has occurred.

    FJO: As far as that Uptown/Downtown divide goes, I was struck when I read about your plan to come to the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center to explore just intonation through electronic means under the auspices of Milton Babbitt, but that never happened.

    BJ: Well, I did get there and I was working in the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio. The only way it could be tried was on a huge synthesizer, and there was this huge synthesizer, but Milton Babbitt had exclusive use of it and he wasn’t about to let anyone else do it. That was the practical aspect of it.

    FJO: So it wasn’t that he was directly opposed to your work, in particular.

    BJ: I don’t think so. In fact, later, he was influential in getting one of my works played at Columbia under very good circumstances. He was in his own way, very helpful. It’s just that his own aims are so absolutely fixed and clear cut to him, and he didn’t want to be bothered by somebody who had equally fixed ideas but in a different direction. At least that’s the way I read it.

    FJO: In some of the essays you allude to a composer caring if you listen, and those allusions struck me as a direct jab at Babbitt.

    BJ: Yes it was; that was conscious. He’s got his own way of being pedantic. And I don’t like that. Then, at the opposite extreme, he knows every musical number from every Broadway play of any significance going back generations. That’s a hobby for him. All right, if he just put those two things together, it would be fascinating. But except for the time when he was interested in the sort of new music jazz that Gunther Schuller introduced him to, he never had anything to do with that kind of thing, almost nothing. So I always felt that that was a blind spot on his part.

    FJO: But there is a relationship between your work and Babbitt’s, especially from that time when you were attempting to reconcile extended just intonation with serialism.

    BJ: I’d spent the first decade of my academic career doing music from a more ordinary standpoint, that is to say not retuned, because I felt that if I was going to do anything I would have to establish myself as a composer. And that turned out to be true. I would never have gotten the Guggenheim if I had not established myself as a composer at the very least. So I had only that year begun to compose in that way. I had thought about it a lot, and I certainly had gone and worked with Harry Partch. I was trying to make a compromise with what was the right way to do things among academics, which was 12-tone music at that point and was very much dominated by Princeton, even more than the other Ivy Leagues. But I did it in such a way that what I was really doing, as Milton pointed out, was subverting. He looked at what I was doing as subversive. And he said, “You know, nobody can hear those intervals.” And I said, “I can, Milton. Can’t you?”

    FJO: How did he respond to that?

    BJ: He brushed it aside because I was at Princeton at the time. So that was one of those not so friendly moments. There was a mixed relationship there always. But he really respected what I was trying to do, in a certain sense, because he kept asking for my writings for Perspectives. He wouldn’t have done that. He did it through other people sometimes, but it’s clear that it was Milton that was doing it.

    FJO: After your project that never quite happened at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, you never worked again with electronic music and have remained a steadfast advocate of composition for live musicians on standard instruments. Of course, nowadays, everything is electronics, and microtonal intervals seem to be much easier to compose with through the use of electronics, as well as easier to teach to other people that way.

    BJ: I purely didn’t do it for the same reason that if somebody heard you sing, and said you need months of work to get your voice in shape, and you didn’t want to spend the months of work, you don’t sing. It was one of those things I found I had a non-talent for. I mentioned this problem to John Cage when he suggested I work with him. I got to New York and I could see this situation at Columbia-Princeton wasn’t going to work. I could see further, even, that the technology of it was not good enough to do what I needed to be done; it wasn’t precise enough, and it wasn’t going to be any time soon, as I got from talking with Luening and Ussachevsky. I presented this problem to John Cage when he asked how things were going and he said, “Well, I could have told you ahead of time, if you had asked me.”

    He immediately said, “You’re not going to get what you want at Columbia. Whether you could get it at the New School, I don’t know. But it’s too late now. You’re established at Columbia; you have to stay there. You can learn something if you just go into the studio and learn the techniques. Meanwhile, I will offer you free composition lessons once a month where I’m living.” So I used to go up and work with him and I said, “What do you want me to do? I’m not sure I understand how to work in your area.” And he said, “I don’t think you ought to work in my area; I think you’ve found your sense of direction.” And I even asked him, “What in the world made you ever interested in me at all?” And he said, “Well, it was the fact that you went to work with Harry Partch.” And I knew perfectly well that he didn’t even like Harry Partch’s music at all. But he said that it was a nervy kind of thing to do, and he respected it fundamentally. He thought I was finding my sense of direction and did not want to interfere with that, so he said, “Let me help you with the work you are doing.” Which he did very much. He was not teaching me as he taught most of his other students; he was letting me do my own thing, or start to do my own thing and then he was pointing out, “You’re not really doing your own thing yet, are you?” And I had to admit I wasn’t. And said, “Why aren’t you?”

    FJO: You mentioned that you have now stopped composing. Do you feel that you’ve said all that you need to say as a composer?

    BJ: No. I just haven’t had the emotional calm to be able to compose. I’m going through so much—I am in the role of caregiver [for my wife] and I’m trying to be a creative and useful part of this environment. But in doing that, it uses up all my emotional energy, and I just have none left. On the other hand, what I can do, and have been doing, is working directly with the Kepler Quartet on the precise way to deal with realizing all of the string quartets.

    FJO: I imagine the first quartet was originally conceived in equal temperament; is that how they’re going to perform it?

    BJ: That’s right, and they’re going to perform it that way. I thought about it and I even talked about it with John Cage in 1959 when I was working with him and he said, “Of course not. Leave it alone. It is what it is. The only thing you need to do is make sure it is what it is as perfectly as you can make it.” So he criticized it and said that the middle movement doesn’t work; it doesn’t fit with the other movements. “What were you trying to do?” And I told him and he said I had to make that more consistent with the rest of it. He suggested a rewrite. He said it was far too long so the only solution was to make it even longer.

    FJO: That’s so John Cage. I’m so thrilled that the Kepler Quartet and New World Records have taken on this project but I’m still amazed that no one’s ever attempted this before now. Your fourth quartet, which uses the melody of “Amazing Grace,” has been recorded by several groups and has had quite a bit of circulation, but the others are not really well-known. One of them has never even been performed. I think one of the hindrances with these works has been that no one has been able to hear them from just looking at the score. Hopefully having these recordings out will change that.

    BJ: Yeah, I know, I’ve had that a lot. They’ll say, “Oh, this is impossible.” There was one where they said, “He can’t mean this really.” And they just played it however they wanted to. I wasn’t terribly pleased. And when I went to Europe, that’s exactly what I got. They played it their way, and that was that. It was also the case with some quartets that were seriously quite capable of doing this and they didn’t want to bother. And I was, in the beginning, trying to write so that it would be easy. Until Salvatore Martirano stepped in and said, “Look, the reason you’re getting this reaction is that what you’re writing is easy and they say, ‘Oh, that shouldn’t take much rehearsal, so we’ll just sight read it.'” If they had really worked on it, it would not have been easy at all; it would have been quite hard. It’s just that nothing was hard except the intonation. They just left that out.

    FJO: This reminds me of your description in the book about working with the St. Louis Symphony in what turned out to be the last piece of orchestral music you’d ever written.

    BJ: The conductor got a rebellion from the orchestra. They said they weren’t going to play it; the second harpist refused to retune his harp, etc. But then, what [the conductor, Eleazar] De Carvalho did was to invite me up on the stage, and started [rehearsing] the last part. That was a good idea, because out of all this chaos came a kind of order. In the piece I was really trying to portray chaos, the interaction of chaos with order, and finally order winning out. So they realized that at the end you get what really sounded like music to them, so they began to take it seriously.</p

Imagining Native America in Music

Reprinted from Imagining Native America in Music by Michael V. Pisani.
Copyright © by Yale University Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

  • READ an interview with author Michael V. Pisani.



    Style and Ideology in Indian Musical Portraiture
    (from Chapter 7, “In Search of the Authentic: Musical Tribal Portaits, 1890-1911,” pp.225-235.)

    The combined use of a program for both a character piece and a tribal melody, Kiowa or Dakota, implied that some composers in the early part of the twentieth century considered specific ethnic associations to be essential to the realism of their portrayal. This ideology was partly an extension of developments in poetry, art, and, most notably, photography, which, with the advent of periodicals such as National Geographic, seemed poised to eradicate all fanciful notions of savagery. “Each [of these] must be what it purports to be,” wrote Edward Curtis in 1907 to accompany his remarkable photographic display of Native Americans. “A Sioux must be a Sioux and an Apache an Apache; in fact, every picture must be an ethnographic record.” 19 Using stunning visual imagery, Curtis purported to illustrate what he saw, “not what one in the artist’s studio presumes might exist.” Thinking topographically, Curtis hoped his “ethnographic records” in vivid chiaroscuro would reflect the great national and cultural diversity of the many Indian nations.

    Photographic portraits, like published transcriptions of tribal Indian music, were slices of reality, answers to the romantic rendering of native America by many nineteenth-century painters. Yet photography, unlike an actual performance of Indian music (but like an instrumental character piece), is an artificial medium. It freezes images—sometimes very powerful and influential images—that are as much of the artist’s making as they are reflections of the subjects in it. Its ability to convey is of course limited by what the photographer frames or chooses to emphasize. Variety is the greatest strength of Curtis’s collections, particularly in his twenty-three-year publishing project entitled The North American Indian. Nevertheless, his determination to isolate authentic Indian cultures suggested a kind of imagined purity. Most efforts to define cultures as pure are deeply problematic from an anthropological perspective, even if they appear to succeed on a poetic level as art. Cultures are never entirely “authentic,” notes anthropologist James Clifford, but rather contingent and subject to local reappropriation. In other words, ethnographic identity must always be understood as mixed, relational, and inventive. The racial and cultural purity that Curtis sought in his Indian portraits was first of all selective. He would often ask his male subjects, for example, to wear “traditional” costumes rather than their coveralls for his photographs, and his images rarely show Indian cultures as complex and adaptive.20

    Original sheet music cover for Edward MacDowell’s New England Idyls (Boston: Arthur P. Schmidt, 1902).

    Carrying this analogy over into music, a transcribed Indian song notated by someone schooled in European musical practices differs from the actual performance of an Indian song in the same way that a photograph of an event differs from the event itself. Without knowledge about how to perform the song, its context, and allowances made for notational inaccuracies or compromises, the ink on paper fades to a pale substitution. This notated song is what we might call the first level of removal from a fully experiential cultural source.

    In 1899 Krehbiel, a supporter of both Dvorák and MacDowell, prepared a survey of the scholarly literature on Indian music transcription. His resulting New York Tribune essay demonstrated his awareness of the complex (and sometimes ineffectual) processes involved in collecting and notating such music. He also drew attention to the number of American composers who had begun to adopt written transcriptions of Indian music “as thematic germs” for their own compositions. By 1899 Indian music had lost much of its earlier stigma. In fact it had developed a cachet, especially as adapted by composers. I would refer to adaptations such as MacDowell’s character pieces as the second level of removal from an original musical source. Since the “folk melody” (or notated Indian song) is itself a mere lifeless “photo” once removed from the event, the composition is like a “portrait” of the musical photo. On the one hand, the composition reactivates the life of the notated melody (much as a documentary film that incorporates a photo might do), but, on the other, it adds a wholly imaginative dimension and crosses the threshold from life to art. Naturally, such musical portraiture fully engages the subjectivity of the artist, and each musical portrait, though it may use the same notated Indian themes as another work, results in a different interpretation of the subject it attempts to portray.

    Musical portraiture similarly embodies constructs of native America that were based partly on source material (transcribed melodies) and partly on interpretation (the stylistic features of individual composers). Early twentieth-century composers, steeped in the notion that Indian cultures would soon vanish from the earth, felt it their right, if not their responsibility, to borrow what they saw as distinctive characteristics from Indian tribal musics. (Appendix 2 includes a selective list of such musical “tribal portraits,” works that attempt to depict some particular aspect of a specific native American culture. The bulk of the tribal-specific compositions date from about 1903 to 1924, after which interest waned. For purposes of comparison, the list also includes important works that are largely indexical and do not feature specific tribal music. While this list is selective, it includes works produced by major music publishers, and I kept the overall proportion of findings roughly the same so as not to skew the data.) Following the recognition of the rhetorical power of pentatonicism in the 1890s, three new techniques that developed during this concentrated period contributed to the ongoing syntax in music that reflected native America—all of them in some way derived from folk cultures, though not necessarily American Indian cultures per se. These techniques encompassed (1) melodic parallelisms (also associated with primitivism, alterity, and orientalism); (2) modality (associated with ancientness as well as the sacred); and, less commonly, (3) dissonance (associated with the “rawness” of the primitive experience). Let’s consider briefly the important roles of each of these with a few examples.


    It may be difficult to believe, but melodies stereotypically harmonized in parallel fourths or fifths, though ubiquitous in popular culture by the 1930s, were relatively uncommon at the beginning of the century. Westerners at this time would have had few opportunities to hear, for example, the sheng, a Chinese mouth organ that played melodies in parallel intervals such as fourths. Debussy and Ravel were familiar with it, of course, and imitated the effect in their later music. Puccini, though, was perhaps the first Western composer to use parallel fifths in La bohème (1896), where the fifths’ “openness” symbolized the bleakness of winter. Melodies harmonized in parallel fourths first turn up in America—indeed, anywhere in modern Western composition, to my knowledge—in an Indian setting. These appeared as part of the remarkable (and much underrated) publishing venture of Arthur Farwell, who included a significant number of Indian character pieces in the early years of his Wa-Wan Press (Newton Center, Massachusetts, 1901–11).21 Particularly striking among the Indian items in the Wa-Wan series were those of Harvey Worthington Loomis. Exactly when Loomis wrote these is unknown, but Farwell published them in two installments as Lyrics of the Red Man, Books 1 and 2 (1903 and 1904). Loomis featured many of these works in his concerts, among them (as already noted) his much-publicized 1905 lecture-recital on Indian music in New York City. Though each of the character pieces was supposed to reflect some aspect of contemporary tribal Indian life, Loomis, who was no stranger to reaching beyond the borders of his style, created a distinctive Indian idiom all his own. Like his contemporary exoticists Granville Bantock in England and Charles Koechlin in France, he was steeped in orientalism and deeply immersed in Arabic and Chinese musical styles (as well as American Indian). In 1899 Witmark published Loomis’s “Chinese Lullaby” (set to a verse by Edwin Starr Belknap), and as late as 1919 Oliver Ditson published “In Chinatown,” a musical postcard from San Francisco. Works such the recitation Sandalphon and the opera The Bey of Baba reveal his fascination with the Middle East. One of Loomis’s several dramatic pantomimes, The Garden of Punchinello, was even written for the Shah of Persia, Ahmad Shah Qujar, and in 1914 was performed in Tehran.22

    To make the connection between Indian folksong and composition perfectly clear, Loomis (or Farwell, as editor) preceded each miniature with a musical epigraph of the original source melody from Fletcher and LaFlesche’s A Study of Omaha Indian Music. Loomis’s titles, like “Prayer to Wakonda,” “Ripe Corn Dance,” or “The Chattering Squaw,” were clearly meant to stimulate performers’ and listeners’ imaginations. These were, at the very least, associations with specific aspects of modern Indian life, in contrast with, say, MacDowell’s poetic titles. (As part of a lecture, of course, their Indian context would have been further clarified.) From a technical standpoint, they are more pianistically demanding than many other Indian character pieces. They are also stylistically different from anything that came before—indeed, from all previous Western instrumental music.

    In “The Chattering Squaw,” the work that caused such mirth among his New York audience, Loomis harmonized a pentatonic Cree melody in parallel fourths (table 6). While this feature might seem to us today to resemble some Tin Pan Alley Chinese stereotype, vaudeville songs about Asians at this time did not yet contain this particular feature. The parallel index entered the American popular song repertory sometime between 1903 and 1909, the same time that indexical Indian features began showing up in this venue.23

    A. Edward MacDowell, “Indian Idyl” from New England Idyls (1901), middle section
    B. Ernest Kroeger, “March of the Indian Phantoms” (1904), beginning
    C. Harvey Worthington Loomis, “Chattering Squaw” from Lyrics of the Red Man, op. 76, book 2 (1904), mm. 3–10

    The accompaniment for “The Chattering Squaw” in the piano left hand is specified as imitating a large and small drum. The underlying rhythm is a persistent [whole-note, half-note, half-rest]. The original melody is basically in pentatonic mode V (here Bb–G–F–Eb–C), but it also contains nonpentatonic inflections: a D neighbor tone above the high C and an Ab passing tone between G and Bb. Loomis’s parallelisms are actually quite sophisticated by comparison with the Tin Pan Alley parody of Chinese music, which is usually in strict parallel fourths. He keeps the Ab, for example, when the Cree melody reaches up to D, resulting in fourths that are sometimes perfect, sometimes tritone. The effect is odd but also shrill, which may have been intentional, given the nature of this droll song. In their use of melodic parallel fourths, Loomis’s Lyrics of the Red Man are the earliest works to draw upon Far Eastern allusions to portray American Indians. Even Debussy, who used parallel fifths in the bass and inner voices, did not do so in the melody (in print anyway) until 1903 (in “Pagodes” from Estampes) and more overtly in 1905 (La mer) and 1910 (Préludes, Book 1). Indeed, Loomis’s parallelisms in these Indian pieces seem to have been re-ceived as quite a novel effect. Critic Henry T. Finck’s response implies that it was a new phenomenon to him as well. Instead of perceiving a connection with Asian music or anything by Debussy, however, Finck wrote that “The Chattering Squaw” was a work “in which consecutive fourths and fifths pro-duce a cacophony reminding one of the medieval organum of Hucbald’s day.” We can presume that listeners in 1904 would have heard these melodic paral-lelisms as parody, as Far Eastern “oriental,” or even—depending on their familiarity with music history—as neomedieval. In any case, a new trope had been added to musical Indianism.24


    Modality, on the other hand, had served as a distinctive colorist device in nineteenth-century Europe as a marker for the folk (as in Chopin’s mazurkas) or for referencing older European church music (as in Liszt’s oratorios). Western European composers also used modality for other purposes. Gounod and Respighi, for example, read late nineteenth-century treatises on sacred music by Niedermeyer, Bragers, Arnold, and others on how to provide accompaniments for, and thereby modernize, Gregorian chant. These scholars tried to reconcile the medieval Roman church modes with the normative practices of nineteenth-century major-minor harmony. The ancient Greek modes, from which the church modes were derived, were said to embody traits of character —Dorian for bravery, Phrygian for warlike, and so on—and it is well known that Plato believed strongly in their effect on human behavior. After several centuries of neglect, interest in the modes began to surge dramatically in the 1870s and early 1880s; this was largely due to influential composers such as Musorgsky (who found his national voice partly in old Russian Orthodox chants) and Debussy, who, significantly, had adopted the practice from Musorgsky. But in the early twentieth century, staunch nationalists like Vaughan Williams came to modality through a profound interest in regional folk music, much of which still retained the ancient modes. Moreover, pentatonic melodies could be mapped onto modal scales, as Bartók discovered around 1905. Pentatonic mode V, for example, could be set to Dorian, Phrygian, or Aeolian scales.

    Modality was exceptional in nineteenth-century American orchestral and vocal music, showing up only in the “Indian” works of Arthur Foote and MacDowell. Yet by 1915, when Frederick Converse fashioned a sophisticated modal accompaniment as a solution for a migrating Cheyenne melody in The Peace Pipe (written for the Chautauqua Festival), modal settings of Indian music had become fairly common through tribal portraits and larger works. One obvious marker of modality, the lowered leading tone, “inevitably suggests antiquity,” wrote the Iowa theorist and composer Horace Alden Miller in New Harmonic Devices (1930). Another particularly “Indian” device, according to Miller (who wrote quite a few Indian works himself), was the use of minor dominant chords (which of course incorporate the lowered leading tone). In a later study, Modal Trends in Modern Music (1941), Miller demonstrated how the harmonization of a Chippewa (Ojibwa) song could be accomplished without any dominant sevenths, relying solely on minor subdominants and other substitution chords. Miller even included examples of “Indian cadences” in his book. The lowered seventh figures prominently in many of these. One that Miller isolates as a particularly “interesting cadence” (B minor seventh to G major seventh) does have the uncommon effect of resolving to a dissonant chord. More important for our subject, however, the penultimate chord in this cadence (as well as the “minor dominant sevenths” that Miller highlights) is identical with the sonority of overlapping fifths in Dvorák’s “New World” Scherzo (beginning in m. 5: E–B–G–D), which, as discussed in chapter 4, established a kind of primeval sound through modal suggestion.25

    Natalie Curtis noted in 1913 that visiting European musicians such as Felix Mottl, Vasily Safonov, and Ferruccio Busoni, all of whom took “keen interest in our native music,” found that Indian melodies needed a wider range of modal possibilities than simply major or minor accompaniments. The use of modes and other harmonic devices to avoid traditional harmonic associations has also been noted in the compositions of Amy Beach, not least in several works based on Indian themes, especially those of the Alaskan Inuit. Adrienne Fried Block has pointed out the expressive possibilities that Beach found in the use of folk music, particularly in her larger and more complicated forms. “Indian music,” wrote Block, “provided her with themes of the utmost sim-plicity, almost without harmonic implications. In setting the theme Beach had to both simplify her harmonic style and find compositional means that al-lowed for development while not overwhelming the primitive themes.”26

    While composers such as Beach searched well into the 1920s for more effective ways to incorporate Indian themes (such as in the string quartet), modal harmony continued to offer an alternative to pure major-minor diatonicism, not only in Indianist music but also in works based on African American and Anglo-American spirituals and folk song, both of which retained many of the old modes. (We might ask why chromatic harmony, certainly another viable musical language in this post-Wagnerian age, was rarely used to invoke native America during this period. Given its fundamental connection to European musical modernism and expressionism, it may have been seen as too neurosis-laden or relating specifically to states of mind and therefore in-compatible with the tropes of Indianism, which were either of the body and nature-based or of the soul and hence spirit-based.) Modality in Indian musical portraiture in the early twentieth century may have helped to infuse the works of MacDowell, Miller, Beach, Herbert, and even Sousa with a sense of authenticity (because of their ancientness). Perhaps because of its innate centuries-old characteristics, modality also served to deepen listeners’ spiritual connection with the subject matter, regardless of how they may have felt about the contradictions between the nature of Indian music and the essentially Western medium of expression.


    As editor of the Wa-Wan Press, Farwell wrote short essays to accompany each volume of this Americanist enterprise. In his introduction to volume 2, no. 12 (1903), he professed that he had arrived at nine “Articles of Faith” with which composers could turn to American Indian music, thereby finding the spiritual depth lacking in much contemporary classical music. At the same time, however, he had discovered “new motives and rhythms” in Indian music that were synchronous with modern sensibilities. He began with Fletcher’s Omaha collection, of course, claiming that he had studied the songs as mono-phonic works, (i.e., without Fillmore’s harmonizations). But when he set some of them himself in American Indian Melodies—his first character pieces—he rarely diverged from Fillmore’s original harmonies. This may have been due largely to the fact that when he began setting Indian songs around 1900, there were no other models to follow, and his compositional style was still, as a young man, relatively undeveloped.27

    The first of Farwell’s American Indian Melodies, “The Approach of the Thunder God,” could be compared with Fillmore’s original setting to show that, with the exception of the added MacDowell-like “Indian” progression (iv6–ii65–i) in m. 9 and in the final cadence, Farwell makes only a few minor alterations in the accompaniment: some repeated notes and occasional smoother voice leading. Farwell’s settings thereafter quickly grew more elaborate. Works such as Dawn, Ichibuzzhi, The Domain of Hurakan (all 1902), the first Navajo War Dance (1904 [later titled “No. 2” by John Kirkpatrick upon its belated publication in 1947]), and especially “Pawnee Horses” from the suite From Mesa and Plain (1905) are not just illustrations of how to harmonize an Indian melody; they are fully realized compositions that convey a solid compositional technique, an emotional depth, and a keen ability to convey the impression of place and experience in a quasi-narrative setting.28

    Farwell was probably the first creative artist since George Catlin to draw existentially on American Indian subjects. He strove to escape the nineteenth-century’s “imaginary Indian” and, like Edward Curtis, moved toward more realistic interpretations of living Indians and toward the representation of raw experience. His (actual) second Navajo War Dance for piano (1905) is particularly remarkable in its radical shift away from the more staid rhythmic and harmonic techniques of the previous generation of American composers. Dark and musically disjointed, its melodic inflections and rhythmic vigor reflect Farwell’s encounters in the Southwest with Indian ritual music. He did not forget the thrill of excitement he first experienced from hearing two young Indian men sing Isleta Pueblo songs at the home of ethnologist and entrepre-neur Charles Lummis in Los Angeles, nor the Navajo chanting and drumming he transcribed from Lummis’s collection of cylinders. In 1909 he recalled the inception of the Navajo War Dance:

    It was at this time that I made my first really savage composition on Indian themes. . . . I had earlier inclined to the more pastoral songs and peace chorals, and folks reasoned naively that these could not represent the Indian, since the latter was a savage. Evidently I must reform and do something really Indian. The theme of the Navajo War Dance was something to make your blood curdle and your hair to stand on end.29

    What was “blood curdling” about the work, however, was not any particular “savageness,” but rather Farwell’s experimentation with modernist techniques in harmony and rhythm in combination with the Navajo song. He peppered his accompaniment with nonfunctional dissonances and varied the length of successive phrases to avoid a sense of predictability. The first presentation of the theme, for example, cadences on the seventh measure, with an extra measure of repetition added to round off the phrase to eight. The next phrase cadences after only five measures, but Farwell adds a measure of interruption that seems imagistically evocative of a dancer’s leap. After yet another extra measure (which sounds like imitations of vocal “yips”), a third phrase begins, though first with a one-measure false start. Played “with savage aban-don,” this phrase then proceeds to cadence unexpectedly on the sixth measure. The cadences are all on stark open fifths, but the harmonies that accompany the melodic phrases are quite pungent. Farwell also arrived at the solution—just about the same year as Bartók did—of setting a pentatonic melody to a nontraditional triad, one derived from the pentatonic mode of the source tune (in this case, C–D–G). He later adapted this piano work for the Westminster Choir in Princeton (Four Songs on Indian Themes, 1937). The eight-part a cappella choir sings triplets with Indian vocables: “weh-eh ah / weh-eh ah / weh-ah ha / hi.” In this revised version, the composer added even more dissonances and some new rhythmic features drawn from his experience of Navajo performers. The lower basses and altos hold firmly to a throbbing two (the drum) while the rest the chorus continues the triplets (the voices). In Navajo music, singers use freer rhythms, often in threes (which represents the spirit) against the regular patterns of the drumming (which represents the physical).



    19Edward S. Curtis, “North American Indians,” National Geographic 18, no. 7 (July 1907): 483.

    20Clifford, Predicament of Culture, 10. On Curtis’s methods of composing his photographs, see Lyman, Vanishing Race and Other Illusions.

    21Puccini used melodic parallelisms in Edgar (1889), but not fourths or fifths. Act 2 of La bohème opens in a festive mood with parallel triad chords. It can be argued that the parallel fifths at the opening of act 3 shadow the earlier parallels and symbolize the fact that the warmth of love has turned to ice. The last “Indian” set in the Wa-Wan Press series appeared in 1906; two short piano miniatures by Carlos Troyer appeared in separate issues the following year and were its final Indianist works.

    22Henry T. Finck wrote that Loomis’s reputation rested on his songs; see Finck, My Adventures in the Golden Age of Music (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1926), 275. A short assessment of the first half of Loomis’s career can be found in The Musiclover’s Calendar 2 (1906): 73-75. Several of Loomis’s dramatic pantomimes were produced by the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. The majority of his works can be found in the Loomis Collection in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. The manuscript score of The Garden of Punchinello, with the original scenario by Kendall Banning, is at Dartmouth College Library.

    23My assessment is based on the songs published between 1900 and 1920 on Asian subjects in the online MftN and LEVY databases. Angelo Read, the Canadian composer and conductor, illustrated melodic similarities between “Indian music” and “Asiatic music in “The North American Indian and Music” (Musical America, 13 July 1907). Such ideas, expressed elsewhere during this period, were aligned with those of Francis E. Leupp, Theodore Roosevelt’s commissioner of Indian Affairs, and other “race fusionists,” as they were called. It is not possible to determine exactly when American sheet music publishers began to issue popular songs that depicted Asian subjects. For more on this early twentieth-century repertory, see Tsou, “Gendering Race,” and Lancefield, Hearing Orientality. Other American composers of this time who took an interest in Asian subjects were Edgar Stillman Kelley (“Aladdin” Suite, 1892), Charles Tomlinson Griffes (Sho-Jo, 1917), and Henry Eichheim (Oriental Impressions, 1928).

    24Finck’s comment on Hucbald appears in “What is American Music?” 12. Other composers of serious instrumental character pieces after Loomis adopted this dichotomous “medieval”/”oriental” technique for their Indian music. Notable among them, perhaps, was Blair Fairchild in Some Indian Songs and Dances (1927). Fairchild’s adaptations of Indian themes in an orientalist light clearly related to his general interests; many of his other compositions were inspired by the Middle and Far East. I have been unable to find an example of Loomis’s technique in any music from the preceding three decades, as opposed to other parallel harmonic progressions—such as those involving full triads—that can readily be found elsewhere in nineteenth-century music.

    25John Vincent (The Diatonic Modes of Modern Music, 71) has found the III7-i cadence (but without the added seventh in the III chord) in the slow movement of Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony, the second act of Rusalka, Sibelius’s First Symphony, and Ravel’s L’heure espagnole, among others, where he notes that “the blandness of the III to i close offers grateful relief from the directness of the classical V-I cadence which in many cases [i.e., illustrated by the examples provided] would be too severe or too brusque.”

    The role of modality in American music has an interesting back story, In her famous essay “The Roots of American Culture” (188-89), Constance Rourke pointed out that New England in the early nineteenth century (which at the time represented a microcosm of American sophistication) turned its back on the emerging, and essentially rural, shape-note singing, which used modal harmonies. Its approach was considered unsophisticated and primitive. Because it was used in Englang long before the sixteenth century, “it belonged to an order of feeling antedating the complexly intellectual religious thought belonging to the Puritans; and this may be the true reason why, even with the lead of Billings, even with the inheritance of ballads and glees and catches cast in these older forms, shape-note religious song, which for many years used mainly the pentatonic or hexatonic scale, did not take firm root in New England.”

    26The Curtis quotation is from “Perpetuating of Indian Art,” 631. The Block quotation is from “Amy Beach’s Music on Native American Themes,” 162. See also Block, “Amy Beach’s Quartet on Inuit Themes.”

    27Farwell, who had prepared his 1900 lectures for Cornell University largely from August Wilhelm Ambros’s Geschichte der Musik, was no doubt well aware of Ambrosos earlier “harmonizations” for some non-Western monodic melodies in his book, for example, the Chinese songs.

    28All of these pieces are reproduced from original editions in Vera Brodsky Lawrence, ed., The Wa-Wan Press, 1901-1911, vols. 1, 2, and 4 (New York: Arno Press, 1970).

    29Farwell, “Second Trip West,” in Wanderjahre, 123. This Navaho War Dance, from From Mesa and Plain: Indian, Cowboy, and Negro Sketches, five works for piano (Wa-Wan Press 4, no. 28, 1905) was actually the second such titled work Farwell wrote. An earlier unpublished Navaho War Dance (1904) was edited by John Kirkpatrick in 1940 and later published (somewhat confusingly) as Navaho War Dance No. 2 (Music Press, 1947).

  • A Conversation with Michael V. Pisani

    Michael V. Pisani
    Photo by Vince B. Vincent
    • READ an excerpt from Imagining Native America in Music by Michael V. Pisani.
      Frank J. Oteri: Someone who first sees the title of your book might assume it to be ethnomusicology, but in fact it’s more historical musicology. It’s actually not about Native American music at all, but rather the creation of faux-Native American music by non-Native Americans. What has been your experience of actual Native American music and is it something you would be interested in writing about in greater detail someday?

      Michael V. Pisani: I thought that the word imagining might give it away, that it was a book about something that is itself about something. You’re right that Imagining Native America does not particularly explain music of American Indians but rather explores how music of American Indians was of use to Euro-American musicians, so of course, there’s plenty of Indian music quoted, described, reinterpreted. I consider myself a historian, and so I am drawn to the historical circumstances in which this music came into being and was used. At the same time, I am always interested in the music and culture of native America, especially since I feel we owe so much to American Indians for this great country. But aside from my experiences of having been to powwows and listening to Native American music and storytelling, I feel it would be presumptuous for me, a white Euro-American of Italian ancestry, to write about the music of a culture of which I’m essentially a foreigner. It was my initial belief—one decidedly reinforced after having written this book—that American Indian history, including cultural history, is best told by Indians themselves, or should at least first be told by American Indians, since so many non-natives have presumed to know about the culture and then went ahead and wrote about it.

      FJO: Your history of faux-Native Americanisms is amazingly thorough from the period of First Contact through about the middle of the last century. But aside from your fascinating chapter on Native American tropes in film music, your book seems to imply that such practices have been on the wane since the second half of the 20th century. Did such practices cease or should we expect a second volume?

      MVP: There is actually quite a bit on the 1960s to the 1990s, particularly as the older tropes are challenged by new ways of thinking and by American Indian cultural emergence since the 1960s. In general, however, this study needed to be thorough, as I discovered while engaged in my research. I encountered too often the hasty conclusion that misrepresentations could easily be laughed away by calling them stereotypes and simply moving on, without even trying to answer obvious questions, such as: “What makes this a stereotype?” and “What use did it have?” or “Why was it so prevalent?” Of course I had to look in detail at exactly what the components of this music were, down to the level of musical borrowing and adaptation, and to deal with the degree to which these are embedded in largely fanciful projections. One of the things I learned in the process—and that I hope my book reveals to others—is that these stereotypes changed from generation to generation. What represented native America in music in stage and film in 1940 was very different than, say, in 1790, when there were lots of Indian characters on the stage with music to accompany them. I wanted to know what accounted for these differences, and so I decided to look at the “big picture.” My book does go beyond the 1960s and really does take film music up to the present, and I look at quite a few film scores from the 1970s, ’80s, and, particularly, the 1990s, when there was another obvious surge of interest in native America (as I expect there will be in the 2090s). Still, the question as you posed it is not one I can easily answer here and really does merit another book. The exact practices of “faux-Native Americanisms,” as you put it, may cease, but native America as a subject—and music written to tell stories about specific Indians or about native America in general—certainly will not cease. I do not foresee these “faux-Native Americanisms” ending, just changing, as our interpretation of the world around us changes.

      FJO: Might the waning of such practices in the mainstream of concert music be the result of an ever further reduced consciousness about Native Americans, a greater degree of racial sensitivity these days, or the emergence of more accessible authentic Native American music?

      MVP: When I engaged in the research for this book, which took about eight years, I really didn’t know what I would say about the 20th century after, say, 1945, since nationalism and music as ethnic identifier became such an intellectual quagmire in that period. It gradually dawned on me, as I was assembling my sources for the 20th century, that the most compelling arena of music in that century, at least for this kind of thing, was really the stage and the cinema, not the concert hall.

      After about 1945, the concert hall ceases to be the place that reflects society back to itself, as it did in the Baroque or Romantic periods. Perhaps this has something to do with the conservatism of concert audiences, or the fear of offending somebody, I don’t know. In general, I think you are indeed correct about the country today possessing a further reduced consciousness about native America. Back at the start of the 20th century, many political and cultural progressives struggled to help American Indians be heard, and land rights were hot-button issues.

      Today, we are in a period where American Indians figure quite low in terms of American identity. How many Indians can you name that are in Congress or are governors of states, for example? Too many American Indians still live in poverty and have not become part of the American system that allows other races and ethnicities to prosper. Certainly we as a society have grown more racially sensitive toward others. But until the terrible situation in which many American Indians find themselves these days is remedied—which could take generations—it would be inappropriate, at least in a concert setting, to render a picturesque native America, as MacDowell did back in 1896. As far as the cinema goes, however, it is done all the time, although we often don’t realize that’s what’s happening.

      FJO: The “Indianist” phenomenon of course has not been limited to music, and faux-Indianisms in other forms have garnered a great deal of critical venom in recent years. The memoir The Education of Little Tree or the controversies surrounding the work of novelist Jamake Highwater immediately come to mind. What has been the Native American response, if any, to music that claims a Native American pedigree?

      MVP: Very little of the music discussed in my book, unlike some of the myths and rituals discussed by Highwater, can claim anything approaching an Indian pedigree. Perhaps some of the earliest chants transcribed by clerics who accompanied Spanish and French explorers—and the versions of their chants that were performed by European singers or played by European instrumentalists—might be said to have some claim to authenticity. By the time the ethnographers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were recording and transcribing native songs, the composers who were interested in these mostly used them as departures for more elaborate compositions. This was partly in an attempt to give their concert music an “American” sound, particularly at a time when no one was quite sure what that sound was (or was going to be). Today, there are native scholars like Philip Deloria or Ward Churchill—to cite two very different kinds of critics—who have examined the use of American Indian images and rituals in 20th-century media. From what I have been able to tell, however, most American Indians back at the beginning of the century were silent about this kind of borrowing. During these years they had far more important things to argue for, and indeed still do.

      FJO: The appropriations of misunderstood Native Americanisms in classical music definitely bear a relationship to similar appropriations/misappropriations of music from other cultures by Europeans and the European settlers of the Americas—I’m thinking of the fake Chinoiserie or Turkish marches of everyone from the French harpsichord composers to Mozart. Even in more recent times, the minimalists and other experimental composers (Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, etc.) have taken non-Western musics as a departure point for music that ultimately bears little relationship to the music that inspired it. What might a greater awareness of actual Native American music bring to the language of contemporary composers?

      MVP: One way of looking at this is along the lines posed by the historians Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas several decades ago, the idea that there were two kinds of primitivisms, a chronological one and an existential one. In the chronological form, artists, composers, novelists, etc., described (or portrayed) primitive cultures largely to illustrate their differences from the artist or composer’s target audience. In the existential form, artists went and lived a different culture in an effort to understand it, learn from it, be more like that culture, sometimes partly to escape what they saw as their own spiritually bankrupt society. Harrison and Partch were definitely existentialists, in that they respected and understood the source of their musics, in fact, were directing modern Western music toward more Eastern ideas and aesthetics. The danger here—and I think it is a particularly dangerous one in the case of native America—is that native America has been tapped for so many of its supposed characteristics, particularly in the area of spiritualism. You already mentioned the controversial writer Jamake Highwater. Countless non-native writers have aspired to Native American values and, in doing so, take more from native cultures than they have to give back to them. That, I think, is the real danger. If the composer’s end is to enrich his or her style with a more “authentic” language, then it is best to leave American Indian music alone. If the goal, however, is to say something important about Native America, then perhaps there is long-term benefit in it. It’s not at all, as I see it, like borrowing the characteristics of Balinese gamelan, as Harrison did, or East Indian talas, as Glass did, although I can’t say for sure as I’m not from Indonesia or India.

      FJO: There are a handful of composers today who cite Native American music as an influence, I’m thinking of composers like Kyle Gann, Judith Saint-Croix, and Jerome Kitzke. Is their music somehow a continuation of your history? How is it different?

      MVP: Of course the Indian-influenced pieces by these composers are a continuation of this history, particularly a work like Kitzke’s Box Death Hollow, with its evocation of native America, or music by Canadian R. Murray Schafer. As I mentioned, in my overview I dispensed with the “classical tradition” after about 1940, turning instead to stage and film. In concert and chamber music, the interest in native America began to grow again in the 1970s, likely for two reasons: 1) associations with the musical nationalism of MacDowell, Farwell, and similar composers were now safely in the long-forgotten past; and 2) the new-age spiritualism of the 1960s, often linked with native America, was seen as synonymous with a new aesthetic that composers were seeking, a less goal-oriented and more cyclical approach to composition. This aspect of the history—the “art music tradition” from about 1945 to the present—I’m going to have to leave to someone else, or many someone elses, to write about.

      FJO: In popular music, exoticisms have been ubiquitous throughout the last century, whether it’s Ellington’s jungle band of the early ’30s, the ’50s mambo craze, raga rock, or the current ongoing “world music” explosion. Native American music seems strangely outside these appropriations, though. Is authentic Native American music ultimately more difficult to assimilate than Asian or African musical traditions? Or is the fact that Native Americans are less visible in our society nowadays more of a factor here?

      MVP: Again, this is a question that really merits a whole book. A short answer is likely to sound pat and perhaps too simplistic. I believe that American Indian music is outside these traditions and cultures. So did Hamlin Garland or Philip Hale back in the 1890s, when concert music first began to appear that quoted Native American sources. The question you pose here is nevertheless really fascinating and it would be a good idea to bring several people together, including others who have dealt extensively with Asian or African musical traditions and their assimilation into an “American” culture. American society as a whole is much more aware of the African influence in its music, beginning with spirituals, gospel, and soul, but certainly very prominently with blues and jazz, prompting some to call jazz “America’s music,” as if this nation didn’t bring forth lots of other kinds of distinctive musics. But consider what ethical issues are involved in discussing jazz as “assimilated African American music” as opposed to honoring it as a distinctly black American music. Duke Ellington himself used to be criticized by black musicians for his assimilationist stance. How much more difficult—and ethically murky—is it likely to be to talk about “assimilating” American Indian music in American culture, particular given the fact that American Indians have been struggling for the past eighty years or so to make their voices heard above the din of what the rest of us have been saying about them?

      FJO: Practically none of the American Indian-inspired music discussed in your book has entered the repertoire. I’ve enjoyed what little of Farwell’s and Cadman’s music I’ve heard on recordings. In your estimation, how much of their work or the work of others you describe is worthy of a revival?

      MVP: I think a lot of it can be revived, although context matters enormously. To perform an opera like Cadman’s Shanewis—which was remarkably sympathetic to American Indians in 1918 but can seem very dated today—a director would have to find a way to treat it as a period piece, while still bringing out the music’s charm and the opera’s universally human values. (Andrew Porter wrote a favorable review of a 1979 piano performance in Colorado.) Victor Herbert’s Natoma (1911) is filled with absolutely wonderful music, some of it on quite a grand scale. But the plot is terribly hackneyed, and the libretto is at times downright laughable. He should have set it in Italian, in which case it would probably still be performed in America today! Certainly most of Arthur Farwell’s “Indian” music is wonderful and original and each performance I’ve heard of Pawnee Horses or Navajo War Dance sounds different, which goes to show that a good piece of music—regardless of the nature of its source material—lends itself to reinterpretation. If you go to the webpage designed to accompany my book, you’ll see thousands of compositions listed. Many of the 19th-century pieces have probably not been played since, let alone recorded. I would like to hear Stoepel’s Hiawatha (1859) or Converse’s The Peace Pipe (1915) played someday. So far, it’s only been me singing these at the piano. Any of the Hiawatha-based pieces are perhaps less offensive today than the “war dances” or character pieces such as Loomis’s Chattering Squaw.

      FJO: In what seems to me like an ironic twist of history, there are now several prominent Native American symphonic composers. I’m thinking of people like Louis Ballard and Brent Michael Davids. As they approach a synthesis of European approaches with Native American materials, has the phenomenon of imagining native America in music in some sense come full circle? Might their work ultimately be somewhat related either sonically or philosophically to the work of composers like Arthur Farwell and Charles Wakefield Cadman?

      MVP: Since you’re asking about recent concert music, I would again add that this is a question for someone else to answer someday. I would be very surprised if someone actually drew connections between Ballard or Davids and Cadman. The two modern composers would probably be dumbfounded at the comparison. What Davids, particularly, has been doing is so different, even using alternative forms of notation. He writes from a Mohegan perspective, not necessarily quoting Mohegan music. On the other hand, the piece he composed for Chanticleer, The Uncovered Wagon, is actually quite pictorial, depicting an older time and capturing the windy sweep of the plains, although this effect is helped by the ambience of the recording. In either case, I wouldn’t say that Ballard or Davids is imagining native America as much as telling personal stories about some aspects of native America.

      FJO: Whether native or non-native, ultimately how close could a composer writing for something like an orchestra ever come to creating something that resonates with “authentic Native American music”? And could such a music ever have a broad audience?

      MVP: I think “authentic Native American music,” if that’s what we’re going to call it, really is social music, not “listening” music. So the whole Western idea of attracting people into concert halls for a “listening experience” in which they achieve some kind of transcendence has nothing to do with what I know of the music of American Indians, whether these were singing Natchez chasing DeSoto’s men down the Mississippi or an O’odham “chicken scratch” band to dance to in Arizona. Now, if there were performing groups called the Navajo Symphony or a Five Nations Symphony consisting principally of American Indian musicians—there certainly were plenty of bands, but I don’t know about orchestras—and they wanted to commission works that incorporate familiar music into a larger symphonic context, well then it would be interesting to see what comes of it, especially as this would be music of American Indians made by American Indians. If I tried to cover all of these aspects in Imagining Native America in Music, it would have been three times as long. In its current form, I hope my book helps us understand more about American music history and the role that native America played in it (and will no doubt continue to play in it).</p

    Settling Scores: German Music, Denazification, and the Americans, 1945-1953

    Reprinted from Settling Scores: German Music, Denazification, and The Americans, 1945-1953 by David Monod. Copyright (c) by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

    • READ an interview with author David Monod.

      David Monod

      Reeducating the Public
      (from Chapter 3, Reforming Music Culture, 1945-1946)

      ICD‘s Music Branch did not limit its reformist efforts to containing the influence of the state but also sought to change attitudes among the public. “The basic objective of the occupation requires the democratization of the German government and people,” declared one directive, an approach that involved “teaching democracy to the individual German.” Where denazification would force each person to “renounce the doctrines of Nazism and militarism by making him aware of the moral issues involved in German aggression and of his personal share in the collective German responsibility for the acts of the Nazis and militarists,” cultural products might be employed to “strip away German misconceptions about Germany and its relationship to the world.” Initially, “music, opera and ballet will be given preference over other forms of entertainment” in this public reeducation program, as these forms provided few “opportunities for subversive propaganda” and might be “designed to restore the exchange of ideas between Germany and the world outside it.”30 Just as ICD directives suggested that there was a salvageable core to German music culture and that state-subsidized institutions could be democratized through reform rather than revolution, they also implied the existence of a receptive public that could be made to appreciate new and foreign music. Effort had to be made to humanize and demote the country’s cultural titans and show the local population that central Europe was not the repository of all that was best in music history. In particular, concertgoers had to be taught that during the preceding twelve years far more interesting music was composed outside Germany’s borders than within.

      “Adolph Hitler,” the branch declared, “[had] succeeded in transforming the lush field of musical creativity into a barren waste.” During the Third Reich, the occupiers believed, most of Germany’s best artists were abroad, the country was “completely isolated from international development” and its own composers were “produc[ing] nothing . . . [but works] psychologically effective to the Nazi cause.” Under these circumstances, pressing a new and internationalized musical repertoire on German audiences was considered good therapy. “There is still a strong feeling of arrogance and superiority among Germans in regard to their own music,” the Americans concluded, which a broader repertoire would help to destroy. Listening to the modern music of different countries “will introduce . . . breadth of outlook, international understanding and non-political attitudes.” Music Branch officers were fairly broad-minded in the repertoire they suggested, as promoting the music of all of the Allied nations (and they included in this group the works of émigrés such as Toch and Martinù and Menotti and Bartók) was seen as important in “help[ing] to stress the significance of an unpolitical art in Germany.”31

      But before this could be done, a functioning agency for the collection of royalties had to be established. The American League of Composers and ASCAP, which policed copyrights in the United States, made very clear that they would not allow unauthorized or unrecompensed performances of works, no matter what their presumed educational value. The institution that handled copyright in Germany, STAGMA, had been a Nazi organization attached to the RKK and under the direct control of the Propaganda Ministry. The party paid a lump sum each year for rights to perform any music it wanted in propaganda films or at official functions, and STAGMA, in turn, was required to use the party’s contribution to subsidize musicians and organizations specially selected for it by the Propaganda Ministry. Although a servant of Nazi racial policy, the agency was such a cash cow that when the war ended everyone from the city of Berlin to the GDB to the Kammer für Kunstschaffenden lobbied to take it over. While the Allies decided what to do, two senior executives of the Nazi period, Erich Schulze and Pierre Cretin, maintained STAGMA’s operations, though they were generally unsuccessful in their effort to convince artists and theater directors to pay them for performed material. The actions of Schulze and Cretin did, however, help ensure that STAGMA rather than a new agency would continue to collect fees, and the Americans temporarily backed them as alternatives to state control. The whole process of negotiating a structure for the new agency lasted months, in large measure because the Soviets had little use for a private collection agency and were unsure whether to support it. So it was not until late summer 1946 that all four powers agreed to recognize the private organization’s exclusive right to administer royalties. In the meantime, ICD needed another solution if it were to launch Germany’s cultural reeducation. In December 1945, therefore, the division opted to act alone: it appointed a director of STAGMA for the American zone, established branch agencies in different cities, and ordered all performers and theaters to pay royalties only to that agency. By Christmas, ASCAP had negotiated terms of payment with the American zone STAGMA (renamed GEMA in 1949), clearing the way to performances of U.S.-copyrighted works. In addition to this function, the German agency was charged with collecting all royalties for the performances of works by blacklisted composers and holding them in a closed account until such time as the individuals were cleared.32

      With copyright now protected, musical material began to flow into Germany in January 1946, but it came in strange packages. OWl’s former overseas offices, now being liquidated or absorbed by the Department of State’s IIA, contributed a large number of scores and recordings, but this arrangement changed when the army took control and ICD was placed under the operational control of the Civil Affairs Division. Unfortunately, CAD, which stood at the head of OMGUS’s supply line, did not appoint a music administrator until March 1946, further delaying ICD’s field operations. When the scores and parts did arrive, they came as microfilm, requiring enlargement and photoduplication at the headquarters of ICD’s Film Branch in Munich. The process proved time-consuming and some of the material was unreadable, requiring new photographing. All of this served to slow the dissemination of American music in Germany, and by July 1946 ICD had only about 100 compositions, as compared with 600 made available by the Russians and 300 by the British. One important advance in facilitating the use of Military Government’s supply of scores came with the creation of an Interallied Music Lending Library in Berlin in September 1946. Located in the state library in the Russian sector, it provided a central lending point for music supplied by the occupation powers.33

      As most of the first generation of music officers had studied in Europe and lived in the northeastern United States, they included in Germany’s cultural tonic works by Stravinsky and Milhaud, Shostakovich, Hindemith, and Bartók. This was the modern music the officers heard in Boston and Philadelphia and New York performed by such European conductors as Koussevitsky and Rodzinsky, Toscanini and Stokowski. A few, like John Evarts and John Bitter, were knowledgeable about American composers, but to others, like Newell Jenkins and Edward Kilenyi, it was unfamiliar terrain. Still, the music officers were all fairly catholic in their tastes and through their supplier in IIA, they secured scores by Prokofiev, Bartók, Honegger, and a host of others for their German licensees.

      American music, in the eyes of senior planning officials was, however, always thought to have a special role to play in Germany. This was especially true for State Department authorities, who saw American culture as the vanguard of democratization. According to an influential report on reeducation activities: “Germans, weak in their political tradition, tend to judge American political democracy by the kind of cultural life they imagine it to produce, and as they are convinced that it produces nothing of value, their minds are for the most part closed to the suggestion that they adopt it for themselves. . . . If Germans are once convinced that America does have a culture of its own, and moreover one that has progressed beyond theirs in certain fields in which they have prided themselves, they will begin to listen with more interest to talk of political democracy.” 34 Breaking down the Germans’ sense of cultural superiority would therefore be more effectively achieved through American music than through the works of other nations.

      The music officers agreed with this and promoted works by Piston and Copland and Harris and Schuman, without abandoning their more internationalist goals. But by the summer of 1946 their effort to supply modern music, as opposed to narrowly American works, had run into a major obstacle. When the War Department finally assumed full responsibility for ICD, it appointed Harrison Kerr as its music administrator in its New York field office and the job of supplying scores was transferred from IIA to the Civil Affairs Division. Kerr was a composer and former administrator of the American Music Library, and he had a far narrower concept of the Military Government’s mission in Germany than the field officers or his predecessors in IIA. His job was to purchase the supplies needed for reeducation purposes and he, not the music officers, controlled the budget and exercised final decision-making authority. Kern refused to authorize the dispatch of music by non-Americans or even of émigrés such as Hindemith, Martinù, and Køenek, even when asked to do so by the field officers. In Kerr’s opinion works by these composers were not sufficiently representative of America and would have no reeducational value. The branch officers did not agree with Kerr, but they had no official alternative to the New York office. Whenever they could, they ordered scores from Switzerland and England, and one of them, who had previously been in charge of 11A’s music program, continued to use the old channel and had material shipped through the Music Division of the Library of Congress. But the American officers had to pay for much of this material themselves or make use of friends and donors in the United States.35

      ICD’s officers worked hard to provide German performers with music from Europe and the United States, but they were not always so selfless in their actions. On a number of occasions, they took advantage of their positions to showcase their own work or ability. John Bitter led the Berlin Philharmonic three times and his third string quartet premiered in the city while he was still a music officer; Pastene conducted frequently in Heidelberg; and John Evarts started writing a chamber piece for a Munich ensemble until ordered to stop by Kilenyi, his fastidious superior. Harrison Kerr shipped a disproportionate number of his own works to Germany, including big ones like his forgettable First Symphony. William Castello, who worked with Jenkins in Stuttgart, was reportedly heavily involved in the black market. Activities like these do not reflect well on ICD’s officers, though the urge of musicians to make music and of composers to promote their wares is not unusual. Still, like so many others, they were hoping to lay the foundations of their post-MG careers by enhancing their resumes with some European credits. A great number of Americans did exactly the same thing, including army officers who used their authority to conduct leading orchestras; amateurs who ordered Europe’s top musicians to give them lessons; musicians with stalled or stillborn careers who moved to Switzerland in the hopes of descending on Germany or Austria the moment travel restrictions were lifted. Not all of these were artistically unworthy; Erich Leinsdorf, for example, a gifted if hard-driving opera conductor, whose career in America had been derailed by military service, slipped into Vienna in the hopes of landing a top job. On the scale of things, the abuse of power shown by those ICD officers who conducted or pushed their compositions was relatively inconsequential, if nonetheless inexcusable.36

      Directing an orchestra oneself did have the advantage of allowing a music officer to choose his repertoire, and it is noteworthy that Pastene, for one, performed American pieces whenever conducting in Heidelberg. The first American works performed in Germany were played before Allied service personnel: in early September 1945 the black activist, composer, and clarinetist Rudolph Dunbar led the Berlin Philharmonic on invitation of Leo Borchard, and conducted Still’s Afro-American Symphony in an Armed Forces concert. In a subsequent concert, early in December, John Bitter and the same orchestra performed Barber’s Adagio. But convincing German licensees to try out an American composition was never easy, even when the musician was as cooperative a person as Rosbaud or Celibidache. American music was, at the time, virtually unknown in Germany, and most artists shared the national bias that it could not be very good. Even friendly musicians complained that the style of American music was too unfamiliar or that they could not induce their orchestras to give it a try. Consequently, it was not until spring 1947 that Solti performed his first American works, Barber’s Essays for Orchestra, and Rosbaud only directed his first (Copland’s An Outdoor Overture) in September 1946, five months after Celibidache conducted Barber’s Adagio in Berlin. The less prominent orchestras proved more forthcoming: what appears to have been the first orchestral work presented to a German audience was Piston’s Incredible Flutist Suite, offered in Heidelberg on 8 March 1946; a few days later, the first American symphony, Howard Hanson’s Third, was heard by coricertgoers in Wiesbaden; and shortly thereafter the first ballet danced to an American score was staged before a local audience in Karlsruhe. Chamber works were also easier to get performed and the first U.S. work presented to Germans during the occupation was Quincy Porter’s Music for Strings. By June 1946 there had been 47 performances of 25 American works in the occupation zone and nine months later the total had reached 173 performances of 57 pieces. Many of these works had, however, been played by orchestras under direct ICD control, such as Radio Frankfurt’s.37

      Although some of the music ICD promoted might rest comfortably among the finest of the century—Thompson’s Second and Schuman’s Third symphonies, for example, or Copland’s Quiet City—and some stood, like Barber’s School for Scandal Overture or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, among the most fun, much of what they had to offer was not very memorable. When Otto Matzerath presented Robert McBride’s Strawberry Jam Overture, the greater part of the audience was “completely horrified by what some Germans referred to as ‘Eine amerikanische Schweinerei’” This hostile reaction should not be entirely taken as a sign of anti-Americanism, for when Hindemith, four years before, had been asked to review the work, he described it as a “sloppy, tossed-off piece of crap.” Piston’s Incredible Flutist was also received with “puzzlement” by a Mannheim audience, while his Concertino for Piano and Orchestra was greeted in Heidelberg with “energetic whistling” (a sign of disapproval ). Some of this negativity was due to the problems German orchestras had with the American musical idiom and with poor preparation and a lack of enthusiasm among artists who only mounted the work in order “to keep in good graces with the Americans.” But the results could be horrific. A performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Karlsruhe was mangled so badly that intelligence officers took it as criticism of the occupation and suggested the military police close down the theater. A few months earlier, “confused” choreography meant to seem broadly American, together with dancers dressed up like cowboys and scenery that looked as though the whole thing were “laid out in New Mexico,” badly distorted a production of Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring.38

      ICD did score some real hits in Germany. Barber’s Adagio was everywhere well received, as was Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief. But the problem of overcoming German apathy toward American classical music remained. As Newell Jenkins conceded, “the trouble involved in placing an American work is tremendous.” In an attempt to overcome some of that resistance, in March 1947 Jenkins established a series of chamber concerts of American works preceded by lectures and followed by group discussions. He borrowed the idea from the American composer Virgil Thomson and called the gatherings The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music Society Concerts. The concerts “worked amazingly well” attendance was good, and “precious few enemies” showed up. This inspired John Evarts, who founded similar societies in Karlsruhe in April and in Munich in May. By the end of 1947, Friends and Enemies were meeting in all the major cities where American cultural officials were stationed. Attendance at these concerts remained strong and positive because ICD passed out free tickets to music students and local artists, and it managed to press such pro-American notables as Rosbaud, Hartmann, and the music critic H. H. Stuckenschmidt into service as lecturers. The concerts did much to familiarize the next generation of German musicians with American classical music and helped remove some of the prejudices with which they had been raised.39

      When it came to indigenous, as opposed to American or other European music, politics strongly influenced official tastes. The Americans in Bavaria regarded Orff with considerable disdain because they saw him as overly bayerisch; he was much more popular among the authorities in Stuttgart, where his regionalism carried fewer political implications. In Munich the control officers favored Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a composer of solid political credentials who seemed delighted by the American presence in his city. Hartmann’s Musica Viva series got OMGUS support, through block ticket purchase, a subsidy for concerts featuring U.S. works, and free performance space in the Amerika Haus. In Berlin the Americans’ darling was Boris Blacher, for whom Bitter managed to secure extra food rations and who became acquainted with a number of wealthy American patrons and influential musicians. In Heidelberg, Pastene befriended and pushed a young Fortner student, Hans Werner Henze. No one gave Egk or Pepping much thought; Strauss and Pfitzner, rightly or wrongly, were regarded as tainted relics from the past. By and large, local governments echoed American preferences so long as the occupiers were watching. Orff was offered a job in Stuttgart, but Munich officials only talked to him in secret; Hartmann’s Musica Viva organization received strong backing from the Bavarian and Munich governments, but Strauss and Pfitzner were snubbed. Blacher was the best connected and one of the most performed composers living in the American sector of Berlin. But the man everyone talked about, the dominant composer in both American and German eyes, Paul Hindemith, remained the absent hero in these years. Although politicians and artists begged for his return and his operas and works were performed in his absence as events—as a kind of ritual act of invocation and contrition—Hindemith did not visit until 1947 and then quietly and on private business.

      For two years, Hindemith maintained that he would only return if Military Government sent him on tour as a visiting expert, something the War Department refused to allow as it considered his “connections with the Nazi Party . . . closer than had been supposed in the early days.” Unaware of the blemishes on his record, the field officers continued to promote Hindemith as a symbol of resistance. The Americans urged local musicians to perform his works, especially those composed in America, but the position the composer adopted was that if musicians wanted them, they knew where they could get them: from Schott, his publisher (something they had been able to do throughout the Nazi period).40 At one and the same time a symbol of Weimar and of America, of resistance to Nazism and of the émigrés’ abandonment of their homeland, of new music and old, Hindemith was, in his public image and private dealings, the most complex of composers. And yet, like the others, only more so, he was celebrated by the occupation and the state as a contemporary composer conservative music-lovers might appreciate.

      Interestingly, although a great many of the American and modem European composers ICD promoted were Jewish, the division never specifically advertised the fact. Nor did it ever insist that musicians perform works by Mendelssohn or Mahler simply because they had previously been banned on “racial” grounds. No one in ICD ever explained why this was, but one can easily imagine. How would the division have singled out the works of Jewish composers without reinforcing Nazi assertions that “race” mattered? A German population that thought of Jews as different and foreign, and which was now being made to feel guilty for those feelings, would only find reassurance in an Allied program that racially identified its subjects. Moreover, since many of the American and contemporary European works performed were received unfavorably, one risked reinforcing stereotypes by drawing attention to the fact that their composers were Jews. And so, even though a number of the regional branch officers and both deputy chiefs Benno Frank and Walter Hinrischen were Jews, ICD policy pointedly overlooked the issue. Apparently, the music officers believed the case for tolerance was more powerfully made by presenting Toch and Blacher as equally German and Copland, Ives, Stravinsky, and Menotti as equally American. As John Evarts maintained in one of his lectures to German audiences: “America has opened its doors to every type of music from all over the world, and many powerful works have emerged.” Pointedly, he added, U.S. music was charting “a new direction, one absolutely American, one that draws as much from African rhythms as from the dissonant chords of Debussy, as much from Negro Spirituals as from Jewish liturgical chants?”41

      What did tend to unite the composers whom the Music Branch advanced was that they were among the more accessible modernists. Although dissonance was part of their twentieth-century musical language, these composers tended to express it without casting away from the traditional tonal moorings; Milhaud and Hindemith and Harris all shared an interest in polytonal, polymodal, and polyrhythmic effects together with an adherence to the tonic. It is notable that the Americans did little until 1949 to promote the more avant-garde music of their time, whether Cowell’s or Schoenberg’s or Messiaen’s. Consequently, the avenues of the avant-garde remained unexplored in the concert halls in 1945-46, and it was not only German conservatism that was to blame. American officials were no more fond of twelve-tone or politically engaged music than were most Germans. Furthermore, neither Americans nor Germans believed popular music belonged in the concert hall, and the only Broadway work ICD reproduced for German use was Kurt Weill’s hit Knickerbocker Holiday. Some groups, like Hartmann’s Musica Viva or Steinecke’s Darmstadt Ferienkurse, did present some of the more adventurous contemporary works, and they did received ICD’s financial patronage, but the Americans also bemoaned their repertoire. The fact is that the field officers were interested in pushing the boundaries of public taste, not alienating musical conservatives. Although they advanced music they believed would be challenging for audiences, they remained reformers in the concert hall and not revolutionaries.

      Without question, however, the Americans seriously misunderstood the recent history of modern music in Germany. Although it is never a bad thing to attack cultural prejudices, and many people must have profited from their exposure to the new music being composed in the United States and other European countries, the principles on which the field officers based their initiatives were flawed. The Americans were convinced that Nazi Germany had been a cultural desert and that the public needed and appreciated them for supplying the refreshing waters of hitherto unavailable music. What they failed to realize was that much good contemporary music was performed in Hitler’s Germany and that until the war the country was not closed to the works of British or French or other European composers. Although modern composers like Honegger and Stravinsky were periodically denounced in the Nazi Party press, their compositions continued to be sporadically performed in the 1930s, and some, like Bartók’s, never suffered any type of official proscription. As Jenkins remarked a half-century later, “it was ridiculous thinking that we could teach the Germans anything about contemporary music, because they were very good in that themselves. They were very aware of what goes on. Because I remember, even in the early Nazi days, when I was [a student] in Germany, that the contemporary music festivals … used to take place in Baden-Baden and they still had a very powerful bunch of people associated with them and performances from international artists?”42 Unfortunately, not only did the Americans fail to realize that that portion of the concertgoing public that was most likely to react favorably to their efforts—students, musicians, and those already interested in contemporary music—was more knowledgeable than they had imagined, but they also made an error in believing that they could force-feed the rest of the audience a diet of contemporary, albeit tonal, music. Ironically, they were attempting to build in Germany what had not developed anywhere: a mass audience for modem music. The field officers were sensible enough to favor in their work composers like Shostakovich and Britten and Copland who were on the more conservative side of the compositional spectrum, but that decision also carried a cost. What the Americans ultimately did was to alienate both the more conservative music lovers, who avoided concerts featuring American and modem works, and many of the new music cognoscenti, who thought the pieces being offered were too old-fashioned. As a result, although commendable in myriad ways, the branch’s efforts on the part of new music were predestined to enjoy only modest popularity.


      30.“Working program for Democratization in Bavaria,” 6 May 1947, file: Bavaria, box 201, Records of the Cultural Exchange Programme, CAD, OMGUS; HQ US Forces, European Theater, “Priority of Information Control Activities,” 28 August 1945, Speech by Brig. Gen. Robert A. McClure, 27 August 1945, and ICD Standing Directive No. 1, 20 July 1945, entry 172, box 330, War Department, Rg 165, NA.

      31.“Reorientation Activities of ODIC, Theater and Music,” 15 April 1947, and “Reconstruction of Musical Activity in U.S. Zone of Germany since June 1945,” box 248, General Records, CRB, E&CR, OMGUS.

      32.J.F. Edney to Hans Aldenhoff, 18 February 1947, 4/12-2/23, B Rep 36, LB; G.K. Schueller, “STAGMA,” 24 October 1945, 4/8-3/12, B Rep 36, LB; Control Officer, “History: ISD, 8 May 1945–30 June 1946,” file: History, box 454, EO, OMGUS; FT&M Report, April 1946, file: FTM, box 77, HO, DHQ, ICD, OMGUS.

      33.Thacker, “Playing Beethoven Like an Indian,” 370-71; “Minutes of Preliminary Meeting of Theater and Music Officers,” 20 October 1946, file: Meetings, box 3100, T&M, E&CR, OMGWB, OMGUS; “History: ISD, 8 May 1945–30 June 1946,” file: History, box 454, EO, OMGUS; Minutes, ICSG, 7 January 1946, and Minutes of Quadripartite Meeting, 10 May 1946, file: Quadripartite, box 77, HO, DHQ, ICD, OMGUS.

      34.“Report to the Department of State of the USIE Survey Mission on the OMGUS Reorientation Program in Germany,” 21 July 1949, box 205, LOT 53D311, Department of State, Rg 59, NA.

      35.For the assistance the officers provided orchestras, see John Bitter to Virgil Thomson, 2 October 1946, 25/35, Virgil Thomson Papers, YUA; Carlos Moseley to Harrison Kerr, 26 February 1948, and Carlos Moseley to Arthur Vogel, 2 March 1948, file: American Personnel, box 18, CRB, E&CR, OMGB, OMGUS; interview with Carlos Moseley, 18 March 1996.

      36.John Bitter Scrapbooks, 1945-48, PAJB; Heidelberg Detachment, Semi-Monthly Report, 10 December 1947, file: Württemberg-Baden, box 240, T&M, E&CR, OMGUS; John Evarts’s Diary, 28 November 1945, JEPA; Weekly report, 15 April 1946, file, T&M, box 20, Administrative Records, Director’s Office, E&CR, OMGB, OMGUS; interview with Newell Jenkins, 6 July 1996; Heyworth, Otto Klemperer, 2:146-47 and 158; Ernst Legal to Otto Klemperer, 29 July 1946, C Rep 167/16, LB; Frederic Mellinger, Weekly Report, 26 June, 3 July, and 5 February 1946, file: Berlin Reports, box 238, T&M, E&CR, OMGUS; interview with Virginia Pleasants, 19 May 1996; Erich Leinsdorf to Harold Spivacke, 25 February 1944, box 9, Joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation: Sub-Committee on Music, LC; Semi-Monthly Report, 31 December 1947, box 20, General Records, EO, ISB, USACA.

      37.Dunbar was born in British Guyana and grew up in London. Trained as a band musician, he played in music hall and jazz orchestras and, in the late 1930s, briefly lived in the United States, in Harlem; see interview with Rudolph Dunbar, 29 November 1938, Federal Writers’ Project, LC; Bi-Weekly Report, 5 September 1945, file: Berlin reports, box 75, HO, DHQ, ICD, OMGUS; Dody Bitter to Virgil Thomson, 12 December 1945, 25/35, Thomson Papers, YUA; for Solti: Evarts’s Diary, spring/summer 1947, 6, JEPA; I am grateful to Dr. Joan Evarts for providing the date of Rosbaud’s first performance of an American work; WB T&M Weekly Situation Report, 9 March 1946, file; Weekly Reports, box 239, T&M, E&CR, OMGH, OMGUS; Film, Theater & Music Consolidated Report, March 1946, file: Reports HO, DHQ, ICD, OMGUS; Holger Hagen to William Dubensky, 11 November 1946, file: American Plays and Music, box 727, T&M, E&CR, OMGH, OMGUS; “Reorientation Activities of ODIC, Theater and Music,” 15 April 1947, file: Reorientation, box 248, General Records, CRB, E&CR, OMGUS.

      38.Weekly Report, 23 November 1946, file: WB, box 240, T&M, E&CR, OMGUS; Paul Hindemith to Schleich, 19 July 1942, 16/296, Paul Hindemith Papers, YUA; Weekly Report, 25 January 1947, file: Karlsruhe Outpost, box 599, T&M, Field Relations Division, OMGWB, OMGUS; Weekly Report, 2 April 1946, file: Bavaria: Weekly Reports, box 239, and Weekly Report, 16 November 1946, file: WB, box 240, T&M, E&CR, OMGUS.

      39.Interview with Newell Jenkins, 6 July 1996; “History of Information Control Division, Württemberg-Baden, to 1 July 1946,” 29, file: Historical, box 309, Correspondence and General Records, ISD, OMGUS; Evarts’s Diary, spring/summer 1947, 2, JEPA.

      40.I am grateful to Toby Thacker for providing the quote regarding Hindemith’s dubious past; on his interest in making sales, see Paul Hindemith to Willy Strecker, 15 July 1946, in Skelton, Selected Letters, 196-200; on the availability of his works in the Third Reich, Kowalke, “Music Publishing and the Nazis,” 181-182; for a balanced treatment of Hindemith, see Kater, Composers of the Nazi Era, ch. 2.

      41.Evarts, “Von Musikleben in Amerika,” 84-85.

      42.Interview with Newell Jenkins, 6 July 1996; for new music in Nazi Germany, see Evans, “International with National Emphasis” and “Die Rezeption der Musik Igor Stravinskys.”

      A Guide to the Acronyms in the Text and Footnotes:

      CAD = Civil Affairs Division

      CRB = Cultural Relations Branch

      EO = Executive Office

      E&CR = Education and Cultural Relations

      DHQ = Divisional Headquarters

      FT&M or FTM = Film, Theatre and Music

      HO = Historical Office

      ICD = Information Control Division

      ISD = Information Services Division

      JEPA = Jeremiah Evarts Private Archive, Cornish, New Hampshire

      LB = Landesarchiv Berlin

      LC = Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

      NA = National Archives, Washington, D.C.

      OMGH = Office of the Military Government Hesse

      OMGUS = Office of the Military Government, United States

      OMGWB = Office of the Military Government Württemberg-Baden

      PAJB = Private Archive John Bitter, Miami

      T&M = Theater and Music

      USACA = United States Allied Command Austria

      WB = Württemberg-Baden

      YUA = Yale University Archives

    A Conversation with David Monod

    David Monod
    Photo by Bob Housser
    Courtesy University of North Carolina Press
    • READ an excerpt from Settling Scores: German Music, Denazification, and The Americans, 1945-1953 by David Monod.
      FRANK J. OTERI: The denazification of German musicians at the end of World War II is a rather unexpected topic for a musicologist to pursue. What initially got you interested in this, and how long have you been researching this history?

      DAVID MONOD: Even though I am a historian, not a musicologist, I thought the same when I first stumbled on the topic fifteen years ago. I was doing research on an unrelated subject at the National Archives in Washington and happened on a finding aid listing Herbert von Karajan’s denazification file. I was hooked! What I quickly discovered, however, was that there is a large and lively interest in studying the place of the musical arts in Nazi Germany and that some of the finest German historians and musicologists are working in this field. My focus on the post-war American occupation and the process of denazifying artists is more singular, though even here, much fine work preceded mine.

      FJO: What’s probably most fascinating about your narrative concerning the American government’s involvement in the rebuilding and transformation of Germany’s musical culture at the end of the Second World War is that this is information equally unfamiliar to musicologists and political historians alike. It seems like a singular moment in our history. Was there ever a time when the U.S. government was as involved in culture?

      DM: At the heart of Settling Scores is the story of the relationship between artists and administrators—Germans and Americans—in the decade following WWII. In 1945 the victorious allies divided Germany into zones and placed them under the authority of military administrators. One of the goals of the military government in the American zone was to purge German society of its Nazi influences, which at the time was conceived very broadly to include German nationalism, militarism, and cultural chauvinism. Because of the central place of music in German cultural history, it was placed on the list of areas for control. In some ways, the focus on music culture was dictated by German traditions and by American perceptions of Germany as the preeminent exemplar of European high-culture (albeit a culture that had been distorted by nationalism, racism, and chauvinism). But post-war interest in the arts also drew on the inheritance of the New Deal and war. In the later 1930s, branches of the American government experimented with direct state patronage of the literary, visual, and musical arts. During the war, Allied radio broadcast music into occupied territories and artists were employed in the propaganda agencies. These experiences predisposed American planners to look at the arts as an area that could be regulated and mobilized for the reeducation efforts. Growing political conservatism and a return to prosperity after WWII moved America away from this kind of involvement in the arts and eventually produced the “arms length” National Endowment compromise. But the idea that the state could use art to educate other people survived in cultural exchange initiatives, in the Fulbright program, and in various information agencies.

      FJO: This is also an interesting time for such a book to appear given that we have been in Afghanistan and Iraq now for as long as we were at war during World War II. What lessons from history should/could we learn from your book?

      DM: In a nutshell: reeducation is an idea fraught with difficulties and contradictions. It costs enormous sums of money, takes an awfully long time and produces mixed results. A radical and all out assault on the institutions and culture of a conquered country, of the kind instituted during the denazification drive of 1945-46 or Paul Bremer’s de-Ba’athisization campaign, could in the long run work, but only if the occupying power has the manpower on site to replace all those removed from office, the cash and honesty to restore disrupted services and maintain order, and the will to stick to the radical course for years on end. The lesson of Germany is that the American public measures its willingness to exercise this kind of imperial rule in months, not years, and that it will want to reduce costs and commitments as quickly as possible. This has also been the case in Iraq. In Germany, the rapid return to “self-government” led to the restoration of a tarnished elite to cultural authority; in Iraq, the reestablishment of civil authority appears to have produced a power vacuum, a collapse in legitimacy for the collaborationist government, civil strife, and widespread corruption. Germany did develop a functioning democracy, but it did so by suppressing the memory of its Nazi past. Democracy stuck in Germany because the people and elites, who saw themselves on the front line in the cold war, needed to cement their ties to the West. Iraq is surrounded by states hostile to American purposes, it has a divided and fractious population, and many people there regard the West as the enemy; in this context, the German “evolutionary” model is staggeringly inappropriate.

      FJO: It seems in some ways that any attempt by a government to involve itself in culture is problematic and sometimes quite harmful. The campaign against formalism in Stalinist Russia, the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China, and the Nazi cultural policies whose lingering effects you describe our government trying to eradicate all come to mind. What should the government’s role be in the encouragement of music and the rest of the arts?

      DM: The role of government in the arts is not a constant, and the experience has not been the same in all countries. The relationship is certainly not always negative and, even where it has been, great art has continued to be produced. Strauss and Shostakovich wrote fine music under oppressive conditions and, uncomfortable though we may find it, many wonderful artists gave their wholehearted support to very evil regimes and despite those circumstances produced some important and lasting art. If, however, we limit our discussion to North America today, I believe that state support for the arts does need to be greatly expanded and secured. Art should be accessible to all and that means that the social whole, through the instrumentality of government, should lend its resources to subsidizing art for those who cannot afford it. A box office and private donor-based approach to the arts is self-destructive as it favors the prominent and the spectacular, both of which tend to be the most expensive. The constant inflation in spectacle, produced by the competition for limited donor and audience dollars, is ultimately harmful to creativity. As you point out, however, the danger with state funding is that it can lead to censorship and a narrowing vision of art. True arms-length public funding is therefore the best solution to this problem, even though independent funding agencies often themselves fall under the control of cliques and special interests.

      FJO: So, in your opinion, can music ultimately transform a society?

      DM: Idealists certainly thought so in the 1940s. To my mind, art serves to manifest the essential values of a society while challenging its conventions and pushing the boundaries of those same values. This is why art should be both appealing and provocative. More conservative art tends to reaffirm more than it provokes; more radical works to provoke more than they reaffirm. But art which does not provoke us is uninteresting, and art that does not speak to our values cannot be understood. So while I wouldn’t argue that art can transform society, it is certainly one of the primary instruments of normal social change and intellectual development.

      FJO: The part of the U.S. cultural campaign in Germany involving the promotion of American symphonic music is the one that I personally found most compelling. To this day, exporting new music in the classical tradition from one country to another is difficult given the continuing dominance of the standard repertoire of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the obligation to perform the music of one’s own composers when an opportunity to perform a new work arises. And this fuels audience expectations as well. I was rather disheartened to read about the reaction of German audiences to music by a composer of the stature of Walter Piston, for example. What lessons might orchestra managers touring American orchestras abroad glean from those late-1940s German concerts?

      DM: Today the problems are somewhat different because of the decline in specifically national elements in musical language. Nowadays orchestras are made up of musicians from all around the world, and composers and audiences have access to a larger vocabulary than they did in the 1940s. Reports from immediately after the war reveal that German orchestras had difficulty rendering American music which employed folk or jazz idioms. This probably remains the case in some places, but fewer and fewer all the time. Still, the repertoire problem for the orchestra manager has not changed: should one program music that new audiences may not appreciate. The answer, surely, depends on what the orchestra is trying to achieve and the image it is endeavoring to present. As much good will and cultural capital may flow from an American orchestra bringing coals to Newcastle—by successfully playing a piece written by a well-known composer from the country visited—as from exposing audiences to a new American work. But I think your point is that one should not exaggerate the influence of simple cultural exposure. My argument in the book is that post-war German audiences tended to read American music through the lens of their pre-existing (and somewhat negative) attitudes to America. Maybe over the long haul cultural exports can change pre-existing attitudes, but it takes a long time. There is no quick-fix in this business, and those who think they’ve found one are generally misunderstanding the situation.

      FJO: The danger of course with any program involving artists, given the eternal paucity of resources, is that artists involved with a program will promote their own work and the work of their friends. You describe this happening here with the composers being performed for the Germans. What can be done to remedy this? Harrison Kerr is someone you singled out in this regard. In the book, he comes across as something of an operator. You describe Kerr’s first symphony, which he arranged a performance for in Germany, as “forgettable.” I’ve never heard this piece. The only major work I heard of his is a violin concerto which was on a long out-of-print CRI LP which I rather like. (By the way, the American Music Library you mention Kerr running was actually the American Music Center, the same organization that publishes this web magazine.) Did any of this music have a lasting presence on German concert programs?

      DM: Sadly, little of the music imported to Germany by the Americans “stuck.” Most of it was performed once, on military government insistence or because of military government financial assistance, and quickly forgotten. There were only a few exceptions, like Barber’s Adagio and Menotti’s Old Maid and the Thief. Contemporary newspaper reviews of American works in the German press generally damned them with faint praise as “workmanlike.” Several works by Harrison Kerr, who was a senior administrator in military government at the time, were performed in Germany, and they were politely and unenthusiastically received. I agree with the view of his critics that it was not proper for officials to use their position to promote their own work (Kerr was not alone in doing this) but, as I point out in the book, on the scale of possible abuses of power by America’s officials, this was a pretty modest one. The military government hierarchy was however right when it told administrators like Kerr that they must either stop promoting themselves or they would lose their jobs. What makes Kerr more significant to me, however, is that, like many Americans after WWII, he believed in imposing a harsh rule on Germany. He thought that the German public should be force-fed music by American composers and performers, and he believed that this would help transform their flawed and xenophobic culture. When the local administrators protested that the music he was advocating was unpopular, Kerr denounced them for betraying their country. He was not well liked by his subordinates in the field, and he never developed much appreciation of German realities. As you know, Kerr had a long and respectable career in arts and university administration in the U.S., and he was a tireless promoter of modern American music. I do not blame him for his opinion of Germany—many after WWII, in the wake of recognition of the Holocaust, and in remembrance of the loss of life caused by Nazism—shared his vision. But his punitive and rather rigid approach to reeducation was ultimately counterproductive.

      FJO: You made the astute observation that the new music promulgated by the Americans was either too new or not new enough to satisfy audiences. The same holds true today: it’s a real tightrope act. What is the right balance?

      DM: I think the problem is that too many people narrow their musical tastes because time and cost prohibit experimentation. Music that gives a hard push to the sensibilities is difficult to sell to audience members who get out once a month and spent a lot on their concert tickets. The tried and true approach of tucking one new work on a program of known pieces is not a bad one in this context, but it does have the great drawback that repeat performances are vital if people are going to get to appreciate a new piece. Were music more affordable and accessible, I think the audience for new music would grow. In tandem with this, it seems to me a shame that so much attention is directed towards educating established concert goers and senior music students in new music and relatively little on attracting tomorrow’s audiences. Given the competition among entertainment sources, more pro-active marketing would be sensible. An ear for new sounds should be promoted in the schools, not just as one-off activities but as regular programs of new music concerts and activities for young listeners. It may well also do modern composers good to think in terms of writing music that could excite and involve a younger generation.

      FJO: An area I wish you would have dug deeper into is the flowering of serial music, both in Germany and in the United States, subsequent to the war. Schoenberg’s music was deemed degenerate by the Nazis, and his music was suppressed during their regime. So twelve-tone music from its inception is decidedly anti-Nazi. How involved were Americans in establishing twelve-tone music in places like Darmstadt?

      DM: This is an important question which has received considerable scholarly attention. The general consensus has been that the American administrators were instrumental in returning the serial music approach to Germany after the war. One of the reasons I don’t dig deeper into this is because I believe these assertions to be exaggerated. The post-war administrators had little interest in or knowledge of Schoenberg. They saw Hindemith, not Schoenberg, as the émigré artist whose music should be promoted in Germany. The music they advocated tended to employ traditional tonalities. Although the High Commission which succeeded Military Government in 1949 did contribute vital funds to the Darmstadt festival, it did not shape its artistic direction. Schoenberg’s influence grew after the war, but largely because of the interest of local musicians who were, in many ways, rejecting both Nazi and official American models of “modernity” in music. In the mid-1950s, American artists would exert an enormous influence over young composers, but that development lay outside the period covered in Settling Scores.

      FJO: What has been the reception of this book? What project is next for you?

      DM: I’ve been very gratified by the book’s reception among scholars in the field. Unfortunately, as a university-based writer, I have fewer contacts with less specialized readers, and I would enjoy receiving their feedback. My current research has carried me a fair distance from the denazification and reorientation of German musical life after the war. I am presently working on the phenomenon of the “coon shout” in Vaudeville in the first decade of the 20th century and the birth of the urban blues style. I am interested at present in learning more about the history of ragtime, blackface minstrelsy, and early blues and jazz. I am not certain yet how all the pieces are going to fit together, which is what makes the research so tremendously exciting. Hopefully, we can talk more about it in a few years time!

    Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art

    Reprinted from Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art by Brandon LaBelle, published by The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved. Featured here with permission of the author and the publisher.

    • READ an interview with author Brandon LaBelle.

      Brandon LaBelle

      Public Supply: Buildings, Constructions, and Locational Listening

      Aural phenomena are much more characteristically vectorized in time, with an irreversible beginning, middle and end, than are visual phenomena.1

      Traditionally composers have located the elements of a composition in time. One idea which I am interested in is locating them, instead, in space, and letting the listener place them in his own time. I’m not interested in making music exclusively for musicians or musically initiated audiences. I am interested in making music for people.2


      To speak about architecture and sound is to confront a complex situation, for the acoustical possibility of space amplifying, cutting off, or affecting the experience of sound has seen its articulation in a history of “acoustic architectures,” from concert halls, cathedrals, and cinema houses to sound studios and recording facilities.3 The science of acoustics mathematically charts out the potential for creating sound spaces for the experience of listening through construction, proportional exactness, and usage of various materials; in turn, such science may decrease, block out, or thwart sound’s physical presence by deadening reverberation and diffusing vibration. In this way, acoustical experience is always embedded in the conversation of sound and space, as a reciprocal exchange, for sounds are positioned within given spatialities and are thus affected by their materiality, their relation to other spaces, and the general environmental geography. Such effects flow in reverse, for space is partially given definition by the acoustical presence of environmental sounds, whether outside the given space or within, from a space’s own internal infrastructural workings, such as the hum of air-conditioning and ventilation or lighting systems.

      The sound-space interplay is inherently conversational in so far as one speaks to the other—when sounds occur, they are partially formed by their spatial counterpart, and spatial experience is given character by the eccentricities of sound events. This conversational interaction has not gone unnoticed by practitioners, from composers to artists to performers to architects, from Greek amphitheaters to Medieval churches, renaissance cathedrals to recent concert halls, as in the Tokyo Opera City hall designed by Takahiko Yanagisawa4 or the Jean Nouvel concert hall in Copenhagen, both of which utilized advanced technologies in determining acoustical fidelity. While acoustics offers insight into the relational exchange occurring between sound and space, it does so by often remaining “true” to the sound source, in terms of fidelity, or by controlling the more idiosyncratic moments of sound’s emanation and ultimate trajectory.5 Such idiosyncrasies are, in fact, what I am seeking here. It is my intention to engage such interaction by addressing the development of sound installation. To move from the making of a musical object or work to the construction of environmentally and architecturally active “music” entails a shift in compositional and performative approach, for such work incorporates the complexity of acoustical events informed by the presence of a broader set of terms. Sound installation seeks the acoustical conversation so as to chart out new spatial coordinates, to stage relational intensities that often threaten architecture and bodies, and to network spaces with other locations, proximate and distant. The locational intensities charted out by Acconci and Lucier lead out toward a broader social architectural environment cultivated overtly in sound installation, outside the confines of single rooms, staircases, and galleries.

      Beyond acoustical interplay, sound and architecture bring to the fore different sets of terms that oscillate between aurality and visuality, and their differences. Architectural understanding and practice may be seen to operate through a general emphasis on visuality: the rendering of architectural drawings, the continual demand for visual information, the plethora of graphic information architecture generates, amplified in digital software, and the ultimate construction of fixed forms and stable objects, all governed by the logic of sightlines, visuality, and material texture. Architecture is a sophisticated graphic practice.6 In contrast, sound operates through zones of intensity, ephemeral events, immersive and noisy, vibrating through walls, from under floors, from bodies. It operates according to a different notion of borders and perspective—it is unfixed, ethereal, evanescent, and vibratory; whereas architecture is fixed, drawn, charted out, and built. To bring sound into play as an architectural material or experience thus partially counters the inherent dynamic of building, lending to space and the architectural imagination an element of the experiential and sensual immediacy.

      While we may underscore such relations as oppositional or dichotomous, the project of sound installation, and sound art in general, stages the integration of the sonic with the built, nurturing mutuality between sound and space, which at times must also be heard as argumentative, antagonistic, and problematic. Sound installation activates this intersection, intervening with architectural spaces and making sonic additions. Thus, we locate our listening within a spatial scene, drawing the architectural experience into an investigation of acoustical space.

      Sonic Geographies

      It has been my intention to chart out an historical overview of sound’s development as an artistic medium and its particular relation to location and modes of spatiality, so as to uncover sound art’s relational dynamic. In order to do so, I have attempted to continually juxtapose artists with composers, thereby highlighting the often underrepresented crossover between the visual arts and the sonic arts. As has been discussed, from the early 1950s through to the 1970s, sound played an integral part in visual and musical practices, expanding the disciplines of music composition, art installation, and performance practices by utilizing the intensities of aurality, from language and speech, recorded sound, and spatial noise to amplified and acoustic events, within space and inside the ear. With the development of Installation art in the late 1960s and early 1970s, sound is further defined as a spatial and environmental element through sound installation (as already seen in the work of Michael Asher). Sound installation positions a listener inside a complex space defined by a general relation of the found and the constructed. The appropriation of found sound and its location in the making of music, as can be heard in Cage’s work from the late 1940s, and through Fluxus, which sought the everyday as place of artistic experience, can be distinguished from sound installation as it firmly moves away from the time of sound and toward its spatial location. Or, more accurately, it frees up sound’s durational performance to emphasize spatial and environmental conditions. It leads a listener toward the everyday, not by staging a happening but by insinuating itself into the found, so as to heighten spatial perception, bridging music/aurality with questions of site-specificity, exemplified in the works of Max Neuhaus, whose inauguration of sound installation incites an integration of the visual and sonic arts.

      The developments of sound installation provide a heightened articulation of sound to perform as an artistic medium, making explicit “sound art” as a unique and identifiable practice. In bridging the visual arts with the sonic arts, creating an interdisciplinary practice, sound art fosters the cultivation of sonic materiality in relation to the conceptualization of auditory potentiality. While at times incorporating, referring to, or drawing upon materials, ideas, and concerns outside of sound per se, sound art nonetheless seems to position such things in relation to aurality, the processes and promises of audition, and sonic culture. Such potentiality must be glimpsed in the ways in which sound art transgresses the hierarchy of the senses, seeking the dramas of the aural to make objects, create narrative, amplify or unsettle meaning, and invade space. Overlapping and at times drawing from musical culture, the practice of sound art pursues more active relations to spatial presentations, durational structures beyond the concert experience, and within more general public environments that often engage other media, inciting the auditory imagination.7

      Sound installation arises out of the general historical moment in which Installation art gains definition. Though what it adds to such work is the legacy of experimental music and its performative vocabularies, developed by Fluxus and Minimalism. Often credited to Neuhaus,8 sound installation brings together sound and space in a provocative and stimulating manner, often drawing upon architectural elements and construction, social events, environmental noise, and acoustical dynamics, in and out of the gallery, while drawing upon musical understanding. In this way, sound installation replaces the insular domain of musical performance with spatial geographies, the investigations of electronic systems (which Neuhaus was well aware of) and their subsequent noises9 with the conditions of urban space and its planning, positioning a listener inside a greater geographic field.

      In conjunction with the work of Max Neuhaus, artists such as Maryanne Amacher, Michael Brewster, and Bernhard Leitner lend further definition to the field of sound installation, each pursuing sound’s dialogue with architecture, spatiality, and environmental situations in more depth. Such artistic work finds a unique echo in the more overt architectural projects developed by the composer Iannis Xenakis. By following their works, it is my intent to locate sound’s architectural features. While their works arise from within distinct geographic and cultural settings, each contributes to the argument that sound and places are inherently conversational, reciprocally conducive, and actively integrated as a potential sounding instrument. Sound installation thus furthers the relational dynamic of sound by wedding it more firmly to a spatial operation that necessarily extends out, beyond walls and the limits of buildings, while delving further inward, toward the proximity of the skin and the inner soundscape of the mind.



      1. Michel Chion, Audio-Vision, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia Univer- sity Press, 1994), p. 19.

      2. Max Neuhaus, Max Neuhaus: inscription, sound works vol. 1 (Ostfildern, Germany: Cantz Verlag, 1994), p. 34.

      3. For an important study of early and modern developments of acoustic architectures, see Emily Thompson, The Soundscapes of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002) and Soundspace: Architecture for Sound and Vision, ed. Peter Grueneisen (Basel: Birkhiiuser, 2003).

      4. James Glanz, “Art + Physics = Beautiful Music,” in The New York Times (18 April 2000).

      5. With this in mind, it is important to highlight a few examples in which sound and its spatial architecture create opportunities for exploring the dramas of their exchange. IRCAM, in Paris, and built in 1973, contains a sound studio purposefully designed for spatial definition of sound: sound diffusion through multiple speaker system, and modulated baffles for attenuating and “sculpting” sound, the studio allows for the manipulation of sound through acoustic positioning. In conjunction with IRCAM, the newly opened SARC, at Queen’s University in Belfast, allows for creative and scientific sound manipulation and creation through its sonic laboratory that contain movable acoustic wall panels, flexible ceiling panels that position overhead speaker systems at various heights, and the transmission of audio from below the floor. Another recent acoustic project is Arup’s SoundLab, which allows for acoustic testing for architectural projects. The SoundLab essentially enables a client to actually listen to the acoustic space before it’s been built: through computer modeling and sound distribution, through a twelve-speaker system, a series of “sound scenarios” can be presented in the Lab, from cocktail parties to concerts, enabling adjustments to be made.

      6. In a lecture given at the Bartlett School of Architecture in 2001, Mark Wigley suggested that architects are experts in the field of “typography” because of their understanding of graphic marks to signify and convey meaning.

      7. While sound art has taken a definitive surge in cultural attention in the last five years, I want to underscore that such entrance occurs tentatively and ambivalently. For it seems sound art continues to hold an unsettled place within artistic institutions, which could be said to unearth the impasse between an overtly “visual” institutional structure with an intensely “sonic” medium. Bernd Schulz (curator from the Stadtgalerie Saarbrticken in Germany, whose program of sound art exhibitions started in 1985) provides an interesting observation when he says: “The inexpressibility and cognitive impenetrability of the phenomenal experience make it difficult to secure for sound art the place it deserves in the art world.” (See Bernd Schulz, Introduction to the exhibition catalog Resonances: Aspects of Sound Art [Heidelberg, Germany: Kehrer Verlag, 2002], p. 15.) Attributing this to both technical needs required to set up sound work, along with a general mistrust in the media intrusion of sound and musical vocabulary into the museum setting, Schulz points out an ongoing question as to sound’s presence within visual art institutions. This is further echoed in what curator Christine van Assche identifies as a “museological” problem, that of exhibition architecture built to accommodate sound art. (See Christina van Assche, “Sonic Process: A New Geography of Sound” in Sonic Process [Barcelona: ACTAR, 2002], p. 5.) That van Assche has found a solution in the architecture of the “sound studio” as the optimum spatial configuration to which the museum should turn in presenting sound art (as realized in “Sonic Process” which van Assche curated for the Pompidou Centre in 2002) does not so much resolve the issue as skirt its persistence. While the darkened and isolated sound studio may overcome certain problems by lessening interference and sound bleed between respective sound works, it falls short in fostering the full dimensionality of sound art as a complex, rich, and dynamic practice to which interference itself bespeaks.

      8. While it is not my interest to argue who did what first, I do want to highlight that sound installation as a production finds earlier incarnations in the work of Yasunao Tone (discussed as part of Group Ongaku in Chapter 3): his project for the Yomiuri Independent Salon in 1962 (a group exhibition related to the early days of Fluxus) at the Minami Gallery in Tokyo consisted of a tape recorder with a mechanical loop device that played a continuous, recorded sound from under a crumpled sheet of white cloth.

      9. Neuhaus’s work with percussion led him to engage more acutely with electronics as a means to extend the instrument. Between 1964 and 1968, he toured the United States and Europe performing a version of Cage’s Fontana Mix. Coined Fontana Mix—Feed, Neuhaus realized Cage’s work by creating acoustic feedback loops through kettle drums: by placing the drum between a loudspeaker and a contact microphone, turning up the volume on the microphone, and controlling the subsequent loop of feedback, Neuhaus was able to mix four channels of feedback into an orchestra of shrilling, piercing, and surprisingly tonal work. See Max Neuhaus, Fontana Mix—Feed, Audio CD (Milan: Alga Marghen, 2003).

    In Conversation with Brandon LaBelle

    Brandon LaBelle
    Brandon LaBelle
    • READ an excerpt from Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art by Brandon LaBelle.
      Molly Sheridan: If you were to Venn diagram for me in words how you view the worlds of “sound art” and “music,” how would they intersect? What do we get from one that we cannot from the other?

      Brandon LaBelle: This question often comes up, and while I think it is important to ask and to probe these differences, at the same time I’m very open to the notion that such definitions will inevitably run up against their own contradictions, discrepancies, and tensions. And so I want to keep such contradictions intact with any form of articulating what sound art is and what music is or is not. Your use of the word “intersect” I think is very appropriate in this regard, because it suggests not so much a separation, but a conversation that is both a meeting as well as a tension. To say that sound art is the use of sound within spatial environments that are more aligned with or involved in a visual arts culture, and that music, in contrast, is concerned with forms of composition and their relationship to structures, temporal presentations, and media formats, such as CDs, is to maybe edge up against an initial distinction. But I’d also emphasize that what sound art is and what music is has so many variations, so many complexities in themselves, that inevitably we have to speak generally, which is also a way of honouring the messiness or irregularity of the culture.

      I’d probably add also something about history, which is that sound art arrives for me at a stage in cultural history in which notions of “material truth” are unsettled. (I’m thinking of the tail end of modernism in which Western metaphysics takes audacious steps toward its own unravelling.) Couple this with advances in media technologies and, in particular, sound reproduction capabilities, and sound art surfaces as a potent medium for questioning notions of “truth” and “representation” while lacing this with the promise of new media to grant such questioning a form of optimism around “making connections.”

      Molly Sheridan: Why does sound art sit more comfortably inside the world of visual art than composition? Is it the artists making the work, the needs of the work?

      Brandon LaBelle: I think on one hand you do have this drift toward spatializing music—to make a space out of composition, and maybe to musicalizing space—to apply tonalities and timbre to spaces, and our experience of being somewhere. This I feel is partly an aesthetic interest that surfaces. At the same time, the move toward the visual arts is also opened up by certain changes in the visual arts from the mid-50s through the 60s, in which forms of “class” were really broken down in favor of DIY, participatory, social organizing that totally undid aesthetics as a form of “taste,” which I think maybe music—that is, classical music—may have continued to be involved with, making some musicians, such as Max Neuhaus and Christina Kubisch, leave behind that cultural space in favor of the “freedom” surfacing in the visual arts at this time.

      In addition, as I was saying earlier, the questioning of certain metaphysical truths that arrives at this time, which does blossom into forms of conceptual art, seems to define sound art, as I’m seeing it, as what I’d call a “critical practice.” For me, I can’t hear sound art, as a history and culture, without recognizing that its relation to being critical is totally different than from music (again, generalizations!). Sound art seems to truly strive to leave behind representational form and musical structures in favor of a kind of affective purity—a total space of sonic intensity.

      Molly Sheridan: Background Noise follows the evolution of sound art through the decades. How does such work fit into and influence the larger world of creative culture today as compared to the early years?

      Brandon LaBelle: As we’ve witnessed over the last five or so years now, sound art has taken a front seat, in some regards, in terms of being a valued or sought after culture and practice. And probably now even more so, the “music” / “sound art” divide has become more blurry as forms of electronic music, and even pop music, incorporate a lot of aesthetic elements, such as more varied textural sounds, atmospheres, and samples, that often appear within sound art work. And in reverse, sound art is often appearing more steadily within music festivals or symposia in which the question of music is being debated. So, we might say that sound art has a place today that certainly it did not have 40 or 20 years ago, and that it has this new attention for a reason, which may be artistic—forms of media art in general becoming more integrated into other forms of curating, exhibiting, commissioning—as well as cultural—that at this time sound may offer a productive and generative medium for not only making art, but for being in the world, a world which demands an intensified level of communicative nuance. That is, we might be an increasingly auditive culture because to listen is helpful in not only appreciating composition, but also in locating our place within an ever-changing scenery.

      Molly Sheridan: What has been the role and influence of technology development in this field, especially with regard to the spatial connectivity of the Internet?

      Brandon LaBelle: Technological advances parallel sound art as a history and culture, and often lend radical influence on how sound art is made or imagined. You could definitely engage its history, and music as well, from a technological viewpoint, beginning with recording technology through to current streaming capabilities, which make sound and its construction increasingly available. Part of the project of Background Noise is based on this lineage, but from a spatial and aesthetic perspective: how sound has been carried further and deeper into geographic proportions, from the ability to transport sound, from local spaces through its recording and diffusion, to its live sharing, on the Internet, and the ability to generate endless patterns and multiply inputs and outputs to limitless degrees. This on one hand is technologically advanced, and at the same time is infiltrating basic levels of ordinary life, where mobile phones, mp3 players, PDAs, etc., become small and personal media compositional tools, where jpegs, mpegs, and sound files function as story-telling devices, party snapshots, social organizational media in which questions of permanency or the hard copy totally disappears.

      Molly Sheridan: We often lament that our world is visually and aurally polluted. In what ways have sound artists used their art to direct our listening in such increasingly chaotic times?

      Brandon LaBelle: There is a strong community of practitioners working with field recordings, acoustic ecology, and soundscape work that more forcefully address the question of noise and pollution, from the perspective of trying to direct attention to the details of auditory life. Listening becomes a way in to recognizing both the diverse richness of auditory life while also accentuating what is common to all, or forms of shared and communal sound. Most of this has to do with working with found sounds, environmental sounds, hidden sounds found in different environments, and sculpting these into forms of composition or presentation, to align human perception with these other life forms, locations, or narratives. To be able to reflect upon the existing auditory world, a lot of this work tends towards forms of meditative listening, which may try and come into deeper contact with the question of how sound affects us and in what ways should we care for auditory life.

      Molly Sheridan: What’s exciting to me about this area is how open to possibilities the field seems to be, maybe because of its relative newness. What do you see as some of the possible “next big ideas” or roads of exploration that will be opened up in the near future?

      Brandon LaBelle: I think on one hand that while sound art is actually becoming increasingly rich as well as defined as a distinct field, I feel it may find its most exciting realization through its integration with other fields, disciplines, practices, and cultures that are artistic, as well as industrial, architectural, and scientific. I think probably sound artists will become increasingly sought after as interior designers of acoustic spaces, consultants for interface design, composers for video games or airplane travel, all of which may become very interesting. At the same time, I question the degree to which sound art can be critical of itself, and whether its function as a medium for escaping discourse and its related structures, or for remaining out of bounds of established codes through being affective / effective, will only make it useful to the world of fashion and design. Not that this is inherently problematic, but it is my interest to see sound art enter such areas while continuing to remain difficult, messy, and somewhat excessive. I think sound art should become more bold in not only being purely itself, but in engaging more with things outside itself.

    Born Again (Film of The Death of Klinghoffer)

    Reprinted from The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer edited by Thomas May, published by Amadeus Press. Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved. This article was originally published in LA Weekly (November 10, 2003) and is featured here with permission of the author, editor and publisher.

    • READ an interview with editor Thomas May.
      The Death of Klinghoffer is again before us, insistent, moving, inescapable. Nobody of consequence has ever challenged the intense musical power of John Adams’s opera; within a different dramatic context, absent the outcries of Palestinian terrorists stating so compellingly the basis of their hatreds, of their belief that “America is one big Jew,” this opera of 1991 would be everywhere recognized as a dramatic score of foremost quality. Yet the work survives in an aura of hatred. Michael Steinberg’s program note for the original Nonesuch recording of the opera struck an ironically prophetic note: “On whichever day you read these words,” he wrote concerning the tragedy of Leon Klinghoffer, “there will be a new installment in the morning paper.”

      Now Klinghoffer has been reborn, in a version which, beyond all previous stagings—and certainly beyond all carefully unstaged concert renditions—creates the best possible context for the work’s greatness. Another irony: Adams and the British filmmaker Penny Woolcock were creating this version in London when the news of 9/11 broke; it took only a moment’s hesitation before the decision was made to continue. The result, which played at last year’s Sundance Festival, is now available on a DVD issued by Decca.

      The film offers the strengths of Klinghoffer, by more and by less. “By more” is the fact that the score has been drastically reworked; dramatic reordering has occasioned musical reordering as well, and the results are stunning. Much use has been made of news footage; a Palestinian sings of his family’s being dispossessed by new Jewish settlers in 1948, and there are shots to support his words. The passengers aboard the hijacked cruise ship sing of their sufferings of generations past, and shots of Nazi pogroms are intercut. “By less” is a minor deprivation: the opera has been shorn of twenty shearable minutes.

      More to the point, the action of the opera itself has been moved onto a plane of reality removed from Peter Sellars’s original, somewhat idealized conception. The murder of the wheelchair- ridden Leon Klinghoffer actually takes place center stage—not offstage, as in Sellars—and then his final tragic invocation, “May the Lord God and His creation,” is sung by his murdered body as it slowly descends through clear Mediterranean waters. Once again, as with the opera since its creation, the eloquent Sanford Sylvan inhabits the personage of the good, tragic Klinghoffer fiber by fiber; no less powerful is the steel-and-granite Marilyn Klinghoffer of Yvonne Howard. Adams himself conducts.

      Stunning opera-making, stunning movie-making; I am tempted to regard this remarkable piece of silvery plastic as a major forward step in the dissemination of an artistic commodity through the popular media. The fluidity—the easy transition between the reality of trapped, innocent people on a cruise ship in the hands of equally confused captors and the social forces that have brought them to this point; the transitions, as well, between these people at this point in their lives, and the state of their lives yesterday and the week before—is an element wedded to film. It is brilliantly managed here.

      At the end there is nearly an hour’s worth of auxiliary material, every word of it relevant to the matter at hand with filmmaker and composer especially inflamed by the splendor of the work they have created. Most moving also are the words of librettist Alice Goodman, whose life has been most drastically changed by the fate of Klinghoffer, the citizen and the opera. A “nice Jewish girl from Chicago” in 1991 (with the enormous triumph of the Adams/Sellars Nixon in China to rest upon), she has assumed the brunt of the reproach leveled at Klinghoffer‘s controversial message and stands by her words. Whether because or despite, she has in that time abandoned Judaism and now preaches at an Anglican church in London, to a largely Palestinian congregation. She comes off the video as someone you’d love to meet, and someone you have to believe.

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