Music in the United States
MUSIC FOR A NEW CENTURY
Americans and observers all over the world watched in amazement
as the Berlin Wall crumbled, bringing down along with it an
enormous complex of calcified belief systems. Whether because
of synchronicity or simply the deceptive but irresistible human
urge to draw connections, an observer of the broad spectrum
of classical music in the United States might have detected
something similar happening in that world as well. In the way
composers operated and the kinds of music they wrote, in the
sorts of performing institutions that brought that music and
music of the past to the listening public, old models and ways
of thinking that had begun to prove decisively unworkable were
being chipped away.
a decade later, U.S. classical music stands on the verge of
an enormous rejuvenation. The process is far from complete
indeed, in some areas it has scarcely begun but the seeds that
have been sown over the past years unmistakably are bearing
fruit. The music that is being written today boasts a combination
of vitality and accessibility that have been missing from American
music for too long. A similar spirit of adventure and innovation
can increasingly be found among the country's solo performers
and musical organizations.
liberation, of course, is a slower and more diffuse process
than political liberation. In the absence of a single Promethean
figure on the order of Beethoven or Picasso, old orthodoxies
are more likely to be eroded than exploded. So it is that much
of the musical life in the United States still clings to the
old ways. Some prominent composers continue to write in the
densely impenetrable language forged during the modernist period
and clung to in the face of decades' worth of audience hostility
or indifference. Some opera companies and symphony orchestras
operate as though the United States was still a cultural outpost
of Europe, uncertain of the value of anything that doesn't
derive from the Old World.
But the signs
of change are there among younger composers struggling to find
their own voice in defiance of old models, among performers
eager to make those voices heard, and among organizations daring
enough to give the nation's musical life a distinctively American
profile at last.
more important to this process than the production of new music,
and here is where the picture is at once most heartening and
most varied. From the end of World War II until well into the
1970s, the dominant vein in American music was the arid, intricate
style that had grown out of early modernism and continued to
flourish in the supportive but isolated arena of academia.
Much of this music was based on serialism, the system derived
from the works of Schonberg, Webern, and Berg in which the
key-centered structures of tonal music were replaced with a
systematically even-handed treatment of all 12 notes of the
chromatic scale. Even composers whose works were not strictly
serialist, such as Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions, partook
of the general preference for intellectual rigor and dense,
craggy surfaces. The fact that audiences were nonplused by
this music, to say the least, was taken merely as an indication
that the composers were ahead of their time.
In the past
20 years, though, two important developments have effectively
challenged that state of affairs. One is the advent of minimalism,
a style of music that in its pure form is based on simple,
tonal harmonies, clear rhythmic patterns and frequent repetition.
The other is a movement that has tried to continue the development
of tonal music where it was left by Mahler, Strauss and Sibelius;
this trend has been dubbed the "new romanticism" (like
most such labels, this one is potentially misleading and unavoidably
useful). Between them, these two styles the one with its search
for beauty and simplicity, the other with its emphasis on expressive
communication delivered a potent reproach to the lofty abstractions
of the high modernist school.
roots go back further, minimalism's first big splash came in
the mid-1970s from two important composers, Steve Reich and
Philip Glass. The music that these men performed with their
own chamber ensembles long, determinedly static pieces whose
repeated scales, chugging rhythms and simple harmonies seemed
impossible at first to take seriously turned out to have an
enormous impact on a generation of composers.
however, minimalism has turned out to be more a path than a
way station in music history. Both Reich and Glass, now in
their 60s, continue to write music of great inventiveness and
beauty Glass more prolifically, Reich (in my view) more arrestingly.
In particular, Reich's Different Trains, a meditation on the
Holocaust scored for taped voices and overdubbed string quartet,
stands as one of the great American scores of the past decade.
But although the interlocking rhythmic patterns and tonal harmonies
of minimalism have become common coin, there is no second generation
of minimalist composers; followers of Reich and Glass, instead
of sticking close to the idiom they pioneered, have turned
those musical resources to their own ends.
The new romanticism,
on the other hand perhaps because it reflects an attitude toward
music history more than a concrete set of musical gestures
has proved to be a more wide-ranging phenomenon. The name itself
was coined in connection with a festival of new music sponsored
in 1983 by the New York Philharmonic and curated by the late
composer Jacob Druckman, who wanted to demonstrate the presence
and viability of this retrospective strain in contemporary
most prominent new romantic (although his music has recently
faded from view) is George Rochberg, who went from being a
hard-core serialist to writing music studded with quotations
from Beethoven, Mahler and others. Among the other representatives
of this style are the brightly colored scores of Druckman and
Joseph Schwantner, the elaborate Straussian extravaganzas that
David Del Tredici has composed based on Lewis Carroll's Alice
books, or the ripely sensual works of John Corigliano. A younger
generation of new romantics includes such important composers
as Christopher Rouse, George Tsontakis and Richard Danielpour.
this music is written with skill and passion, there is something
in its deliberate nostalgia that is inherently limiting (why
rewrite Strauss, after all, when Strauss himself did it so
well the first time?). On the other hand, some of the most
interesting classical music now being written in America can
be seen as a fusion of minimalism and the new romanticism.
the most popular and widely respected composer now working
in America is John Adams, whose music melds the two approaches
beautifully. Adams, 51, may be best known for the two operas
that he wrote in collaboration with librettist Alice Goodman
and director Peter Sellars: Nixon in China, a funny and moving
account of the 1972 meeting between the late U.S. president
and Chairman Mao Zedong, and The Death of Klinghoffer, about
the 1985 Palestinian hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro.
Adams began his career as a straightforward minimalist, but
soon found himself unable to break entirely with the past.
Beginning with his extraordinary orchestral piece Harmonielehre
written for the San Francisco Symphony, Adams has managed to
graft the surface gestures of minimalism onto an artistic impulse
that is as overtly expressive as that of any 19th century composer.
important American composer of the succeeding generation is
Aaron Jay Kernis, 38, who recently won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize
for Music for his String Quartet No. 2. Kernis' musical language
owes a less explicit debt to minimalism than Adams' does, but
the impact of minimalism, as well as a variety of popular musical
styles, can be heard in his music alongside those of Mahler,
Strauss and Berg. This astonishingly gifted and prolific composer
is capable of both deeply felt moral utterances, as in his
powerful Symphony No. 2, and pure popular fun like his 100
Greatest Dance Hits for guitar and string quartet.
of influences also shape some of the other important musical
trends of the day. For many composers now in their 30s and
40s, for instance, the impressions of rock music have remained
formative, showing up in the use of electric guitars (as in
the work of Steve Mackey or Nick Didkovsky) and in a raw rhythmic
power that has been practically unheard of in classical music.
exemplars of this development are the composers connected with "Bang
on a Can," a seminal annual festival of new music founded
in New York City in 1986. The festival's three artistic directors,
composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang, write
music that is as viscerally forceful as it is carefully crafted;
Gordon in particular delves into rhythmic complexities that
always stay just within the bounds of comprehensibility.
rewarding recent trend has been the emergence of a generation
of Chinese immigrant composers who combine Chinese folk music
with Western idioms. Chief among these composers are Tan Dun
(who was commissioned to write a symphony for the occasion
of Hong Kong's reversion to Chinese control), Chen Yi and Bright
these composers still depend on performing organizations --
symphony orchestras predominantly -- to turn the notes on paper
into living sound. Throughout most of the 20th century, the
American orchestral landscape provided as unchanging a vista
as any aspect of the nation's cultural life. The hierarchy
was clear-cut. At the top were the so-called Big Five ensembles
the symphony orchestras of Boston, New York, Philadelphia,
Cleveland and Chicago and below them was everyone else. Well
into the century, these organizations saw their role primarily
as importers of musical culture from across the Atlantic. Aside
from Leonard Bernstein's heady tenure with the New York Philharmonic
in the 1960s, the music directors, like most of the repertoire,
have been European.
been odd bursts of vigorous innovation, such as Serge Koussevitzky's
passionate championing of new music during his leadership of
the Boston Symphony, or even the astonishing commissioning
program run by the Louisville Orchestra throughout the 1950s,
which produced major orchestral scores by Aaron Copland, Elliott
Carter, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris and many others. But for
the most part, America's major orchestras have functioned almost
exclusively as conservators of the European tradition.
In the past
decade or so, however, the picture has changed considerably
from the bottom up, as it were. The situation among the Big
Five has not altered substantially. Even today, not one of
them has an American-born music director (New York's Kurt Masur,
Philadelphia's Wolfgang Sawallisch and Cleveland's Christoph
von Dohnanyi are all German; Boston's Seiji Ozawa is Japanese,
and Chicago's Daniel Barenboim is an Israeli born in Argentina).
orchestras no longer dominate the scene as thoroughly as they
once did. Any list of America's leading orchestras today would
have to include those in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston,
St. Louis, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. On a
technical level, the best of these ensembles now play so well
as to upset the age-old hierarchy; even if none of them is
necessarily strong enough to force its way into the top five,
several are good enough to make a list of five seem arbitrarily
Just as important
is the change in the way some of these orchestras approach
the task of bringing music to the public. Under the leadership
of a generation of dynamic young conductors, most of them American,
these orchestras have managed to infuse a sense of excitement
and adventure into their offerings that is very far from the
too-common notion that musical culture is simply something
that is good for you.
prominent example is Michael Tilson Thomas, who in 1995 became
music director of the San Francisco Symphony. The 54-year-old
conductor and pianist began as a protege of Leonard Bernstein.
As a young conductor with the Boston Symphony and then as music
director of the Buffalo Philharmonic in the 1970s, he launched
a powerhouse exploration of the music of such American experimentalist
composers as Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell and Edgard
Varese. In San Francisco, Tilson Thomas has continued his advocacy
of American music (in his first season, he included an American
work on every subscription concert he led) as well as other
contemporary and out-of-the-way repertoire, and injected some
much-needed energy into the local musical scene.
At the Los
Angeles Philharmonic, the dashing young Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka
Salonen has reportedly accomplished something similar, although
his tastes in new music run more toward the European schools.
Leonard Slatkin, who recently took over the helm of Washington,
D.C.'s National Symphony Orchestra, has been a staunch supporter
of contemporary American music, as has David Zinman in Baltimore.
Gerard Schwarz, in his recordings and performances with the
Seattle Symphony, has been active in resuscitating the music
of a school of mid-century American symphonists that includes
Howard Hanson, Walter Piston and David Diamond.
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