“We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.”

“We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.”

It’s good to be back home after a marathon jaunt to three conferences in three different North American cities these past two weeks—the 2009 general assembly of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC) in Toronto, the 2009 Conference of the League of American Orchestras in Chicago, and the 2009 Conference of Chorus America in Philadelphia. I’ve already said quite a bit about IAMIC on these pages last week, and even shared a brief tidbit from Chicago. But I’m still trying to wrap my brain around Philly. There was a lot of information to process.

My most vivid experience during the Chorus America conference was attending the world premiere of David Lang’s new choral work Battle Hymns which was transformed into a site-specific staged event held at the First City Troop Armory. (Unlike armories in other cities which have been de-accessed and have subsequently morphed into popular concert venues, Philadelphia’s armory houses a still-active military unit.) The members of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia (with whom I’ve been enamored ever since I dragged two carloads of friends down with me to hear them perform Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion a few years back—one of my holy grail pieces) were all dressed up in army fatigues. They began singing in the back entrance way of the armory, and over the course of 20 or so minutes marched up to the front of the audience, all the while maintaining Lang’s coolly detached yet thoroughly emotive music thanks to Alan Harler, who was equal parts conductor and traffic cop. At one point the chorus even surrounded a segment of the audience. Only a week before I had experienced R. Murray Schafer’s The Children’s Crusade which required the audience to move around the action in the rooms of an old warehouse. That was an inventive alternative means of presenting a dramatic music experience, but not nearly as ominous as being surrounded by a singing army in a space that houses a real one.

However, the comment from the Philadelphia conference that still remains strongest on my mind is something British composer Bob Chilcott said during an open workshop with the New Jersey Youth Chorus: “American music is vertical; European music is more linear/horizontal.” At first this seemed too easy, as well as a trigger for memories of the classic early 1960s sci-fi TV program The Outer Limits; you know: “We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.”

But since then I’ve kept on thinking about it. Is this somehow true? Chilcott explained how European music evolved from Gregorian chant created for specific venues where it was important for a long melodic line to carry in order to be heard. To this day, the long line is the goal of most European music, which is perhaps why directionless pointillism was so short lived there and why minimalism has still failed to become an acknowledged musical paradigm in some quarters. On the other hand, American music evolved out of homophonic hymns and to this day emphasizes layered surfaces, which is why everything from John Cage’s twelve simultaneous radios to multilayered hip-hop has thrived on this side of the Atlantic.

Of course, it is possible to create and discern sonic experiences both vertically and horizontally, and indeed the vast majority of European and American music does both at the same time. But might being more attuned to one over the other be the distinction that separates our musical cultures? Might being more attuned to these nuances in creation and perception make us more capable of transcending them? Or should we be celebrating the difference?

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10 thoughts on ““We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.”

  1. maestro58

    It is a funny generalization, because I think of German music as being more vertical (chordal), and French and Italian more horizontal (linear). And what about the other countries who are making big splashes in music (Latvia and the Scandinavian countries for example.) Arvo Part can be linear in one piece and more chordal in another. And back in America, Is Gershwin more linear (great tunes) or chordal (great harmonies?) What about Cole Porter or Jerome Kern?

    I think countries oscillate back and forth within each generation or even inside each artistic movement.

  2. Chris Becker

    Hi, Frank. If I’m following you, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that “Europe” and this “long melodic line” you’re talking about is heavily indebted to Indian, Arabic, and North African traditions that include music to accompany poetry as well as music used out of doors in military battles? I’m just beginning Ned Sublette’s book Cuba and It’s Music which goes waaaaaaaaaaaaaay back to trace the roots of what we acknowledge as Cuba’s indigenous music, and he does dig in to this very topic (although attention too of course is paid to “the drum” as well as a horizontal approach to music making).

    I’m guessing with Bob Chilcott’s quote out of context, there’s more to what he said than the “horizontal” was birthed via Gregorian chant? It’s not his thesis I’m debating; I just think you just have to rewind the tape back even further…

    It’s a fascinating topic in my opinion. Would love to hear some people chime in on this.

  3. JHigdon


    I probably should have spoken up at that point in the panel (although I was so fascinated by what Bob was saying, that I was just listening and pondering), as I always think of music in a horizontal fashion…all of my composing involves lines and counterpoint. But I always attribute this to the fact that my first musical experiences were on a single-line instrument, the flute. I’ve noticed amongst students that I speak with, that their orientation as to horizontal versus vertical is more related to the particular nature of the instrument that they started with…the pianists tend to think vertically, and the single-lined instruments think horizontally. I wonder if this is a consistent experience in the U.S. And like you said, could it be a geographical-related orientation?

  4. philmusic

    “American music is vertical; European music is more linear/horizontal.”

    Generalizations tend to be wrong, but if this “is” so then its a training issue.

    A linear approach to my mind means a mastery of counterpoint. Mastery of this technique is created by extensive study and use not by taking just a semester or two in college. The experience of the teacher also counts. How may American music composition programs require counterpoint as a core subject? I would think that the ones that do would show the results.

    On the other hand, counterpoint as a musical technique is an intellectual approach to musical problems and as such is out of favor these days at least in the USA.

    Am I suggesting that an inadequately trained composer could be successful even have their works demanded over better trained ones? Actually no. Talent will trump training.

    Rather I find that many American composers over-compose and add too much spoiling the beauty.

    Phil Fried, PhilFried.com, Operabob.org

  5. Chris Becker

    “On the other hand, counterpoint as a musical technique is an intellectual approach to musical problems and as such is out of favor these days at least in the USA. ”

    But you know Phil, the first thing that came to mind for me when I read that is free improvisation (very broad term there) which often relies heavily upon and generates some stunning results from a “vertical” approach to playing very much in the moment.

    And jazz pianists in particular are absolutely VERY concerned with “vertical” movement. The instrument (the piano) isn’t the issue. The inner line movement from chord to chord is crucial in playing alone or when a part of a trio, quartet or whatever.

    I mean…is anyone going to say that Bill Evans (or Mary Lou Williams, or…uh…Debussy?) isn’t equally concerned with the vertical as well as the horizontal?

    The reverse is true too. John Coltrane absolutely heard the movement of all of the lines in his harmonies when he was composing and playing. Conductors of classical rep too have to be able to hear across the spectrum…

  6. Frank J. Oteri

    Admittedly I might have blown Bob Chilcott’s comments somewhat out of proportion in my ramblings above. He was trying to get each of the members of the New Jersey Youth Chorus to pay more attention to the sweep of the line (the horizontal) and less attention to each other (the vertical), and posited that the difference in approach he was experiencing might be the result of differing musical priorities stemming from different histories. For what it’s worth, his quip worked in the workshop so it served its purpose quite well in that context. Although as Jennifer Higdon has pointed out above, he brought it up again during the composer’s panel we were all a part of at the conference the following morning, so this difference is something he obviously feels quite strongly about.

    While I’m not sure I agree with Chilcott on this one, I do think that his seeming generalization provides an interesting musical dichotomy which goes well beyond the Atlantic divide. And other posters here have already pointed this out. But in addition to the extremely thought-provoking commentary here thus far, I’d also like to add some comments I received via email from the always insightful Tom Hamilton, which I reproduce here with his kind permission:

    Can you really say that there is any one-liner that characterizes American music? And is he saying that Europe is really one culturally homogeneous land mass? Chilcott’s statement sounds nice, but it defies common sense.

    I think the major “ism” of the last 30 years has been pluralism. (I also think I’ve been saying this for 30 years.) I suppose one can cherry-pick from that and come up with trends, but I doubt if it really could be boiled down to two simple descriptors from the visual world.

    Perhaps he sees these trends from the standpoint of a lineage that I don’t share. There’s a whole lot of music out there and it’s too broad a stroke for me. And the visual analogies always bother me: “vertical & horizontal.” Literally speaking, we don’t really have that in time-based arts. Simultaneous and sequential, I guess would be more like it. Or Steak ‘n Shake.

    Further thoughts?

  7. philmusic

    “..But you know Phil, the first thing that came to mind for me when I read that is free improvisation (very broad term there) which often relies heavily upon and generates some stunning results from a “vertical” approach to playing very much in the moment…”

    My experience with free improvisation has lead me to believe that it is more linear than vertical, but point taken. It is easy to misunderstand when we all have a slightly or completely different view of what our terms mean.

    Anyway I was referring specifically style-wise to music like British composer Bob Chilcott who’s music sounds completely vertical to me.

    Phil Fried,PhilFried.com, operabob.org

  8. Chris Becker

    Oh, Lord! Phil – I meant to say “horizontal” not “vertical” in my earlier response! Then I reread it and thought of the definition of “horizontal” and realized I’m kind of fuzzy on what that might be. I think you and I are actually on the same page. Sorry about that.

  9. philmusic

    “..On the other hand, counterpoint as a musical technique is an intellectual approach to musical problems and as such is out of favor these days.”

    When I first responded here I admit that I did not know who Mr. Chilcott was or what he composed and so I took his comments at face value. Now that I know I find his remarks bizarre.

    To use my own case in a “popular style”

    A Children’s garden of Peace

    Oh I am a string instrument player by the way.

    Phil Fried, PhilFRied.com, operabob.org

  10. philmusic

    Its not easy to remember that though some of us live in music it is a world much larger than ourselves.

    Phil Fried, hoping to avoid an international indecent.


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