The Time Machine

The Time Machine


This month, my desk was deluged with 56 new recordings of American music—pretty good output for an ailing record industry! What I found most remarkable about this month’s assemblage is that they are a pretty accurate reflection of how American concert music has evolved over the last century (give or take a few decades), showing how styles rose to prominence and then settled into a reality of our harmonic language. With your CD player acting as time machine, explore the development of American music through the decades.

Turn-of-the-Century (1880-1920)

(For fussy readers: I will use turn-of-the-century for the time around 1900, turn-of-the-millennium for 2000, no need to get your knickers twisted over the details.)

If you were to transport yourself to New England at the dawning of the 20th century, you most likely would notice a couple of things about the musical climate: 1) Both symphonic and chamber music were informed by the German/European musical traditions with a distinctive tinge of American nostalgia and optimism; 2) It was dominated by white men boasting three names. Hear this part of history with several recordings dedicated to the music of George Whitefield Chadwick, Charles Marin Loeffler, Frederick Shepherd Converse, and, of course, the king of the march, John Philip Sousa. Short one name, Cecil Burleigh was also writing music around this time and a recording of his miniatures for violin and piano is a charming valentine to the era. You probably would have heard a lot of patriotic tunes as well (although perhaps not as many as today…), so take a listen to American Anthems played by New York City’s own Gramercy Brass for a deeper flavor of America during this period.

Entre guerres (1920s and 1930s)

As jazz rose to prominence after World War I in the major urban centers of the U.S., one began to hear its influence in both popular music (ex. Yes Sir, That’s My Baby) and concert music, well-represented by Gershwin’s compositions as featured on the recording Clarinet Brillante, performed by clarinetist Caroline Hartig. Some other composers during this time, however, stuck to more traditional structures and created some beautiful works, such as the chamber pieces featured on a recording from CRI dedicated to composer/critic Virgil Thomson.

Pre-Modernism (1940s)

As modernism began to take hold in academia, many composers were able to fend it off, focusing intensely on their own voices, a quality possessed by what I’ll call the “pre-modernists” that was often attributed to “post-modernist” composers. The orchestral music of Alan Shulman embraces Russian romantic music as much as jazz while Halsey Stevens‘s tonal works treasure expressivity about all. It’s also important to remember during this time the music created by Holocaust victims as well as music create as many as 50 years after World War II, inspired by this sad period in human history. The haunting compilation from the Chamber Music Series at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Darkness & Light, Vol. 4, is a perfect tribute. It was also during this time that visionary composer John Cage began asserting his ideas on the American oeuvre, and you can hear some of his early works (among compositions by other composers) played by Norwegian percussionist Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen.

Modernist Menagerie (1950s)

A big turning-point in American music was when Stravinsky and Copland, two giants on the scene, began writing twelve-tone music. This event is represented well by excerpts from Stravinsky’s last neo-classical work, The Rake’s Progress, sung by bass Sam Ramey, contrasted with one of Copland‘s forays into serialism, his Orchestral Variations. This work shares a billing with similar works by Elliott Carter and Charles Ives. Some composers during this time simply ignored the modernist rustlings, like Roy Ellsworth Harris (another three-namer) whose Symphonies Nos. 7 and 9 were written in 1952 and 1962 respectively. Then, of course, there was Henry Cowell, who was anything but a sheep, creating ethnically-infused, highly personal orchestral works during the 1950s.

You Say You Want a Revolution (or do you?) (1960s and 1970s)

The modernist rustlings continued throughout the next several decades and have certainly become an important tool to today’s composers. In the 1960s and ’70s, you could hear twelve-tone ideas in everything from Ursula Mamlok‘s elegant chamber music to Heiner Stadler‘s improvisational twelve-tone infused jazz. Meanwhile, during this period, noted electro-acoustic composer Mario Davidovsky (also known to occasionally dabble in serialism…) unplugged during the ’70s to create one of his most beautiful vocal works, Shir ha-Shirim. John Corigliano was beginning to develop his signature style for orchestral works, while another J.C. (John Cage) continued down the path of deviance with his harmonies, performed by an accordion-trombone duo on the recent recording.

The Aftermath (1980s and 1990s)

With the arrival of minimalism in the 1960s and ’70s, the stage was set for a generational clash. Even up until the present day, composers are exploring minimal structures, and in the early ’80s, Steve Reich wrote his brilliant religiously-inspired vocal works The Desert Music and Tehillim. Another father of minimalism, Terry Riley, has released his first recording project since 1978. Atlantis Nash features residual minimal elements combined with Eastern influences, jazz, and ambient music. Meanwhile, composers also continue to find inspiration from the modernist tradition, such as Barbara White who uses elaborate tone-row structures and retrogrades in combination with extended playing techniques and microtonal elements, and Zack Browning who uses mathematical tables in his hyper-active electro-acoustic compositions. Such composers are products of these stylistic conflicts; instead of getting too involved with the caddy debates, they have set off to find themselves and where they sit in our American musical tradition.

Popular and foreign cultures have been an influential force in music making of the last few decades thanks to both commercialism and globalism. The Spanish flavors of Seattle-based composer/guitarist Andre Feriante confirm his international persona, while Derek Bermel (who spent a year in Rome recently) incorporates Middle Eastern and klezmer influences into his eclectic style. Many Americans haven’t had to look far for “exotic” influences and have found Native American culture to be inspiring. Eric Stokes inserts Native American sounds into his rock-jazz-ethnic chamber works for percussion ensemble while Alice Spatz created two works with narrator based on American Indian legends. Furthermore, foreign ensembles have found music coming from American popular and jazz culture to be exciting, such as the Austrian Spring String Quartet who arrange everything from Coltrane to Strauss to Bon Jovi.

Many composers have also been concentrating on re-inserting overt expressivity into their works, perfectly represented by superstar John Adams‘s Naïve and Sentimental Music, a large orchestral work in three movements that is certainly different than his early minimalist works. Dan Locklair and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich have also been refining their personal orchestral styles, while Lawrence Dillon‘s rich chamber works present an expressive voice in this medium. Joel Mandelbaum reaches back to the European roots of classical music to set the poems of three prominent American female poets to music reminiscent of lieder by Schubert, Brahms, and Mahler. In addition, two compilations, Music From 6 Continents and Contemporary Music for Guitar, are evidence of the diversity of styles that permeates our contemporary musical milieu.

What now? (2000s)

For those of you who want to live in the now, there are a number of recordings of pieces that have been written since the turn-of-the-millennium. The DePaul University Wind Ensemble performs three concertos for low brass (including Eric Ewazen’s Concerto for Bass Trombone) while Aaron Bennett’s structured improvisations for Electromagnetic Trans Personal Orchestra are suited to deep listening. Also in an experimental vein are Andrew Shapiro‘s pop-ambient hybrid tunes, the hodgepodge of influences from Paul Minotto’s Prime Time Sublime, Carl Weingarten‘s drone-based slide-guitar, and the world-fusion master Marc Anderson‘s new interactive recording Ruby, that you can play with on your computer. Also released on Cantaloupe, Bang On A Can’s record label, was Michael Gordon‘s 2001 tension-filled theatrical work Decasia. Also dramatic is James Newton Howard’s score to the recent Hollywood film Signs.

In the jazz and blues world, young and inventive pianist/composer Aaron Parks is back with a trio of other young musicians on his newest album Shadows, while guitarist Rick Holstrom adds electronic elements to traditional form blues on Hydraulic Groove. For something a bit lighter, duo Bruce & Lisa have developed their own genre they call “love jazz.”

Finally, I am including this recording in the “now” category even though most of these songs were written in the past because most likely none of these songs were heard at the time of their writing by very many people. The recording You Can Tell The World features the works of 10 African American women composers sung by soprano Sebronette Barnes.

For the efficient amongst you (compilations, long spans)

Some composers’ compositional output spanned so many years that you can hear how their personal styles evolved under the influences of their environment and personal development simply through a recording dedicated to their works. This month, you can find out about the careers of Leo Ornstein and Aaron Copland through their piano works and violin/piano pieces respectively or the vocal works of John Cage, performed magnificently by Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices.

A couple of other compilations allow you to see the progression of American music through certain instrumentations. American Music for Flute, Voice, and Strings has works by five composers spanning 80 years and New World Variations represents half a century worth of wind band music.

And now for something completely different

Naxos World gathered together some of Nashville’s best musicians for their compilation of bluegrass tunes, which cannot be ignored as an influential American musical form.

From this brief journey through time and space, the 1948 Virgil Thomson quote included in the liner notes to the recording of his chamber music, rings more true than ever. He wrote: “The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is to be an American and then write any kind of music you wish. There is precedent and model here for all the kinds. And any Americanism worth bothering about is everybody’s property.”

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