American Mavericks

American Mavericks

Courtesy University of California Press

[Ed. note—Released in December, the University of California Press has issued American Mavericks: Visionaries, Pioneers, Iconoclasts, with an accompanying CD. The high-gloss, picture loaded book is both a record of the San Francisco Symphony festival of the same name and a catalogue of the American Mavericks who shaped the 20th century.]

The American Maverick Tradition

“Music was born free, and to win freedom is its destiny.”
— Ferruccio Busoni

As long as America has endured, there have been Mavericks in the land. Moses Maverick, of Netherlands ancestry, arrived in the New World on the Mayflower, with the new bride he had selected from among the fellow passengers. The Mavericks settled around Boston, where there is still a Maverick Square, which—by accident or design—happens to be a safe harbor for a cluster of small art galleries that preserve the maverick (lower case, this time) spirit.

That spirit seems to have been born, or at least named, some two centuries after the landing of the ancestral Mavericks. The descendant who cast the longest shadow, Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870), linked his fate to the hundreds of kindred unfettered spirits of his time, rode westward from New England to seek his fortune, settled near San Antonio in the county that now bears his name, became a cattle rancher and, from the evidence, played a pretty good hand of poker. One day Sam Maverick won a herd of cattle in a poker game. For reasons still unclear, he decided not to brand them but to let them roam free on the open range—to become, as we use the term today, “mavericks.” That “open range” in Sam Maverick’s time must have been a lively expanse, in more ways than just topographically. On these same wide-open spaces honored in poem and song, the American arts staked out their figurative claims. In a limitless terrain, extending coast-to-coast, free of artificial barriers—or, at least, any barriers that the willpower of American creativity couldn’t overleap—the generations of free spirits that invented and then defined American uniqueness found their grazing land. Henry David Thoreau flourished on that range, in mind if not always in body. Walt Whitman gave it its yawp. Frederick Remington’s canvases captured its color and its vastness. Its music was an eclectic mix. There were the hymns, dances, and folk tunes that had stowed away on the immigrants’ ships from Europe and the slave ships from Africa, and which had flourished in America’s bracing air.

Courtesy University of California Press

But there was also more serious stuff. By 1842, say, the year the New York Philharmonic was founded, the masterworks of the great European composers—Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn—were already established in major cities. New York had seen Mozart’s Don Giovanni as early as 1826. As American cities grew and a culture-supporting aristocracy sought to emulate Europe’s metropolitan amenities by building opera houses and concert halls, a certain cautious interest also developed around the possibility of implanting a made-in-America “serious” musical culture as well into this virgin and receptive American soil. The ideal for the up-and-coming American composer, it was widely felt, would be to emulate the great overseas masters.

By mid-century America’s concert halls had begun to extend a cautious welcome to the first generations of American-born composers, their talents annealed and made safe in the European conservatories. Whatever their potential might have been for America’s first “serious” composers to enrich their native land with a musical language comparable to Whitman’s rough-hewn eloquence, a few years in the classrooms of Munich or Vienna converted them instead to creditable clones of Mendelssohn and Brahms, with an occasional pentatonic scale or tom-tom solo threaded into their orthodox symphonies and concertos to identify their exotic American-ness: John Knowles Paine, George Whitefield Chadwick, Edward MacDowell. One of the best of these fine retreads, the solid and substantial pedant Horatio Parker, joined the faculty of Yale University as professor of composition. There in his classroom, in the 1890s, he would have his nose continually tweaked by the most unmanageable of his students, Charles Ives.

A century later, we can still look back upon Ives to provide the purest definition of the American musical maverick. Think for a moment of what the musical equivalent of the branding iron, the indignity that Sam Maverick’s herds had been so nobly spared, might entail. Music, as taught in the world’s conservatories in Ives’s time and practiced by history’s most illustrious composers on on both sides of the Atlantic, was a body of artistic creation manufactured according to known and respected rules. There was, for example, the sonata form, which dictated that movements in an instrumental work begin and end in the same key, with the rate of contrast inside each movement dictated by an exquisite, immutable logic. The Eroica Symphony by that proto-maverick Ludwig van Beethoven demonstrated a certain freedom of spirit by running twice as long as anything before its time, but it still kowtowed to the sonata-form principle; so did the even-longer works, decades later, of Anton Bruckner.

One of Ives’s famous run-ins with Horatio Parker came when Ives handed in the score of his First Symphony, which began in D major, wandered wildly through the whole spectrum of keys, and ended somewhere in the middle of next week. Parker was understandably aghast, Ives understandably rebellious. That once, Ives accepted a compromise. He recast his symphony—not a particularly rebellious work to today’s ears, by the way—so that it emerged from its wanderlust in time for the demanded D-major ending. Not long afterward, his Yale diploma in hand and free from the Ivy League branding iron, Ives would compromise no more.

Inevitably, the more adventurous his compositions became, the longer they sat unplayed on his shelf. Given the tastes of concert audiences around, say, 1910—”old ladies of both sexes,” Ives called them in his famously ill-tempered Essays Before a Sonata—it’s easy to understand why a work that might involve three or four old-timey American folksongs played simultaneously, each with a different time-signature, might have encountered difficulties in building an enthusiastic following. It is axiomatic, among composers inspired to rebel against what music is supposed to sound like at a given time, that applause is slow in coming. A classic case: Ives’s Second Symphony, composed in 1898, received its first performance, to a cheering New York Philharmonic audience, in 1951, with the old boy himself listening—not in a box at Carnegie Hall, but at home, on a table radio in his kitchen.

To Ives, with financial security assured by his other life as an insurance executive, getting his music heard was probably of less importance than maintaining his creative freedom. In reading through his voluminous essays on his own life in the world of music and his contempt for almost every other denizen of that world, you detect a certain relish in his accountings of the snubs and slights administered by the “old ladies” of the concert establishment. If you measure a composer’s success by number of performances and extent of critical acceptance, life can be lonely for the committed maverick. Perhaps that doesn’t matter; perhaps the soul-refreshment in the act of making music outweighs the ego-gratification in getting it heard. “Take away the records, and people will learn to sing,” wrote a later, supremely ornery maverick, John Cage.

Strange to say, music’s mavericks found little nourishing fodder on Sam Maverick’s Texas prairie; breezes from an ocean—any ocean—were an important part of the mix. The westward Atlantic breezes brought in Europe’s escapees: Edgard Varèse at first, then the Americans returning from their apprenticeships at Nadia’s Boulangerie, then the astonishing new-music who’s who fleeing Hitler’s flames. The eastward breezes over the Pacific caught the ears of the West Coast rebels and wafted Cowell, Cage, and Harrison toward new musical languages from newly met Asian cultures. Under the urging of Varèse and his cohorts, New York’s rebel forces grouped into activist cliques, put on concerts (of each other’s own music, with themselves as principal audiences), and produced a short-lived but splendid magazine called, simply, Modern Music. The West Coast composers seemed content at first to work as loners; only later, with the growth of electronic-music labs in San Francisco, Stanford, and the remarkable California Institute of the Arts down south (founded, would you believe, by Walt Disney’s millions!), did its composers tend toward common cause.

Tracing the bloodline of the American maverick, Cage falls into place in the third generation, begotten by Henry Cowell, whom Ives begat. Cowell’s membership in the maverick herd dates from the day in 1912 when, at 15, he scandalized a San Francisco audience with a concert of his own piano music for fists and forearms no less than fingers. Later, he became one of the few to enjoy Ives’s grudging confidence, arranged some of the few performances the old codger’s music ever got during his lifetime, and ended up as his biographer. To the young Cage, Cowell served as mentor, encouraging him and his colleague-in-crime Lou Harrison in the creation of music for junkyard instruments, expanding their horizons with a consciousness of the cultural richnesses in the music of Asia and the Pacific Rim.

From top: Ives, Ellington, Nancarrow, Crawford Seeger
Courtesy University of California Press

OK, so here’s what we have as our profile as the American maverick. First, a contempt for the compositional rulebook as refined, redefined, and handed down by the European generations over, let’s say, a millennium’s span. Second, a willingness to expand the whole concept of musical sound to include resonant objects reclaimed from junkyards, empty packing boxes, pianos with bits of hardware imposed on their strings, and even, in one famous case, silence filled only with the ambient sounds of the surrounding space. Third, an increased receptivity to musics not traditionally regarded as “classical”—jazz, Third-World, ancient chant, whatever—and an interest in incorporating these resources into concert music branded with an American identity.

Far from defining a small rebellious faction of nut-case music-makers out on the far edge, “American maverick” now defines the vigorous growing tip of all music, fiercely independent and assured. Since the dawning of the electronic era, both as a tool for composers and as a way of affording them the dissemination that neither Ives nor his immediate “descendants” ever enjoyed, the very definition of what music is seems to change weekly. Borders disappear; American composers absorb the patterns of African drumming or Indonesian gamelan at the source, and return home to replicate them in music for symphony orchestra or for ad-hoc get-togethers. With portable tape machines and the phenomenal expanse of the compact-disc catalogue, access to today’s (or, at least, yesterday’s) music is a matter of a quick trip to a neighborhood record store or an even-closer dot-com.

The holdouts persist, of course. Composers as widely diverse as Elliott Carter and John Corigliano find plenty to say in music whose European ancestry is clear. Aaron Copland, in his time several kinds of maverick—in the jazz-drenched scores of the 1920s and in the folk song-infused ballets of the 1940s that are his best-known works—spent his last years experimenting with the European atonal practices advanced by Arnold Schoenberg.

In the years around World War II, when America’s music schools offered refuge to some of the most influential standard-bearers of Europe’s traditions—most notably Schoenberg and Ernst Krenek—many of America’s young innovators sought out their teachings and found them wanting. Harrison and Cage came to Schoenberg at UCLA. Harrison actually turned out a few Schoenbergian pieces but then moved on to other, more vigorous, expressive modes. Cage and Schoenberg seem not to have hit it off at all; Schoenberg dismissed the young firebrand as “merely an inventor.” Cage, speaking perhaps for American mavericks of his time, before his time, and after, took that as a compliment.


Alan Rich’s most recent book is American Pioneers in the Phaidon Press 20th-Century Composers series. One of the founders of the Bay Area station KPFA, he moved on to become chief music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune and its still-thriving offspring, New York magazine. He is currently classical music critic for the LA Weekly.

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