A Tribute to Charles Hamm—Composer, Historian, Educator

A Tribute to Charles Hamm—Composer, Historian, Educator

[Excerpted from Chapter 19 “The American Avant-Garde,” pp. 616-617, reprinted from Music in the New World by Charles Hamm. Copyright © 1983 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.]

Music in the New World

It is a matter of historical record that the first pieces of European music to make use of aleatoric methods—Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstuck IX (1956), Klavierstuck XI (1956), and Zyk1us (1959), Pierre Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 3 (1956-57) and Pli selon pli (1957-62)—were written after Cage and some of his peers had introduced similar concepts into their music, and just after Cage and his music had reached Europe. Composers in eastern Europe in the late 1950s and ’60s (Krzysztof Penderecki, Witold Lutoslawski, Gyorgy Ligeti) utilized massed clusters of sound, sought to exploit the widest possible range of instrumental sound, and explored the compositional means obtainable through new notational systems—all matters of concern to the American avant-garde in the decades preceding the emergence of this new wave of Polish and Hungarian music. A number of rock musicians involved in the more progressive trends of the 1970s, among them Brian Eno, John Cale, Yoko Ono, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Robert Fripp, and Frank Zappa, had direct ties to the avant-garde. The New York New Wave movement, traceable from the Velvet Underground through the New York Dolls to the Talking Heads, was shaped in part by the New York avant-garde scene. And surely, the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Miles Davis draws at least indirectly on avant-garde activity.

The notion that Western classical music went through a dramatic stylistic change in the first years of the twentieth century becomes less tenable as the century approaches its end. We can see, with the perspective of time, that the music of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Bartók, Hindemith, Sessions, Prokofiev, Britten, and even Webern represents a continuation and extension of compositional techniques and aesthetic attitudes of the previous century. It was only after World War II that music moved in directions inexplicable in reference to what had come before. Major stylistic breaks in the history of Western music have always necessitated innovations in notation—radically new musical impulses cannot be contained within notational systems devised for another sort of music. Until mid-century, twentieth-century music fit comfortably into the system that had served for several hundred years; from that point on, new notations had to be invented.1 The American avant-garde initiated these notational innovations, just as they began the approaches to musical composition that have brought a thoroughly new music in the second half of the twentieth century, in America and in the rest of the world.

For the first time, “classical” music in the United States has not been a reflection of what was happening elsewhere, but has become a model for composers in other countries.

1John Cage, ed., Notations (New York: Something Else Press, 1969), Erhard Karkoschka, Notation in New Music (New York: Alexander Broude, 1972), and Kurt Stone, Music Notation in the Twentieth Century (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1980).

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