American Music in the United States

Classical Music

By Joshua Kosman

In 1989, 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.

Now, almost 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.

Artistic 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.

Nothing is 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.

Though its 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.

Interestingly, 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 music.

Perhaps the 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.

Although 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.

Probably 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.

The most 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.

Combinations 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.

The best 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.

Yet another 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 Sheng.

Most of 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.

There have 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).

But those 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 limiting.

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.

The most 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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